Sorry I’ve been so quiet. I had an episode with the virus that’s been going around, which I managed to mostly fight off, but I haven’t been feeling very bloggy. Tomorrow I’m going to be gone again, to some sort of multifaith thanksgiving event that some of the Lutherans participate in. I’ll let you know if anything interesting happens…
November 24, 2003
November 20, 2003
As I’ve said before, saying that homosexuality is wrong has increasingly become the defining public characteristic of evangelical Protestants. Publicly disapproving of gays separates them from popular culture–and, hence, reinforces religious commitment–while exacting little personal toll. When I was a kid, evangelical churches disapproved of dancing, of rock music, of working women, of divorce. Now they incorporate all of those elements in their church programs. (They still don’t like divorce–who does?–but today’s evangelical churches not only have programs for divorced members, they even arrange their buildings’ security so non-custodial parents can’t swipe the kids.) What’s left? Gays. That’s why pastors tend to talk so much about them.
I don’t think gays are the only thing left. From what I can tell, evangelicals still routinely condemn premarital sex, abortion, and explicitly sexual and violent entertainment. My former Pentecostal pastor never sermonized on homosexuality, but he delivered a blistering attack on porn earlier this year. I also think Virginia is making a fairly common error among the nonreligious, in thinking of churches only in terms of what they forbid. Many churches — and this does include some conservative ones — distinguish themselves as much by what they do as what they don’t do. Think of the Salvation Army, for instance.
But still, she does have a point. Opposing homosexuality is an easy way for straights to declare themselves Against Sexual Decadence without really having to give up anything. Lee Anne Millinger points to a Sojourners article that makes a similar point, that many people are using gays as scapegoats for their general malaise with the decline of sexual restraint and family cohesion.
I think one problem here is that evangelicals and fundamentalists position themselves as the main defenders of the Traditional Values in our society, which is kind of weird since they’re actually the youngest major Christian movement around. When Catholics speak of traditional sexual morality, they’re referring back to a thoroughly premodern tradition. The current Catholic teaching on sex, which is to basically act like the industrial era never happened, is at least consistent. Many in the Christian right, however, seem to see traditional values as “whatever values I grew up with.” A lot of the older leaders, like Pat Robertson and James Dobson, seem to want to freeze the ’50s forever, not realizing how many novelties and contradictions that decade’s family arrangements actually had. Younger conservatives get an even more contradictory legacy. Yet as “defenders of tradition”, they go fighting whatever new thing comes up.
I think this has come down so hard on homosexuals because people tend to assume that, as we get more and more permissive, we’re permitting increasingly bad things — so homosexuality, as one of the last remaining, must be really really bad. But as Virginia suggests, it’s probably more a matter of demand. The great majority of sexually active people want to limit their fertility, about half get divorced, the temptation to have premarital sex is always around, but homosexuals make up a measly 4% or so of the population.
This, unfortunately, turns opposition to homosexuality into a kind of last stand: if you accept that, you accept everything! But I see no Biblical nor rational reason to order morality in that way. As one of Peter’s commenters pointed out, a lot of stuff evangelicals used to oppose (and still oppose) isn’t even forbidden in the Bible. It seems to me that if Protestants are really going to transcend their culture, they have to get over the distortions of the recent past and form a coherent alternative to the modern “follow your feelings” attitude that is leaving so many people cold. I think the Sojourners article takes a decent move in that direction, recognizing the importance of family cohesion without yearning for a mystical and arbitrary point in the past. I trust others are doing the same, but it’s easy for them to get drowned in the din.
November 18, 2003
Jesus and co. return to Nazareth, where the locals are amazed and hostile about his strange behavior. This guy is that carpenter’s son — who does he think he is, God or something? Jesus is sanguine about all this, saying prophets are never honored in their own houses anyway. But, oddly, we are told he “could do no deeds of power there” except curing a few sick people. Yet still he was “amazed at their unbelief.”
This seems to strike a blow against Jesus’ omnipotence: what he couldn’t do anything? But this seems to carry on the message of the story of the woman with hemorrhages in the last chapter — it’s people’s own faith that heals them, really. Which sounds an awful lot like the placebo effect, but let’s not be cynical.
Jesus then sends out his disciples in twos, and they preach and heal on his behalf.
November 14, 2003
Sgt. Stryker posted his remarks that I quoted earlier on his own blog, with more comments. This set Peter Nixon on a sweet appreciation of his father. Meanwhile, Andi has some interesting thoughts about my Promise Keepers post.
Allen Brill explains that evangelicals aren’t all right-wingers. This seems affirmed by Telford’s lament about the divisive debate over homosexuality going on at Westmont. The fact that there are such divisions even in a tiny evangelical college might surprise a lot of people.
On a related note, Philosoraptor is lamenting the decline of civil discourse in the culture at large, and pondering the reasons for it.
November 12, 2003
It seems to be Testosterone Week here at my blog, but I’m still pondering the whole masculinity thing. Once again, I disclaim that I’m just a never-married chick with no special insight into the male psyche, so I speculate. But I’ve been thinking about a comment Sgt. Stryker made on the One Hand Clapping post:
Most of what passes for masculine culture is really just adolescence extended out into what used to be the adult years. In other words, “guy stuff”. Wrapped up in the guy stuff is the posturing, the trash-talking, the need to prove one’s toughness, the fetishization of sports and weapons, as well as what I’ll simply refer to as the “Maxim” lifestyle. Those are guy things that have nothing to do with being a man and if you wish to defend that against “feminization,” I can only wish you swift destruction at the hands of your enemies.
A man is someone who is quiet, thoughtful, respectful and harbors a deep sense of responsibility to others. He does not posture or overtly try to prove his toughness or “manliness” to anyone else. He doesn’t have to. He thinks before he speaks, and when he does speak, it’s usually brief and to the point. Moderation is his style: moderation in speech, in mood and in action. He is not quick to anger. He is fair-minded, yet firm in his application of discipline and adherance to rules. He works hard. He is strong in mind and body. If you wish to defend this against feminization, you have my support, yet this ideal of a man has suffered more at the hands of the “guy culture” than anything else and I’m afraid he’s a dying breed.
Allen’s passing mention of the Promise Keepers reminded me of a remarkable piece I read a few years back, by a radical lesbian who attended one of their rallies disguised as a teenage boy. No, seriously. The piece isn’t online, unfortunately, but there’s a brief summary of her impressions here:
The Promise Keepers, in all their contradictory splendor, turned out to be something I had never expected to find, a right-wing Christian group that was sort of feminist – and was doing some good. They weren’t all good. They do oppose abortion rights and gay rights, they’re quite suspicious of sex generally, and about a fifth of their messages are poisonous platitudes about women needing to submit to their husbands and men needing to take authority back. But the other four fifths of the messages totally contradict this one. Most of the speeches from the podium were how men need to stop being men as this culture defines them-violent, selfish, emotionless, uncaring, and dominating. By and large, what men were being told to do was stop abusing and stranding their friends, wives and children and learn how to nurture themselves and the people in their lives.
It was a startlingly feminist message. And in some ways, it was a message that really spoke to me, because there’s a part of me that’s a lot like a man. Many lesbians – and lots of straight women, for that matter – have grown up terrified of not being tough enough, fearful of weakness and effeminacy. I knew how much it had hurt me to feel this fear that is part of every masculine being, and I was beginning to understand how much it hurt men. In the Thunderdome, clutching weeping men who thought I was a boy, I finally knew for sure that men were hurt by gender just as much as women were.
November 11, 2003
This chapter begins with a very wild tale. Jesus and his crew finish crossing the Gallilee and come to the land of the Gerasenes, where a man possessed by demons is living among the tombs, howling and hurting himself and anyone who comes near him. Jesus talks to the spirit — who turns out to be plural, a whole legion — and they beg him not to send them out of the country. Instead, they ask if they can move into a nearby herd of swine. Jesus lets them do so, and the pig run into the sea and drown.
The man is made whole, but the village is terrified, and asks Jesus to leave. The man asks if he can follow Jesus, but Jesus tells him instead to go and tell everyone what God has done for him.
The story is strange, even aside from the strangeness of demon possession. Before Jesus was driving out spirits; now he’s negotiating with them. Yet when the spirits get their wish, they go kill themselves. The whole thing brings serious destruction of property to the villagers, not to mention the pigs. And in stark contrast to all the secrecy before now, Jesus tells the man to go talk all about it.
Pigs were unclean animals to the Hebrews. In fact, the whole scene is very unclean, with the man wandering among the dead bodies. So it occurred to me that the drowned pigs weren’t a casual destruction of property, but a disapproval of the livelihood. (Though later Jesus will overturn the kosher laws, so go figure.)
I talked to Telford a little while ago and asked about this, and he told me one of those bits of Bible background he’s good at: the Gerasenes were gentiles. Hence the herds of swine. So we have here Jesus’ first serious contact with non-Jews, and he doubly cleanses them, you might say: driving out the unclean spirits and the pigs in one go. This also might explain why he tells the man to go home and publicize instead of following him. The gentiles have no messianic expectations, so he would not have to bear the expectation of being a military leader that the Jews would put on him. And it may foreshadow the fact that he’ll be more popular among gentiles than Jews.
Still, it’s weird.
So the crew sails back to Jewish turf, and a synagogue leader asks Jesus to heal his daughter. On the way there, an ailing woman sneaks up on Jesus. She’s convinced touching his clothing will heal her, and manages to touch his cloak as he walks by. Jesus feels a little power drain, and turns to ask who touched him. The woman confesses, and Jesus says, “Daughter, faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
The idea that Jesus feels the “power go out” of him sounds so … pagan. But it might suggest what’s going on here. Like I said before, there were a lot of healers floating around then, and most of the charged money for their services. I wouldn’t be surprised, given the general history of this sort of thing, if they believed they had a limited amount of “the force” and so could only help a limited number of people (those who paid). Jesus, however, doesn’t mind that this woman basically picks his pocket. The power is ultimately inexhaustible. The power, in fact, is ultimately within her: “Your faith has made you well.”
Jesus then goes to help the daughter, whom others presume to be dead. No, she’s not dead, he says, just sleeping. He goes with her parents into her room, takes her hand, and tells her to get up. (For some reason, Mark puts his command in Aramaic.) She does, and resuming the former secrecy, Jesus tells them to tell no one.
It’s not clear whether the child is actually dead. This isn’t Lazarus, who’s been gone four days and is already decomposing. But it does seem like a more impressive healing than previous ones. In fact, combined with the highly dramatic exorcism at the start of the chapter, it seems to intensify the powers Jesus has already shown. The plot thickens.
The fact that this is the daughter of a synagogue leader also seems significant. Up to now, the healings have been of the hoi polloi. Perhaps this increases the pressure on the pharisees, since even their cohorts are going to Jesus for help.
From Peter Nixon:
When I made my Cursillo, I encountered a lot of men who, at my age, were a lot like me. They were young, full of piss and vinegar and ready to make their mark on the world. They were rising through the ranks at work, raising what appeared to be perfect families, and pillars in their parishes. They thought they were invincible. And then, one by one, they were humbled: alcoholism, drug addiction, adultery, job loss, disease, death, you name it. They came to a point of crisis and found that, despite everything they had absorbed about the importance of a man being “in control,” that they were no longer in control. I understand why younger guys don’t want to hear those stories, but they should know that humility will come their way one day, one way or another. It would be wise to be prepared.
November 10, 2003
Rob thinks I’m going all Foucaultian in seeing power relations even in family relationships. Power, in his mind, is about corecion and manipulation.
Well, I suppose we could argue semantics forever, but I would just say that the dictionary definition of power is a lot broader than that. And to my mind, those definitions belong under one heading, because the division between “good” power and “bad” power isn’t that clean.
Power is, in its most basic definition, the ability to do something. And in terms of power over other people, that means the ability to do something that has an impact or influence on someone else. And certainly that applies to parents and kids, and sometimes it’s coercive. I mean, maybe Rob has managed to raise his children without ever using any coercive or manipulative measures, but if so he’s the only parent I’ve ever heard of who’s managed to do that. I have lenient parents by most people’s standards, but you can bet I did some things out of fear of punishment, even if the punishment was just their anger or disappointment. Kids usually don’t see what’s in their own best interest, and so if you want them to behave a certain way you can’t always persuade them of that.
By the same token, I don’t know of anyone in American society today who became powerful purely by force. Even the most corrupt businessmen and politicians got to where they are at least partly because they provide people with stuff — products, services, pork, what have you. Granted, that’s not generally done in the Christian spirit of servanthood, but it’s not coercion either.
There are two reasons I feel strongly about this. For one, I think that when people don’t recognize the power they have, they don’t deal with it properly. Some of the people who’ve hurt me the most in my life were those closest to me. When you love and trust someone you give them the power to hurt you. And I think many people do harm not from being coercive, but from being irresponsible. Gee, I didn’t realize you’d take it so hard. Why are you making such a big deal out of it? Et cetera.
This can happen even in relationships that are, generally speaking, equal. Rob claimed that marriage can be “radically egalitarian”, and I suppose that’s true, but the parties still have power over each other, in the sense of having the ability to help or hurt each other. Also, I don’t think equal relationships are perfectly equal 100% of the time. One party will have more power at certain times, or in certain areas of life. So the potential for abuse of power still exists.
Moreover, though it’s uncomfortable for us modern Americans to admit it, sometimes people will voluntarily put themselves in relationships where they have less power. In my post on teacher-student relationships I pointed out that there is an inherent imbalance in that relationship, and it’s not a bad thing. If someone knows more than you, has better judgment than you and/or is emotionally stronger than you are at the moment, letting them guide you can be the wise thing. That’s what Jesus did with his followers, and that’s what the apostles continued after he was gone. It only becomes bad if they abuse it.
The other reason I feel strongly about this is that I’ve seen a certain tendency in some quarters of the left, both religious and secular, to say that power is a) always evil and b) only something that other people have. This can be extremely self-defeating, for one thing. Let’s speak truth to power, but God forbid power should listen, because then we’d have to figure out how to be something other than a noble opposition. It also leads to the popular pharasaical delusion that I am pure, it’s only the evil Them who have a problem. At its worst, this attitude can lead to the abuses by Marxists and other revolutionaries, who can justify all kinds of horrors because they’re supposedly doing it on behalf of the oppressed. You can’t really have power if you’re acting on behalf of the powerless, can you? Wrong.
Jesus criticized the powerful and lobbied for the powerless, but I don’t see him as a class-warfare kind of guy. He hung out with tax collectors, who in Jewish eyes were henchmen for the Man. He did healings for the rich as well as the poor. His follower Joseph of Arimathea was rich enough to donate a tomb — something very few people had in those days, so I understand. So I’m not buying that he gave a simplistic message that power = evil. Craving and abusing power for your own self-interest, yes. But was he saying people should never have impact or influence on each other? Certainly not.
November 8, 2003
The discussion about church and gender has gone on at The Right Christians and has moved to another, related subject:
Much of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek Testament is written from the vantage point of the world’s “losers.” There are historians from a tiny nation often at odds with itself and under constant threat of destruction by much more powerful neighbors, prophets who were outcasts, exiles living in a hostile culture, persecuted followers of a crucified man, etc. How do those who are privileged and part of the dominant class and gender identify with such writings?
As I’ve been thinking over my own remark about “the language of power,” I’ve perceived a subtle difference between the way the left usually talks about power, and the way Christianity (in my view) talks about it. The message men — especially straight, white, able-bodied men — usually get from the left about power is that they have too much of it and others have to little, so they should share. The Christian message, on the other hand, is that you may think you have power, but that power is nothing compared to God. As far as God is concerned, the “privileged and dominant” are his children like everybody else. That’s why they should see the beggars in the street as their brothers — or as Jesus.
That’s why I said in the last post that a little more emphasis on God’s power could be helpful in communicating with that group. If you only talk about how much power they have and how awful that is, you’re actually building them up in a way.
But given that perfect egalitarianism isn’t possible, is there a Christian way to wield power? I’ve actually heard two different sermons on the subject this year, and they both made the same point. The pastor at my old church said that whatever power you have, you have “on loan” — it’s not intrinsic to you, you don’t “deserve” it, and you’re not going to take it with you to the next life. So you should regard it as a gift to be cared for wisely, because eventually you’re going to return it.
The pastor at my new church spoke about the idea of “stewardship.” A steward, he said, is someone who cares for property that belongs to someone else. So whatever you have stewardship over, you should remember it belongs to God.
Another point both of them made, which is worth putting in here, is that we all have power at some point. It’s true enough that some classes of people have more power than others, but the experiences of dominance and subordination are nearly universal. Even the poor have children. Even the rich were children. So I think even people from dominant groups can identify with the poor in the Bible, if they think personally instead of politically. (And people from subordinate groups shouldn’t think the demands on the powerful exclude them.)
This doesn’t really answer the broad social question of how a Christian society as a whole can adapt to dominance, or at least not being persecuted. But it’s food for thought.