Friday, December 18, 2009

Advent and hope revisited

Hope seems like a luxury to me, the luxury of people who do not really have to worry about what is going to happen to them. I have to admit to myself that I often think that hope is a trifling convenience for people who have time and resources to spare. I have never been a very joyful or optimistic person. I can find it difficult to hope, difficult to see the positive side of things. If other people go through life spouting the axiom "nothing ventured, nothing gained" I learned that it is more often true that nothing ventured means nothing lost. Most of life is not what I would call a pearl of great price worth selling everything you have to obtain. Tell me that something is worth the trouble and I'd LIKE to believe you and I may believe it is great for you but that doesn't mean I'll see the positive side of things.

When hope gets thwarted year after year and in conflict after conflict you begin not merely to lose hope but to resent even the idea of hope, of entertaining hope. You begin to resent even wanting things to be better because that signifies dissatisfaction and it is better to be content with what you have, isn't it? Godliness with contentment is great gain so wanting more than what you already have might as well be coveting, right? Well .. .maybe not. I have in some ways grown too cynical and pessimistic. I have often felt as though I'm the sort of person who thinks Goth kids are too naive and optimistic about the human condition.

Yet Advent is a time when we start hearing songs with lyrics like, "a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices". I'm not sure how to grasp the significance of that a lot of the time. Hope not only seems like a luxury but the worm on the hook that lets people scam you. If my favorite authors are Dostoevsky and Kafka you may note that mine is not a disposition to believing the triumph of the human spirit amounts to much (unless we're talking about the Resurrection since I consider that a game changer). I have little patience for people who think they are some kind of John Galt hoping in their own hope whether hope in their innate greatness or the baptised version of thinking their mission from God entitles them to have obstacles removed. That can be a kind of atheistic faith in faith that Francis Schaeffer wrote about being inadequate. If Christians are naive in hoping for redemption atheists are just as incapable of living without false hope, which is why they vote. As you can see every fiber of my being is disposed to say things will not got better.

That is why Advent is a challenging season for me. It reminds me that God has made promises and that they are trustworthy and that God is not like the people who fail to keep promises through will or through weakness.

Mockingbird--the inner totalitarian

The idea that each of us has the capacity to be a totalitarian should appeal to everyone because it is in recognizing our capacity for this totalitarianism and constant suspicion that we acting in totalitarian ways that may be the only way we can avoiding acting in bullying and brutal ways. We have to consider that our quest for justice may be a quest for self-satisfaction, our moral outrage may be.

The greatest hypocrites I know about objecting to tyranny are those most willing to tyrannize if it suits their purposes. I know people who have no problem pulling rank and throwing their weight around when it is their interests at stake who object when things don't go their way and consider it an unpardonable breach of justice. If you don't pay your rent on time and get evicted it's not the landlord who is a tyrant and doing something illegal. If you get yourself to the point of being diabetic because of your eating habits you don't really have any moral high ground to want smoking banned because of health threats because your own eating and exercise habits have done more damage to you than second hand smoke possibly could. If you fire people who disagree with you without batting an eyelash you can't really claim persecution if there are legitimate legal obstacles to you getting the things you want. Reaping what you sow isn't karma, it's more like the social norm of reciprocity. Act like a jerk to people long enough and either they return the favor or find better things to do with their time than spend time with you.

Social groups allow us to make our personal tyrannies normative. During the height of the courtship fad at a church I was at I saw this on a small scale. God forbid you "dated" anyone but courting was okay, though that meant it was advisable that you jump through appropriate hoopes. Supposedly this was not about legalism but about honoring women when, in the end, I think what it was most about was avoiding sin. There was no real teaching about seeking to imitate Christ in that fad, just the avoidance of sin and it will go down as one of the largely unreported by great failures of that church both in terms of ethical teaching and faithfulness to doctrine.

It was a time in which people who went on to cheat on their spouses could still stand as moral police about how modest a woman's attire ought to be. The avoidance of sin is not the same as seeking Christ. It was a time in which men who did not really stand any serious chance of dating attacked the character of other men who suggested that dating was not as inherently sinful as it was being made out to be. It made for the perfect pretext to be standing up for sound teaching when it was little more than a way to vent personal dislike. At length the person who took advantage of this opportunity to rip on someone else became a target himself because of his own combative and self-congratulatory ways. How he was treated was far from ideal but his capacity for vindictiveness may have simply found a foil in a group of people who grew tired of him. Now he is looking after himself and is pretty much where he was ten years ago, except perhaps for being more entrenched in the foolish notion that protecting himself will actually protect him.

The inner totalitarian is what we unleash on others and ourselves when we become uncomfortable with who we are or resent others. It is also, of course, what we unleash when we become TOO comfortable with who we are. Someone who has wide respect, popularity, and confidence in a social setting feels more comfortable throwing his or her weight around and getting behind things that are unjust precisely because there is no doubt his own ethics enough. If you move too far to the left or the right in political thought you end up in some form of totalitarianism. Neither Rand nor Marx had a clue how to prescribe an actual solution to the social and economic problems of their time. I consider Rand and Marx to be two sides of the same coin. You don't entrust the future of your society to grand-standing sociopathic idealists.

The inner totalitarian becomes the outer totalitarian when a person decides to convert their social capital into a moral investment and enlists other people in their community for their cause, a cause of dubious morality, dubious biblical support, and dubious history. There is no need to rely on actual force most of the time because people voluntarily enforce the social outworking of a legalistic or punitive action as a way to preserve their own social investment in a community and their own status within the social network. People act like jerks toward targets because the lead jerks, they believe, will approve of them for it. Let this not happen and the jerks at the lower rungs of the social ladder may feel betrayed and what may have happened is simply that their own jerkiness caught up with them rather than their being victims of circumstance or unjust retribution. The unjust landlord may be exercising perfectly legal rights, the pariah may be a pariah for being a divisive know-it-all jerk who set his or her guns on undeserving targets to prove a point that wasn't worth proving because it was made with dubious reasoning.

People who are not aware of their inner totalitarian or defend it will defend the unspeakable in the end, the indefensible. No matter how willing the spirit the flesh is weak and many times we must concede that our spirit is not particularly willing.

it's only lonely at the top if you don't want anyone with you

I have sometimes heard and read it said that it is lonely at the top. My impression is that it is lonely everywhere and you will always be lonely at some point in your life even if you are surrounded by people, even people very close to you. I have known people who have told me that married life can actually be the loneliest kind of life from time to time. Being with someone can make loneliness worse. Popular entertainers and politicians may well feel more lonely than ordinary people but this is not necessarily because it invariably must be that way. Jesus chose to be a man of sorrows, acquainted with suffering and grief. You don't have to be lonely but it is tempting to want to be alone. Very tempting. How much loneliness is due to circumstances beyond my control and how much of it is chosen loneliness?

Omega bank debenture scam part two, the NESARA variation

Scams are more effective when they are linked to things that exist that don't really amount to much. That scrap of truthfulness and the appeal to avarice or genuine need. What began as Omega has over time transformed into a new variation on an old trick in the NESARA scam.
If high yield investment plan scams where the craze of the 199os it looks like hiring scams are the newest craze. It's not fun applying for a job on-line only to discover you're getting called by telemarketers about things that don't interest you.

Scams like NESARA or Omega or hiring scams exploit ignorance, greed, and need. You can think that you're too smart to get suckered but that may well be when you get suckered most. Especially in the 1990s when evangelical Christians were dreading what Clinton would do to compromise civil liberties and abuse federal power things that promised insider information that would financially liberate them looked good. As Koholeth put it wine makes the heart glad and money is the answer to everything! Why, of course it is! If you have the secret wisdom that most Americans don't have because they don't know how things REALLY work in this country then you'll become successful, right?

Thanks to some not very prudent financial decisions people I have known have made over the years I developed an approach that is probably overdone. Where many people would like to say "nothing ventured, nothing gained" I tend to think, "nothing ventured, less is lost". I know risks have to be taken but when you have seen people take risks that are disasters and turned out to be foolish risks it's hard to feel inspired to follow those examples with confidence. If a man eats his way into diabetes I can't take him seriously when he looks down on other people for their lack of self control. If a man was busily fornicating with the woman who eventually became his wife I can't take seriously his moral outrage that other people do now what he so giddily did. If a man wipes out his business ventures for lack of a sound business plan it's hard to feel inspired getting advice from that guy to be more entrepreneurial even though I actually kinda want to be a bit more entrepreneurial about music. Plus I know that most businesses don't make it very far but that isn't a reason to not try.

To get random and tie this back to my observations on prosperity teaching, things can fall apart that are beyond your control. Scams hook people by promising some form of fast and total control to change their circumstances. Jesus rebuked Pharisees by saying that if they were merely blind they would not be guilty but because they claim to see their guilt remained. The only thing more dangerous than being blind is believing that you see and telling others you can lead the way.

Mockingbird on Kafka, great stuff

For much of my life my favorite authors have been Kafka and Dostoevsky. The two would surely have gotten along terribly since Kafka was a Czech Jew and Dostoevsky was, well, Dostoevsky. No one could make a particularly compelling defense that Dostoevsky was not profoundly suspicious of the ethics and character of Jews and Poles alike (I have friends of Polish descent and no matter how much I love Dostoevsky's novels I note his way of handling Poles is exceptionally not cool as is also the case with his characterization of Jews).

When I was in my teens I connected to Kafka's ability to convey a sense of dread and a sense that society as a whole had no use for you and no real interest in you beyond your usefulness. Someone would probably tell me that the reason I don't have a very cheery disposition is that my idea of fun one summer was reading Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, and Franz Kafka over a summer. That would be an unfair supposition because I was listening to scads of Duke Ellington and Scott Joplin during that period.

Yet I admit to being a gloomy sort. I don't believe in the power of positive thinking of the greatness and triumph of the human spirit. I am unimpressed by people who prattle on about how free we are because most of those people do not realize that they will spend their lives paying the prices for freedoms they think they have that are generally the drives they do not discipline in themselves. Careerists look down on anyone who does not worship the same idol they do. Intellectuals look down on those who find meaning in things besides intellectual pursuits. The things we define ourselves by inevitably devour us as we devour them. Cheery, I know ... you wouldn't be surprised to learn that I have been a fan of Kafka, eh?

It is possible for great authors and artists ... even mediocre or poor artists or authors ... to accurately diagnose the problems in a culture. If the artist accurately assesses a problem in society and the self and happens to be a genius (as I believe Kafka was) then they are able to tap into a problem or quality of life and articulate it at a level that goes beneath rational articulation. Kafka showed how a person can live in an ostensibly free society and have no freedoms and yet abuse those few freedoms he thinks he has while not making use of the freedoms he actually does have. Where other authors might see the radically individual experience and action as liberating and wonderful Kafka sees it as the foundation of terror because he sees how powerless the individual is in the face of the social and internal impulses within.

I suppose I can connect to Kafka because Kafka (no doubt in part by having had an often miserable childhood and being a Jew where he was) manages to articulate a life characterized by dread even in the calmest moments. Kafka articulates for us what it is like to live a life full of fear. He didn't need to live in an age where people said terrified emails about what the evil creeps in Congress are plotting to take away your life and liberty. He already lived in a setting where he was not even allowed by the society he lived in to use his birth name. We in the modern United States tell ourselves we know what dread is like and we don't. Some of us do, I guess, and the Cold War left us with no small amount of unease about nuclear war but we have not lived in a time that for Americans warrants the sort of fear that a Cezch Jew living in a German-speaking culture full of anti-semitism would understandably have. Kafka understood, it seems, what it feels like when other people use their freedoms that they are proud to have to fence you in.

Without being able to articulate precisely why I have always related to that since the first time I read Kafka's The Trial and moved on to his other works. He presents to us a world that is as bewildering as it is and his writing serves as a rebuke to all the authors who speak as though they have unlocked the secrets, they have discerned how to make sense of things, they know the password and have the greatness that allows one to pass through the cordoned area into the place for very important people who get things done and do things that matter. Kafka delves into the price of that to the self and to the others who end up on the receiving end of that exchange.

Advent and hope, Advent and promises, Advent and the prosperity gospel

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.

I began drafting this blog entry at the start of the week before I learned of the death of Oral Roberts or had read any of the material written reflecting on the prosperity gospel that has attended his death. However it cannot go without reflection that Roberts has died during Advent, during a time when we as Christians reflect precisely on how the promises remain fulfilled in part and not in full.

We anticipate the coming of Christ to set things right and live in the humility of knowing that all is not well. The central question the Christian faith grapples with is the existence and pervasiveness of evil, its depth, its deception, its allure and our capacity to be seduced by it. Christ is revealed as the answer. Prosperity teaching is dangerous because it is a partial truth. A pastor I have been listening to lately has said that what was happening in Galatia can be described as a situation where the Galatians were being urged that grace was good and God's mercy was great but that there were things yet left to be done. There was, if you will, a ten percent missing from what God had accomplished and it was in the ten percent that was added that Paul found a deadly usurpation of the message of Christ. 90 percent grace and 10 percent of anything else still proves a deadly mixture and yet that 10 percent is frequently what characterizes a lot of what passes for acceptable, even orthodox Christianity in America (notice the lack of the capital there, for folks who are curious about that, I trust you understand).

Christian teaching is often puzzling because there are many ways to mess up the teaching of Christ, just as there are many ways to mess up the teaching of the apostles. There are many Christians who effectively teach that the promises are for an improved life now, not the promise of a life to come.

John Donne pointedly asked that those who cannot weep and cannot find it in their hearts to empathize with the suffering of their fellow, what happens to those people when Christ comes to wipe away every tear to those who have never shed them? Christ declared a blessing on those who mourn now, saying that they shall be comforted. He also pronounced a woe upon those who laugh now, for in time they shall mourn and weep. It is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of mirth, Ecclesiastes tells us. It is good for us to recognize that the promises of God are good promises and that it is in these that we can our hope, a hope that will not disappoint.

We pay lip services to these promises while living lives full of hope that THIS life will be where we find our reward, THIS life will be where we cultivate our legacy. This life is also merely a shadow of the things to come and yet as Christians we often live and speak as though this life is all there really is or what you do or don't make of your life now indicates whether or not you will merit a better life to come. I don't just mean the "Your Best Life Now" and other Osteen-isms. I believe that the pastor who sells people on a fad like reverse-engineering your life has basically sold a form of prosperity gospel while pretending to himself that he hasn't.

Let me rephrase my concerns this way--the prosperity gospel is dangerous because it is a partial truth, a fragment of the message we get from the wisdom literature. The prosperity gospel is giving you the book of Proverbs as a rule book and not a book that has riddles in it. The prosperity gospel sells you the book of Proverbs without taking seriously Ecclesiastes or Job. There's no book of Job to correct for the simplified theodicy of Proverbs and there is no Ecclesiastes to demonstrate that axioms and proverbs have limits in the real world. There are none of the narratives that upend the rigorous flow of propositional statements and riddles. Nope, the prosperity gospel just gives us principles for living and practical counsel for how not be a failure in this life.

A certain pastor almost ten years ago predicted a renaissance in Christian teaching, even a new reformation, that would be derived from Christians returning to the wisdom literature. Well, guess what? It hasn't happened. Oh, wait, well it sort of has happened but it has looked suspiciously like prosperity teaching. Maybe that pastor was totally wrong in making that call. Or maybe the pastor's prediction came true after all but the prediction came true in an unexpected way.

In the time of Advent we need to remember that the book of Proverbs is not characterized by promises from God of the sort we see in the prophets or the Torah. Proverbs says that we can devise our plans in our hearts but that the Lord directs our steps. The scriptures are not particularly interested in reconciling causality and determinism. The scriptures seem intent on having things both ways. The prosperity gospel is anything that gives us Proverbs without Job and Ecclesiastes. The prosperity gospel is giving us Proverbs as rules without riddles. The prosperity gospel forgets that there is a not yet to the already of the promises that are being fulfilled through Christ.

Worst of all, when you fail the prosperity gospel, whatever its form, will tell you that if you'd just repent of your sin and failure to be what you ought to be by the measures of a prosperity gospel that everything will come together. The prosperity gospel is the sort of view that can say there aren't any righteous poor in America or, at any rate, very few of them. James 2:5 isn't really in the Bible, after all. These are people who just don't realize that in Christ they might have to answer their own prayers because sometimes that's what you have to do. Wait ... is that prosperity teaching?

The answer to that question may depend on who you ask. If you urge other people to sacrifice so that you can take the credit while ostensibly saying the Lord did it for you then you may be embracing prosperity teaching in your heart while claiming to do otherwise. If you are willing to let others take the blame for your failures while you take credit for their successes you may be embracing a prosperity teaching. You see Christians of all sorts can look down on prosperity teaching without realizing it is in the very heart of what they say and do and teach because they have not examined their own hearts.

Theo-blogging and watch-blogging comes in various forms but I don't know that in the wake of Oral Roberts' death and during Advent, no less, that we may get enough self-examination. How many people are going to blog about their own embrace of forms of prosperity teaching instead of either defending that teaching or denouncing it others. I propose that some of the people who have been most vehement in denouncing prosperity teaching have been guilty of their own forms. Let us repent of our own embrace of the errors of prosperity teaching instead of looking down on prosperity teachers or, worse yet, simply embracing our form of prosperity teaching without examining it.

Let us remember those who died utter failures in this life whom the scriptures count as being so great in the faith that the world was not worthy of them. We cannot remember them because we do not know their names. Many of them died and were lost to history because none of them mattered in this age. In the age to come they will matter. It was not for nothing James wrote his rhetorical question, has not God appointed the poor to be rich in faith? It was not for nothing that Paul wrote that God delights in using the things that are nothing to subvert the things that are. The Lord uses the foolish and simple and humble things to overturn the wisdom of the wise, the power of the powerful, the greatness of the great, and the strength of the strong.

These promises are not yet complete and they come to us in the most baffling fulfillment of them all, the coming of Christ as we did not expect him, as we did not desire him and at length we considered his claim to fulfill the promises of Yahweh to be a great betrayal of the promises we expected Yahweh to fulfill for us. At length for our sins Christ died so that He could reveal that He has come not to fulfill the promises of Yahweh to us as we expected and demanded but in a different, troubling, yet ultimately better way.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Link: Inhabitatio Dei-- "You're not post-anything ... "

Ah, this made me laugh. Yes, indeed. It amused me greatly, greatly amused me it did. Now before I continue to sound like a cross between Mojo Jojo and the wildly self-congratulatory Beast Wars Megatron I am going to leave it at that.