Monday, December 26, 2011

An Obscure Birth

I find it beyond strange that here I sit, two millenia later, commemorating the birth of a child in a backwater district of an ancient empire. The person of Jesus of Nazareth is known to us through the canonical writings of the New Testament and not much else. Just yesterday I had a mythicist approach me about whether he (Jesus) even existed. I haven't responded, mostly because I consider that kind of conspiratorial thinking to be rather ridiculous. And most conspiracists are also rather immune to reason and rational argumentation. But this obscure birth, in a backwater part of a vast empire, is intriguing nonetheless. The Jewish New Testament documents tell us about his advent, both through the gospel accounts, as well as the letters of Paul and other later followers. What's interesting in all of this is that the sequence of the New Testament isn't the same as the sequence of the writing of the New Testament writings.

My own evolution of belief has gone from the simple belief come from reading the text "as it is" to reading it through the lens of more recent critical scholarship. But this hasn't lessened my faith as much as refined it. As a child I read the text of scripture "as is" or so I thought. I didn't know back then that I had, in fact, imbibed assumptions which weren't necessarily of scriptural origins. I also didn't know that my own reading of the scriptural text was shaped by my cultural context. In other words, I didn't realize, like so many today, that "my" view isn't the same as unexpurgated "truth." That realization is both humbling and illuminating.

The Jesus of history was a Jew who was born and raised in an occupied Israel/Palestine, and who was intimately confronted with an occupying force who forced his people to decide between fidelity to their faith and obedience to a foreign power. He was, as best as what can tell, raised in the environment of being a political and religious refugee. He had a mother who understood herself to have borne into the world a prophet of Israel, possibly the Messiah. His role and identity was always contested, even among his closest followers and family.

This is part of what especially intrigues me in my reading of the New Testament texts. There's a self critical element in the writing that is very different than anything else I've read among the other ANE texts which I've read and translated. As I've mentioned about the Hebrew writings also known as the OT, what I'm struck by is the utter humanity and reality shown in the protagonists behavior. The "heroes" of the Bible are all "very" human. When I read their stories, I read my own. Thus I see truth expressed. Strangely enough, that's why I believe the Bible to be true.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Butterfly Circus

An extraordinary short film that brings home to me the idea of the Gospel of Misfit Toys that I've seen in a few churches I've been fortunate enough to be a part of over the years. It's not about the hurt, but the healing. But we don't ignore the hurt, but through that hurt, and beyond it, we find true healing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Penn State and Tribalism as per Ira Socol

My dear friend Ira David Socol has written an extraordinary essay about the absolutely awful story that has come out of Penn State. A state of affairs that has effectively ruined the entire career of Joe Paterno, cost him his job and so much more, as well at the president of the school losing his job. But of course, and much more importantly, the young boys who were violated, and no one till now decided their well being was more important than the reputation of the school and its athletic program.

Ira makes the all too necessary point that we live in a culture of tribalism which elevates our local allegiances to such an extent that we effectively end up deifying them at the expense of what it means to be human. His essay reminds me of one I wrote years ago concerning culpability and complicity. This terrible situation should serve as a sobering reminder to look into the mirror when we're so quick to judge and condemn others for such flagrant abuses of power. In what ways are we just as guilty of "looking the other way" when injustices of any sort are happening before our very eyes? If you want to read a deeply considered response to this terrible situation, please consider reading Ira's important input.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why The Insurgency Must Be Crushed

We have intelligence from our operatives that an insurgent leader is planning an assault on one of our outposts. I don’t think it’s even necessary to explain why this is such a serious issue. His followers already have a history of terrorist violence against the lawfully established authorities, including suicide attacks. Any person or group willing to engage in such barbarous behavior must be met with an unyielding stance. To give them an inch is to open the door to chaos. We must not let this happen. Our nation is one predicated on law and we must stand fast and firm against these lawless forces who would upend everything the civilized world stands for. Again, I don’t think it’s even necessary to say that we’ve offered a civilizing influence throughout the world, and that every nation we’ve freed has seen a marked increase, not just of commerce, but also of personal freedom. These terrorists would bring us back to a savage past driven by ancient prejudices and apocalyptic madness. Remember, it is for the sake of freedom and peace that we are involved in this great struggle against unreasoning extremism.
Thankfully we have a member of his inner group on our side. In a few days we’ll meet up with his entourage on the outskirts of the city. It’s there that we’ll make the arrest if possible.

(several days later)

Surprisingly enough we were able to make the arrest with only minor resistance from the terrorist group. Good intelligence (and the occasional bribe) is always helpful! Thankfully we were able to separate the leader from the rest of his followers and we were able to take him into custody. We now have him in confinement and have been interrogating him about any information he might have regarding other terrorists or terror plots in the works. The fact that we’ve already disrupted his own terror plot against our outpost is a good sign of the progress we’re making in making our nation safe from our enemies. Remember friends, this group and all those who ally themselves with them see our freedoms and hate us for it.

(the next day)

It seems these apocalyptic fanatics are so mind numbingly convinced of their convictions that no amount of interrogation can break through their deep seated delusions. But at least we were able to get him to admit to treason against the lawful authorities. We also have records of his previous speeches where he spoke of the violence he would visit on those who oppose his rule if he were to attain power. Thank God we were able to get to him before he ever got to the point of garnering popular support on a large scale. In public he’s quite charismatic, but in the cell he’s not so intimidating! The hell he would unleash on civilized society if he were to gain power is something every self respecting member of society would agree is unspeakable. Again, we need to remind ourselves of why we’re fighting this terrible evil. This fanatic is a perfect “exhibit A.”

(two days later)

Today we had the trial, fair by international standards (though some bleeding hearts quibbled). We had numerous witnesses, both from within his own terrorist group, and among those who personally heard him speak of his plans for terrorist violence. The cowardice of his own group abandoning him for their own skins speaks volumes about the immoral basis for their base desires. We saw a few besotted souls speak out for his apocalyptic vision who also hate our freedoms, but they were in the extreme minority. The public, who generally knows better, knew that we were doing the right thing in putting this dangerous malefactor to death. The sooner people recognize that the better off we all are. There’s nothing to worry about my Lord. He’s just another rebel that’s been dealt with.

Your faithful servant to my Lord and Savior Caesar,

Pontius Pilate

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Caesar Is Not Lord.

Vengeance is mine sayeth the imperialist, and the current iteration of that deadly reality is American. In reading international news sources, which I've done since childhood, I'm struck at how military intervention for "national interests" has become nearly ubiquitous across the planet. It seems every empire has arrogated unto itself the prerogative that belongs only to God when it comes to final judgement, life or death.

This is not a uniquely American behavior by the way, it's been true of every great empire across human history. But these last hundred years have seen US being the military top of the hill. And like every other empire, we gladly fabricate an appropriate mythology to fit our place in the political pantheon seemingly sensing that we are somehow uniquely immortal, unlike every other empire which has passed before us.

Caesar is not Lord.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Christian as Insider and Outsider

The Christian is always the insider on the outside and the outsider on the inside.

The Christian is the insider on the outside because they are always engaged in the affairs of this world, since they are called by Christ to be in the world, and yet not of it. For a Christian to be involved in the intimate details of our common life, both private and public, yet without succumbing to the ever present idolatrous temptations from all sides, means they must have a concrete reference point from which to judge rightly the circumstances they find themselves in. And the concrete reference point is the very life and ministry of Christ Jesus.

It isn't some objective principle above and beyond the vagaries of history, as though that could give us any insight into what to do in the here and now. No. The Christian is guided in what they can and must do by the radical particularity of Christ's ministry to those directly in his midst. His kingdom spread as far, and only as far, as the sound of his voice and the touch of his hand. This is why he told his disciples the kingdom of God was in their midst.

The Christian is also never fully identified with the environment they find themselves in. The Christian is always a dual citizen, a citizen of whatever earthly city they are a part of, but also a citizen, indeed their primary citizenship, of a heavenly city called forth by God himself founded on Christ as the Cornerstone of a heavenly temple being built in the gritty details of our life here on earth.

The Christian is also always the outsider on the inside, because, while they are indeed residents of a heavenly city, they are also flesh and bone, blood and sweat, living breathing wounds and sins. The Christian recognizes within themselves every impulse, every desire, every hope and fear, of every person in their midst within earshot, eyesight, and physical touch. And again this understanding must be held, not by relying on some theoretical understanding of their corporate and individual creatureliness and fallenness, but with a tangible, indeed visceral SENSE of how this exists and is played out in their own day to day life.

And likewise the concrete reference point for the Christian to be able to get an accurate sense of this reality comes to them through the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian sees and begins to understand the reality of their own beauty, sorrow, wounds, sins in their majestic broken tapestry only by looking upon the particular hands, feet, eyes, limbs, minds, pulses of those directly touched by Christ the Lord. Thus the Christian sees each wound, each cry, each laugh, each hidden sigh as uniquely belonging to the one owning these experiences as they do themselves, knowing that Christ's word and touch heals and reproves each according to their need.

As Christ has done for us, we are called to do for one another.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Dragonflies and 9/11

Early this Sunday afternoon I went for a walk on campus. I went to the top of the hill behind our building and sat on a bench and read for a few minutes as the sun shone down. I put my head down and laid there for a few more minutes, all the while listening to the sounds of nature buzz around me. I sat back up and noticed an aircraft flying overhead. I was reminded that ten years ago in the days following 9/11 I saw and heard no aircraft flying anywhere since they had all been grounded from coast to coast. The sight and sound of an aircraft has become normal again these ten years later. It was an odd feeling to realize that.

I got up from the bench and walked on the grass looking at the dragonflies darting around my feet. These supremely beautiful creatures used to scare me so much as a small child, partly because of their name, and partly because of their fearsome look. But now as I spy them from mere feet or even inches away I notice that these amazingly aerodynamic creatures with their nearly transparent wings flit from blade of grass to blade of grass nibbling away as they survey the vast expanse of a field so seemingly small to me.

I wander towards the edge of the hill to a group of trees and find them clapping their leaves as the breeze flutters through. What they were applauding I don't know, except to say that they seemed happy as the bees and bugs and birds all intertwined in the majesty of nature right before my eyes. A bumblebee, seemingly clumsy, navigated a spiders web and flew effortlessly through an opening in the web from one flower to the next. A nest of wasps or hornets crawled out from under an overhang on a concrete pillar on the hill as they make ready for cooler weather so close at hand.

Each of these beautiful creatures make their way whether as flora, fauna, insect, bird, human, all bound together in a much larger web of intertwined life. The quietness of this respite from the rampant noisiness I far too often give myself over to reminds me that there are sounds and sights that transcend us. But these sights and sounds are also a part of us at our core. The breeze blows and dragonflies take flight from blade of grass to blade of grass and feed on the field before them. As it rested on a blade of grass I could see the blades beneath it through its shimmery wings. I can hear the breeze as well and wonder where it will carry me to next.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The King Jesus Gospel

Scot McKnight is one of my favorite Christian teachers out there right now. His blog, Jesus Creed, is one I visit almost daily, where he's posting about theology, science, popular culture, or whatever. His Anabaptist ethical impulse is one I share deeply and he's not afraid to ask the difficult questions of faith. I look forward to reading his newest book.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tisha B'av and Ritualizing Loss

Today commemorates the destruction of the first and second temples in Jerusalem as well as other severe losses in Jewish history, most notably of course the shoah or European holocaust. During the service of Tisha B'av, the rabbi reads through the book of Lamentations in Hebrew, and if you're in a non orthodox synagogue, he'll (or she'll) also read through it in English. Tisha B'av is a holy day that isn't "celebrated" just as Yom Kippur isn't "celebrated" since both are considered deeply solemn days. In other words, you don't say to a Jew "happy Tisha B'av" or "happy Yom Kippur" since these days aren't meant to be happy but painful and necessary reminders of our sinfulness before a holy God and of a deeply broken world in desperate need of God's shalom.

As a Christian Tisha B'av is also personally important to me, since I experienced my own deep loss and sorrow 13 years ago last month with the unexpected death of a woman I loved very much and who also loved me. And then two weeks later I attended the Tisha B'av service with her family at their synagogue. Listening to the rabbi read through Lamentations as the prophet wails over the destruction of his beloved city and holy temple struck home with all of us that day as we too wailed over a much closer tragic loss of one so beloved.

Any religion or spirituality worth its salt so to speak knows how to ritualize loss and pain. To be human is to, at some point in your life, experience unexpected loss or pain. And even when it's expected, that doesn't make it any less painful; just a differently experienced pain. Judaism has Tisha B'av, Christianity has Lent and Good Friday, and I'm sure many of the other world religions have their ritualizations of loss as well. And that's how it should be. As an evangelical Christian in America, I often wonder at the total lack of a serious sense of this part of our spiritual and physical reality in American evangelical circles. I consider myself very fortunate to have discovered the book of Job as a child as well as Ecclesiastes. Having grown up in a pretty disfunctional family environment these dark but honest books of the bible gave me a voice I didn't always have for myself in my own words. It asked the questions I could only murmur. It also had the honesty to not answer those questions to my satisfaction. Any god who offers up a happy clappy or neat little theodicy isn't a god I want to deal with. As unsatisfying as not getting a clear answer is, I'll take that over an all too easy answer that I know instinctively isn't true.

In the days and weeks (and yes, even years) after my deep loss and sorrow, my only word to God was "why?" I still don't have an answer to that question that satisfies me, and I hope I never get it. But I am glad that there is a God who honors that question by including it in his word, thus giving me the freedom to ask it with a brutal honesty knowing that God's big enough to take it and even absorb it into himself. I want a God who understands grief and sorrow and pain and anger at wrongful loss. I want a God who knows what it is to ask in a dying breathe "Why have you forsaken me?" This is a God who I can understand, even if only dimly, because I know that this God can understand me.

Monday, August 8, 2011

In Memory of Senator Mark Hatfield

A wonderful testimony of the impact of Senator Mark Hatfield's life and ministry as a public servant. He exemplifies what it truly means to be a Christian statesman. He made being a "politician" something to be an honor and not a term of reprobation. We desperately need more leaders like him today, now more than ever.

Monday, August 1, 2011

International Corporatism Vs Being Human

The more I read the more I realize we've entered an era of International Corporatism. The largest corporations are larger and much more powerful than most if not all nation states. What is your citizenship? To whom or to what do you belong? Are you a human being or a product, being bought and sold?

Here's an appropriate piece about seeing beyond the old left/right dichotomy.

And here's another piece about Breaking the Spell of Money.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Rhetoric of Identity (and how to Identify that Rhetoric)

The answer to our country's problems isn't to return to some mythical past when all was well and everything was right (or left) in the world. The New Deal, the Great Society, the Reagan Revolution, Compassionate Conservatism, or even more recently, Yes We Can, are all but dim reflections of their times, broken as they are, each in their own way.

But neither is the answer to ignore all of these previous attempts to make things better. The rhetoric of each of these political and cultural movements were aspirational, even if rather transparently manipulative. But it's in this strange confluence of aspiration and manipulation that we need to analyse where we've come from and how we've gotten into the predicament we're now in.

Why do these rhetorical appeals work? In the ten Presidential campaigns I personally remember, along with many other campaigns for various products being sold to us, we've been sold an identity, a sense of who we are and our place in the great movement of history. We're told that if we join this campaign or buy this product, we'll find our true meaning and purpose for our lives. But if we don't come alongside this great movement of history and instead choose to go down another path, we're consigning ourselves not only to insignificance, but we're separating ourselves from the common identity that exists among our family and friends (or so the ad and campaign execs say).

And who wants that? In some way or another we all want to belong. It's a part of our being human that we join ourselves to various groups so that we can identify ourselves as a part of some larger whole. Even the lone wolf exults in their identity as a lone wolf because of the pre-existing myth of the lone wolf. Myths don't exist in a vacuum. They always serve a purpose.

But the question before us today is this: in light of the fact that we're being told that if we don't do....(pick your side)...all hell will break lose economically, politically, and possibly even cosmically, how can we step back and analyse the rhetoric being used and how it's being used so as to conflate the aspirational with the manipulative? In other words, how are we being bullshitted?

The classic bullshitter knows how to combine flattery with fear of failure, and hope with a sense of impending doom. Juxtaposing each in such a way that the voter has their emotions massaged to work up the response the purveyor wants from them. Either a vote, a sale, or a believer. Any will do. As long as they give their feasance to them. Or more importantly, to the ideal.

Can we cut through the deep rhetoric? Can we see beyond the silly semantics of salesmen telling us what we need before we know it ourselves? Can we recognize that all of this exists in us too as we see others behaving this way? Can we recognize ourselves as the bullshitter in chief before we accuse those we don't like of being the chief bullshitter?

You see, this is the Augustinian side of me coming out. It makes me a Christian skeptic, especially of myself. And I think it's my democratic side coming out too; in that I'm pretty sure we all have this in us. I could be wrong of course. But I doubt it. Only time will tell. And time seems to be telling.

Saturday, July 23, 2011


I'm not your enemy I'm not your foe
you are, you are, please don't you know?
I'm not the one chasing you down the road
chasing me like an unclean toad.
We disagree, is that such a crime
it's not murder, just give me time.
I see the glint of the barrel in your eye
why must we judge before we even try?
Fire at will if it be thy will
but if it be thy will I will be still.

You're not my enemy you're not my foe
I am I am, please don't I know?
You're not the one being chased down the road
chasing you like an unclean toad.
We disagree, is that such a crime
it's not murder, just give me time.
You see the glint of the barrel in my eye
why must we judge before we even try?
Fire at will if it be thy will
but if it be thy will I will be still.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Singing Prophetically Against Rupert Murdoch (Why Scouses Rule)

BILLY BRAGG - NEVER BUY THE SUN from Billy Bragg on Vimeo.

An amazing song written and performed by Billy Bragg about the Rupert Murdoch scandal in the UK, which could easily spill over into the US if it turns out his minions hacked into 9/11 victims cells, which considering their prior track record, seems entirely likely. The lyrics of the song are well worth listening to, even if you're not a Scouser (from Liverpool), since they speak to issues of powerful media enterprises and giving in to our more base instincts. The line where he speaks of us buying into "tell alls" and how that makes us partly culpable is very telling.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

To Consolidate Blogs or Not, That is the Question

I'm thinking about importing all of my blogs into my main blog, which at this point is The Augustinian Democrat, and just have separate headings depending on the topic, whether it's science, theology, conspiracy theories, poetry, etc. Sound good? Yes? No?

Doonesbury on Teaching Evolution in Louisiana

Here's the original link to Sunday's comic strip.

(I had posted the original cartoon here, but the width interfered with seeing the side bar links, so I recommend visiting the link above to see the cartoon. It's well worth it)

Monday, July 4, 2011

Very Nicely Done Cartoon Version of Evolutionary Theory.

Here's a great cartoon rendering of the theory of evolution that I found just now from reading Jimpithecus's science and religion blog. In a blog post on June 25 which I only saw today, he links to a great cartoon from another blog explaining the theory of evolution, but in cartoon form, from Darryl Cunningham. Very nicely done indeed.

The American Revolution for Ideologues

Since this week is the annual celebration of America's independence from Britain on July 4th, I'm seeing the usual assortment of essays from the left and the right, from the religious and the irreligious, all with their particular axes to grind to "prove" their view of America's history is the "right" view. And since we now live in the era of twenty four hour "news" or to put it more accurately "infotainment" we're seeing these competing narratives getting airtime because they're attention grabbers. And attention grabbers get ratings. And ratings bring in advertising revenue. And advertising revenue helps companies sell more goods and services to consumers. And these companies sell us these goods to satisfy our felt needs. And we know what these needs are by watching twenty four hour news and entertainment.

Ah yes, the circle of life.

I have friends across the spectrum both ideologically and religiously, from the hardcore right to the far left; from fundamentalist Christians to dyed in the wool atheists. Black, white, Asian, Latino, multi-ethnic, straight, gay, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and friends from every continent except Antarctica. But in this special time of year, when patriotism flourishes and the reaction against it also flourishes, passions flourish no matter what or why. It's very similar to the various other contentious debates we so love to argue and divide over: Creationism/evolution, climate change, gender roles, sexuality, Yankees/Red Sox, etc...

So at this time of the year, the two biggest controversies are over the founding of the United States and how much religion played a role, in particular evangelical Christianity, and in a related issue, whether it's appropriate for modern evangelical Christians to be "patriotic" and celebrate America's Independence Day. Let me say from the outset that I'm not going to give my own ex cathedra declaration as to what is the eternal and always correct answer to these contentious issues. Read what I've written elsewhere to figure that out. I've certainly touched on both topics more than a few times. Instead, here I'm more interested in how each side has played the game of what the founders had to say about religion either privately or publicly and as it related to its role in governance, and how evangelical Christians should relate to their country as Christians.

I've noticed four views that seem to have predominated when it comes to this issue:

1) The "Christian America" view, which sees the founding era as being guided by orthodox/evangelical Christian views and which also believes that the US was specifically founded upon these beliefs and therefore should return to them in order to be blessed by God once again. The late Rev. D. James Kennedy, most Reconstructionist/theonomist Presbyterians, and most well known now, David Barton of Wallbuilders, all represent this perspective.

2) The alternative Christian view that the founders were a bunch of deists at best, and atheists in some cases, and therefore the US was not founded on Christian principles, but instead on Enlightenment ideals. This view is most often espoused by Anabaptists as well as some of the more conservative liturgical churches, such as Missouri Synod Lutherans, some fundamentalist separatist Christians, and many quite liberal Christian denominations. This view certainly has its strange bedfellow thing going on to say the least.

3) The strong secularist perspective that says, similar to the Christians above, that the founders were anything but Christian, and were deeply driven by Enlightenment concepts in their political thinking, and most importantly, in their drafting of our founding documents. But for these secularists this is of course a good thing. Some of the Christians above would agree, such as the Danbury Baptists, because of the freedom of conscience the Bill of Rights gives. Whereas some other Christians see Enlightenment thinking as being antithetical to basic Christian orthodoxy.

4) A less common viewpoint in this spectrum are the secularists who do acknowledge the role of religion in the founding period, and in the subsequent years following the revolution (not to mention the preceding Puritan era), but who see this presence as something to be expunged from American life, since "religion poisons everything" as some are wont to say. The New Atheists (TM) seem to be split between these two camps on this point, since some prefer having religion around to have as an appropriate boogey man to posit every national sin upon.

What makes all four of these competing narratives appealing is that they can each claim historical facts for their perspective. However, precisely because all four can do that, all four are also deeply mythological in their understanding of American history. Views one and three both share an American-Exceptionalism viewpoint, but obviously from very different philosophical/metaphysical bases.

Views two and four both lean towards an anti American-Exceptionalism view, since they both emphasize the historic wrongs done by the US from the Puritan era to today (though liberal Christianity in the late 1800's to WWI held deeply to American-Exceptionalism during the progressive era, and some still do).

In any case though, the reality of the role of religion in America's founding as a Republic is complex enough that each of these views have been able to rise up. So in each of them we see a little bit of truth (some more than others to be sure), but a good deal more myth in their narrative telling of America's origins ideologically and theologically. I'm sure I've oversimplified some of these issues in putting this together. If so, please call me out and explain where I've gone wrong. For further info on this topic, I highly recommend you visit some of the links on my right sidebar under the heading "Religion and Culture" where they deal with this topic in depth and quite well if I do say so myself.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Dark Girls

A preview of an upcoming documentary called Dark Girls about how skin color is judged both by other ethnicities and within the black community as well. Intrablack racism is a direct consequence of slavery and the institutional racism that America has had since its beginning. A very painful topic, but one which needs to be addressed.

Dark Girls: Preview from Bradinn French on Vimeo.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Katharine Hayhoe: Evangelical Christian, Climate Scientist

A wonderful post at Biologos about a climate change scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. Please be sure to watch all three videos at the link. This video needs to go viral and shatter the false dichotomy between faith and science so prevalent in the popular media.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Some excellent Websites dealing with Conspiracy Theories

Here's a round up of a few websites I've discovered that deal primarily or at least occasionally with the issue of conspiracy theories.

Mind Hacks is a mind science website that post frequently on issues relating to cognition. Always entertaining, very insightful, and sometimes hilarious.

A website I only discovered this evening because of a facebook friend Paul Kimball, who writes quite often about the paranormal and UFOs, is called Skeptico. It doesn't primarily deal with conpsiracy theories, but it does touch on that kind of thinking in many of its posts, so it's definitely worth checking. I look forward to reading/listening to more in the days ahead. Looks fascinating.

There's also the always good website that deals primarily with political issues, and of course one of their biggest fact checks has been about President Obama's birth certificate. Consistently good stuff here.

And then there's the more general fact checking website known as Snopes, which also has a great track record of exposing some truly bizarre conspiracy theories. They cover political, scientific, and just about every other cultural expression of bad thinking and crazy logic and amazing hoaxes.

And of course my favorite blog dealing with conspiracy issues has got to be Muertos, which has written extensively on the bizarre conspiracy theories associated with the Zeitgesit Movement, and it's spin off movement, the Venus Project. Thankfully it seem these crazy movements seem to be splitting apart amidst internal squabbling.

If you know of any other good websites dedicated to exploring conspiracy theories and their adherents and the psychology/sociology behind them, I'd very much appreciate the feedback. In a world filled with 9/11 Truthers, Obama Birthers, and now bin Laden Deathers, we need more than ever to work at helping those who are reality impaired and deeply fact aversive.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Sharing and Bearing the Economic Burden

What is economic security?
What is economic insecurity?
What causes both?
Do we understand these issues and the causations behind them?

We are living, as Americans, as well as citizens of other country's, in an environment of economic instability which pits one against another like we've seen all too many times before. Left against right, religious against irreligious, white versus black, or any other ethnicity, and of course, the rich versus the poor. But these various partisan contrasts are all too convenient distractions and diversions from deeper issues driving our economic lives.

If we stand still for a moment (admittedly very difficult to do in this hyperactive internet culture we live in) and look for a moment at some wise voices from our past, just as our former President Dwight David Eisenhower, in his farewell address to the nation in 1961, where he spoke of the danger of the Military Industrial Complex, we'll hear a deeply needed wisdom we desperately need today.

But while he spoke of a military/economic threat from within in this speech, he also was working from a framework that assumed a certain baseline that we now no longer see assumed. For instance, in Ike's day, the income tax was extremely graduated. The top earners paid over 90% of their income to the feds, and as the income went down, the tax rate also went down. And yet, strangely enough, this was for many considered to be a "golden era" of America's economic prowess.

Was this era as "golden" as some would have it be? No. As in anything the picture is of course more complicated. But we should remember that this "golden" period was also the time when unions were also at their strongest, both public and private. At that decisive time, both corporations, government, and the power of workers through their unions were much more evenly divided. This division of power exemplified perfectly the political philosophy so well expressed by our founders in the Federalist Papers which I so highly regard.

But an issue which the American founders didn't fully consider (understandably so) was the full expression of the industrial revolution combined with legal corporatism as understood by the US Supreme Court. This legal issue of corporate "personhood" (please check out the amazing DVD "The Corporation") is, to this day, an unresolved question of what it means to be a "person" under the US Constitution.

Till we deal with this issue both politically and legally and constitutionally, the problem of sharing and bearing the economic burden will not be dealt with adequately. Either we are all equal under the law or we are living under a Huxleyan world where some are more equal than others.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Would you want to live in a world of only plains? Or maybe a world filled with only mountains? Or even a world filled with only cities? Or only small towns? Or only the ocean? Would you want to live in a world with only vast stretches of desert? And of course we can extend this image to other areas of life: Would you want to only taste sweet foods? Only spicy foods? Only salty foods? Would you want to live in a world filled with only extroverts? Or introverts?

And here it starts getting trickier. Should we want to live in a world filled with only Christians? Muslims? Jews? Atheists? Liberals? Conservatives? Post-Modernists? Libertarians? And then what about those within our particular "camp" who still disagree? Shall we only live in a world filled with our particular "vision" of atheism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc, etc, etc.

We have a very natural human tendency to want to shape the rest of reality to our own already set beliefs and behaviors (can we say confirmation bias?). Thus we also tend to want the rest of reality to reflect our own sensibilities. We can do this either by outright rejecting any competing claim to the epistemological terrain or by reframing (and usually distorting) those competing narratives so that they end up suiting our own desires. I know this tendency well, since I've engaged in it on a regular basis myself.

I've lived in a number of different "terrains" both physically and ideologically and spiritually and emotionally. If I only ever saw a city landscape, I'd either get bored with it or see it as the only possible reality. And my all too natural instinct would be to either deify it or demonize it. In that sense, I guess I'm extremely grateful that though I did grown up in NYC, I also grew up on the south shore of Staten Island, which was and is still quite wooded and rural. So while we climbed trees and traversed many wooded paths, we also were a stone's throw from the concrete canyon of Lower Manhattan.

I often only half jokingly say we were the Beverly Hillbilly's of NYC.

But along with being culturally rural so close to a city environment, my family was also quite politically liberal in a very conservative neighborhood. We learned early on that not being in sync with the political majority held it own costs.

Another beautiful benefit of my very broken family was that we knew and interacted with those different than us. I was exposed to friendships with Jews, blacks, Latinos, Asians, the developmentally disabled, the homeless, etc. from early childhood. Though, in the midst of our own brokenness, it was always tempting to retreat into an interior reality blocked off from outside experience, experience, and I believe God, gave me a sense what it's like to walk in other people's shoes.

So again I appeal to my conservative friends to get to know and learn from liberal friends. And likewise, my liberal friends need to truly listen to what conservatives have to say and why. And on another spectrum, my atheist friends need to know more religious folks, so that you don't only see the caricatures presented by the supposedly "new" atheists. And of course, my religious friends also need to know, as in actually know, those who don't share your own convictions, and listen with a spirit of generosity to those who deeply differ.

So, for me at least, I choose to walk a path that includes mountains and plains, oceans and rivers, cities and towns, liberals and conservatives, atheists and believers. It doesn't mean I deny a particular sense and sensibility of reality. But it does mean that, even though we may deeply disagree, I will listen to you, because you do have something good and important to say to me.

So in this spirit, let's talk. Truly and truthfully.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What Do We Mean By Economic Rights?

How should we consider the ethics of economics? Ask an economic
"conservative" what they mean by "economic rights" and ask an
economic "liberal" the same question (at least in the American
context), and you'll get an affirmative answer from both. Yet
both will mean deeply different things in their seemingly identical answers.
To the "conservative", "economic rights" means individual liberty
in our individual interactions with other individual actors.
To the "liberal" this same term means something quite different.
To the modern liberal, to speak of economic rights is to speak of a baseline of equality that presupposes commonalities that sees social systems as being as much involved as individual actors.

Since I speak as both a conservative and liberal in different respects, in so much as I'm deeply conservative in my anthropology (seeing us a deeply fallen species), but also deeply liberal in so far as I see us as deeply bound together as one species recognizing that we are united, tied together, ultimately envisaged as all human, ultimately equal.

In light of this disparate reality, let's explore how we can move forward. We can differ in all of this without becoming disparaging?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

James McGrath and Conspiracy Science

James McGrath has a fascinating piece about the interrelationship between those who believe in Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The mindset that drives belief in nonsense science, such as Intelligent Design or Young Earth Creationism, or the anti-Semitic "Protocols" conspiracy theory, seem to all derive from a desire to easily explain the complexity of the world through either arcane conspiracy theories or overly simplistic narratives that use cherry picked parts of history or science in order to preserve a preconceived notion, whether anti-scientific, anti-Semitic, or racist.

This isn't to say that the destructive force of each of these is identical. Those who believe in YEC or ID aren't typically inclined towards violent imaginations or actions, while many who buy into the "Protocols" do harbor a deep seated hatred towards a specific group (in this case Jews). But the consequences of this kind of thinking is to perpetuate a way of seeing the world that is deeply at odds with how it actually works. Real history and real science, while never perfect, have nonetheless given us a reasonable assessment of the role of specific factors in how the world works.

In both cases, whether in science or in history, these conspiratorial ways of seeing reality betray a deep hostility and fear of complexity. In the case of anti-Semites, they fear/hate Jews and project their fears and all of the world's woes onto an easily identified group, and ironically see them as both preternaturally intelligent and demonically evil, even though historically Jews have been consistently the out group no matter where they live outside of Israel, and have suffered terribly because of that.

In the case of science, the YEC or ID perspectives both posit a mechanism that sees any allowance of naturalistic causes to speciation, especially homo sapiens, as being inherently anti-Christian. And beyond this, there is the argument that modern evolutionary (and for some, astronomical) science is a cabal of academic insiders bent on keeping up scientific orthodoxy even in the light of contrary findings which supposedly subvert the basics of Darwin's theory. But this view is once again a conspiratorial way of seeing how science is done.

Both of these camps consistently fail to understand how proper historiography or scientific research is done. Ultimately it's a rather concrete and static understanding of historical and scientific investigation which is deeply Manichean and won't allow either any gray between the black and white, or an apprehensible reality, whether religious, scientific, or historical, between total comprehension or complete agnosticism. It seems reality is lived in the not quite satisfying middle ground of knowing enough to make sense of most of life.

On Being Called "Queer"

I told a short story tonight at school about being called queer when I was in elementary school back in NYC. When I was growing up on Staten Island I lived in a neighborhood that was very conservative, but my family was quite liberal. So while all the other boys in school had short hair or even crew cuts, I had long hair and had a denim jacket with various peace patches and environmental patches on it.

Needless to say, I got beat up a lot.

I generally didn't like hanging out with the boys in school because they were overall pretty stupid, so I preferred hanging out with the girls. First off they treated me better and secondly I was raised by women more than men so I "got" women/girls better. I was also painfully shy and deeply introverted. Whether in school or at home I preferred living in my own thoughts more often than not. That, and the disfunctionality of my family made me very fearful of any outsiders, and many times insiders.

But my family, for all its faults, knew language. My mother was a poet and my father, though largely absent, was an English professor. So in that regard I understood from a very early age what words mean. So when the day came in fourth or fifth grade when a fellow student thought he was dealing me a death blow of linguistic accusation by calling me queer I realized that he had bit off more than he could chew.

I'm sure he made the accusation in order to cut me down. I have no idea what his own story is; whether he had been called names himself by fellow students or even in his own family. Maybe so or maybe not. It may have been as much the social ethos of the era that allowed kids and adults to call someone a name in order to other them so as to avoid dealing with difference in their midst. But nevertheless, he felt it was appropriate to call me queer in order to shame and embarrass me.

Now I don't remember how I knew this. But somehow in that moment I remembered that queer, while in the context of what this child was calling me, was meant as an insult, I also remembered that the term had a more neutral meaning that didn't necessarily have a negative connotation.

So I asked him if he knew what the term meant. It was obvious he didn't really know. So I told him. I told him that queer meant that something or someone was different than the norm, the standard, the accepted way. And considering the state of the norm, the standard, and the accepted way, being queer to me was quite a compliment.

So I thanked him for the compliment.

He didn't try insulting me anymore.

As I mentioned earlier tonight, I didn't have the muscles to fight off bullies. So I did get beat up on a regular basis. But I did have words to defend myself, and so I used them to the best of my ability. As I grew older I learned how to use my words to keep me safe or defend me. Now, as an adult, I have to be careful in how I use my words today. As it's often been said, that which saves you as a child can kill you as an adult. So in that  regard I must be careful to use my words very carefully.

Other boys had their muscles as their weapons. I had my words. Both can be deadly if used in wrong ways. We each used them to protect ourselves when young. And if we're not careful we can just as easily use them to do violence to others today.

I turned a phrase intended to hurt into one that became a compliment. But it was a selfish pursuit. Appropriate in its context, but dangerous as a template for later use. Just as using your fists to fight off an attacker is appropriate, that lesson can end up becoming a continuation of the cycle of violence if not checked and understood rightly.

So with words used to protect can just as easily become words that coerce and manipulate.

It seems language is a queer thing.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Moving Forward Politically

We live in tumultuous times. Gee, what a surprise! The partisans of the doctrinaire certainties tell us that absolute certitude is the only way. My friends on the left, who are many, tell me that anything from a "conservative" perspective is automatically wrong. And likewise, my friends from the right, who are also many, tell me that anything from the left is automatically wrong.

I understand this impulse. I do. It's all too easy to see reality in starkly black and white terms. Us/them, either/or, all or nothing possibilities. However, when we engage in this behavior, we allow ourselves to become captive to a construct that ends up imprisoning us to the frameworks presented to us. It doesn't have to be that way. Each of us can make a choice to break out of this false dichotomy.

Here's how:

Make friends with people who disagree with you. Listen to opposing voices. Consider opinions based on different assumptions than yours. If you're liberal, make a conservative friend and do the hard work of listening to them. If you're conservative, make a liberal friend and do the same. If you're secular, make friends with a person of faith and listen to what they say and how it guides their life. And likewise, if you're religious (like me), make friends with a secular person, whether an agnostic or an atheist, and take the time to listen to what they say and why they say it.

Wisdom exists beyond our own shores. Sights can be seen beyond our own horizons. Are all views equal? No. I'm not a thorough going relativist. I believe in basic human equality against those who argue otherwise. So some arguments must be engaged forthrightly.

But even in this, we must acknowledge our common humanity among those with whom we deeply disagree. In the days ahead, we must seek truth, engage truthfully, and engage firmly with those we seek to both convince and learn from.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Strangeness of the Isaiah 6 calling

I've read Isaiah 6 more than a  few times over the years. It's a very popular passage for those who sense a calling from God towards ministry. The part that always gets mentioned is the "here am I, send me" part. I love that part too. I really do. But like with so many other passages of scripture, when we read a part apart from the context that surrounds it, we end up doing violence to what God intended in these discrete words.

So in the interest of discretion, let's consider the whole passage as God and his prophet intended:

Isaiah 6:1-13 (ESV)

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for." And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" Then I said, "Here am I! Send me." And he said, "Go, and say to this people:
'Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.' 
make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed."
Then I said, "How long, O Lord?"
And he said:
"Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste, 
and the LORD removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
 And though a tenth remain in it,
 it will be burned again,
 like a terebinth or an oak,
 whose stump remains
 when it is felled."
 The holy seed is the stump.

Does this sound like the kind of call you want? Tell the people you're called to preach to do exactly opposite of what they're willing to hear? God calls you and guarantee's failure from the outset? Or at least failure by "normal" standards? Yet it seems this is God's way, strangely enough. God never calls his disciples to follow the path of popularity. God never calls his followers to sing the song that resonates with the majority. He offends the popular opinion.

So if someone is actually called in this way, they're gonna be confronted with all of the idolatries that befall their people, whether political or religious. And it's pretty much the case that anyone truly called of God is gonna be hated by the vested interests, both political and religious. For those of us concerned with the things of God, this is something worth considering, today, and in the days ahead.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Darwin Pushed to the Margins in HS science classes

An excellent but also disturbing interview from Rod Dreher with Eric Plutzer about why American High School teachers are so reluctant to teach evolutionary science in their classrooms. Here's one paragraph to get a sense of the article, but read the whole thing. It offers a convincing explanation as to why our HS science curriculum is so mediocre.

Given that only a relative few high school students will continue on to do college-level work in biology, much less become professional biologists, why do you see this as a serious problem?
We see two distinct issues here. The first is that students are being cheated out of a sound science education. All nations are increasingly confronted with important policy choices that are informed by science: Should we mandate vaccines for all school children? Should we take costly steps to reduce carbon emissions? How can we most effectively reduce the incidence of chronic diseases?  For ordinary citizens to play a meaningful role in democracies tackling these issues, they need to be excellent critical thinkers concerning science. They should not blindly accept scientific findings, whether they come from academia, government or industry. But neither should they believe that scientific debates are simply clashes of opinion and values. A healthy appreciation of the nature of science, the persuasiveness of replication, and respect for the necessary expertise is also essential. When teachers tell their students that they can have their own opinions about the validity of evolutionary biology, they are sending a dangerous message to our future citizens.

I do wish Big Questions Online (BQO) would post more, but they're rather dormant since last summer. But at least when they do post something new, it's usually quite good.

Sunday, March 20, 2011


When I was a teenager, I had a dream. The dream has stayed with me ever since. In the dream, I was alternately placed “on the ground” in the southern regions of Israel; specifically the Negev desert, and looking down from above at a symbolic representation of the entire Middle East. The dream progressed towards greater conflict, switching back and forth, from the immediate experience on the ground to the overhead view. In the initial stages of the dream, I was engaged in dialogue with those around me who represented opposing sides in the growing conflict. As to whether these were Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims, I’m not sure. Though it certainly would make the most sense, and at the time it’s what I understood the dream to be about. As I was pressed upon by the opposing sides, I was being asked to choose one over the other. Initially, I listened to their arguments, desiring to make the wisest choice.
As the dream progressed I would find myself looking down upon the region, as if I were situated hundreds of miles above, looking down upon the area as from a satellite. Yet in looking down upon the whole region, I saw it in a symbolic way. The whole area was symbolically represented by a wide swath of a very thin film. It was as if it represented a huge number of people, since it consisted of the vast majority of the Middle Eastern area, wide, but shallow, with only a few, small areas represented by a different symbolism. This other symbolism consisted of small isolated groupings that occupied only small areas, yet which were quite deep (or tall, depending upon the perspective).
In the dream, it was clear that these different images represented varying degrees of spiritual understanding. Thus, for the vast majority of the people in the region, the symbolism was of a spiritually shallow existence, not understanding the things of God. They were, as least symbolically, the most distant from God. Thus, those who were represented by the small, tall areas represented those who were deeper in their understanding of God.
Yet, even with this, I was not comfortable in the dream aligning myself with either side. As the dream progressed, I found myself being pressed from all sides to choose one side or another. On the ground I found the contesting sides becoming more vehement with each passing moment. They were also pressing in on me, becoming more insistent that I choose. As this scene played out, I would find myself looking down upon the scene from high above. Alternately, I would see, whether in my face or from high above, the contesting camps vying for my allegiance.
As the dream became more intense, with each side growing more violent, I was struggling with what choices I should make. As the vantage point shifted, I found myself wavering in my opinion. Initially, I was inclined towards those in the minority, since they represented those who were more spiritually mature and closer to God. These small groupings were spread out over the whole region, even if they only represented a very small percentage of the overall population. Some were in Iraq, more were in Lebanon; still others were in Syria and Egypt. More clusters of these “deeper” ones were situated in various parts of Israel. Yet, small clusters of these people were also spread out over the whole region, stretching out to Iraq and Iran in the east, south to Ethiopia, and west to Egypt and Libya. Yet most of this area was symbolically represented with the vast majority as geographically and numerically wide, yet spiritually shallow.
As the dream moved along, I found myself in the midst of the now warring parties, pulling at me to choose one or the other. My resolve was straining at its limits, trying my best to choose wisely. I began to wonder if it might be better to go with the majority, since they held the numerical advantage. But I knew that they were much farther away from God than the others were. Yet even the minority were not where they should be spiritually. As the dream wound to a close, I was being buffeted on all sides, with the warring parties each pulling at me to side with them. This dream, which had been interesting up to this point, was now becoming a nightmare. As I struggled with what choice to make, and was despairing of what to do, confused and uncertain of what was right or wrong, I cried out to God.
At this point in the dream, I was caught up to the same vantage point as before. But unlike the previous times during the dream, this time I wasn’t alone. I found myself amongst innumerable other people who had also been caught up to this heavenly vantage point. In the dream, what had up to this point become a nightmare, had now become a joyous experience of deliverance. Where I was situated, looking down upon the earth below, was not a disembodied state of floating on clouds, but was still quite physical, yet different than the state I was in below. Whereas before this being “caught up” I had been confused and fearful, I now felt safe and secure. I also now knew that I had been presented with a false choice during the conflict down below. Even during this trial, whether I was on the ground or was seeing it from above in symbolic form, I was not able to see clearly enough to remain steady.
While I was being accosted from all sides seeking my loyalty, I knew intuitively that neither side had an accurate understanding of the truth, even if one was in fact closer than the other. Yet as I became embroiled in the conflict, I began to waver in my own understanding as well. This inner sense told me that I could not in good conscience align myself with either side’s views or actions. Yet I found myself being tempted, both from the external pressures and my own desires; desires that were more concerned with being thought highly of by those around me, and the desire to be on the “winning” side.
In that sense then, I was delivered in at least two different ways; one, from the combatants surrounding me; two, from my own tendency to acquiesce to the impulses that are strongest at the moment. My deliverance then was both external and internal, and because of Who delivered me, my deliverance was also eternal!

This dream has stayed with me for many years now. It is obviously very symbolic, so it shouldn’t be interpreted in a literalistic fashion. Yet in its symbolism, it can be just as easy to leap to fantastic conjectures. Is the dream prophetic of events soon to come? Will the “final” battle in Israel occur in my lifetime? Because I had this dream when I was a teenager (around 1980), I struggled with these questions, especially because I grew up reading and listening to many end times teachers who often said that we were living in the final years of the present age. Is the dream merely the product of undigested food, doing its work while I sleep? Or is it the nocturnal expression of my day time stresses, only set in apocalyptic imagery, both because of my religious tradition, and my tendency, along with many other people, to see myself as being in the center of a great drama?
Any of these are certainly viable possibilities. Although I doubt it is primarily due to undigested food, I nonetheless have to fully acknowledge that it is an expression of my own inner workings. Yet even in saying this, I don’t discount the possibility that it may pertain to events beyond myself. And even if it does (or doesn’t) have to do with any eschatological issues per se, it still serves quite well as a dream parable of sorts of what Christians are to do when confronted by competing claims to allegiance. In this sense, no matter what other meaning(s) the dream may have, it can serve as a symbolic representation of universal principles that can keep us on track. Ultimately, staying on track means relying on God (and His word) through all trials and tribulations, and not giving in to the impulse to go along with the flow or jettison principled means in order to get to some supposedly “good” end. The final lesson I’ve come away with over the years from this dream is that we are always presented in this world with false dichotomies, choices that appear, at least initially, to be the only ones. Yet with discernment, and careful consideration, many, if not most times, we find that the right choice is one we’re not told about by those seeking our loyalty. This aspect of the dream I am certain is true. Don’t settle!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Which God Will It Be? (the Rob Bell, Greg Boyd, Tim Challies edition)

In recent weeks I've been reading the accounts of various theological debates, primarily between the Emergent crowd and what's often called the Neo-Reformed crowd. It all started when a pre-release video was put out to hawk Rob Bell's new book "God Wins" along with snippets from his soon to be released book. From these meager (though not to some) resources many deigned to presume that Rob had "proved" himself a "universalist" though the term never occurs in either the video blurb or in the parts of his book that have been released. That's not to say he doesn't hold to universalism. He may. But the evidence wasn't in yet. The book was released in "pre-publish" form to several people so that they could review it, both those who would be favorably disposed and those who differ deeply with Rob's views, whatever they may be. And now we're finally beginning to see reviews from those who have actually "read" the book. And for me, this is just as interesting.

Both Greg Boyd and Tim Challies were given pre-releases of Rob's new book and have posted their reviews. For those not in the know, these two guys are as theologically polar opposite as you can pretty much get, at least within the Protestant Christian world. Greg Boyd is extremely Arminian in this theology to the point that he advocates a view that's called "Open Theism" which posits that God may not "know" every detail of the future, all in order to preserve a view of human freedom called "libertarian free will." The idea behind this view is that in order for God to be "good" human agency must be uninterrupted, thus even God's perfect foreknowledge would impede that freedom. Therefore, since that "freedom" is essential to us being morally responsible, and in order to maintain God's goodness, his own knowledge must itself be contingent to our "free will" actions. (within Free-Will Theism or Open Theism there are degrees. Some are ontological Open Theists (God "cannot" know the future), which I consider to be open heresy, whereas others, such as Boyd, I consider to be excessively kenotic (God's self emptying prerogative seen in Christ's incarnation) but nonetheless within the pale of orthodoxy [barely])

Tim Challies, on the other hand is a well known figure among the Neo-Reformed. The vast  majority of the critiques of Rob's new book have come from this crowd, The Neo-Reformed are Calvinistic in their soteriology/salvation theology as well as in their anthropology/doctrine of humanity. By the way, as a confession of my own views, I'm quite Reformed and Augustinian about both the human condition and God's sovereignty. But what does it mean to be "Reformed" or "Calvinistic" or even "Augustinian" in our theology, whether about God Himself or about us as humans?

A quick definition of terms might help here. To "be" Reformed is to emphasize certain attributes of God as being preeminent, in particular his sovereignty and holiness, and among many Reformed folks, his wrath. It's also to emphasize the utter devastation to the human condition that occurred at the "fall," the event that forever changed us, not only in our natural state, but also in our relationship with a transcendent and holy God. Since I'm basically a Calvinist myself, I should make clear one thing that's often been misconstrued. To be "totally depraved" is not to be as bad as we can possibly be, but to be thoroughly and completely infected by sin in every part, even if only in the slightest way. I often use the illustration of a glass of water being  tainted by a drop of poison. Whether it's one drop or the whole glass, it's deadly either way. This is the conception of the holiness of God in this vision. In both reviews I noticed how their theological perspectives shaped and eventually determined their reading of Rob's words.

Yet.... Yet....

This little kerfuffle which has garnered so much attention amongst Evangelicals and has even reached the New York Times, betrays, at least for me, a certain theological myopia that has ignored a much larger and richer Christian picture. The "four great Christian traditions" of Christianity seen in Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Reformation Christianity, and Anabaptist/Independent Christianity (inclusive of the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements) each have a vision of God's character at their center driving their ethical impulses.

I look back to Paul's description of the divisiveness in the Corinthian church which Paul describes so vividly in chapter 1 of 1st Corinthians. He starts out by commending them, as he typically did to whatever church to which he wrote. But just after that he confronts them on their factionalism. Some of them were following after him. Some were following after Cephas, otherwise known as Peter. Others were siding with Apollos. And some were even saying that they just followed Jesus. Paul criticized "every one of these" factions as being untrue to the gospel message.

It seems that the Corinthians were as prone to seeing God "on our own terms" as we are now. I'll admit that my analysis if this passage may be as much eisegesis as exegetical, but when I see Paul's description, I can't help but notice this four-fold division that fits rather neatly with the divisions of church history.

The initial separation (1054AD)  was between East and West; between the Orthodox East with the Catholic West. As I see it, this represents the Petrine and Apolilnian split. This split was a combination of theology and ecclesiology combining with sinful impulses on both sides. Later we saw the split between Petrine and Pauline understandings of Christianity in the Protestant Reformation, also with sinful and holy impulses driving each side. But what's really surprising is that the followers of Jesus were criticized as well. In other words, each of these views was seen as being separatist, not allowing that God might speak through a slightly different voice.
It seems that Paul says that God speaks through through a multitude of voices, yet ultimately with one voice.

So in light of this dim light, can we see forward toward an ecumenical light? Can we be Christan in a ;large sense? Can we be Christians in that large sense and still be Christians?

Friday, March 4, 2011

Subverting Global Myths Review Intro

I just finished Vinoth Ramachandra's magisterial book "Subverting Global Myths" and I was going to start reading Stephen Prothero's new book "God Is Not One" but decided that it was more important to reread Vinoth's book in order to better appreciate the details and nuance that Vinoth brought out in his book and to let me put together a more detailed review. I still want to read Stephen's new book forthwith, but it'll have to wait till I unpack what Vinoth is saying in his tome.

In chapter one, Vinoth deals with the "myths of terrorism"

In chapter two he deals with the "myths of religious violence"

In chapter three he deals with the "myths of human rights"

In chapter four he deals with the "myths of multiculturalism"

In chapter five he deals with the "myths of science"

In chapter six he deals with the "myths of postcolonialism"

In the days ahead, I'll explore how these various myths have shaped our understanding, whether as modern Westerners (as I am) or as those reacting against the latest onslaught of intellectual hegemony. As Vinoth Ramachandra has pointed out, in light of his own (and my own) Christian understanding, each of these perspectives is shaped by the particular shape, and dare I say, distortion of whatever culture we happen to live in, combined with our own inherent self centeredness, also known within the Christian tradition as "sin."

Thus, each of these situations described represent both individual and corporate/collective brokenness/sin or a deep fracture from the reality that actually exists. As I've already said in other venues, Vinoth challenges both the left/right divide as well as the religious/secular divide. Every ideology and idolatry will be confronted.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

And the Psychosis Grows Deeper With Each Passing Day

Glenn Beck seems to be tottering on the edge of oblivion with this latest rant about the Middle East. It's truly hard to keep up with all of the "players" in his conspiratorial nightmare or wet dream. This may explain why he's now losing a third of his viewership from this time last year. And thankfully some conservatives are finally speaking out against his wild rantings. That's not to say they still don't have their own issues. They certainly do. But gladly bizarre conspiracy theories isn't one of them. Honestly, watching Glenn's latest full on vent has me wondering if he's one step away from a window ledge. I have enjoyed poking fun at his bizarreness but he really does seem to be on the edge of a total mental breakdown. What was fun to watch is becoming instead scary.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Teaching Kids About Science in Church

There's a good post today at the Internet Monk about how best to teach preteen kids in church about faith/science issues. Unfortunately (or maybe not!) the gentleman in question has only a half hour to introduce the subject to his class this coming week.

Here's the conundrum Ben is in:

Dear Chaplain Mike,
On Friday, I’ve got 30 minutes to talk to a group of 11-13 year-olds about ‘creation and evolution’.
They haven’t studied anything about either at school, and in the context of the church they go to, there isn’t a great deal of pressure for me to push things either way.
I’m a bit stumped about where to even start: creation/evolution, religion/science, Genesis/Gilgamesh?!
I may just be able to ask them questions and improvise from there, but I’d quite like a backup plan…
I’d be interested to know what advice Internet Monk readers might have.
Ben S

Here's what I recommended in the thread below:

Ditto on what Paul says above. I would also use a simple illustration of how a word or a phrase can have different meanings depending the context within which it is used as a way of showing that some of the biblical terms in early Genesis don’t necessarily have to be seen as meaning “one” thing. Though this is short notice, I would highly recommend the book by Sigmund Brouwer called “Who Made the Moon?” It’s subtitled “A Father Explores How Faith and Science Agree” and it is fantastic for parents of younger and even preteen kids inquiring about faith/science issues. It’s also accurate without being overly technical, since it is meant to be accessible to both a non-scientist parent and the child.
Also a very important point when teaching and dialoguing with the kids. Listen to them! Respect their questions. And please don’t answer if you don’t know. They have a finely tuned BS detector that, I promise, will go off if you try to answer without knowing what you’re talking about. If they stump ya, admit it and tell them, if it’s at all possible, that you’ll look into their question more and get back to them on it. They’ll respect that honesty more than any false bravado. It might also be a good thing to point out a handful of devout Christians who have also been world renowned scientists, whether in biology, astronomy, chemistry, genetics, etc., so that they know that real people can and do live in both worlds without having to give up either. I pray it goes well for him!
What would you do in this situation? With such a short time to introduce something so big to a crowd as scary as 11-13 year olds who have no background about science, what would you want their "first impression" of science to be as it relates to the Christian faith? Again, check out the Internet Monk thread as more people respond. It should be fun and interesting.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

What Parable, Myth, Fable, Best Describes Your Life?

Is it the parable of the Prodigal Son, the myth of Sisyphus, the Ugly Duckling? What story resonates as being close to your own story? What tale tells your tale?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Do You Believe The Bible To Be 100% Factual/Truth?

I wrote this just a bit earlier in response to a friend's Facebook question:

Do You Believe The Bible To Be 100% Factual/Truth?

I used to be very strongly in the "inerrantist" camp regarding the absolute accuracy of scripture. That isn't to say I read the text in a wooden literalistic way. Even back then I understood that scripture was made up of many different genres of writing. In fact I even decided against going to a seminary several years ago because they didn't hold to inerrancy, and eventually came out to Gordon Conwell partly just for that reason, since they do officially hold to inerrancy. But ironically enough since I've been out here, I've moved steadily aways from the notion of inerrancy for several reasons.

First off, it's one of those doctrines that dies the death of a thousand qualifications. The reason there are so many qualifications is precisely because without them inerrancy would be obviously wrong.

And secondly, whenever there are textual variants among the manuscripts, which there are many, both OT and NT, it's argued that the doctrine of inerrancy is concerning the "autographs" and not any of the manuscripts we now have. But of course there are no autographs around to test this out by. It's therefore unfalsifiable.

And lastly, my interest in science and biology, cosmology, genetics, etc., has forced me to come to terms with trying to reconcile my faith with the modern scientific consensus concerning origins. Now I've never been a "young earth" type to begin with, and grew up on Carl Sagan's Cosmos, so I've never really struggled with accepting modern science. But for a long time I didn't really take the time to see how these two "books" (scripture and nature) of God's revelation related to each other.

So I don't think it's necessary to read scripture like it's a modern science textbook. That's a modernist and frankly fundamentalist way of looking at the text that does it a great injustice. Even within scripture we see different authors reinterpreting previously inspired texts in surprisingly "spiritual" and "metaphorical" ways. And in the early church some of the treatments were really out there at times, and it was considered OK because scripture was seen to be alive, fluid and flexible, precisely because is was "God-breathed."

Anyway thanks man for posting the question. It helps me to process my own thinking right now on where I'm at and where I'm "evolving" in my Christian understanding.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Being Human

Why do human beings so often see themselves as being radically separate from the rest of the "natural" world? I've seen this among both religious and secular people. Are the simple tools of primates or birds or raccoons or beavers less "natural" because they used natural materials for secondary goods? If all of that is still is considered "natural", why isn't all of human behavior likewise considered natural? What's at work here? I suspect this may have more to do with psychology than with theology or science.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Drowning Lake, Baptism, Death, Water

Scene 1: Drowning Lake
I almost drowned in this lake when I was around seven years old. It's just down the street from where I grew up on Staten Island and we always called it the Dismal Swamp, though in this picture it's quite pretty. A group of us were hanging out at the lake and I was standing on the outside of the railing alongside the road at the edge of the lake when I slipped on the rock I was standing on and went completely under the water. I didn't know how to swim (I still don't) and so I had to be pulled out of the water by someone else. I think it was one of my siblings, though I'm not sure. All I know is that it terrified me and left me phobic about water for many years after this traumatic event occurred.

My fear of water made taking baths a constant ordeal and I didn't take a shower till I was a teenager because having water even touch my face seized me with terror even years later. If my face went under water in any circumstance I was panic stricken. It took my cousin Betsy in North Carolina to finally get me to overcome my fear and step into a shower for the first time. I think the only reason she could get me to take such a drastic step (to me at least) was because I had a serious crush on her.

Scene 2: Baptism
When I was twenty one years old in the summer of 1986 I was baptized in the Atlantic Ocean at New Dorp Beach by a Messianic Rabbi/Pastor as jellyfish floated menacingly nearby. My heart was pounding, not only because of the spectacle of being publicly baptized in a rather crowded venue, but because being forcibly submerged under water three times in a row (Father,Son and Holy Spirit, remember?) scared me to death. It's a good thing I didn't know about the jelly fish floating nearby till only after the baptism or I never would have gone through with it. Even now I only half jokingly tell my baptism story as being nearly a baptism of fire if I'd been stung. But my fear of water was overcome by my sense of calling to be identified with Christ's death and resurrection, symbolized by baptism.

Scene 3: Death
It was July 27, 1998 and I had worked at Project Hospitality that day on nearly no sleep because I had spent the previous night till 5am with Gwenn who lived next door to me in our apartment building. We had talked, wept, held each other, and struggled through a long night of trying to figure out who she wanted to be. I had my own struggle of loving her more than anyone I had ever known, and yet knowing that she was involved with someone else. And yet we loved each other deeply in our own way. In some ways deeper than even her other relationships. We saw into each other's souls.

Well, when I came home from work I found police cars swarmed around our apartment building. As I walked around the side to walk up the three flights of stairs cops were along the whole way, each looking at me with eyes of suspicion. When I got to the top steps, halfway between my apartment and hers, with her door open and cops standing guard, I asked what was going on to no avail till Gwenn's father heard my voice and cried out that she's dead. She's dead. She had drowned in their back yard in-ground pool just a little bit earlier. Her mom had discovered her in the pool. Apparently she had taken her car to their house but had run out of gas on the way (her gas gauge was broken) so she had to walk about a mile to the house in high heat and high humidity. All while wearing her dancing outfit underneath her outer clothes because she was a dancer and had planned on going to dance class that day. When she got to the house, she couldn't get the front door lock to work. We know this because her key was still in the lock after she was found. She then went around back to get in through the back door, but that was locked as well. She must have sat at the edge of the pool to cool off. Apparently the coolness of the water combined with her exertion from the long walk and heat retaining outfit she was wearing was enough to cause her to faint. She fell into the water and drowned.

When I was driven to their house, she was still there. I collapsed once in the front driveway, but made it to the back and saw her lying, stiff, at the side of the pool, covered to protect her dignity. I staggered towards her lifeless body and knelt down beside her and touched her hair. She still had the most beautiful hair in the world. In the days that followed, hazy as they were, I sat Shiva with her family, attended the funeral, which was a traditional orthodox funeral. I was allowed to see her even though I'm a goy, because her family saw me as family. She had clay tablets on her eyes from Israel so that in the resurrection she'll see Israel first. I gave her my Star of David necklace that lies with her to this day because she held it that last night in her hands as I wore it and told me how much she liked it. I knew it had to be with her as a piece of me since when she died a part of me died too. And I wanted to be with her, even in burial.

These three scenes, all involving water, have deeply shaped me. To this day water exercises a primordial power over me. It both terrifies me and enchants me. In my darker moments of depression, when Darkness Itself stares me in the face, water beckons, both as friend and foe. Feared enemy and comforting friend. This September I wrote a poem where water played a vital if only a seemingly supporting role:

Dancing on the Cliff

When depression and addiction
do their deadly dance
the waves beckon below
as the melancholy music plays.

In each others grip
we dance and twirl and spin about
laughing and crying
ourselves to death.

The fog horn blows
and the train whistle sings
as the night descends
and the dance begins.

The wind blows in our hair
and sings a tune blue and true.
A lulling tune that grips us tight
and sees the pebbles fall below.

The ocean below roars
and sings its own song
low and deep forever
lapping at my heels.

And we dance and dance again
to a tune that plays every day.
I know the tune all too well
in its sultry slippery notes.

Cold soil against my feet
warm my soul and keep
me grounded knowing that
the Earth is my friend.

So we dance
and twirl about
in a moonlit sky
as waves and wind blow.

So we dance
and twirl about
in a moonlit sky
as waves and wind blow.

Pebbles and rocks
call out to each other
as our steps intermingle
with ocean spray.

So water still plays its part in my life, even today. It rises up and calls my name over and over again, beckoning me both to death and life. These liquid demons need to be redeemed by a drowning savior.