I’m heading up to northern California for the next week, and won’t have much computer time. I have changed the moderation protocol so that previously approved people can comment automatically, but it might not recognize you if you’re posting from a different IP address. See you later kids, don’t break anything!
June 29, 2006
June 27, 2006
Recently the Internet Monk linked to one of his archival essays that critiques Christian pacifism. I didn’t realize he’d ever taken on the subject, but since the discussions of the subject on this blog rarely involve Calvinists, I was interested in seeing what he had to say.
The iMonk says that he thinks pacifism arises from a failure to appreciate common grace. For those of you who aren’t up on Calvinist terminology, this means the grace that God sheds on the whole world, as opposed to the “specific grace” that he sheds on his worshippers. To reject military service, in his view, is to make a manichean assumption that every authority that isn’t God must be satanic.
Now, that criticism is probably fair as far as some pacifist groups go, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and maybe the more conservative Mennonites and Amish. But I think that a lot of people at my church would actually agree that governments are basically good things. J.H. Yoder, as I explained here, also interpreted Romans 13 as meaning that God “orders” societies through governments, and so even when they are fallen they still reflect God’s will to some extent. I think the difference between his position and the iMonk’s is more a matter of degree than of kind.
Where the iMonk starts to lose me, though, is in his analysis of the Tower of Babel story:
I would like you to observe that what God is doing at Babel is a restraining act of mercy. It is Godâ€™s opinion that human nations will be less evil if separated into nations than if they are one nation, one culture. (One world government fans, have at it.) In other words, nations are, to a certain extent, a manifestation of Godâ€™s common grace, and this is, I believe, Paulâ€™s entire point in the crucial text of Romans 13:1-13. The state is a minister of God to do you good.Â That is common grace in the form of a nation.
Now what is the purpose for Godâ€™s invention of a world of nations at Babel? If the purpose of the individual government is to bear the sword and punish the evildoer, then I do not think it a leap at all to say the entire Babel project had as one of its purposes the preservation of good and the restraining of evil in the community of nations. All nations are fallen, and all are under Godâ€™s judgment, but in the sovereignty of God, some nations will preserve genuine good more so than others. And the stage of Biblical history demonstrates that this is exactly the way God used nations: preserving truth and good, while bringing temporal, restraining judgments on individuals and other nations. (Read Habakkuk, where the prophet learns from God himself how God will use one nation as judgment and preservative.)
It is at this point that I want to say there is a good bit of unbiblical multi-culturalism underlying some of the criticisms I am answering, and I think it is important to point this out bluntly. A nation that treats women like animals is inferior to a nation that gives them equal rights. A nation that says kill innocents is worse than one that says protect innocents. (A true contradiction in America, as we protect some children and abort others.) A nation that protects religious freedom is better than one who denies it. A culture that allows people to choose their own government is better than a dictatorship. A nation that freed its slaves is better than one that enslaves its own people. A nation that gives generously is better than those who take ruthlessly.
Maybe I’m seeing things, but it seems to me that this passage winds up almost 180 degrees from where it started. To say that the destruction of Babel was a common grace seems to assert that multiculturalism is God’s will, but we end up with a critique of multiculturalism, and the implicit assertion that some nations are entitled to spread their cultural values militarily.
Now, again, I think that most of my church would agree with the idea that some nations have better values than others, and that American values are pretty good. When I took the inquirer’s class last year, the then-pastor said that political action is not just about calling the U.S. to Christian values but calling it back to its own professed values, which are after all somewhat congruent with Anabaptist values (equality, separation of church and state, etc.). Even Bert, our resident Pastor Protestor, said from the pulpit last Fourth of July, “This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I love this country.”
I think the problem is that the iMonk isn’t paying due attention to the dark side of the Babel story. Why was there a problem with everybody speaking one language? As God puts it: “Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” As with the denial of the Tree of Life, the implication is that if human beings had too much power we’d do the wrong things with it, because we are sinful. Yet the iMonk somehow moves from this act of restraint upon human power to an approval of the exercise of human power through armies.
The fact that the destruction of Babel is a result of sin is made clear at Pentecost, when liberation from sin means the reversal of Babel’s effects. The very first thing that the Holy Spirit does when it descends upon the new church is let everybody understand each other’s languages. “Nothing will now be impossible for them” has turned from a dire warning into a promise: in God, all things are possible.
Of course, that passage applies specifically to the church, not national governments. But I think that’s the problem with the iMonk’s Old Testament analogies: the acts of judgment-through-invasion are all based upon the status of Israel asÂ God’s chosen nation.Â If God’s instrument in this case is not a conventional polity with its own military, butÂ the transnational entity that the Holy Spirit immediately starts setting up in Acts, surely the rules of the game are not the same.
Another issue is that the church isn’t the only entity with dreams of reversing Babel. The Roman Empire also sought to bring the known world under one roof, and so serving it meant not just serving a particular government butÂ a goal of global unification. The iMonk sort of acknowledges this by saying, well, if Rome had ordered Christians to go off and rape and pillage Britain they should have abstained. But honestly, I’m having trouble thinking of actions by the Roman army that didn’t serve the imperial agenda somehow. The “Pax Romana” came about from the wholeÂ region submitting to Roman authority, and the army’s job was basically to ensure that submission. The fact that Rome took it upon itself to police distant places like Judea or Gaul, even when we are talking about mundane civil policing, was an expression of its Babel-like ambitions.
The iMonk writes about Afghanistan and not Iraq, which suggests that he wrote the piece during the earlier phase of the war. But the course of things since then illustrates the tendency of defense to turn into offense. This may surprise some people, but I think that the logic of preemption is basically sound: if there is a large group of people out there with a wildly different vision for the world than your own, and a willingness to pursue it with violence, it makes more sense to conquer them now than wait for them to conquer you. Although probably the Unitarians on the Daily Scribe aren’t gonna like this, I think that peaceful coexistence depends on agreement, not on everything, but on certain essential things. The Romans knew it; John Lennon knew it; and I think that God knows it. Most people know the line from Isaiah about beating swords into ploughshares, but it is worth quoting the larger context:
In days to come
Â Â Â the mountain of the Lordâ€™s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
Â Â Â and shall be raised above theÂ hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3Â Â Â Many peoples shall come and say,
â€˜Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
Â Â Â to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
Â Â Â and that we may walk in his paths.â€™
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
Â Â Â and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4He shall judge between the nations,
Â Â Â and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
Â Â Â and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Â Â Â neither shall they learn war anyÂ more.
This is another reverse-Babel vision: a great high place of government is raised that unifies all people within in it. The difference is that it’s God who makes it and rules over it, while Babel is raised and ruled by human power. This is further evidence, to my mind, that God destroyed the Tower not because he likes the current fractious array of governments but because the Tower promised unity without God, power without submission to anything higher.
Not many people these days voice the rather quaint ambition to rule the world politically. But the effort to remake problematic countries in our own image seems to be trying to make a world that is culturally monolithic if not politically so. And God has indicated that if that monolith is based upon anything other than himself, he won’t let it stand, even when we can argue convincingly that our worldly security depends on it. There is noÂ absolute security in worldly power, as the Romans (and all the others) learned the hard way.
June 21, 2006
Terry Mattingly, who wrote the column that sparked this post, follows up here. The MPAA eventually denied that the religious content was the reason for the PG rating, and Terry says he thinks rating movies for religious content is appropriate, if the MPAA is consistent about it. At this point I’m not sure what the heck is going on, so I’ll just let it lie.
June 20, 2006
On Saturday morning, I turned on the TV to look for the U.S. Open. (There was some other sporting event going on too, I hear. Something to do with kicking a ball around.) As it turned out, I was too early for the Open, but I came across an episode of LiloÂ & Stitch. I got a kick out of the movie, so I stopped there to see what the show was like.
The theme of this episode was Be Kind To Bugs. Really. The story had Lilo (a little girl) collecting bugs, but her friend Stitch (a space alien) wants to eat them. Through a complicated series of events both Lilo and Stitch wind up being transformed into bugs themselves, just when Lilo’s guardian calls in the exterminator. A chase ensues, where our heroes escape with the help of their new bug friends. Stitch repents of his bug-eating ways, and Lilo delivers our moral: “Treat all living things with respect.”
Now, like any good semi-vegetarian I am opposed to cruelty to animals; and I imagine the show’s writers were also thinking about the sort of wanton cruelty that some children deliver to insects, especially the sort of hyperactive little boy that Stitch seems to represent. (In one of the movie’s funniest bits, Stitch builds a miniature city out of toys and rampages through it like Godzilla, showing himself to be a not-too-distant cousin to Calvin.) But I’m also in the season where the cat turns into a walking flea habitat, and I’ve been struggling to keep my whole apartment from following suit. And I was thinking to myself, now any parent who tries to call in the Orkin man to stop termites from eating the house is going to have to deal with a kid who just saw a show where the exterminator was the villain.
A lot of children’s entertainment cultivates a love of animals. I think most children naturally like animals anyway, but adults teach them how to relate to animals, and especially if you’re a kid like I was who liked science/nature stuff, you get a lot of unsubtle environmentalist messages. And this made me realize that in my post last weekÂ on religious messages to children, one thing I left hanging is what exactly is “religious.” Although I don’t think environmentalism isÂ a “religion” except in its extreme forms, certainly the way that a person relates to nature is entangled with one’s overall cosmology.
The Hindu attitude towards animals as ensouled beings has spawned some sects that are opposed to killing anything, including bugs, such as the Jains. However, I don’t think Lilo & Stitch was promoting an overall worldview of reincarnation and karma and all that. Instead, children’s stories like this seem to be drawing from the older pagan folkloric tradition of animals thinking and talking like people. How could you swat a fly that you just had a conversation with?
As far as I know, every culture on earth tells talking-animal stories. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien identified “communion with other living things” as one of the universal desires that fairy tales serve. It’s so common that it’s easy to forget how weird it is. It seems, well, extremely improbable that anyone has ever heard an animal talk, and I’m not sure how literally pagans believed in animal intelligence. Tolkien claimed that moderns should take talking animals figuratively, and that actually premoderns understood the human/animal divide better than moderns do. Carl Jung believed animals in folk tales represent human archetypes. Yet what to make of the Indian philosophies mentioned above, and what to make of animal gods?
Jains notwithstanding, most pagans seem to have no trouble telling stories about sentient animals while still killing and eating them. If anything, seeing animals as sources of food seems to heighten the reverence a lot of the time, and killing takes on a ritualized aspect. Although we theoretically don’t do animal sacrifice any more, actually we do it every time we make an animal lay down its life for us.
I’ve said before, only half jokingly, that our society teaches children to be little pagans and expects them to grow out of it. But while kids today learn our talking-animal stories, the bracing realism of animal sacrifice has turned to sentiment. And I think it still affects them after they grow up. I remember a few years ago seeing a report about how deer are overpopulating some areas. This was largely because humans had crowded out their other natural predators, but didn’t want to take over the top-predator role themselves. Some people were even going out and feeding deer during the winter. As one frustrated hunter put it, “People think we’re shooting Bambi.”
Now, I personally wouldn’t want to shoot a deer (although I have had moments, when they were eating my garden), but that does seem to be a preferable death to getting overpopulated and starving. Some environmentalists have complained, with some justification, that we teach kids to want to protect animals when what we really should be protecting are whole ecosystems. Of course, little kids are concrete thinkers, so I’m not sure how young you can get somebody to grasp the idea of an ecosystem. But even beyond that, people seem to have some innate mystical connection to animals that isn’t really encompassed in scientific talk about preserving ecosystems.
One of the funny things about all this is that Lilo & Stitch kind of spoofs environmentalism, with its running gag that the aliens hadn’t disturbed Earth because a CIA man persuaded them that the mosquito is an endangered species, so they left the planet as a giant mosquito preserve. One of the alien characters is an ardent mosquito conservationist, but when he gets to Earth the mosquitos find him irresistibly delicious. Yet the writers of this particular show seem to be taking the idea almost seriously. Maybe they should rent Alien Empire and find out who really rules the world.
June 17, 2006
Eve reacted ambivalently to my response to her post:
I find myself oddly defensive about this post; I’m not sure if I’m overreading or what. I feel like I’m being implicitly criticized (in the section on original sin) for being self-indulgent, which I think is inaccurate in this particular instance. She also combines different kinds of difference in ways that, at least from my perspective, obscure a lot more than they illuminate. But like I said, possibly this is my misreading (or a result of our wanting to discuss different things, and my getting irked because she doesn’t want to discuss my things!–I suspect that’s what’s going on with the “different kinds of difference” stuff, especially), and I’ve always found Camassia to be a thoughtful writer, so please do check out her post.
Huh. Well, I must admit that my post was more of a free-associative riff off her series than it was a direct response to her subject matter. When it comes to the gay experience, celibacy, origin stories, etc. I feel a bit out of my depth. As to different kinds of difference, I don’t know quite where our wires are getting crossed there, so I’m not sure how to respond.
I did not mean the comment about original sin to be critical. I criticized myself a bit at the end, because when I wrote it out I could see a certain self-interest in seeing everybody as equally messed up (and therefore putting myself in the majority … hmm …). But that doesn’t mean I think everybody who believes in original sin believes in it for that reason. I don’t think it’s particularly self-indulgent to say to oneself, “Hey, you know that suspicion you’ve always had that there’s something horribly wrong with you? Well, it’s true!” One of the odd things about the Christian narrative is that it affirms the worst-case scenario, and at the same time says everything is going to work out wonderfully anyway. It’s that paradox that makes it the most hopeful of all religions, in my view at least.
June 16, 2006
Recently at the invitation of Wess, I joined a new blogging community called The Daily Scribe. Last I heard they were still looking for bloggers, so feel free to apply if you’re interested. I don’t think I could do a better job than Wess of explaining its nature and purpose, so look for that here.
June 15, 2006
Eve Tushnet has an interesting series of posts, starting here, reflecting on her visit to an ex-gay conference. Although Eve is on board with the homosexual sex=sin concept, she doesn’t like the efforts to deal with homosexuals by normalizing them, in particular by normalizing their gender behavior (what she memorably calls “salvation through pantyhose”). She’s also not on board with reducing the abnormality to sex: “I didn’t feel ‘different from all the other girls’; I felt different from all the other humans.”
I may be straight, but that line made me smile with recognition. If I had to come up with a reason why I’ve had more male friends than female for most of my life, it’s not because I’m especially tomboyish, it’s because guys (especially when teenage) already expect a girl to be different from them. So differences are not so alarming when they appear, and similarities are a pleasant surprise. I think to this day when I’m with a group of women I get this nervous feeling that I’m expected to be normal.
In a larger sense though, Eve’s post makes me think about the odd state of the idea of “normal” in today’s world. I’ve written here before that one of the big social changes that goes with urbanization and modernization is that the oddballs find each other and form groups. Back when I frequented message boards, I kept running across what I think of as the Standard Discovery Story, which goes something like: “Growing up, I thought I was the only person in the world who felt a desire for X, and I thought it made me disgusting and horrible. But over the Internet I started meeting other people who feel the same, and we’re actually perfectly nice people who only fantasize about X (or alternately, only do X with consenting adults). Now we’re out to educate the public and get rid of their misconceptions and stereotypes about us.”
That is a standard gay narrative, but you could apply it these days to virtually any other desire. In fact, what I wrote above is basically a condensed version of a story told by a “vore,” the Net term for someone who has sexual fantasies about cannibalism, onÂ the Straight DopeÂ message board a few years back. So whatever you think of the relative morality of homosexuality, cannibalism, anorexia or any of the other things that people have formed communities around, the experience of the individuals finding each other is remarkably similar.
This illustrates the enormous psychological difference between being a minority of a few, and being a minority of one. To a great extent, I think we rely on majority opinion for our moral sense more than we like to admit — these little groups that form and demand that we explain why they’re wrong show how much people have depended on, “But everyone knows that’s totally gross!” or words to that effect. Yet our basic village-ness shows in the fact that we still form our moral norms mainly with small, personal groups. So long as people have a group of the like-minded, even if it’s not very big, they canÂ come toÂ feel normal. If anything, if the opposing group is big enough to become a faceless mass, it’s easier to depersonalize it as an enemy horde. So there’s actually a limit to how much majority opinion can set moral codes.
What this also indicates is that, for all the individualism of our age, being a minority of one is still miserable. The Standard Discovery Story shows how muchÂ people’s happiness depends on their being in the majority and setting the norms in some group, even though at other points minorities often criticize the whole idea of majorities and norms.
This brings me to a recentÂ review of Catherine McKinnon’s latest book, which the author says misunderstands the difference between a category of person and a group of people:
Women exist, of course, as does the social category â€œwomanâ€. But to think of this category as automatically mapping a single, unified social group, with a sense of social solidarity, purpose and common views about everything from human rights to erotic videos, is to mistake a social category for a social group. Categories do, on occasion, map real groups, but usually only when those groups are small enough to exhibit real social solidarity, or when there is some overarching incentive for social mobilization. By claiming to speak for women as a group, MacKinnon inevitably runs into the same problem as old Marxists: those who question the analysis and its implications are usually accused of displaying either naked self-interest (if they happen to be men, in this case, and therefore implicit beneficiaries of the status quo) or false consciousness (if they happen to be women who have not yet awakened to their own groupness).
Of course, this is not really news: back when I was in sociology class 15 years ago, our professor pointed out that “women have no common culture.” In fact, another recent book argued that feminism isÂ making a common female culture even more unlikely by bringing women divergent life experiences (e.g., climbing the corporate ladder or raising children at home). But I think it’s true that a lot of women would like there to be a common female culture, because “groupness”Â is power.
Somewhat ironically, it sounds as though ex-gay groups are, in a different way, trying to assert the groupness of genders, and seeing homosexuality as a failure of gender solidarity. Salvation through pantyhose, or shopping or makeup or whatever, is essentially salvation through acculturating to a certain female social order. Does feminism simply want to replace one monolithic female social order with another one? The blogstorm last year over this articleÂ suggests that is still a live issue.
This does make me wonder if, for all the increasing recognition of minority rights in our society, we have really become more tolerant. The more people find like-minded groups, the less we have to deal with minorities of one. And the interesting thing to me about Eve’s post is that she suggests that there is some spiritual value in being a minority of one, and in having to deal with such minorities; that perhaps the best way to deal with someone who brings up an odd issue is not to find them a group that is dealing with the same issue. Eve connects this to original sin: in a sense, the alienation felt by the loneÂ oddball is the human condition, and the mutual affirmation societies are papering over this reality.
Although I’ve never been as “into” original sin as Eve seems to be, I must admit it kind of appeals to me for a similar reason. Hey, it’s not just me that’s messed up; even those annoyingly healthy, happy, in-charge people are messed up, they just don’t realize it! But of course, when I write it out like that it’s obvious how much my personal agenda might be figuring into my doctrine.
June 12, 2006
Steven RiddleÂ pointed to an article by Terry Mattingly (of Get Religion fame) which was apparently related PG because it’s evangelistic. Or at least, that’s how the filmmakers interpreted the MPAA’s remark that it contained “thematic elements that might disturb some parents.”
The Anabaptist in me is thinking, well yeah it might disturb some parents, Jesus himself said it! Christianity is not, overall, a G-rated religion. And in fact, in my experience exposure to some aspects of it can be upsetting not only to unchurched parents but to their kids also. In fact, one of my first blog postsÂ ever was on that very subject, where I recounted how terrified my mother was hearing the story of Abraham and Isaac in school. The thing is, I don’t think her teacher was actually trying to traumatize the kids on the order of HellhouseÂ or something; she probably just didn’t realize how it came across to a kid without the larger context of the religion.
But even outside of obviously difficult subjects like human sacrifice and eternal damnation, encountering Christianity can be a tough experience for a kid. In another past post I recounted how, when I was eight, I accidentally wound up in a confession booth. The experience really upset me at the time, and I could never really put my finger on why. I speculated:
As I said, I trusted authority, and the opinions of adults mattered to me. It was, in a way, my first collision with a completely different value system from the one I was raised in. The priest was not acting judgmental, but I knew he disapproved of the way I was being brought up, and probably a lot of things about my life. And I had to deal with it completely alone.
That may not sound like much, but actually, it makes more sense to me now. I think that most kids are, in a way, natural traditionalists: they get confused and upset encountering different worldviews and systems of judgment. This is why so much parenting advice includes the admonition to be consistent. This is also probably why Elizabeth Marquandt found that one of the toughest things for children of divorce, even where there is no overt conflict, is negotiating the two different worldviews of their separated parents.
Of course, we live in a plural society, so I am not saying you should never expose your kids to different pointsÂ of view. But I am saying that religion is one of those things, like sex, war or politics, that parents may want to expose their kids to in a somewhat calibrated and controlled way; in other words, to use that hoary concept of “parental discretion.” So while I agree that movie ratings can be pretty goofy, I don’t entirely blame the MPAA for this one.
June 8, 2006
Last night a local radio station played dance-mixed Prince songs all night, in honor of his birthday. I usually just listen to the radio to keep me company while I’m driving, but I wound up listening to it for about two solid hours. It included a lot of songs that don’t get broadcast much these days, which was not only fun but rather illuminating.
It’s strange for me to remember that back in the ’80s, Prince probably sang about God more often and more explicitly than any other top-40 act. Even U2 were somewhat veiled in their religious references back then, at least with their radio singles. But while Bono has been building bridges with American Christendom, Prince seems determined to be the red-headed stepchild. For years he mixed up his God lyrics with sexual attitudes that managed to annoy both conservatives and feminists, and publicly scored more starlets than any singer since Frank Sinatra. A few years ago he joined a church, got married and scaled back the kinkiness, but the church he chose to join was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which has such peculiar theology that even ecumenically-minded Christians have trouble with them. I don’t think anyone’s going to be rounding up a book of sermons based on Prince songs anytime soon.
That’s left it largely to the entertainment press to write about Prince and his spiritual life, and judging from what I’ve seen they’ve been totally at sea about it. Certainly his religion is idiosyncratic, but listening to two hours of him it struck me how he is also such a product of his age, and in some ways embodies the religious, sexual and racial conflicts of modern American culture. The great religiosity and great libidinousness, the macho strutting and the androgynous gender-bending, the utopian dreams and apocalyptic pessimism, all co-exist uneasily in our culture; we just don’t normally expect to see them all in one person.
I’ve read that Prince was brought up a Seventh-Day Adventist, and listening to him it also struck me that even when he differed from the church on the sex stuff he never really stopped sounding SDA-ish. He wrote a lot of songs that seemed to welcome the apocalypse, most famously “1999″ and “7,” but the sense of the End Times looms even over love songs like “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” By becoming a JW, a faith that also grew out of the 19th-century Adventist movement, he brought this tendency to its logical extreme; as Telford remarked, now Prince has to party like it’s 1975. Prince has also been a vegetarian for a long time, and some reporters have noted that he has odd ideas about food and health, without seeming to realize that this also might have Adventist roots.
I guess that, despite all the off-putting things about him, I find myself sympathizing with Prince because, like me, he seems to live on both sides of the culture war at once. I think that’s why blue-state reporters have a hard time understanding him. And while the rockin’ Irishman is a more inspiring example for American Christians, the red-headed stepchild may more accurately reflect us, with all the contradictions intact.
June 7, 2006
Wess recently created a list of PMC bloggers. Man, we are one bloggin’ church. Though given our demographics, I guess that’s not surprising.
The new blog Recollections has an interesting discussion on universalism.
Hugo tells of a troubling tale about the firing of a bipolar colleague.
Eve informs us that June is Torture Awareness Month. I am not normally a fan of designating a day/week/month for awareness of something or other, since most of them seem to be created so that PR people can dog us reporters with artificial news hooks, but this topic seems to need all the attention it can get.