Friday, December 29, 2006

Medical Update

I just got back from my bi-weekly visit with the hand surgeon. He said two very encouraging things. First, my scaphoid (the broken bone in my wrist that he surgically repaired) has "fused nicely." So, while I am permanently "screwed," the surgery appears to have been an unqualified success. Now I can start rehabbing more actively. Second, I don't have to see him again for six weeks. I can progress towards reclaiming my life without medical interference for the next month and a half.

This whole bout has caused me to rethink my disposition, perhaps (I hate to sound like a theodicy here) making it an almost good thing that I broke my wrist. Since I broke my wrist I read a study on optimism, which basically said that optimists are almost always better at handling situations like this than pessimists. While I often cringe at the optimist/pessimist distinction, realizing that, of course, there are far more than two possible dispositions, the study was nonetheless informative.

My general disposition has always been one of guarded, defensive pessimism. Don't get your hopes up, I often think, or you will be simply devastated when things go wrong. But sometimes that produces a kind of fatalism. Rather than providing a psychological buffer against disappointment it acts almost as a preemptive disappointment, carrying the psychological baggage of a negative outcome without the actual presence of said negative outcome.

Optimists, the study said, actually have more of a buffer against disappointment because, while it is true that they do in fact get their hopes up, they are also, simply by virtue of their default mental position, better equipped to find the good in any situation.

Before gravity tossed me to the ground and a reflex snapped my wrist, I had a decidedly pessimistic outlook. My finances weren't good, my career prospects weren't good, I was working a job that I hated, and I could find what was wrong in almost any situation. It wasn't that things were bad, it was that I saw things as bad, seeing the worst in every situation. I was constantly on guard against negative outcomes, but far from preventing those outcomes my outlook simply acted as a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy. If it didn't exactly cause things to turn out badly, it at least encouraged me to see the worst in whatever situation I was in.

When my wrist snapped on a tennis court I finally had an authentically negative outcome, and realized that I simply couldn't afford to dwell on it. It became my new reality, and within that reality, if I didn't want to be overwhelmed by negativism, I was simply going to have to find the good.

This mindset has aided my recovery. I can see incremental progress, and as I see that progress I realize that I am constantly moving toward a goal. Within the process of healing, then, pain stops being a negative and starts being a vital component to healing. Pain is communication, it tells me what is going on in my wrist, and what I can and cannot do with it. Pain is also a barrier to be pushed through. As I rehab my wrist, rather than being an annoyance or worse, pain becomes almost a goal until itself. Move the wrist until you reach the wall of pain, and then push through that wall.

That is not to say that I delight in pain - I am not a masochist. But I no longer feel the need to artificially divide my experiences into good and bad and label the pain as bad. Rather, without judgment or discrimination, I can experience the pain for what it is, and allow it to help guide my healing. As I press through pain, listening to what my body is telling me with the pain, I am able to reclaim my wrist. My range of motion expands. My strength returns. I reach some of my short term goals, and my long term goals, so distant for so long, become just visible enough that they no longer feel like a foolish fantasy.

I am improving, and because I refuse to see the world through my naturally pessimistic eyes, I can see that improvement. Instead of gauging my wrist against how it was before I hurt it and, seeing the distance between where I once was and where I am now despairing and lamenting my plight, I gauge my wrist against where it was last week, and the week before, and the week before. I can then feel good about the progress instead of bad about the injury. I can see the healing instead of the wound.

To change one's mindset, one's default position, is almost impossible. This is because we are rarely able to see our own mindset. Rather, we see the world through it. Everything is colored by it, while it remains the perceiver rather than the perceived. But if you are able to step back from yourself and see the way that you look at everything else, you just might find that life isn't so bad when you stop seeing the bad in everything, and start seeing the good.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Best Live Band You've Probably Never Heard Of

Another Christmas has come and gone, the seventh with Sami as the primary person in my life, and the sixth with her as my wife. Hard to believe. I know that most of you have only known me with her in my life, but of course there are whole chapters in my mind without her. Some days it seems (I know this is a cliche, but some cliches survive because at some point they pointed to a profound truth) like only moments ago that the swept into my life, cleaning my mental house and ordering my personal chaos. Of course, since she joined me many of my memories have been re-written to include her. The mind is funny like that. I'll say something like, "Honey, do you remember when..." only to realize that, of course, she couldn't remember that as she wasn't there. But even with the creative editing of my memory, there is still so much of my life that she hasn't yet touched. As the years go by, however, more and more mental territory is claimed by the benevolent invader. I suppose that in a few more years it won't be so strange that we've been together for years.

But wasn't this post supposed to be about an as yet unidentified rock band? you might ask if you've read the title, then the first paragraph, then the title again, just to make sure, scratching your head wondering what the hell the title has to do with the first paragraph and vice versa. But, dear reader, if you're reading this then you've probably read my other stuff, and so you know that I'm prone to near-fatally disjointed digressions. Yes, it's rare to digress before you've even started, but this time of year it is possible.

You see, since Sami has bravely joined my life, I've noticed that she is simply the best gift giver. I know that earlier I wrote about giving gifts without attachment, but, damn it, I'm human, and every year she gets me a better gift than I get her. My philosophy with giving gifts is you match the gift to the person (duh). The trick is, of course, how you go about doing that. I try to find something that, based on what I know of their interests, they would have always wanted if only they knew it existed. My wife doesn't share this philosophy. Rather, she listens to me all year as I rattle on and on about the various items that a covet, but ultimately can't justify buying because of my perpetual guilt at the fact that she makes all the money but in karmically unfair twist somehow I end up spending it. She then waits until - fickle as always - I forget that said item exists. She then hunts it down on the Internet, has it shipped to her mother's house (knowing full well that I would never go there on my own volition!) and keeps it from me until Christmas.

So while I'm out at the last minute fighting through the mobs of holiday shoppers trying to find something she doesn't know about but would simply love (and, most importantly, never buy for herself) she can sit at home, comfortable as she sips her hot chocolate, knowing that once again she will have done better by me than I've done by her.

This year, once again, she got me a collection of odds and ends that amount to a veritable goody basket of the best music you've probably never heard. I won't divulge all of the treats here, but there are two DVDs I'd like to mention, one of which is the source of the title, which has still failed miserably to correspond with any of the actual content of this post.

The first DVD I opened from her this year was by The Lost Dogs, a rootsy Americana group that started as a novelty act put together by some of the most pioneering evangelical Christian rockers. (I've written about them here before.) Originally comprised of Mike Roe of the Seventy Sevens, Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, Derri Daugherty of the Choir, and the late Gene Eugene of Adam Again, the "three legged dog" of Roe, Taylor, and Daugherty have pressed on in the wake of Gene's tragic death in 2000. This DVD, titled Via Chicago (all we left unsaid) has the three of them strumming their acoustic guitars, swapping songs, telling stories between tracks, and singing some sick harmonies.

The beauty of their music is a testimony to artistic collaboration. While they've each had at least some success on their own, they're at their best together. Both Mike Roe and Terry Taylor have what can be most charitably described as intriguing voices, full of character. While they've fronted rock bands most of their adult lives, their bands have never exactly been commercial powerhouses, and what success they've had fronting them has more to do with their ability to convey the deep meaning behind their songs than with any conventional beauty in the voices. But when they add their voices to the voice of Derri Daugherty (who can sing a little bit) the harmonies nearly stop your heart. The breathtaking beauty of three artists who fit together perfectly.

The disk runs only 28 minutes, but ending as it does on the majestic "Golden Dreams," you realize there's nowhere to go from here. The 28 minutes then, instead of being disappointingly short, is the perfect dose of music which moves from absurdly silly (their cover of the bluegrass "classic" "Dust on the Bible") to hauntingly familiar (the country ballad "Real Men Cry," penned by Taylor, with Roe singing lead) to almost desperate worship in a moment of despair ("Be My Hiding Place," assembled by Taylor from various Psalms, penned in the wake of 9-11). If it had gone on much longer my soul, so filled with music, might have exploded.

But, for as much as I loved watching that DVD, The Lost Dogs are not the band I had in mind when I typed in the title of this post. Rather, that honor belongs to band that produced the second DVD I opened this year, Mike Roe's primary band, the Seventy Sevens. Their newly released DVD collection is a loosely assemble compilation that spans most of the last 24 years. Disk One features the 7 "official" 77's videos, along with some rare bonus footage of the band. Historically interesting, if not artistically significant. A must have for fans of the Sevens, even if the rest of you might wonder, watching these, just how they became nearly a cult for a few of us. As Mike Roe says in the DVD insert,

Unlike most other pop music bands that came of age during the music video explosion of the early 1980's, the 77's were mostly camera-shy and, for the most part, visually and stylistically confused and unfocused. The reason for this is simple. We never got into this game by design - we were chosen. Someone asked us for help, and we obliged. The result was a mixed bag of weird musical combinations, bad hair, even worse clothing, and a career path made up of mostly lame choices coupled with missed opportunities, poor timing and doggone the rotten luck.

But this retrospective product is not a tragedy, it is a triumph. It's triumph is due mostly to Disk Two, simply the most creative music DVD I've ever seen. Rather than having a single menu and a single track listing, the second disk in this set is a collection of menus, one for each fragment of a live show contained on the disk. The shows, listed chronologically, are pulled from various points in a 17 year period, from 1982 to 1999, and offer musical time capsules. If you'd like to see what the band looked and sounded like in, say, 1989, you'd click on the icon that says Warehouse Ministries/ Sacramento, CA 1989, and that will take you to a track listing from that show. You can then play any of the featured tracks you'd like, or all of them in sequence.

Growing up in Lexington, KY, I particularly enjoyed watching the one track included from their performance at Ichthus '85 in Wilmore, KY. Ichthus was the first Christian music festival, started as an evangelical response to Woodstock, and hosted by Asbury Theological Seminary, a mere 20 or so miles from my parents' house. I went to Ichthus almost every year as a teenager, and then later took groups there as a youth minister. Both of my brothers played there once, in a now defunct group called Dave's Not Here.

In all there are parts of 13 shows which can be accessed individually. Each of these offers a window into one of the best live rock and roll bands to ever play anywhere. You see, the Seventy Sevens were rock. As Mike Roe says, again from the DVD insert, they weren't/aren't "a big rock band playing before the whole wide world in front of God and everybody." They simply rocked anywhere they were allowed to rock, in front of anyone who showed up.

While their sound has morphed considerably over the last 24 years (along with their line-up, as Mike Roe is the only member to have survived with the group the whole time), shifting from New Wave, to 80's pop, to blues, to jam band, to hard rock, to easy listening, and nearly everything else, it has always been authentic. They have artfully avoided the extremes of prog and arena rock (two guilty pleasures, I must confess) and the now artificial iconoclasm of commercial punk, finding instead a rock so pure that it doesn't have to be purist. It is free to venture out, try new things, all the while returning to blues based rock.

While the Seventy Sevens have never been all about Mike Roe, the line-up has changed so many times in its various incarnations that it is difficult to fully explore the various contributions of each of the members surrounding Roe through history. We could spend weeks discussing the drumming of Aaron Smith and Bruce Spencer, each brilliant in their own right, but belonging to different eras. The same could be said for every incarnation of the Sevens. Do you prefer the Roe, Tootle, Eric and Smith line-up that produced All Fall Down, Seventy Sevens, and Sticks and Stones? What about when Jan Eric and Mark Tootle were shed for Mark Harmon and David Leonhardt for Pray Naked (a saga unto itself) and Drowning With Land in Sight. And, of course, the aforementioned Spencer replaced Aaron Smith for 1995's Tom Tom Blues, a period which also saw the departure of David Leonhardt, making the band a power trio.

Each person surrounding Mike Roe at any moment (and Spencer and Harmon have been with him for over a decade now, qualifying them for much more mention than they'll get here - they even wrote much of the material for the past few albums) has been crucial to the success of the music at that moment. But Roe is the constant, and his unique genius makes the band what it is - the best live band you've probably never heard of.

Each of the tracks on Disk Two's time walk show us a band that, when off, is nigh unlistenable. But, when they were on the room could levitate. That begins with Roe, the frontman and guitarist. I've already described his singing when discussing the Lost Dogs' DVD, but I was surprised looking back at the earliest performances of the 80's that he was once a credible singer. He's always had ridiculous range, though you couldn't describe it as "effortless" range since he often looks like his eyeballs might fly into the front row if he tries any harder. But with the Seventy Sevens, though he is the primary vocalist, it isn't really about his singing. It is about that electric six string in his hands.

Roe is not a conventional guitarist. He certainly isn't a technique freak, though, like with Eric Clapton or Dave Gilmour, the ability to make a single note say exactly what you want it to say has as much to do with your technique - even if it is a different sort of technique - as the speed and precision of a Eddie Van Halen or John Petrucci guitar solo. He can often be almost clumsy, going up and down the fretboard with all of the precision of blunt force trauma. There are times when it looks like not even he knows just what he is supposed to be playing.

But there are moments - and not rare ones, they happen much of the time - when his eyes glaze over like the artist who paints the future in the NBC show Heroes, and the resulting sound is angelic, otherworldly. His best solos take you to the deepest, most spiritual places. They force you to explore your emotions, making you laugh and cry at the same time as a nearly divine beauty overwhelms you.

There are other moments when his guitar explodes in a fireball of sound, bursting forth from the primal beat of the bass and drums, the dirtiest rock and roll. The Seventy Sevens have always been pigeonholed as a "Christian" rock band, because they are Christians and they make rock music, and because they got their start making music for evangelical Christians. But, though they love Jesus and the Rolling Stones, they never wanted to be Jesus' answer to the Stones. In those fiery moments you can see that what they really wanted to do was test themselves against the Stones, making kick ass rock that isn't bound to a genre or ideology.

And, on their best days, they were and are simply the best live band you'll ever see.

So, as you can see, Merry Christmas to me!

Both of these DVDs were released by Lo-Fidelity Records, and can be purchased either from Lo-Fidelity or directly from the bands.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Giving Without Attachment

The Diamond Sutra, one of the prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) sutras of Mahayana Buddhism, has the Buddha say this concerning the giving of gifts, an insight which can be quite helpful this time of year:

...when bodhisattvas give a gift, they should not be attached to a thing. When they give a gift, they should not be attached to anything at all.

Here is what I wrote concerning this idea in a commentary for my college course in Buddhist Philosophy:

We give gifts for many reasons. Sometimes we give gifts out of love for a person. Sometimes we give gifts because we wish to be seen giving gifts. Often we give gifts because it is socially acceptable, or somehow required of us. But, whatever our motive, we often have expectations for the person who receives our gift. If and when they fail to meet our expectations for them, we manufacture suffering, both in ourselves and in others. Therefore, when we give a gift (as in all situations) we should not be attached to anything, but simply give our gift, for the sake of giving our gift.

I had hoped to write more about giving without attachment, but I got distracted by an excellent comment by Crystal on my last post, so I fritted my writing time this morning away on my response to her. I suppose that was my act of giving without attachment.

May your gifts this season sow only good in both the giver and the receiver. Give mindfully, and without attachment.

Merry Christmas, and make merry this Christmas.

Happy Holidays, being holy on these sacred days.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

God's Judgment

You see, it all started at Habakkuk's Watchpost. First Kyle wrote a thoughtful meditation on justice and hell after Pinochet's death. Then Bret followed that up with some thoughts of his own. Bada bing, bada boom (last time I ever type that, sorry) we've got a fell fledged theological discussion on our hands. At a blog, no less!

In the comments of Bret's post the discussion quickly shifted to the judgment of God, as Ben said:

... preaching God's kindness and grace must be paired with preaching God's judgment, because at heart they are the same thing. This is important lest we let our convictions about God's benevolence become rationalizations for human evil. God loves the widows and orphans for the same reason that God judges those who oppress them.

This inspired some fruitful discussion, and got me thinking a bit more about what we mean by "God's judgment." On that subject I wrote this:

That's [the question of what exactly we mean by God's judgment, as posed by Bret in a preceding comment] an interesting question. I suppose we have to fall somewhere between the two extremes of

1.) declaring that the judgment of God is the fire of hell, as a kind of cosmic moral enforcement mechanism, and

2.) using the word "judgment" to imply only a sort of empty and impotent moral evaluation.

That is, we cannot say, on the one hand, that God's judgment is somehow a supernatural threat designed to keep us in line, or on the other hand that God's judgment is merely God's way of saying, without any authority, "I really don't like that and wish you would stop."

My feeling on the subject is that God's judgment, to the extent that it makes sense to speak of it, is not a supernatural
anything, be it threat or empty evaluation. Rather, God's judgment is built into the system, though perhaps not quite in the way that a deist might see it as such. That is to say that ultimately, those who sow evil reap evil, and those that sow good reap good.

I recognize that life rarely looks so neat. However, this is perhaps due more to our misevaluation of our own interests than it is to do with a cosmically unjust universe. It is my conviction that most people who live their lives in such a way as to be deemed under the judgment of God are, despite external circumstances, profoundly unhappy people. With each immoral action the sew the seeds of their own misery, multiplying their suffering. Of course they may be surrounded by wealth and luxury, enjoying their creature comforts. But those comforts will always ultimately be both shallow and impermanent, and most of the time they know that. It is for this reason that the Buddhists say that even in pleasure there is pain, suffering,

Similarly, those whose life has been transformed by an encounter with the grace of God, and who dedicate themselves to sharing that liberating grace and alleviating suffering wherever they see it; those people to whom God might say "Well done, my good and faithful servant," are ultimately happy, and not just in some hypothetical future life.

Of course, rarely does one meet such a person. Most of us are merely stumbling towards that goal, clumsily, with decidedly mixed results, still mired in our sins. We fancy ourselves as good, and wonder why the good perish. But ultimately we are not yet good, not yet sanctified. We are merely in a process which, while it will ultimately alleviate suffering, entails a great deal of suffering on the front end.

Our reward, however, need not be in the great hereafter. Our reward, at the very least, is hope. Having seen the goal, we can aim toward it with a purpose, even if at least in this life we ultimately fall short of the prize. But that hope puts us already in a better place than those who are purely slaves to their own selfish nature, sowing suffering in themselves and others.

Still, I suppose it is, as I said before, dangerous to divide the world into "us" and "them," for as soon as we try to distinguish ourselves from the dreaded "them" we become them, praying our pious prayer:

"Lord, I thank you that I am not like that tax collector."

Prayers like that makes us once again subject to the judgment built into the universe as a part of the creative will of God - the aspect of the will of God continually shaping creation.

I first started thinking this way in a college seminar on Hobbes' Leviathan. Discussing the Hobbesian shift from humans in a state of nature to humans in covenant with a sovereign (who in many ways resembles a sort of God) almost invariably leads to a discussion on balancing the pursuit of immediate self interests with a more cooperative approach. At some point during what was generally a counter-productive argument about the foundations (if any) of ethics and politics (a room full of philosophy majors is great for arguments, if not exactly directional ones - it is for this reason that one professor of mine devoted an entire lecture to the distinction between an argument and a fight) it hit me that, understood properly, cooperation is self interest. That is, there is, if you fully understand both interests, no difference between the interests of self and more collective interests.

This comes from an abiding (and damned persistent, as I've tried to kill it more than once) faith in a God who is in some meaningful way both:

1.) Good, and

2.) Sovereign.

It is always dangerous to begin with a concept of God and then apply that willy nilly to the universe, expecting the universe to comply. This was the primary error of Scholasticism. Intellectual honesty demands that we do it backwards, starting with our observations of the world around (that which can be seen and known, at least to some degree) and then seeing what, if anything, such observations can teach us about this mysterious God.

But those of us who have in some meaningful way experienced something we call God see everything else colored by the lens of that religious experience. We can't help but bring our God concepts to our observations of everything else. While we may not experience God in such a way as to reduce our experience to a set of certain, quasi-encyclopedic propositions, we still emerge from that experience with certain concepts, concepts which persist through and between religious traditions. These may not exactly rise to the standard of universally held truths, but neither are they the whims of a few theologically arrogant people who think that they, as opposed to everyone else, have the key to unlocking the mystery of the Almighty.

So, if it makes sense to speak of a God, and if it makes sense to speak of a God who is in some meaningful way at least both good and sovereign (and these big ifs rest on the persistence of religious traditions and the experiences they facilitate) the from this certain things follow. One of these things is the connection between self interest and the interests of others, as the good and sovereign God mediates between apparently competing interests, turning would-be competition into cooperation as we realize that we're all in the same boat, that we're all interconnected and interdependent.

This is what I have in mind when I speak in the comment above of God's judgment being somehow "built into the system." That is, God has ordered the universe in such a way that good begets good, and bad begets bad. There is if not exactly a cosmic justice or universal moral economy, at least a kind of order to things. And that order involves the moral sphere and the political sphere, two spheres so connected that it is almost impossible to see one without the other.

[Note: I make a sharp distinction between politics, which describes the interaction between persons, the mediation of interests, and government, which is a hierarchical and authoritative power structure, usually the result of a kind of politic. So please don't read me here as saying that the proper role of government is to serve as some kind of moral enforcement mechanism.]

Ahh... now I'm hopelessly lost and off topic. I've been trying to write down some ideas which I've never recorded before, brought up again by the posts linked above. I'm working through these issues, and one of my purposes with this blog is to work through issues in a kind of community. I test ideas here. I've never tested one so raw before (at least, I'm not aware of having tested such a raw one here), but the process of refinement should be the same. I spew out some nonsense, and then questions and comments force me to work through the bits that I haven't thought out. Eventually I realize that I'll never know anything, and just trust that someone God works out all things for the good, even if I'll never grasp the mechanism.

Friday, December 22, 2006

What the Bible Isn't

Patrik at God in a Shrinking Universe is asking us what the Bible isn't. His post is an indirect response to this post by T.B. Vick, but mostly it's just great fun. Check it out, and leave a comment!

Here's the comment I left:

My favorite comes from the movie Saved. A character, after literally getting hit over the head with a thrown Bible, picks it up off the ground, dusts it off, and says in a pitiable voice to her attacker:

"This is not a weapon, you idiot!"

Aside from not being a weapon, the Bible is also not a self-help book.

So, as Patrik asks, "What other things can you think of that the Bible is not?"

And please remember to leave a comment there, not just here. As Patrik started this, he deserves the fruit of his labor.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Cal Thomas is at it again

My brother Tom called me yesterday to say that if I hadn't read Cal Thomas' latest op-ed piece I just had to drop everything and read it. It was simply too inflammatory to let stand. Since I was in St. Louis visiting my grandparents (more on that in a coming post) I didn't read Thomas' rant masquerading as an essay until just now. Simply put, I am stunned. I've picked Cal Thomas apart here before, but I've always tried to be charitable enough to avoid using phrases like flamingly stupid or ignorant beyond the point of my endurance.

In my last dissection of a Cal Thomas piece, I wrote that "[h]e is more than capable of making a good argument, though he does it less and less these days. But he is trading good reason for a flamethrower, which is not only intellectually dishonest, but morally reprehensible." The more he writes, however, the more I have to wonder whether or not he really can construct a decent argument. After all, building a sound argument, like building anything else, depends first and foremost on where and how you start. If your argument doesn't have a good foundation then it will crumble, no matter what you put on top of it.

Here is the foundation for Thomas' recent blustering:

Which of the following scenarios constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, as prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution: (1) aborting a baby with a fully developed nervous system and probably inflicting great pain; (2) murdering a nightclub manager in cold blood; (3) taking 34 minutes — twice the normal time — to execute the murderer of the nightclub manager?

While he is clearly trying to manipulate us into thinking that options (1) and (2) are so obviously cruel and unusual that it would be absurd for anyone to pick (3), in reality, per the way that he is setting up his argument, (3) is the only option one could honestly pick.

Why? Because here we are having a discussion on constitutional law, as Thomas makes clear with his reference to the Eighth Amendment. As such, we can only discuss - per the Eighth Amendment's prohibition against the state's imposing a cruel and unusual punishment on someone found guilty of violating a law - the constitutional value of actions committed by the state. So, the only actions which can be deemed by the Constitution to be cruel and unusual are actions by the state. See the trend here?

In scenario (1), Thomas' graphic depiction of an abortion, the state is not an actor. Thomas is free to argue that abortion is immoral, and he is even free to argue that in most or all cases abortion should be illegal. I am not entirely inclined to agree with him, as I think

a.) that abortion is under limited circumstances morally permissible, and

b.) that outlawing abortion would produce more harm than good, failing to attain the good aim of limiting the number of abortions while simultaneously maximizing the worst possible end, which is an even greater loss of lives as abortions are performed underground rather than in medical clinic.

But we could, of course, have that argument. An argument we could never have, however, is one about whether or not an abortion procedure counts as cruel and unusual punishment per the Eighth Amendment. This is, of course, because the state commits no action in an abortion. As being a fetus is not a crime, and certainly not a capital one; and as being aborted is not the mandated by our criminal justice system or imposed by any state; an abortion may have a positive or negative moral value, it may be deemed to be right, wrong, or somewhere in the vast middle, but it will never be cruel and unusual punishment per the Eighth Amendment, and to claim otherwise is recklessly stupid.

The same is true of scenario (2). While this situation is less morally problematic that the first one (is there a serious debate in this country about the moral value of murder?) it is still not a situation under the purview of the Eighth Amendment, as it was certainly not the state who murdered "a nightclub owner in cold blood." Rather, it is the state who has rightly deemed such an action to be illegal, and in need of the harshest justice which can be legally administered.

So, the only action which could be considered cruel and unusual per the Eighth Amendment is the one in scenario (3), as it is the only action committed by the state. As such, it should be considered apart from the actions in scenarios (1) and (2), as there can be no serious comparison between the three. They simply don't have anything in common.

Bracketing off the moral consideration in abortion, which Thomas has so recklessly introduced here to conflate the topic, I have to ask this question:

Do we want the standard for the moral and legal value of actions committed by the state to be determined by the worst criminal acts? Do we really want murder to be the standard for criminal justice? Do we really want the state to justify the taking of a person's life by saying, like a spoiled preschooler, "He did it first!" or "She started it!"?

If I'm reading Cal Thomas correctly, that's exactly what he's saying.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Holiday Blogging Break

Writing, it turns out, is a solitary enterprise. Sure, many of us writers so shamelessly seek public approval through our work. But the act of creation itself is done in private, with no audience. I suppose like laws and sausages, it is best not to witness how a written work was manufactured.

I've fallen into a bit of a routine with my writing, using the moments of scheduled solitude spread out about my day to "work," writing for this blog or for any other project that temporarily demands my attention. But this holiday season has thrown that schedule off.

Sami has a couple of weeks off work, and Adam has a couple of weeks free from the tyranny of preschool, so I no longer have my lonely mornings spent with nothing better to do than peck at this obnoxious keyboard, which never fails to misrepresent my thoughts almost entirely. As such, it's been a little while since I've written anything worth writing. If this season holds to form it may be quite a while still until I have a sufficient measure of loneliness to do some decent writing.

In the meantime, a couple of updates:

On Friday I had my cast removed. You don't know fear until you've had a lunatic apply a circular saw to your wrist. But the wrist remains attached, and thankfully the fiberglass which once surrounded it now sits in a dumpster behind a doctor's office, waiting to torment some other sad fool who lost their fight against both gravity and reflexive stupidity.

Now begins the slow and painful process of remembering how to use this worthless limb. Not only has it atrophied, but it also has both

a.) a fair amount of scar tissue in the joint, and

b.) a new permanent addition, a screw that holds the bone together.

In the face of these twin obstacles, my darling wife with her degree in physical therapy (and another in psychology, so she can always fix what ails me) tells me that it moves quite well. Of course, I never thought that getting my hand to move no more than an inch in any direction would count as victory, but I'll take it.

However, every victory - no matter how small - comes with its own setbacks. I guess that's the universe's way of balancing the ledger. Now that I've got my hand back I've picked up the stomach bug that's been circulating Adam's preschool. So, instead of writing something deep and insightful, I'm off to test the recuperative powers of Ginger Ale, saltine crackers, and Sami's homemade tofu-noodle soup, a vegetarian alternative to the miraculous chicken noodle soup, made with a vegetable broth base and tofu instead of chicken. No bird should have to part with its life just because the contents of my stomach are bouncing around like an obese belly dancer.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Baptists Go After Wal Mart!

The Bible Belt Blogger, Frank Lockwood, is reporting that some Baptists are "challenging Wal-Mart's treatment of its employees, suggesting some of the company's policies are anti-family and un-Christian." There is even a new TV ad, staring Louisville's own Rev. Joe Phelps of Highview Baptist.

Check out Frank's articles here and here, and see the ad here.

I never thought I'd say this, but:

You go, Baptists!

Forget Enlightenment, I Just Want Entertainment

At its worst, conservative religion (and religion is, by and large a conservative enterprise, as it seeks to conserve the traditions of the past - this is true even of the most liberal expressions of religion) can be so reactionary that it creates an artificial crisis every time anything in our culture changes. This has long put me off. As such, even during my fundamentalist days I have always been at least a little bit annoyed with the likes of Josh McDowell and Ron Luce, whose near constant beating of the "moral decline and degradation" drum rings so hollow in the face of history. Their theological and political agenda demands a sense of escalating moral crisis so they make one up, creating a Golden Age, a fanciful re-remembering of the 1950s, and then selectively choose their data to show how far we have fallen from that glorious moment when we walked so closely with God.

This not only misidentifies the current situation, but it also ignores the problems of the past. As such it keeps us from truly identifying authentic social, cultural, moral and spiritual problems; nearly perennial problems so often called simply "the human condition." Sexual issues so dominate their moral consciousness that they choose an age so characterized by racial injustice that the idea that all persons just might deserve equal protection under the law and equal treatment in society nearly tore apart the fabric of our country, because at least back then when a teenage girl got pregnant you could either move her to a home in the country or force her to marry the father.

I say that to say this: I am about to sound like them, making a reckless and historically unsupported statement that might exaggerate a current problem to promote an ideological agenda. At least, that's part of how I feel every time I utter the words that I am about to type. But then, the more I look at the words, the more I think that, while they are certainly held captive by a prejudice so ingrained that I am not even aware of it, they just might be true. These are those words, so recklessly unsubstantiated that I nearly blush at their boldness:

We live in the most intoxicated society in the history of the world!

There, I wrote it. Now it's out in the open. I feel better for having got that off my chest.

We live in the most intoxicated society in the history of the world. Of course, I can't know that. If anyone's ever done a study on that, I have no knowledge of it. I can't even come up with how we might measure that. But consider this: Not only do we as a culture have a collective addiction to mind-numbing and mind-altering chemical agents, but we also use so many non-chemical means of entertaining ourselves to the point of distraction.

Between our televisions (every time I watch TV I guiltily remember the classic Calvin and Hobbes comic in which Hobbes, meditating upon Calvin's glazed expression as he stares vacantly toward the altar of mindless entertainment sighs and says, Marx hadn't seen anything yet), our computers, our car stereos, our Ipods, our cell phones which are quickly turning into mini-computers, and a thousand other points of light-filled shiny junk we have created a truly virtual reality which ensures that as we trek through our actual reality we will be constantly surrounded by and immersed in a sea of entertainment.

But this is not necessarily a new problem. Religions have long identified a fundamental human problem much like the one I'm railing against. We have long walked through our lives asleep. We have long been bundles of unconscious non-reflection, acting in rote patterns which are never critically engaged. Technology has simply raised the stakes, allowing us to magnify our natural stupor.

That we are asleep becomes apparent when we try to critically engage our own behavior. Why do we act the way that we do? Do our actions demonstrate that we understand our own interests and the behaviors which are most likely to bring about those interests, or do our actions serve as reminders of our almost exclusively reflexive rather than reflective nature? Generally, I suspect, it is the later rather than the former.

What makes you, say, angry, and how do you act (or, more accurately, react) when you become angry? Every day when I drive I see people use their cars as automotive missiles designed to carve out the one space of road that the driver owns, and will defend with his or her very life. I see parents so stressed out, so miserable, and so unconscious of their misery and the factors which have given rise to it, that they yell at their children, tearing them down and passing on that misery like a genetic inheritance.

I see so many other forms of reflexive behavior which clings to our suffering as though it were a birthright rather than a poison to be discarded. And, of course, I see these things in myself. When I am not self aware, when I am not mentally awake, I scream at the drivers of other vehicles as though they could hear me. I reflexively pass my suffering on to my gorgeous wife and beautiful child, because nothing, not even the flu, is more contagious than a bad mood. At my worst I sleepwalk through life, unaware of what I'm doing or why I'm doing it, sowing the seeds of suffering in myself and the world around me.

Yet my faith, my religious tradition, like all the great religious traditions, screams to me: Wake up! Wake up, sleeper. Rise from the dead.

I am not a functionalist who can identify a single purpose for or function of religion, but if I were I might say that this is it. At its best religion, rather than serving as Marx's opiate for the masses, calls us out of our deep slumber, begging us to see the world all around us, and see it clearly. It calls us to identify the causes of suffering and work for its alleviation, while also waking up all those around us. This is salvation. This is enlightenment.

But we live in an intoxicated and consumer driven culture, where everything is commodity. And the best selling commodities are those which drive us deeper into our slumber, those which intoxicate us even more.

I thought all of this as I passed a billboard on the Interstate advertising for a church. It had a sharply dressed, fashionable man, looking almost like a more realistic action figure. Wearing sunglasses and a huge smile, he was clearly exhilarated as he rode a kind of surf board through some white, fluffy clouds. The sky was crystal blue, and the sun shone brightly behind him. If there had been music, I'm sure that it would have been the trendy new metal that so often accompanies action sports. And, in big, bold letters were the words:

Church wasn't meant to be boring!

Message: Like all other things in this world, the sacred exists purely for your entertainment. If you're bored with your church, if it challenges you and asks of you what you're not willing to give, if it makes, as one court musician noted in the marvelous movie Amadeus "too many demands on the royal ear," the problem isn't you. No, it couldn't be you, dear consumer. The problem must lie in your church. So, you should change churches the way you change the brand of your shampoo, or the way you change your Internet Service Provider, or the way you change any other commodity that stops meeting your wants and needs.

Forget that your religious tradition reflects thousands of years of spiritual disciplines designed to facilitate a life-alerting encounter with the divine. And, of course, forget that there is something wrong with you, something profoundly wrong. Forget that you experience that fundamental wrongness every time you medicate yourself to dull your existential pain, only to wake up in the morning the same person you were, only a little bit more miserable because once again your miracle cure left you unchanged save for a bit more or less vomiting this time. Forget that every fiber of your being is screaming for meaning, though the sound of that screaming has been mostly drowned out by the sounds of all the electronic gadgets around you that distract you from the only life you're guaranteed to live.

No, no, there's nothing wrong with you. So, come to our church. Allow us to be one more distraction, one more piece of meaningless entertainment that caters to your every whim, dear consumer. Because, well, look at how chasing after your own way has served you so far.

The question of how religion is to interact with culture is a tricky one, and as old as religion and culture. Clearly for a religion to having anything meaningful to say to the culture that surrounds it, it cannot stand entirely apart from that culture offering nothing but condemnation, reflexively rejecting everything. But neither can a religion so immerse itself in a culture that no distinction can be made between the values of the religion and the values of the culture around it. Religion serves as a counterpoint, offering a different way of life to those who are brave enough to wake up from their slumber. It offers a way, a path to sanctification.

That narrow path cannot be offered up in exchange for a large crowd and a full collection plate. And the best, the most successful churches are not necessarily the biggest and the brightest, because religion is, despite Max Weber's insightful hypothesis, not a capitalist or even democratic enterprise. And salvation is not a commodity to be bought and sold.

The best churches, then, are not the ones that cater to your every desire, demanding nothing of you but that you show up and be entertained, paying, of course, for the show. Rather, the best churches are the ones that wake you up and show you a new way to be human. They don't say there's nothing wrong with you. Rather, they say, we are, all of us, marked by suffering; but we don't have to stay that way. Here is how to change. It is slow and painful, yes. But it is always painful to wake up from anesthesia, and it is always slow going to learn how to use limbs you never knew you had.

This message may not play well in a marketplace full of people who have no idea what's wrong with themselves or how to fix it. But it should never be exchanged for a more popular message that will never help anyone.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Operation Yellow Elephant

In my last bumper sticker watch I mentioned a small SUV with a Veteran licence plate and several inflammatory bumper stickers, including this one:

Support the war? Then ENLIST!

and this one:

So you say you support the war...
Why don't you fight in it?
Put up or shut up!

I should have guessed that I was just scratching the surface of a bonafide movement! While at Mark Nicholas', a progressive blog following Kentucky politics, a commenter drew my attention to Operation Yellow Elephant, an organization which describes itself as

a non-partisan grass roots citizens initiative to Support Our President by encouraging his strongest supporters, if qualified, to volunteer for military service.

To find out more about Operation Yellow Elephant and its goal to "to recruit College Republicans and Young Republicans to serve as infantry," see this post at the Operation Yellow Elephant blog.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The New Testament and Homosexuality: My Quagmire Revisited

As I mentioned earlier, this Wednesday I finally finished my Forum series at church on Homosexuality and the Church. This forum gave me an opportunity to revisit and re-explore some of the issues I raised about a year ago (Dec. 6, 2005 - exactly one year to the day before I concluded my series at church) in my mammoth post, The Culture War and Homosexuality: A Different Sort of Quagmire.

While I am still quite pleased with that post, finding it to be a thorough exploration of the moral, theological, and scriptural issues related to how Christians should view the phenomenon of same sex attraction, I was in hindsight a little bit disappointed in the brief exegetes of various New Testament passages.

There are basically four New Testament verses/passages which have historically been used to condemn homosexuality. Each of these four verses comes from the Epistles, and three of the four have been attributed to Paul. They are, in order of appearance:

Romans 1:26-27
I Corinthians 6:9-10
I Timothy 1:9-10, and
Jude 7

Because the final three selections are so weak, I essentially did not deal with them in my original piece. In fact, I ignored Jude 7 altogether as it seemed clear to me (for reasons I'll get into in a moment) that it could not be seriously applied to homosexuality as we understand it today. Of I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:9-10, I said only this:

The only other passages from Paul, and as such the only other passages in the Bible, which appear to deal with homosexuality are found in I Corinthians 6:9 (in a list of types of people who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven) and I Timothy 1:10. In both cases the best translation of the word which is often translated as something like “homosexuals” is unclear. There is, however, no reason other than prejudice to believe that the obscure Greek word in question amounts to a Biblical condemnation of all homosexuals, or even homosexual acts.

Today I'll say a bit more about these verses before I briefly mention the verse I omitted altogether last time. Then I'll conclude with a much more thorough exegesis of Romans 1:26-27, as I am no longer completely satisfied with the treatment I gave it last year.

I Corinthians 6:9-10 reads in the NRSV:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers - none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

Similarly, I Timothy 1:9-10 reads:

This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching.

Each of these passages offers us basically a list of "sins," of behavior contrary to "sound teaching" and which thus places one outside the kingdom of God. In each of these passages a group called "sodomites" stand among the condemned. Before we explore whether or not this group can be equated with the monogamous homosexual couple seeking full inclusion in the church and society as a whole we should first note that, even if they can be equated with that loving, committed couple, they do not stand uniquely condemned. In fact, despite our tendency to set sexual sinners in general and gays and lesbians in particular up as a special class of sinner, these "sodomites" have good company in both passages.

Like a good Pharisee, Paul sees "the Law" as a cohesive whole. If you violate any part of it you have violated the whole thing. It doesn't matter what part of the Law you've broken. If you break any of it, you stand as condemned as anyone else who's broken it. This is one of the many reasons why grace is so important for him. As all of us stand condemned by the Law, having at some point broken some part of it and as such standing perpetually in condemnation, grace is our only hope.

So, for Paul, "the greedy" stand in every bit as much judgment as the "sodomites," whoever those "sodomites" are. So, if you've ever wanted something that wasn't yours, or if you've ever under any circumstances told a lie, you stand as condemned as the murderers, thieves and rapists mentioned here. These lists, then, instead of setting up certain groups as uniquely sinful, instead remind us of the universality of sin. Those groups mentioned in them serve to remind us that all stand in condemnation, in need of grace. We should not read these lists looking to find in them some group more deviant than ourselves who reflect God's judgment away from us. Rather we should see that, in some way, these lists include us, reinforcing in us our fundamental need of God's grace.

That said, can these "sodomites" really be compared to those in the homosexual relationships which so trouble the church today? In her essay What the Bible Says, or Doesn't Say, About Homosexuality, Rev. Dr. Lisa W. Davison writes:

The word translated in both passages as, "sodomites," is the Greek word, arsenokoitai, which is hard to translate. Linguistically the word possibly means "male beds." It is most often used to mean "male prostitute."

According to Davison, this difficult word reflects Paul's concern with "pagan religious practices," which often employed male prostitutes, rather than with "a relationship between consenting adults, whose attraction is to someone of their same sex."

Jude 7, which clearly condemns the "sexual immorality" of "Sodom and Gomorrah", reads (in the NRSV):

Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

The view that this relatively obscure verse stands as a blanket condemnation of homosexuality as it is understood today rests on a very bad interpretation of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. And since I dealt with that story in last year's piece, I thought that it would be redundant to attack that interpretation of Jude 7. Here is what I had to say about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah:

Genesis 19:1-11 describes the sin committed by the men of Sodom, which is often understood to be homosexuality. It is from this passage that we get the word “sodomy.” Yet sodomy, ironically, does not describe the sin of Sodom. Sodom was not condemned for homosexuality. Sure, the men of Sodom tried to take two of Lot’s male guests for sex acts, but their intention was certainly not to be sexual partners with them. “Partners” implies a kind of equality, like what is seen in good, loving, sexual relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual. The intention of the men of Sodom was gang rape.

And, alas, it was not the gang rape which was condemned. After all, Lot offered to allow the mob to gang rape his daughters and is still considered righteous. No, the people of Sodom are condemned for their failure to observe the laws of hospitality of the Middle East. Because the men (or angels in the guise of men, though it is unclear what is meant by "angel" here) were Lot’s guests, they were also guests of the community. As such they fell under both the protection of Lot and the protection of all of Sodom. The men of Sodom, in their attempt to kidnap and ritually gang rape Lot’s guests, failed to live up to the divine law concerning how you treat guests. There is absolutely nothing in this story to indicate how we should view homosexuality. Of course, even if there were something about homosexuality in this story, would we want to learn sexual ethics from a story which allows its hero to offer up his daughters to a mob bent on gang rape?

The phrase "sexual immorality" covered as broad a topic in the time of the writing of Jude as it does today, and the only clue we have as to what it might mean here is the connection with Sodom and Gomorrah. As it is clear from reading that story that the sin of Sodom was certainly not consensual, monogamous, homogenital sex, we have to say that it is impossible to apply this verse from Jude to the current debate on homosexuality.

This leaves us with only Romans 1:26-27. In most English translations it uses some pretty strong language; words like "degrading," "unnatural," and "shameless." The two verses in their entirety read (in the NRSV):

For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse of unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.

My first treatment of this passage focused on the textual context. Whenever a passage begins with something like "For this reason..." contextual questions should immediately pop into your head. "For what reason?" The passage we have here doesn't say, so we must look before verse 26 for our answer.

The best context within which to frame this passage is Romans 1:18-34, taking us a little bit before our passage begins, and just a little bit past where it ends. Seen in that context it immediately becomes clear that homosexuality is not the primary subject of the passage. Instead the subject is idolatry. Homosexuality, especially the male prostitution found in pagan temples, is not seen as the sin here. Rather it is seen as evidence of a deeper sin, an inversion of the natural, a worshipping of the created rather than the Creator.

In my treatment of the context of the passage, however, I used a few clumsy phrases, based on old assumptions, which embarrass me today. For instance, I wrote:

Paul’s intention in this section from his letter to the church in Rome was not to condemn homosexuality, though he certainly didn’t think it was a good thing.

I'm not sure now, however, whether there is enough evidence here to determine Paul's view of homosexuality as it is understood today. I say this for two reasons:

1. It is not at all clear that Paul is concerned here with consensual, monogamous, homogenital sex. It is quite possible that he has in his sights instead a more ritualized sex which was part of a religion he is seeking to discredit.

2. Many of the words which have been translated into strong negative terms have more ambiguous meanings in the Greek.

As I said earlier, the NRSV text follows the lead of other English translations in using stark language to describe the homosexual behavior in question. The words "degrading," "unnatural," and "shameless" are very strong, and imply a strong, negative judgment. This passage, like all other Biblical passages, was not, however, written in English. As such, we should look at these terms in their original Greek to get a fuller understanding of the passage.

We should first look at the distinction made here between "natural" and "unnatural." In the Greek this is physis (natural) and para physin (unnatural).

Physis is commonly translated "natural," and is the root of "physics." It is commonly used in Stoic philosophy, and is also used quite a bit by Paul, whose usage differs considerably from the Stoics. Of Paul's use of the term, Daniel A. Heliminiak, author of What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality says:

For Paul, something is "natural" when it responds according to its own kind, when it is as it is expected to be. For Paul, the word "natural" does not mean "in accord with universal laws." Rather, "natural" refers to what is characteristic, consistent, ordinary, standard, expected and regular. When people acted as was expected and showed a certain consistency, they were acting "naturally." When people did something surprising, something unusual, something beyond the routine, something out of character, they were acting "unnaturally." That was the sense of the word "nature" in Paul's usage.

The word "unnatural," para physin, is simply a form of "natural" (physis) with the prefix para added to it. As we can see from English adaptations of the prefix para, such as paralegal, paraprofessional, paranormal, etc., the prefix is not exactly a negation, unlike the prefix "un." Rather, according to Helminiak, it "usually means 'beside,' 'more than,' 'over and above, 'beyond.'" So para physin rather than referring to something "unnatural" in the almost exclusively negative connotation that we bring to the word, more literally refers to something which is "beside," "more than," "over and above," or "beyond" nature. Something which is, perhaps, extra natural. This, then, is not always negative, nor is it always positive.

A quick look at how Paul uses para physin elsewhere in his work should suffice to demonstrate that "unnatural" is not always bad. Helminiak writes:

In Romans 11:24, Paul uses those very same words to talk about God. Paul describes how God grafted the Gentiles into the olive tree that is the Jews. Now Gentile and Jew are one in Christ. But to graft a wild tree into a cultivated tree is not the ordinary thing to do; it is something unusual. Still, that is what God did through Christ.

Helminiak then goes on the state the obvious conclusion one must draw from the Pauline application of par physin to the activity of God:

If to act para physin is immoral, then God must be immoral - and that is patently absurd. Therefore, there can be no moral meaning in those Greek words for Paul.

As such, "Romans is not a moral condemnation of male-male sex."

The other words which appear to carry moral baggage are also, in the Greek, a great deal less loaded. The word for "degrading" found in the "degrading passions" of verse 26 is atimia, which best translates as "not highly valued," or "not held in honor." As such it speaks not to some universal moral status, but instead to how it is viewed within a particular cultural context. Similarly, "shameless," as in the "shameless acts" of verse 27, is aschemosyne, which literally translates "not according to form." Helminiak says that this can be understood as "not nice," "unseemly," "uncomely," or "inappropriate." Looking for aschemosyne elsewhere in Paul's writing, Helminiak notes:

In I Corinthians 7:36 Paul uses the word to describe the father who refuses to give his daughter in marriage: that is not the socially correct thing to do. In I Corinthians 12:23, the prudish Paul refers to the "uncomely" or "unrepresentable" parts of the body. Of course, he means the genitals.

Helminiak also seeks out Paul's use of atimia elsewhere, writing:

[I]n 2 Corinthians 6:8 and 11:21, Paul applies the word to himself. He notes that he is sometimes held in disrepute or shame because of his commitment to Christ. Evidently, then, to be in atimia is not necessarily a bad thing.

These words, so full of judgment in the English, do not carry such moral weight in Paul's usage of the Greek. As such it is quite difficult to use them to claim that Paul, and as such scripture, uniformly condemns homosexuality.

These four passages are the only places in the New Testament which can be made to apply to homosexuality as we understand it. And, when we look more closely at these passages it become clear that, on that subject, the Bible has little to offer in the way of condemnation.

Florida Again?!?

Since 2000 Florida has served almost as a metaphor for democracy gone bad. Now the Christian Science Monitor reports that they're at it again. While it is hard to maintain, in the wake of sweeping Republican defeats and the at least temporary rise of the Democratic party (who won this past election cycle not so much for anything they have done or promised to do, but simply because the Republicans have been so bad that anyone could be reasonably expected to do better, but that's another story) that Karl Rove is an evil genius in league with the devil and the state of Florida to rig elections, it is difficult to ignore this stark fact:

In Sarasota, FL, 18,000 ballots, roughly 13% of the total, recorded no vote in the 13th District Congressional race, a race "won" by Republican Vern Buchanon by a mere 369 votes over Democrat Christine Jennings, who not surprisingly still refuses to concede defeat despite two recounts. Why won't she concede defeat? Because, along with the improbable result (13% of voters really don't care who represents them in the U.S. House of Representative?!?) there is no paper trail with the machines which produced this improbable result. There is, in other words, no way to, independently of the machines which have produced such an aberation, confirm the election result.


I don't like to toss out reckless conspiracy theories, but just what the hell is going on in Florida, anyway? They can't get a presidential election right, they can't get a congressional election right, and somehow, despite being behind the University of Michigan for the entire season (including after Michigan's last game) their University of Florida Gators football team sweeps into the BCS title game at the last possible moment!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Daily Absurdities

Every day has its own little absurdities, moments when you realize that, if you could see yourself through another person's eyes you just might have to laugh mercilessly at, well... you. One of life's great pleasures, then, is to find those absurdities and laugh at them, saving the world from having to laugh at you, allowing them to laugh with you. My last two days have produced such marvelous absurdities that I couldn't help but notice them.

Yesterday I finally finished my long anticipated lecture/forum series on Homosexuality and the Church. I'd been slated to finish the series Wednesday, Nov. 15, but I had my wrist surgery the day before and was in no condition to try to give an hour long lecture. Yesterday was the next open date on the Forum calendar, so, being in charge of our Forums, I slid myself into the opening.

Given some extra time between when I was to give the final installment and when I would actually present, I decided to pick up a new resource and try to fit it into the presentation. With great pleasure I found Daniel A. Helminiak's What the Bible Really Says About Homosexuality at Half Price Books from $3.98. A book I want at a price I can afford! I thought to myself while metaphorically turning cartwheels through the store.

But owning a resource and actually doing the difficult work of fitting material from it into an already completed presentation are two totally different things. By this past Sunday I still hadn't actually opened the book to see if I could use any material from it.

Every Sunday morning I take what my wife's grandmother might call a "whole heap" of books with me to church. For my Sunday School class I use three different Bibles, and I often bring a couple of other books to use as resources. Since I broke my wrist I've been unable to carry this heap of books in my usual haphazard way, so I've finally had to become more efficient. Instead of trying to fit four or five large hardback books along with various loose pieces of paper filled with the reckless ramblings I call my notes under my arm, I now fill up a plastic grocery bag with them, and carry that stylish man-purse in my fully functional (if incompetent) left hand. One Sunday when the bag split open, spilling its contents onto the busy street in front of the church, I decided that I needed to start double bagging.

This past Sunday, along with my usual assortment of Bibles, I carried Helminiak's book with me to church, hoping against hope that in some down moment I could start navigating my way through it. Of course I didn't get that moment, and never thought about the book until I got home, emptied my bag only to discover that the book wasn't in it.

I spent as much free time as I had Sunday, Monday and Tuesday searching for the lost book, only by yesterday to give up the hunt. I guess I wasted my precious $3.98, I lamented.

Adam (how'd he get into this story?!?) goes to the preschool where my wife has built and runs a program for autistic children. Each morning he rides to work with her, and then I pick him up just before noon. Sitting in what they call the "car pool" line waiting for him to appear, I spotted my wife's car (it's actually my car, but since it's a stick shift, and I have only one good hand at the moment, she drives it while I'm stuck with the minivan!) and had an epiphany. Perhaps (why didn't I think of this sooner?!?) the book fell out of the bag in the car! Perhaps it is sitting patiently under the seat, waiting for me to rescue it!

I bolted out of my still running minivan, darted across the parking lot, ripped open the car door, and started rummaging under the seat. And, presto!, I found the book. I jumped up and down for joy, and skipped across the parking lot to my abandoned van, stopping along the way to dance a triumphant jig, holding my conquest high above my head. At that moment I realized that, maybe I'm paranoid, but, all eyes are on ME! I was fully engaged in a moment of absurdity.

Winter is finally upon us. It is cold and snowy this morning, and while the snow is supposed to clear out soon, the cold has set in for a long stay. The problem is, as much as I love cold and snowy weather, my winter coat simply won't fit over my cast. At least that's what I thought. But since the weather has been mostly mild so far, I've lacked the motivation to use all of my vigor in my attempts to slip my worthless appendage through the narrow coat sleeve. Now, however, I've found my motivation. It is cold.

So this morning, as I got ready to put Adam in the car after we'd marveled through the frosty window at the veritable winter wonderland that has temporarily replaced our front yard, I decided I absolutely need to find a way to fit into my coat. I thrust my right arm through the tight sleeve, got stuck at the wrist, pushed myself red in the face, and finally, gasp, squeezed my way through.

So now I'm wearing my coat. Inside the house. All morning. Now what? I haven't showered yet, and I'm wondering how I'm going to get to shower if I can't find my way out of this coat. Another moment of absurdity.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

More Bumper Stickers

How long has it been since I've done a bumper sticker watch? I don't know. I'm sure I could look it up here, but it just doesn't seem worth it. Perhaps that's why it's been however long it's been since I've done a bumper sticker watch. Bumper stickers for the sake of bumper stickers are, well... tacky.

But, on my way to do more Christmas shopping - I may claim to hate the commoditization of religion, but I love Christmas loot - this afternoon I saw a small SUV with a Veteran license plate, and three anti-war bumper stickers worth noting. From left to right they read:

Bush spent your Social Security on his war

Support the war? Then ENLIST!, and

So you say you support the war...
Why don't you fight in it?
Put up or shut up!

I could offer some semi-insightful commentary here, about how these bumper stickers point out the fundamental absurdity of trying to fight a war without sacrificing anything, but that's too obvious. What struck me instead is that, in some not so small way, these bumper stickers - especially the last two - were actually punning bumper stickers. At a time when supporting something means simply buying the T-shirt or sticking a snazzy slogan on the butt of your car, this veteran has used that medium to criticize the role of that medium in our culture.

We can't just pay lip and bumper service to our causes. We must fight for them, albeit non-violently, or they are not truly our causes. Of course, this great insight is coming from someone who thinks that supporting a cause is building an argument for it on his blog, so take that with a grain of salt. Pots and kettles and all that.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

At least it's not another American Zen story...

Veteran readers of this blog should remember my passing interest in American Zen stories, as reflected in these two posts. In that spirit I'd like to offer this story, from Geoffrey Giuliano's Dark Horse: The Life and Art of George Harrison. The Hindu (and especially Hare Krishna) spirituality which so enthralled Harrison is about as far from Zen as is possible, but this story is interesting and entertaining nonetheless, a fact which reminds me that the less seriously we take ourselves, the more we realize just how much we have in common.

... [T]he teachings of Srila Prabhupada remain close to George's heart. "Create and preserve the reality of your choice" goes one of his favorite quotations. To Harrison, that ideal image is one in which he is free to be what he wants, which is definitely not an ex-Beatle, a rock superstar or even a wealthy film executive.

Late in 1985, while visiting Olivia's parents in California, Harrison decided on the spur of the moment to stop by at a Krishna temple in Los Angelos and say hello to his old friend Mukunda. Rolling up in front of the massive pink stucco building in his gleaming silver BMW, George quietly hailed a young female devotee who was crossing the street. "Excuse me," Harrison called out shyly, "but I wanted to nip into the temple room for a sec and see if Mukunda is around. You don't think anyone will freak out, do you? The last thing in the world I want this afternoon is to be recognized by anyone."

"I'm sorry," said the confused and embarrassed teen, "but just who are you supposed to be, anyway?"

It was just what the world-weary Beatle had been waiting to hear for the last twenty years. "Create and preserve the image of your choice," he muttered to himself. "Hare Krishna!"

Thoughts on Exclusivism While Reading About George Harrison

After I finished working through Bultmann I picked up Volume I of Helmut Thielicke's mammoth three volume (in the English edition, four volume in the original German; for the English edition volume's one and two were lumped together) Theological Ethics. It takes a certain sort of person to volunteer for a tour of duty with that book, but I must confess that his approach to ethics is both breathtaking and even exciting. However, still exhausted from wrestling with Bultmann, I realized that when school starts back next week I'm going to have more than enough theological wrestling matches. So I put down Thielicke for a moment to get to a book I've always wanted to read, but never could justify to myself, since my reading should be productive. Come to think of it, I'm not exactly sure what I mean by productive. I've just always had this vague, inarticulatable feeling that I should be able to justify whatever I do with something more than just But I wanted to do this. Garbage thinking, I'm sure.

Anyway, I have long loved reading rock and jazz biographies, and so it was with great but guilty pleasure that I dropped Thielicke for Geoffrey Giuliano's Dark Horse: the Life and Art of George Harrison. The mystical Harrison has always been my favorite Beatle, with twice the talent of John and Paul, and none of the attention seeking baggage. George never demanded his due. He never sought the limelight. He never got caught up in all the drama. He simply made music, hoping that somehow his music would in some small way make the world a better place.

His spiritual journey is fascinating - though I don't think we should hold him up as a role model. He was no guru. He had few if any answers. But his never-ending quest for meaning, carried out as it was so publicly, did give many other people the permission they needed to set out on their own quest.

In his book Giuliano tells the story of how George Harrison helped give the Hare Krishna sect a home in England. Not only did he sign a group of devotees to the Beatles' Apple label, publishing their chants on best-selling records, but he also funded the construction of their controversial London temple. For his support of Hare Krishna (along with their determination that he could be evangelistically useful), he, John Lennon, and the infamous Beatle-breaker Yoko Ono earned an audience with Krishna leader Srila Prabhupada. Their first conversation, at Lennon's palatial Tittenhurst Park estate, was recorded, and Giuliano's book contains an abridged transcript.

Reading that conversation I was struck with just how much Prabhupada sounds like a Christian missionary, seeking to win converts by emphasizing what they already have in common with his religion while also trying to convince them that his path, with its subtle deviations from the path they are already on, is the only true path. He even gives an overt argument for religious exclusivism, the notion that one particular religious approach is the universally true path, to the exclusion of all others. When Prabhupada argues that the Hare Krishna mantra is the best, and only necessary mantra, claiming that it alone is "sufficient for one's perfection, for liberation," George counters:

Isn't it like flowers? Somebody may prefer roses, and somebody may like carnations better. Isn't it really a matter for the individual devotee to decide? One person may find that Hare Krishna is more beneficial to his spiritual progress, and yet another person may find that some other mantra may be more beneficial for him.

To this Prahbupada, sounding more and more the part of a sly evangelist, replies:

But there is still a distinction. A fragrant rose is considered better than a flower without any scent. You may be attracted by one flower, and I may be attracted by another flower. But among the flowers a distinction can be made. There are many flowers that have no fragrance and many that do. Therefore, your attraction for a particular flower is not the solution to the question of which is actually better. In the same way, personal attraction is not the solution to choosing the best spiritual process.

To say that Prahbupada has used a weak analogy here may be to state the obvious, but it would be uncharitable to blame him for working within the parameters of his audience, who saddled him with the flower metaphor. Perhaps he did the best he could with it, even if he could not get it to do the work he wanted it to do. But, what do we mean by "good" or "bad," by "better" or "worse," with respect to flowers? Is it a universally acknowledged and self-evident truth that scented flowers are better than unscented ones? As someone who sneezes every time I smell a rose, I beg to differ with Prahbupada.

Given the context, and the weakness of the analogy, it is safe to say that Prahbupada is not building a solid argument which logically works, but is rather engaged in an evangelistic conversation in which he tries, rather than to demonstrate the universality of the truth-claims of his religion, instead simply to persuade the people in the room - especially George Harrison - to convert. In this context, then, exclusivism is not argued for; it is understood. Prahbupada assumes exclusive truth for his own perspective, and spends a great deal of time mocking other would be gurus to the two most spiritual Beatles. He gets in a few especially witty jabs at the man who first served as a kind of spiritual guide to the Beatles, TM founder Maharishi, treating him the way, say, a five point Calvinist might treat an Arminian, with thinly veiled contempt.

This sort of treatment is necessary when one deals with religion, and religious truth or insight, as a zero-sum game in which any benefit from one path must come at the expense of another. And, we should note here, this approach, despite popular opinion, is apparently not limited to the West, much less Christianity. Here we see a Hindu yogi arguing for the exclusivity of his method while also bashing other yogis, acting the part of a missionary trained by a used car salesman.

Ultimately, however, exclusivism rests on a few arrogant assumptions, namely:

1. The "truth" about God and the universe can be known,
2. I know it, and
3. Nobody else does.

This description of exclusivism is a crude version of what Alvin Plantiga, in his essay "A Defense of Religious Exclusivism," calls an argument against exclusivism on moral grounds. At the risk of boring you, dear reader, I am posting here my evaluation of that paper written in an undergraduate Philosophy of Religion class. This paper has nothing whatsoever to do with Prahbupada's statements in his conversation with George, John and Yoko, but I thought of it while reading his pitiful defense of religious excluisivism. So, here's the paper:

In “A Defense of Religious Exclusivism” Alvin Plantinga, who defines “exclusivism” as the belief that “the tenets or some of the tenets of one religion... are true” and that “any propositions, including other religious beliefs, that are incompatible with those tenets are false,”; argues that there are basically two types of arguments that pluralists make against exclusivism: 1.) arguments on moral grounds, and 2.) epistemic arguments. And, while he deals with the moral arguments first, I think that it is better to deal with the epistemic arguments first, because it is likely that the moral arguments depend on the epistemic arguments. After all, isn’t it an ad hominem attack to say that someone is being “intellectually arrogant, or egotistical, or self-servingly arbitrary, or dishonest, or imperialistic, or oppressive” if their argument turns out to be demonstrateably true?

The kind of epistemic argument that Plantinga attacks goes something like this: most people hold the religious beliefs that they do because of accidents related to how they were born. Where they were born, who their parents were, what kind of culture they grew up in, etc. dictates the nature of their religious beliefs. Since this is the case, they cannot know that their beliefs are true, because they only hold them based on accidents related to their birth. If they were born somewhere else, they would believe something else.

I can see why Plantinga attacks this kind of argument, because it seems to be an obviously bad argument. The reasons why someone believes what they believe, while telling us perhaps a great deal about that person, do not tell us whether or not those beliefs happen to be true. I may believe that the University of Kentucky has the greatest college basketball program in the United States because I was born and raised in Lexington, Kentucky, and because my parents have season tickets to see the men’s basketball team play at Rupp Arena; but my motives for making that claim have no bearing on the truth value of that claim. It may well still be demostrateably true on other grounds, such as the fact that the University of Kentucky’s men’s basketball program has won more games than any other university’s men’s program. Why I believe what I believe does not tell us whether or not my beliefs are true; it just tells us something about me.

Plantinga points out, in fact, that the pluralist’s position, in fact, is called into question by the kind of argument used by pluralists to attack exclusivism. He says, “suppose we concede that if I had been born in Madagascar rather than Michigan, my beliefs would have been quite different. (For one thing, I probably wouldn’t believe that I was born in Michigan.) But, of course, the same goes for the pluralist. Pluralism isn’t and hasn’t been widely popular in the world at large; if the pluralist had been born in Madagascar, or medieval France, he probably wouldn’t have been a pluralist. Does it follow that he shouldn’t be a pluralist or that his pluralistic beliefs are produced in him by an unreliable belief-producing process? I doubt it.”

Of course, Plantinga should have separated that last question. While it does not follow from that argument that the pluralist should not be a pluralist, or that pluralism is false; it may be the case that the pluralist in question, if this is his only argument, does have his beliefs for the wrong reason, and that those beliefs are the product of “an unreliable belief-producing process.”

So Plantinga has demonstrated that this kind of pluralistic argument is a bad one. But, of course, while this is the only epistemic argument against exclusivism that Plantinga takes on, it is not the only kind of epistemic argument that pluralists can make. They can, in fact, make a much simpler argument, that moves the burden of proof onto the exclusivist. They can argue that while an exclusivist can demonstrate that they believe that their beliefs are true, they cannot know, or demonstrate that their beliefs are true. Or, at least, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate that their beliefs are true before they make statements of absolute truth. And, because religious beliefs deal with the nature of God, and because the existence of God – much less the attributes of God and how God works in the world (the subject of most religious systems of belief) – is beyond human knowledge; it is by no means certain that any description of God is entirely accurate. That being the case, no religion can be reasonably said to contain absolute and exclusive truth.

This argument is much harder to deal with, and it is no surprise that Plantinga refused to do so. To refute this argument he would have to have demonstrated the undeniable truth of each religious belief contained in whichever particular religion it is he thinks can reasonably make claims to absolute, exclusive truth. To do so, even if it were not impossible, would take thousands and thousands of pages of arguing. Or, it would have to appeal to faith, and an appeal to faith would not help distinguish one religious claim from a competing claim.

This brings us to the arguments made on moral grounds. Plantinga says that such arguments involve saying “that the exclusivist is intellectually arrogant, or egotistical, or self-servingly arbitrary, or dishonest, or imperialistic, or oppressive.” Of course, if the claims made by an exclusivist were actually true, then such objections would be irrelevant. But Plantinga has failed to demonstrate that the claims made by any particular exclusivist are true, and so he must account for these charges.

To deal with this attack on exclusivism he narrows the definition of an exclusivist. In fact, he narrows it so much that most exclusivists fail to meet his definition of an exclusivist, which is one way to deal with an attack on moral grounds. He says that he is using “the term ‘exclusivist’ in such a way that you don’t count as an exclusivist unless you are rather aware of other faiths, have had their existence called to your attention with some force and perhaps fairly frequently, and have to some degree reflected on the problem of pluralism.” Also, Plantinga implies that, in order to meet his definition of “exclusivism,” an exclusivist has to consider that they can learn from members of other religions, even “with respect to religious matter.” Is such a person even an exclusivist?

Christians have often used this type of re-definition to deal with arguments made against Christianity on moral grounds, and I suspect that members of other religions do very much the same thing. Christians will say that the Crusades and the Inquisition and the persecution of Jews were not the products of Christianity because in some sense the people responsible for those acts failed to meet the definition of “Christian” properly understood. And, there is some value to this type of argument. After all, many of the atrocious acts committed by Christians throughout history have violated the fundamental teachings of Christ, and so, per a certain definition of Christian, those people fail to be Christians. But, of course, they identified themselves as Christians, and their views represented the views of the majority of Christians at the time in which they lived. Their actions were a reflection of the way in which they understood their faith, and their understanding was very exclusivistic. It is unfair, then, to argue against using such people as moral critiques of (at least) the practice of Christianity on the grounds that they were not “really” Christians. Similarly it seems unfair to so narrowly define the term “exclusivist” in order to get around moral arguments against exclusivism. After all, anyone who meets Plantinga’s narrow definition has more in common with pluralists than most other exclusivists.

But, if you grant him his definition, the moral arguments against exclusivism, by and large, fall away.

Looking at this paper again, I see exactly why I don't like strict length requirements. While the paper was an A paper, it did not come to a satisfactory conclusion. There was, I suspect, more that I wanted to say, but I ran too quickly out of space. Perhaps a more disciplined writer would have left enough room in at the end to explain that Plantiga may have successfully defended the moral permissibility of a very rare form of exclusivism, but he certainly did not successfully defend the moral permissibility of the most common forms of exclusivism, and so his moral defense rings more than a little bit hollow. He also failed totally to defend the epistemic truth of religiously exclusive claims. As such, I found his paper to be a dismal failure. It is not the failure of his intellect to thoroughly consider the problems at hand, but rather of the intuitions which he defends with his considerable intellect.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Weird News From Tom

Tom, my guitar playing twin brother, has become my source for inexplicable news items. I don't ask him for these, mind you. It's just that every day my inbox fills up with evidence that his job does not demand nearly enough from him. So, since we are already four days into December and I haven't written anything yet (following a record setting November) I've decided to post a couple of gems Tom found, courtesy of the AP:


SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. - A grandmother found with a trunkful of marijuana was convicted of drug running in what prosecutors said was an attempt to earn cash for a bingo habit.

State troopers found 10 bundles of pot totaling 214 pounds hidden in Leticia Villareal Garcia's car trunk last year when they stopped her outside Bisbee, in far southeastern Arizona.

Villareal, 61, told jurors before they convicted her Thursday that her only regular income was a $275 monthly welfare check, but she frequently played bingo and occasionally won thousands of dollars.

Prosecutor Doyle Johnstun said the game was Villareal's undoing.

"People who play bingo almost every night of the week end up losing in the long run," Johnstun told jurors. "The underlying issue is that she's got a bingo problem, which explains why an otherwise nice person might get sucked into something like this."

Jurors rejected Villareal's argument that she'd been tricked into carrying the drugs.

Villareal faces three to 12 years in state prison when she is sentenced Dec. 18.


Associated Press

PORTLAND, Maine - A beer distributor says Maine is being a Scrooge by barring it from selling a beer with a label depicting Santa Claus enjoying a pint of brew.

In a complaint filed in federal court, Shelton Brothers accuses the Maine Bureau of Liquor Enforcement of censorship for denying applications for labels for Santa's Butt Winter Porter and two other beers it wants to sell in Maine.

The dispute recalls a similar squabble last year when Connecticut told Shelton Brothers it had problems with its Seriously Bad Elf ale.

"Last year it was elves. This year it's Santa. Maybe next year it'll be reindeer," said Daniel Shelton, owner of the company in Belchertown, Mass.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday, contends the state's action violates the First Amendment by censoring artistic expression.

But the state says it's within its rights. The label with Santa might appeal to children, said Maine State Police Lt. Patrick Fleming. The other two labels are considered inappropriate because they show bare-breasted women.

"We stand by our decision and at some point it'll go through the court system and somebody will make the decision on whether we are right or wrong," he said.

The lawsuit was brought by the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which says the beer labels are entitled to First Amendment protection.

"There is no good reason for the state to censor art, even art found on a beer label," said Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the MCLU.

The label for the English-made Santa's Butt Winter Porter features a rear view of a beer-drinking Santa Claus sitting atop a barrel. The beer's name refers not only to Santa's ample backside, but also to the barrel. In England, brewers once used a large barrel called a "butt" to store beer.

Maine also denied label applications for Les Sans Culottes, a French ale, and Rose de Gambrinus, a Belgian fruit beer.

Les Sans Culottes' label is illustrated with detail from Eugene Delacroix's 1830 painting "Liberty Leading the People," which hangs in the Louvre and once appeared on the 100-franc bill. Rose de Gambrinus shows a bare-breasted woman in a watercolor painting commissioned by the brewery.

In a letter to Shelton Brothers, the state denied the applications for the labels because they contained "undignified or improper illustration."

The state reviews between 10,000 and 12,000 applications a year for beer and wine labels. It typically denies about a dozen a year because they contain inappropriate language or nudity, or might appeal to children, Fleming said.

"Basically, the standard we use is what are people going to see walking up and down a store aisle," he said.

Shelton said his company filed a lawsuit against the New York State Liquor Authority last month after it denied his applications for six holiday-themed beer labels, including Santa's Butt Winter Porter. The state changed its mind but the lawsuit is going forward, he said.

In years past, the company has had labels challenged in a few states, including Ohio, North Carolina and Missouri, he said.

States have the power to regulate alcohol through the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition in 1933. "But I don't know where they get the idea they can ignore the rest of the Constitution," Shelton said.


If you're keeping score at home, I came up with the first headline, while Tom came up with the second.