Sorry about That, Chief

What’s worth $20,000? An apology. That figure may require some adjustment for inflation, but back in the days when I was taking conflict management training it was right. Our teachers informed us that court decision costs were lowered by $20,000 when a client apologized. I’m sorry, but I don’t see that money should be necessary for an apology. Nevertheless, in a world motivated by money, this is a factor to keep in mind. With some of the very late apologies that have come out in recent years (the church apologizing to Galileo, and to the “witches” executed in the Middle Ages) comes the realization that too late is, perhaps, better than never. Often in cases such as these, a religious bravado just can’t back down. Doctrine is doctrine and you can’t change it without losing face. This doesn’t just impact large bodies like the Vatican, either. Lots of religious groups have apologies that they could, and should, make.

Grove City College is a small school. It has, from reports I see, become more conservative than it was when I was a student there. One suspects there may have been some apologies due over the years. I was surprised, however, to find GCC mentioned in the Christian Century. A former professor at my alma mater was fired for refusing to register for the draft in World War II, according to the story. Howard Pew, chair of Sun Oil (and the board at Grove City) accused him of being a communist. Now, over half a century later, the former president of the college delivered an apology to his door. That’s a nice gesture. Former faculty are generally, in my experience, shoved far from mind. We don’t like to treat those who educate too well, some times.

Photo by "the Enlightenment"

Photo by “the Enlightenment”

For the unapologetic professor, the greatest sense of satisfaction comes not from humbled administrators, but from grateful students. On very great occasions I still hear from some of mine. It makes up for some of the pitfalls along the way of an academic life. Teaching religion, naturally, puts you in some company that you might not expect. Of all anathema topics, teaching about being decent to other people earns you the most rancor. So it is, unfortunately frequently the case among our educational institutions. Pew, whose shadow still loomed large over campus in my undergraduate days, never personally apologized. Those with plenty of money to spare seldom do. $20,000 is not too much to pay to feel completely justified in taking another person’s livelihood away. We can only hope for a better educated future.

Only Hummus

I remember the moment well. I was in Jerusalem on my own. Although in my early twenties, I really didn’t know much. The man at the vending cart didn’t speak English, but I was hungry. My first experience of falafel would certainly not be my last. After I married a few years later, I introduced my wife to the various Middle Eastern foods I’d tried. Hummus became a personal favorite, especially after I became a vegetarian. There are plenty of things for vegetarians to enjoy, and many cuisines of the world have less meat-heavy options than many restaurants I’ve experienced in the States. Hummus, to get to my point, can be rather bland. It is generally inoffensive, and people of many dietary and religious restrictions can eat it. The Christian Century ran a blurb recently about a hummus restaurant in Netanya, Israel. This eatery offers a fifty percent discount to Jewish and Arabic customers who sit together. Here is a workable idea for peace.

We all have to eat. Half the trick to world peace is getting people who dislike each other to sit down and do it together. Those of imperialist bent may not realize, or even be able to see, that we have more in common than most agitators think. Human needs are the same, and often, very easily provided. You like hummus? I like hummus! We must not be so different, after all. If instead of weaponizing themselves, radical believers armed themselves with food to share, not nearly so many warplanes would have to take to the air. I admit I’m an idealist. I don’t think peace is impossible. We can choose to focus on what divides us, or on what we have in common.

IMG_2641

Perhaps if I’d never traveled to Jerusalem I would never have tried hummus. I didn’t travel for the food, but travel led me to a kind of serenity. Both falafel and hummus are made primarily of chickpeas, a versatile vegetable that has a verisimilitude of peace. If we could learn to eat together we would find it harder to hate each other after that. Sharing our mutual needs sometimes, as the restaurant owner in Netanya understands, requires a financial incentive. Although it may be lucre that lures those who are different to the same table, it is the peace itself that, I believe, will keep them coming back.

Nothing But the Truth

Blurbs are the way of the future. It is so much easier to read something brief than to have to wade through an entire article. Is that the way the future’s going? I read the blurbs for Christian Century’s round-up page when it lands on my desk at work, and I find plenty of interesting things there. For example, a recent issue suggested that truth may be getting harder to find. It began: “George Johnson [New York Times was the source] says modern culture is reaching the point at which there are no longer any incontrovertible truths, just competing ideologies and narratives.” It goes on to describe how issues like creationism are less concerned with “truth” than with fitting the world into their view. Likewise, those who object to putting telescopes on Mauna Kea see science as cultural hegemony. In a post-modern world there is no objective truth. Even as a college student I remember learning that if I found the Truth, with a capital T, there was no way to know it was actually the truth. “All truth is God’s true” some professors used to say tritely.

That doesn’t stop those of us who’ve been motivated our entire lives by the search for the truth. But how will we know when we get there? I first learned about post-modernism in my teaching days. Some of its ideas are perfectly logical: we can’t completely share an author’s meaning; words have no meanings, only usages; when we read we bring our own meaning to the text; an author’s intention is not definitive for what a text means. These ideas are deeply disturbing when we look at them closely. Then I began to read that scientists recognize that our brains did not evolve to discern the truth. Our brains evolved to survive, and even a dim approximation of the truth will help us get to reproductive age. In fact, dim approximations of the truth might explain much of our dating behavior. So, we’re led to conclude, there’s no Truth after all. Just “competing ideologies and narratives.”

DSCN2025

I studied a fair amount of philosophy in my time, and I do believe in Truth. That’s not the same as saying I’ve found it, since no one can honestly make that claim. All that we can admit is that we believe we’ve found it. Those who object to evolution say they know the Truth and it is special creation. All the evidence points against it, but all the evidence doesn’t fit the worldview. We lose something that can’t be replaced when we jettison the truth. As soon as I learned about existentialism I realized that it had long been my philosophy—making our own meaning in a world where certainty is unknown. Even those who claim that science will give us the answers have to admit that if faced with ultimate Truth we might not like what we find. We can only believe that it will be good. And hope that we are right.

Anabaptist Higher Education

There’s strength in numbers. This is a biblical concept as well as a folk saying (although it is worded differently in the Good Book). The power of conviction grows in a group, and that’s a reason that governments fear mobs, particularly angry ones. As biblical fundamentalism began to develop at the turn of the last century, those who opposed modernity found like-minded believers and gathered themselves together to stand on the same side of multiple causes. Not only fundamentalists, but all different religious outlooks—evangelical groups especially. The more “mainstream” and liberal groups, lacking the conviction of feeling like they’ve been left behind as society moves ahead, have felt less need to organize together. This is something the Democratic Party has felt ever since the Religious Right wed the Republican Party. It is an interesting dynamic. Banding together makes you feel like you’re not alone. So it was that the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities was founded. Higher education, which began in the church, had gone directions that made evangelical groups uncomfortable, so their institutions formed a coalition.

A story in the current Christian Century two Anabaptist member schools have caused waves of protest because they have decided that it is permissible to hire same-sex married faculty. Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College, sponsored by groups known for their primitivism, have surprised the CCCU with their surprisingly open stance. When is the last time the Mennonites made the news? In response, according to the Century, Union University, an evangelical school in Tennessee, has threatened to withdraw from the Council if this infringement is permitted. This is a perfect example of the dilemma faced by those who support higher education, but hold it to evangelical standards.

Homosexuality, over the past few decades, has become recognized as a basic form of human sexuality. As the stigma has begun to evaporate in the light of scientific, psychological, and sociological studies, the consensus has begun to shift in the wider world. With the Supreme Court decision in June (the first decision autosuggested as one Googles “supreme court”) rightfully following the evidence, any government barriers to same-sex marriages was pulled out from under the evangelical camp, and thus the CCCU. Eastern Mennonite University and Goshen College have decided this presents no problem to their educational mission. Some members of the CCCU, it seems, disagree. The Century blurb asks if this is the beginning of the end of the Council. Probably not. Prejudice finds any hidden corner or recess that it can in which to hide and grow, like any fungus. Groups that identify by what they hate are loath to change, no matter how bright the sunshine. Rain encourages the mushrooms into the open, but the sunlight afterwards creates rainbows.

IMG_2363

More Blessed to Give

Religions, we are told, are in violent opposition. There’s no denying that sometimes it’s true. It is a sad commentary on belief structures when one way of looking at the world only finds validation in the destruction of other perspectives. Despite all that, religions can, and do, reach beyond their parochial interest to assist others. Recently I mentioned a story in The Christian Century of an Islamic effort to raise funds to rebuild vandalized black churches in the US south. The idea of Muslims helping Christians reestablish their, by nature, heterodox teaching is, I believe, newsworthy. The most recent issue of The Christian Century has a story of a Jewish group in Israel raising funds to help repair a damaged church in the Holy Land. These two stories have made me wonder why we so seldom hear of Christian groups raising funds to help rebuild mosques or synagogues. Surely it must happen, but we, who rely on the mainstream media, so rarely read of Christians helping others that it becomes a surprise when they do. Is this reality or just what we’re taught to see?

Please don’t misunderstand—I’m not suggesting that Christians don’t help others. Indeed, one of the founding principles of the Christian movement was the care of others, be they pagan or orthodox. Still, in my own life I’ve experienced the heartless, cold treatment doled out by “conservative” groups who believe that maintaining their idiosyncratic view is the highest possible mark of faith. Well beyond reaching out a hand to those in need. Far and above the care of fellow human beings. This distortion of any kind of historical Christianity has become what the mainstream media presents as normal. Meanwhile, millions still attend church every week, trying, in some measure, to make the world a better place.

Carnegie-1903

This isn’t the same, all politics aside, as supporting Israel as a nation. Many Fundamentalist groups do. In fact, they insist that our national budget include aid for Israel. Not because they particularly care about the Jews. In some viewpoints, the end of the world cannot come without Israel regaining a status that some read into obscure Gospel passages and the book of Revelation. This is not the same as donating to rebuild a torched synagogue. It is worlds away from restoring a vandalized mosque. It is naive to suppose that there is one normative Christianity. Historians inform us that such a monolithic entity never has existed. Temples, synagogues, churches, mosques—these are all expressions of the deepest of human longings to find and be in communion with that which is beyond the everyday. Any religion can become radicalized. All, however, also have the potential to look beyond themselves. When they do it is newsworthy indeed.

Charity

On occasion someone will comment, either here or on my other popular writings, that I lack the objectivity of a journalist. This should be no surprise, really, since I’m in fact not a journalist and what I’m writing here is opinion—an extended op ed—if you will—from someone that society has decided should have no official voice. Who listens to an editor? They don’t make content, they improve others’ work. News, however, often leads to good commentary. A recent blurb in The Christian Century caught my eye. A group of Muslims, led by a student in Chicago, raised almost $50,000 to help rebuild black churches that had been destroyed in the south. A journalist, I’m guessing, might not find much of a story here. To me this show of goodwill speaks volumes.

In the news were hear about Muslims as terrorists and fanatics. How often do we hear that charitable giving is one of the five pillars of Islam? Many Muslims are charitable to those outside their faith community. In this case, they donated money to rebuilt houses of worship for a rival religion. There’s little to hate or despise here, so it really isn’t news. People are disposed, in general, to help one another. Indeed, biologists have long noted that we are a cooperative species. A friend recently pointed out that we are dissuaded from helping others more out of a fear of being sued. Money, as most religions realize, is antithetical to true belief. Most religions begin as an effort to make life better for people. When they become corporate, as with all things corporate, they turn inwardly and focus on how to improve things for themselves. There are still many, however, who understand the point behind religious traditions. It’s not really all about God. The ones who need our help are our fellow humans.

782px-Карло_Боссоли._Татарская_школа_для_детей

Faatima Knight, according to the story, spearheaded the effort to raise money. She is a student at Chicago Theological Seminary. A Muslim studying in a Christian school, helping oppressed Christian people. The media, it seems to me, could do with a few courses in ethics. Is it ethically responsible to caricature religions as ignorant and spiteful? For all we know Christians fall into only one of two types: those who follow Pope Francis and those who want to teach your children that we didn’t evolve from monkeys. The good deeds done by those motivated by the teachings of their founders are quietly passed by. Yet they are among the loudest deeds people do. I have to wonder if most Christians would rally around an effort to rebuild a mosque destroyed by hate. I think I know the answer, but then, I’m only a guy whose opinion doesn’t really matter.

Ethics for Rent

Ironically, the Bible is the basis for the western preoccupation with land ownership. What with commandments against stealing and coveting, the Israelites had a sense of being promised a land by God. It was their land and no human motivation—including imperial conquest—could trump the divine will. In the western world, so heavily influenced by the Bible, the concept of private property is itself considered sacred. If enough land to sustain yourself is good, even more land than you need must be better. That’s logic. Land-grabs by the powerful are nothing new. In America (land stolen from the original owners) no better symbol of affluence exists than property ownership. Like many things biblical, this is often a myth. Although I’m a white, Anglo-Saxon, straight, Protestant, I grew up among renters. My family couldn’t afford a house. When my mother remarried, my step-father owned his house and it was in such bad shape that as soon as he moved out to a rental property, it was immediately razed. On my own, I’ve always been a renter because I couldn’t ever afford to be anything else.

After Nashotah House, my wife and I considered buying. Wisconsin, apart from having no jobs, seemed like a nice place to settle. We researched. Your mortgage payments should be no more than 30 percent of your income, we learned. Living in suspended animation since those days, we’ve rented in a variety of places and the 30 percent figure has also turned out to be a myth. Affordable housing, in the United States, is set at that benchmark. A recent news byte in the Christian Century notes that in not one of the fifty united States is it possible to rent a one-bedroom apartment on 30 percent of minimum wage. 49 hours of work a week would be necessary to meet that benchmark in South Dakota, the state with most affordable housing. I know professors of Bible who own summer houses. That’s in addition to their regular houses. Meanwhile, many who would like to own something much more modest can’t afford even that.

The biblical worldview is an idealistic one. Recognizing that greed is inseparable from human will (even among a chosen people) the hope was that the poor would be taken care of by those who had more than their share. As the statistically inclined like to say, the numbers don’t lie. Housing, one of the most basic of all human needs, is exploitatively expensive. Many renters can never break out of the cycle of paying too much in rent so as not to be able to save up enough to make a down-payment on a place of their own. Yet prices go up while raises don’t keep pace with inflation. It’s all about ownership. Laws are in place to protect those who take (“legally”) for themselves. The rest pay into the system at three times a tithe. And even this, the numbers say, isn’t nearly enough.

Rent

Christian Horrorshow

Books & Culture is the review organ of Christianity Today. Christianity Today is the evangelical answer to the more liberal Christian Century. Working in publishing, particularly in the field of religion, it is important to keep an eye on what the popular magazines are saying about our books. Well, neither is as popular as it used to be, but still. I’ll grown used to Books & Culture taking a rather wholesome reaction to books that challenge worldviews. In fact, it’s not unusual to find a fairly mild tome castigated as somewhat insidious. Negative reviews tend to sell books as well as positive reviews. Sometimes better.

I was a bit surprised to see a two-page spread in a recent edition of Books & Culture focusing on horror stories. Horror and evangelical generally don’t play well together. Well, maybe I should temper that a little bit. The first article was actually on Shirley Jackson, best known for her excellently moody The Haunting of Hill House. That particular book has spawned or inspired at least five scary movies, two of them versions of the book itself. I have to confess that this is the only Shirley Jackson novel I’ve read. The article, somewhat strangely for an evangelical magazine, had made me want to explore some of her other offerings. Horror doesn’t have to be splatter to be effective.

DSCN0216

The second review in this issue was for an Oxford anthology called Horror Stories. The reviewer, Victor LeValle, also comes out with a positive review of the collection. All of this makes me wonder if I missed something growing up as a conservative Christian who felt distinctively unsavory because his love of monsters and the macabre. I can’t remember ever not liking mild horror stories. They manage to evoke parts of my psyche that most other literature bypasses. I discovered Poe at an early age. That’s not to say that I like being afraid. Fear is not what I’m seeking here. It is a kind of strange redemption. In college many of my evangelical friends couldn’t understand my fascination. “Why don’t you watch something more uplifting?” I’d be asked. I was as surprised as anyone when one of my very few Grove City dates agreed to see Nightmare on Elm Street with me. Not even Shirley Jackson could’ve seen that one coming. I wonder how she’d respond to being written up as an evangelical inspiration?

Post Script to Art

At work Christian Century is a magazine that sometimes lands on my desk. I suspect the book reviews are the main reason for this, but I like to skim the headlines to see what the more progressive, popular periodical has to say about the world. I always glimpse the news in brief section, and quite often the quotes of the week are poignant. This past week I read one from Paul Simon, who was speaking at Princeton University. The quote ran, “We are living in an anti-art age. The world is now a brutal place and obsessed with speed and wealth.” I found my head nodding as I read that sentiment. While I was a little too young to be aware of Paul Simon’s considerable contribution to popular music while it was happening (although I was old enough to appreciate Graceland when it came out), I nevertheless listened to Simon and Garfunkel during college and beyond, amazed at the depth and accuracy of Simon’s poetry. Here was a true artist.

What a difference half a century can make. I find myself not recognizing the world that I took for an assured thing as a child. Drawing back to get some perspective—which is something I think Paul Simon would appreciate—I think about the world without technology. Other species, for example. The behavior of, say, deer is the same today as it was when Europeans first invaded these shores. While deer still wander out onto roads in their natural quest for food, we race at them in heavy machines that leave them dead and twisted grotesquely at the roadside. Deer may not have the mental capacity to think, “hey, there’s fewer predators than there used to be,” but they are frequently brought into contact with a technology that is so nineteenth century, and the result is fatal. Where has the artistry gone? The deer remain the same.

I read a lot of older stuff. When I see the literature that was clearly published for its beauty of language and artistry, it brings a tear to my eye. We don’t publish work like that any more, unless it can make money. Everything has become a calculated capital venture. If you can’t make money off it, it’s not worth doing. When I was stressing out in college over exams, I would sometimes put on my old Simon and Garfunkel records and listen to the deep and complex lyrics to “Mrs. Robinson,” or “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” or “The Sound of Silence.” Despite the angst, this was a world that had a place for beauty for its own sake. It’s not just the music that’s changed since then, because I knew that I was listening to the words of a prophet. And prophets only appear when there’s trouble ahead.

Graceland

No Beef

IMG_1932

Burger franchises aren’t always the best option for vegetarians. When you’re traveling, however, choices can be slim. My wife and I recently pulled into a Burger King. They do have a veggie burger, although it is clear that those who prepare them seldom eat them. They must be frozen because they inevitably have that tough edge that comes from microwaving them just a little too long. Anyway, we were sitting down to have a bite, or chew, when a group of three gentlemen in the corner booth caught our attention. They were arguing, in a friendly way, over Christianity. Among the topics of conversation was the age of the earth. (Ten thousand years, at the outside.) Overhearing the conversation, I started to get nervous. I noticed the guy at the table next to them glancing curiously their way.

I glanced around. Other people having conversations about mundane things. Perhaps this is what we’re taught to do. Speak of things that have little depth. We are in a public place. We don’t discuss religion or politics here. But then I reconsidered the situation. If I were to join their discussion I’m sure we would have found little in the way of common ground, but I realized that conversations around religion do have depth. These guys, despite the media’s incessant message that religion is for non-intellectuals, were thinking deeply about topics of ultimate concern. When’s the last time I talked with a colleague about what really matters over lunch?

A blurb in a recent Christian Century mentioned Bob Dylan. It suggested that in a recent interview that he’d intimated that if he hadn’t gone into music, he would likely have studied theology. Likewise, I recalled an interview many years ago with Bruce Springsteen that suggested he might have made a good priest. Listening to the lyrics of many of the songs of these two icons will reveal that depth and public religious discourse many not be so rare as this incident in Burger King seemed to suggest. Maybe the words aren’t always direct. Maybe we speak in metaphors and with guarded asides. Maybe we speak with our actions instead of our words. Many of the most profound conversations we have, when viewed in that light, are like those of three men in a Burger King.

Foundation and Empire

Foundation_gnomeIn a childhood full of science fiction I’m sure I read much material that was too sophisticated for me. After all, I grew up in a working-class family where politics amounted to lambasting the incumbent because things still weren’t getting any better. Even the conservative super-hero Ronald Reagan was mostly remembered for the government-issue cheese we received for free. We called it “Reagan Cheese.” In that setting much of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy must have been far beyond me. Still, I dutifully plowed through all three volumes as any budding science-fiction nerd was expected to. It was a required piece of the curriculum along with Frank Herbert’s Dune. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would have to wait until adulthood. I remember rooting for the cosmic empire—the symbol of law and order—unaware that similar systems would eventually find me as a fifty-something, educated man unemployable for years at a time. Science fiction doesn’t bestow the ability to see the future.

Then I read a recent issue of Books and Culture, the bi-monthly publication review by Christian Century. An article by Philip Jenkins, reviewing a book I’ve not read, started off with a reference to Asimov’s trilogy. Suddenly I found myself transported hundreds of miles and two-score years from Midtown Manhattan to rural western Pennsylvania in barely adequate housing, holding Foundation and Empire close to my face. Jenkins, a noted historian of religion, was pointing out that Asimov often drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and based his character of the Mule—those of you who’ve read the trilogy remember him, I’m sure—on Mohammed. The thought had never occurred to me that the science-oriented mind of Asimov would ever delve into religion for inspiration. Still, with the little I recall of the story, it does seem to add up.

In fact, much of science fiction is deeply dependent on religion. Science fiction dares to dream of the future, and no matter how technical that future becomes, the religious are still there. Last century bold claims were made that we’d be living in the twilight years of religion by now. Mid-term elections fueled by religious fervor prove the pundits wrong yet again. Organized religion, fledgling or fully adult, is a political animal. Religion and politics are both about how we interact with one another as a society. It may seem that the concepts behind religious thought are unsubstantiated myths that transcend the mechanistic world in which we live. Even so, they continue to drive revolutions large and small. And somewhere in the attic I still have my copy of the Foundation trilogy ready to be seen by grown-up eyes. Or better yet, through the credulous eyes of a child.

Centuries and Millennia

This past week I had a look at Christian Century. It has been about a century since I’ve read it, so I noticed quite a few changes in that time. Magazines in general, I’ve noticed, have been on a weight-reduction program. They are thinner and more direct than they used to be. Also, the last time I looked at Christian Century, perhaps in my college days, it was still assumed that Christianity was the dominant paradigm for American society. Church attendance wasn’t stellar, but it seemed pretty solid. In my town, in any case, pretty much everything was closed on Sundays. There was a sense of status quo ante, perhaps it was just that social changes of the sixties and seventies were taking a while to settle into the cracks. My college town was pretty far from the forefront of theological, or even social developments, and enough other places must have still been as well. There was no denying that you had great odds of finding Christians, self-professing, in places outside the halls of government.

Christian_Century_Dec_2010

It was almost sad that Christian Century felt so diminished. Inside I was surprised to see so many ads and reviews concerning themselves with secularism and/or atheism. Attempts to understand, or convert, were the foci of seminars and books. Get things back to the way they used to be. A century ago. One gets the sense that subscriptions might have slipped a bit. The consensus is breaking up. Too much information—too many choices. People aren’t sure what they will choose after all. The Christian Century seems to have been the nineteenth or twentieth. We are sadder but wiser.

It could be that I’m misreading this whole thing. After all, a couple of the articles were written by big name scholars teaching at big name institutions. One of them, however, is admittedly not a Christian. Those who are are, it seems, trying to learn about this sea change that happened around them while they perhaps supposed everything was progressing as normal. Growing up where I did, I know that I was unaware that people could not, in great masses, not go to church. That other religions were not but minor blips in an otherwise uniformly Christian country. Considering the posturing of many televangelists, I’m not the only one who thought so. It may be that another Christian century is to come. Or even a millennium. Until that happens, however, the institutions that look backward instead of toward a future approaching very fast will feel, I suspect, that a century quickly slipped by and left them wondering in its wake.