Saturday, December 21, 2013

And Here's To You, Mr. Robertson

"I predict, this 19th day of December of the year 2013, that Mike Brooks will soon compose a blog post on the difference between our 1st amendment rights to the free exercise of speech and our need to be accountable for the consequences that flow from our free exercise of speech, complete with Phil Robertson references ..." - Jeff Weldon
 It was early Thursday morning when I read about what, judging by the number of people weighing in via Facebook, must be the most important news story since the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists: some old, conservative, Southern, Christian dude believes - correctly - that the Bible condemns homosexuality. This is not an uncommon position (and can even be held by some young, moderate, Yankee, Muslim woman), so I was a little surprised at the outrage. After reading up on what was actually said (oh my.....), I started to wonder if anyone posting their support had actually done the same, or if they simply wanted to state a position in the imaginary "war on free speech".

I should begin with a disclaimer as well as an admission of my own personal bias in this situation. I have never watched a single clip from "Duck Dynasty". I had seen these bearded guys pop up in the Facebook news feed in the past year or two with a similar frequency to Candy Crush invites, but largely ignored them both - just as I scrolled past more than a few statements about Jesus and sisters and moms being the best without a "like" or "share" (Sorry, Mom). It appears the draw for many evangelicals is that it portrays a family outspoken about their faith, without inappropriate language or situations; this of course stands in contrast to the commentary about human anatomy in the interview which I would not want my kids to read.

I also fully admit, right here and now, that I really have a strong dislike for "reality television" in general. I sadly witnessed the birth of this genre when tuning in to MTV one day (the M stood for "music") hoping to see that zany "Once in a Lifetime" video - but instead being rudely introduced to a "Real World". Video may have killed the radio star, but "reality" was killing the video, and I was not a fan. Why can it never just be the same as it ever was?

Fortunately, it would be many years later before the virus would spread to claim much of television. For much of my youth, I could still watch scripted sitcoms like Family Ties or The Cosby Show on the main networks, thank God. To this day, seeing another commercial for the 56th reincarnation of The Bachelor or America's Got Cooties or for the newest group of B-list celebrities dancing or diving or writing haiku drives me to my knees, begging the Almighty for even an ALF rerun. So, even if the Robertsons are better role models than the Kardashians, I would still tend to root for the cancellation of "Duck Dynasty", simply on principle.

And now, to fulfill the prophecy.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances..." - First Amendment
The first amendment is often referenced by its individual protections by phrases like "freedom of religion" or "freedom of speech". The purpose of the Bill of Rights, if not the entire US Constitution, is to restrain the power of government to ensure a measure of personal liberty, and it is no coincidence that religion and speech are mentioned first in the amendment that is the first of the American Magna Carta. To the best of my knowledge, however, Congress has made no law as a result of Phil Robertson's recent comments, so any reference to the first amendment in his defense is misplaced. People may debate whether the television network reacted appropriately or inappropriately to the comments, but it is not a constitutional matter.

Perhaps the greatest irony in this (or any) discussion of "free speech" is that often, the phrase is used in an attempt to silence or dismiss the speech of someone with an opposing viewpoint. I fully support Mr. Robertson's right to answer a question in any fashion he sees fit, and to hold any religious belief (or none), but I do not see those voicing opposition to his comments as enemies of free speech - they are merely exercising it for themselves. I've seen a lot of threats back and forth over the last couple of days, starting with GLAAD and the NAACP (the last organization in the country allowed by society to use the word "colored", but I digress) threatening the network, but expanding to people threatening advertisers (if they support the show, or if they drop the show), the network threatening Mr. Robertson, and fans of the show threatening the network. It's Chick-Fil-A on steroids. It's messy, and much of it regrettable, but it's all "free speech".

 It's also all economics. Yes, Mr. Robertson used some unnecessary, harsh, and completely illogical comments about homosexuality. I certainly can't support his comments personally, but even if he had been respectful and to the point - if he had simply said, "As a Christian I consider homosexuality to be sinful" and left off the bits about vaginas, anuses, and terrorists - I am pretty sure that A&E would have still released the usual disclaimer that the views of Mr. Robertson are his own and do not reflect the ideals of the network. But Mr. Robertson pushed a little harder than that, and then GLAAD pushed back on A&E, and they in turn completed the triangle by pushing back on him. Mr. Robertson's comments very likely come from his own personal convictions, but the network's reaction is more likely out of economic consideration. The stronger the wording, the more likely there may be an economic cost to someone involved, whether the loss of a contact, contract, or position. Often the real enemy of free speech isn't another's free speech, it's capitalism.

I can't help but think how little I heard the phrase "freedom of speech" ten years ago, when in March of 2003, lead singer Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks told an audience in London: "Just so you know, we're on the good side with y'all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we're ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas." The backlash was strong and swift; radio stations dropped the Chicks from rotation (their cover of Landslide dropped from #10 to #43 in a single week), and groups organized public destruction of their CDs. A lot of the same people who are today suggesting that actions taken against Mr. Robertson are un-American and/or violations of the freedom of speech were also highly supportive of such retribution against the country trio.

As the saying goes, freedom isn't free. There are costs to taking a stand for anything, which is why many politicians (and sadly, many religious leaders) don't really say anything that means anything. One should speak his or her mind with conviction, based on the power we have through our liberty.  But, as Spidey will tell you, with (great) power comes (great) responsibility. Simply having the right to say what you wish does not imply that either the content of your message or the manner in which it is delivered is right. Part of communication is at least giving some thought to how the message will be heard by one's intended audience. This isn't "political correctness", it is prudent forethought.

For those who may equate the backlash against Mr. Robertson to an attack on religious belief, consider for a moment that 45% of Americans believe homosexuality to be a sin, and I have never heard anyone suggest that almost half of the population are bigots. Pope Francis has affirmed the teachings of the Catholic church on the matter, and the "liberal media" has named him Person of the Year. If the media is simply opposed to the idea that homosexuality is a sin, or opposed in general to the gospel of Christ, then how could this be? It's very easy to dismiss offense with religion, to suggest that the problem is that someone merely doesn't want to acknowledge "truth" as defined by someone else, but is the goal of religious conversation to offend, or to mend? Most often, the conflict is not one with God - it is with the self-appointed messenger.

I have no doubt that Phil Robertson did not intend offense at his comment. I'm sure he did not mean to present Christianity in a negative (and strange) way. I take him at his word when he says that he does not hate anyone and wants to see people accept his faith, but if this is the goal, perhaps the methods of the Pope are more effective? Mr. Robertson is on a show with a huge viewership, and I don't know what he does on it, but I also see Pope Francis in the headlines about every week: he's feeding people, ministering to the homeless, washing the feet of young prisoners, embracing the physically deformed. Granted, no one expected a GQ article to change the world, but it is very odd that most Christians I know have little to say about the Pope (except for a few who criticize his comments about economics) and yet so many have posted a zealous defense of Mr. Robertson.

Yes, it is true that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, but going in to the grocery store, picking up a dozen eggs, and dashing them to the ground is not making an omelet, it's just making a mess. What are you cooking today?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

American Culture Under Attack by Religious Extremists!

Every religion seems to have some level of division - there are differing schools of Buddhist thought, Sunni and Shiite camps in Islam, a few major sects in Judaism, and far too many different denominations to even name in Christianity. As such, there will always be some measure of conflict, but lately I've seen a number of reports that have convinced me that America may soon be at war with a small but growing religious minority. One of the major figures in this war is a radical cleric who recently expressed his support of Ahmed al-Tayyeb, the top imam of the University of Al-Azhar, and has been known to visit imprisoned Muslims. Last year, he moved his base of operations to southern Europe and took a new identity, but that didn't stop him from publishing an 84-page manifesto just two weeks ago that railed against the "tyranny" of American capitalism. Oddly enough, he titled the work "Evangelii Gaudium", or "Joy of the Gospel".

The next week, I saw another attack, this one on well-known financial guru Dave Ramsey, when a religious feminist criticized a post explaining the apparent path to wealth that is the American dream; she attacked the very foundations of America by calling it a land of "slavery, ethnic cleansing, gender inequality, and Jim Crow". Lastly, at the recent death of a religiously motivated, convicted African terrorist who was on the American terror watch list until 2008 (and known for several high-profile criticisms of the USA), President Obama suggested that Americans lower their flags to half staff out of respect (and calling him a "courageous and profoundly good human being"). There he goes again, palling around with terrorists.

In all political correctness fairness, one should note that the majority of Christians worldwide are peaceful, and are not out to destroy America. Yes, there are violent-sounding passages in the Bible, and plenty that condemn "the rich", but more moderate Christians are highly supportive of wealth and the USA. Vocal opponents include Methodist Rush Limbaugh, who condemned Pope Francis' teachings as "pure Marxism", but sadly, the average Christian refuses to condemn the more extreme rhetoric of these radicals and terrorists. As a result, the stage is set for an ineluctable conflict that could become the next stage of warfare between religious and cultural ideals, one that the virtually disbanded "Moral Majority" would never touch with a 39 1/2-foot pole.

Nothing New

While it may seem a new direction, the progressive economic idealism of Pope Francis (formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio) is not without precedent. The Didache 4:6 states: "share all things with your brother, and do not say that they are your own. For if you are sharers in what is imperishable, how much more in things which perish!"  Individual wealth was attacked by many of the early doctors: St. Basil the Great echoed the sentiment in the fourth century: "That bread which you keep belongs to the hungry; that coat in your closet, to the naked." St. Augustine went so far as to say that "business is in itself an evil"; Jerome claimed that "a man who is a merchant can seldom if ever please God." St. John Chrysostom railed, "So destructive a passion is avarice that to grow rich without injustice is impossible." 

Jesus does not use the word "impossible", but it's possible one could assume that from his statement that "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" (Matt. 19:24, ESV)  James linked wealth with oppression: "Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?" (James 2:6,7) There are numerous other verses that paint the wealthy in a negative light as well, but it will suffice to say that Pope Francis is not pulling his negative view of personal wealth from a source outside of Christianity.  Both biblically and historically, there is a wealth of Christian criticism of wealth.

Again, not all Christians would agree with the statements above.  Sarah Palin was slow to criticize the Pope, suggesting instead that his words were being twisted by "the liberal media", but such assignment of blame (and thus evasion of the conflict proper) is becoming harder to maintain as Francis continues to speak and pen his sentiments in his own hand. If the Vatican itself posts an official treatise critical of wealth disparity, the media is largely taken out of the equation, unless of course one considers the Vatican to be a part of the liberal media.  Fortunately, the Pope's character is so admired (by persons of any religion, or none) that the typical political ad hominem attacks will only backfire, indicating the inevitability of conflict among American Christians, in particular.

What's Wrong With Wealth?

Dave Ramsey has some experience with wealth. He has helped thousands of people (primarily churchgoers) manage and increase their wealth, and he has increased his own wealth in doing so. Like any rising star within evangelical circles (ie Rick Warren, Rob Bell), he has attracted a fair amount of criticism in the process. The most recent controversy concerned a post on Dave's website that was actually written by Tim Corley, entitled 20 Things The Rich Do Every Day.  In a rebuttal posted on CNN, What Dave Ramsey gets wrong about poverty, blogger Rachel Held Evans questioned the implied causality of the list as well as the theological implications - and battle lines were drawn.

After reading Corley's list, I can't say that I disagree with any of the points (although many are slight variations of others, as if there was a quota to meet twenty). Most seem like common sense; it is highly advisable for anyone to read more, take education seriously, eat healthy and exercise, and so forth.  However, I also see the point of those that question this list.  While many of these points are simply good advice not unlike after school public service announcements, the latter are simply presented as helpful advice.  Corley's list advises people to so these things because these are what "rich people do", making the assumption that we all are envious enough of them to want to mimic them, so that we too may become rich people.  Of course, as Mr. Ramsey claims to teach from a biblical perspective, he should be aware that the Bible's mentions of the wealthy are far more often the direct opposite, contrasting a moral good with the actions and attitudes of the wealthy (Interestingly enough, a recent study came to this same biblical conclusion).

As many others have pointed out, the list is also not scientific, in that there is no control.  There was no definition given as to what income level was considered "rich" or "poor", and it also failed to account for other factors.  For example, if we are talking about millionaires, the majority of them are over 60 years of age. Especially if no inheritance was involved, it simply takes time to pay off a mortgage (and then for that property to appreciate in value), to compound enough interest in one's 401k, et cetera. People may be wealthy and retired: if a large number of millionaires work far less than 40 hours, does that mean that we all should do so, to emulate success?  Statistics also indicate that the wealthy are more likely than the poor to be non-religious/atheistic, is that also advisable? If numbers indicate that 90% of rich people have only one or two children, and the poor average four, does this make one morally better? Or, to use a real example, if most of the mega-rich agree that taxes should be higher on the wealthy, should we not make their superior opinion our practice?

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect to this whole exchange was Mr. Ramsey's ungracious comeback to those who questioned the post. Calling his critics "ignorant", "spiritually immature", "doctrinally shallow", he instructs them to "grow up", while at the same time perpetuating the idea that, at least in America, wealth is the reward of those good enough to earn it.  It should come as no surprise that those with little feel they deserve better, while those with much feel they have earned their wealth by being better than those without.

The link between moral goodness and wealth is drilled into Americans at the earliest of ages.  Before any of us learn the truth behind the ruse, most of us are taught that Santa Claus rewards good behavior with material goods, and thus the child with one poor parent, who receives little if anything on Christmas, must have misbehaved.  The child with two wealthy parents, who receives anything he requests, must be very, very good.  Sadly, many of the comments I've read in the defense of wealth are not far removed from this false correlation: the poor (at least in America) are so out of choice, and if they were not so lazy, or foolish, or without faith, they wouldn't have to endure poverty, which is merely the consequence for their lack of vision.

To clarify, I don't believe Mrs. Evans was criticizing wealth, but rather the importance assigned to it in our culture. I certainly don't oppose wealth, and could easily accept having more of it myself, but I also acknowledge that in theological and moral terms, wealth is no better than poverty. The irony is that some of the same media sources that complain about envy of the rich also feed the public a steady stream of coverage of (and praise for) them; if "class warfare" exists, surely they are the aggressors.

Why Praise Communist Rebels?

If there's one communist out there more widely praised than Pope Francis, it has to be Nelson Mandela. But where the Pope has preached non-violence, Mandela was convicted for plotting against the government of South Africa, including acts of terrorism. A lifelong Methodist and a member of the communist-aligned ANC, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela did more than just speak out against the dangers of capitalism, he took up arms against his oppressor.

Of course, in this respect he was no different than the Episcopalian George Washington (not that the Stamp Act was in any way equal to Apartheid), leading fellow colonial subjects in a fight for representation. In fact, it would be hard to criticize Mandela's actions and statements at all if they were not so regularly aligned with our Cold War enemies.  Mandela most closely related with Fidel Castro, with whom he had a strong friendship.  On a visit to Cuba in 1991, he proclaimed:
“...the Cuban Revolution has also been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of the vicious imperialist-orchestrated campaign.... Long live comrade Fidel Castro.”
In the same speech, he also praised Che Guevara, calling him "an inspiration to all human beings who cherish freedom." A decade later, expressing his disapproval of the Iraq invasion, Mandela went so far as to say, "If there is a country that has committed unspeakable atrocities in the world, it is the United States of America."

He also worked tirelessly to promote an anti-capitalist agenda, considering nationalization of some industries and maintaining ties with the Communist Party. Stopping short of calling wealth an evil, Mandela said in a CNN interview on his 90th birthday that the rich do have an obligation to share their wealth with those in poverty. He helped author a government initiative in 1996 known as the GEAR (Growth, Employment, And Redistribution) policy, and yet was celebrated (and now mourned) by a number of American conservatives.

While there are certainly differences between a humble Catholic who happens to be the Pope, a liberal-leaning American blogger, and a communist South African freedom fighter, the common thread is that the new "enemies" of the American way of life are not faceless Soviet atheists, nor are they stereotypical fundamentalist jihadists - they are principled Christians seen in a positive light by most Americans.

Flooding the Engine

Even the late Nelson Mandela was not opposed to capitalism per se. South Africa, to this day, still operates primarily as a free market economy, as does the United States. While many classify them as "socialist", most European nations also operate by free market principles, even with a greater measure of taxation or government regulation. With this in mind, one must be careful to suggest that a critic of concentrated wealth is opposed to capitalism - more often than not, the issue is with the distribution of wealth and the priorities of the society, which are different matters than the mechanics of an economic theory.

In its purest form, free market capitalism is equivalent to economic Darwinism; that is to say, that the craftiest among us deserve to have all they can get, and the less successful only to starve. No one truly desires such a system, regardless of political leanings. The truth is that we all believe, to some degree, in a redistribution of wealth from those who are able to those who are in need. We merely disagree on the definitions of "able" and "need", as well as the amounts to be involved and the degree to which the transfers are voluntary.

My personal issue with the current state of American capitalism is that I believe we have abandoned the principle of merit.  Where once we rewarded hard work with wealth, we now praise wealth itself, and celebrate those who have it and yet do as little as possible. I acknowledge that (as my friend Tom has said more than once) self-interest is not the same as greed, and that it is the necessary fuel for capitalism to prosper. However, even the most conservative auto mechanic will not argue that more fuel will always make the car run more smoothly, or that it is unfair for the brakes to hinder the ability of the fuel pump. Elaborate systems of regulation are required to maximize the performance of the car and to ensure the safety of those who rely on it.

Certainly, it is not an oxymoron to be a religious capitalist, nor to be a religious socialist. There will continue to be debate on the ethics and responsibilities of wealth. The new wrinkle is that through an expanded marketplace of ideas made possible by the internet and other technological advances, Christianity is being slowly pulled away from American (conservative) idealism. Perhaps history will repeat itself. Unfortunately, those that have expressed an interest in returning to the faith of our fathers likely did not have St. John Chrysostom in mind.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Quid Est Veritas?

First off, I love science. 

Through observation and experimentation, we have come to define and understand our natural world. We understand the paths of planets and of comets and the anatomy of all sorts of plants and animals. We are able to diagnose and treat a number of medical conditions; we can land a mobile robot lab safely on the surface of another planet.

Of course, this is all possible because we are dealing with empirical evidence.  We can observe and test the physical, allowing us great understanding.  Mankind has had much greater difficulty, however, with defining philosophical ideals like valor, justice, or love. Still, in spite of our inability to truly and consistently define these concepts, we remain not only collectively convinced of their existence, but mystified by them.  In fact, the ancient Greeks actually created deities to personify many of these ideals.  Many great philosophers have written at length on these matters, and inquiries continue to cycle through works of literature, music, and art with varying depth, from the Shakespearean soliloquy to Haddaway's ubiquitous question of 1993. 

Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man"), Antonio Ciseri, 1871
From a philosophical (or even theological) standpoint, the greatest question has to be that of truth.  Before one can tackle "true love" or "true goodness", one must answer how to know what is true.  Certainly, Pontius Pilate was not the first to ask, "what is truth?" - but his inquiry is probably the most well known, being recorded in the Gospel of John and thus in just about every hotel nightstand in the United States of America.  Scholars debate Pilate's motivation, but in any case, there is no record of a response to his question.

As I hope to finish this post yet this week, I must keep things rather basic.  With that in mind, there are two main philosophical camps concerning this question, based on whether one considers truth (to the degree it exists) to be relative or absolute.  If one man considers something to be true, is this based on his own mind and perception, or is he either right or wrong about a universal standard? Is our reality truth? Or, as Morpheus famously asked in The Matrix, "what is real?"

Morpheus is indeed illustrating a position of philosophical realism, that although perception may create a false reality - there is in fact another reality, a universal truth that remains true even if unknown or rejected.  I, like most theists, gravitate toward this school of the absolute. Plato illustrated this same concept with an allegory of the cave and shadows of reality, coming to the same conclusion: while truth exists independent of our perception, our definition of the real is often warped by our own experience.  But how does one mine the true from the untrue?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, speaking through his fictional character Sherlock Holmes, proposed that "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."  Although I agree that the truth is often considered improbable, I must also admit that such a statement is only plausible coming from a fictional super-detective.  The ability to ascertain truth from clues and observation is limited, in the case of a police detective, to that which one can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.  Even if he or she correctly identifies the guilty, there must be evidence, and it must be admissible.  It must be properly obtained within the confines of the law.  In short, it may not be enough to know truth - one must be able to relay it to the minds of others by means of producing something they will accept. 

Although it follows the lines of Sherlock's sentiment, I prefer the allegory set forth by Tolstoy: "Progress consists, not in the increase of truth, but in freeing it from its wrappings. The truth is obtained like gold, not by letting it grow bigger, but by washing off from it everything that isn't gold."  In the age of the internet, Tolstoy seems even more a genius.  We have instant access to all means of "information", but as anyone can post just about anything, fool's gold abounds. If you wish to "prove" any position, a simple Google search will reveal at least one or two supporting sites. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, or Mark Twain can be attributed with any quote you wish, instantly endorsing your favorite ideology.

While these "wrappings" are evident in all forums, perhaps none is as dangerous as those done in the name of religion.  To again quote Tolstoy, "it is terrible when people do not know God, but it is worse when people identify as God what is not God." Christianity (like most religions) centers on the word of God being absolute truth, with God being the only pure example of the ideals humans universally seek, including justice and love. Unfortunately, even divine revelation is subject to limited perception and is thus often warped and misinterpreted, both knowingly and unknowingly.

Without question, any biblical scholar must devote himself to study, but even among a small number of genuine truth seekers there will be conflict.  I know of some who believe God has condoned the practice of (earthly) capital punishment, for example, while others are convinced that Christians are called to oppose the practice and defend life.  In both cases, I respect those positions and know they were not arrived at lightly.  As I wrote about several weeks ago, it is quite possible to have two people from the same congregation with conflicting interpretations of the account of creation that begins Genesis.  Many groups consider the Bible to be inerrant, some do not. Reading the same book, some will be inclined more toward pacifism than others.  Some will argue against the consumption of alcohol, some will lean more Arminian, some will insist a pre-tribulation rapture must take place.  Everyone's theology is a little different.

This leads me to the conclusion that every believer inevitably has at least a position or two that is in error, myself included. Even with the best resources, humans can't help but make mistakes. Absolute truth most certainly exists, but no one can claim to know it completely. There is an important distinction to be made, though it so rarely is: absolute truth exists, but your perception (or mine) of what it is may not be entirely correct. A disagreement on one's biblical position is not equivalent to disagreement with the word itself, only to an interpretation of it, and if we can be honest with ourselves, many of the details are relatively inconsequential. 

Seek God. Seek justice, seek truth. Accept that we will all fail to comprehend these fully. To err is human, but fortunately for us all, there is divine forgiveness.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Dream of Anarchy, or, Strange Women Lying in Ponds

If there is one thing that political liberals and conservatives can agree upon, it is that the government is inefficient, misguided, detached, and morally deficient (they will, of course, differ on which actions are good and bad, as well as defining the ideal).  Recent polls clearly indicate that Americans are unhappy with Congress in particular, currently at a nine percent approval rating.  While I would agree that our current elected representatives are historically poor, I acknowledge that even in the best of times, government is rarely popular.  As G.K. Chesterton put it, "The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all."

This is not really surprising; it's practically human nature to question and even resist authority.  Especially in a culture that emphasizes individuality and competition, rules are often viewed as roadblocks to success and happiness.  To some degree, we are all guilty of justifying unlawful actions; I myself often mentally rewrite posted speed limits with what I believe to be the de facto limit, perhaps five mph more.  Business leaders may be pressured to ignore regulations in pursuit of greater profit, just as athletes are often pressured to use drugs or other banned substances for greater performance (leading to more money and fame).  However, in all of these cases, cheaters still desire the law to limit others; merely rebelling does not make one an anarchist.

In fact, it's rather difficult to define the positions of an anarchist, just as it is nearly impossible to define anarchy itself.  In popular use, anarchy is used often in place of "chaos", but the etymological definition means only "no ruler", just as a monarchy means "one ruler", typically a king.  But perhaps, old woman man, you are perfectly content with your anarcho-syndiclist commune?  Is this not itself a system of government, with a ruler?  How is any order possible at all without a government (and is a government possible without a "ruler")?

"We started off trying to set up a small anarchist community, but people wouldn't obey the rules." - Alan Bennett

Simply put, if rules need to exist, then a ruler needs to exist; this is really the central point of the social contract theory and the writings of Thomas Hobbes.  Certainly, there will be disagreement on the best system of government, but my point is that even those that advocate "anarchy" really aren't: they often are using the idea as an antithesis to the system they wish to dismantle without giving much definition to the alternative, one that will certainly still involve some measure of rule.  Another individual or group may consider that new system barbaric, and the dislike for government continues.

Of course, I do not typically converse with anarchists, nor do I personally advocate a totalitarian, Palpatinian rule.  The political discussions I see in our present age are from slightly more moderate positions, arguing for more or less government intervention in a number of issues.  I believe such discussions are healthy and necessary to any republic in which the public has a voice in their representation.  The only real conflict I have in such conversations (other than that they are often less than civil and amount to name-calling) is one of dealing with mankind's inherent flaws: advocates for strong, centralized government often do so out of a concern for what society would become without such oversight, given the state of man, while those that advocate less government control do so out of a concern for what a ruler would or could do to a society, given the state of man.  If "corporations are people", then are not governments people, too? 

The bottom line is that the flaws of government are our own flaws.  We elect people to represent us, and in spite of the naysayers, the American public gets it right: it elects prideful, selfish, immoral opportunists into office - who could better represent the American public? 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Nightmare Before Christmas

One of my favorite opening lines in literature, and certainly the one I recall most often, is the one that begins The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley (1953): “"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

As I have mentioned previously in my writings, I do not take this to mean that morality is not constant. Certainly, there are absolute ideals of good and evil that are recognized across borders and centuries, but there are also concepts that are embraced (or shunned) due to cultural ideas that are subject to change. Even the recidivist thief H.I. McDunnough summarized this duality (albeit hypocritically) by stating “There's what's right and there's what's right, and never the twain shall meet.” (Raising Arizona, 1987)

This past week I got to observe (the Protestant, American Midwest) society’s intricate dance around the holiday called Halloween. Because some religious conservatives object to the traditional holiday, there appears to be a widespread re-branding, not unlike the one these same people complain about come Christmas-time, with events having names like “Fall Party”, “Harvest Festival”, and the like. Of course, the events still have plenty of costumes and candy, they just won’t call it by its actual name so as to not offend – but come December, watch your butt if you dare say “Happy Holidays” or have a “Winter Party”. Apparently, it is acceptable to rename some holiday events, but not others.

Potty on, Wayne. Potty on, Garth.
Of course, of those people I know who may be opposed to celebrating Halloween, none suggest that dressing up in a costume, walking with one’s children through the neighborhood, or eating fun size Twix bars is inherently wrong. Surprisingly, none of them even refer to the redistribution of candy as an indoctrination of children toward socialism. As best I can understand, the objection is that the modern holiday, though commercialized and diluted, is derived from ancient, non-Christian rites, but again the problem must either be selective principle or historical ignorance.

While there are some similarities between Halloween and some Celtic pagan rituals (especially Samhain), these are commonalities due primarily to the time of year in which the holiday falls. Bonfires may have been lit with some intent or significance thousands of years ago, for example, but a church youth group lighting one in the 21st century is hardly a nod toward paganism; it is little more than a sign of the season turning a bit colder. In fact, many scholars believe that in spite of certain correlations, our holiday is primarily of Christian origin, as the very name is derived from “All Hallows’ Even”, which also spawned “All Saints’ Day”, “All Souls’ Day”, and its Latin American version “Dia De (los) Muertos”, or Day of the Dead.
Of course, the average trick-or-treating ten-year-old boy concerns himself with neither Celtic nor Catholic rituals, and adults will largely fail to complement the sights of skeletons and caskets with introspection on the certainty of mortality. It is merely a nation-wide dress-up day. Sure, we can take advantage of the North American contribution to the day by carving a pumpkin or two; pumpkins entered the Halloween narrative only in the last couple of centuries, as they were native to North America when Irish settlers brought a similar tradition with them (in Ireland, they carved turnips). And let’s face it, if it were not for this gourd genocide, what would we do with all those pumpkins? I’m sure handling this surplus La Tomatina-style could result in some serious injury.

But, if one is going to object to the holiday based on a tie to pagan symbolism or pre-Christian ritual, then why celebrate Christmas? While it does commemorate the supposed birth of Christ (scholars disagree on the time of year, and even the year), it has been well-documented that decorating a fir or other tree that lived through the winter (at or near the Winter Solstice) was a pre-Christian tradition. In fact, when Christmas was first celebrated (not until the mid-fourth century), it too bore little resemblance to the holiday we know today.

Even the typical Nativity scene (with Magi alongside shepherds in front of a pale-skinned newborn) is obviously errant according to the gospel of Matthew.  While I acknowledge that this is merely a harmless, cultural adaptation, it still puzzles me why certain foreign elements are largely accepted while other elements (even that are not actually counter to orthodox Christianity) are equated with evil (see "yoga", "karate", "meditation", "rock music", and "quesadilla"). 

Puritan pilgrims to the New World disapproved of celebrating Halloween, but they did not approve of celebrating Christmas, either.  The Puritans of today seem to be more selective.  While they largely disapprove of Halloween's focus on deception and trickery, they take no issue with the blatant hypocrisy of telling a child caught in telling an untruth that "if you lie, Santa won't be coming on Christmas Eve".  They take no issue with supporting a materialistic society that claims to work on merit but really only reflects the budget of parents and grandparents (subtly equating the notions of wealth and goodness).  They may just trample you when the store opens at 8pm on Thanksgiving Day.  But whatever you do, don't greet them with "Happy Holidays".  That's just wrong.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

How Romantic...

My wife and I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Chicago, which was mostly enjoyable.  I did learn that day passes for the CTA can only be purchased at certain locations, which meant we did a lot more walking than I had planned to do.  During the day, this was not too much of a burden as the weather was pleasant and even warm for mid-October, but by nightfall the weather had turned colder with sporadic light rain.  I slept well.

The reason, or at least the primary destination, for our trip was yesterday afternoon's performance of Once at the Oriental Theatre. Although there were changes made, the musical is based on the 2006 shoestring-budget indie flick of the same name (and unlike The Lion King, I must say I still prefer the movie to the play).  I could say that I would echo the sentiments in this New York Times review, but I would also add that my bias toward the movie is likely in large part due to its two leads, as irreplaceable as Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca.  It's certainly not your average movie musical (I am glad to report that the audience is not asked to peer into Irgolva's nostrils as she finishes up Summer Nights), but more importantly, it is not your average "romance" movie.

Surely, I do not mean to sound puritanical; Once has plenty of strong language, as it was shot in Ireland, where I believe the government requires even priests to utter at least one f-bomb fortnightly. I do not dislike typical romantic movies because of language, or skin, or even sex; I dislike them because they are moronic, and as such, are not by any means romantic.  I'm glad that I didn't watch such movies as a teenager - not because they would have given me unrealistic expectations, but because they (like most teen-horror films) must portray the average high-school student as a complete idiot.  Of course, in all fairness, 1) adults in such movies are just as foolish, and 2) the average high-school student (or adult) is a complete idiot. 

Yes, characters making unwise decisions have populated human stories since the beginning of recorded literature, but where Macbeth presents a cautionary tale, the average "romantic" movie actively encourages at least temporary insanity.  Sex is to be reserved for the second date, and any ruse in pursuit of a lover is more than acceptable; in fact, the more outlandish the better.  If you find out your boyfriend/girlfriend is the one lying or cheating, don't be so harsh with them as to expect anything more; show how mature you are by accepting as much of their heart as they are wiling to give you.

But, especially as a man, nothing bothers me more than variations on a theme of infidelity in the pursuit of real love.  In Sleepless in Seattle, for example, Annie is so moved by a radio conversation that she leaves her well-mannered fiancé Walter in the dark as she travels across the country to hopefully meet this lonely widower.  In The Notebook, young Allie meets up with former flame Noah for a fling in an abandoned house, though she is engaged to be married to respectable lawyer Lon.  In Sweet Home Alabama, Melanie actually doubles the feat: she leaves her husband Jake in Alabama and starts a new life for herself in New York, but when her new man Andrew in New York proposes, she goes back to Alabama to convince her husband to sign the divorce papers he rejected seven years prior so she can continue without letting her fiancé know she was previously married (and still is).  But, she ends up falling for her husband again, and still continues with the wedding plans until calling it all off during the wedding itself.  Unfaithful to two men at the same time, and yet both are patient enough to wait for her to make up her mind.

Of course, if the man is not understanding, all the better, because this simply justifies the infidelity as rebellion against a controlling, rude man.  In Titanic, Rose takes a trip on an ill-fated luxury liner on the tab of fiancé Cal, and being a free spirit not to be tethered to him, she decides to go drinking and dancing with an artist named Jack.  She later poses nude for Jack wearing a large jewel given to her by Cal.  But unlike the men listed above, Cal gets upset about her secret rendezvous and confronts her, she snaps back:
Rose: I am not a foreman in one of your mills that you can command. I am your fiancée.
Cal: My fian... my fiancée! Yes, you are, and my wife. My wife in practice if not yet by law, so you will honor me. You will honor me the way a wife is required to honor a husband. Because I will not be made a fool, Rose. Is this in any way unclear?
I have noticed that this phenomenon does seem to be partial to the female half of an engagement; men who do the same are typically (and rightfully) portrayed as immature and/or selfish, while a female exploring her options in similar situations is often portrayed in a more positive light, as strong and independent. 

Now I am not suggesting that engagement is legally equivalent to marriage.  Certainly, even very serious couples may at some point decide to call it quits, and obviously this is more easily done before the wedding than after.  There is no legal or even moral judgment on my part toward persons of either gender who decide to end an engagement, but is it too much to ask that one officially end a relationship before starting another?  I'm not sure hedging one's bets really says "I love you" to either party, but this continues to be common in "romantic" movies:  one is the public and respectable man, the other the desired rebel. 

Of course, should the rebel win such a maiden's heart, is he to propose?  If so, I will assume he's not familiar with Macbeth.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Does Christianity Hate Equality?

"From the equality of rights springs identity of our highest interests; you cannot subvert your neighbor’s rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own." - Carl Schurz
"For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers,what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?" - Matt. 5:46,47
Students of geography will tell you that there are actually two Americas: North America and South America, both continents.  One sits entirely north of the equator, and the other primarily (but not entirely) to the south of it.  Students of history will tell you that there are two (United States of) Americas.  One is a nation based on religious tolerance, equality, and "Christian principles"; the other is what they learn about by studying history. 

From the beginning, there has been a considerable disconnect between the ideals so eloquently stated by many of the "founding fathers" and the reality of the American experience, including the lives and actions of several of those same eloquent statesmen.  These men were still politicians, after all.  And yet, this phenomenon is not unique to the United States of America; every nation in the history of the world has been aided by inspirational, premeditated rhetoric, with varying levels of correlation to truth.  Fortunately, our nation is much more egalitarian today than at our conception.  Surely we're not perfect, but we have learned (albeit rather slowly) the error of our ways.  A quote (probably wrongly) attributed to Winston Churchill sums it up rather well, "The Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted."

Certainly a lot of men and women suffered and died for the cause of equality, and some of those men and women did identify as Christians.  Unfortunately, they are exceptions; far more often than not, Christians have sided with the oppressor over the oppressed.  Sometimes this was out of apathy, or a desire to take the path of least resistance, but sadly there were also many times the collective Church actively fought for the oppressor because they were the oppressor.  According to historian Brian R. Farmer (Lubbock Christian University),  "two-thirds of the national Klan lecturers were Protestant ministers" at their height in the 1920's. 

This unfortunate and predatory pattern began quite early, long before any thought of what we now know as the western hemisphere.  The nascent faith of Christianity quickly contracted a nasty strain of anti-Semitism.  In 325 the Council of Nicea voted to separate Easter from Passover:
"For it is unbecoming beyond measure that on this holiest of festivals we should follow the customs of the Jews. Henceforth let us have nothing in common with this odious people...we desire dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews..."
In 339, conversion to Judaism became a criminal offense; in 415 St. Augustine wrote:
"The true image of the Hebrew is Judas Iscariot, who sells the Lord for silver. The Jew can never understand the Scriptures and forever will bear the guilt for the death of Jesus.
Religious tolerance was certainly not a concern as Pope Leo forced the baptism of Jews, nor for the Crusaders in Jerusalem in 1099.  Below is an excerpt from an article written by Michael D. Hull and originally published in the June 1999 issue of Military History magazine:
The Crusaders spent at least that night and the next day killing Muslims, including all of those in the al-Aqsa Mosque, where Tancred's banner should have protected them. Not even women and children were spared. The city's Jews sought refuge in their synagogue, only to be burned alive within it by the Crusaders. Raymond of Aquilers reported that he saw piles of heads, hands and feet on a walk through the holy city. Men trotted across the bodies and body fragments as if they were a carpet for their convenience. The Europeans also destroyed the monuments to Orthodox Christian saints and the tomb of Abraham.
In 1543, the original Protestant Martin Luther penned an essay entitled On the Jews and Their Lies that advocated oppression of Jews, including limits on speech, worship, and property ownership. It would later greatly influence Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf, although Hitler would identify as Catholic and not Lutheran.  There were some notable Christians who would sacrifice everything to defend and save Jews from the Holocaust, but the very reason we know a few names like Schindler or Bonhoeffer is because they were exceptions; most Germans identified themselves as both Christians and members of the Nazi party.  Indeed, the Holocaust would have been impossible if the majority of Christians had refused to cooperate.

Time after time, power granted to a Christian group often resulted in the oppression of others, including other Christians (such as the bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant groups in Europe).  This literally flowed over to America. Puritan and Separatist sects in England, who had long sought to reform the Anglican Church toward Calvinism, made their way to a New World in the first half of the 17th century, in part out of a desire for greater religious freedom.  The degree to which they were actually persecuted in England is one that is debated by scholars, but it is important to note that at any rate, they considered themselves persecuted - oppressed by religious authorities closely tied to the government.  After a couple of decades to establish authority of their own in this new land, talk of religious tolerance all but disappeared.  Instead, citizens who did not meet (subjective) criteria were tried and killed as "witches". 

The African slave trade was one issue on which many Christians took a stand.  Men like John Wesley and William Wilberforce worked to end the practice in England, while George Whitefield (who is credited for sparking the Great Awakening of American evangelicalism) argued for the legalization of slavery even where it was illegal.  While slavery had been already been outlawed in the American Province of Georgia, it was legalized in 1751 due in large part to Whitefield's efforts - and would remain legal for over a century more.  Through these years, numerous pastors would preach racism to their congregations, such as Presbyterian theologian R. L. Dabney: "Every hope of the existence of church and state, and of civilization itself, hangs upon our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of Negro suffrage."  As would become the pattern in America, the rhetoric from churches in support of oppression would fade after government action defined them as the losing side, and eventually the consensus among Christians would fall in line with the "progressive" stance they once opposed.  Today, one is highly unlikely to encounter such racism spoken from the pulpit.

Likewise, Christian attitudes on women have changed dramatically.  The typical church position in the mid 19th century was opposed to women having the right to vote, as they were considered subordinate to men.  President Grover Cleveland (also Presbyterian) remarked in 1905 that "sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.  The relative positions to be assumed by a man and a woman in the working out of our civilization were assigned long ago by a higher intelligence than ours", published oddly enough in Ladies Home Journal (1905).  While he was not speaking on behalf of his denomination, the sentiment was still very commonplace among churchgoers.  After the ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920, such commentary also faded away.  I know of no current pastors that believe that it is wrong for women to have the right to vote. 

A southern minister by the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. said that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  He challenged Christians of all colors to consider the injustice of racial prejudice in public policy, and to act in the interest of justice, but where such a call to action was (as one might expect) answered enthusiastically by many black congregations, white congregations did little to help.  Certainly, there were white persons who joined in the many marches for racial equality, but consider for a moment that among all persons identified as Christians in the 1960's, blacks were about twelve percent, whites over 80 percent.  Contrast that with pictures from the time period, where black faces outnumber white ones at an inverse ratio (at least).

The message, intentional or not, is clear: the oppressed are responsible to fight for themselves, you can't expect churches that aren't personally affected to help you.  Even today, Christian-affiliated groups often lobby the government against what they may perceive as oppression (including the Affordable Care Act), but will not lift a finger to help any other group experiencing injustice.  A very recent example comes from the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), founded by Pat Robertson.

According to the group's website, the ACLJ is "committed to ensuring the ongoing viability of freedom and liberty in the United States and around the world."  It goes further to specify that they aim to "protect religious liberty and safeguard human rights and dignity."  Surely, a group dedicated to protecting religious freedom would be something I could support, if there wasn't again a large disconnect between these stated ideals and reality. 

Where the ACLJ considered it defense of religious liberty to present oral arguments against the prohibition of Christian literature distribution and fund solicitation at post offices (United States v. Kokinda,1990 - the prohibition was upheld by the Supreme Court), they not only failed to defend the rights of Muslims to build a mosque in Manhattan - they actually argued against it.  How can one claim to value religious freedom only for some?  While it may be noble to fight for the rights of some persecuted group that you are affiliated with, it takes a man (or woman) of principle to fight for the rights of another group, where there is little or no opportunity for personal gain.  Even more impressive is one who insists on solidarity with the oppressed, as when Dora demands to be put on the train in Life is Beautiful or when William Lloyd Garrison demanded he not be buried in any location that does not allow blacks to be buried there as well. 

Pursuit of "justice" only for your own simply isn't.  Freedom demands justice, and justice demands equality.  No, I do not believe that Christianity hates equality - quite the opposite.  I believe it demands that believers fight for the oppressed, and not just fellow Christians.  Gay or straight, liberal or conservative, white or black, Muslim or Jew or Atheist, any attack on any of them is an attack on us all; there can be no better presentation of the faith than showing our principles to be unwavering.  What better contrasts with the norm?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Occupational Veneration

I was very recently engaged in a political discussion with a friend that I will not reference here, other than to say that in the course of our exchange he wisely referenced the Lake Wobegon Effect among political figures.  The name, of course, is derived from the many tales of the fictional Minnesota town as spun by Garrison Keillor on the radio program "A Prairie Home Companion."  **WARNING: Do not visit the PHC website if you consider public radio to be a liberal machination for the purpose of widespread indoctrination against Jesus and His many teachings on free market principles.**

Of course, in all truthfulness this is quite unavoidable.  On an individual level, one could argue that self-image is often warped.  Sometimes these warped images manifest in unrealistic self-criticism, as it does in the case of anorexia.  Surely decades of edited photographs and unrealistic ideals in media have taken a toll, especially on women, but outside of these external idols an intrinsic illusion of superiority is far more common.  Nearly every time I peruse the comments on any current-event website that could possibly have a political angle (and sometimes even where there is no tie to politics), someone will proclaim their views immediately after or before the two-word imperative "wake up", typically in all capital letters and excessive punctuation.  This, of course, politely informs the reader that the views of the poster are the obvious truth, and that anyone who disagrees with his or her position is obviously asleep, or drugged by "Kool-Aid".

While I acknowledge the phenomenon on an individual level, and even to some degree concerning a group that the individual may be associated with, I am a little more perplexed about the veneration of certain occupational groups that seem to steep into all of society.  While lawyers, for example, tend to enjoy a negative occupational reputation, veterinarians are usually assumed to have a kind devotion similar to that of the nuns that didn't teach at parochial school.  While stable, this unwritten list is obviously subject to change, as teachers used to be on the "noble" list when I was growing up but in more recent national discussions tend to be portrayed as opportunistic and overpaid.  I still hold to the former ranking, but that's probably another post.

Sometimes the relative position is so great that it comes with an almost oxymoronic title of nobility, such as the Honorable Randy Neugebauer or His Holiness Pope Francis.  Among the Christians that do not believe a human (outside of Christ himself) can embody holiness is Pope Francis himself, who when asked recently to describe himself began with "I am a sinner."  I greatly admire Pope Francis for such humility, which contrasts so starkly with Congress who more often than not believe themselves to be honorable.  I suppose we have the feudal system to thank for these many titles.

Two other occupations, that I believe to both be honorable in themselves, have also approached dishonesty in their unofficial marketing: medical doctors and military servicemen.  Now, before everyone grabs the pitchforks, I appreciate our men and women of the military and their service to our nation, as well as the sacrifices their families must make while they are away.  Obviously, many never return from armed conflict.  I also greatly admire and give due respect to medical doctors, knowing the years of study and work that they must complete in order to obtain their title and position.  I refer more to the public rhetoric of these groups in general, which I will further explain. 

I have heard many people credit a doctor with "saving lives".  While I understand the sentiment, I think the wording goes a bit too far.  Beyond theological objections, I still think it might be more appropriate to say "extend" a life, because no one treated (or "healed", or "saved") by a doctor 150 year ago is alive today.  Again, this is more a public sentiment than a proclamation from doctors as a group.  Surely their work is valuable, and I might go so far as to say a patient may be saved from symptoms, or pain, or maybe even that years of a life were saved, but the simplified version of "saving a life" is somewhat misleading.  Indeed, hearing an MD object to the phrase himself/herself would be as refreshing as hearing the Pope call himself a sinner.

Likewise, I have heard many (non-military) people rightly express gratitude to the individuals of our armed forces but incorrectly include the phrase "they are fighting for our freedom" or something similar.  I have heard some go so far as to say that we can worship in church or assemble peacefully thanks to those serving in today's military, which is obviously incorrect.  One could make a case that there were, in a certain age, men who sacrificed for the cause of American independence, from which flowed the Bill of Rights some years later.  Our rights in these regards have been unchanged (for white persons) in the past two centuries.   It might even be appropriate to say that since the Patriot Act, we enjoy fewer freedoms today than we did 20 years ago.  Our military does an admirable job defending our nation's interests as defined by various administrations, and as they by design do as commanded, I certainly object to the way many in the military are demonized by persons opposed to specific military actions (most notably the Vietnam conflict, yet sadly still an issue today).  Yet, on the other side of the coin, I've had people insist that opposition to a specific conflict is "not supporting our troops", which I find rather odd; what better way to support those families than to bring the absent back safely? 

Again, I do not fault either group for these errant phrases.  I have never heard an actual serviceman (or woman) make a statement like "you owe your freedom to me".  They are typically too humble to take credit even where it is due.  It just seems that in each of these cases, the public latches on to an ideal that pushes the boundary of truth...but why?  And if a veteran comes home and becomes a civilian police officer, does he or she go from selfless hero to arrogant pig? 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Truth is Truth (no matter who speaks it)

In a sense, I hate to have to mention Westboro Baptist. I'm sure everyone has heard of them, often making nonsensical correlations so they can "protest" the very existence of homosexuals by blaming the phenomenon on everyone from grieving military families to the Foo Fighters. Fortunately, their targeting of the military has energized many of my more conservative friends to join my more liberal friends in rare bipartisanship. In the interest of full disclosure (did my saying "full disclosure" just make me pro-gay?), I don't think there would be such agreement if they merely targeted actual homosexuals - they might even be praised, as some have praised Mr. Putin recently, but perhaps that is another post.

Mentions of Westboro have been down as of late, as there is nothing new here, and that's fine by me. Yet, a couple of weeks ago, they appeared again in USA Today with news of a small tiff with...Vince Gill (are they starting to go the B-list, Celebrity Apprentice route)? The most shocking part of this recent endeavor was that there was no gay-bashing; they were after him for his affair, divorce, and remarriage (to former star of Christian radio Amy Grant). But as much as I do not support WB in their rhetoric (against homosexuals or heterosexuals), I must give them credit: where so many people of faith I know are more than willing to explain the evils of homosexuality, the damage it does to our otherwise pious nation, and the perils of even casual tolerance, I almost never hear the same about heterosexual infidelity.

I've never been a fan of Mr. Gill, either. Yes, at the risk of outing myself as judgmental, I considered the Grant affair scandalous (on both parts), and still do, but the truth is that Vince could be completely celibate and I still probably wouldn't be a fan. I'm not into country music, and the little I can tolerate is on the rockabilly side as opposed to the whiny, saccharine ballads for which Mr. Gill is known. I do credit him for responding to WB protesters claiming (rightly) that the Bible condemns divorce and remarriage under his circumstances by saying, "You know what else [Jesus] said? He said a lot of stuff about forgiveness, about grace. You guys don't have any of that."

And so I find myself unable to fully agree with the actions of either party here, nor able to write off either as completely wrong. The better question here, however, is not who is right (about what) and who is wrong, but if such confrontations are even necessary. There are a great many things that I believe are wrong, but I can't imagine having any motivation to picket individuals for their transgressions. At the same time, I openly acknowledge that I too fall short (often), but can't imagine why anyone would want to take to the streets over them. Why is it that some people feel the need to respond to a group of people with hostility, even if they can identify sin? Does such a confrontation aid either party?

Yes, truth is truth, no matter who speaks it. Yet, knowing something to be true does not always require a proclamation. Even when spoken, something true can be stated in an incorrect (or even merely inefficient) fashion, and it appears the delivery often causes more issues than the validity of the statement.

Hey, it's true...figs are certainly not portrayed all that positively.  Maybe a boycott is in order?

Now I throw it out for you: what are the criteria for necessary statement of truth? Equal and consistent treatment? Likely danger? Possibility of acceptance/correction? Mere statement of personal principle (and if so, how often)? Obviously, everyone believes their own position to be superior (or why have it?), but is silence always approval? If so, I can't imagine a peaceful quiet anywhere.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In The Beginning...

From terrorist attacks to more typical schoolyard bullying, we live in an age of ideological imperialism. In culture, we get messages left and right that in order to be cool, one must buy this or that, or listen to this or that. In politics, we've seen the rise of smaller groups planting their flag into the larger one to claim it, which recently caused several Republicans in particular to be dismissed as "RINO" (Republicans in Name Only) when they fail to agree on a specific remedy to perceived social ills. The American public has been told more than once (from both the right and the left) that opposition to a policy or military campaign is "unamerican". Sadly, Christianity is no different, as I've been informed more than once that I was not Christian (or somehow less of one) because I did not agree with a certain viewpoint.

This is nothing new in the history of religion; nearly every system of belief has been fractured into smaller ones that all claim to be more true than the others, and often this conflict boils into actual violence between religious sects. For my part, I consider diversity of thought to be a strength - but to foster this diversity there must be some level of freedom, of tolerance. I see no such freedom apparent in the age-old debate about the origins of the Earth. Let us consider this example: creatures described in the Bible are literally dinosaurs.

I've seen tests of this kind before, prevalent in private/home school scenarios. I'm not sure it's productive for a group that identifies with Christianity to encourage smarting off to parents (not to mention easily backfiring, for who can say there was ever an Eden: "...were you there?"). That aside, I have nothing against "New Earth Creationists", and while I disagree with some things associated with the label, I believe they have a right to their opinion. I've seen fairly harsh criticisms of NEC from the OEC camp as well, but where these may paint New Earthers as misguided, naive, or even willingly ignorant, I have yet to see any of them claim that their view is the only acceptable view of Scripture, or suggest that New Earthers are somehow less Christian.

The lead Conquistador in this NE endeavor to claim the whole of Christianity appears to be Ken Ham of group "Answers In Genesis". His language in defense of the exam did not escape me: "...we teach children the history of the universe from the Bible, with special emphasis on teaching dinosaurs from a biblical perspective..." and later, saying that parents should have known that children "would be taught biblical Christianity". Hear that, CS Lewis? Ken's perspective is the only true, biblical Christianity. Enjoy Hell.

Another apparent schoolyard bully is Mr. Ray Comfort. When someone asked him recently, "can someone be a Christian and believe in evolution?" he replied:
"A theistic evolutionist has to make up a false god to keep his belief in evolution. He is what the Bible calls an idolater. Jesus said, "In the beginning God made them male and female." A professing Christian who believes in evolution thinks Jesus was lying. He is like someone who says, "I'm an atheist, but I believe in God."
I would have responded to him myself, but I was beaten to the punch by a Mr. Tyler Francke, who runs his own blog more focused on this specific issue, God of Evolution. His witty reply surely deserves an award of some kind:
A theistic water cyclist has to make up a false god to keep his belief in the water cycle. He is what the Bible calls an idolater. Jesus said that God "sends rain on the just and unjust." A professing Christian who believes in the water cycle thinks that Jesus was lying....

...any Christian knows that the water cycle — atheistic scientists’ attempt to explain atmospheric conditions without God — is just as unbiblical as evolution. The Bible is clear and consistent: Precipitation comes from God alone, not some messy, unguided process of “evaporation” and “condensation.” See Deuteronomy 28:12, Job 38:22-30 and Psalm 147:8 if your faith needs a booster shot.

Yes, a tad snarky, but completely spot on. I know a number of Christians who have made comments like "God made us with a purpose", but I would like to think that they know, on a literal, physical level, that we owe our existence to the process of sexual reproduction. Have not glaciers created lakes and caves? If one can accept that "God made us" in a different sense and accept the science behind it, why is it that people insist everyone of faith must reject this on the macro level?

As stated in my orientation post "Declaration", it is not my intent to debate here, at least not NE v OE (or even evolution without divine intervention). What I will argue (apparently for eternity) is that belief in God, or in intelligent design, does not require that one buy into a specific interpretation. One might say my primary position is that I (and others) may have a position other than your sanctioned position. Is there really such consequence to the interpretation of the word "day" that one group must potentially turn away people otherwise interested in faith simply because they refuse to sign off on a superfluous addendum?

At the heart of these sorts of claims tends to be the concept of literal interpretation, that Scripture must mean exactly what it says. However, I can't help but point out that such means are not consistently applied. Women speak inside the walls of my church, although a literal interpretation of the New Testament would prohibit it. Jesus himself almost pulled a facepalm when he was asked, "How can I be born again, am I to enter my mother's womb?" I see nothing "unbiblical" about interpreting certain verses to allow for scientific knowledge. And of course, religious authorities have not had the greatest track record.

...and one must assume St. B believed the latter.

I've heard people use Romans 3:4 in situations where one's beliefs do not seem to match up with general consensus, which is, in my opinion, extremely pompous. *Right now, one reader in three is thinking, "Did Mike Brooks just say something else was pompous?"* The issue, from my perspective, is not a dichotomy. I do not believe that faith requires rejection of science, nor that a good scientist must be an atheist. The conflict seems to start when a human extrapolates information (from religion or science) beyond what is known to arrive at a desired conclusion. What if, St. Bellarmine, your religion is true, and science is true? Why are your explanations that science is wrong, or God - could it not be that you are the one in error?

Monday, September 16, 2013

Kansas Loses; America Gets Its Racist On

This past Friday evening, I drove down to the Indianapolis International Airport after work to pick up my mother, who had been visiting my sister in San Diego for a week or so. She had texted me before I left work that she had made it to Dallas and was about to board her flight there, so all was as expected. I left work a tad early to make sure I was there by her 6:35 arrival time, but received a message from her as I was sitting still on 465 that her flight had been delayed, and she was just leaving Dallas about 90 minutes behind schedule. Not really having a plan, I decided to just continue to the airport and wait there.

After walking around the perimeter for a bit, I settled in one of the modern-styled, plastic chairs and pulled out my phone. Fortunately, the airport allowed a complimentary wi-fi connection of decent speed, and I had some time, so I began to cycle through my usual surf list: CNN, BBC, Facebook, e-mail, and WANE or INC for more local information. It was on one of these latter two that I saw a story that within an hour, Ann Coulter and Todd Starnes would be speaking at the Grand Wayne Center (I was a little surprised that the same article indicated there were still tickets available). Of course, I've never been a fan of Ms. Coulter; I find it odd that someone can call herself a "Christian first and a mean-spirited, bigoted conservative second", and I oppose calling people "retard" or "faggot". But, I digress; I can simply say I was aware of who she was - the second name I had never heard. In the consequent Google search I learned that he was host of "Fox News & Commentary" (which begs the question, as their tagline is "We report, you decide", why it's not just News, without the Commentary?...again, I digress). That was about the end of my allotted wi-fi time, and just as well, as Mum was arriving shortly according to the flat screen update. I got us some grub on the way back, and enjoyed a decent weekend.

While it wasn't on my radar for the weekend, I learned Monday morning that Miss New York won the Miss America Pageant. In itself, this information was of little concern, even with the winner Nina Davuluri being the first with a familial heritage from India. It was the flood of ignorant tweets and re-tweets that caught my attention, and reaffirmed my belief that we've not progressed as much as we like to think we have, as the American public (Click here to relive my dismay). I was somewhat comforted by reminding myself that anyone can sign up for Twitter and say just about anything, and that these people were not media figures or necessarily even people who were being taken seriously. But just as I was about to dismiss the ignorance with a shake of my noggin, I noticed a name that looked familiar: a Todd Starnes.

Yes, apparently his personal favorite did not place in the final five (much less emerge as Miss America), and so he decided to join in the racist chorus. She doesn't represent American values, the process was rigged, must secretly be a Muslim...sound familiar?

If history is any indicator, they'll be saying it for years to come.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


When in the Course of online events, it becomes necessary for one person to not entirely dissolve bands which have connected him with Facebook, and yet to assume among the powers of the Internets a separate and equal station to which the Ubiquitousness of Google Plus and adequate connectivity entitles him, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that he should declare the causes which impel him to the separation. - Thomas Jefferson*
As in any new endeavor, it may be wise to present an opening statement. While I have no doubt that there will be strong opinions shared here (by myself and by others), please consider my posts as defensive rather than offensive. In other words, I am not attempting to change minds by posting my thoughts here. Each person will agree sometimes and disagree other times, and I am quite comfortable with that. I have wasted a lot of time in the past engaged in fruitless polemics - philosophical, political, and theological - and see no need to do so here. As one of my personal heroes in American story (abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison) once said, "With reasonable men, I will reason; with humane men I will plead; but to tyrants I will give no quarter, nor waste arguments where they will certainly be lost." (Other excellent WLG quotes here.)

This does not mean that I do not welcome critical responses, as I expect a few with about everything I post. However, I hope to elevate the discussion here above the typical facebook banter, so please consider the following if engaging in debate:
  • No "No True Scotsman" arguments will be tolerated. Not only is it weak and overused, but it is inherently demeaning. We may have differing opinions, but it does not make me (or you) an inferior member of any geographic, religious, gender, or political group. Likewise, ad hominem attacks should be avoided.
  • While empassioned language is understandable, please understand there is a difference between conviction/moral outrage and alarmism.  Primarily, this difference is whether the focus of the outrage is real or merely theoretical. William Lloyd Garrison spoke harshly about the very real and widespread issue of race-based slavery. While I see such arguments all the time on facebook, there is no need to argue for the construction of missiles made to take out spacecraft originating outside of our solar system - without first proving the existence of said alien technology.
  • Correct grammar and spelling are greatly appreciated (capitalized words followed by superfluous exclamation points is a personal pet peeve).  While I am not morally opposed to "swear" words (which are determined by a culture and may vary), please refrain from their use as a concession to those here who may be offended by it. 
  • Lastly, if you think you're stating anything that may be questioned, please provide a link to document your source. This source should not be merely another blog or special-interest group site. If it's by a group no one's ever heard of, you might want to look for another source. You might even want to check it against Snopes.

Thank you for your continued patience. I am still learning (it's been years since I've used HTML), and once I have all of the technical stuff out of the way I look forward to more thoughtful posts than this list of rules and gripes. Excelsior!

* No, not really.