Tuesday, July 31, 2007


Before Sami and I had Adam, we had our animals, and they are as much a part of the family as anyone. Late Sunday night, one of our two precious cats (the friendly one, not the autistic one - yes, my wife, who works with autistic children all day every day, claims we have an autistic cat), "Elise," or, as I call her, "Knucklehead," disappeared. Here is my favorite picture of her, taken one Christmas as we were putting the boxes away:

And here she is balancing on my feet one night before bed:

"Knucklehead," if you're out surfing the 'Net, know that we miss you! And come home soon, before we really start to worry.

In other news, we'll be taking our annual pilgrimage to Holden Beach, NC, later this week, so I may not blog for a while. We're leaving the 'Ville on Thursday, and won't get back until next Friday, at which point I'll be starting a six day a week summer class, which should take up most of my time.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

So, exactly how many carrots is that?

Tom just sent me this, from Discovery News, on the universe's largest diamond. OK, so the article is actually about why there are no diamonds in the skies of Uranus or Neptune, but it does mention a "white dwarf star with a solid diamond core," which begs the question asked in the title of this post.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

If you're bored...

you might want to read these:

Here is an excellent op-ed piece I found in the LEO by Dee Davis, the director of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, KY, on Democratic candidate for president John Edwards' recent trip to Appalachia. It first aired on NPR the before Edwards arrived in Kentucky.

And then there's this monument to colossal stupidity, by Frank Lockwood, the Bible Belt Blogger. Evidently, even though no one yet knows what the hell the Emergent church is, Frank Pastore, my new nominee for the idiot-of-the-month club, thinks that they're aiding and abetting al Qaeda.

Harry Potter and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

[Note: While this will engage some themes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it should still be relatively safe reading for those who have not yet read the book but wish to do so. In other words, it should have no spoilers, though, of course, any discussion of any aspect of a piece of art involves a degree of spoiling. That said, no plot secrets will be revealed here.]

As I noted in my last pseudo-post, I've finished reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and have now had a few days to ruminate on it. I meant to post some initial observations on the end of the Harry Potter series earlier, but circumstances conspired against me until today. Perhaps there is some providence in that, as what I'm sitting down to write right now is not what I would have written right after I finished reading.

The final installment in the epic tale of Harry Potter was, like all of the others, and engaging - nay, enchanting -read. But, much like its immediate predecessor, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Price, it was also a disturbing read. Much has been made of the escalating violence in the Harry Potter books. While they began as children's books, they have been maturing with their audience, taking on more and more adult content.

"Adult content" - I'm not quite comfortable with that phrase. It is so often a euphemism for the worst sort of juvenile depictions of sexuality and violence. And there is a great deal of violence in the final Harry Potter book. But when I use the phrase "adult content" it does not merely euphemistically skate around something crass; rather, it indicates a deepening of the social and ethical content in the book.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a great story, but it is not just great because it captures the attention and imagination of the readers with compelling characters and an engaging plot. It is also great because it is an act of modern myth making. In fact, this is J.K. Rowling's genius: she creates modern myths, in an age in which mythos has all but been pronounced extinct.

I argued earlier that these modern myths - which I then called "fairy tales" - entailed both an existential and a mystical component. They also, I should add, contain an ethical component. As the Harry Potter books have matured, they have grappled with issues of racism, sexism, classism, totalitarianism, and violence. The final book brings all earlier ethical reflection to its telos, its natural end, its mature completion.

One of my biggest concerns about the Harry Potter series is that it, like so many other mythic works, divides the world into two basic camps: Good and Evil. This, coupled with the justification of the use of violence by the Good against the Evil, is an essential element of what Walter Wink identified as the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Wink calls this myth "the dominant religion in our society today," and its influence is not at all difficult to see. When president Bush identified an "Axis of Evil," he was speaking in the language of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. When he speaks of a war between Good and Evil, in which the Good will prevail if only they have the resolve to do what is necessary to fight and win, he speaks in the language of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It could easily be argued that it is this myth - the true mythos of our culture - that lead us into the quagmire in Iraq.

And, it is no coincidence that Wink first noticed this myth not in his studies of ancient religions (though later he found it there) but instead watching cartoons with his children on Saturday mornings. Of the mythic structure of children's cartoons, he writes:

I began to examine the structure of other cartoons and found the same pattern repeating endlessly: an indestructible hero is doggedly opposed to an irreformable and equally indestructible villain. Nothing can kill the hero, though for the first three-quarters of the comic-strip or TV show he (rarely she) suffers grievously and appears hopelessly doomed, until, miraculously, the hero breaks free, vanquishes the villain or prevents his or her reappearance, and restores order until the next episode.

That's a familiar pattern that most of us recognize from our childhood entertainment. As Winks notes, you can see it in everything from Popeye to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. This is also a pattern that can be found in the Enuma Elish, the Babylonian creation story, circa 1250 BCE, which Wink sees as possibly the origin of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. This mythic structure, then, has been around for well over 3,000 years, and has long shaped how we reflect on the ethics of violence.

As I understand it, two important hallmarks of the Myth of Redemptive Violence are:

1. the ineffectual nature of redemption, and
2. the relatively low cost of violence.

These two together mean that, in such a polarized and polemical moral universe (Good v. Evil), the Good are justified in using whatever violence they must to resist and overthrown the Evil threatening them. Attempts to somehow convert or reform the Evil are seen as cowardice at best, if not a covert Evil. There are generally disastrous consequences for nonviolent attempts to resist Evil, but there are little or no consequences for violent resistance. Sometimes violence is, in fact, the only mode of resistance contemplated.

In some respects, the modern myth of Harry Potter participates in this ancient but endlessly repeating Myth of Redemptive Violence. The magical world is essentially divided into two camps. There is a monolithically evil threat, Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters, who use Dark Magic. This threat must be resisted, and the resistance to it is often quite violent.

In one moment in the final book, for instance, Harry attempts to disarm an attacker rather than kill him, and the consequences are almost disastrous. He is chastised, reminded that this is war, and that he must be prepared to kill if he does not want to be killed himself. Toward the end of the book we see both Harry and one of his former teachers using so-called "Unforgivable Curses" - curses which, we are told at the beginning of the seven-book series, may never be justified - against threatening Death Eaters, with no apparent remorse.

This participation in the Myth of Redemptive Violence is quite compelling at times, which is one of the reasons that myth has survived and thrived for so long. I shed many, many tears reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; some tears of sorrow, some tears of joy, and many, many mixed and confused tears. One of the most gripping moments in the book, one of the moments that drew out of my at least half my daily intake of water, was when Hogwarts rises up against Voldemort, and prepares for battle. As the defenses are raised, as each character - including the school itself, which becomes a character - girds themselves for battle, I realized just how gripping the Myth of Redemptive Violence can be.

But despite those participations in the Myth of Redemptive Violence, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows deviates in some important and ethically instructive ways from that dangerous if compelling myth. Most importantly, it challenges two of the most basic assumptions of the Myth of Redemptive Violence: the irreformable corruption of the Evil, and the relatively low cost of violence.

In the Harry Potter series, the magical world seems divided into two camps: Good and Evil. I noted that above. But, as the series matures, the moral universe in it becomes more complicated. There is some bleed-through between the camps. There are other camps that are not so easily identified. Characters become more complex, more human, and less easily identified as monolithically Good or Evil. In the final book, not only does Severus Snape - long the sole question mark in the series - become even more complicated; but also do such polarized figures as Albus Dumbledore and Lord Voldemort - long personifications of Good and Evil - become more fully human, more complex, and less monolithic.

This book explores the errors of Dumbledore's youth, making him a more tragic, more flawed, and ultimately more human and therefore more heroic figure. It also sheds some light on Voldemort's motives for his behavior, making him - like Dumbledore - a more tragic and more human figure. He is no longer a pure personification of Evil, but is instead a corrupt human being who has at least the option of redemption, whether or not he chooses to accept it.

Also, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the escalating death-count makes real the high cost of violence. Even though, ultimately, violence is imaged here as the best response to the threat posed by Evil, there are tragic consequences for the violence used, even when that violence is deemed just. There is simply no way to walk away from this book thinking that violence is ever easy. Too many friends lay dead at the end for that. It is, then, a very realistic depiction of our own moral universe, a universe in which we may occasionally find violence unavoidable (though my pacifist friends would say that situations in which violence is unavoidable are brought about not by the inevitability of violence, but instead by a lack of creativity) but never without harsh consequences.

Finally, this book deviates from the Myth of Redemptive Violence by its use of Grace. While not all in it are redeemed, there is no one in this book ultimately so intractably evil that Grace is not offered to them. No one, in other words, is beyond Grace. And that may be the most morally instructive aspect of this book, and the way in which it - despite its justification of violence - more closely resembles the Gospel than the Myth of Redemptive Violence.

If J.K. Rowling's epic tales of Harry Potter are to be our new modern myth, then they are a welcome replacement for the Myth of Redemptive Violence that has long gripped us, even if they contain some elements of that troubled myth.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I've been offline the last couple of days, reading the final book in the Harry Potter series. I'd love to write something meaningful about the book, but frankly I'm emotionally exhausted. I'm sure I'll write something at some point - even if only in the comments section of this or some other post - but right now I'm just going to link to my friend Heather's review.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I'd Rather Have Been Dumbledore...

You scored as Hermione Granger, You're one intelligent witch, but you have a hard time believing it and require constant reassurance. You are a very supportive friend who would do anything and everything to help her friends out.

Hermione Granger


Albus Dumbledore


Remus Lupin


Draco Malfoy


Severus Snape


Sirius Black


Harry Potter


Ginny Weasley


Ron Weasley


Lord Voldemort


Your Harry Potter Alter Ego Is...?
created with QuizFarm.com

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Why Do We Like Fairy Tales?

As you can see from the relative flurry of blog activity around here, I've finished my frantic re-reading of the Harry Potter books, giving my self a few days to emotionally process the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince before I pick up the series' final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

When I'd decided to re-read the whole series in anticipation of the final book, I was working my way through some Liberation theology. My wife says that I learn more outside of school than I possibly could in, and one look at the reading regimen I give myself each summer says why. This summer I'd already gone through a couple of Michael Eric Dyson books (not theology texts in and of themselves, but relevant to my own theological project), along with Karen Armstrong's The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions (I should write about that one sometime, an ambitious project chasing a thesis through history and pre-history), Paul Tillich's Radical Social Thought by Ronald H. Stone, and some other books that are not immediately relevant to my academic pursuits, but which were good reading anyway (Randall Balmer's Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelical's Lament, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Karen Armstrong's first memoir, Through the Narrow Gate: A Memoir of Spiritual Self-Discovery, Zora Neale Hurston's famous Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Maya Angelo's follow-up to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, titled Gather Together in My Name).

After all of that, I decided to tackle some Latin American Liberation theology, as that represented a gaping hole in my education. I decided to start with Jon Sobrino's Spirituality of Liberation: Toward Political Holiness, in which he addresses the Vatican criticism that Latin American Liberation theology is just Marxism in Christian language. In it he argues - quite compellingly, I might add - that you can't separate the spiritual from the political, and so he makes more overt the innate spirituality of Liberation theology.

While reading that, I also found a copy of George Kelsey's 1965 book Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man (the whole story of how and why I found that text will hopefully be a post unto itself soon enough). So, as you can see, when I temporarily stopped letting Harry Potter interrupt my theological studies, I had more than enough to go back to. But when I picked Kelsey and Sobrino back up, I just couldn't quite get into it. My mind was elsewhere, in a magical world of children's fantasy.

I didn't want to read theology just yet, I realized. I wanted to read fairy tales. So I shelved Sobrino and Kelsey again, and picked up George MacDonald's classic 1858 work, Phantastes, in which a man named Anodos, on his twenty-first birthday, comes of age and inherits his late father's writing desk and memoirs. And, as happens so often in fairy tales, when he opens up his father’s desk, he finds a fairy. The fairy tells him, after a brief philosophic argument concerning size (meaningless, the fairy argues) and form (which, the fairy claims, really matters), that tomorrow he will see the fairy kingdom.

That's as far as I've gotten in it, so far. But, reading it on the heels of the Harry Potter books, I started wonder why, exactly, we like fairy tales? Why, in other words, would I put my theological work aside once again to pick up a nineteenth century fairy tale. I, who went over three years without reading a single novel? I, who read theology texts for fun?!?

I can't claim to know the whole history of fairy tales. I don't know when they first appeared, nor do I know which cultures have them and which (if any) do not. I can't even give a firm definition of "fairy tale." I can say that, by "fairy tale" I mean more than just stories with fairies in them. I mean what most mean by fantasy, though I have in mind a particular kind of fantasy: children's fantasy. Fantastic, imaginative books and stories meant for children, though they enthrall the child in each of us.

I wrote here that I've probably learned as much theology these imaginative works as I have from theology texts. Whether that's true or not, it feels true, and since

a.) I wrote that, and

b.) I tossed my theological reading aside for a round of Phantastes

I've meditated on what fairy tales have in common with religion, because I suspect that's why I like them, and that may be why others like them, too.

At a bare minimum, fairy tales and religion have these two things in common:

1. They both involve an existential component, a voyage of self-discovery, and

2. they both involve a mystical component, an unveiling of a hidden layer of reality.

Additionally, in both fairy tales and religion, the existential component is deeply connected to the mystical component.

Take the Harry Potter series, for example. In it, a young orphan, raised by is abusive aunt and uncle, with whom he can find nothing in common, dreams of being something more, something special. Then comes the moment of discovery: he is, in fact, a wizard. This moment of discovery is powerful and compelling, because it taps into our own sense of uniqueness, our own desire to somehow be more than we appear to be. And, this moment of discovery is both existential and mystical. In it Harry Potter not only discovers a sense of identity that both makes sense of and transcends his daily experience, he also has unveiled to him a hidden layer of reality: the mysterious world of witches and wizards, unknown to non-magical Muggles.

This theme is not, of course, unique to Harry Potter. In my own fairy tale library I see it over and over again. In Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain a young boy named Taran dreams of being more than an Assistant Pig Keeper, only to have unveiled to him a hidden layer of reality that changes his experience of self and the world. In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins sets off on a mystical quest and finds not only a wider world than he could have possibly imagined, but also a deeper and richer sense of self. In Lewis' Narnia books, British children walk through a wardrobe into a magical kingdom beyond their wildest imagination, in which they find themselves heroes and royalty. And, before there was Harry Potter, Ursula LeGuin wrote her Earthsea books, in which Ged, who dreams of being more than the son of a blacksmith, discovers that he is a wizard.

In each of these fairy tales - and, I suspect, in thousands more that I can't think of at the moment - the mystical and the existential are linked. A hidden layer of reality is unveiled, and someone small who dreamed of being large finds that who they are transcends even their most ambitious dreams. Stepping out into the wider reality starts a voyage of self-discovery, in which the lonely dreamer becomes the person they are meant to be.

This is very much like my experience of religion, an experience that I started to own for myself just before my fifteenth birthday, when I had my own meeting of the mystical and the existential. But, rather than tell that story now, I'd like instead to point to the dangers inherent in this experience of religion, as they are dangers shared by the characters of fairy tales.

The first danger is with the existential. While it is exhilarating to find that you are somehow more than you thought you were, more even than you ever dreamed you could be, that experience also can make you self-absorbed. This is, as I read it, the biggest character flaw in any fairy tale hero. While their mystical experience has broadened their metaphysical perspective, their concern is often still narrow, still self-absorbed. So, often, is it with those of us who have "found religion." In our ecstasy at beginning the long process of authentic self-discovery, we focus on that self-discovery, and on ourselves. The dangers of this should be obvious to any of us who fight the raging beast of ego.

The second danger is with the mystical. Seeing the more, the sacred, in a previously hidden layer of reality is also exhilarating, to say the least. But it can also make us inclined to neglect our normal experience, to minimize the value of the mundane. Catching glimpse of the sacred [note: here I am using "secular" and "sacred" in the sense of Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane - I'm not using "profane" because of the negative connotations of the word] can sometimes make the secular seem so trivial, so insignificant that we can't bring ourselves to focus on it except in an effort to let go of it. But this can lead to the worst sort of arrogance and moral callousness. Properly understood, if we grant a division between the secular and the sacred, we still see the sacred in the secular, making the secular a sacramental realm in which the sacred is mediated. It is, in other words, the vehicle through which we see God, and has its own unique value within the concern of God. So our mystical experience - like the mystical experience of the fairy tale heroes - should not drive us away from the secular, nor should it diminish our concern for the secular. Rather our mystical experience should drive us toward the secular, seeing it as a sacral realm.

Aware of these dangers, we can guard against them, using our own enriched existential experience of self to deepen our concern for others, and using our expanded view of reality to make more precious our daily world. Good fairy tales touch that part in us that craves meaning, and help us process the grand fairy tale that is the story of our life.

I Didn't Do It!

This morning I heard screams coming from Adam's room.

I didn't do it, Daddy! I didn't do it! I didn't do it!

Madeleine, one of our two cats, raced through the hall like her tail was on fire.

What didn't you do, buddy? I asked him, trying hard to contain my amusement.

Ummm... My don't know, he replied.

Good answer.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Greatest Sin of White Liberalism

In a conversation after church this past Sunday, I actually started a sentence with:

The greatest sin of white liberalism...

As a white liberal, that's a tough place to be. Before I tell you what I think the greatest sin of white liberalism is, let me tell you how I got into a position to start a sentence like that. A few friends of mine were talking about the Civil Rights movement, when one of them wondered why, by the end of the 1960s, there were so few white clergy involved any longer.

It was suggested that the black community had "grown up" by then. That they were ready to "take over," and didn't "need us" anymore. This suggestion was not meant to be racist, and probably has some truth to it. At the very least it points to a paternalistic attitude that many white liberals still take toward blacks. (On this very blog, a commenter said, in reference to liberal loathing of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, "White liberals show their viciousness when their darkie won't perpetuate their system of condescending patronage.")

Issues like affirmative action are so difficult not just because in attempting to reverse the effects of race-based discrimination they in fact do discriminate (see this post for important distinctions between kinds of discrimination, lest you mistakenly believe that I am arguing here that affirmative action is wrong because it amounts to a kind of discrimination), but also because some argue that any favoring of blacks by a long-racist white society is simply another form of racism, which undermines black self-determination.

In that context, then, I could have easily said that the "greatest sin of white liberalism" is its often-paternalistic attitude. But it isn't. Condescending paternalism (and by no means do all white liberals fall into this attitude) may be ugly, but it is accompanied whenever it appears by a desire, a need, to be morally responsible for the fate of the other, and that sense of moral responsibility and connection is to be encouraged. That sense of moral responsibility - even if it does not always recognize the need for the other to also be a responsible and relatively autonomous moral agent - recognizes the deep interconnection that exists between the historical oppressor and the historical victim of oppression. So, the "greatest sin of white liberalism," as far as I'm concerned, can't be paternalism, though that is something that we who work for the liberation of the oppressed should always be on guard against.

As I read history, it wasn't just white paternalism and the need for black self-determination that caused a rift in the Civil Rights movement. Rather, it was another great sin of white liberalism, the sin that on Sunday, in a fit of rhetorical something-or-other, I declared the great sin, the greatest sin, of white liberalism, that as I read history forced the rift. This great sin is the worst sort of political realism, manifest in the tendency of white liberals to say things like:

Of course, I agree with you, but... the country (or the state, or the church, or whatever) just isn't ready for...

Of course liberals - like any other political group, movement, or ideology (though it is doubtful that the word "liberal" is at this point so sufficiently defined that it could really mean any of those things) - need to be politically realistic. We need to pursue policies that have some hope of practical political success. But we also need to distinguish between issues of political policy subject to the need for realism and fundamental moral issues, issues of inalienable rights. And, on such issues we need, as best as I can tell, to toss realism aside and engage in a more prophetic politic.

In the conversation at church that got me so riled up that I spewed out "the greatest sin of white liberalism," there was a lesbian who quietly recalled a conversation she had with a former civil rights leader. She said that she appreciated the need to build up the black family, but must that be done at the expense of gays and lesbians. As she recalled, he said something like "We, as a country, just aren't ready to have that conversation yet." She said that she thought she knew how that same man must have felt, so many years earlier, when a well-intentioned white preacher probably said the same thing to him.

Our country may not, in this dark day, be ready to have a serious conversation about the fundamental rights of gays and lesbians to have their most cherished relationships recognized by a society that is inexplicably frightened by them. We may not even be ready to have a serious conversation about the linger effects of our racist legacy, and the more subtle forms that racism takes today, when it is less fashionable but no less uncommon. But, as I understand it, the greatest sin of white liberalism - and a sin that has, in my friend's experience, moved well beyond the bounds of the white community - is a refusal to lead prophetically on issues "we" just aren't "ready" for.

What the... ?!?

Tom just sent me this. If you haven't already seen it, well... you've simply got to.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Obama on Faith, Edwards on Poverty

My entire adult life I've been waiting for a decent presidential candidate. A candidate that I'd want to vote for. A candidate I could embrace, instead of just holding my nose and punching in the lesser of the electoral evils. In my first presidential election I voted for Al Gore, but I didn't feel anything for him. He'd spent his whole campaign running away from a sure win by ducking Bill Clinton (wanted to prove he could do it on his own, I suppose) while at the same time looking more calculated than sincere. Leaving politics has been the best thing for him. Free from the constraints of winner-take-all elections, he is finally able to work passionately for the best for our country.

I didn't turn 18 until after Bill Clinton was elected to his second term as president, but I doubt I'd have had much passion for him in the voting booth either. Charismatic as any politician in recent memory, he is an interesting (and tragically flawed) person whose memoirs (derided by some for being so long) kept me up nights, entranced. But I can't think of very much that he and I agree on. That he is considered a "liberal" by so many is only proof of how much our country has changed in the last few decades. In moving the left to the center, he helped move the center to the right, making true liberals almost unelectable.

But now, in these dark days in the dregs of the failed Bush administration, I am finally finding politicians that I can truly embrace. Two of them, in fact. And that is the shame of it. Both Barack Obama and John Edwards are saying what I've been waiting my whole life to hear, rousing the ghost of the Kennedy brothers. Better than that, neither of them (unlike so many who try to appeal to the "secular left") are afraid of their faith. Instead they are willing to challenge the Gospel of the neocons with something that looks a great deal more like the Gospel I read. But, of course, I can only vote for one of them...

As conservative evangelicals have discovered recently, it is a mistake for Christians to invest Messianic hope in politicians simply because they speak the language of faith. While salvation may have a political component, it is not for politicians to give out. That said, check out this thoughtful piece on the faith of Barack Obama, from the Christian Science Monitor.

Meanwhile, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, John Edwards is following in the footsteps of RFK, touring Appalachia talking about poverty.

What I wouldn't give for an Edwards-Obama ticket, so I don't have to choose between the two of them...

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Nonviolent Resistance, Home Invasion Style

Often, when I speak of nonviolence, I am given what is taken to be a knock-down argument in favor of violent self-defense: What would you do if someone broke into your home, and pointed a gun at your wife and your son? Would you be nonviolent then?!?

The presumption is that, in a safe world, nonviolence is all well and good, but in this violently dangerous world, the best security is to be packing heat.

Well, I don't know what I would do if an armed robber broke into my home and threatened my family. But I do know that if I met that violent threat with violence of my own, the result would be, to say the least, tragic. As Walter Wink points out, violent criminals expect for their aggression to be met with either fear or aggression, either of which play on their own innate violence. What they don't expect is to be met with creative compassion. And that's exactly what happened here, when a would- be-armed-robber got a good glass of wine and a group hug.

(A tip 'o the hat to Frank Lockwood of the Bible Belt Blogger, for linking to this fine story.)

An Enchanted Sabbatical

In case you haven't noticed, once again I've taken a bit of a break from my blog. I'll explain why in a moment; first I've got to come out of a closet of sorts.

No, despite the insinuations of an anonymous commenter that, since I write from time to time on issues related to the GLBT community, I just might be hiding something, I have no sexual closet to come out of. But sexuality isn't the only area in which people pretend to be one way, while privately harboring some forbidden love.

I pretend to be a sophisticated person of sorts, with refined taste. But, in secret, I am... (pausing for dramatic effect)... a (another pause tossed in for good measure - I'd do a drum roll, but I can't) Harry Potter fan!!!

I know that puts me in pretty good company. Given that J.K. Rowling just became the first person to ever make more than a billion dollars for writing books, there are more than a few Harry Potter fans in the world. And, I am one of them. I don't feel the need to either explain or defend my love of the Harry Potter books and movies, and I suspect that none of my dear, beloved readers would expect that from me.

That said, I grew up on fantasy. Before I could read, my mother read to me from C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. The first books I ever chose for myself were written by Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L'Engle, Ray Bradbury, and Isaac Asimov. As a teenager one of my mom's brothers became my favorite uncle (despite being the only Republican in the family!) by introducing me to Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, giving me Lord Foul's Bane as a Christmas present.

I think I've learned as much theology from great works of fantasy - imaginative works that create new worlds in which to explore existential and ethical problems in the midst of ripping good yarns - as I have from theology texts. C.S. Lewis' Perelandra or 'Til We Have Faces are both more interesting and more theologically responsible than his myriad non-fiction books. And while Madeleine L'Engle's Time Trilogy (which, like Douglas Adams' "increasingly inaccurately titled" Hitchhiker's Trilogy eventually comprised well more than three books) may be the only works of "children's literature" that I've seen appear in the bibliography of a theology text (Walter Wink said that they provide "an excellent starting place for understanding the Powers"), a great many of the books I read as a kid might somehow find themselves in whatever magnum opus I decide to write.

So, it is no accident that I like the Harry Potter books. I've been critical of them from time to time - the use of magic can be downright lazy, there is too great a dichotomy between good and evil and few non-violent methods for dealing with evil, and I don't think the wizarding community has any sense of how they have interconnected and interdependent relationship with the Muggle world. Ursula LeGuin's Wizard of Earthsea books have a much better developed philosophy and ethic of magic. But the Harry Potter books are full of the most enchanting magic of all: they make children, raised in an age of television and video games, read again.

And this past week has been a great week to be a Harry Potter fan, with the new movie just out, and the long-awaited final book on its way. I've been downright giddy of late. And that, I'm afraid, is why I haven't been blogging. In anticipation of the new movie (I finally saw it this afternoon - Sami and I give it two thumbs up!) and the final book, I've been frantically re-reading the whole series. It's taken up all my time.

So I've been on an enchanted sabbatical, slipping off to the magical world of Hogwart's School of Witchcraft and Wizardry every chance I get. See you when I get back.

(And, if, like me, you are a Harry Potter fan, don't foget to check out my friend Heather's new temporary blog, The Muggle Tongue.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

An Important Distinction

The debate here over the recent Supreme Court decision ruling Louisville's and Seattle's public school desegregation plans unconstitutional (irony # 458: the Louisville plan the court struck down was put in place when an earlier Supreme Court ruled that the city wasn't doing enough to integrate - so, essentially, a plan ordered by the Supreme Court was later ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court!) has forced me to consider an important distinction that needs to be made.

Just as, earlier (in a discussion on the theology of James Cone - see the whole series here) I argued for the need to make a distinction between the violence of oppression and the violence of the oppressed in response to their oppression, here I will argue that we need to make a distinction between kinds of discrimination.

Much has been made of this line in Chief Justice Roberts' majority decision:

The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

On the surface it makes perfect sense. The thinking behind it led to Roberts' equating of desegregation plans which consider race, and as such, in some way discriminate on the basis of race, with the forced segregation that was (at least legally) overturned in Brown v. Board of Education. If what was wrong with segregation was that it was a legal form of racial discrimination, then racial discrimination of any kind must be both wrong and unconstitutional.

But the question we have to ask is this: Are all kinds of discrimination on the basis of race equal? Is the discrimination of Jim Crow equivalent to the discrimination of public school integration plans that consider race? I have to say NO!

Our country has a long history of racism and social injustice. This racism has placed many groups at a significant (and unnatural, as it has nothing to do with the inherent nature of the disadvantaged groups) disadvantage. Perhaps the single most disadvantaged group (with all due respect to the indigenous population that was nearly wiped out with the arrival of Europeans) is the group we call "black." Stolen from their native lands and forced into slavery, this group has been consistently dehumanized, to the point where our court system ruled once that blacks have no rights that whites are bound to respect.

The persistent legacy of racism - and of this there is no doubt - has long limited the educational and economic opportunities and outcomes for blacks. As such, they have been explicitly excluded from full participation in American culture, despite their great contributions to American culture, without which it would make no sense to speak of a distinctly American culture. (Jazz, blues, rock and roll - these are distinctly American forms of music, but their roots are black.)

Because blacks have been explicitly excluded from full participation in American culture; because they are the victims of a persistently racist social structure; they must be explicitly included, and such inclusion looks a great deal like the discrimination of favoritism. This brings me to the first distinction that needs to be made when talking about discrimination:

We must make a distinction between discrimination which favors or advantages a group, and discrimination which excludes, harms, or puts a group at a disadvantage.

Of course these kinds of discrimination are related. It is difficult and often nonsensical to distinguish between these kinds of discrimination in certain cases. In a society in which "white" is considered the normative form of humanity, the favoring of whites cannot be distinguished from the excluding of non-whites from full participation in humanity. White privilege disadvantages blacks. This is why, in addition to distinguishing between favoring a group and marginalizing a group, we must make another kind of distinction:

We must distinguish between discrimination that perpetuates past inequities and discrimination that aims to level the metaphorical playing field.

Simply put, outcomes matter. Any discrimination that favors an already favored group or that pushes an already marginalized group further toward the margins has a very different outcome from a discrimination that recognizes past inequities and tries to create a more just and equitable society. It is with this in mind that I'd like to revisit the Roberts quote:

The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

I don't necessarily disagree with it. However, in our effort to "stop discrimination on the basis of race" we must recognize the many expressions of harmful discrimination, of white favoritism and black marginalization, inherent in our society. Absent that, ruling desegregation programs unconstitutional, and equating them with the discrimination of Jim Crow laws, does not "stop discrimination on the basis of race." Rather, it robs those who wish to end harmful discrimination of a valuable tool to fight discrimination.

The discrimination of integration in public schools is not the same as the discrimination of segregation. In slightly favoring a disadvantaged population it helps create a more just and equitable society, which is very, very different from the discrimination of entrenched white privilege and racism.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Future Astronomers of America

This morning the moon was still visible over St. Louis (we're visiting my grandparents here in the home of the arch) when Adam got up. He looked at the sky for a long time, puzzling over something. Finally he turned to me, pointed up, and asked,

Daddy, what 'dat is?

That's the moon, Adam.

He looked at it a moment longer, and the turned to me, and said,

No, Daddy. 'Dat's a rock.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

George Will on the Dismantling of Desegregation

I just read this op-ed piece by George Will, praising the US Supreme Court's recent decision ruling the formerly court mandated school desegregation plan in Louisville unconstitutional. Suffice it to say, Mr. Will disagrees with Michael Westmoreland-White, who argues here that the Supreme Court's decision could amount to a re-segregation of public schools.

While George Will argues passionately and somewhat persuasively that considering race when determining where a child will go to school is in and of itself an act of racial discrimination, and while his position seems both reasonable and ethical, he overlooks an important fact from the ground: Here in Louisville, we already live in a mostly segregated city, with decidedly unequal public education opportunities. In a city where, by and large, the money (and, not coincidentally, the white people) live on the east end, and the poverty (and, again, not coincidentally, the black people) live on the west end, the only thing keeping us from having a de facto segregated public school system is the sort of plan that the Supreme Court - who initially imposed it on us - has just struck down.

I don't believe that either George Will or the five members of the bench who voted to overturn Louisville's desegregation plan are consciously racist. And, I do believe that they really believe that the best thing, in terms of both ethical ideals and real outcomes, is to have color-blind public policies. In a color-blind world - the world that, I hope, most of us wish to live in - public policies that considered race would be the abomination that George Will and Clarence Thomas declared them to be. But we don't live in the world we wish for; we live in a messy and complicated world, tainted by a long history of discrimination and oppression, in which racism is an entrenched institutional reality. And, in such a world, color-blind or race-neutral policies only contribute to white privilege.

Being willfully blind to the entrenched institutional racism that ensures that blacks have neither equal educational nor economic opportunities in a "color-blind" Louisville will not, despite the high ideals of Mr. Will, help create an actually color-blind world. It will simply help those of us who benefit from such a fundamentally unjust and unequal society sleep better at night. Pretending that we're all already equal will not help bring about racial equality. It will simply baptize the inequalities that are so painfully evident in our society.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

It's A Miracle!

For the first (and quite possible the last) time, I can honestly and sincerely say:

I completely agree with Cal Thomas!

My favorite punching bag has written something well worth reading. Here's a quote:

As with religion, some people on the right have used patriotism, which should be a unifying theme, to divide Americans. My liberal friends love America as much as I do. They might disagree on some, or all, of my political and religious beliefs, but that does not make them less in love with America, much less un-American.

Check it out.

So Much For Family-Centered Fun...

Online Dating

At least I've got some good company. I punched Habakkuk's Watchpost into the program, and sure enough, they're NC-17, too.

Update: 7-06-07

My last few posts must have been more wholesome. This blog is now rated:

Free Online Dating

Monday, July 02, 2007

Beaten to the Parental Punch

Today Adam asked me to play "kitchen" with him. It's his favorite game. I can't tell if he likes play eating or real eating more. He has a passion for food. He even helps us cook.

So, he talked me into playing kitchen with him. I suppose if he weren't such an uber-masculine boy (built like a tank, and loves to wrestle, play sports, and climb things for no particular reason save that they're there to be climbed) and I weren't such an "enlightened" man who loves to cook, I might worry at least a little about a boy whose favorite toy is his child-sized kitchen. But rather than wonder what, if anything, playing kitchen in a culture in which that constitutes women's work, says about my son, I was just thrilled that he asked me to play with him. So we played kitchen, which mostly consisted of him sticking plastic vegetables into plastic pots, sticking them onto a plastic stove-top for about a second and a half, declaring them done!! and handing them to me to "eat" them. YUM!

After creating his own eggplant pizza (only a vegetarian child would create something like that!) he got bored with "cooking." So, he stared for a little while at his assortment of plastic plates, wondering what he might do with them.


A blue plate went careening toward the television in our living room.

He then turned to me, and before I could get in a word, proudly declared

Daddy, that is NOT a Frisbee!

He stole my line from me. At least I can't say he never listens.

R.I.P. BluegrassReport.org

One of my favorite blogs, Mark Nicholas' fabulous BluegrassReport.org - a blog dedicated to covering Kentucky politics while pushing a more progressive agenda than we usually find in these parts - has called it quits following its owner/operator's move to Montana. So, I guess I'll either have to find a new local political blog that I like, or - *gasp* - I might have to find some constructive way to use my time.

Chuang Tzu's Butterfly Dream

[Note: While I usually prefer the Pinyin transliteration of Chinese to the Wade-Giles, here I am following the lead of Martin Palmer and using a modified version of Wade-Giles to transliterate Chinese names.]

I just fell back in love with one of my all-time favorite philosophy stories. Taoism, the ancient Chinese philosophic school, traces its roots back to three figures: Lao Tzu, Lieh Tzu, and Chuang Tzu (Tzu means "Master," so these names are formal titles, meaning essentially Master Lao, Master Lieh, and Master Chuang). Of these three, only one, Chuang Tzu, can be located in history.

Chuang Tzu was certainly born in the early fourth century BCE, sometime around 370, and probably died somewhere between 311 and 286 BCE. He was a hermit who quite often dressed the part. In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong writes that he "once visited the king of Wei dressed in a worn, patched gown, his shoes tied together with string." But despite is rough appearance and his refusal to conform to societal expectations, he cultivated a reputation as an exceedingly wise person.

Many of his teachings are preserved in The Book of Chuang Tzu, one of the classics of Taoist philosophy. In fact, he may have written much of the material himself. It was compiled and edited during his lifetime, which is exceptionally rare in the ancient world.

My favorite story in The Book of Chuang Tzu is the story of a dream. However, rather than offering my usually commentary on this story, I'm going to try something else. Here I am simply offering the story itself, as translated by Martin Palmer, along with a challenge. What, if anything, do you get out of this story? What do you think it is saying? Why do you think this story has survived for over 2300 years?

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Tzu, dreamt I was a butterfly, flitting around and enjoying myself. I had no idea I was Chuang Tzu. Then suddenly I woke up and was Chuang Tzu again. But I could not tell, had I been Chuang Tzu dreaming I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I was now Chuang Tzu?