Saturday, August 24, 2013

Matt Redmond--More Thoughts on Weakness--and a few thoughts on 2 Corinthians 11-12 as a rhetorical response to super-apostles

Everything in American church culture fights against weakness as a way to let the power of God rest on us as individuals, as families and as churches. It’s all about position and influence and money and energy and momentum and celebrity and excellence and skill. None of those things are bad in and of themselves. But the power when all are arrayed is hard to overcome. At least in the minds of those who wield it.

If this is true (and I imagine there are some who would say it isn't because, well, this is America) why would everything in the American church fight against weakness as a way to let the power of God rest on us as individuals, as families, and as churches? 

Let me offer a playful answer, because we conflate weakness with sin.  If weakness in the life of a Christian isn't because of sin it is an opportunity for sin. 

Now maybe boasting in weakness is something we're reluctant to do because even the way Paul does it in 2 Corinthians may count as one of the world's earlier cases of what has been called a humblebrag.  :) 

Maybe we think of "the weaker brother" passages and how for the sake of the weaker brother we won't eat meat, or how we're just going to eat meat and the weaker brother should just deal with it because that's needless legalism.  There's a whole category of professing Christian that is, as it were professionally offended and professionally offensive.  It can often come in the form of claiming to speak truth to power or claiming that there are weaknesses or things to be offended by within a church or the Church.  Whether from a presumed position of institutional power or speaking truth to power the power plays can look startlingly similar.

Often the most brazen attempts at controlling the behavior of other Christians takes on the guise of appellations to weakness of condition or status.  Back when I was in college every spring there'd be some knuckle-headed bromide about the need for women to be modest and hand-wringing about women wearing outfits that let a guy realize she had secondary sexual characteristics.  Granting that times changed and what may seem normal now would have been considered hoochie attire forty years ago ... the weakness of the abstracted other as a substitute for our own power plays can make boasting in weakness feel weird. 

When we talk about areas where we feel "weak" in our Christian life we can often talk about areas where we feel apt to fall into sin, or so it often seems.  Boasting in weakness as Paul does it in 2 Corinthians shows us that there can be boasting in the physical abuse endured for apostolic work.  Paul even goes on to write about divine revelations he partook of that were too wonderful to find words for.  To keep him from being conceited a messenger from Satan was sent to torment him.  How many Christians have you met who have boasted that God permitted a satanic affliction to beset them to prevent them from being conceited?  A thorn in the flesh that was not only not removed but remained, with an answer to a prayer that said "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness."

Forget the usual pious bromides about how "God answers every prayer" and think about this boast, Paul's boast was that the answer to his three petitions for the removal of the thorn in the flesh, the messenger from Satan was ... "Praise God, He's leaving it there!"  If the goal of the prayer was, let us note, the removal of that affliction, then Paul is boasting in a prayer that was answered with "no".  After all, did the affliction remain?  Paul tells us himself it did.  Let's put away pious reinterpretations that would say Paul was not boasting in his apostolic role giving him the opportunity to witness divine mysteries but in the fact that to keep him from being conceited he was afflicted and that, crucially, when he asked that the affliction be removed, was told "no".  When's the last time you bragged that God didn't give you want earnestly prayed for because you needed to be kept from becoming conceited?  Even boasting in that weakness acknowledged along the way what sin Paul said he needed to be guarded from.

When Paul wrote that he was about to get into crazy talk we can be tempted to not take him entirely seriously there.  Boasting in weakness arguably can't get any bigger than boasting in how God providentially opted to not answer your prayer that He would remove physical suffering from you.  Boasting that, instead of removing the affliction, His answer was "My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness" and that now you have to live with the affliction the rest of your life, that thorn in the flesh, whatever it was, that messenger from Satan, that's kind of crazy.  We're given the impression the super-apostles were not the sort who would brag about the prayers they prayed that God didn't answer. 

Practical Theology for Women: on sarcastic pastors and a follow up

Here's the original post Wendy published on sarcastic pastors.

And here's a follow-up post on hermeneutics.

My own thoughts in response to the first post Wendy published were the subject of an earlier post).  And I've given the matter a little more thought since. 

The core social problem with sarcasm as employed by some pastors and bloggers is that it is essentially a shortcut from dealing with ideas and people they disagree with in a serious way.  There is also a significant temptation to succumb to double standards.  This can manifest in a form where some knowing risqué joke typed with a nudge and a wink by Team A is given a pass and when a comparable joke is given by someone on Team B the people on Team A take offense, apparently in an entirely serious and unreflective way.  Now a couple of epistles discourage coarse joking generally so someone might say that there's a more basic underlying problem in the example I've given.  Sure, let's grant that up front, but it's another case in which a select group of people will refer to how offensive passages in Ezekiel are that deal with sexual organs and that since that's in the Bible coarse analogies for the sake of effect are totally legit.

Now there's a somewhat lazy group of people who will simply figure from this that those kinds of contradictions prove the Bible is useless. The reason it's lazy is because those kinds of contradictions are inherent to the entire human species. Why is it that certain types of executive power exercised in the United States are anathema to conservatives and liberals only when the other side resorts to them?  Hypocrisy is the natural human condition and may not be on purpose (most of the time it is likely inadvertent) but double standards have to be explained.  :)   Anyone can pretend to themselves and others that I get to use belittling sarcastic analogies because I'm speaking truth to power while you're just being an offensive troll.  No, that won't work in either direction so long as we attempt to justify for ourselves what we find offensive in others. Either we're going to have to explain why certain double standards are not only justified but necessary but to do so in a way that exonerates us while condemning others.  But that's the whole internet already, isn't it?  Do we not aspire to something slightly better?  No, not in reality, it seems.

I would myself return to the observation that a great many good and serious preachers did not see any necessity for sarcasm in instruction most of the time.  Remembering that humor comes in the categories of laughing with and laughing at, guided by the golden rule, should be rule enough to think better of most types of sarcasm we're tempted to employ.  If you wouldn't want to be on the receiving end of it why be on the giving end of it?  Because someone on the internet is wrong?  There's an xkcd for that, right?

I'll be the first to admit I've employed sarcasm mercilessly about certain people in the past.  This old post of mine is basically sarcasm from start to finish.  If you feel there is no other option but to employ sarcasm I suggest you use it to address ideas and behaviors rather than to address individuals and categories of people.  People can let go of ideas and behaviors in time but their very self tends to stick with them until death, eh?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

a linkathon with a theme, the past

Headline says Angry Nixon: New tapes reveal an overwrought president in grips of Watergate.
In other news water contains the elements hydrogen and oxygen but, hey, we still drink water.

On the subject of something else from the later 20th century, it appears Gitmo may have banned someone from receiving The Gulag Archipeligo.  Irony hardly gets more meta than that.

When asked, lots of people don't want to go back to the 1990s

For animation fans the 1990s kinda rocked.  We got The Simpsons (the first four to six seasons of which are great).  We got Batman: the animated series.  We got Animaniacs, worthy of note just for Pinky & the Brain alone. Slightly less kid-friendly we got Beavis & Butthead, South Park, and casting about further east we got Cowboy Bebop and the frankly over-hyped Neon Genesis Evangelion.  Then there's some studio called Pixar that emerged in the mid-1990s and somebody named Brad Bird did an adaptation of The Iron Giant.  The 1990s kinda rocked on the `toon front. 

To close a short post with a reference to ... linkathon ... sorta, it's nice to see Phoenix Preacher is back online.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

some assembled light reading and listening (i.e. links) for the week

HT Alastair Roberts, "I hate strong female characters".
Insert scare quotes around "strong female character" as the article is thematically a summation of comparable ideas blogged a few years ago over here. The repetition of Joss Whedon's waif-fu trope withstanding, this meme in popular entertainment does not mean we're getting strong female characters just because someone like Megan Fox asserts that her character in the Michael Bay Transformers franchise was a strong female character. 

HT Phoenix Preacher, Salman Rushdie states that our age is defined too much by what we take offense at and not what we love.

Carl Trueman proposes that the cultural transformation paradigm of the new Calvinism isn't new and that's got no evidence to show it has worked. And, yes, we can all talk about Christendom and the West until the cows come home but this is not quite the same thing as revivalism as it has emerged in the continental United States.

A set of posts over at The Art of Manliness caught my eye, thanks to Alastair Roberts. He just linked to part 3.  I'll link to three parts. 

... experiments by Dr. Ariely and others have shown that far from being a deliberate, rational choice, dishonesty often results from psychological and environmental factors that people typically aren’t even aware of.

The greater the psychological distance between our dishonest actions and their consequences, the easier those actions become to rationalize as morally and ethically acceptable.

Or as Ariely puts it:

“Passed from person to person, dishonesty has a slow, creeping, socially erosive effect. As the ‘virus’ mutates and spreads from one person to another, a new, less ethical code of conduct develops. And although it is subtle and gradual, the final outcome can be disastrous. This is the real cost of even minor instances of cheating and the reason we need to more vigilant in our efforts to curb even small infractions.”

Chris Rosebrough over at Fighting for the Faith discusses the anatomy of religious money scams.

HT Jason Engwer of Triablogue, organized skepticism has seen better days. Turns out that on either side of the "evangelism" divide evangelists for skepticism or old time religion can end up committing identify fraud, sexually harassing people, revealing racial or ethnic bigotries and generally behaving like jerks regardless of the values they ostensibly promote, whether reason or charity.  It's hard to blame secular humanists for a not-so-sneaking suspicion that organized skepticism will quickly get you the same problems we've all seen show up in organized religion. 

Then again, as I've written in the past, [I]n a time such as ours it's a lot sexier to talk about how impersonal a bureaucracy is than to talk about how it helps the sick get better, how it can save the lives of people who would die without the help of institutions, or how institutions can help those going blind to see.

Episode 267: Elysium, where all the wealth is concentrated, for some reason, on a spaceship.
You can skip all the way to minute 20 before listening to the podcast.  That Elysium itself doesn't seem to have any foundational economy that produces anything (production is all planet-side, it seems) makes the dystopia a little tough to take as given.  I mean, class divides have been the subject of films since, oh, Fritz Lang, but in Lang's dystopian future the relationship between the two classes and, crucially, the interdependence of them, is the whole focus of the film.

In Elysium we get, well, a big build-up to the idea that though Elysium is a doomed society that expends limited resources that the best thing to do is to use all those resources to provide medical care to an already overpopulated planet rife with disease.  The end, where everyone planetside can be considered a citizen, seems altruistic enough but what it accomplishes in terms of emotional beats is the little girl gets cured of leukemia, no small good there, obviously, but it remains to be seen how a system as limited and insular as Elysium will be able to remedy a whole planet of people. 

There's also nothing indicating why people would keep needing to use med beds to heal themselves unless there's a condition or two the med beds can ameliorate but not completely fix.  Per the pscyopath played by Sharlto Copley (who does a memorable job chewing through every scene) what if repeated reliance on med beds has had unforeseen consequences?  A common trope in folklore is that those who are able to attain immortality lose morality.  It could be that this could be explored a bit more directly, if that's where the director wanted to go, that Kruger has relied on med beds to fix fatal conditions to a point where he's been re-atomized enough times he isn't the self he once was. But how re-atomization actually works is never explained and simply a given.  It has no flaws in terms of methodology or diagnostics.  It is just assumed to work.  But if the sort of fission/fusion that "reatomization" would imply has become possible by the 22nd century then, hey, why not use that technology to convert toxic waste into, I dunno, organic compounds that can be used for food?  In fact why did nobody in Elysium seem to come up with this?  Because the film is a strictly political parable about the here and now rather than an exploration of possibilities.

If a political parable about how the haves have medical technology you don't have and want to keep immigrants out (and one of the gaping questions, literally, is how Elysium's atmosphere is retained in the donut in space) then the putative science is immaterial.  There's enough scarcity that Elysium is said by its own director of security to be doomed but there's still enough resources on the thing to ... heal everyone on the planet?  Well ... that's enough links and rambling commentary for a post.

Not that I didn't find some enjoyment from the film, by the way.  Copley is a fun actor to watch.  If you want to know why the hippo did it you can feel free to catch the film as a matinee.  ;)

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Slate: grieving (sorta) an arranged marriage

The writer/philosopher Kierkegaard, ever the smart-ass, wrote that the single man bemoans his lack of a wife and then the married man bemoans the fact that he has one.  A life lived without any regret is the life of a sociopath.

While arranged marriages were flirtatiously and coyly discussed during the courtship fad at the old church scene nobody wanted for even a second to actually give up the ideal of mutual butterflies and twitterpation. Even in a setting like ancient Israel mutual affection and attraction were held to be wonderful enough to be the topic of a set of erotic poems.  Although the detail about the poems being erotic literature but that Christians shouldn't be reading erotica may yet prove the subject of another installment in a laconic review of Real Marriage.

That and the topic of bitterness in the best-seller in comparison to the topic of bitterness in somebody's lengthy discourse on spiritual warfare. 

Benedict Cumberbatch shares a note with photographers on the set of Sherlock--go to Egypt and take photographs of something that's actually important

HT Jim West

A small bit of dry amusement for a weekend.

bits of cirremt evemts from the last few weeks discussed at The Guardian, comment is free

Barry Webb's commentary on the book of Judges ... a new toy for the read pile

Learned of it through this little post at Jim West's blog.

Started reading the book in the last few weeks.  Fascinating stuff for a layman.  I, too, am looking forward to commentary on the Levite's concubine. 

In fact Webb's commentary might be something useful to consult when I get around to composing a suite called The Levite's Concubine: 12 fragments for solo guitar.

I'm actually not kidding about that last part.