Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Link--Reclaiming the Mind "If the Bible is not inerrant than Christianity is false and other stupid statements"

Back when I was at a certain church I had come to the conclusion that if one states that the Bible infallibly accomplishes the purpose for which it was written that is sufficient and that contemporary definitions of inerrancy rely too much on a polarity imposed upon it by folks who were embracing a post-enlightenment rationalism that would require its adherents to reject the credibility of the biblical documents on the basis of differences in genealogies or different numbers assigned to different battles in, say, Kings and Chronicles. To hold that scripture is infallible but not necessarily inerrant or that inerrancy is not as critical as christology, however, lands you in exceptionally hot water depending on where you are, who your friends are, and who your relatives are. So I simply avoided saying that though I am willing to affirm that scripture is reliable and trustworthy it's not necessary to go beyond the historical records to impose an apologetic criteria on to the scriptures that the scriptures themselves do not require in order for the message to be believed.

I didn't say a whole lot about this because one of the pastors at that time was saying things like that God could basically make the world not end due to any possible consequences of global warming so that people would be around and that the unpardonable sin is unbelief. I strongly disagreed with these particular explanations but decided it was not worth it to press those points if all the elders at the church, according to this pastor, all agreed on certain things.

Actually, I feel a bit weird writing this but having the view of infallibility over inerrancy is easier to articulate now that some of my family members are Eastern Orthodox instead of essentially Reformed Baptist American style. There was a time when I thought they might decide I wasn't really a Christian if I actually said that inerrancy is not as important as a proper understanding of the trinity and an appreciation of the trustworthiness of the events attested by scripture. For isntance, whatever people would claim to be errant documentation of the late Brittany Murphy's death no one should reasonably contest that 1) she's dead and 2) she was in 8 Mile and King of the Hill, etc, etc.

Now I am willing to say I believe the scriptures are historically trustworthy overall but I have seen too many Christians take that kind of teaching and marry it to other things that are not even close to essential to the Christian faith like voting for this particular political party or having that particular view on economic theory or defending this interpretation of history based on allegiances to sides so long after the fact it's silly to think your view matters in the end. If you really think the Confederacy was better than the Union because the Union was being run by a bunch of functional Unitarians the news I have for you is for those of us with American Indian family histories we kind of don't care--the northern racists beat the southern racists and American Indians still got treated like crap and it wasn't until about a century later when blacks organized to object to the racism on both sides that things started to change.

As Mark Noll pointed out the central problem in the Civil War for evangelical Protestants (yes, he makes a good case for the North being effectively as evangelical as the South despite claims to the contrary) is that BOTH sides consisted chiefly of evangelical Protestants who affirmed scripture as the ultimate and final authority and yet the theological debates got nowhere and the issues were resolved by force. This may be indicative of the problems in American evangelicalism ever since. At some point we can't really solve the social problems we want solved and must resort at length to invoking or rallying political force. We must at length convert our social capital into moral capital and then invest in political power to make sure things go our way.

Admittedly much of what I have written this winter is downbeat. Job hunting and reflecting on the last ten years of my life tends to get me downbeat. I am in my thirties rather than my twenties so I am seeing people make obscenely stupid decisions with their lives and pleading victim status after having taken abusive attitudes toward people. It is not uncommon for bullies to feel like victims and for bullies to bully each other and each one pleads to his or her constituency that they are not, in fact, bullies but persecuted for being the lone bastion of truth and reason. Except that what they are fighting for is not really truth or reason but shortcuts to pin what they want done on the thing most likely to get them what they want.

My objection to inerrancy is not to inerrancy itself at all or the concept behind it but how people exploit their defense of the scriptures as a way to essentially obtain what they want. When you have people of conservative and liberal allegiances essentially rewriting the biblical texts to suit their social and political agendas you're getting people whose gods are their political ideologies and not Christ. If you only say that God is in control when your preferred political party is in power then you may have to examine your heart to discern whether or not your actual god is the party you vote for.

I have seen people look down on other people for fiscal irresponsibility who made spectacularly foolish decisions in their own finances. I have seen people demonize other people for questioning the prevailing social fad regarding interaction of the sexes. I have seen people demonize other people for not being Calvinists or for being Calvinists. It is this capacity to demonize people that bugs me. I am anything but immune to the temptation and it is precisely that aspect in myself that I find profoundly aggravating! I also find it profoundly aggravating in other people. Few things bug me more than when I get the sense that a person thinks he or she is better than someone else whether it is the "I am a superior individual" variety or the "I'm not perfect but I'm not as bad as you are" variety. Inerrancy is one of the ways in which a variety of Christians can pull this maneuver.

As Scotteriology put it, there's a huge swath of American evangelicals who hold that as long as you hold the right doctrines your failure to live out the applied ethics of those doctrines doesn't matter. If you don't make your rent then its your landlord's fault for being a jerk who does illegal things, not you being a jerk for presuming on the generosity of a landlord who you called a friend yet still needs you to pay rent on time to make expenses. If you are in a dating relationship and someone dumps you because you lack the emotional or mental stability to be who they need you to be in the relationship, well, it's too bad that happened but it would be worse to raise children in that kind of toxic dynamic. If you look down on other people's health failures as signs of moral failures and you've given yourself heart failure or diabetes that's also too bad, because self-discipline wouldn't be something the scriptures exhort us to if it came to us naturally. Jesus wouldn't have said the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak if we all had the self-control and single-mindedness of Batman (well ... maybe Christopher Nolan's Batman isn't quite in that mold).

I try to appreciate that when you face that you are causing your own death you repent and you share that sense of urgency with everyone you know but it doesn't entitle you to look down on people whose problems may not be the same as yours. And amidst all this I hope what you don't do is invoke your view as being the right one because you know the real meaning of the scriptures and simply have to be right because of who you are. There comes a point when I find myself thinking of a comment made by Dr. Wilson to Dr. House regarding House's complete disdain for the field of mental health professionals, "Never before has a man so villified a profession he so badly needed help from." Yes, I know people like this in the real world. I didn't bust a gut laughing because that line rang hollow or didn't mean anything to me.

For a lot of my life the deal was as long as you affirmed inerrancy and the hobby horses chained in train to it you were copacetic. I have grown weary of litmus tests attached to litmus tests over the years and seeing how people get treated when they don't measure up. If I were someone else I'd say that the Christian faith isn't worth it but my struggles as a Christian are nothing compared to my skepticism about what Americans embrace as the alternatives.

I have been hunting for work for a few months now and that means I have time to think and I often doubt whether or not all that time to think is necessarily a good thing. I don't regret being able to compose more music at all but I realize that I am at a strange phase in my middle thirties where I feel like, for me, I completely lack the intellectual curiosity I had in my twenties, pretty much all the way through my twenties. It is as though I can feel my body and brain changing or slowing down.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Advent as a time of misery

We tend to talk about Christmas as a joyful holiday and the "bah humbug" types are told they need to have a different attitude, that or the humbug sorts consider outrage at the time because they object to religion or object to capitalism or whatever they object to the only "reasonable" or "rational" explanation of how to behave.

Advent is not just a time of waiting, it is also a time of misery. As Denise Spencer puts it in her entry, the first Advent was not a happy time. Zechariah was struck mute by an angel for unbelief. Mary was given the announcement that she would be the mother of Jesus and was showing her pregnancy quickly enough that Joseph was sure he needed to end the betrothal quietly so as not to disgrace her. Nevertheless decades later people would say of Jesus "Is this not Mary's son?" which meant they assumed he was not Joseph's son and that Jesus was a bastard. Mary had a painful childbirth to look forward to without being sure she could rely on anyone for help. She and Joseph ended up bringing forth their child in pretty miserable circumstances.

It seems we do not know that "Hosanna" means "save us", and we do not know that to sing "hosanna" now is to ask that we be saved. Hosanna is the prayer to which Christ is our answer and the answer to those prayers come at first in the form of pain and even judgment. Zechariah's prayer was heard but when he expressed disbelief that it had been answered he was silenced. Mary accepted the announcement that the promises of God were being fulfilled and accepted it with joy but then came the months of things like morning sickness and half whispered recriminations about her character and the doubts of her own betrothed.

Christ came to us through the birth pangs of his mother who then lived to see him crucified as if her were guilty of fomenting terrorism against the Roman state. She came to visit him at one point and Jesus said that his true family are those who hear the word of God and obey it. There were times when she had doubts about his sanity. She loved him as a mother would love any son, to be sure, but if Christ was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief then Mary would not be expected to be a woman of only serene joy and endless gladness. She not only saw her son killed but killed in one of the most shameful ways possible. She saw him charged with fomenting revolution against not only Israel and charged with blasphemy but executed by Roman officials as an enemy of the Roman state. I'm sure a few American evangelical Christians can savor the irony that Jesus was a Palestinian peasant executed on the charge of being a terrorist promoting acts of terror against the greatest power in the Western world.

If they can't, well, God has made sure the joke is on them. That is also part of what Advent is for, to reveal the strange and frankly miserable ways in which God, through Christ, ensures that the joke is on us when we think we are perched at the top of the pile thanks to the backs of the little people we climbed over to get to the top. Mary rejoiced that God has taken these proud people and toppled them from their thrones. She sang the Magnificat and then dealt with months of expecting a child who was born with livestock because no one could (or would) take them in. Then she and her husband had to make for Egypt to escape the certainty of a dynasty planning to kill everyone under the age of 2 that lived in the village. God's announcement meant that the proud and mighty would be toppled from their thrones but Mary had to live with the misery of knowing that they had not been toppled yet and that some of them were attempting to kill her son before he even learned to speak more than a few words.

So for this week, if you happen to be reading this, consider that if Advent this year feels like a time of misery for you for whatever reason, you're not alone.

Monday, December 21, 2009

An advent meditation--what exactly is a Hosanna chorus?

Dostoevsky famously wrote that his Hosanna passed through a crucible of doubt but this very phrase suggests that the word "Hosanna" has a meaning that has so greatly changed over time it is difficult to discern precisely what it is supposed to evoke. In Dostoevsky's usage the word implies some kind of praise and an absence of doubt and yet in terms of its literal meaning "Hosanna" is perhaps more poignantly pertinent in the psalms of lament and psalms requesting aid in time of war.

Hosanna means "save us" or "please save us". It has been used so often as a chorus of praise and in a particularly upbeat way that the supplicatory nature of the word can be completely lost even in in settings by a composer as masterful as Bach. The osanna is often presented as a moment of triumph already realized which can happen even in a work like Durufle's Requiem (which I adore, just so you know).

So far I'm rusty on masses these days but if you compare the setting of Osanna by Frank Martin or Bach to, say, Arvo Part's Berliner Mass you'll see that each of these three wonderful masses have spectacularly different approaches to the very concept of the word. Bach's setting reflects a confidence in the work of Christ as though it were complete (as I hear the setting). Frank Martin's Mass for Double Choir has an element of expectation to it but is fairly cheery. Part's setting is dark, lonely, and even sorrowful. Not even in Byrd's masses do you find this sort of sadness and Byrd, who had to circulate his masses under the noses of Protestant leadership, would seem to have had more reason to make a forlorn setting.

To sing Hosanna is to ask Christ to save us and for me at this time of year and with no job and uncertainty about the future and acutely aware of my capacity to sin and even my indifference to turning from discouragement, impatience, and other failings ... I find Arvo Part's setting of the text in the Berliner Mass most resonant, most poignant. Part captures the sadness and even the anger we can feel awaiting the salvation of the Lord and wishing that we were not simply stuck where we are. We are like David, acutely aware of his own sin and realizing that he fumbles over and over but anxious despite this sin to turn to what is right. I want to be like that even though I realize how often I am not like that. I know that my spirituality is essentially a sham ... and yet all our spiritualities are shams apart from Christ and within Christ they take a lifetime to become perfected by seeking the author and finisher of our faith, something I am of late not the least bit good at.

Augustine, somewhat amusingly, wrote in his Confessions that his prayer was for some time, "Lord make me chaste ... but not yet." This is funny because it can be idiomatically re-presented to us as "Lord save me but don't save me yet." And how does Christ save us? Through the Cross. This is the cross He asks us to take up and carry as we follow Him, and it is the cross He takes up on our behalf. Even Christ had to have someone else carry His Cross and he was nailed to it. If Christ in His darkest hour could not carry His own physical burden of the literal cross even while He knew that that burden was to be borne for us, then He knows what it feels like to be forsaken.

Christ's life itself was a bearing of our infirmities and this for our salvation. How easily and quickly we can forget even when we tell ourselves this is the truth we live by, the story that guides our story. David forgot often, Solomon forgot often and eventually for an unusually long time. Even the best among God's people have ended in miserable failure forgetting what the Lord had urged them to remember. Samson ended in a way that was both triumphant and pathetic yet was considered a hero of the faith. Jephthah sacrificed his own daughter after making a rash vow and yet he was regarded as a hero in the faith, too, because he was a judge who executed justice on behalf of Israel.

The judges were the ones God raised up when His people cried out "save us!" These judges were all ultimately failures and the great judge had yet to come. Even when I realize that I do not want to be saved yet, like Augustine used to pray, I know that I cannot finally forget that asking the Lord to save me remains for me to bring to the Lord, a petition to not forget.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

saying goodbye to the dreams of youth

This is for me an eloquent reflection on saying goodbye to the dreams of youth. I have for several years considered how the dreams I had in my teens and twenties were not realistic dreams. The idealism of youth was not even something I particularly valued at the time but no matter how practical and realistic you THINK you are there is nothing like actual life to disabuses of ideals and idealism you don't even think you have. There are times when I think that "realists" are people who have decided that your dreams are more worth giving up than theirs are yet who do not realize the impracticality of their own dreams.

At length I settled on the idea that a dream can help you work through life provided it is not the goal of your life. Whatever dream you have will ultimately fail to satisfy and at the end there is always death. As Koholeth puts it in Ecclesiastes, even if you attain fame, honor, and riches and achievements you still die and then who knows whether the person who inherits what you labored for will be wise or a fool? If we talk here about Solomon something suggests to me that he began to sense his sons were not going to lead the kingdom in a good direction. The kingdom of Israel was already in danger of dividing as early as the reign of Saul. Unity was easy during financial prosperity and with leaders willing to accomodate for the sake of unity (and in Solomon's case very quickly killing off anyone who was a threat both to his rule and to the unity of the kingdom).

A mid life crisis can happen at any time and any age, what is most frequently called "mid-life crisis" at any rate. All that is required is for your dream to run into reality.