Friday, November 30, 2007

Speaking of politics and religion...

I saw this Washington Post editorial cartoon by Tom Toles linked to at Drinking Liberally:

"Do You Believe Every Word of This Book?"

"Do you believe every word of this book?" the questioner asked, holding up a Bible. There are few venues appropriate for such a question, in my mind. As far as religious questions go, it is both divisive and misleading. Divisive, in that the question is used most often not as an honest appeal for information, but rather as a loaded test of one's orthodoxy. Misleading, because what exactly constitutes believing every word (and, in which translation/edition) is left undefined.

I do not recall ever having been asked this question, though I've served in churches who might not have minded asking me it if they had any idea the answer I would offer would be anything but an unqualified "yes." I don't know how I would answer it. The most honest answer would be a simple "Of course not, and neither do you." But such an answer might not sufficiently challenge any assumptions that underlie the question.

But, as unhelpful as that question is in most of the contexts I could place it, it is infinitely less helpful in the place where I actually heard it.

I didn't watch the GOP presidential debate the other night. I didn't watch it for at least two reasons:

1. I'm not a Republican, and so my opinion on any candidate attempting to win the Republican nomination for president of the United States couldn't matter less. They won't let me vote in the primary.

2. American political "debates" aren't really debates at all, and that makes me mad. Debates involve persons interacting with ideas, answering questions, challenging others and responding to challenges. But these made-for-TV events are more successions of stump speeches offered in response to generally staged questions.

The recent GOP on CNN debate, however, is, like the Democratic debate before it, evidently part of a new trend. Questions came from a variety of sources, from political cartoonists (have they ever been invited to the table before?!?) to the general public. And it is from that broad category "general public" that the question at the top of this post came. I first saw the video of it here.

"Do you believe every word of this book?" I don't know how all of the candidates responded to this question. The CNN clip that I linked to had only part of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's answer. I imagine that, if the question were asked sincerely, it was probably aimed at candidates like Romney, a Mormon, and presumptive frontrunner Rudy Giuliani, whose religious credentials have been called into question.

That this question was asked bothers me. But what bothers me more is my conviction - and I should state again that I don't know how the candidates answered, nor how their answers were taken - that the answers to it matter to many as much as any other issue. Of course in a democratic society in which religious people vote - and, given the prevalence of religion, that is every democratic society - there will always be some mixing of religion and politics. As a religious person whose politics are shaped in large part by my religious convictions and commitments, I don't think this is an entirely bad thing, either. But I still have serious problems with question like "Do you believe every word in the Bible?" shaping political discourse in this or any country.

One of those problems stem from the very nature of our democracy. The First Amendment to our Constitution is clear: there is to be no establishment of religion, nor any inhibiting the free exercise of religion. Part of this means that there is, in our nation, no religious test for office. To tie one's ability to hold office to one's religious faith would, it seems clear, violate both the Establishment clause (by favoring a particular religious expression over others, or by favoring being religious over being irreligious) and the Free Exercise clause (by placing such an incentive to be religious or to be religious in a particular way that one's liberty of conscience is placed at odds with one's political ambition).

This question, of course is not being asked by some powerful political agency, and so fails to rise to the level of a First Amendment violation. But in a culture in which one might be effectively disqualified by a sizable chunk of the electorate on the basis of one's answer to such a question on national television, this isn't exactly the case of a private citizen asking an honest religious question in private, either.

While many of our nation's presidents have had religious beliefs at odds with the majority opinion of their day, America has never had a self-proclaimed atheist as president. America has never had a Muslim, nor a Jew, nor a Hindu, nor a Buddhist, nor a Sikh, nor a Shinto, nor (as is becoming timely) a Mormon president, either. By and large, whatever their private religious beliefs, America's presidents have matched the nation's public Protestantism. This is not accidental. Religion in American politics matters. But the strong correlation between religiosity and political power calls into question our commitment to the First Amendment. It also, I would argue, calls into question the wisdom of the concerns that many religious people bring to political candidates.

The second concern that I have with asking GOP presidential candidates, on national television, whether or not they believe every word of the Bible, is a religious one. It does not stem from my conviction that in fact no one currently living, Christian, Jew, or otherwise, really believes every word in the Bible. It also does not, as far as I am aware, stem from the fact that my own views on Biblical authority are anything but orthodox. Rather, it stems from my concern that such questions promote a false religiosity, an uncritical religiosity, and a religiosity more interested in articulating agreement with propositional statements than in a commitment to the kinds of social change that I see as the essence of the Kingdom/Reign of God, one of the dominant metaphors of Jesus' ministry.

Our current president would be right at home answering the question in question. He would no doubt offer an unqualified "YES!" before giving testimony to the power of scripture and the God represented in it in his own life. He is at his rhetorical best telling of how the God of scripture saved him, rescuing him from the meaninglessness and sinfulness of his youth. The language of faith is second nature for him.

But under the veneer of public faith, as we have all, I suspect, learned, lurks something sinisterly anti-Christian, if the witness of Jesus has anything to do with Christianity. The prevalence of such wonderful bumper stickers as "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" and "Who Would Jesus Torture?" speak to the innate contradiction between the reckless militarism of this administration and the witness of the one our president claims is his Christ. Beyond that, I wonder how the apostle Paul [correction: the anonymous author of I John], who coined the wonderful phrase "perfect love drives out fear," would think of one who claims to be Christian while leading a reign of terror, cultivating a sense of perpetual fear in the American population.

The Biblical witness is infinitely more concerned with social and economic justice than with the trappings of religion, and yet our current president seems always more concerned with "faith-based initiatives" than with the plight of the poor and the vulnerable, those on the margins of our society. While he could no doubt articulate his belief in the Biblical text, there are quite a few Biblical texts he is not living by.

Asking candidates whether or not they believe every word in the Bible is not a very efficient way to discover their religious commitments. Further, while, like me, their religious commitments may shape their politics, and thus provide us with some useful information about them, being religious is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being a good president. To place even an informal religious test on the office of the president serves neither America (who has a great many devout but decidedly bad presidents) nor religion (which has been misused by far too many ambitious persons).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

"Sean Taylor's Death Wasn't Random"

"Sean Taylor's death wasn't random."

That is how's Jemele Hill opens her commentary on the murder of Washington Redskins' safety Sean Taylor, who died this morning at the tender age of 24. In her column, Hill makes several salient points on "American problem" (as opposed to simply a "racial" problem) represented by the violent death of yet another young black man.

After noting that murder is the leading cause of death for black males aged 15-24 (Sean Taylor's demographic), she calls this "an epidemic more lethal and closer than any war overseas, or any boogeyman terrorist we can unearth or create."

I have not yet been able to process this most recent death in the stream of carnage that characterizes life in the land of guns. I have not yet been able to weave it neatly into a narrative. Nor have I yet been able (or, perhaps, willing) to wrestle with the fact that Taylor's death seems somehow so much more tragic than the countless deaths of more anonymous young black men.

But, in a country where black men are 6 times more likely to be murdered than white men, I have to agree with Hill that this, yet another killing of a young black man, wasn't random.

Do yourself a favor and check out Hill's column.


Edited to add: 12-7-07:

I just read this column by Kevin Blackistone, which is perhaps even more worthwhile than Hill's reflections. Here is a sample quote:

According to most recent disseminated data by the Center for Disease Control, Taylor and Spicer will be two of roughly 4,000 black homicide victims in the country this year killed by guns. Most, of course, won't be a pro athlete like Taylor but an everyman like Spicer.

It didn't matter if they were rich or working-class, went to college or dropped out of high school, lived in a near million dollar home with a remote control gate or in mom's apartment in a tough quarter of town. It didn’t matter if one was strapping, strong and fast as the wind and the other was more like everyone else.

It didn't matter if they were famous or known to only a few. It didn't matter if they were living their dreams or still chasing them. They didn't escape the pathology.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sandalstraps Cinema

As the semester winds down (and the workload winds up) I've been day dreaming about what I'm going to do with all my soon-to-be-rediscovered free time. And, since doing something worthwhile has long been ruled out, I think I might spend more of my time blogging. At least until something more pressing (like J-term classes followed by the Spring semester) pops up.

But, if I do resume more regular blogging, what, o what should I blog about?

This morning I blew the time I should have been working on the two papers I have due this week finally watching a movie that I simply loved, but don't have time to comment in depth on yet: V for Vendetta, the Wachowwski brothers' worthy follow-up to the Matrix trilogy (first take: better than the second and third Matrix films, not quite as good as the first). Strangely enough, that film explores many of the same issues as my emerging idea for my Masters thesis (or am I just seeing a thesis topic in everything?), but more on that when I take the time to blog for real.

In the meantime, I've decided that until I change my mind (which could well be before any actual posts) I'm going to do more in depth looks at the theological, philosophical, and ethical content in movies, much like I did in these posts, two of my all-time favorites to write:



Or, for less depth, consider these:

Ever Since the World Ended (juxtaposing the film Donnie Darko with a Mose Alison song)

An Unnatural Evil (a look at Augustine's theodicy of natural evil after watching An Inconvenient Truth, but I swear, its not that heavy)

Bobby (paging Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Initial Response to Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It

For my "Evil, Suffering, and Death in the New Testament" class we are required to keep a reading journal. Last week's book was Gregory Knox Jones' Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It: Why We Suffer and How We Can Hope. It is essentially a primer in Process Theology's response to the problem of evil, though it is not written as a work of academic theology, and never actually mentions "Process Theology." It is a very pastoral book, written not by a theologian but by a Presbyterian minister responding not to the concerns of the academy but the concerns of the congregation. What follows is my reading journal entry for last week, after reading the book. The entry reads more like a book review than a journal entry, reinforcing perhaps a point that my pastor made last week after hearing me preach in our chapel communion service, when she noticed that for great theological treatises I don't even need notes, but when I'm talking about myself I read verbatum from a manuscript. Be that as it may, here is what I wrote in response to Gregory Knox Jones' Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It:

My first response to Gregory Knox Jones’ Play the Ball Where the Monkey Drops It is that it was a delightful read. His stories are lively and engaging, and his concerns are refreshingly pastoral. I also appreciated that he takes the philosophic problem of evil seriously. By that I mean this: he recognizes that there is a fundamental logical contradiction between God’s omnipotence and benevolence and the reality of evil and suffering.

While his book is not as rigorously argued as my favorite work on evil from the perspective of Process Theology, Kenneth Cauthen’s The Many Faces of Evil, and while he does not engage the nature of evil in the way that Cauthen does, it serves as an interesting primer on the way that Process Theology meditates on the nature of divine power in the face of the reality of evil and suffering.

The experience of suffering is a legitimate starting point for theology. It is one of the givens of existence, every bit as much as the experience of the holy, the sacred, the other, that which we call “God.” As such, it is valid, I think, to demand that our concepts of God and our reflections of God be accountable to our experience of suffering. This, at a basic level, is what Process Theology does.

In Chapter Five of his book, titled “Persuasive Power,” Jones reflects on the nature of God’s power in the face of the given-ness of suffering. After laying out the basic problem of evil he says this:

If God is all-powerful and loving, then evil should not exist. Yet evil does exist. And not just a little evil here and there, but widespread evil that causes tremendous suffering throughout the planet.

It is from here, the logical impossibility of reconciling God’s unlimited love and power with the brute fact of evil, that Jones argues for the need to understand God’s power in a new way. He could here follow in the footsteps of Christian philosophers like Richard Swinburne, who cling to the language of divine omnipotence while places some logical boundaries around God’s power. But instead he chooses to boldly and honestly assert what I take to be the most responsible theological response to the reality of evil and suffering: “There are some things that God cannot do.”

This statement is troubling to many Christians – nay, to many theists, not just limited to Christian theists – because it radically denies one of our “givens” (see Jones’ reference to Burton Cooper on p. 56) concerning God. Omnipotence is, in fact, such a given that many are incapable of thinking about the word “God” without also thinking about “omnipotence.” I remember taking a philosophy class at a state university, taught by a professor with no personal religious commitments, in which it was categorically stated that “omnipotence” is an essential part of the definition of “God.”

This is also somewhat pastorally challenging. It can rightly be asked how a limited God, a God who allows suffering to happen not for some mysterious reason that humans can never discern, nor for our own good or for any of the other reasons offered up in our formal and informal theodicies, but because God cannot do all things; it can rightly be asked how such a God who lacks the power to initially prevent suffering, to forcibly restrain the forces that cause suffering, can effectively respond to suffering.

It has been suggested to me (by a former minister turned atheist) that we must choose between an omnipotent God who refuses to prevent suffering and an impotent God who is powerless to act in the face of suffering. This, I suggest, is a false dichotomy, and the sort of false dichotomy at work in the minds of many Christians who feel threatened by the statement that there are some things that God can’t do.

We don’t feel the need to impose on anything in the created order the standard we place on God. Of course, this could be because many of us assert that God is radically different from the created order, wholly other, and so it is impossible to make any analogy between God and something created. While I find that sort of thinking about God quite appealing, I also think we should consider this: we would never consider saying that because there are limits on the power of the president, he is essentially impotent. Such a statement would be absurd. Of course there are limits on presidential power – even if some presidents act as though they are unaware of such limits. And, of course the president, despite such limits, is by no means impotent. Both the person and the office contain a great deal of power.

Jones uses his own examples of this sort of argument, saying:

Some seem to think that if God cannot do everything, then God is a weakling. I disagree. We would never say, “If the professor cannot answer every question, he is a useless professor.” Or, “If the physician cannot diagnose every illness, she is a worthless physician.” Such statements are nonsense. Indeed, the professor may open wonderful new worlds to us through brilliant insights, and the physician may save numerous lives through her expertise. Admittedly these are crude analogies, but I trust they make the point.

That is in fact the case for every power we can conceive of in the natural world. Why can’t it be the case for God? Why must God be either omnipotent (as most theists assert) or impotent? I for one can’t come up with a reason.

Jones asserts that not only is God’s power limited, but that power which God does have is quite unlike we often suppose it to be. Jones is wont to wax poetic on the power of God, saying in one of my favorite lines in the whole book, “God is the most powerful force in the universe, brining order out of chaos and making life possible.” But this power is not the brute power to override other wills and impose particular outcomes on situations. Rather, it is what he calls “the power of persuasion."

Jones sees God at work in the world trying to influence situations and bring about the best outcomes, not trying to override the respective wills of each actor. This view of God’s power is quite compelling, in part because it makes sense of things that many of use experience. Many of us have felt the presence of God in our lives. Many of us have “heard” without hearing the “still small voice” of God. Many of us have felt an inexplicable sense of calling, a calling that often takes us far from where we thought we would go in life. In these Jones sees the power of God working to bring about the best in the created order.

This is also compelling because it preserves human freedom (and, I would argue that this freedom extends beyond the bounds of humanity to include all animals, not just the so-called “rational” ones). In fact, Jones takes freedom as, along with the existence of God and the brute fact of suffering, as one of the givens in the created order. I won’t argue with Jones on the given-ness of freedom, as I too experience freedom (or, the determinist would argue, the illusion of freedom) as a given. But, in light of his offering up freedom as a good in a book meditating on the nature of God in the face of evil and suffering, perhaps a few words on the “goodness” of freedom are in order.

Many theodicies hinge on an appeal to free will, arguing variations on this theme: freedom is a good such that its existence offsets the various evils and sufferings that are produced by its creation. That is, God is justified in creating a world that has suffering, because suffering is inevitable in an order that contains authentic freedom, and freedom is so good that it outweighs the collected sufferings that result from it.

When both freedom and suffering are givens – that is, when the experience of both are basic and essential parts of life – the absurdity of this sort of argument is not obvious. As such, we rarely ask ourselves whether or not we would be willing to exchange our freedom for an existence without suffering. If freedom were such an obviously manifest good that it outweighs all concerns about evil and suffering, then it seems to me obvious that all or at least most reasonable people would be categorically unwilling to exchange freedom for anything, as it is a good so precious and so valuable that it makes up for each instance of suffering.

But in times of crisis we learn that, in fact, the opposite is true. When faced with the threat of suffering, the fear of crisis and death, humans are surprisingly willing to exchange a great many individual freedoms (which participate in freedom itself) for even the tiniest illusion of security.

Any book that makes so much of freedom in the face of suffering – even if it does not attempt to offer up a traditional free-will theodicy – should, I think, wrestle more with our willingness to so readily exchange our individual freedoms for some protection from evil, suffering, and death.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Welcome Change of Pace

For once, it seems, gay-bashing didn't work in Kentucky politics.

See this post by Lexington Hearld Leader political reporter John Cheves at Pol Watchers on how disgraced soon to be former Kentucky governor Ernie Fletcher failed in his attempt to distract voters from his scandals and gross incompetence by appealing to our worst homophobic tendencies.

I hope this didn't work because we here in the Bluegrass state are finally seeing the light, but in truth this is probably just a sign that Fletcher really is that unpopular. Even a tried and true Republican smear campaign couldn't rescue him from the stench of the mess he claimed to go to Frankfort to clean up.

Monday, November 05, 2007

How Do Women Fare in Toby Keith's Universe?

This weekend it was just me and Adam - Sami was in Nashville from Thursday through Sunday for a professional conference. While she was gone the boy and I had grand fun eating pizza and chocolate, and watching football and movies. Doing "guy-stuff." The sorts of things Momma wouldn't approve of if she were around. There was much merriment and roughhousing, and very little cleaning.

When she got back Sami presented me with a few gifts to commemorate her time away and celebrate the miracle that no one died while she was gone. Among the stranger gifts, I though at first, was a copy of yesterday's edition of Nashville's newspaper, The Tennessean. I may be a bit of a news junkie, but what does that have to do with me?

As I glanced through that paper this morning, I noticed (with mild disdain) that the Country Music Association (CMA) is gearing up for its annual awards. This must be a heady time for Nashville's canned music factories. I try to like all forms of music, and do in fact have some love for country music. Artists like Lyle Lovett, Allison Krauss, Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, and Patsy Cline are well represented in both my analogue and digital music collections. But, of course, if you search the CMA charts you won't find any of those names on them. You won't, in fact, find much country music on them - just cartoonish southern rock retreads in skin-tight leather, with hats, boots, and over-sized belt buckles.

Then I saw, on the front page of the paper, in bold letters (how did I miss them before?) these words:

Country's women toil in a 'man's club'

This article followed that loaded headline, and I read it with great interest. Among the indictments against country music's marketing machine are these:

There are 105 men to only 14 women in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

There are 158 men to only 10 women in the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Women also have decidedly unequal access to country music's radio waves, representing, according to this article, only 20% of the songs played on country stations. And of course, that last time a female act won the CMA's Entertainer of the Year Award was 2000, when the Dixie Chicks - who often fly in the face of what is expected of a popular country group - won, before their famous diatribe against President Bush got them effective banned from many country music media outlets.

This article also notes that women are rarely involved in production at major labels, which coupled with the lack of female music executives, could go a long way toward explaining the problem. As the article - written by Beverly Keel - notes:

No women produce acts on the rosters of Warner Bros. or Universal Music Group, while Capitol and Sony BMG each have only one artist produced by a woman (excluding female artists who produce themselves).

In an industry where men are the primary decision makers, it is no great surprise that women are under-represented. What was interesting to me, however, were the defenses offered by male "industry insiders" in another article written by Beverly Keel (which I could not find in the online edition of the newspaper). Most were variations on "blame the victim":

Mike Dungan, president and CEO of Capital Records Nashville, offered Keel this explanation:

The songs that are written for women often sound like you've heard them before... By and large, the music cranked out by female artists over the last three or four years hasn't been as strong as it needs to be.

Overlooking that everything that comes out of Nashville "sound[s] like you've heard it before" and that this corporate executive just used the phrase "cranked out" to describe works of art, showing little appreciation for the creative process, there are two parts of this quote that really steam me. First, it overlooks the fact that the problem of unequal treatment of women in the country music industry is decidedly not a three or four year old problem. And, it overlooks the extent to which quality judgments made by a male-dominated industry are made exclusively by men, who may not be the best judges of the artistic merits of female creations. The game, in other words, is rigged. Men sitting in judgment on women in an industry that has long viewed women as inferior have a vested interest in seeing artistic works by women as by nature inferior to artistic works by men.

In yet another article by Beverly Keel (also unavailable online) she notes that not only are women artists not represented on radio, they also by and large aren't well represented on television. CMT (Country Music Television) participates in the moving of most female artists to the margins of the industry, while simultaneously offering such monuments to women's liberation as Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team and The Ultimate Coyote Ugly Search. These shows (like so much else on television) represent women as primarily the objects of male sexual fantasies. The standards by which a woman is judged are limited to her waist, her bust, and the way she shakes her hips. In response to this situation, Keel quotes songwriter Matraca Berg as saying:

CMT is getting dangerously close to being the Hooters channel, with testosterone, boobs and booze.

What was overlooked in each of Keel's articles, however, is the political climate of popular country music. That, as much as anything else, may explain country's tendency to marginalize all but the most commercially successful female artists - who, of course, are marketed principally through their sex appeal. Any industry that fetishizes a particular reading of 1950s America - one that overlooks the rampant racism and sexism of the day to create an idealized world in which everyone knew their place - is likely, especially when coupled with almost entirely male decision makers, to subordinate women.

But most telling of the state of women in popular country music may be the fate of female artists who have the audacity to transcend the bounds placed on them. When Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks insulted President George W. Bush from on stage in 2003, it set of a firestorm that included not only CD smashings, burnings, and boycotts, but even burning effigies of the band. While much of this had to do with the way that many country music fans idolized (and this time I mean that literally!) President Bush, I suspect much of the angry outcry also had to do with women who had been marketed by the country music industry as vacant, cutesy sex objects having the audacity to voice their own political views. View that, by the way, while initially phrased somewhat crudely, evidenced a great deal of critical thought.

As noted at the time, Maines' statement stemmed from this 1918 quote from Theodore Roosevelt:

The President is merely the most important among a large number of public servants. He should be supported or opposed exactly to the degree which is warranted by his good conduct or bad conduct, his efficiency or inefficiency in rendering loyal, able, and disinterested service to the Nation as a whole. Therefore it is absolutely necessary that there should be full liberty to tell the truth about his acts, and this means that it is exactly necessary to blame him when he does wrong as to praise him when he does right. Any other attitude in an American citizen is both base and servile. To announce that there must be no criticism of the President, or that we are to stand by the President, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public. Nothing but the truth should be spoken about him or any one else. But it is even more important to tell the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about him than about any one else.

That Maines and the Dixie Chicks were treated like they lacked the intellectual gravitas to comment on such grave political matters - shouldn't they stick to songs about Earl? - shows the extent to which they and other thoughtful female artists are reduced to caricatures by the country music industry, when it bothers to represent them at all.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Quote of the Day

Religious fermentation is always a symptom of the intellectual vigor of a society; and it is only when they forget that they are hypotheses and put on rationalistic and authoritative pretensions, that our faiths do harm.

From the Preface to The Will to Believe by William James