Thursday, November 30, 2006

When the Secular Meets the Sacred in a Moment of Grief

John W. Loftus of Debunking Christianity has an interesting post on what it's like, as an atheist and former evangelical preacher, to attend a Christian funeral. At this particular funeral, as is often the case, the preacher delivered an evangelistic message to his captive audience, using death as an occasion to use the threat of hell and the promise of heaven as a means by which to solicit conversion.

I highly recommend reading the post, and if you so desire, participating in the most interesting conversation which has grown up around it.

Here is my take on the situation, yanked from the comment I left on the post:


For once let me simply say, I could not agree with your post more. I was a pastor long enough to do only one funeral, but I saw my role there as a pastoral, not evangelical, one. I was there to honor the memory of the deceased, and to help tend to the emotional and spiritual needs of the bereaved. For me to spend that time having a "come to Jesus" would have not only been in poor taste, it would ultimately have served my own ego rather than God.

Those who engage in evangelism so often, I'm afraid, do it for the wrong reasons. They/we (I stand too often condemned as well) do it because we are trying to prove something to ourselves and to God. They/we are trying to distance ourselves from our past, or trying to prove ourselves in the present moment. Too often they/we are working out our own issues rather than seeing a need and trying to meet that need.

Ultimately, I don't think that evangelism is in all cases inappropriate. After all, there are some people looking for direction, who may well desperately need what you are selling. But those who continually engage in evangelism should recognize that they too often come off as just that: God's salesmen, treating their own salvation as a kind of commission to be earned from the salvation of others.

Theologically I think this whole mode of evangelism stemmed from a flawed understanding of grace. Socially I think that it robs those who don't share the assumptions of the evangelist of their ability to participate in the moment. If, as in your case, the evangelism comes at a funeral, then those who do not share the assumptions of the evangelist are robbed of their moment to grieve in public, joined with the community of the bereaved by their joint love for the deceased. Instead they are cut off from that community, and are thus less able to work through their own grief. If this happens at, say, a wedding, something similar happens. They are robbed of their ability to share in the joy of this new love and commitment with the community that has gathered to witness and support the bonding of two persons.

Ministers need to balance several interests at events like weddings and funerals, in which their spiritual community joins with a broader social community for a more public event. This can be a difficult task, but I think that when they engage in such shameless acts of evangelism (that is, turning a funeral into a chance to "win souls for Christ") they ultimately fail to serve any of their interests. The evangelism both fails to convert those who might be open to conversion (no one likes to be emotionally manipulated when they are vulnerable - even if you get a "conversion", it probably won't last, since it was coerced) and fails to meet the emotional and spiritual needs of both the religious community and the broader social community which has gather to share either joy or grief.

I'm sorry for your experience, and sorry for your loss. While I have a hope that you don't share, I'm sure you know from your long experience as a Christian that even that hope grows dim when grief is fresh. Death is no respecter of religion, and religion, for all its help and comfort, does not inoculate one against grief.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

UD on the Road

My grand theory of Unintelligent Design was intended to explain all of those inexplicably stupid attributes which could never have survived the ongoing process of natural selection, proving both:

a.) that the universe was crafted by a supreme Designer, and

b.) that this Designer, like us, is unintelligent.

When I first wrote about it here I challenged readers to actively seek out evidence that we have been created by a, well, less than perfect mastermind. I challenged readers to see their world through lens of UD, and to look for those fatal flaws in our design which point to our supremely flawed Designer.

I, too, have taken up this challenge, and I am finding unintelligence all around me. Especially on the road.

One key component of our unintelligent design is our inability to identify that which is in our best interests, and how to realize that interest. Our instincts, our impulses, our fundamental drives all slip right on past cognition. Nowhere is this more evident than when we are driving.

How often do we see drivers pitch vehicular hissy fits, swerving from lane to lane trying to go just a little bit faster, only to find that each manic lane change has cost them more of their precious time? Such crazy driving is a drastic miscalculation both of one's interests (preferring haste to safety) and the behaviors most likely to produce the desired end (hasty, reckless driving ultimately slows one down). But while this may be the most obvious example of our unintelligent design, it is not a particularly humorous one.

However, in the past few weeks, I have observed two more humorous examples of UD on the road:

A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned, but What Does it Profit a Man to Gain a Penny But Lose His Life?

On the way to the hospital for my wrist surgery I saw this strange sight, which may prove once and for all that some of us love money far too much. A man was jaywalking across a busy road, which is dangerous enough without being distracted by what David Wilcox call "shiny junk." Having safely negotiated his way past the hoards of oncoming vehicles, the man stopped just before the curb, turned around, and bent over to pick something up. Oh lucky day, he might have thought to himself, as the cars whizzed by his face. Some poor sucker dropped a penny!

I know that our crazed capitalist culture has followed in the long human tradition of assigning some contrived value to certain symbols, allowing you to exchange those symbols for something you might actually have some use for. In fact, we have elevated this silly human practice to whole new heights, placing these symbols at the center of our public religion. But even in such a money-obsessed culture, it is hard to blame this man's actions on anything other than faulty wiring, clearly the work of our Unintelligent Designer.

Vanity (Mirror), Vanity (Mirror), All is Vanity

Driving to pick Adam up from his preschool today, I saw a late-model Toyota Corolla swerving aimlessly between lanes. First I thought, Isn't it a bit early in the day to be that sloshed?, but I soon realized that the culprit wasn't alcohol at all. The car's rear view mirror was aimed not at the traffic behind the car, but directly at the driver's face.

The "operator" of the vehicle - I can't bear to call her a driver again, as the car was driving her at least as much as she was driving it - was, with the vehicle in motion at well over 60 miles per hour in HEAVY TRAFFIC (can you hear me screaming?!?) doing her hair and make-up!!!!! Talk about being all dressed up with nowhere to go!

How can we explain the genetic survival of traits that so clearly misidentify one's interests and the behaviors needed to secure such interests except to say that they were willed by a sovereign, yet stupid, Designer? Or, to put it another way, if we are made in the image of God, what exactly does that say about God?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Next Step

Ever since I left ministry I have been frantically searching for that ever elusive "next step," that moment or action which will re-order my life, giving me something to orbit - if still somewhat chaotically - around. I've floated many ideas, some good, some bad, some simply crazy. I've chased the polar extremes of law school and social work. I've tried to peck out a living as a writer. I've punched into a corporate time clock, whoring myself in sporting goods sales. I've done just about everything but find some kind of direction in my vocational search.

Some of you have encouraged to to pursue an academic career, advice which is tempting because it comes out of a combination of my gifts and abilities. While I've always been pragmatic in my career search (will this job meet the fiscal needs of my family while also providing us with some stability), I must admit that the results have always been less than pragmatic.

Finally, a few months ago, I succumbed to the temptation to do that which comes naturally to me. Finally I stopped looking at all of the negatives which come with academia, and started looking at the positives. Positives like: It comes out of who I am at my core, and Damn it, I'm pretty good at this!

I have long since given up any sense of divine calling in and on my life. When I was a teenager I responded to every altar call I ever heard, feeling the Holy Spirit tugging on me, yanking me in this or that direction. I saw the course of my life in dialog with God, my personal history seen principally in terms of my relationship with God. At every moment I felt inexorably called, a part of the machinations of God's divine plan. Each moment in my life was ordained for me. All I had to do was discern where God was leading me, and how that fit into the divine order of the universe.

Of course I was called to ministry, and the only ministry I could imagine was pastoral ministry. But too many dreams have been dashed for me to so reckless chase my personal fancies as though they were divinely ordained. My aimless wandering is too much like that of the wayward slaves which formed ancient Israel after their Exodus from Egypt. There are too many voices in the conversation of my life for me to think that each of them are God, or that, if God is leading me anywhere, I could possibly guess where that might be.

So I can't say that I am called to academia. I can't lay that on God any more than I could lay the ashes of my once promising pastoral career on God. But I can say that I am moving closer to that always elusive "next step."

I just got off the phone with my former seminary. I have been accepted to study in their Masters of Arts in Religion program, my first step towards academia. Is this a new journey, or just one more turn in the road?

Monday, November 27, 2006

A New Explanatory Theory: Take This, Evolustionists and IDers!

[Note: this post should not be read by the humor impaired, even though I am often among their number]

Since I broke my wrist, being physically unable to work, I have had a great deal of time on my hands. Way too much time. Time to ponder. Way, way, way too much time to ponder.

My pondering began when I realized that a reflex, an unconscious decision made in less than a quarter of a second's time, has reduced me to this broken shell of my former self, hand and arm wrapped and bandaged, a screw surgically (and permanently!) inserted into my wrist. I'd taken martial arts classes. I'd been trained in how to fall, my natural reflex subverted to avoid just the sort of injury I sustained. I spent months flopping on the floor of the studio, fearing the floor at least as much as the tongue lashing I'd get for hitting it wrong.

Under the supervision of my martial arts master I learned the art of falling. Knowing in advance that gravity would soon win our perpetual wrestling match, I could curl my body just right to hit the ground rolling, "slap out," and pop right up to resume the attack.

But, given my first chance to fall in a "natural environment," my first uncontrolled fall, the first time that gravity won even though I didn't let it, I reverted back to form. To reflex. An unconscious decision, unwilling to remain repressed, made in less than a quarter of a second, left me temporarily disabled.

And, like I said, this has left me with time to think. Time to ponder. Far too much time. Time to revisit everything I ever thought that I believed. And, in this time, I realized that my injury - or, more accurately, the asinine reflex which gave rise to it - stands as the ultimate challenge to two competing explanatory theories. My injury - or, again, the reflex which gave rise to it - knocks off the two theoretical giants at the center of both our culture war, and the broader war between science and religion.

The question of evolution by means of natural selection or intelligent design has, I propose, finally been answered in the most decisive fashion: Neither!

You see, if our biology could be explained by Darwinian evolution, then it stands to reason that at some point such a useless trait would have been weeded out of the gene pool. How can billions of years not eliminate the most counter-intuitive and destructive impulses?!? If it truly were "survival of the fittest," whichever of my ancestors possessed this ridiculous instinct would surely have been wiped out, leaving no trace of this trait.

No, the only way such a trait could have survived is if it were willed to be, and to be everlasting, by a sovereign creator, a supreme designer. But, from this trait, what can we learn of this designer, whose work is so manifestly evident in our fatal flaws? This is certainly not the perfect and benevolent artist/engineer proclaimed by ID. No, that the work of God is found in the most inexplicable aspects of our genetic make-up - not that which is, as IDers claim, too complex to be explained by random mutations over time; but that which is too stupid, too counter-productive, to have possibly survived the process of natural selection - points not to an intelligent designer, but to an unintellegent one!

That's right, the reflex to stick your hands down to break your fall as gravity hurls you to the ground proves once and for all that not only is there a God, but that that God is an idiot!

So I challenge you, dear reader, to look at nature with these new eyes given to you by the grand theory of Unintellegent Design (UD, for short), and find more evidence that we have been Unintellegently Designed.

This is the new Sandalstraps' Sanctuary reader contest: To find and report here evidence of our Unintellegent Design. We need both stories of stupid behaviors and reflexes which should not have been allowed to survive the billions of years of so-called "natural selection" which have supposedly led to us, and also theoretical work to bolster UD against those who would like, for ideological reasons, to shoot it down before it can knock down the twin idols of evolution and ID.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Jesus and Legalism: Bultmann on the Sermon on the Mount

I've always wanted to write a series on the Sermon on the Mount, perhaps Jesus' most famous teaching moment. The stark, uncompromising demands he makes, his inversion of the law and the religion of his day, has always challenged me. If we hear his words as somehow being the words of God, as being the foundation of our religious tradition, we are too often inclined to hear in them only what we expect to hear, what we've been taught in church and in Sunday School. They - radically unconventional in their day - become the new convention. They - a sweeping oratory against legalism - become the new law.

But if we hear these words as we might have heard them when they were first uttered, as the words of an unconventional teacher, part rabbi, part prophet, but not really either; as the words of a man who cannot really be pinned down: Is he a lunatic? Is he a genius? Is he a sage? Is he a fraud?, then we might hear just how strange they are. Just how challenging they are. Just how much their radical character demands of us, if we are truly listening.

If we give ourselves permission, just for a moment, to forget all we've ever thought we've known about Jesus and see him with fresh eyes, unshaped by two thousand years of Christological baggage, we might arrive at exactly what it is that Jesus was trying to teach the crowds that gathered around him that day.

But I've never had the intellectual ammunition or moral courage to do that. I've never been able to see the Sermon on the Mount through first century eyes. I've never been able to allow myself to hear the words of Jesus with the same critical ears I use when listening to anyone else preach or teach. And so, up until now, I've never written anything worth reading on the Sermon on the Mount. I've written on the person of Jesus. I've written on how Jesus has been seen through time, how our Christologies have developed. I've even written on how my own view of Jesus as the Christ has shifted oer time, how my own Christology has changed. I've exegeted more than a few parables, finding in them subtle nuances previously undetected (and quite possibly not there!). But I've never had anything meaningful to say about Jesus' most challenging teachings.

Still nursing my broken and now surgically repaired wrist, I've been unable of late to punch into the sporting goods time clock, a blessing and a curse. Being unable to work for my hourly wage, we're a little short financially right now. However, I'm long on time. There are so many books that I've been meaning to read, and as I nurse myself back to health (or, rather, as Sami nurses me back to health) I've finally got the time to read them.

So, with my new surplus of time, I picked up Rudolf Bultmann's treatise on the teachings of the "historical Jesus," Jesus and the Word. Much to the disappointment, I'm sure, of my college German professor, who used to impress upon me the value of reading the great German theologians and philosophers in their native German (Herr Baker. Du muss Kant auf Deutsch lesen!) I'm reading Bultmann in the 1934 English translation by Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero. My German will, I'm sorry, never be that good. I'm too quintessentially American.

Anyway, Bultmann's project here is to bring his readers into an encounter with Jesus' teachings in their historical context, or at least to describe his own encounter. No comment is made about the person of Jesus, as Bultmann believes such knowledge is forever lost to history. As he puts it,

I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist.

Further, he is unsure of the value of discussing Jesus' personality.

However good the reasons for being interested in the personalities of significant historical figures, Plato or Jesus, Dante or Luther, Napoleon or Goethe, it still remains true that this interest does not touch that which such men had at heart; for their interest was not in their personality but in their work.

Bultmann's concern, then, is neither with the Christology of the church, which he regards as legendary, nor with the study of the life and personality of Jesus, which he regards as both impossible and undesirable, distracting us from the real substance. No, Bultmann is exclusively concerned with Jesus' teaching.

Bultmann has long been presented to me as an almost exclusively negative writer. That is, he primarily negates traditional church teachings about Jesus rather than affirming something of value. Having not read any Bultmann before this week I cannot say whether or not that is true of the bulk of his writing. But I can say that in this volume on the teachings of Jesus, what is most interesting is not Bultmann's rejection and negation of traditional doctrine, but rather what he affirms about the teachings of the man who stands before and behind the religion which grew up around him.

He sees Jesus as both a rabbi and a prophet, but neither in a conventional sense. Like the rabbi, he shares a reverence for the word of God and a knowledge of the laws of God. But, according to Bultmann, he often inverts those laws, viewing them rather than as a system of commands instead as an invitation to radical obedience to the call of God. He shares the prophet's interest in reforming religion through an inversion of traditional practices, a call to a renewal which escapes rote religious repetition and ritual, and which incorporates and encompasses one's entire being. But he does not share the prophet's social concerns, he "does not speak of the state and civil rights."

The polemic of the prophets against the worship of false gods in Israel was combined with the struggle against political and social wrongs. Their teaching demanded justice and righteousness for the common people, and their demand was asserted by the command of God. The words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount show that Jesus sets the requirement of law and justice over against the command of God.

So while Jesus shares characteristics and concerns in common with both prophets and rabbis, he is neither a rabbi nor a prophet, nor truly some combination of the two. Rather, according to Bultmann, Jesus is best seen, through the lens of his teachings, as someone who calls others through crisis to the point of a radical decision. As such, it makes no sense to speak of the "ethic of Jesus," because Jesus calls us not to some universal ethic or ideal, but rather to a decision to be made over and over again,in each situation: to follow the will of God, or to rebel.

The Sermon on the Mount is often used to discuss Jesus' relationship to the law. And, rightly so. Like a good rabbi, this, his seminal teaching, offers an apparent commentary on the law. He looks at pieces of the law of Moses and offers fresh interpretations of them, radicalizing the law. These teachings follow a certain pattern:

You've heard it said

followed by a command from the law, then followed by,

but I say to you

followed by what is often seen as a kind of new law, a radicalizing of the previously given command.

You've heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire. (Matt. 5: 21-22, NRSV)

Here we see an expansion of the law. Not only is murder forbidden, but anger, which leads to murder, is forbidden. Unkind words, a form of metaphorical murder, are forbidden. As Bultmann says of it,

He who indeed refrains from murder but does not master anger has not understood that he must decide completely [to follow, or obey, the will of God].

There are other such apparent expansions of the law which Bultmann considers:

Matt. 6: 27-28, in which Jesus expands the command against adultery to include lust,

Matt. 5:31-32 and Luke 16:18, in which Jesus expands the concept of marriage beyond the possibility of divorce,

Matt. 5: 33 and 37, in which Jesus expands the prohibition against giving false witness to a demand for radical honesty,

Matt. 5: 38-41, in which Jesus expands the proportional limitation which the law places on retaliation to a call for non-violence, and

Matt. 5: 43-48, in which Jesus expands the command to love to include even love for one's enemy.

Of these he says

In all these passages the decisive requirement is the same: the good which is to be done is to be done completely. He who does it partially, with reservations, just enough to fulfill the outward regulation, has not done it at all.

How does this, according to Bultmann, work out in each of the individual passages? We have already seen his treatment of the expansion of murder to include even anger and insults. Of the rest, he says:

He who avoids adultery, but keeps lust in his heart, has not understood the prohibition of adultery, which requires of him purity. He who refrains simply from perjury has not seen that absolute truthfulness is demanded. He who divorces his wife has not understood that marriage requires of him a complete decision, but thinks of it as a relative action which can be annulled. He who takes revenge for injustice does not realize that by so doing he himself upholds injustice; to reject injustice completely means not to retaliate. He who is kind only to friends does not know what love means; for complete love includes love of enemies.

This much is a fairly conventional, but still insightful interpretation of this teachings of Jesus. But to stop here runs the risk of doing what has so often been done in the name of Jesus, but which, according to Bultmann, is the antithesis of Jesus' own teachings: that is, to set up these teachings as a new law, and to see Jesus as a new lawgiver.

According to Bultmann this is, in fact, the opposite of what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is not replacing old commands with new ones, or even supplementing the old commands with new, permanently binding interpretations. Rather, Jesus is inviting the hearer to a radical obedience of the will of God which does not depend on any law, any fixed regulation.

Law claims a man so far as his conduct can be found by formulated precepts. Beyond these it leaves free play to man's self-will. Jesus' belief is on the contrary that the human will has no freedom before God, but is radically claimed by Him. Under the law, the question "How well does my conduct conform to the commandment?" becomes a question of content, of the What of the action. Obedience must be determinable, and therefore law must concern itself with the What of action, not the How. Hence formal obedience to the law as such is no radical obedience, though of course true obedience can exist in fulfillment of the law.

Jesus has wholly separated obedience from legalism; hence he does not set up a better law in opposition to a less good law; he opposes the view that the fulfillment of the law is fulfilling the will of God. For God demands the whole man, not merely specific acts from the man.

Jesus then sees the act as expressing the
whole man, that is, he sees his action from the view-point of decision: Either-Or. Every half-way is an abomination. It would obviously be a complete misunderstanding to take these "But I tell you" passages as formal legal precepts of an external authority, which can be fulfilled by outward behavior. Whoever appealing to a word of Jesus refuses to dissolve an unendurable marriage, or whoever offers the other cheek to one who strikes him, because Jesus said so, would not understand Jesus. For he would have missed exactly the obedience which Jesus desires; he would imagine that he could achieve and present an act of obedience when obedience is not really present as a determining factor in his life. All these sayings are meant to make clear by extreme example that it is not a question of satisfying an outward authority but of being completely obedient. It is also wholly impossible to regard Jesus' teachings as universally valid ethical precepts by which a man can once for all order his life. Unless the decision which is demanded in these sayings arises out of a present situation, it is not truly the decision of obedience, but an achievement which the man accomplishes; he stands outside of his action, is not wholly identified with it.

Jesus, then, is not establishing a new law, or issuing some comprehensive ethic which will apply in every situation. He is instead issuing a radically situational ethic: in all situations, in every thought and action, one must obey God. One must in every way conform to the will of God.

This is a dangerous ethic because, though it demands that humans surrender their freedom, it still leaves the decision making process entirely in the hands of us imperfect people, who often "hear" the voice of God speaking to us, even if it isn't God we hear at all. This crisis theology ethic of radical obedience, as reflected in Bultmann's reading of Jesus, is built in part of Kierkegaard's teleological suspension of the ethical, one of the most dangerous theological concepts I've ever encountered.

If we had perfect access to the will of God, then calling us to such radically situational obedience would be obviously beneficial. As Bultmann represents Jesus' teaching, we humans already know what we are to do. God speaks to us in every concrete situation, teaching us right from wrong, showing us how to obey. It is simply up to us to choose obedience in each moment.

And perhaps this is both an accurate representation of Jesus' teachings and our situation. Still, there are so many competing influences disguising themselves as the voice of God; and so often it is impossible for us, mired as we are in our own situation, chained as we are to our own perspective, to distinguish between our own wills and the will of God.

That, of course, does not mean that Bultmann or his view of the teachings of Jesus is wrong. It just means that, if we take this call to radical obedience seriously we must be constantly checking against ourselves, to make sure that we do not use the calling of God as a licence to disguise our own voices as the voice of God, and then pompously set our own wills up as a kind of idol in the place of God.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Gospel of Inclusion

Amy just sent me a link to this program from This American Life on Rev. Carlton Pearson and his Gospel of Inclusion. Rev. Pearson, an Oral Roberts protege, had an inconvenient epiphany at the height of his career as a nationally known evangelical leader and megachurch pastor: God didn't make hell, we did.

He had envisioned God as an angry judge, casting all who were not saved into the fires of an eternal hell. He built his career, a career which even made him a frequent White House guest under both presidents Bush, and even president Clinton, on the foundation of hellfire and damnation. But as he watched the news one night, with his little daughter in his lap, he saw the devastation of Africa. He saw starving people dying of malnutrition before their AIDS could kill them. He saw babies crying out for milk from dried up breasts. And, as he saw their suffering, he saw the evil of a vision of God which says that if someone doesn't preach the Gospel as he understood it to these people, and if they don't accept it just as he believed it, they would be sucked straight from this hell to the next.

His denial of a literal hell led him to a figurative one, as the community which nurtured him in the faith denounced him and turned their backs on him. The force with which he - an evangelical darling - was rejected by that community reminded me a bit of my own story of what happens when hell is no longer used by a pastor to hold a spiritual community in check by fear.

But it also led him to a deeper faith, a deeper understanding of God, and ultimately, I think, a deeper, richer ministry. If you can carve an hour out of your busy day, do yourself a favor and listen to his story, a story of the liberating power of the Gospel of Inclusion.

You can find the website for Rev. Pearson's church here.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

John Yarmuth interviewed by the "liberal rag" he founded

Still recovering from the twin shocks of the election (Democrats take back the House and Senate, Louisville sends John Yarmuth to Washington), I thought I'd post a link here for anyone as stunned as me. Here is an interview of Congressman elect Yarmuth by Cary Stemle, the man who took over for him at the helm of the LEO, an unapologetically "liberal" piece of media he founded.

While, as the article notes, it is too early to tell "[w]hether the outcome [of the election that will send Yarmuth to Washington] was a fluke, a lucky stroke of timing as the body politic hurled a collective primal scream at President Bush; whether it derived from general dissatisfaction with an incumbent who'd outstayed her welcome; or whether it really signifies that Louisville truly endorses a progressive like John Yarmuth," it is safe to say that Yarmuth's defeat of Northup without any help from the KDP (Kentucky Democratic Party) and without much help from the DCCC - who got involved in the race only after it became apparent that Yarmuth would win - counts as big news around here.

So, if you're a Louisvillian trying to understand how a five term incumbent can get beat by the founder of an "out of touch" liberal news magazine that is literally given away for free, you really ought to read this interview. And, if you live outside the 'Ville, perhaps this taste of local politics will help you place the national elections in some kind of context.

Either way, this should be an interesting read, and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A Blog in Pictures

The fog of anesthesia, post surgery trauma, and powerful painkillers still surrounds my temporarily addled brain. I don't have many words right now, and the words I have come in fits. But I did want to say that I woke up, and the world was basically as I left it. And I wanted to say thank you for your prayers and your words of encouragement. My poor, beleaguered wife has been taking care of me and Adam, sick with an ear and upper respiratory infection. But she looks after her boys.

Anyway, since I can barely think to write, and since I finally have a high speed Internet connection and so can post pictures without having to wait a week and a half for them to upload, I thought that this, my 200th post, should be a blog in pictures, the photographic story of my surgery and recovery. For those who fear that this will be the worst sort of voyeurism, don't worry. We didn't get any pictures of the operation itself. Just some goofy shots while waiting for the doctor to finally show up.

So, without further adieu, here is the story in pictures:

I know that the secret to true happiness is to face all situations with equanimity; that is, to not get too up in the "good" times and to not get too down in the "bad" times. Good and bad are just labels which we apply to situations to discriminate and judge. Such discrimination, such judgment, keeps us from being able to accept our present situation as it presents itself to us. We crave the good, and seek to avoid the bad. But craving good times does not, by itself, make those good times manifest. And the aversion we feel for those situations we label as bad only gives those situations more power over us, creating additional, unnecessary suffering.

As you can see from the pictures above, I was on a pretty even keel waiting for the doctor to show up!

Seriously, I've always found humor a great antidote for anxiety. Sami and I had a blast taking these pictures, laughing together like we hadn't laughed since before we got married. And my cast is great for making thumbs up and thumbs down gestures!

Sami loved the way the blue booties complimented my brown socks. Pulling the covers back, she thought this shot made me look like the Wicked Witch with a house on top of her!

While I was passed out from the combination of anesthesia still in my system and the medication I'm taking to keep my wrist from screaming at me constantly (Hey, idiot! There's a screw in here!) Sami and Adam decided to make Belgian waffles, my all time favorite breakfast! Here's Adam being a big helper. Please don't tell Child Protective Services that we let him play that close to so many knives!

I hope you've had as much fun reading this as I had writing it. But now I'm going back to bed. The fog in my head still hasn't cleared, and I should be spending most of my energy healing up. Thanks again for all your prayers and support, and I'll post something a bit more serious when the fog lifts.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Another New Link, and an Observation

I got online this morning to write a new piece that I dreamed up last night. Sleep has always helped my writing. And, by that I don't just mean that I have to have enough sleep to be able to mentally function well enough to write something that isn't crap. I haven't had the luxury of that much sleep since I became a parent. Parenting is a long term experiment on the effects of sleep deprivation. No, what I really mean is that, every time I get really stuck, every time I can't make any order out of the chaos that is the writing process, I take a nap. When I wake up, it all makes sense. Somehow, while my conscious mind checked out, my subconscious ordered the whole thing.

However, when you do your best work in your sleep, it is imperative to write down (or, in my case, type out) those clever workings of the subconscious mind as early as possible, before the conscious mind has a chance to muddle things up again. So I got online this morning to do a little bit of supporting research to back up the ideas in the essay I dreamt last night. Problem was, I couldn't find what I was looking for, and the later we get into this morning the more likely I am to realize that between my broken wrist and Adam's ear infection, I didn't sleep well enough last night to do decent work.

Yesterday I read this article in the Indiana University Alumni Magazine. Yes, even though I've always lived in Kentucky, somehow I managed to graduate from IU, but that's a story for another time. Anyway, the article, titled Purple Politics?, attacked the popular division of our country into red states and blue states. Most states, at least according to the political scientists interviewed for the article, are actually a shade of purple, a complex mixture of both blue and red elements.

While the article focuses primarily, of course, on the state of Indiana, noting, in a quote from Princeton University's Robert J. Vanderbei, who created a map of "Purple America," that:

"Indiana is reliably Republican in presidential contests going back to 1964, but it has had, at the same time, a habit of electing Democratic governors, senators, mayors, state legislators, and so on," he says. "So, is it a Republican state or a two-party battleground?"

the idea of "Purple States" can be applied to almost any state. Traditionally red states, that is, states that almost always vote for a Republican presidential candidate, often elect Democrats in local elections. Traditionally blue states, similarly, often elect Republicans in local elections. Rarely, if ever, will you find a monolithically red or blue state.

And, even when you can identify an electoral trend in a particular state, there is often a strong minority. Take my own Kentucky, a reliably red state in presidential elections. In the 2000 presidential election 638,898 Kentuckians voted for Al Gore. I was one of them. Do we cease to be representative Kentuckians just because 872,492 of our fellow Kentuckians voted for George W. Bush?

With the idea of purple states floating around in my head, I dreamt of a paper which would analyze the recent mid term election results, especially as they concern my home state, as the product of our purple nature. It was to be a dissertation on Kentucky politics, with a great many statistics concerning voting trends in Kentucky through history. I was all fired up to write a major essay on Kentucky as a study in the anatomy of a purple state.

But, after only an hour of Internet searching, the fire had gone out. I was hoping to find, in a single place, a detailed statistical analysis of voting trends in federal, state and local elections, sorted by geographical area. I was certain that there would be, somewhere in the vastness of cyberspace, some depository of information which would reveal itself to me if only I googled the right phrase.

But, after having found only a disorganized sea of unsorted, uninterpreted numbers, I've all but given up. This must be why I'm not a political scientist!

So, having failed to do the proper research, having given up in the face of momentary adversity and the prospect of actually having to do real work just for a blog entry; should I post my unsupported rantings and ravings, or should I just go about my merry day, realizing that I don't yet know the password and secret handshake which opens up the world of electoral data which must be available to people who do this for a living?

Maybe I'll find the answer to that question while I'm anesthetized for my surgery this afternoon. For, in that sleep of anesthesia, who knows what dreams may come?

In the meantime, ponder this:

While Nancy Pelosi's brilliant scheme for Democrats to take back the House for the first time since 1994 consisted of identifying palatably conservative Democrats to run in traditionally red states like Kentucky, the Kentucky 3rd is sending to Washington perhaps the only Representative more liberal than Pelosi, in the person of Congressman-elect John Yarmuth. From a state whose only other Democratic Congressman is Rep. Ben Chandler, a Republican in Democrat clothing; a state who, God forgive us, has unleashed the political monster that is Sen. Mitch McConnell; now comes the founder of an "alternative" newspaper who made his name bashing every conservative he can think of.

Doesn't that just bust the stereotype?!?

Anyway, since, absent sufficient research, I decided not to post my manifesto on Kentucky as a purple state (can't you tell I didn't write about that?!?) I logged into my Beta Blogger account to post a new link to my sidebar.

Frank Lockwood, religion reporter for the Lexington Herald Leader, has his own blog, Bible Belt Blogger. Since he has linked to my blog, I decided to do him the favor of linking back. If you're interested in seeing a delightful hybrid of traditional journalism is blogging, or if you're just interested in the inner workings of religion in the so-called Bible Belt, check out Frank's blog.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Surgery Scheduled

I am scheduled to have surgery on my broken wrist (scaphoid fracture, if you want to look it up) tomorrow afternoon. Oddly enough, I'm not at all nervous about it. Because of the reckless abandon with which I play sports (enthusiasm masking a lack of talent) I've had a few surgeries before, and I've never liked them. More importantly, I've never liked the doctors performing them.

Despite my tendency to hurl my body around like a pin ball, I take my health very seriously. I'm a vegetarian who doesn't smoke or drink alcohol (or use any other intoxicant - I like to be mentally and spiritually awake, present in the present, so to speak). I meditate and exercise regularly. I try to understand everything that happens in and to my body, as it is the only me I've ever known. So it is very difficult for me to turn control of my health over to another party.

Too often, in my experience, doctors act as though they have some right to control your health. Your body is the arena in which they play their games. And, of course, generally they play them well - I'm not knocking doctors here. But the stakes are higher for the patient than they are for the doctor, and the procedures are more personal and far more rare and mysterious. So it has always irked me when doctors act as though their opinions are, as relates to your health, the only ones that matter.

I've had a bad history of doctors rushing into surgery when, perhaps, physical therapy could have either solved the problem without an operation, or at least made a later surgery less invasive. So I was a bit apprehensive when I met the hand specialist last week.

I knew my wrist was in bad shape as soon as I landed on it. I'd studied how to fall, and more importantly, how not to fall, in a martial arts class. As I tumbled backwards on the tennis court, I reflexively stuck my hands out to break my fall, and immediately knew my error. Intellectually I knew that was a good way to break a wrist. Instinctively I knew that was how I'd just broken my wrist. There was no doubt in my mind, from the moment I hit the ground. This was bad, and would probably require surgery.

So I went to the hand specialist knowing that there was a good chance he would immediately recommend an operation. But he didn't. He asked me some questions, both about my injury and my life. He took some time to get to know me, to understand my goals and my activities, and especially the sorts of things I would like to do with my wrist. Then he asked me what I thought about the whole thing. He allowed me to be a part of the decision making process.

Ultimately he provided me with three possible treatment plans, along with the pros and cons, as he saw them, of each plan. He then graciously allowed me to go home, research the options on my own, and give him my decision later in the week. For someone whom cedes control if at all only under the most dire of circumstances, it was the best experience I'd ever had with a doctor.

I decided to walk through door number three, which was so obviously the right choice that, while I'm sure my doctor would have loved to give it to me without any other options, there was little risk that I would pick something else. So, by giving me that choice along with two other choices, and by providing me with the resources I needed to see the wisdom of that choice, my doctor got his way while also allowing me to get mine. His decision became my decision. He could take control of the situation while still leaving me with the illusion of control.

After I made my decision, he met with me again to walk me through the procedure. He even drew pictures to help me understand exactly what will happen, and when and how it will happen. Anxiety, for me at least, is often a fear of the unknown, and with this procedure now there is little unknown to fear. So I'm less than a day away from having an operation the outcome of which will determine whether or not I'll ever be able to play tennis again, and I have little to no anxiety. I'm more worried about the Bible Study I'm supposed to lead on Wednesday than I am the operation tomorrow.

That said, I still covet your prayers. I'm not sure how intercessory prayer works. I'm not even sure if intercessory prayer works. But I am sure that it has long been a central part of my religious tradition. And I'm also sure, at the very least, that it can't hurt. And, right now I can use all the help I can get.

As part of our great master plan for how I'm going to make a living primarily as a writer (read: I don't want to have to go back to punching into the time clock for my suck job at the sporting goods store) Sami and I have started looking at our budget. Uncomfortable work, to be sure. Medical bills don't make the numbers look any better, either. I've got health insurance, which is a good thing. Literally a week before the fall-down-go-boom episode I said that we should just cancel my insurance because I never use it. But, even with insurance, health care cost go well beyond our general paycheck to paycheck operating budget.

But, all in all, I can't complain. Or, at least, I shouldn't. My health (save for my wrist, of course) is good, I've got a great family, my church has been supportive throughout the roller coaster that has been my post-ministry life, and my wife has such a great job that not only is her job description simply "do what Sami does," but she even makes enough money that we might be able to make it with me writing full time.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

And the Winner Is...

The winner of our reader contest to explain the sudden removal of Brian Cubbage's blog Lost on Twin Earth is...

[hope the drum roll here doesn't give away the fact that a drummer won]

CHAPPY!, who wrote:

It was the penguins, pure and simple. Seeing Brian's blog as a threat to the media blitz of their upcoming motion picture Happy Feet, the penguins used the fowl influence to convince several less-than-bright pigeons to fly into a power transformer, thereby causing a strategically-placed power outage, which then crippled the servers that hosted L.O.T.E. As added insurance for their nefarious scheme, the penguins threatened to support Northup's re-election. Seeing that he had to do his civic duty and sacrifice a source of interesting blog reading, Brian pulled the plug to save Louisville from another Northup term.

The very close runner up was Liam, for this piece of blog-comment noir:

It was a rainy day on Madison Avenue, and inside the sub-basement of the Opus Dei building, Karl Rove and the re-animated Walt Disney were feeding into a shredder the last few papyrus pages of an unknown gnostic gospel that not only exalted the roles of Judas and Mary Magdelene, but also predicted a Democratic victory in 2006. "The blog, Karl, the blog..." croaked Disney. "Yes, I know..." said his pale fleshy accomplice, "he rarely posts, but when he does, he's dangerous."

The two had already taken some "necessary steps" to insure "things would go the way we want them to." Pedro Martinez AND El Duque out for the playoffs? Not mere chance... And that was just the beginning.

Outside a few blocks away a shadowy figure wearing a Cary Grant mask climbed up the fascade of the Chrysler Building. There was something Kentucky about him. If he could just reach the mind-transmitter before it could break into his brain, a brain made tough from analytic philosophy, but still human... The foil in the mask could only protect him for so long.

His head began to hurt... No! It was too late, Rove and Disney had broken into his mind. They had the username, they had his password. Somewhere in cyberspace, a blog was being deleted.

It pains me to say this, but Chappy's grand prize is the following sentence, which I swore I'd never utter:

All hail our arctic overlords!

Now, Chappy, will your danged dream penguins please leave me alone?!?

An Early Morning Conversation

On Friday Adam went to Lexington to stay with my parents, his “Ma” and “Pops,” so that Sami and I could for once pretend to be adults. We had so much fun eating dinner at a Mongolian grill that we forgot to go to a movie. Who knew that, after over five years of marriage, all we really needed to do was talk to each other?

When Adam stays with Ma and Pops, however, he comes back changed, his routine altered, his natural rhythm off. So he got up early this morning, and joined us in our bed.

“Adam, is it light outside, or dark outside?”

Dark outside! Dark outside!

“So, does that mean that it is daytime, or nighttime?”


“And what do we do at night?”

Sleep! We sleep!

“So what are we going to do right now?”

Play tennis outside?!?

A boy can hope, can’t he?

Friday, November 10, 2006

New Link, and New Sidebar

Tyler at Habakkuk's Watchpost introduced me to God in a Shrinking Universe an interesting blog by Finnish theologian Patrik Hagman. While he is working on a PhD on a Patristic mystic, his work on Paul Tillich's Systematic Theology seems most interesting to me. So I've added a link to his blog on my sidebar, replacing my beloved Lost on Twin Earth. (Why, Brian, why?!? *sobbing uncontrollably, head in hands*)

While I was updating my sidebar, I decided to add a new category: Sandalstraps on the Problem of Pain. As you may remember, in August and September I had a bit of a theodicy fetish. After having looked those posts over with a little bit of time between composition and re-reading, I almost like them, which is really saying something. Generally, as soon as I'm done writing something, I hate it. I have to force myself to post it. I can see all of its limitations, all of its flaws, and none of its virtues. Time passes. I read it again, and am surprised that it is almost but not quite passable. After, oh, maybe a year, I can almost like it.

So, since I already almost like some of the posts from my theodicy phase, I've decided to make them a part of my sidebar, enshrining them next to my commentaries on the culture wars. If you haven't yet read them, and have even a slight interest in the subject (and more than a little bit of time, since I can't even say my name in a couple of paragraphs!) I recommend you check them out. And I certainly recommend checking out God in a Shrinking Universe.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Ben Witherington on Evangelical Political Fallout

Check out what Asbury Theological Seminary's Ben Witherington has to say about the unholy alliance between Evangelicals and conservative politicians in the wake of the Midterm elections, the Ted Haggard scandal, and Secretary Rumsfeld's resignation. Witherington and I don't often agree on theological issues, but he is one of the world's best New Testament scholars, and is one of the most honest Evangelical figures. Like Duke's Stanley Hauerwas, his primary allegiance is to the Gospel, and so his views are often difficult to pin down. Simply put, he doesn't make many concessions to the culture of American power, making him a prophetic, even if conservative, voice.

Here's the money quote:

Until the Evangelical Church actually gets religion about the big ticket ethical items in the NT, it will not have much of a witness to the least, the last, and the lost, never mind to our global neighbors who are tired of our saber rattling. Why should anyone believe we believe in the sanctity of life when we vehemently oppose abortion but are strong advocates for capital punishment and war!! Over and over again. Our agendas are all too often not in sync with those of the NT writers on these issues.

Of course, that is but one of many incendiary passages in an Evangelical "come to Jesus."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Midweek (and Midterm) Update: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

First, the good:

Democrats have, as I'm sure you're now aware, made sweeping gains in yesterday's elections, taking control of the House, and quite possibly also the Senate. Here in Louisville that manifested itself in John Yarmuth's shocking victory over five-term incumbent Anne Northup in the KY 3rd Congressional District.
Yarmuth was until yesterday best known as the founder of one of my favorite periodicals, the LEO, a local alternative weekly newspaper. Long an outspoken critic of both the Bush administration and Congresswoman Northup, he decided to literally put his money where his mouth was, fronting his campaign over $700,000 of his own money in an attempt to partially neutralize the incumbent's fundraising advantage.

Despite being outspent more than two to one, and despite receiving very little help from either the KDP or the DCCC, Yarmuth rode the wave of voter disgust with Republican leadership to an improbable victory. Of course, now we'll see if he can lead as well as he heckles from the sidelines.

For the record, I've long been a fan of Yarmuth's writing, finding him the rare lucid voice in the cacophony of propaganda masquerading as political commentary. That said, I voted against him in the primary, for these reasons:

1.) There is a big difference between criticizing and leading. I would know. I've been writing about religious issues my entire adult life, but that doesn't mean that I was a great pastor. I think that I can identify the traits necessary for a great pastor, and articulate them clearly in writing. But that doesn't mean that I can embody those traits. Similarly, John Yarmuth is a great writer and political commentator, but that alone does not mean that he will be a great Congressman.

2.) I was, despite my rather forceful letter to his campaign, rather enamored with Yarmuth's opponent in the Democratic primary, a local lawyer and former Marine named Andrew Horne. Not only was he a proven leader (despite, like Yarmuth, being a political neophyte), but he was also a fellow Methodist! I even acted in a play with his son.

3.) During the campaign Yarmuth could open his mouth without sounding mad as hell. He could say his name and have it come out as a cross between an insult and a threat.

Those concerns aside, a happily voted for him yesterday, and am beyond pleased that Louisville's most "liberal" public figure has bested a local icon and five-term incumbent. Now let's see what, if anything, newly elected Congressman Yarmuth (that will take some getting used to!) and his fellow Democrats can do with some political power. At the very least they should be able to provide a long-overdue check on the powers of the presidency.

Next, the bad:

My wrist is in worse shape than we originally thought, and will require surgery. I'm leaving in eight minutes (I'd better type fast) to go meet with the surgeon to discuss, I suppose, where he'd like to put the screws and when he'd like to put them there. There is at least some chance that my recreational tennis career will be aborted before it ever really got started.

Finally, the ugly:

I'm leading a Bible Study at church tonight for our Wednesday Evening Forum series - a continuation of our seminars discussing homosexuality. I always teach with two tools:

1. my voice, and

2. a dry-erase board.

I can't teach without writing things down on a board. It's how I organize my thoughts. So try to picture, if you will, my already poor penmanship distorted even more by my clumsy left hand. The last time I had to write left-handed was after I fell while building a treehouse in first grade. I broke a couple of bones in my right arm, causing it to bend like one of those rubberized professional wrestler dolls that I loved at the time, making me think that I would forever have a c-shaped arm. After the panic subsided, the pain set in. But the pain was a welcome relief from the horrifying belief that I had, at the age of six, permanently ruined my body.

Anyway, I had a cast on for, I don't know... it felt like forever. During that time I learned two important things:

1. Casts don't make for good weapons. I hit some poor kid with my cast on the playground at recess one day, only to discover that it hurt me a hell of a lot more than it hurt him. And

2. I can't write left handed, no matter how much I practice.

But, absent some beautiful and benevolent assistant to write all my thoughts for me (are you reading this, Sami?) I'm going to have to try writing on my precious dry-erase board left handed tonight. How's that for ugly?!?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Brian Cubbage's blog Lost on Twin Earth has officially closed shop. I thought that we should in some special way mark its passing, so, talking to Brian last night, we hatched an idea. Instead of writing some sentimental sap in the form of a mock obituary, we're going to hold a contest, not entirely unlike Brian's wager with Liam on the comments section of this post.

So, we're holding a contest. Whoever comes up with the best story explaining why Lost on Twin Earth has been removed from the blogosphere wins... well, we haven't decided yet. But it will be nice, I promise.

And remember, bonus points will be awarded at my discretion for plausible conspiracy theories. Get crackin'!

Monday, November 06, 2006

Another Heschel Quote

In September I posted on a Heschel quote about the decline of religion. While Troy was the only person to respond, so I can't say that this is back by popular demand or because it was such a rousing success, here is another thought-provoking quote by rabbi/philosopher/activist/mystic Abraham Joshua Heschel, again from his God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. Perhaps I'm posting it because I really like these three paragraphs, perhaps I'm posting it because I need more typing practice, perhaps I'm posting it because I think that it will generate good conversation, or perhaps I'm posting it because, while I feel the need to write something profound while I'm off work nursing my wounded wing, I simply can't come up with anything. Whatever the reason, here's what Heschel has to say about the relationship between religion and language:

It is impossible to define "goodness," or "fact," not because they stand for something irrational or meaningless, but because they stand for ideas that surpass the limitations of any definition; they are super-rational rather than subrational. We cannot define "the holy" or utter in words what we mean by "blessed be He." What the "holy" refers to, what we mean by "blessed be He," lies beyond the reach of words...

If our basic concepts are impregnable to analysis, then we must not be surprised that the ultimate answers are not attainable by reason alone. If it is impossible to define "goodness," "value," or "fact," how should we ever succeed in defining what we mean by God? Every religious act and judgment involves the acceptance of the ineffable, the acknowledgment of the inconceivable. When the basic issues of religion, such as God, revelation, prayer, holiness, commandments, are dissolved into pedestrian categories and deprived of sublime relevance, they come close to being meaningless.

The categories of religious thinking, as said above, are unique and represent a way of thinking on a level that is deeper than the level of concepts, utterances, symbols. It is immediate, ineffable, metasymbloic. Teachers of religion have always attempted to raise their insights to the level of utterance, dogma, creed. Yet such utterances must be taken as indications, as attempts to convey what cannot be adequately expressed, if they are not to stand in the way of authentic faith.

Weekend Update

We had one hell of a weekend.

Friday night our van was broken into. My wife's purse was in it. It was rifled through, and all of her credit cards stolen.

Saturday morning I went to tennis practice, and once again played like a maniac. I am infamous for running around the court, tracking down every ball at full speed. I'm not a great tennis player, but I don't voluntarily surrender any points. Early on in practice, a harbinger, I ran into the back wall of our indoor court, chasing a ball that no sensible person would have thought anyone could get to. I emerged from that collision unscathed, though I did make my teammates nervous.

About half an hour after that I was playing up at the net for one of our drills, and I got lobbed. I take lobs as almost an insult to my speed. How dare you think that I couldn't run that shot down?!? The shot was a little too high, and so, even though it was deep and to my left, I ran the lob down and still had enough time left over to spin around and attempt a forehand instead of a backhand. Changing directions and spinning around at full speed is, well, stupid.

I tripped over my own feet, my momentum propelling me backward. Even though I spent months working on how to fall in my martial arts class, the lessons apparently didn't stick. I threw my arms out to catch my fall, a cardinal sin. Instead of bruising my butt and spraining my dignity, I broke my wrist.

I'm writing this, then, for three reasons:

1. To vent, while also sharing information.

2. To solicit prayers. I'm not always sure what I think about intercessory prayer, but I am sure that it never hurts.

3. To practice typing with a cast on. Early verdict: not easy. Not only do I not have all of my fingers - I can really only use about six at a time - but the cast keeps hitting random keys, or even worse, hitting the delete button.

I may have just picked up some writing work which will really help us out, especially since my bosses at work are skeptical about my ability to perform my duties with only one hand. But to do the writing work - assuming, of course, it actually works out - I'm going to have to learn how to type with the fiberglass weight on my hand, immobilizing my wrist and thumb and randomly smacking keys.

The good news: Best case scenario, I'm out of the cast in 6 weeks, and playing tennis again in about two months. And, all in all, despite my incessant whining, it could be a lot worse. While I was in the Hand Center's waiting room three different patients were wheeled in with missing fingers and mangled limbs.

And, I just hit spell check to make sure that I didn't clumsily strike the wrong keys while I was typing. While the typing was slow going, I only had one mistake. Even with two good hands I usually have more errors than that. Maybe having to concentrate from time to time, doing a formerly rote task in a new way, isn't such a bad thing.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Is Homophobia Self-Hatred?

It is with great pain and sadness that I write this. One should never celebrate the fall of another.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that there is nothing we despise in another that is entirely absent from ourselves. Charlie Peacock, the great singer/songwriter/pianist and conscience of contemporary Christian music put it this way: "There's no insult like the truth." Nothing gets to us, bringing out the worst in us, like the private truths we don't often admit even to ourselves. When these truths are exposed, accusations of hypocrisy abound. All of our moral arrogance, our posturing, our blustering, our superiority; they all look hollow.

Rev. Ted Haggard, pastor of the evangelical mega-church New Life Church and president of the National Association of Evangelicals, a man who has led the charge against gay marriage in Colorado, has resigned his leadership positions after having been caught in a gay sex scandal.

When I first saw this, I quickly vowed not to write about it. Lord knows that as the dust clears more than enough will have been said about this unfortunate event. Rev. Haggard will rightly be raked against the coals for the most shameless hypocrisy, denying gays full inclusion not only in the body of Christ but also in the wider culture, attacking the morality of consensual, monogamous, committed homosexual relationships while paying another man for illicit sex. Stories will focus on sex, religion, politics, and the incestuous relationships between the three.

For sheer titillation, nothing beats a political sex scandal, unless it also involves a religious leader. And if the sex scandal includes hidden homosexual tendencies, male prostitution, and a blustery, holier-than-thou religious leader caught doing something far worse - by any standard - than the behavior which he has publicly condemned... Well, you're looking at the perfect media storm.

So why should I waste my precious time - far more precious now that most of it is spent punched in to a time clock - writing about a story that is bound to get overblown in the media and blogosphere? Because there is an important angle which may not get explored, and because, while activists on the left and right scream at each other about who's to blame here, someone needs to approach this tenderly, pastorally.

Despite his untenable religious and political position, despite his blatant hypocrisy, I can empathize with Ted Haggard. That is not to say that I can condone his actions, or the distance between his hidden sex life and his public proclamations. But I can certainly empathize with someone who wrestles against their own nature, keeping a shameful secret hidden even from themselves.

Rev. Haggard's public position on homosexuality is a product of his cultural and religious environment. But it is also, perhaps, a product of a deep-seated self loathing. You don't just wake up one morning and think: What the hell, I'll pay another man for sex today. That's not a desire that just comes out of nowhere. He must have wrestled with his natural sexual appetite for some time before he reached the point where he was so desperate that he chose to hire a male prostitute from an escort service.

Now, if the story is accurate, Rev. Haggard has been seeing the same prostitute almost every month for three years, all while making his most public attacks on uncloseted gays seeking to live normal lives with public relationships. Could it be that the two are related? Could it be that, in attacking gay marriage Haggard is really attacking the part of himself that he can't own up to, that he can't stand, that he must keep hidden at all costs? Could his public battle really be a private one, seeking to distance himself as far as possible from his own sexuality?

If so, I think that this is much more complicated than brazen hypocrisy, but no less tragic. I can, after all, relate to someone who wages a public battle against their private demons, all while trying to keep those demons private. I have written a great deal here an elsewhere about violence and anger, identifying peace as one of the goals of the religious life. I have condemned acts of violence done in the name of God, or of church, or of state. Yet, privately, I must admit, I am a violent person.

This must come as some surprise to people who have seen my public face. That face is so unflappable that I have been asked if anything at all bothers me. My wife knows better. She knows that privately I am a perfectionist who falls apart whenever anything goes wrong. And, when I fall apart, I really fall apart. My quite, serene public persona masks a blustery temper, prone to fits of hysterical screaming and the most belittling insults.

I know, then, what it's like to wage war against a part of myself, and to take that war public while trying to keep the sin private. I can't condemn anyone for that. The problem here, however, is that Rev. Haggard has identified the wrong enemy. Publicly and privately he's been fighting the wrong fight. While attacking the phenomenon of same-sex attraction in part because he hated it in himself, he could have spent his time wrestling with, say, economic injustice, prejudice, violence, oppression, or any other actual evil. Instead, he's hated himself and so many other people simply because he was fooled by a culture and a religion which forgot that while Jesus talked a great deal about money and how we should use it, he never once mentioned homosexuality.

Clearly Ted Haggard has a great deal of ability and a great deal of charisma. He rose to the top of one of the world's most challenging professions. I hope, as he stares at the ashes of his once brilliant career, he can find it in himself to accept himself as he is, to work toward healing, and then to use his natural abilities to build up love in our culture and the body of Christ. His career as a homophobic evangelical leader is certainly over, but his life doesn't have to be.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

This I Believe

When I was fourteen years old I converted to an evangelical form of Christianity. I had been raised a mainline Protestant, but my immediate family didn't take their faith very seriously. My paternal grandfather was a Southern Baptist pastor, and my primary religious role model. He died of a sudden heart attack when I was nine years old, leaving a spiritual vacuum in my life.

As you can probably guess, I have always been concerned with "ultimate questions," the sorts of questions most people start asking after they've had a couple of drinks. I spent most of my childhood staying up late at night, staring at my twin brother's bunk above me, wondering what happens when we die. I couldn't imagine that life just ceased. But, at the same time, it also couldn't go on forever, like we're experiencing it now. Eternity as time stretched out with no ending. As the war between extinction and limitless time waged on in my head, I would jump up out of my bed and run in circles around the room, trying to outpace way restless thoughts.

After my grandfather's death, even though I was so young, I turned to a functional nihilistic atheism. I know that serious atheists will read that and say that I nine-year-old raised as a Christian cannot possibly be a real atheist. And, they're probably right. But functionally, I was an atheist. I had no interest in God, no interest in religion. That was the path of my grandfather, the path of death. As he was dead, so too God was dead, at least to me.

I have no interest here in sharing how I got from there to the evangelical Christianity of my teenage years. It simply isn't a great story, even if it got me my first speaking gigs. Suffice it to say, when I converted to an evangelical form of Christianity at fourteen, I was all in. I approached my faith with a rigor and a fervor, with everything that was in me.

But my faith was equal parts devotion and belief, equal parts passion and intellect. I studied evangelical Christian apologetics, as it was the only theology I knew. By the time I finished high school, I'd read every book by C.S. Lewis published in the United States, and had started working through Francis Schaeffer. I'd also been turned on to a writer named Paul E. Little, whose Know What You Believe and Know Why You Believe were excellent primers in the basics of evangelical doctrine.

In my first stint as a college student I spent more time tutoring at risk kids at a United Methodist mission and debating religion with Mormon and Jehovah's Witness missionaries on campus than I did going to class, and quickly failed out. Failing out of school only furthered the trend of living only for and through my religion.

In my early twenties I had a certainty of belief. I could clearly articulate what I believed, nay knew about God. The first seminar I ever gave was on basic Christian beliefs for a state-wide evangelical youth retreat. As far as I was concerned then, there was only one Christianity, to be accepted or rejected. It's teachings were simply, and I could articulate them for you. From there you had only to believe, and you would, by God's grace, be saved.

Now, of course, nothing is so simple. I often miss the certainty of my youth, when religious belief was the rock that held my otherwise unstable life together. I miss being able to answer fundamental questions simply, without hesitation, equivocation or doubt. But I do not miss the moral and spiritual arrogance which came with seeing God as basically a list of propositions which can be known. I do not miss limiting the mystery of the universe to my beliefs about it; being blind to wonder. And I certainly don't miss my dirty little secret, that beneath the veneer of belief my faith was cracking.

My public face was one of certainty, my private face one of crippling, paralyzing fear and anxiety. Having all of the answers didn't make those answers emotionally or existentially satisfying. It just ended the search for new answers. As such, I still had the private anxieties which kept me up all night as a child, I just had no new area to explore. I had already converted, already been saved, but in the end it didn't solve my fundamental problem. I still had no peace, no security. I still couldn't sleep at night.

I'm in a much healthier place now. But I can no longer easily put together a list of my beliefs. In part this is because those beliefs - once my bedrock - are constantly shifting like unstable sand, rocking back and forth like the waves. And, in part this is because I no longer see belief as being the equivalent of faith, as the primary subject of religion.

Last week I finally finished my seminary application. I'm signing up for a second tour of duty, this time in a Masters of Arts in Religion program - the first stop in my preparation for an academic career. As part of the application process I was asked to write a short (300 - 500 word) essay answering this question:

What is your understanding of God, and what is the basis for your belief?

In my teens or early twenties that would have been an easy question to answer. Now, however, I stared at the question for two whole months before I even started to attempt an answer. When I finally started writing, this is what came out:

First and foremost, God is mysterious. That is, God is not the sort of being (if God can be described as a being at all) which is empirically observable, scientifically dissectible, or encyclopedically describable. So, while we can invent theological descriptions of God, resting in part on our great religious tradition, we must understand that any description of God only loosely corresponds to God as God. As the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes observed, any human idea about God is accurate, if at all, only by accident.

All theological descriptions of God are, as Marcus Borg has observed, due to the mysterious nature of the divine, best understood as metaphors. That is, we cannot say in any literal way that God is this, but not that. We cannot compile a list of divine attributes, and expect those to in any non-accidental way correspond with the literal nature of God. But we can describe God through the use of poetic language, understand that we are not really describing God at all, but instead our experiences of God.

The role of theology, especially as it concerns propositions about the nature of God, is not, then, really to describe God as God. It serves instead as a way of reflecting on our personal yet corporate experience of God. My own ideas about God come from my experiences of God, especially in corporate worship (which includes reading the Bible in Christian community) within a community of faith inside the United Methodist Church, as a part of the broader Christian tradition. As such, it is shaped by the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

Within the context of that quadrilateral, understanding that ultimately God is a mystery and that my own ideas of God are useful only insofar as they facilitate an experience of God, I understand God through the use of metaphors, such as:

God is love (I John 4:8)

God is the mysterious Eheyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, the great “I am what I am,” or even “I will be where I will be.” (Exodus 3:14)

God is the Ground of Being (Paul Tillich), and more importantly for me, the ground of my being (personal experience)

God as a creative and evolutionary force (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

God as the divine mystery (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

and many, many more. Too many to count or name.

I experience God as both immanent and transcendent, as both a personal being and as Being Itself. I recognize that these are rational contradictions, but I think that ultimately their contradictory nature speaks to our inability to fully comprehend our experiences of God rather than to some flaw in God. But, most importantly, I experience God in community, through corporate worship, and through the life of discipleship. I believe that my experience of the grace of God, which redeems me, demands from me my very life, the collection of all my hopes and dreams, and the sweat of all of my labor.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Interesting Link

Since I don't have time this week to do any "real" blogging, I'll do this instead.

Tom just sent me this link to a post Lexington Herald Leader's religion reporter Frank Lockwood's blog, asking the provocative question: Did Clinton save America from God's wrath? Check it out.