Friday, March 31, 2006

Lost on Twin Earth

My good friend Brian Cubbage (you've seen him here a time or two) has a new blog, Lost on Twin Earth. He's only got two posts up so far, but I highly recommend checking it out.

That's today's shameless plug. Nothing constructive to add. I guess I burned myself out temporarily with all of those posts last week.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Concerned About Joel Osteen

Ben Witherington has an excellent post today on Joel Osteen. In it he says basically everything that I wanted to say about Osteen, only perhaps even more forcefully. I have very little to add to it.

Osteen represents to me the worst sort of hybrid between Christian liberalism and evangelicalism (perhaps I represent the best hybrid?):

He takes the un-defendable liberal denial of human sinfulness and combines it with the ridiculous false promises of the prosperity Gospel of the televangelists.

Witherington does an excellent job of communicating the differences between the Gospel of Joel and the Gospel of Jesus. There is nothing left for me to say. Reading Witherington's piece, and pretend that I wrote it!

Monday, March 27, 2006

"every abortion is a loss..."

I just read this excellent op-ed piece in today's Christian Science Monitor. Written by someone who is pro-choice, and who has worked in abortion clinics, it reminds us that every abortion is a loss, not just a medical procedure. Such acknowledgement can help most of us find some common ground on the polarizing issue of abortion.

As many of you well know, I have wrestled with the issue of abortion, arguing that while most abortions may seem morally indefensible, abortion itself is a complicated moral issue, and should remain a legal option for women with troubling pregnancies. [note: see the sidebar on Theology in/of the Culture War for the fruits of my wrestling]

This op-ed piece reminds me that in many cases those of us who are pro-choice and those of us who are pro-life share at least one hope: that at some point in the future abortions will be unnecessary.

I am pro-choice, but that is not because of some great fondness for abortion. When I read that op-ed piece, I found someone who wrote what I wish I could have written on the subject. Please read it if you have any interest in the subject.

"Carve me a Buddha"

Sokei-an was one of the earliest Zen Buddhists in America. He and six other students of Sokatsu Shaku came with their teacher to San Francisco from Japan in 1906. He was part of a few failed attempts to plant Zen Buddhism in that area, before he moved to New York City and became a writer of some renown.

He eventually moved back to Japan to complete his Zen training, and - having been sanctioned as a teacher in 1928 - returned to New York. In 1931 he founded what became the First Zen Institute in America. He was the first to teach Americans to the study of koans - mysterious and non-rational teaching stories.

Because of the fear and xenophobia in America after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, he was put under constant FBI surveillance and, in 1942, was incarcerated in an interment camp. His experiences at that camp wrecked his body and destroyed his health. He died in 1945, from a disease contacted at that camp.

It is said that his last words were:

I have always taken nature's orders, and I take them now.

Sokei-an, like all Zen masters, had an unusual teaching style which led to many strange phrases. Of those, two stand out. After failing twice to explain Zen to an American, he reportedly said:

Zen is: "I am from Missouri."

Another time, while delivering a formal lecture in New York on the Sutra of Perfect Awakening, he said:

In Buddhism purposelessness is fundamental. No purpose anywhere in life itself. When you drop fart you do not say, "At nine o'clock I drop fart." It just happen.

My favorite story from his life is, like much of the preceding material, recorded in Sean Murphy's delightful book One Bird, One Stone: 108 American Zen Stories. Murphy's telling of it reads:

Before Sokei-an came to America, when he was just beginning the study of Zen, his teacher arranged a meeting for him with Soyen Shaku. The master, having heard he was a wood carver, asked, "How long have you been studying art?"

"Six years," replied Sokei-an.

"Carve me a Buddha," said Soyen Shaku.

Sokei-an returned a couple of weeks later with a wooden statue of the Buddha.

"What's this?" exclaimed Shaku, and threw it out the window into a pond.

It seemed unkind, Sokei-an would later explain, but it was not: "He'd meant for me to carve the Buddha in myself."

While there are many differences between Christianity and Buddhism, we Christians can learn a great deal from our Buddhist brothers, and vice versa. Christianity teaches that externally imposed divine grace is needed for internal transformation, while Buddhism teaches that great effort and discipline in one's meditative life is the mechanism for change. But both teach the necessity for that wholesale transformation which comes from dying to the claims of self.

Internal transformation, be it from some moment of satori or the process of sanctification, is central to our religious life. Sokei-an was to carve a Buddha in himself, and thus realize his own Buddha nature. I am to bring Christ into myself, and therefore by God's grace become a new creation. But both Sokei-an and I are to change. We are to transform. And this change is not just a change in our outward behavior, but in our innermost disposition.

Let us heed the call to be transformed, so that we no longer conform to the pattern of a selfish and senselessly violent world.

Eucharistic implications:

The dominant theological conversation about holy communion is one between transubstantiation and consubstantiation, concerning whether or not the physical elements, the bread and the cup, are literally and physically transformed into a new substance: the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

But if our religious concern is internal transformation, in some kind of analogy with carving the Buddha within, that brings a very different focus to the Eucharist. The question becomes not one concerning the transformation of the elements, but one concerning the transformation of the consumer of those elements.

You need not hold that the bread and the cup literally and physically morph into the body and blood of Jesus Christ to hold that holy communion is a means of grace. That is to say that when we participate in the Eucharist, we encounter the grace of God. How? By, in some special way, taking in the essence of Christ, and being internally transformed by that essence.

Communion, then, becomes a sacral act of meditating on the nature of Christ which, by grace and through the Eucharist, is now within you. Your job is to allow your sinful self to pass out of you to make room for the nature of Christ which, through the bread and the cup, comes within you.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Bits, Pieces, Birthday Greetings, and Another Bumper Sticker

While I finally found some time for a "bloggy" post, I still won't be able to write about the impending demise of my all-time favorite chocolate shop. Catherine's Belgian Chocolates, from which I just acquired a small bar of 88% cocoa (for more on my strange relationship with high concentrations of cocoa, see this) is closing, evidently because I was their only customer. And I don't even have time (yet) to write a proper eulogy.

Why? Because right now I should be packing my munchkin and all of the stuff that comes with him into the minivan. Today my "little" brother (who now stands a good 2+ inches taller than me, so is hardly little) turns 24. Happy birthday, Jason! We'll do our best to make it on time for your dinner.

As if that weren't enough, tomorrow my darling wife - who has tolerated me for almost 5 years now - officially turns "almost old." My dad, in a rare moment of near honesty, once said that for him the most traumatic birthday was his thirtieth, because when he turned thirty he became "old." After that, no matter how old he got, it was only a matter of degree. The distance between "young" and "old" is far greater than the distance between "old" and "older."

In honor of my dad's theory of aging, my beautiful Sami shall be declared, upon turning 29 tomorrow, officially "almost old." This is to remind her that the few grey hairs looking at her in the mirror each morning really do belong to her, even if I gave them to her. Soon they shall be joined by more and more of their kind, gradually taking over her head, an undeniable sign of the irrepressible movement of time.

Happy birthday, dear! Sorry I'm so sadistic.

But that's not why I decided to write instead of packing the car for our trip to see my brother. I had to write because my mother-in-law just phoned in the mother of all bumper sticker watches.

For those of you uninitiated into my appreciation of bumper stickers, please see the following posts:

The Mystery of the Missing Magnetic Ribbon

Magnetic Ribbons and Bumper Politics Revisited

Holiday Cheer, Another Bumper Sticker, and Growling in the Parking Lot

Bumper Sticker Watch

Bumper Sticker Watch 4.0

Anyway, just a moment ago my mother-in-law called me because, well... I guess she knew that I'd be home (where else would I be?) and she had to share this with someone. On her way home from doing whatever it is she does with her time she saw a bumper sticker which read:

hell... I even miss Harry.

That says it all, doesn't it?

But we know we're in trouble if they ever make one that says:


Argument Becoming More Clear

Another day of reading has brought some clarity to Hauerwas' position in my last post. He seems to be arguing against a kind of reductionistic approach to interpreting scripture which says that this reading is the reading. As mentioned earlier, he specifically takes on both the liberal historical-critical approach and the fundamentalist literalistic approach. He attacks both of these for their very Western democratic assumption that anyone, on their own and using some plain, common sense, should be able to arrive at what scripture definitively means.

To the historical-critical method, he says that it can tell us what scripture meant at a particular point in history, but not what it means in a contemporary context. This is because scripture continually speaks within the Church, and so new readings are brought to scripture as it is adapted to a new context.

The historical-critical method is often concerned with the intent of the author. But Hauerwas argues that when a piece of literature becomes, for a community of faith, scripture, then the author becomes merely one interpretive voice among many. While he uses this to discuss the way in which Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Barth, and many others enrich our reading of Paul (and their enrichment, he argues, is not diminished by the fact that Paul may not have agreed with what they bring to his text) this speaks directly to the mode of scriptural interpretation which I brought to my piece on whether Jeremiah speaks to abortion. In it I argued that since within Judaism at the time of Jeremiah there was no concept of the soul, Jeremiah could not possibly be arguing that an ensouled being is killed in an abortion. As such (and for a few other reasons) the text ought not be manipulated to speak to abortion.

Hauerwas, however, might argue that this overlooks the way in which that text is read and interpreted within a community of faith who considers abortion to be a heinous sin. In that community of faith it might be perfectly reasonable to interpret passages from Jeremiah as speaking out prophetically against abortion.

I see the value in recognizing that for scripture to be scripture it must continue to speak to the people of God. I see the need to continually reinterpret scripture to speak to contemporary situations. But I am also reminded of a great line by a Southern Baptist pastor I knew when I was the Methodist pastor in his small town. He was not a dispensationalist, and did not like the dispensationalist interpretations of Revelation, which he saw as sucking all of the meaning out of that book, reducing it to merely a handbook on the end of the world. He said: scripture can't mean what it never meant.

That reminds me of what my scripture professor in seminary, Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos, taught. In her lectures she constantly repeated this refrain: understanding the historical context of a passage of scripture allows us to set limits on the possible interpretations of that passage. We can't allow scripture to mean just any old thing. Historical-critical tools establish the interpretive parameters, ruling out ridiculous interpretations, even though those interpretations (such as the dispensationalist approach to Revelation) may well speak to a very broad segment of the Church.

I'm not sure that Hauerwas would argue against any of that. He acknowledges that the historical-critical approach is a useful tool. But he also points out its limitations. And one of its biggest limitations, he seems to argue, is that it tends to reduce scripture to a voice which is frozen in time, unable to speak in a contemporary setting. I'm just not sure that the historical-critical method is limited in that way. Perhaps Hauerwas and I are speaking of different things.

He argues primarily against interpreting scripture outside the community of faith; of reading scripture in isolation. While he argues against Christians doing this - establishing themselves as individuals isolated from and over and against the broader Christian tradition, this argument also speaks to the way in which non-Christians read the Bible.

Hauerwas argues that in order to understand and properly interpret the Biblical text, one needs to undergo moral and spiritual transformation. One also needs to, as part of this, be established within a community of faith, which acts as an interpretive agency. Reading the scriptural interpretations offered by the good folks at Debunking Christianity I can see why he might say this. To understand the scriptures one must hold some of the most basic assumptions of the community of faith which holds those scriptures to be scripture. If not, one is liable to see them as ridiculous, and as such offer ridiculous interpretations.

For instance, one person there said this:

I'm greatly honored to receive the invitation to join such an elite group of freethinkers. I don't have a fraction of the experience or credentials that the majority of the authors here hold, but I nevertheless hope that my writings will play some minor part in the deconversion of those who are starting to have doubts about the veracity of Christianity. I am by no means a theologian, biblical scholar, or former minister, but as I often like to point out, it doesn't take an expert to realize that donkeys can't talk.

That assumes that the story about Balaam's ass presents a talking donkey as normative. That assumes, in other words, that the story in question is to be taken literally as arguing that donkey's talk. Of course, read in any kind of context that isn't what the story is about at all. But reading as an individual, and assuming that an individual is capable of properly interpreting scripture in isolation, guided by a general education and some good common sense, this is a possible and ridiculous interpretation, and an interpretation which obviously refutes the veracity of the text.

That does not mean, I think, that in no cases can non-Christians shed some light on scripture, or help us to interpret it. But it does show how reading scripture in isolation from the community of faith for which that scripture is scripture can help one make silly interpretations which fail to understand the depth of the text, or the way in which it speaks to the community of faith.

I was going to add some insights into the interpretive errors of fundamentalists, but this is long enough, and I'm out of time to write this morning. Anyway, much of the last post was devoted to Hauerwas' argument against fundamentalist interpretations, which he says make similar errors to the ones above. They too interpret scripture as though an isolated individual, guided by common sense (though perhaps also by their understanding of the Holy Spirit), can come to the "plain meaning" of the text. It is plain to me that many "plain meanings" aren't what scripture means.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

"Liberals" and "Fundamentalists": Two Sides of the Same Coin?

I had planned to write a more "bloggy" post today, about the impending demise of my favorite little chocolate shop, Catherine's Belgian Chocolates. And while I still might write that post later, something else came up that I really had to write about.

I've finally finished the Taoist book that I have been plodding through for the last couple of weeks, and so I picked up a new (to me - it was written 13 years ago, so hardly counts as absolutely "new") book: Stanley Hauerwas' Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America.

Over the last couple of years I have gradually developed a respect and almost admiration for Hauerwas, a theological ethicist with the intellectual honesty to keep from being easily placed in any readily identifiable camp. I rarely read anything by him and wholly agree with it, but I also rarely read anything by him and immediately see where he's going to go. So often when you read an argumentative piece you can see the argument develop and predict with a reasonable degree of accuracy where its going to go. All you have to know if which "side" the writer is on, so you'll know what conclusions the author is likely to make. From there you can see which kinds of arguments best reach those conclusions, and then you can be sure that if the author is a good one then they'll use one of those arguments.

This is not always the case with Hauerwas. He is the best sort of independent thinker, not beholden to any "camps" as best as I can tell. Sure, he has certain beliefs which are to him fundamental, but he does not often manipulate the discussion to arrive at the obvious "truth" of his position. This is respect.

But what I respect a great deal more is his approach to theological writing. This approach can best be described as theology for the church, not the theologians. Theology, much like any other discipline, has its own jargon. That is to say, it has its own language, which makes sense only to those who have studied the language. As theological ideas are phrased in this unique language, they can be easily understood only by those who have spent a great deal of time working with that language. That is, most theological works can be read only by other theologians.

Since theologians are trained in the language of theology, and since their professional work depends on their mastery of that language, they are used to phrasing their best ideas in the language of theology. This means that while their theology might have profound implications for the practice of Christianity, it is not accessible to most Christians. While I am not a theologian, I have participated in this error.

I remember well the second sermon I ever gave. I was the youth minister at a moderate-sized United Methodist church on the south side of Louisville. But I was also a philosophy student. The congregation was comprised mostly of blue collar, hard working but not formally educated people. They were mechanics, truck drivers, dock workers, welders, etc. But, unaware of the needs of the congregation, in my sermon I fell back on my "native language" to communicate my thoughts. I argued (first mistake - building a formal argument instead of preaching a sermon) for the need to develop "an existentially meaningful concept of salvation."

The congregation was polite. They liked me. They liked the work that I was doing with their teenagers. They liked my energy, and they loved my wife. They thanked me for preaching such an "interesting" sermon. It was, they said, unlike anything they'd heard before. But, of course, while they didn't tell me this, most of them got absolutely nothing out of the sermon.

My pastor pulled me aside and told me the truth: most likely, he and I were the only people in the room who had heard of existentialism. He said that he loved the ideas in my sermon, and that my communication of them would work well in a university or seminary setting. But, he said, if I wanted to be a pastor I would have to learn how to understand my congregation. I would have to learn what their needs were, and I would have to learn how to communicate to them in such a way that could meet those needs.

Later, as a pastor, I saw the preaching aspect of my job as principally one of translation. That is, I took the theology which I encountered as a student, and tried to find a way to translate it into something meaningful to my congregation. Alas I wasn't a pastor long enough to do that as well as I would have liked.

Stanley Hauerwas laments that fundamental need for translation. Theology, he argues, should serve the church. That means that it should serve the needs of practicing Christians. A good test for a theological idea could be found in how it plays out in the pews. Theologians for too long have been writing for themselves and their peers, rather than their churches. While Hauerwas is an academic and a theologian, he often aims his work at the anonymous Christian in the pew. Of course, I think he often misses. And I doubt he would disagree. Trained as he is in theology, fluent as he is in the language of theology, his work - while more aimed at the average lay person than the work of his peers - still unavoidably falls into the language of theology. But at least he tries. At least he understands that if theology can not bring some meaning to the practice of the Christian faith, then it is basically without purpose.

So last night I started reading his aforementioned book, and at the very beginning I came across a passage that almost made me jump up and down:

Most North American Christians assume that they have a right, if not an obligation, to read the Bible. I challenge that assumption. No task is more important than for the church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America. Let us no longer give the Bible to all children when they enter the third grade or whenever their assumed rise to Christian maturity is marked, such as eighth-grade commencements. Let us rather tell them and their parents that they are possessed by habits far too corrupt to read the Bible on their own.

North American Christians are trained to believe that they are capable of reading the Bible without spiritual and moral transformation. They read the Bible not as Christians, not as people set apart, but as democratic citizens who think their "common sense" is sufficient for "understanding" the Scripture. They feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read. Instead they assume that they have the "religious experience" necessary to know what the Bible is about.

When I read this I immediately thought about the events which led to the end of my pastoral career. I had a tumultuous relationship with the woman who chaired what United Methodists call the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee (in most churches this is actually called the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, but in churches where the pastor is the entire staff that title makes little sense). That committee mediates between the church and the pastor. It is designed to facilitate communication, helping the pastor to understand what the church expects, and helping the church to understand what the pastor expects. It is a crucial committee, particularly if there is some point of contention between the two parties.

The woman who chaired this committee was a sincere and severe Christian, who re-converted to her childhood faith after a brush with death. She viewed that brush with death as God's way of waking her up to her own sinfulness, and reminded her of her mortal nature, and the fear of hell. I have no desire to pass any judgment on her faith, or the way in which she came to it. It worked for her. What, alas, did not work was her desire to impose that faith on everyone, and to see it preached from the pulpit of her church.

Like all individual Christians, she read the Bible in light of her religious experiences. As those experiences included a great deal of fear and judgment (in her case, as opposed to grace), she wanted that fearful judgment preached at all times. As those of you who've read this blog before well know, that is not my way.

She would call me during the week for two reasons:

1. To make me aware of some "complaints" which were going around the church, particularly from the "older people." These complaints were always vague and anonymous, giving the impression of dissatisfaction with my ministry, but not giving me anything constructive to work on. They were, I think, designed to make me feel fearful and inadequate, insecure in my position and abilities. If that is the case, they were very effective.

2. To debate me on the contents and interpretation of the Bible.

Hauerwas' passage from last night reminded me of those debates, which almost always ended with frustration. She would quote a passage from the King James, and tell me, essentially, that it "proved" I was wrong. I would argue with the merits of her translation, and explain how she took the passage out of its context to make it say what she wanted it to say. She would accuse me of trusting my "learning" (for her this was a derogatory term) more than God. We were at an impasse.

I once asked her how she decided that a particular passage meant what she thought it meant. She replied that when she read the scriptures she always asked God to send the Holy Spirit to her to "illuminate" the text. Thus the Holy Spirit told her what the passage meant. I said something like, "So, basically, you're saying that God told you what this passage means," To which she said, "Yes."

Well, who am I to argue with God? That was her point. God agreed with her, so if I disagreed with her, I disagreed with God.

One time I asked her, "Even if we agree (which we didn't) that God has perfectly revealed this to you; since you are an imperfect human, don't you think that it is possible that you have understood it imperfectly?"

She simply said, "No, I don't think that's possible."

What could I do? I hung up on her. That, of course, did not sit well with the congregation when she told them that their pastor rudely hung up on her while she was relaying their concerns.

This whole episode speaks to one of the many dangers of fundamentalism, a danger which Hauerwas' passage points out. Fundamentalists often read the Bible on their own - apart from the community of faith - and trust that their own religious experience - apart from the traditions of the larger community of faith and independent of the religious experiences of the many, many others who help comprise this body we call the Church universal - to interpret scripture for them.

But, according to Hauerwas, it does not just speak to the dangers of fundamentalism. It also serves as an indictment against liberalism. After all, Hauerwas argues, liberals, in trusting solely in the historical-critical method, also assume that the Bible can be read by an individual outside the community of faith; and that the individual, by this historical-critical method, can arrive at the definitive interpretation of the text.

If Hauerwas is right, then my nemesis and I were making equal and opposite errors. She overtly said that she had the interpretation, which was given to her by God. But by countering her claim with a historical and textual criticism I was also reading the Bible as an individual and arriving at a definitive interpretation.

Hauerwas argues that the Bible can only be read inside the community of faith, which in relationship with God interprets the text for that community. There is, he claims, no text which stands apart from interpretation. And there is no proper way for an individual outside the faithful community, or independent from the faithful community, to properly interpret the scriptures, as they are intended for the community of faith. The community, then, the Church, is the means by which and through which the text should be interpreted.

He then says this:

... I think that at least by calling attention to the communal presuppositions necessary for any account of the Christian use of Scripture, we can see how the debate between fundamentalists and biblical critics is really more a debate between friends who share many of the same assumptions. The most prominent shared assumption is that the interpretation of biblical texts is not a political process involving questions of power and authority. By priviledging the individual interpreter, who is thought capable of discerning the meaning of the text apart from the consideration of the good ends of community, fundamentalists and biblical critics make the Church incidental.

This reminds me of something which my ministry mentor tried to teach me, which alas I failed to learn. He said that I should not be afraid to stand behind the teaching of our denomination. On any point which would be controversial in a congregational setting, but which has been adopted by the denomination, I should say, rather that "I believe...", instead "the United Methodist Church teaches..."

Many of the problems I had with the only congregation I ever pastored came from their disagreements with the denomination. But, as pastor I stood behind my individual right to teach what convictions rather than my corporate duty to teach the positions of the denomination. I made the dispute one between me (as an individual) and them (as a congregation) rather than one between them (as an individual congregation) and the United Methodist Church.

So Hauerwas' position on this issue seems at least pastorally helpful. I'm not sure I'm entirely on board with it, though. I'm only two chapters in, but it will take some serious nuance for him to address via this principle the necessity of change within the community of faith. If the community is the primary interpreter of scripture, what checks can be placed on that community's interpretation? What mechanism for change can be brought in? And how do we mediate between communities in conflict?

Hauerwas may yet have sufficient answers for these questions, I just can't anticipate them. That's one of the things I most admire in his work.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

New Links

For those of you who haven't noticed yet, in the past week I added links to two blogs. The first is sententiae et clamores, a very interesting blog by a progressive Catholic and grad student named Liam. The second is the rather interesting blog written by Asbury Theological Seminary's Ben Witherington.

As always, please don't assume that a link implies agreement. I don't always agree with anyone, not even myself. But I found both of these blogs to be interesting and thought provoking. While Witherington is much more theologically conservative than I am, I respect his scholarship and his willingness to discuss almost anything. I also enjoy that - like me - he sometimes subjects his readers to movie reviews.

Liam came to my attention through an insightful comment that he left here during a discussion on religious experience. Turns out he drops by on occasion, but rarely has the time to leave a comment. I returned his favor and visited his blog, and was most impressed with his devotion to the Catholic faith; a devotion which is strong enough to stick with Catholicism even in the face of substantial disagreement. I have compared his disposition to that of Hans Kung. Those of you who know me know what a high compliment that is, coming from me.

"It is all lies and false propaganda!"

"It is all lies and false propaganda!" That line by the fictional Soviet boxer Ivan Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren in the propaganda filled Cold War boxing movie Rocky IV came to my mind as I was reading this article this morning. The U.S. has managed to do something which I had thought impossible: make me feel at least a little bit of empathy for Saddam Hussein.

Don't get me wrong - Saddam is anything but a sympathetic character. But that his demise was built on falsified intelligence which placed him in the impossible situation of having to turn over weapons which had not existed for quite some time makes me question further the direction of our country.

This past weekend I finally watched the great film Good Night, and Good Luck. While it depicts events from Sen. McCarthy's reign of terror, it is also a timely reminder of the value treating one's enemy in an ethical way. McCarthy was fighting a real (if somewhat inflated) enemy. And reading a book, Chronicles of Tao: The Secret Life of a Taoist Master by Deng Ming-Dao, which depicts the brutal repression of religion and the desecration of monasteries in China after their communist revolution, it is difficult for me to muster any sympathy, much less empathy, for communism. Yet watching McCarthy's brutal treatment of accused communists and communist sympathizers, watching his systematic trampling of the civil rights which are the foundation of our supposedly free society, I got the distinct impression that McCarthy was a greater threat to the American way of life than communism ever could be.

While McCarthy was fighting an enemy which was within the borders of our country (there were certainly communists in America, and some of them no doubt represented a legitimate threat), he was really fighting the enemy without when he should have been fighting the enemy within.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in Letters and Papers From Prison said this line, which I often quote, both to myself and others:

There is nothing we despise in another which is entirely absent from ourselves.

This is perhaps the best encapsulation of the Protestant doctrine of universal human sinfulness. When we focus on the misdeeds of others we fail to see how we participate in those same misdeeds. When we look at the evil in another we often fail to see that same evil lurking in ourselves.

By making compassion rather than purity the focus of his religious ethics, Jesus not only turned the Jewish purity laws on their head, he also reminded us that when we are focusing on sin we should focus on our own tendency towards sin rather than on that tendency in others. When we see ourselves as we really are, as flawed, frail and fragile sinners in dire need of grace, we then have compassion on those around us, who are in the same boat. As such we don't divide the world into "Us" and "Them," because we know that there is only us.

The biggest mistake made by the Bush administration is one of the same mistakes made by McCarthy and his ilk: the division of the world into two opposed camps. This labeling of "Us" and "Them" leads to a number of obvious problems. First, it allows for no nuance, and as such fails to accept the world as it is, but rather imposes on the world an obviously false structure. This is most obvious with President Bush's proclamation that you are either with Us or against Us. You are either on the side of "freedom" (which is anything but free, evidently) or you are with the so-called enemies of freedom, the "terrorists."

Bush has correctly identified one enemy of his beloved freedom, an enemy from without. But he has lumped too many people into that category. Per his artificial structure, if anyone disagrees with his methods in fighting this anonymous enemy, then they are in fact part of the enemy.

This method is very McCarthian - going after the person of the critic rather than dealing with the substance of the criticism. Bush, like McCarthy, is prone to (through his minions) toss out all kinds of ad hominem attacks, accusations, and labels, hoping that if enough of these stick people will be distracted and not pay attention to the substance of the criticism.

But the real moral problem, the most serious moral problem, with this division of the world into two camps, "Us" and "Them," can be best phrased like this:

We (who are part of "Us") are right even when we are wrong (factually or morally).

They (who are part of "Them") are wrong even when they are right (factually or morally).

This is how all sorts of evils - from the suppression of the rights of the accused to outright torture; from unwarranted domestic wiretapping to the falsification of intelligence - are justified. If We (who are part of "Us") are fundamentally right and They (who are part of "Them") are fundamentally wrong, then in our struggle with the evil "Them" we can do whatever we think is necessary to win.

Of course, this kind of thinking, which both McCarthy and Bush have engaged in, represents everything that we thought was wrong with communism. The greatest evil of communism was ultimately that it was a kind of valuing of the collective above all else. Communism (as a historical reality in both the former Soviet Union and red China), in establishing the collective as the primary moral agent, and in seeing the "good" of the collective as the ultimate aim, could justify the trampling of rights of the individuals who comprised the collective in order to bring about the desire "good" for the collective.

[note: this is a standard criticism of Utilitarian ethics, and a pretty good one. But Utilitarian ethics does not necessary consider the trampling of individual rights to be in the best interests of the larger group. Here is a short dialogue I wrote on the subject as an undergrad philosophy student.]

The tragic irony of McCarthism is that it engaged in the same sort if thinking. This was the height of its hypocrisy. "National security" as in the interests of the group, tramples on the rights of many of the individuals who comprise the group. "America" as an idealized collective was defended at the expense both of individual Americans who had done nothing wrong, and at the expense of the ideals which represent the idealized "America" being defended.

McCarthy, then, in fighting the enemy without (communism), failed to see that what made that enemy so evil was within him. He, and our country, would have been better served if he directed his assault on evil inward rather than outward.

President Bush participates in McCarthy's error, preserving "freedom" as an ideal by trampling "freedom" in many places where it actually exists. As he employs more and more draconian methods to deal with the enemy, he himself becomes an enemy to the values which he holds dear.

His treatment of Saddam Hussein in the events leading up the our invasion of Iraq, in which he demanded that Saddam produce weapons which we should have known did not exist in order to avoid invasion, is a way of trying preserve the ideal "justice" by acting unjustly toward an enemy.

This is the danger of hypocrisy: not only is it dishonest in a most profound way; but it ultimately destroys that which it tries to preserve.

In fighting for "freedom" abroad, Bush is destroying freedom at home. In fighting against the evils of "communism," McCarthy brought the worst of those evils with him to the fight. Edward R. Murrow was right when he said that these methods only serve to provide aid and comfort to our enemies.

McCarthy managed, through his outrageous actions, to make communists look like sympathetic characters. Bush has managed to do the same for Saddam Hussein. But worse than that, he has also managed, at least in the Middle East, to make the cold-blooded mass killers of innocent civilians look like just knights of a noble cause.

This is the most pressing problem with the way in which we wage our so-called war on terrorism. We fail to appreciate that terrorists are not born, they are made. There are not a fixed number of terrorist, they attempt to make recruits and converts. And the way in which we propagate our fight against them looks almost like their propaganda, their recruiting videos.

By dividing the world into two camps, "Us" and "Them," Bush and his supporters hoped to force the world to choose a side. But by acting the way that they have, in their morally arrogant treatment of anyone who falls into the opposing camp, they have done their best to make the camp of "Them" look attractive.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that we would be morally justified in becoming terrorists. But I am saying that in the name of our country we have a patriotic duty to oppose those who abuse that name and betray our cherished ideals. We cannot tolerate lies told in the name of a deeper "truth." We cannot tolerate injustices done in the name of some abstract "justice." And while we all should appreciate that security demands some loss of liberty, we cannot tolerate the trampling of freedom done in the name of propagating "freedom" around the globe.

Ivan Drago said, when faced with a criticism of his homeland: "It is all lies and false propaganda!" When I look at the case with which the Bush administration seeks to justify their immoral acts, I have to say the same thing.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Monkey See, Monkey Do

My brother and his wife have long called their three children "monkeys," reflecting their uncanny ability to climb, their innate love of bananas, and the poetic truth of the song "Yellow Haired Monkeys" by Steve Hindalong and Derri Daughtery of the Choir. Because I love Steve Hindalong's lyric so much, I'm putting it here before I get on with this post:

I hope you're glad
to be where you're at
I don't mind living where we are
It's a suitable climate
A fine habitat
for the yellow-haired monkeys in the yard

Yellow-haired monkeys in the yard

A friend of mine,
ya know he's flat-broke
just handed me a fat cigar
It's a beautiful excuse
for a celebrative smoke
It's a yellow-haired monkey for the yard

Another yellow-haired monkey for the yard

Yellow-haired monkeys in the yard

We've always called our yellow-orange-haired monkey something more like "Baby Bug" than "monkey," because, frankly, he's never seemed like much of a monkey. He was such a small baby, and he never really did much. At one point he was most famous for his accidental turtle impression. He could stretch his neck out or pull his head in, looking just like a turtle peaking out of his shell and then withdrawing.

But he's no longer a baby, even if I still see him as one. He's not yet a "big kid," but he's working on it. He grew exponentially, moving from the 25th percentile to the 94th percentile in size in just a few months. Now he's walking and talking and taking a keen interest in the world around him.

He loves animals, particularly cats. While he has to pet the dog each night before he goes to bed, he has a strange fascination with our two magical felines. They love to meow at him when they strut into the room, announcing their royal presence. Fascinated with that sound, he mews right back at them. He loves to imitate, and he is particularly fond of imitating those creatures closest to him both spacially and emotionally.

And he has an intense infatuation with both of his parents. This means that he imitates us to no end. One of his favorite things to do is to come up to me while I'm reading, sit in my lap, grab a book, yank my glasses off my face and position them haphazardly on his nose, and then turn the pages in his book. See, he can read, just like Daddy. That's cute.

But not everything I do is cute. Not everything I do is worth imitating. While I put on the air of a tranquil, enlightened person, I still have a fierce temper. My family knows this. As a youth minister I was known for being unflappable. As a pastor I kept my cool under fire, even while being personally attacked by people who had pretended to be my friends. Once, at a church potluck, I was asked if anything ever gets to me. My wife almost spewed her lemonade. She knows better than to be fooled by my public persona. She has to live with me.

The other day I put my foot through the dehumidifier in my basement office because it had the audacity to run while I was trying to write. Not exactly the sign of a cool, unflappable person. I don't want my son to inherit this. I don't want him to spend his whole life trying to shake off the shackles of a bad temper. I don't want him to be a slave to his worst impulses. And I certainly don't want him to be a slave to mine.

But he loves to imitate me. This is humbling. His imitations are indiscriminant. He loves me enough that he doesn't judge me, he just wants to be like me. I realized this when I saw his newest game.

For the last few days Sami and I have been fighting off quite possibly the world's worst cold. We are miserable, wretched creatures, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, gasping, dripping, drooping and blowing our noses. But Adam has no idea that this isn't the coolest thing to ever happen. In fact he's quite taken with all the strange sounds that Mommy and Daddy can make. So much so that, even though he isn't sick, he's taken to making them himself.

The other day, while he was taking his bath, his mother coughed. He started laughing, and then let out a loud, fake cough. I came into the bathroom to grab a tissue in order to blow my nose. Before I blew my nose, however, I sneezed. Thinking this a great game, Adam let out a loud, fake sneeze, then giggled. I then blew my nose.

The rest of the week Adam was fond of grabbing tissues and letting out a honking sound, then laughing some more. See, Daddy, anything you can do, I can do. I take the good with the bad. I don't discriminate. I want to be just like you.

Update: 1:47 pm

Adam's fake cold has been replaced by a real one, but even in his abject misery he still enjoys imitating Daddy. He woke up three hours later than usual, and was completely miserable. I had to find a way to revive his spirit, but how? His throat hurt, so he didn't want food. There goes the easy answer.

I've written before that to Adam, everything's a game. Turns out, that's still true. His mother will be pleased to see that what Adam most wanted to do was to help me clean the house. He imitated my every motion, helping me make the bed, put the laundry away, and even clean in the bathroom. He really doesn't distinguish between work and play!

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Gender Inclusive Parenting

I hate to sound like a crusader, but...

I'm a stay-at-home Dad. While my wife is very involved in raising our son, at least at the moment I am primarily responsible. I don't say that to in any way detract from my wife's ability as a mother. She's great. She's a very patient, nurturing person, who also knows how to get on the floor and play with a toddler. But she's also a behavioral therapist for autistic children, and is very professionally motivated. In other words

a.) She works outside the house (and is great at what she does), and

b.) a huge part of her identity is found in her work.

She loves to be a mother, and she loves to be a wife, but more often than not, first and foremost, she is a behavioral therapist. It is a kind of divine calling for her, a secular ministry.

Meanwhile I stay at home with the kid. This didn't happen exactly by design. For most of our marriage I was both a full-time student and either a youth minister or the pastor of my own church. But I'm in between schools right now (out of seminary, not yet into law school), and no longer have any interest in professional ministry. My degree in philosophy is worth a great deal to me, but not very much to prospective employers.

As an employee I have the disturbing need to be left completely alone. I have to be free from tight supervision, let loose to be creative. Right or wrong, most of the time I think I'm the smartest guy in the room, and I don't have much patience for the incompetence of my superiors. In other words, I'm not the most conventionally employable person in the world. My resume basically reads: Don't expect this guy to drink the company Kool-Aid.

Given the jobs available to me sans post-graduate degree, and given the high cost of child care, it works out best for us if I stay at home with the boy for the time being. And I'm starting to love this strange arrangement. As unconventionally religious vegetarians who love all the sorts of things that conservatives say prove that "liberals" are "out of touch," my wife and I plan to raise our child counter to the prevailing values of our culture.

Since these values - despite conservative protests to the contrary - are beamed in via satellite signals to our televisions each day in the form of advertisements for all sorts of products which no one needs but which keep us sucked into a cycle of emotional dependence on the flagrant consumerism which runs our economy; and since most kids at whichever school our son eventually attends will have been hypnotized by these televised messages; we have a very small amount of time to do a great deal of work.

Raising a kid is all about responsible conditioning. Each of us are in many ways conditioned. We'd love to rail against that, saying that we ought to have complete freedom. But have you ever wondered what such freedom would look like? If each of our decisions in life were unguided by any form of conditioning, how much time and mental energy would it take to make even the most simple decisions? My wife - a very conditioned woman who, as a behavioralist knows the value of conditioning - still takes so much time just to tell me what she wants me to fix for dinner. What would happen if we removed that conditioning? What would happen if she started with a completely empty mind, a totally blank slate? Rather than waiting ten painful minutes for her to come to a simple decision, I might have to wait a decade or more.

So conditioning isn't a bad thing, its a fact of existence. And as far as facts of existence go, its pretty damned useful. And it is one of the primary projects of parenting. Parenting is about ingraining some values (conservatives cannot monopolize that word!) in a kid and hoping that they stick. But when your values - the one's you are trying your best to instill in this new creature - run so contrary to the values of the surrounding society, you've got to make the most of the time you have.

So perhaps, all things being equal (which they aren't, since my wife can make some money, and evidently I can't) I'm the best person to be at home with this kid. I mean, I did used to make my living molding and shaping young minds. And I was pretty good at it. So I'm glad I have this chance to stay at home with our son, trying to enter into his experience of the world so that I can help shape how he interprets that experience, and so that I can guide the development of the values with which he lives his life. At least that's what I tell myself as I adjust to the fact that who I am now is so unvalued by the people outside my house.

I bring this up because for the last couple of days Adam has had a hard time sleeping, and that's not like him. He fusses in his sleep, then wakes up suddenly screaming. It looks like he's having nightmares. But I don't know anything about this sort of thing. So this morning, while I'm on the computer looking up last night's basketball scores and trying to decide whether or not my beloved Kentucky Wildcats have any hope of upsetting UConn in the NCAA tournament this afternoon (for the record, I don't, but I hope I'll eat crow on that) I decided to look for some parenting resources to see what's going on with the boy.

Every item I found was geared toward "Moms". Come to think of it, every magazine I've ever seen on parenting was essentially advice for "Moms". Every time I take our son to the pediatrician's all of the reading material in the waiting rooms are designed for women. I'd say that I wonder why this is, but I think that I know.

The media both reflects and shapes our culture. In this issue it reflects our culture in the sense that, in order to make money magazines need to convince advertisers that they have enough readers and a wide enough distribution to be worth the investment. Most magazines have articles only to get you to pick them up. They are basically fliers for advertisers. Parenting magazines are geared toward women because it is assumed that only or primarily women will read them. Aiming their magazine to women, addressing the concerns of women, is how they figure they will have the best chance to convince advertisers to give them money.

But this also shapes our culture. Women as primary caregivers is the dominant image. Parenting magazines aimed exclusively at women reinforces, then, this double stereotype:

1. The role of women is principally that of tending to children. Even when women work, their main concern should be for their family.

2. Men are not involved in the raising of children. Or, if they are involved, they are involved in a secondary or supplementary role.

This phrasing of the double stereotype concerning gender roles is obviously over simplified. But I'm not in the mood to be fair, and frankly women shouldn't be, either. I'm all for the value of conditioning, but sometimes you have to engage in some counter-conditioning. After all, to use the Confucian language, the "natural substance" of many people is not easily fit into such simplistic molds which are primarily concerned with gender as the defining attribute of a person. I've seen many men and women crushed underneath these societal expectations.

I am a parent. More than that, despite my wife's wonderful maternal skills, I am the primary caregiver for our son. I don't want to have to pretend to be a woman in the anonymity of cyberspace to find out why other parents think my son might be having these bad dreams. And I don't want my wife to be bothered by the fact that her husband is (at least for the moment) doing "her" job while she is doing "his" job.

But this morning she's been doing my job (while I sit in front of this computer screen) too long. I'm going to go see how the boy is doing.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

From Experience to God

Despite gaining some small notoriety as a student for my treatment of Anselm's ontological argument, I've never had much use for philosophic "proofs" of the existence of God. In general I find them neither philosophically interesting nor religiously helpful. I've always felt that the arguments for and against the existence of God are essentially a wash. There are some good points made on both sides, but by and large the arguments are full of holes, leaps, and unsupported assumptions.

As such people believe or disbelieve in a God of some description for their own reasons, which while occasionally couched in the language of reason are mostly non-rational. The grounds on which we hold that one can obtain knowledge are generally axiomatic - that is, they precede argumentation. They are, at their best, internally consistent but externally unsupported. This is because, in order to make any affirmative claim about anything, we have to start with at least a few givens.

Are there external reasons to trust our sensory perceptions to communicate more or less true information about the world around us? While some will no doubt argue that there are, it seems more or less obvious that that claim comes down to trust. Perhaps not a blind trust, since we often have reason to doubt our own perceptions. But that doubt of our own perception comes in only when our perception is called into question by the perceptions of others. So the relative reliability of perception itself is not doubted, but rather the particular reliability of this perception in light of the counter-claim made by that perception.

While participating in a discussion at Debunking Christianity I was asked why I believe in God. What reasons do I have? This is an excellent question, and a very different one than the question of whether or not I think that it is evident that God exists, or whether or not I think that the existence of God can be demonstrated by some combination of physical data and human reasoning. It is a personal question rather than a universal question, and speaks to the heart of my faith.

As such, it was a question which I can actually answer. Were I asked whether or not there was a God, rather than about my own faith in God, then I would have been unable to answer, as I hold that the nature of God is beyond human knowledge. But as I was asked about my own faith, I offered up my best answer. I said that I believe in God on the basis of personal experience.

Through my religious life I experience the daily presence of God. Of course this does not demonstrate that God exists - merely that I experience God. And if I were alone in that experience, then it would be most reasonable to assume that there was something peculiar about me, some kind of psychosis which produced an abnormal experience. But I am not alone in that experience. I am part of one of many religious traditions throughout human history in which people have had and continue to have some kind of series of encounters with the sacred. So what are we to make of such encounters?

Those of you who have been checking in here since I encountered the good folks at Debunking Christianity have seen that a discussion on that subject has spilled over from their blog to this one. My purpose in writing this is to bring everyone who has not been to their blog - and so who only have bits and pieces of a much longer discussion - into this discussion.

There have been many attempts to prove the existence of some sort of a God, and some of those attempts have used the common phenomena of religious experience to do so. One of the best of such attempts is in an essay by Jerome I. Gellman of Ben-Gurion University, Israel, titled From Experience to God. In this essay Gellman appeals to two creatively titled principles:

1. Best Explanation of Experience (BEE) - which can be rendered roughly thus (the following italicized sections are paraphrases of Gellman's arguments, borrowed and adapted from comments by David Shatz of Yeshiva University, editor of the text Philosophy and Faith: A Philosophy of Religion Reader):

If a person, S, has experience, E, which seems to be of a particular object, O, then, everything else being equal, the best explanation of S's having E is that S has experience O, rather than something else or nothing at all.

He then applies that to claims of experiencing God, which may rest on a weak analogy (when people claim to experience God are they having a claim which can be reasonably compared to experiencing, say, a tree, or some other empirically observable object?).

2. Strength in Numbers Greatness (STING) - which can be rendered roughly thus:

The presumption created by BEE that a seeming experience of a particular object, O, is, in fact, an experience of O is strengthened by the more "sightings" of O and the more variable the circumstances under which O has been sighted.

He applies this to experiences of God by arguing roughly thus:

There have been many accounts of people who claim to have experienced God, occurring under highly variable circumstances, which strengthens the claim that they have actually experienced God.

The argument is a bit more subtle than that, but that was the gist of it.

The immediate problem with the argument can be phrased in the form of 2 questions:

1. Is God sufficiently like an object - particularly an empirically observable object?

2. Is an experience of God sufficiently like an experience of an empirically observable object?

In other words, do the rules which apply to ordinary experience also apply to a kind of divine or sacred encounter?

Henry Samuel Levinston of UNC Greensboro and Jonathan W. Malino of Guilford College collaborated on a wonderful rebuttal to Gellman's essay, Who's Afraid of a BEE STING?: A Rely to Gellman. In it they attack Gellman by arguing that if there are no intersubjective tests for the veridicality of an experience, or if such tests would probably not produce a positive result, then we have good reason to doubt the account of the experience.

They argue similarly to my own arguments that we have, per Gellman's BEE STING, reason to believe a person has actually experienced, say, a tree; and reason to doubt that a person has experienced, say, a flying saucer.

But the commonality of religious experiences, and the persistence of a belief in God in most people, does speak very powerfully, even if it does not definitively prove that God exists. One way to get around this powerful commonality is to deny that it exists.

Of course, people who do this do not deny that a great many people have had some sort of a religious experience. They rather deny that such claims have enough in common to be grouped together. And there is some truth to that. After all, while most people believe in some sort of a God - or gods - they do not all believe the same things about that God.

Given the diversity of beliefs about God both within and across religious traditions, can we really say that all or even most people who claim to have had a religious experience have had the same sort of religious experience? Or, to put it another way, can we really assume that Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Zoroastrians, indigenous peoples, etc. have all had the same sort of experience?

This is an important question, particularly if you take Gellman's theory seriously. After all, his STING depends on the variability of circumstances. In it is implied the idea that if religious traditions are varied but experience remains the same, that speaks very powerfully in favor of the experience.

There are two obvious - and obviously flawed - ways to approach this issue:

1. We could say that all (or at least most) religious traditions are really saying essentially the same thing.

This is a claim popular especially among liberals, and among people who don't really take religion seriously. They have a notion that all religious traditions are to be respected, and that respect comes from glossing over differences so that we can avoid arguments. But this claim denies the uniqueness of each religious tradition, and as such is quite insulting to most religious people.

After all, even religious traditions which have a great deal in common, such as the great Western monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, disagree with each other on a number of important points. If you were to say to a serious Jew, for instance, that their religion is essentially saying the same thing as Christianity (which is responsible for anti-Semitism, with the claim that the Jews killed Jesus, and as such killed God) or Islam (at a time when many Muslims are now more anti-Semitic than Christians historically have been); even if you are making the "liberal" claim that there is no justification for such hatred and intolerance, they would have good reason to question whether you have ever studied history or religion.

And most religious traditions do not have nearly as much in common as those three related faiths. Looking across cultural boundaries we see that religious do not even, by and large, agree on how many gods there are, much less on the details of the character of the divine. As such, there is no reasonable way to argue that all religions essentially are saying the same thing.

2. We could say that because there is such diversity of belief and approach both within and across religious traditions, the nature of religious experiences (rather than just the conclusions drawn from such experiences) is different for everyone.

That is, we could say that because there is so much variation in belief and practice both within and across religious traditions, and because the foundation of most such beliefs and practices is religious experience; that it necessarily or even probably follows that when I have a religious experience and when you have a religious experience, we are essentially experiencing different things.

When you are dealing with a phenomenon like religious experience you are dealing with something which most people find indescribable. It slips past language. When people put their experience into words they are often careful to point out how the words fail to accurately describe the experience. This is why, when religious traditions speak of revelation they often stipulate that while many beliefs come via revelation, the nature of revelation is personal rather than propositional.

That is, while many traditions see revelation as a kind of self-disclosure oft he divine, that self-disclosure is not a list of statements about the divine which are either true or false, but rather a sense of the very presence of the divine.

In the Hebrew scriptures, for instance, when Moses (a mythological figure) encounters God and asks for the divine name (a way of pinning down God's nature?) God answers Moses (in most English translations) "I AM WHO I AM," or simply "I AM." The English here is static, but the Hebrew is fluid. For this reason Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos, Dora Pierce Professor of Bible and Professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, translates it "I will be what I will be" or "I will be where I will be." She sees this (and I agree with her) not as a description of the nature of God, but rather as a promise of the presence of God.

Given this personal nature of revelation, and by extension religious experience; and given the indescribable quality of the divine and encounters with the divine; it is then no wonder that we have such a variety of descriptions of the divine based purely on religious experience. Religious experience, while possibly entering one into the presence of the sacred, does not provide one with a vocabulary for describing either that experience or the indescribable nature of the sacred.

Another question which has come out of my discussions on religious experience with the good folks at Debunking Christianity has been phrased well by a recent visitor to this blog, exbeliever, who wonders what those of us who take religious experiences seriously make of the fact that they are describable in physiological terms as the product of brain activities. In the interests of time and space, rather than having a discussion of that here, I refer anyone interested in that topic to the comments section of my most recent post.

There is much more to discuss on this topic, and I was planning to write more about my own approach to religion. However, I've been picking at this post for parts of two days now, and it is getting quite long. So, incomplete as this is, I'm posting it now, trusting that the other points which I was going to make (particularly concerning the nature of the religious life, and the "reasons" one should have for choosing a religion) will come out in discussion if they are sufficiently interesting.

So please forgive this incomplete mess. And, if you're interested in this topic, comment soon. I do not find it particularly interesting, since for me God is a given. I prefer to write on how one should live in relation to God, rather than on the reasons I believe in God. God is for me axiomatic, the underlying, unargued for assumption which orders my approach to life. This must seem silly to our friends at Debunking Christianity, who would employ Occam's Razor on my assumption, saying that if the universe is explainable without some sort of God, then there is no reason to add God to that explanation.

But they should bear in mind that even that good and useful Razor is a matter of faith, an axiomatic assumption. There are no external reasons for holding that it must be true. The proof of its validity as a tool is found once you accept it, and test it as though it were worthwhile. Granting the assumptions behind it, it can be most helpful. But nothing outside it compels one to accept it as true.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Taoist Concept of the Divine

Dialoguing with the good people at Debunking Christianity has produced some interesting (and some trivial) observations. I suspect that we will forever be at an impasse, but such is the nature of conviction.

I suspect, given my lack of attachment to any particular concept of God, that they will never be able to convince me of God's inexistence. After all, they could pick each concept of God apart, to which I would simply say, it's no surprise that concept didn't work. God isn't a concept.

I also suspect that, unless I hand them some vivisection of a being wearing God's name badge, they will never accept the possibility of God's existence. After all, God is, as I have said so many times, not empirically evident.

But that doesn't mean we can't have a good time, does it?

Anyway, responding indirectly to a discussion going on over there, I thought I'd post a story that comes from Taoism which presents us with a very foreign concept of the divine. I was asked why I chose to attribute to God only the "good" traits, and not the "bad" ones. Good question. I think a Taoist would ask such a question. Anyway, here's a story which comes from the book I'm currently reading, Chronicles of Tao: The Secret Life of a Taoist Master, by Deng Ming-Dao.

Once a beautiful and richly dressed woman appeared at a house. Naturally, the owner of the house welcomed her. He was dazzled by her ethereal loveliness

"May I ask who you are?" he said.

"I am the Goddess of Fortune," she replied. "I bring luck to unhappy children, heal the diseased, grant children to the barren, bring untold riches, and fulfill every wish and supplication." The owner of the house immediately straightened his robes and bowed low before her, and personally gave her the honored seat in his home.

Before long, another woman came. She was bent over and hobbled. Her face was desiccated, misshapen, wrinkled. Her hair was tangled as dry rice grass. She stank. The owner was indignant and rudely demanded to know why she was trespassing.

"I am called the Dark Lady. Wherever I go, the rich go bankrupt, high officials fall in disgrace, the weak die, the strong lose their might, women weep endlessly, and men mourn."

The owner immediately seized her staff to drive her away.

But the Goddess of Fortune stopped him, saying, "Those who would honor me must also honor her, for wherever I go, the Dark Lady inevitably follows. We are as inseparable as a shadow to a body. We cannot live apart."

The owner immediately urged both goddesses to depart, now very much afraid that both might stay. The wise lead their lives this way.

In Taoism yin and yang are literally two sides of the same coin. The emphasis is on recognizing that their apparent duality is really a unity. While the person who asked me why I would ascribe "good" to God, but not "bad" may not have known this, but they were offering up a kind of Taoist critique.

If we recognize that if everything comes from God, and God is One, then everything comes from a kind of fundamental Unity; what do we make of concepts like "good" and "bad" as they relate to God? Is God the source of both?

This is an interesting twist to the problem of evil, which does not rest on criticisms of God's omnipotence or omniscience. This says, omnipotent or no, omniscient or no, if there is a God, then God - by virtue of being God - is responsible for the bad with the good.

Process theology has the best answer to this, but that answer will have to wait for another time. For the moment let's ponder the question.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Debunking Christianity

Thanks to the good folks at Habakkuk's Watchpost I've found a blog called Debunking Christianity. I have added a link to it on my sidebar.

In the little time I spent there I found a couple of very interesting pieces. If you've got some time and don't mind burning a few brain cells in the pursuit of truth and its limitations, I suggest you check it out.

To the good folks at Debunking Christianity, as well as to their culturally evangelical enemies, I would say this:

There are more than two reasonable options. You needn't be an arrogant and mindless zombie parroting lines that stopped working centuries ago to be a Christian. And you needn't abandon all faith in God or the church in order to think freely and abandon certain patently false assumptions made by many Christians.

But I guess my faith was almost as inspired by the Buddha as the Christ: constantly seeking that "middle way," the Aristotelean mean between two extremes.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Reflecting on *SMACK* Violence

The comments on the last post have me reflecting on the nature of violence.

The argument that sometimes a measure of violence (or, as I put it, force) is needed in order to preserve peace - and this argument is central to just war theory - could be described by means of this analogy, which does not reflect well on the potential of the argument:

I once saw a woman out shopping with her kids at a toy store. Two of the kids got into an argument about a particular toy. As the argument escalated, the bigger kid hit the smaller kid. The mother, irate, stormed up to the bigger kid, and *SMACK* whacked him good. As she hit her child, she disingenuously shouted, "No! We don't hit!"

A couple of questions for discussion:

1. Is this a good analogy for the argument in question?

Or, to put it another way, is this sufficiently like what nations like the United States do when we threaten aggressive nations with military force?

2. Is there any charitable way to view the actions of the mother?

Or, to put it another way, is there any chance that her hitting her child to make the point that we shouldn't hit will actually succeed?

I'm particularly interested in two types of comments, but of course welcome all comments. The types I am most interested in are:

1. From my philosophic friends: work with the analogy and its correlation or lack of correlation to the arguments made by just war theory.

2. From my friends with children: help us get inside the perspective of the parent who uses force to teach that violence is wrong. Is this purely hypocritical? Is this motivated by frustration or unchecked anger? Or is there possibly some method to the apparent madness?

Well, I've shaped this conversation enough. If you're interested in this sort of thing, leave a comment.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Iraq an Unjust War?

This morning I read in an AP article that Jimmy Carter has called the US war in Iraq an unjust war. My first thought was, "Hello, Captain Obvious!" At this point saying that our involvement in Iraq constitutes an unjust war is almost trivial. But it has not always been so obvious.

Lest anyone accuse me of being virulently anti-war in all cases, and thus attempt to explain my opposition to this particular war in that way, I am publishing here an essay which I wrote during the events leading up to the war.

My best friend (who thanks to a strange twist of fate was living in my basement at that time. He used to joke that if we had kids we could threaten them with the ogre in the basement. Alas, Travis, now that we have a kid, the basement has no ogre!) was a Marine who eventually fought bravely in that war. My opposition to the war he fought in has no bearing on how proud I am for doing what he did. He, like many good soldiers, displayed the kind of courage and integrity that we should all honor. It is a shame that such courage and willingness to sacrifice was spent unjustly.

I wrote this paper in a college ethics class (taught by my good friend Brian Cubbage). The format of the class was to look at ethical theories and then apply them to concrete situations. When it came time to study Just War Theory it was obvious that the United States was, barring some sort of divine intervention (and yes, United Methodist ministers tried to arrange such an intervention), headed to war. Anyway, here is how I approached the subject at that time:

According to William O'Brien, who cites St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and the history of ethical thought concerning war to support his theory, war is permissible only under certain circumstances which would make that war a "Just War". These circumstances have to do with "the substance of the just cause, the forms of pursuing the just cause, the requirement of proportionality of ends and means, and the requirement of exhaustion of peaceful remedies." That is, for war to be justified, four conditions must be met:

1. The war must be motivated by a cause so weighty as to justify the taking of lives in a full scale war. The three causes that O'Brien quotes Childress as claiming would justify this are:

(1) "to protect the innocent from unjust attack,"
(2) "to restore rights wrongfully denied" and
(3) "to re-establish a just order."

2. The war will be either offensive or defensive. If it is defensive, then it is justified outright, because every sovereign nation, as well as each person in that sovereign nation, has a right of self-defense. If, however, it is offensive, then it is only justified if it intends to "protect vital rights unjustly threatened or injured." O'Brien does point out that several Scholastic philosophers once permitted religious holy wars, but that consensus is against justifying those now, contrary, perhaps, to the "jihad" of al-Qaeda.

3. The scale of the war, and the way in which the war is waged, must be proportional to the cause of the war, the objective of the war, and the threat posed by the opponent in the war. It is permissible only to use as much violence as is necessary to accomplish the objectives, and no more. And, of course, civilians must not be targets, and every attempt must be made to keep them out of harm's way.

4. War is only permissible when all other peaceful remedies to whatever problem or situation is to be solved or resolved by that war have been exhausted. War is a messy business, and it involves killing, making it morally very weighty. This killing in war is only permissible if it the only way to achieve an end which might justify the killing. Peaceful solutions must be tried first.

The question is, in light of possible US involvement in Iraq, is war, in this situation permissible? Many involved in the US cause claim that the world changed on September 11, 2001, and, to a certain extent they are right. Each action changes the world, to a degree, and, certainly any action which takes the lives of so many people enacts a great deal of change. However, did September 11th change the nature of ethical conduct? I hope not. I believe that for a group of terrorists to dictate a new morality with a series of violent explosions would be an even greater and irrevocable tragedy than the senseless killing that took place. My mother always told me that two wrongs don't make a right, and, the events of September 11th notwithstanding, I'll take her at her word. Is the US justified, according to the "Just War" theory, if it decides to wage war on Iraq?

The first thing which must be examined is "the substance of the just cause." Why is the US threatening Iraq with war? This is a more complicated question than it, at first appears, and many people have many different theories about the answer. However, I will assume that, this time, our country is not lying to us. If that is the case, then there are two answers to this question. The first is that Iraq was, in part, involved with the al-Qaeda terrorist network, and is active in funding terrorism and terrorist acts against the United States. As such, the US is justified in responding to the attacks against it, and is retaliating in self-defense. This, it is hoped, will discourage others from attacking us.

The second cause is perhaps more serious. It is claimed by both the US and Great Britain that Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq has, or intends to get "weapons of mass destruction;" and that, if he has them or gets them, he intends to use them. They support this claim with a number of factually verifiable claims, including that he has used chemical weapons on his own people. I believe that these two claims, and particularly the second, meet Childress' criteria of protecting the innocent from unjust attack. I'm not sure about the claim to self-defense, because I don't know that US officials have demonstrated a strong enough link to al-Qaeda, but, if Saddam Hussein is the sort of threat that officials claim he is, then the end of protecting the innocent from unjust attack, particularly the severe attack from "weapons of mass destruction" would justify the means of war against Iraq, providing that all other conditions for a "Just War" are met.

So, on to the second condition: The proposed war would be an offensive war, all claims of self-defense aside, because it would be waged in Iraq. As such, for the war to be a just war, it would have to meet conditions which would justify an offensive war. It is difficult to, in this instance, separate the first from the second criteria, and the argument used in the first works here. If Saddam Hussein can be demonstrated to be an immediate threat to innocent people, then, providing that all of the other conditions for a just war are present, war against Iraq would be justified.

This brings us to the first real problem for the US cause: It is assumed that Saddam Hussein is a threat, and that the threat should be eliminated. That is something that most sane people agree on. However, for the US cause to be justified, any war must be both just, and limited. The scale of the war must be such that it does not create larger moral problems than the ones that it eliminates. It must be understood that Iraqis are people, morally speaking at least, with the same claim to rights as US citizens. And, while Iraq's leadership clearly poses a threat to the innocent people in the United States, as well as other nations, the innocent people of Iraq must be taken into account as nations such as the US decide how to deal with the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Any war which does more damage to innocent people than most probably would have been the case without the war is most likely not a "Just War." While the rights of innocents must be protected, in protecting those rights, the rights of other innocents should not be trampled.

This is a problem because, though we have advanced weapons which are supposed to be "smart", or accurately guided, many innocent people were killed in the US action in Afghanistan last year. That being the case, it is difficult to claim that the same thing won't happen this time, particularly when the United States overtly censored media coverage of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. However, if the United States could wage a limited war in which few if any civilians were harmed, and the media were given the freedom they need to cover any incidents of civilian casualties so that we would know that every effort was being made to wage a limited war, this is probably not a fatal problem for the US cause.

The more fatal problem, at least temporarily, is found in the fourth criteria. In order for a war to be just, all peaceful remedies must be exhausted. While there are other problems, this is clearly the biggest, and, while steps are being made to correct this, leadership in the United States seems far too anxious to go to war prematurely. Some peaceful remedies have been sought, including UN resolutions and trade embargoes. However, when the United States announced that they were prepared to go to war unilaterally, without the aid and support of the United Nations, that short-circuited many possible international peace efforts, such as weapons inspections, which are only now becoming realistic options again.

It is too early to tell whether or not a potential US war against Iraq will be morally justifiable. However, it cannot be ruled out. The threat posed is sufficient enough, assuming it is being correctly advertised, to consider anything in a "worst case scenario", including a limited war. However, that war must be limited, and, must take place only when all of the facts concerning the threat Iraq poses are known, and only after all reasonable peaceful measures have been taken to eliminate the threat.

As you can see, I (and many others like me) was once prepared to believe that, assuming that a few basic conditions were met, the US could be justified in the war in Iraq. Alas for our nation and our military, it is now obvious that those conditions were not met.

In my paper I wrote:

I will assume that, this time, our country is not lying to us.

That assumption should not seem so foolish now. Alas, it has become obvious that our presidential administration systematically manipulated and fabricated intelligence, deceiving so many of us into suspending our disbelief and (at least tentatively) subscribing to an unjust act.

I also wrote:

It is assumed that Saddam Hussein is a threat, and that the threat should be eliminated. That is something that most sane people agree on.

But, inspired by manipulated and fabricated intelligence, I overlooked that whatever threat Hussein posed to our security was already being addressed effectively. We now have no credible evidence at all that Iraq under Hussein had anything close to a functional weapons of mass destruction program. Absent that program - particularly given the crippled nature of the Iraqi military - Saddam Hussein and the nation of Iraq posed an insufficient threat to US national security to justify anything like a war.

But even with my flawed assumptions about the honesty of this presidential administration and the credibility of their intelligence reports, the conditions laid out in my paper for a just war were still not met. Consider these conditions:

1. [I]f the United States could wage a limited war in which few if any civilians were harmed, and the media were given the freedom they need to cover any incidents of civilian casualties so that we would know that every effort was being made to wage a limited war, then the war might but justified.

2. In order for a war to be just, all peaceful remedies must be exhausted.

The US waged a war in which, during active combat, more than 10 times as many civilians as soldiers were killed. While I believe that the US, particularly the soldiers involved, probably made an attempt to prevent excessive civilian casualties, they were (as is the nature of a war fought first and foremost through air strikes and bombing runs) unable to prevent a high civilian death count. Thus the conduct of the war was not sufficiently limited to be morally justifiable.

Additionally, as I feared in my paper, the US rushed to war without letting peaceful solutions run their course. The great tragedy of this is that, after the fact, it now seems like the peaceful solutions would have been sufficient to solve the problem.

Iraq had not weapons of mass destruction, and no credible connections to al Qaeda. Thanks to our military involvement in Iraq, however, it has become a "breeding ground" for terrorist organizations, radicalizing populations which could have been moderate under different circumstances.

Populations unite against a common enemy. By the way in which we have waged this avoidable war we have given many populations in the area around Iraq an enemy against which to unite.

I hereby apologize for the charitable assumptions I made about the credibility of our presidential administration, and for not mobilizing against this war until it was far too late.

The primary question facing us now, however, is not whether or not this war has been just (it has not been), but what we can do about it. We must of course hold those who dragged us into this mess accountable. The tragic irony here is that those who campaigned on restoring credibility to the office which Bill Clinton's foolishness with an intern supposedly destroyed have done more to undermine the credibility of that office than anyone since the Nixon adminitration.

But we must also find some constructive course of action in Iraq. We can't just break it, say "Ooops!" and walk out like nothing happened. To that end I am thankful to the many military personnel still working in Iraq to restore that country's infrastructure and return it to autonomy. We owe it to them to get them home and out of harm's way as soon as it is feasable to do so.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Depth From Princess Pinky!

My sister-in-law, the mother of three beautiful Jedi Knights or Sith Lords, the fantastic Princess Pinky, queen of the mall, just wrote this excellent post. I won't tell you what its about, but I will give you this teaser:

Momma, why can't everything be pink?

And when will the bunnies be back?

Is Abby (her cousin) going to die before me?

These are questions my four-year-old daughter asked me Sunday as we were on our way to church.

Do yourself a favor and read this ode to theological parenting.

In case you missed it the first two times, you can find the post by clicking on this link: More Questions Than Answers.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Lenton Prayer

Here is my prayer for this Lenton season:

When I am strong
make me weak;
for when I am weak
You are my strength.

When I am rich
make me poor;
for when I am poor
You are my wealth.

While I yet live
help me to die;
for when I die to myself
in You I rise.

This Lenton season let us participate in the 40 day period in which Jesus prepared himself for his ministry, just as we prepare ourselves for his suffering, death, and resurrection.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Violet Burning DVD review, plus a shameless plug

A couple of weeks ago I got the new(ish) live DVD by the Violet Burning. I've been meaning to write some observations and a kind of review of it, but frankly I've been stumped.

I should immediately disclose that I'm a big fan of the Violet Burning, and have been for well over a decade now. It would not be an exaggeration to say that their music, along with the music of other such honest artists as Mike Knott (and his various projects, like the Aunt Bettys and LSU) and Adam Again, by giving me the spiritual permission to feel however it was that I felt, saved my life as a teenager.

While these were "Christian" groups - in the sense that the groups were comprised of people who identified themselves as Christian, and in the sense that they were at least nominally affiliated with "Christian" record labels - they were also honest about their struggles with their faith, and with integrating their faith into their daily lives.

So much in "Christian" art and music has been an attempt to portray an ideal world and an idealized experience of faith. In seeking to "honor" God, artists and labels have edited out anything which God (or the paying customers) might find distasteful. There has also long been the flawed notion within Christendom that to portray a behavior is to endorse a behavior. As such, to discuss doubt or sin might be to encourage your audience to sin, or to plant a seed of doubt.

This has inadvertently cut all of the meat [note: as a vegetarian, my tongue is here firmly in my cheek] out of "Christian" music. To deny human tendencies toward sin and human experiences of doubt is to strip the Gospel of all of its liberating power. These artists (and many, many others), in standing in such sharp contrast to the mainstream of Christian music, gave me a Christian artistic expression which I could actually buy.

The first band that I ever really loved was Nirvana. Before I encountered their pensive angst I thought that I had loved music, but I had really only parroted or rebelled against my father's tastes. I had picked groups like Led Zepplin, REM and the Beatles because my dad had good taste, which rubbed off on me. I picked groups like Def Leopard and Van Halen because I had no taste, despite my father's best intentions.

But when I heard Nirvana, all bets were off. Their bottled up rage, and their indiscriminant expression of it, hit me right where I was. My body was changing, my mind was racing, my voice was cracking, my life was confusing, and I was angry about it. I wasn't angry at anyone or anything; I was angry as a state of being. I had a kind of ontological rage which was perfectly expressed in the music of Nirvana, the soundtrack of my adolescence.

But I also had a kind of religious encounter, an experience of the presence of God, and an experience of Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I embarked on the long journey of sanctification, a journey on which my rage had no place.

The Violet Burning was one of many artists which helped me give honest vent to my anger. The didn't deny the power of that emotion, nor did they condemn it. But neither did they endorse it. The experienced it, and its antidote. So I have long been a fan.

But the problem with being a fan, and setting out to write a review of sorts as a fan, is that fans often grossly misjudge a band's work. They (we!) tend to err in one of two ways. Either we

1.) heap gushing and infatuated praise on the mediocre work of a once great artist, or we

2.) misjudge the daring and adventurous work of an artist shedding its metaphoric creative skin, and stretching artistically.

When I err, I tend to err with the later. For instance, I am a huge King's X fan. I own (and semi-regularly listen to) every King's X album. But ever since Tape Head, when I first listen to a King's X album I hate it. That's because with each new album they discard their former sound. What a great way for an artist to stretch and grow (and alienate fans!). But it disorients me. I've come to admire their former sound. I've grown accustomed to it, and added it to the soundtrack running constantly in my mind. As such I listen to the new material with some expectations for it, and those expectations are initially frustrated. As such I need to trust that they know what their doing.

So I listen to each new album several times, forcing myself to notice each new detail, asking myself why they would chose to make this sound instead of all of the other possible sounds. By the tenth listen, or so, I'm sold. Pure genius every time. Of course! I say to my self. Why didn't I see it earlier? I didn't see it earlier because my mind was still clouded with my expectations for it. Until those expectations have been so frustrated as to depart forever, I can't really hear the new music. Because to hear it, you have to listen to it with an empty mind, devoid of poisonous expectations.

So, a couple of weeks ago I ran into a little bit of spare money, and spent it on the Violet Burning's live DVD, The Loudest Sound in My Heart. The title sums up their sound perfectly. The Violet Burning is where mysticism meets modern rock. Ethereal sampled sounds and sonic dissonance lay behind layered crunch guitars and moving distorted bass lines. The acoustic drums dialogue seamlessly with sampled digital percussion, driving the band and rocking the sound.

But principally the group is about Michael Pritzl's haunting vocals. Blessed with a powerful voice, nearly limitless range, a poet's heart and the stage presence of a veteran actor, Pritzl brings the audience into the heart of each song, ushering them into a kind a mystical musical experience.

Pritzl has long been the Violet Burning, writing the songs and surrounding himself with various willing and able musicians. But now, armed with the stable lineup of Daryl Dawson on bass, Doug Heckman on guitar and Jason lord Mize on drums, the Violet Burning has finally released a product which aims to capture the power of their live performances. [note: not to sound like a gushing fan or anything, but the two best rock shows I've ever seen were both by the Violet Burning, and both sported this lineup, which has been together since 2002] This brings me to what has stumped me for the last two weeks, and kept me from writing this earlier. I can't decide whether or not the DVD really does capture the power of a live show by the Violet Burning.

The sound comes from single live show in Vienna (and can also be found on a live cd by the same title), and, despite the inherant difficulties in getting a good recorded live sound, is almost flawless. The picture, however, was compiled in a unique way over a three year period in venues from around the United States and Europe.

At each show they put two camcorders on stage, and had several different people film with them throughout the night. After three years the had enough good footage to edit it to correspond with the soundtrack from the recorded Vienna show. The result is very creative, but often disjointed and jolting.

They make no effort to get the picture to look like one of their live shows, and make no effort to cover-up their methods. This is to their credit, and speaks to their integrity and creativity. However, flying from shot to shot, angle to angle, show to show within each song could give the viewer one hell of a headache. After all, for any single song you fight have visual footage from three years of live shows, some during the day, some at night, some indoors, some outdoors, some at festivals, some in clubs, some in churches. Additionally a number of different effects have been applied to each visual feed. The result is a picture as distorted as their screaming guitar sounds.

At first, sad to say, I hated it. But having spent money on a product by such a dearly loved band, I also hated that I hated it. But I was also determined no to let my expectations (and my past experiences at shows by the Violet Burning) ruin my experience of this product. So over the past two weeks I have forced myself to watch it almost every day, and I have to say that, like the best in creative rock, it grew on me.

I loved the sound from the get-go. Starting with the fantastic love song "Gorgeous" (my wife's favorite song, by the way), it grips your heart and never lets go. "Moon Radio," "Berlin Kitty," and "Fabulous, Like You" rock like nobody's business. Driving modern rock, like the best of U2. Truly powerful rock and roll. But the slower songs are even more powerful.

My favorite moment was "Gone Gone Gone," a tortured song which wrestles with the reality of balancing the divine calling of music with having healthy relationships. Consider this line:

Hollow songs in holy words are all I've ever known.

But, of course, his other, the partner in dialogue with the song, wants more than that. How do you balance your loves? Must you choose between a stable domestic life and the demons that drive rock?

The Violet Burning is at their best when they are using dynamic changes to create an atmosphere that invites the listener into the world of the song. This creates an emotional experience, a mystical encounter with the music itself serving the sacred. In this sense the Violet Burning is one of the most "Christian" bands around, even if they are more of a cross-over group. Their music does not speak about their relationship with God, it invites you into that relationship.

This is particularly evident in "Forty Weight," a sing which first appeared on their worship album,Faith and Devotions of a Satellite Heart. Sung almost as a canon, it layers prayer on top of prayer, using powerful mytstical images:

Oh God be merciful to me
Lift me from the earth and cover me
I wait for you

followed by

Lord, my cup is empty
Won't you come now and fill me up

These and other prayers alternate, then stack on top of each other, layering into a frantic crescendo of devotion.

The DVD (and the cd) also features a song resurrected from my favorite album of all time, their 1996 self-titled album, "Underwater." That album more than any other work captures what I think is the heart and soul of music. Each song is both secular and profane, offered to God but mired in the depths of the human experience. "Underwater" is a quintessential track from that album, and I loved hearing a new incarnation of the Violet Burning playing a new interpretation of that song. The lyric fits the music perfectly, and captures the essence of this mystical encounter, this merging of the secular and the sacred.

The song is an image of the religious life as a fight, trying to breath in water. As such it captures the imagery of baptism. Under the water the voice of the song asks a poignant question:

Is it healing me or drowning me?
The more I live the less I know

After wrestling with the distance between the images and the sound I finally decided that, if their experiment doesn't work, then they've still recorded and released a fantastic live album. But ultimately, even if the creativity of the DVD's images were brought about by fiscal reality (they are a truly independent band, with no label paying for the production costs up front), I think that it does work. I think that the strange and often distorted and disjointed images, taken from a series of live shows over a three year period, while not capturing any single live performance, usher the viewer into the kind of experience that they would have at a live show by the Violet Burning. And what an experience that it.


[note: from here on out my not-so-mad computer skills are being put to the test because my son destroyed my mouse. I went to the store, bought a new mouse, tried to install it, and for a series of reasons which make no sense to me (and probably have to do with the fact that the mouse I bought was somehow defective and will be returning to the store from which I bought it as soon as I finish typing this) it doesn't work, either.]

This pseudo-critic (finally got to that post script) has put his money where his mouth is and put something new into the world. While I am not a musician, I do dabble in music, and my twin brother is one hell of a musician. So I wrote a few songs, got together with him to put them to music, and have now posted some of the resulting demos (written between 2003 and 2004 and recorded in 2004) on myspace. You can find them by going to my myspace site.

I've added a sidebar item to this blog with a link to that site. You can find it under the heading Sandalstraps' Songs, just before you get to the Theology in/of the Culture War section.

Please check it out. I hope you'll like it.