Saturday, August 27, 2011

Priestly Rants; Driving with Fear

Priestly Rants writes that at one point he considered the biggest bad to be idolatry but he has since changed his mind. Idolatry isn't the top of the heap for evil in his estimation, fear is.

Having spent the last week dealing with plenty of fear and uncertaintly related to a few medical issues I would piggyback on PR's comments, fear is frequently the catalyst for idolatry because we will not trust in the Lord's kindness or presence. The people who swear up and down that they will not falter, will not waver, and are sold out to Jesuse are the ones who deny Him the second even the slightest risk of a real-world problem comes up. Just ask Peter.

There is a point at which it is useless to say that this or that thing is an idol. It's not because we don't have idols or that none of us are tempted to idols. We all are. The trouble is that we Christians bask in the luxury of being able to say to someone else "I think you've made such and such an idol in your life." In neo-Reformed land this is sort of common as "Happy birthday" or "lol" on a Facebook page. brb


As I wrote earlier in this blog, the appeal of the idol is the instant delivery. God asks us to wait for the resurrection to come. Christ said that if anyone would be His disciple to take up your cross and follow Him. You don't necessarily know what your cross may be at any given moment but we're all clear that the way of the Cross is the way of suffering and death. I venture to say that American Christians, even good evangelical Protestant conservative Christian Christians, don't really believe that in Christ we are actually called to suffer. We want Christ to sanction a triumph. Even those Christians who will rip on the prosperity gospel of another will not-so-secretly embrace a prosperity gospel tailored to their own ideals and pragmatism. It's the kind of prosperity teaching that can say "Mine is bigger so I beat you."

As Matt Chandler told various seminarians in a sermon, most people get into seminary because they hope they will have a ministry that changes lives for the better. Nobody goes to seminary really gunning for Moses' ministry trajectory--the man spent his last years wandering around with recalcitrant people who did not put their faith in God and he died out in the wilderness unable to enter the land of promise because of his own disobedience. To borrow some Lutheran terminology, there's a whole lot of theology of glory in how most seminarians enter into seminary and think through what they want from their life script of ministry. Failure is seen as a sign that God hasn't called you, not that God has called you to die.

I suppose it might be lazy to say that what you fear can be a good indicator of how you may be tempted. Israel got tired of waiting for Moses to return and wondered when, if ever, he was going to come back. In their impatience waiting for something to happen they got together with Aaron and produced a golden calf. They feared that after leading them out of Egypt across the Red Sea; after leading them into the wilderness and disappearing into the mountains (the Hebrew expression can indicate an at time indefinite period of time signifying a long time); Israel and Aaron began to get the idea that since neither God nor Moses were working on the time schedule they wanted they were afraid that both God and Moses had bailed on them. Ergo, time to set up a stand-in. In a way the golden calf can be seen as Israel creating a symbolic mediator or indicator of God's presence with His people.

The perniciousness of this idol is precisely in its being a stand-in for Yahweh Himself. Fear does not only become a temptation for us to turn to other refuges and comforters besides the Lord, it also inspires and spurs us (so to speak) to cast a molten image of the Jesus we want to solve the most pressing problems of our time and place. We can re-engineer Jesus out of our deepest fears into someone who will save us on what are ultimately our terms and we can do this with the most pious imagination possible. Or we can say that Christ is Lord of every aspect of my life except a certain part I'd really like to keep to myself. The trouble is that it's very easy to say this about other people. In fact there is a veritable cottage industry to this in Christian circles. Furthermore there are ministries set up by self-appointed discerners to this effect.

One of the reasons I reposted my old sonnet "On Election" is because there are plenty of Christians who pay lip service to the idea that 'God is in control" only so long as God does what they want Him to do. When He doesn't come through with the results we expect of him we are faced with a few options. We can decide there is no god. We may decide that God is in control and there is some "lesson" we have to learn and implement in our lives so that "next time" God will give us the result we expect we should have gotten. We may decide that we are being disciplined for some sin or another. I've encountered serious suggestions that person X's computer burned out because of person Y's sins. Now if that person Y were, say, Hewlett Packard, I'd totally agree but that wasn't the person Y who was proposed! We may decide that God's providence does not submit itself to our understanding or intrinsic favor. As Qoholeth put it in Ecclesiastes, when times are good be glad and when times are bad consider that the Lord has made one as well as the other so a man may not know what is to come after him.

I guess I could try to boil fear down to pride and get everything back to human sin and God's providence. The trouble with this simplified hamartiology is fairly obvious, you can't keep selling this as the Job's comforter explanation to all practicing Christians. It is also common enough that those who would employ these axioms don't appreciate them so much when they are on the receiving end of their own sorts of theodicies. The whole enterprise of blogging Christianity is that I get to tell you your sins more than you get to tell me mine. I'm not much interested in your sins, though, whereas my sins bug me. I also know that the vast majority of these sins do spring from fear.

People who think all sin tends to stem from pride tend to be the sorts of men (and women) who operate in pride. They apparently literally cannot understand the fearfulness of the fearful. They assume everything MUST come down to pride because fear has to just be some kind of way pride gets worked out in cowards. Well, to throw them a bone, I suppose it could be said that the person who turns to an idol out of fear may be turning to the very same idol some other man turns to out of pride. Naturally, a "natural man" who has pride will look at the coward as probably having to have the same problem he has ... if he has a problem, which he may not even grant that he has.

When a strong man is shown that his strength is a weakness or that his strength is just not strong enough to save him then the flip side of his confidence in his competence is a fear that if he can't get it done, whatever it is, that it can't be done. So, yes, the proud man and the coward can turn to the same idol and that would appear to indicate a shared motive. Yet so far as idolatry goes the fearful man knows he does not trust in the Lord's provision while a proud man may take the Lord's provision for granted and not succumb to fear until things don't go his way for a change. The proud man is not without his own fears and insecurities but he may well think that if he admits to what his fears and insecurities are that even cowards will laugh at him.

I knew a pastor once who could admit that he often doubted in the Lord's capacity to provide in ways that his wife's faithfulness put to shame. She would pray and say that trusting in the Lord will work out. To date the wife has been proven correct so far, but as the young men in Daniel put it, obedience to God means obedience even to the point where the Lord does not deliver you. This is what I think we all may dread at some point as Christians. The reward we are promised in and through Christ is one we cannot see clearly now. We would like security and stability in this life, maybe even a bit of triumph. We understandably fear our end and this is why Christ's conquest of death is the basis of our hope.

That doesn't mean that we don't end up having fears, really big fears that consume us and often manifest themselves in this or that sin. If as the axiom has it the thing you can't imagine living life without or fear losing is your idol maybe it would be better to flip it around. After all, if we're all Christians we claim to worship the Lord as Father, Son, and Spirit. So if we, as Christians, still have this idolatry problem how can we even meaningfully speak of ourselves as being renewed by the Spirit's work in us? Well, maybe we can put it this way, as Christians we will be tempted to this or that idol to the extent that whatever we fear God won't provide for us in this life is the thing for which we redesign the Lord or take up a supplemental god on the side.

So all that ramble is to say that one of the reasons it's too glib and simple to say the big problem with Christians is idolatry motivated by pride is that in the real world, in our lived lives, we often know that it is fear that prompts us in our acknowledged or unacknowledged panic to turn to a refuge besides the Lord. But then what happens when we turn to God's people and God's people themselves become the problem? That would necessitate another entry for another time.

more on J. S. Bangs' post the abjection of the past and genre literature

This is the most striking thing about visiting the past. The people who live there certainly lack many of our modern luxuries, and their lives are less pleasant than ours in some ways. But they don’t think that their lives suck. They are happy at roughly the same levels that we are happy. Many of them are distinctly uncomfortable with the modern world when it inevitably forces itself on them. Sometimes they look down on us for our laziness, loss of virtue, and alienation. To say “the past sucked” is to ignore the happiness of those who lived there, and in many cases continue to live there.
One of the more interesting ideas of critical theory is the concept of abjection, which is the attitude by which the mainstream rejects and symbolically casts out its antithesis, defining itself by what it excludes. Racial whiteness is defined by the abjection of blackness. Literary fiction is defined by the abjection of genre. And modernity is defined by the abjection of the past.

This abjection is absolutely necessary for modernity to function. We have to be ashamed and disgusted by our ancestors, for how else would we justify the vandalism of our inheritance and our pollution of the natural and social environments? By making the past abject, we reassure ourselves that we have lost nothing in the transition to modernity, that our forefathers have nothing to teach us, that we were right to leave all of that behind. Daniel “The Past Sucked” Polansky is merely participating in this ongoing project of abjection.

Polansky says that he doesn’t understand fantasy, in particular its fascination with the past. But there is really an obvious alliance between the genre of fantasy, which abjected both by mainstream literary fiction and by its older sister science fiction, and the abjected past. The outcast genre and the outcast history have to make an alliance together. It is no coincidence that fantasy literature emerges as a distinct genre at the same time that the modern world starts onto its feet and begins to persecute history.

Or like my banner quote says: Realism is for those whose worldviews are already accepted as realistic. The rest of us must make do with genre.

My friend J. S. Bangs wrote a great blog entry in the last month or so about the abjection of the past and modernity. I have excerpted so much I could have just quoted the whole thing but I excerpted carefully. Particularly salient is J. S.'s observation that while people who lived in the past didn't have things we have they didn't see their lives as being bad. There is, of course, the sort of person who looks back now on the past with fondness and forwards things like "I miss Reagan" or "The Clinton years were better" but these people, I will callously declare, are people who are facing their own inevitable mortality and use emotional displacement--they don't really miss Reagan or Clinton so much as they miss the more unlimited horizons they had financially, emotionally, and physically. Old hippies don't miss the 1960s so much as they miss having the bodies of 20 year olds and the sense that they would do things that mattered.

The persecution of the past becomes necessary so that we can rationalize the present. People who justify abortion now can say that it is a necessary thing to prevent the repression of women. The babies who will never grow up to be women because they were aborted don't matter. We can discuss in enlightened terms how we are better than the racists of the 1950s and 1960s but the sad truth seems to be that every epoch of humanity will find a demographic to commodify, sell, and destroy as it sees fit.

When people ask of what benefit there could be in the study of religious history they may often see this in terms of looking back on benighted idiots from the past who believed the world was the center of everything. How much better we know things now. A society in which women were property also viewed children as property and infants could be thrown aside to die of exposure if they weren't good enough to keep or if they were too expensive to keep around.

The rationale for abortion today can dress itself up as being friendly to women, and in some respects it is because it grants women the power to kill. After millenia of women being killed in honor killings and so on I will hardly deny that there is a reversal afoot. But to suggest that we are better because we commodify the lives of unwanted children in a way that is considered pro-woman rather than patriarchal does nothing to change the reality that our society has rationalized the commodification of unwanted children while criminalizing abuse of wanted children in more or less the same way as the allegedly earlier, more barbaric, and less educated cultures we consider to be worse than ours.

The comics artist (comix) Art Spiegelmann was once asked about superhero comics in the Comics Journal, I think it was. In the interview he said he never much cared for superhero comics because those were the power fantasies and wish fulfillment impulses of children and that he had adult power fantasies. This is, I submit, the self-manifesting stupidity of comparison. The power fantasies of adults and children are, in my observation not so fundamentally different. What distinguishes the wish fulfillments of adults and children other than that adults of wish fulfillments that are informed by the transition through and beyond puberty? Let me reframe my polemic another way, what do people usually refer to when they euphemistically cite "adult entertainment"? How is that, precisely, more adult and emotionally advanced or intellectually sophisticated than the wish fulfillment fantasies of children?

A disabled man may have a fantasy of having normal physical abilities. As many people in the gospels were described, what they wished to receive from Jesus were simple things such as the ability to walk, the ability to see, the capacity to hear, a capacity to speak, to be free from chronic bleeding, to be liberated from seizures and demonic oppression. Adults who look down on the power fantasies of children tend, in my observation, to have an unrealistic assessment of the realism of their desires. It's not that the desires themselves are more realistic, it's that the person has the idea that his/her dreams are more "adult".

This gets to the question of genre. Are superhero comics really less "adult" than underground comics (comix for those snobs who wish to distinguish between "art" comics and "pop" comics)? Grant Morrison published his book Supergods this year. In it he points out that superhero comics let us directly ask questions about what kinds of powers we have as humans and how we should put it to use. Ever since we split the atom we have had superpowers as a human race, so how, really, is it unrealistic to have a comic book about Captain Atom and how the manipulation of atomic forces should be used to help humanity? But for a whole swath of people Captain Atom isn't serious while Dr. Manhattan is. If DC hadn't opted against Moore permanently killing off The Question Moore wouldn't have had to invent Dr. Manhattan.

Watchmen has been billed for decades as a "grown up" comic book but its plot points and narrative beats don't differ that much from a comic book for children, or a serial of a character like Indiana Jones. The central all or nothing stakes is not more "realistic" simply because a whole generation of comics readers in the throes of Cold War anxiety assumed (wrongly it turns out) that the world was going up in atomic fire or saved by peaceniks arguing for nuclear disarmament.

In other words, even those people who pretend to themselves and to us that they have more "grown up" wishes and fantasies reveal themselves, in the end, to be the same old kids who imagine that we can change/save/transform the world. The "realist" is simply the person who wants art to change the world by imagining stories about people who change the world with an idea like that humans should be treated with dignity. Obviously I take an extremely dim view of those people who imagine they have more "adult" views than others.

One of the most important modes of abjection that happens within Christianity in America is the contrast between the "authentic" and whatever is "fake" or "institutional". But there is another form of abjection, the contrast between"authentic" and "commercial" in the arts is something I want to write about at some length down the road. I am particularly interested in examining how this narrative pervades Western art and music and literary criticism across centuries. The contrast between "real rock" and "corporate rock" is instructive not merely because it's so easily observed but also because we can go back and look at how this dynamic can be seen in what can be broadly called a "socialist realist" outlook. But it would be somewhat inaccurate to say this impulse is a strictly socialist realist one since obsessing about which artist was the truly independent genius and which one was strictly working for "the man" predates even Marx's writing on such topics.

I hope later, maybe next week, to tackle writing about how pigeon-holing composers into certain categories partly establishes J. S.'s observations. If the 18th century was the beginning of a new capacity to abject the past then there's a fun article about Haydn's role in 19th century musical criticism and historiography that shows how ideology and aesthetics get used to simultaneously venerate and abject a single person and his work as a way to define both an artistic field and the society which would appoint itself the arbiters of art and taste.

thankfulness in the midst of bad times

I have been unemployed for almost two years. I pretty much have no money now and have failed to land any steady work. I don't know how long this jobless phase is going to last, I just know that I haven't managed to end it despite persistent efforts.

What I am certain has had nothing to do with my failure in the job hunt is having a disability. Nobody owes me a job but I can certainly try to do what I can to land work. I often look back on the last seven years and feel like I should have done something different, something to make myself more employable than I seem to have been in the year.

There are a lot of things to be afraid of when you have no job, no money, and come upon the two year mark facing down failure after failure. I've applied for burger flipping jobs and been shot down. I've applied for data entry. I've applied for data management jobs. I've applied for clerical work. My vision, which I'll get to momentarily, is so remarkably poor I can't do assembly work and in the last week I've discovered that I'm even less likely to be able to tackle that stuff than before. I don't think I've been discriminated against for having a substantial vision disability but it has also meant that there are a lot of jobs I realistically can't consider because the jobs are in places too inaccessible to me in terms of time to consider.

But in the last week I had a pretty big scare. I have no real history with headaches so last Wednesday when I had a slight headache I could make a necessarily obscure joke referencing a Harold Pinter play and leave it at that. By Friday however I experienced a headache of a strange and terrifying power. I felt like my head was being sawed open with a power tool, or as though someone was using a straight edge to skin my head. It felt like part of my brain was getting dug out of my skull.

Then I began to notice that vision in my left eye had deteriorated. Things were more fuzzy than before. I ended up meeting with my doctor. True, I'm in poverty but I can't afford to not see my doctor when I get an excruciating headache for the first time in my life coupled with a noticable decline in the vision of the left eye. Put those two things together and there's very few good things that adds up to for normal people.

I ended up in a marathon of medical appointments in the old `hood I used to live in more than ten years ago. By the end of the day I got my first CT scan. Nobody I know had mentioned CT scans and it feels weird when you're run through the scanner and then you feel like your brain is getting microwaved. It felt a little weird. I also saw my eye doctor and my regular doctor. The short version is my doctor and his assistants were very afraid I had had a stroke. Well, it turns out what I have is expanding cataracts in the left eye coupled with a recent onset of nasty headaches. Everyone else in my immediate family has been dealing with headaches for decades. This last week happened to be one in which my lessened left eye vision coincided with migraines.

So this week I am grateful for cataracts and migraines because those things aren't a stroke.

The apostle urges us to be thankful in all circumstances and sometimes there is a legitimate time to be thankful by way of negation. Of course I don't mean the Pharisee's prayer of "Thank God I'm not like that tax collector over there." I can be legitimately and genuinely grateful that the problems I have encountered in the last week in my physical health really are "just" cataracts and the occasionally agonizing headache. Paul could be thankful that he was blinded by the Lord and later healed by the Lord's mercies. Well, given the worries and uncertainties I had this week about what was going on with my health I can be glad I just have cataracts and headaches. If you've never had a massive macular detachment you may not appreciate why I keep saying "just cataracts". Trust me, if you have had a macular detachment you won't be wondering at all!

For Israel in exile being stuck in Babylon or the prospect of going there was lame. The prophet Jeremiah, famously, said to those in the exile to settle down, live, raise familys, and pray for the benefit of the city. Why? This was the city that embodied all the destruction and judgment the Lord rained down on them, wasn't it? Well, the exile, stern as it was, was God's better plan. When the Lord said He kknew the plans He had for Israel, plans to prosper them and not to harm them that plan was the exile! I didn't choose that at random, obviously. Thankfulness to the Lord even in exile is still possible. The thing about the cultivation of thankfulness to the Lord is that we can do this in the midst of misery. When Paul wrote "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" he wasn't talking about being able to scale tall buildings in a single bound like Superman; he was writing about how he was able to live not only with plenty but also with want. We also know that he was able to go on to martyrdom through the same Christ who strengthened him.

Even among those of us who bill ourselves as evangelical conservative Protestants, perhaps most especially because that's how we bill ourselves, we can sell ourselves on the idea we, like Peter won't sell out. We can sell ourselves on the idea that we're sold out for Jesus and then go straight back into assuming that if we're living in Jesus then the victorious living shouldn't stop and God's signs of divine favor constitute material success and popularity. The Christian emphasis on perservering in the midst of suffering has little to do with some ascetic renunciation of the world but a recognition that life in this world will necessarily bring with it some occasion for suffering and failure. The saints of old faced the feeling of being losers and failures and feeling forsaken and we know through their prayers and words in the scriptures that we are not alone in this even though we all, when we come to the dark valley, do feel alone.

So I can continue hunting for work and continue tackling writing, as you can see I'm doing in earnest. I can also, thank God, resume tackling my big writing project for Mockingbird.

Halden is back in action at Inhabitatio Dei: Christianity is not a cultural project

Halden is back and his post "Christianity is a not a cultural project" is interesting. I can't say I agree with its substance but that's because while I grant the legitimacy of the critique the alternative is too much a work in progress to describe adequately. Halden writes that post-evangelicals are moving away from a "relationship with God" talk because that is "obviously stupid". Is it? When the scriptures variously attest people interacting with Jesus and Abraham or Moses speaking with God are not Christians understandably interested in the potential for " a personal relationship with Jesus?" After all, the whole sales pitch of the Incarnation is that Jesus lived and walked among us. Jesus' teaching about how the Father knows the number of hairs on our head suggests that while the "relationship" is not of the same sort as you or I might have in the flesh to say there is no relationship of any kind might be tough to back up. Why pray at all if there is no element of relationship between God and His people?
On the other hand, Halden's got a point about the equal and opposite problem of viewing Christianity as a cultural project. Viewing Christianity as a cultural production enterprise is not really the opposite of a personal relationship with Jesus spirituality. In fact the two are usually wed in all sorts of ways. Even in comments on Halden's posts we can see Christianity described as a culture. Driscoll spent years talking about Mars Hill as forming a "counterculture". When conservative Protestants employ the term "counterculture" to describe their own social system you know that progressive terminology is meaningless and fully assimilated into the mainstream. If Mars Hill constitutes a "counterculture" as a megachurch/nascent denomination then the religious progressives must grant that many of the terms associated with Christianity as a cultural enterprise over against the American mainstream are completely meaningless. As some theorists would put it, the nature of hegemony is such that it appropriates the terminology of truly countercultural movements and vitiates that terminology of its ontological power. There we go, I could have a career in academia, eh?
But if the Christian experience does not necessarily consist in a personal relationship with God that looks anything like any other kind of relationship we have with flesh and blood; and if the Christian experience does not necessarily entail a "cultural enterprise" in the same way as others what does it entail? Very often what Christians really mean when they talk about a "cultural mandate" often looks suspiciously like a blank check from Jesus for them to keep doing whatever it is they already want to do and have baptised in the name of Jesus. If they can simply prove that whatever they're on about isn't against Jesus' teaching then it can be assimilated into a "cultural mandate"
I agree with Internet Monk that many Christians don't hear voices in their head they can describe as being God. I also note and not just in passing that there are plenty of Christians who have no problem saying "God told me X" who are skeptical that God, who apparently tells them all sorts of stuff, tells anyone else much of anything. There are preachers and super-Christians who trust that the Lord tells them to do this or who are not so trusting that the same Spirit they say speaks to and through them does so as readily or reliably through other people. In the realm of preachers as public figures it's curious how many people who cite their personal relationship with Jesus often invoke it as part of a "cultural mandate". In other words, Halden may have some points about certain types of criticisms of the "personal relationship" spirituality or "cultural project" but history has shown that these two intersect and intertwine at least as often as they diverge.
What is more, can't we observe that throughout history the alternatives to these two threads are, well, more of the same? Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. So there's a hegemonic right leaning patriarchal "Christendom". What does it get replaced with? Something ostensibly different but often the same. Pacifists, as David Martyn Lloyd-Jones noted, are often so verbally violent about their ideas they attribute to Jesus they end up defeating the stance of pacifism they claim to stand for.
So it would seem the Christian lives in a Christian community (ugh, the buzzword "community" has annoyed me ever since my college days at a private Christian school). Lots of people talk about community and in my experience the people who bloviate most about "community" tend to be the people who least understand community. It's like someone who talks about friendship or decides that friendship isn't strong enough of a word and has to come up with something else--in the end the whole spiel becomes a distinction without a difference. It is impossible to avoid a definition of "community" or "Christian fellowship" that doesn't end up being the sort of hegemonic enterprise the rhetoric and rhetoritician would attempt to battle.
But speaking as someone who considers himself an evangelical Protestant I think there's still merit to some of the criticism. I do think that what ends up being scary for evangelical Protestants who don't hear voices in their heads; and who realize that Christianity as "cultural project" can often do nothing more than baptise the idols and principalities of one's own time and place; is that we begin to realize that our very experience of who Christ is is mediated. Some (not all) Protestants prefer to avoid this kind of discussion because we'd like to emphasize the priesthood of all believers.
The trouble I've seen in my life is that many of the people who camp hard-core on the priesthood of all believers don't seem to have any clear idea what that priesthood entails. It's a bit like Matanya Ophee's acerbic shot at guitarists--many of us who play classical guitar talk about how the guitar is a miniature orchestra and Ophee's snipe reminds us that most guitarists have no idea how to conduct. We end up making not only idle boasts but boast about things that we couldn't back up if our lives depending on it.
The super-spiritual person who talks about what the Spirit told him or her this week and leans on super-spiritual insights may be called a Montanist. A self-appointed prophet may believe he/she gets emails from God directly into the inbox of the brain. They may also feel obliged to spam us by literal spam or TV or radio or whatever. If I may be so bold, these sorts of Christians who often take refuge in a personal oracle approach to God; who double down on the "personal relationship with God" can often be precisely those people who have no truly communal walk of faith. There are spiritual alliances and networks, to be sure, but no truly "family" in Christ.
However the alternative is an equally false one. The cultural project, the cultural mandate, the "Christian culture" is no better precisely because it simply becomes a group norm, the kind of group norm that will eventually decide that the ear is not properly a part of the body because it is not an eye. The nose is more a part of the body than the fingernail on the left pinky. Scripture teaches that we do have both a corporate as well as an individual standing before God through Christ. If we fail to remember both of these aspects then history will never stop being full of sad object lessons in how bad things go if, as C. S. Lewis put it, we take a certain truth too far.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

repost of one of my old poems: a sonnet--on election

In all the steady hand of Providence
guides well except if, this election year,
the party I love lacks preeminence.
Then I will cry out with many a tear:
"My God, my God, why did you forsake me!
The person I want in office has lost!
In your wrath have you forgotten mercy?
Have it on me and not the foolish host!
Did you break your promise to do my will
That was given `ere the day I was born?
Or did my requests lack a prayerful skill
that You listened not, and I am forlorn?
In all things Providence can only be
The stuff that should be convenient to me!"

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

temporary halt on production

I'm not really going to get into why there has to be a temporary halt in production both here and elsewhere but that's unfortunately how things have worked out.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Ecclesiastes 11:1-2, brew beer that you can share with others who shall, in turn, repay you

Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 may refer to brewing beer. If one casts bread into the water how is there any certainty that one will find it again? You won't since the bread will ferment and rot away ... unless that's the point. Giving portions to seven or eight is often thought of as referring to multiple investments and I would say most commentators of the few I've read tend to agree on this.

BUT what if this investment is in the lives of others. Give portions to seven or even eight may not refer to investments of a directly financial kind but investments in the lives of people who may one day return the favor. As Proverbs puts it we are urged to never forsake a friend, neither ours nor our father's. We are enjoined to not go to a distant relative's house in time of need. Better a neighbor who is near than a brother far away.

Ecclesiastes 11 certainly goes on to discuss how one can't be sure what will succeed or fail but Ecclesiastes 11 opens with a cryptic statement that you should cast your bread into the waters for in time you will receive it again. This is a weirdly certain statement if the whole chapter is about the uncertainty of investment. If, however, it is a prologue saying you should be willing to invest in things that are sure then this investment is an indirect one. I scratch your back and you scratch mine.

Of course over at City of God the upshot of such a proposed interpretation and the numerous references to wine in Ecclesiastes is that John MacArthur's stance against alcohol has to play so fast and loose with biblical texts as to be a joke. Grace to You apparently applies in those parts of life that MacArthur believes he can say are approved in the scriptures and that he also approves of. Or perhaps he can say that those passages don't apply.

I would like to make an aside about alcohol consumption at a more personal level. I didn't take a drink of alcohol until I was 27. I spent two hours sipping at a white russian watching Laurel & Hardy movies with friends of mine until 2 am. It was fun. For the teetotalers I respect their abstention from alcohol but I would point out that there are two general provisos given in the scriptures about alcohol. The first and obvious one is to not get drunk. The second less obvious association is that there are two times when alcohol consumption is considered normative. One is that you're dying. Alcohol can help deaden the nerves. But more common is the association of wine and prosperity. Paul wrote that if a man will not work let him not eat. Well, by extension, if a man will not work let him avoid drink, too. My alcohol consumption plummeted after I got laid off nearly two years ago. I have better and smarter things to do with my time than drink wine or beer or what-have-you.

The scriptures indicate that there will be wine at the feast of the Lamb. Alcohol production is taken as a sign of prosperity and leisure and peace in the scriptures. When times are good rejoice and when times are bad know that the Lord has made one as well as the other so that a person may not know what shall come in the future. This doesn't mean that God doesn't know what times will come but I will set that tangential path aside. It suffices to say that when times are bad taking solace in alcohol is a bad, bad idea.

But I suppose MacArthur, if he knows of this interpretation of Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 can either dispute its veracity or, more likely, emphasize the point that one should invest in the lives of others. Skip the part about brewing beer and casting on the waters and emphasize diversification of investment in the lives of others. That much, I suppose, everyone could agree on.

Postscript: My friend Wendy over at Practical Theology for Women made a funny but prescient remark that the idea that Ecclesiastes 11:1-2 hinges on brewing beer for an interpretation is the kind of thing a guy would come up with. Not necessarily a sarcastic observation but I still find it amusing. Maybe John MacArthur would go so far as to propose that a worldly man would insist on such an interpretation.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Link: Rolling Stone interviews Grant Morrison

Caveats, first it's Rolling Stone, so take that into advisement.
Second, it's Grant Morrison so if you haven't figured out the twenty-foot-tall neon figure doing carthweels that is the "strong language warning" I better spell it out for you before you click on the link!

There have been histories of comic books, but your book Supergods is all superheroes. It's a counter-narrative to the idea that comics need to outgrow this superhero stuff.

I can appreciate someone like Chris Ware for his artistry, which I think is beautiful, but I think his attitude stinks, it just seems to be the attitude of somebody really privileged, and honestly, try living here, try living on an Indian reservation and shut up, and really seeing all that nihilistic stuff, it really makes me angry, it's unhelpful to all of us, and it's coming from people who have money and success to talk like that and bring those aspects of the way we live in favor of all the others, and it's indefensible.

Dude, half my family line is American Indian. Grant Morrison gets an "amen!" from this comics reader!

Morrison's remark, which I won't quote here, about Alan Moore is creepy but momentous. He's got a point that considering Alan Moore isn't what you'd call a misogynist it's crazy to think there's almost any given story he's written where a woman has gotten raped or is nearly raped. Morrison's kinda crazy but I grant him a point that he made it three decades writing comics and never wrote a rape into his stories. Comics are as bad as Japanese genre movies on rape, I'm afraid. Of course the Bible not only has rape but incestuous rape to boot but that's some other topic for some other time.

HT You Are Not So Smart: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight

The illusion of asymmetric insight makes it seem as though you know everyone else far better than they know you, and not only that, but you know them better than they know themselves. You believe the same thing about groups of which you are a member. As a whole, your group understands outsiders better than outsiders understand your group, and you understand the group better than its members know the group to which they belong.

The researchers explained this is how one eventually arrives at the illusion of naive realism, or believing your thoughts and perceptions are true, accurate and correct, therefore if someone sees things differently than you or disagrees with you in some way it is the result of a bias or an influence or a shortcoming. You feel like the other person must have been tainted in some way, otherwise they would see the world the way you do – the right way. The illusion of asymmetrical insight clouds your ability to see the people you disagree with as nuanced and complex. You tend see your self and the groups you belong to in shades of gray, but others and their groups as solid and defined primary colors lacking nuance or complexity.

... So, you pick a team, and like the boys at Robber’s Cave, you spend a lot of time a lot of time talking about how dumb and uncouth the other side is. You too can become preoccupied with defining the essence of your enemies. You too need the other side to be inferior, so you define them as such. You start to believe your persona is actually your identity, and the identity of your enemy is actually their persona. You see yourself in a game of self-deluded poker and assume you are impossible to read while everyone else has obvious tells.

Earlier this year I wrote about false prophets and mental illness. Well, this entry could be considered a continuation of those thoughts. This entry can also be considered a tangential examination of watchbloggers for and against religious institutions. Ex-Christians and atheists imagine they know Christians better than Christians know themselves in the same way Christians imagine they know atheists and ex-Christians better than they know themselves. You know the drill. Did someone walk away from the faith? Well, of course they only did so because they wanted to keep sinning. The idea that they lost faith in Christ and then decided that because they lost that faith there was no point in using the same moral compass can't be considered. Non-Christians can look at Christians and surmise that culture and upbringing alone account for why someone would believe something as crazy as that religion without letting the shoe be on the other foot, there is nothing more inherently rational or more humane in a secular upbringing, either.

It should probably go without saying a false prophet (or even a real one I guess) can operate with the assumption of asymmetric insight. A person who imagines he/she has the gift of discernment can read the tea leaves, read the emails, read the blogs, read non-verbal cues, and all that. He or she is positive he or she has penetrated beyond the veil into things as they are. This lets a person imagine that someone she doesn't really know must be, against all evidence, someone other than who that person is. Maybe he went to college. Well, in the mind of the prophet that college degree must be a sham. Maybe the person has never actually dated anyone. Well, in the mind of the self-appointed prophet there's a significant other.

Of course the would be prophet might be obtaining ideas from outside sources whilst thinking he or she is sui generis or getting divine oracles. Maybe there's some pastor or famous preacher type who says "I see things" and that clicks in the mind and heart of some emotionally and mentally unstable person who retroactively ascribes to themselves insights and ideas they did not necessarily have. I'm the sort of glum type who imagines such a mentally ill person would develop delusions of grandeur anyway but that the public statements of a high profile Christian could nonetheless catalyze the particular forms a delusion may take.

There was a woman who claimed to have keen insights and who told me that something I mentioned in passing spoke to someone in a troubled marriage. I mentioned to the self-described seer that the thing I mentioned in passage referred to an infant. No matter, in the mind of this seer the feedback loop of one's own divine inbox in the mind was all that mattered. It was sad, really, and continues to be sad.

Of all the things I have seen about how Christians pretend and proclaim this or that about the nature of being a prophet or prophecy few things are more aggravating than the pervasive misrepresentation about what the role of a prophet normally is, or that the role of the prophet is necessarily normal. I've already written at some length about how a preacher is not a prophet, no matter how badly the preacher wants his ego stroked so that he imagines he's got a prophetic gift because someone lets him be a pastor. I have also written about how some self-appointed prophets are just plain insane. But there is a larger responsibility God's people have as a whole. If we misrepresent or misunderstand the communal role of the prophet historically then we have no chance of battling strains of Montanism or other errant beliefs.

A preacher who is a cessationist who thinks he stands firm in battling Montanism and actually believes that "prophecy" is fulfilled in role by preaching is accomplishing nothing. When people say there are no prophets because Christ has come they also misconstrue what the role of the prophet was in ancient Israel. Could not any number of Israelites have said there was no need for prophets or psalms? After all, the Torah was given by the Lord Himself to Moses. A cessationist argument from the completeness of divine revelation fails because there is no exegetical case to be made that the scriptures were referring to themselves.

If the Torah was complete why was there a granting of a prophetic role in Deuteronomy 18 to begin with? It's not to say Christians must expect a prophet or seer to fill in gaps left untouched by the scriptures (i.e. Torah or the Bible as a whole). It's that if Christians do not find such gifts we can trust that the Lord has given us enough to live for Him even when we have no answers. Ironically it took a prophet to articulate this in a uniquely memorable way. Who walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the Lord. Those who light their own path and light a fire to warm themselves by the Lord promised this, that they would lie down in torment. There comes a point where it is better to admit the Lord has hidden Himself and gives no answers than to presume that anyone has answers. This means those preachers who assume cessationism because they see no evidence the Spirit works in this or that way; those preachers who assume that because the scriptures are complete there is no need for gifts; these are people who are not exegeting the scriptures but are at risk, it seems, of lighting their own path where the Lord has not spelled out explicitly that "these things never happen".

But the alternative to the cessationist is not necessarily the continuationist as usually appears in America! In the last twenty years the greatest error I have seen about spiritual gifts perpetuated among Christians is the idea that the gift is persistent and can be used for personal gain. We don't say this but we believe it. How many self-described prophets ultimately gun for a special relationship with a pastor or a church? If I cannot say "all of them" it is because I am aware that not all are tempted in precisely the same way, nevertheless I'd be willing to say "most of them"!

The illusion of asymmetric insight allows groups of us humans to circle the wagons and assume the worst about anyone outside our group, especially if those people on the outside offer criticisms of us, no matter how substantial those criticisms may be.

In Christian blogging I'd venture to say that John MacArthur and the young, restless Reformed are both doing a mighty fine job of demonstrating the illusion of asymmetric insight. :) People pro and con on SGM and C. J. Mahaney can and will display the illusion of asymmetric insight. And, yes, the illusion of asymmetric insight has everything to do with what I've seen in the last six years about Mars Hill and Driscoll. It is also the hallmark of a lunatic self-styled prophet who believes that having discernment super-powers means you can make sweeping remarks about other people while refusing to grant a rudimentary scriptural command that we confess our sins one to another. The application and implication of the illusion of asymmetric insight in politics was discussed sufficiently enough in the original post I won't really discuss that.

I find it more interesting to discuss asymmetric insight with respect to religious communities because I have seen some hard-core cases of people operating with that illusion within a community; then when things go south and their social capital and trajectory takes a nosedive they maintain the illusion of assymetric insight in a new way and instead of praising and defending the community they condemn and critique without so much as attempting to share positive aspects about the group or to concede their earlier role of dismissing dissenters as motivated by sour grapes. People who let any number of things slide because they had weight to throw around in the community can become remarkably testy about how abusive the community is while forgetting one's own role in the abuse. A self-described prophet finds it much easier to dish out than receive the perks of having a "prophetic" voice.

I'm not saying there aren't real rights and wrongs on any given subject I mentioned above, I'm simply discussing the temptation that will beset people on all sides of a controversy precisely because succumbing to that temptation will make things worse rather than better. It's possible to propose that someone is genuinely wrong about something without assuming the worst about their motives. It is also possible for a person who is going down a wrong path to sincerely believe it is the right path. After all, doesn't proverbs say that there is a way that seems right to a man but it's end leads to death? When it seems right to you, even approved by God, how can you possibly turn aside from the path that you are sure God is leading you down? How could you even know that it wasn't the Lord telling you something or giving you some insight?

In this way, ultimately, the illusion of asymmetric insight can be broadly described as a breach of the Golden Rule.