We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk


Saturday, March 30, 2013

How are They Being Used

Illustration from: Pierre d’Ailly, Concordantia
astronomiae cum theologia (1490)
While Rom Phra Khun covers a variety of subjects, the central thread that runs through this blog is the question of the relationship of faith to science.  I am personally convinced that the world religions each need to discover a viable relationship to science if they are to themselves remain viable.  For Christianity, this means that Jesus is good news for the great majority of people only to the degree that our message resonates with the age we live in—the Age of Science.  There is also something at stake here for science as well, I believe.  Human "spirit," however we conceive it, is a reality, which is bound up with the Spirit of the Creator, again however we conceive it.  Science constantly bumps up against the reality of the human spirit and needs religion for ideas and vocabulary in discovering what this spirit is.

How we talk about the relationship of faith and science matters, thus, to scientists and people of faith.  An article recently posted by Rabbi Geoffrey Mittleman entitled, "How to Talk About Science and Religion," is a useful brief guide to some of the ways we can talk about this important relationship.  Mittleman describes four ways of framing it: (1) contrast; (2) concert; (3) conflict; and (4) contact.  He favors the last way, which puts faith and science into a mutually beneficial dialogue with each other.  He concludes the article by writing, "When we remember that both science and religion are human enterprises, we can remember that the most important question isn't whether they need to be viewed separately, or if they can be reconciled, or if they are inherently in conflict. The most important question is: How are they being used?"  I recommend the article.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Religious Technology That Works

We do not normally apply the term, "technology," to religious practices such as prayer or meditation, but those practices are, "the application of knowledge for practical ends," which is the second definitions of "technology" given by definitions.net.  Of course, the practical ends are religious in nature but that makes them no less practical for the religious.

The practice of mindfulness through meditation is one such practice.  In an introductory piece entitled, "The Art of Living," the Plum Village website defines mindfulness as, "the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment of daily life. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present and at one with those around you and with what you are doing. We bring our body and mind into harmony while we wash the dishes, drive the car or take our morning shower."  The article goes on to describe the practices associated with attaining a mindful state, that is the technology of mindfulness.

It turns out that mindfulness is a religious technology that has practical usefulness in the real world even for the non-religious. A team of psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found that students who practice mindfulness even for a relatively short time do better at taking the GRE test. According to a press release from the Association for Psychological Science (here), "The researchers randomly assigned 48 college students to a mindfulness class or a nutrition class. The classes met for 45 minutes, four times per week, over two weeks and were taught by professionals with extensive experience in their respective fields." The press release goes on to state that, "The results were clear: Participants who received mindfulness training showed improved accuracy on the GRE and higher working memory capacity, compared to those who received instruction in nutrition. Analyses indicated that the improvement could be explained, at least in part, by reduced mind wandering during the task."

A growing case can be made that religious and scientific "webs of meaning" tend to converge rather than diverge once we cast the fundamentalists of both suasions into the outer darkness of irrelevancy.  Each web is distinct.  Each web points to a complex, multifaceted reality that is ultimately mysterious and awe-inspiring even when we think we can explain it.  Although their perspective on that reality is different, it is the same reality.  My sense is that the deeper science delves into the nature of reality the more it finds itself using religious terms, such as "spirit" and "awe".  And when scientists and religious thinkers dialogue rather than debate, there are points of convergence, a convergence beautifully captured in Krista Tippett's, Einstein's God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit.

In the same way, the technologies of science and religion can be mutually beneficial to all of us.  Meditation and my trusty iMac.  Amen.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Love vs. Justice

Scholars argue over whether or not Paul's second letter to the Thessalonians was actually written by Paul or not, and the consensus leans in the direction of not.  Certainly, II Thessalonians 1 opens the letter with a different "feel" from I Thessalonians, which is generally held to be an authentic Pauline epistle.  It feels more judgmental of those who are not Christians and more bellicose for want of a better word.  This different feel is seen esp. in verse 6, which reads in the NRSV, "For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you," and in the Today's English Version (TEV), "God will do what is right: he will bring suffering on those who make you suffer."  That is, the Christians in Thessalonica have suffered at the hands of others and God has every right to inflict suffering on those who have made the Christians suffer.

OK.  One wonders, however, where this fits with the teachings of Paul himself, which are that we are to, "admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all." (I Thessalonians 5:14-15)  Paul taught the Thessalonian faithful to be compassionate.  Pseudo-Paul told them that God punished their persecutors by making them suffer.  On the face of it, God doesn't play by the same rules as expected for followers of Jesus.  They are to repay evil with good while God can repay evil with evil, that is suffering with suffering.  They are to act with love while God acts with justice.  The whole premise of the Christian faith is that God is merciful, slow to anger, loving, and forgiving.

On the face of it, II Thessalonians 1:6 contradicts the settled teachings of the actual Paul and the message so clearly delivered elsewhere in scripture.

Is possible, however, to resolve the contradiction between Paul and pseudo-Paul in at least one way.  One of the fundamental spiritual laws planted deep within the human race is the law of karma, what goes around comes around.  When we cause suffering we suffer.  Now, it is of course not an ironclad law and often enough the agents of suffering cause more hurt than they suffer themselves.  It is, nonetheless, true that agents of suffering often enough are as deeply hurt or more deeply hurt by the suffering they cause than are their victims.  God created us this way, and by this spiritual law those who inflicted suffering on the Christians in Thessalonica did themselves suffer as well.  God's karmic justice was done.  Now, I seriously doubt that this interpretation of II Thessalonians 1:6 reflects the intention of the author.  But in our time we can still discover the Word in the words.  We are not constrained to read the words the way they were originally intended to be read 2,000 years ago so long as we read them in light of the person of Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

When "Good Enough" is Not

In the 2012-13 season, Minnesota Gophers men's basketball coach, Tubby Smith, led his team to 21 victories and a place in the NCAA Tournament, the "Big Dance," at the close of which he was promptly fired in spite of a winning record over six seasons.  Smith restored a degree of stability and respectability to a program that has been through periods of turbulence and mediocrity.  Smith was not fired because his teams could not win.  He was fired because they had trouble winning Big Ten games and February games—winning, that is, the games that mattered the most.  He improved the team by one or two levels but then didn't seem capable of taking them to the "next" level.

That being the case, a debate has been raging in the Minnesota sports press between those who feel that Minnesota is doing "well enough" under Tubby and not likely to do any better under anybody else.  It isn't ever going to become an elite Big Ten men's basketball team and Tubby is good enough.  With still more passion, those who support firing Smith are not happy with "good enough" and want to see Minnesota take its basketball program to that next level where winning Big Ten seasons and NCAA berths are givens.

It could be years before fans in Minnesota learn whether firing Coach Smith was a good move or
dumb one (or somewhere in between).

In any event, the whole situation has its parallels in many mainline churches today.  In times of declining membership, attendance, and resources, churches frequently make do with "good enough," especially when it comes to leadership and what  is expected of leaders.  Make do.  Cut corners.  Go with the flow.  In sum, settle for good enough.  In some situations, good enough has to be good enough, but in others good enough is deadly.  It allows a downward spiral to continue when it need not.  In still other cases, there is the possibility of a new church growing out of the ashes of a dying congregation, smaller and with fewer resources but not tied to a building and a dying program—a church with a new vision and a new calling.  Often enough, then, "good enough" is worse than no good at all.  Amen.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cripples All of Us

Pushing down hard with his fists on the table-top he heaved himself up to where he was standing.  For the first time we saw he wanted one leg.  It was gone from the knee joint down.  He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance.  He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn't leapt forward and caught him.

"I'm as crippled as the dark world,"  Gildas said.

"If it comes to that, which one of us isn't, my dear?" Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg.  Brendan sure he'd misspent his whole life entirely.  Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy.  The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths.  We was cripples all of us.  For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

"To lend each other a hand when we're falling," Brendan said.  "Perhaps that's the only work that matters in the end."

Frederick Buechner,
Listening to Your Life, p. 76

Monday, March 25, 2013

Just Plain Wrong

In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time someting like that happened in politics or religion.

Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP Keynote Address

In reality, the history of science is littered with scientists who refused to change their mind even in the face of mounting research evidence to the contrary.  And in religion, at least, changing one's mind in the face of compelling arguments or experiences is a common experience.  It is called, "conversion," and it happens all the time.  Where people of faith don't go through full conversion experiences, there are those who still show an ability to learn, to think new thoughts, and to grow (change their minds) in their understanding of their faith.  There is no doubt that many religionists do not show any inclination to learn, think new thoughts, or grow in their understanding, but even many of them have at one time or another gone through a conversion experience.  And anyone who studies theology for any length of time knows that it is a highly creative field with new theologies being worked up all the time.

In the above quotation, which is found cited in various places on the Web, Sagan pulls an old, old trick that we "religionists" should be familiar with because we (probably) invented it.  I personally first became aware of it in my study of 19th century Presbyterian missionary history in Siam (a.k.a. Thailand).  In their sometimes virulent attacks on Thai Buddhism, the old time missionaries would often contrast the worst of that faith with the best of their own.  In much the same way, Sagan contrasts science at its best with religion at its worst.

Yes, yes, I'm saying that in this case Dr. Carl Sagan, renowned astronomer, displays the thinking of a 19th century Presbyterian missionary in Siam.  More to the point, in this brief quotation at least he virtually treats science as a religion without realizing that he does so.  It is for him the highest form of knowledge known to humanity and that approach to knowing that is most trustworthy.  It is his faith, and like other missionaries one of the ways he affirms the ultimacy of his own faith is by pointing out the failures of other so-called ultimate faiths, such as politics and religion.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Public Eyes

The young monks and temple boys swam and dived from an old wooden skiff, playing in the water of a small jungle cove away from public eyes.  As in a dream, I happened upon them at the end of a jungle track, just two narrow ruts leading to nowhere.  Hidden by the dense green of the forest, I thought they did not see me as I sat in my vehicle watching, the public eyes they sought to avoid.  But then one young monk in his twenties, shaven head and eyebrows, looked my way.  He saw my public eyes, and in response he smiled a broad, happy smile that filled his eyes with a quiet happy glance.  What a funny joke, his laughing glance said.  Here at the end of the track and the lake in the deep forest you found us!  Now our frolic is complete.  You are not an intrusion, not a problem, and not a burden.  You haven't ruined our swim, his smiled assured me.  You are a gift making our swim perfect.  We missed you, public eyes.

Anonymous

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"Mighty Casey"

I've commented on it once before earlier this year (here), but it bears repeating that the Web contains a wealth of information beyond anything we can even imagine.  In my "other role," as a student of Thai church history, I maintain a bibliography of research material relevant to that subject (here); and it increasingly contains links to online sources—some of them quite surprising and even exciting (well, for me at least).  Just this morning, I have stumbled across another fascinating online resource, the National Recording Registry, which is maintained by the Library of Congress. While only relatively few of the recordings are available on the registry itself, those that are include a 1909 recording of "Casey at the Bat," which provides the listener with a delightful sound bite from a century ago.

It turns out that if you search ("google") for "Casey at the Bat," you come with a long list of websites containing all manner of things related to the poem including the Youtube video of another reading, this one  James Earl Jone's dramatic reading of the poem, below.  The point for today is only that Internet is an amazing tool.  Like any other it has its downside and changes the way we live in ways that are not so good as well as very good.  Some years ago, a friend remarked, "I don't use Internet.  It has all of that smut and pornography."  I wanted to ask her if she, then, also didn't read books and magazines—but didn't.

In any event, suppose you are a fifth grader who wants to do a report on "Casey at the Bat."  It could be a great report, limited only by one's skill at finding, filtering, combining, and learning from what is on the Web.  And that fifth grader can do all of this at home.  Amazing—at least to one who was born in a very different era.


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

To Thrive In Secular Times

Let's acknowledge that churches in decline are not like the aging bodies of the elderly.  Church decline can be reversed.  Let's call the ways and means of reversing decline opportunities rather than even challenges.  Let us also accept the reality that many mainline churches are not able to take advantage of the opportunities of decline.  Some are poorly led.  A few are rife with factions.  Some lack vision.  Others have given up.  Mainline decline seems destined to continue as secularity spreads throughout the Western world, most strongly in northern Europe and most tenuously in the American South.

Still, mainline decline is an opportunity—or, rather, a set of interlocking opportunities.  It is, more than anything else, an opportunity to get back to the basic reason churches exist, namely to grow faith.  As banks are financial institutions, so churches are spiritual organizations.  The business of banks is investing money and the business of churches is growing faith.  In fellowship with each other, the members & friends of churches now have the sparkling opportunity to grow in faith with each other.  In fellowship with each other, they have the opportunity to share their faith with others.  In fellowship with each other, they have the opportunity to embrace new ways of thinking about God and faith offered by science and other living faiths.  In fellowship with each other, they have the opportunity to discover new approaches to the Bible, approaches that make sense in the early 21st century.

The key in all of this is spiritual growth.  Without that, all of the worship in the world, all of the growth strategies in the world, all of the doctrinal purity in the world, and all of the social action ministries in the world will not lead to a church that is grounded in the Spirit and able to thrive in secular times.  That's what churches are now called to do—thrive in secular times.  In secular times, they embrace science with relish.  They accept with joy the faith of people of other faiths.  They affirm the full civil rights of all people.  The earliest church thrived in a world where the vast majority of people believed differently than did the followers of Jesus.  They did this by embracing the world they lived in—by embracing Gentiles as being able to follow Jesus as faithfully as Jews and by embracing Greek philosophy and Roman forms of social organization.  They thrived by being in but not of the world.  We are called today to thrive in just such times.  This is an exciting opportunity.  It is an opportunity for mainline congregations to join the pentecostal revolution and become Holy Spirit churches, but not the kind of pentecostal church that goes off into its own ideological ghetto to escape secular society.  "Mainline pentecostalism" embraces the secular world, celebrates its virtues, and seeks to share with it a still better Way—a way grounded in the Spirit.  Amen.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Image of God

Colossians 1:15-20 , also known as the "Christ hymn," is widely recognized for being an important expression of the early church's developing understanding of the person of Christ—of its christology.  The translation tradition that began with the King James Version (KJV) and is most recently represented by the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) uniformly opens the hymn in verse 15 by referring to Jesus as the "image of the invisible God."  He is the firstborn of all of creation.  All things were created through Christ.  In verse 19, the hymn reaches something of a climax by claiming that "all the fullness of God" resided in Jesus.  In brief, Jesus was the image of God in whom the fullness of God resided.

Rather than treating these two statements about God as being objective descriptions of an external Reality, suppose for a moment that we look on them as existential affirmations of a shared faith experience.  Then, the Christ hymn affirms that when we study him and seek to understand him, we are studying and seeking to understand God.  We are "doing' theology.  We can confess our inability as human beings to comprehend God or to understand God as God and yet feel a certain degree of confidence (faith) that when we examine Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, we are looking in the direction of God.  We "see" God as best we can with human hearts and minds.  By the same token, in our experience with Christ we "touch" something of the very nature of God as best as we can experience God.  When we see Jesus, we see the image of God.  When we experience faith in him, we touch the fullness of God.

It is almost a sacrilege to turn these experiential affirmations of faith into doctrines.  Once they become doctrines, they take on a certain rigidity and boundedness that belies their deepest meanings as statements of faith based on experience.  One does not turn a father's love for his children or the quiet awe of sunset on an evening lake into doctrines.  There is "something" embedded deep within these human experiences that transcends explanation, definition, and indoctrination.  The same is true of our experience and vision of Jesus who is for us the image of God and in whom dwelt the fullness of God.  Amen.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Church & Charity

According to various media outlets, Pope Francis has begun his tenure as pope by calling for the spiritual renewal of the Catholic Church.  He has made the point that if the church does not return to its spiritual roots and its task of proclaiming Christ its risks "becoming no more than a charitable organization" (quoted here).  Mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. will do well to take his call for renewal to heart.  Many of our congregations have already drifted into the back eddies of functioning largely as charitable organizations.  Members do not cultivate personal lives of faith and the church does not promote personal piety.  Members do not know the Bible and do not work on articulating their own faith.  Sharing the gospel with others is, if anything, actively avoided.  These churches often do impressive amounts of good works, which is... well... good.  The problem is their charitable work seldom pumps new life into the body of Christ, which they are supposed to be.

The central task of the church is to teach and encourage a Christ-like way of life that includes worship, prayer, reflection, faith sharing, and carrying out acts of charity.  In all of this, the church has the urgent task of teaching its members to learn the spiritual values of silence, slowing down, and prayer & meditation.  These practices are the surest foundation on which to build lively worship, happy fellowship, and  strong Christian service.  Amen.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Change of Heart

Sen. Rob Portman (R, OH) has long been an advocate for traditional marriage and an opponent of gay marriage.  Then, in 2011, his son "came out" to his parents, and Sen. Portman learned a different way to view the whole matter of gay marriage.  He has recently written an op-ed piece in The Columbus Dispatch entitled, "Gay couples also deserve chance to get married," which documents his change of heart.  In the piece, Portman particularly wrestles with his religious understanding of homosexuality, which originally was that the Bible forbids gay marriage.  The fact that his son, a person he loves deeply, is gay presented Portman with the opportunity to see the Bible from a fresh perspective.  He writes, "I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God."

What a difference it makes when we read scripture lovingly!  Portman's change of heart reminds us that what we bring to the Bible is as important as what we find there.  If we bring law, we find Law.  If we bring love, we find Love.  The thing is that when we bring love to the reading of scripture we are more firmly grounded in the Spirit as we read it and better able to see that the biblical journey of faith is the transformation from Law to Love, a transformation found in both testaments.  Amen.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Acknowledging the Shift

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis I
The election of an Argentinean  cardinal as pope simply acknowledges the reality of the fundamental shift taking place in global Christianity.  Over the span of 20 centuries, the demographic "heart" of the faith was first located in the eastern Mediterranean, but within a few centuries that center shifted to Europe, where it long remained.  Beginning in the 20th century, however, we have been witnessing a dramatic shift southward from Europe into Africa, Latin America, and Asia.  This shift actually began centuries ago when the Catholic Church and then Protestant churches engaged in  aggressive missionary campaigns around the world.  In a 2001 article entitled, "From Christendom to World Christianity: Missions and the Demographic Transformation of the Church," Prof. Andrew Walls concludes, "...there has been a century-long process of cross-cultural diffusion of Christianity with the Western missionary as a connecting terminal; and the most curious feature of the process is that during the period in which the Christian faith crossed cultural frontiers into African and Asian communities it lost its hold on much of the West."

The latest evidence of how even the United States, which remains significantly more religious that western Europe, is involved in this shift comes from data collected by sociologists from the University of California, Berkeley, and Duke University, which according to a news posting in the Huffington Post (here) shows that in the U.S., "the number of people who do not consider themselves part of an organized religion has jumped dramatically in recent years."  This is not even news anymore, but the election of Pope Francis I does provide further evidence concerning just how far the demographic shift southward has gone.  For Americans, his election also requires a reorienting of our usual social-political categories of liberal and conservative.  From what's been published thus far, it appears that Francis I is very liberal on social justice issues having to do with capitalism and the poor and painfully conservative on the question of homosexuality.  Catholicism frequently has a deep concern for social justice, and we can only wonder how long it will be until the Catholic Church finally learns to extend that heart to all of God's children.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Godric's View of Prayer

What's prayer? It's shooting shafts into the dark.  What mark they strike, if any, who's to say?  It's reaching for a hand you cannot touch.  The silence is so fathomless that prayers like plummets vanish in the sea.  You beg.  You whimper.  You load God down with empty praise.  You tell him sins that he already knows full well.  You seek to change his changeless will.  Yet Godric prays the way he breathes, for else his heart would wither in his breast.  Prayer is the wind that fills his sail.  Else waves would dash him on the rocks, or he would drift witless tides.  And sometimes, by God's grace, a prayer is heard.

Fredrick Buechner,
Listening to Your life (HaprerOne, 1992), p. 66

Monday, March 11, 2013

One Size Does Not Fit All

Philippians 3 was written by a convert, the Apostle Paul, to other converts and thus raises the important question of its meaning and relevance for those of us who are not converts.  Converts, if they convert for religious reasons, tend to be zealous and committed to their new faith.  In the Christian tradition, particularly among Protestants, converts tend to view their past negatively—it was evil—and their conversion as turning from evil to the good.  Thus, in Philippians 3 Paul counted as loss his own past as a Pharisee who kept the Law perfectly.  For Jesus sake, he wrote, "I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ." (3:8 NRSV)  In that same vein, he wrote that he had forgotten everything that was behind him and was "straining forward to what lies ahead." (3:13)  Although he acknowledges his own shortcomings, Paul still advised his readers, as one convert writing other still newer converts, to follow his example (3:17); and he shows clear disdain for those who do not display the same level of commitment, zeal, and single mindedness to the cause they he feels.

For some converts, Christian faith is a matter of stepping across a sharply drawn boundary between past and present.  It was certainly that for Paul.  This Pauline and early church model for conversion, again especially among Protestants, has been taken to be the norm by which "real faith" is measured.  As such, however, it is a mixed blessing at best.  On the upside, the dedication and enthusiasm converts bring to their new faith contributes to the renewal of the faith.  On the downside, that dedication and enthusiasm can too easily morph into a narrow-minded zeal.  It also obscures the basic developmental reality of the life of faith, which is that it is a process of growth in maturity.  It is not a one step crossing of a line even for those who take such a step.  It is a life-long process.

The point here is that we have to read Philippians 3 with a grain of salt esp. when it comes to putting the past behind us.  In fact, our living accumulation of experiences is always the foundation on which we build the future.  If putting the past behind us means learning better ways of being faithful, then we do need to keep moving ahead on the path of faith.  If, however, it means discarding the past and ignoring it then we are only fooling ourselves about what it means to grow in faith and more likely to repeat past behaviors only cloaking them with the label "Christian".  Paul, in sum, is a model for the Christian faith and not the model.  One size does not fit all—not even his.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Coming Home to Middle Earth

I first read Lord of the Rings in the fall of 1970 just after I had moved to Washington, D.C. looking for work that would count as a "secular internship" at Princeton Theological Seminary.  I guess I was technically "unemployed," although I didn't think of myself that way and did end up getting a position in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.  In any event, I remember almost devouring my paperback three volumes that first time, and for many years thereafter I returned to Lord of the Rings every 18-24 months for another reading.  Eventually, I stopped doing that.  In more recent years, repeated viewings of the movie version have sufficed to satisfy my habit. But, just this last week I decided to take up the three volumes again and have found myself once again enjoying the adventures of Frodo and Company in spite of (or because of, maybe) having taken the same journey to Mordor and back so many times before.

It doesn't really matter that Lord of the Rings has been widely and roundly criticized by critics who sometimes seem to have an almost visceral distate for Tolkien and his books.  It doesn't matter whether or not his stories are "good literature" or not.  Both Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are a good read.

Now, if I'm asked why they are a "good read," the best I can do is to say that for me, at least, they are good stories set in a world of make-believe that is entirely believable once you accept the premise that such a world exists, if only in the imagination.  Middle Earth is a fascinating place populated by peoples who are revelations of what it is like to live in a fascinating place.  Beyond that, it is a tale in which the little people (literally the little people, the hobbits) prove to be as heroic as the greatest heroes.  Lord of the Rings celebrates country folk.  It celebrates nature.  It celebrates risk for the sake of others.  And while it is true that Tolkien's three volumes portray a dualistic world in which Good is Very Good and Evil is Entirely Evil, still the boundaries between good and evil are as porous in Middle Earth as they are on the "real" Earth.  Both good and evil inhabit Gollum, for example, who is one of my candidates for the real  Lord of the Ring  (Frodo, obviously, is another).  Tolkien also promotes multiculturalism, which is a good thing to promote in this day and age.  But that and most of the rest of this is beside the point.  The point is that Lord of the Rings tells an interesting, winsome tale.  It is escape reading and doesn't have to do anything more than that.

That being said, it is hard to understand why the book has elicited so much passionate criticism.  Edmund Wilson was one of its earliest and most disdainful critics.  His 1956 review, published in The Nation (here), is almost embarrassingly highbrow and condescending.  He brands Lord of the Rings as "balderdash," and says in so many words that it is popular only because "certain people - especially, perhaps, in Britain - have a lifelong appetite for juvenile trash."  Maybe so.  It is still a good read.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The War Between the States - Round III

The Old South
About a month ago, Michael Lind published an insightful piece entitled, "The white South’s last defeat," subtitled, "Hysteria, aggression and gerrymandering are a fading demographic's last hope to maintain political control."  His thesis is that the real political divide in our nation today is not between right and left but, instead, between South and North.  The "Old South" (white, evangelical, & of British-American origins), Lind insists, has continued to exist down to the present and has successfully maintained political control of most of the states of the Confederacy.  Now, however, that dominance is increasingly threatened and has already been lost in Florida and Texas, which have become minority-majority states.  Other regions of the country have historically undergone this same process, and there was considerable political upheaval when they did.  Now, it is the South's turn.  Lind warns us that, "The demographic demise of the white South is going to be traumatic for the nation as a whole." He concludes, "But the old-stock Yankees in the Northeast and Midwest did not accept their diminished status in their own regions without decades of hysteria and aggression and political gerrymandering. The third and final defeat of the white South, its demographic defeat, is likely to be equally prolonged and turbulent. Fasten your seat belts." (The first two defeats of the white South were the Civil War and the civil rights movement).

If Lind is correct, his thesis suggests that we can look at the future in two related ways.  It looks like we should probably feel more pessimistic about the short-term and more optimistic about the long-term.  That's why we have seat belts—to keep us safe in dangerous times.  Let's just hope that our democratic institutions and habits of mind will be sufficiently strong to carry us through.  Amen.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Reclaim Peace

Ultimately we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it toward others. The more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world.

Etty Hillesum
Source: An Interrupted Life: the Journal of a Young Jewish Woman, 1941-43

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Incarnational Politics

Political commentator Steve Kornacki recently posted an interview he did with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich entitled, "In the real world we were kidding ourselves."  The focus of the interview, obviously, was the results of the 2012 election and what they mean for the Republican Party.  Unlike many Republicans who are not willing to contemplate more than a cosmetic touch-up of their party, Gingrich argues that it must undergo substantial change.  In the course of the interview, Kornacki asked Gingrich, "When you look at the Republican Party’s relationship with African Americans and Hispanics, what is the message you want to deliver to those voters?" Gingrich answered by calling for the Republican Party to undergo "a big rethinking," a "very large fundamental rethinking." He then stated,
The first thing you have to do with African Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans and Native Americans is go there. They don’t need to come to you; you need to go to them. And when you go there, listen. Phase one is not going there to tell about you. Why is it we can have entire cities that are disasters, that we can have 500 people getting killed in Chicago, we can have Detroit collapsing, we can have the highest black unemployment teenage in modern history, and no Republican politician can figure out that going there to say, “Gee, shouldn’t we do something to make this better”? And then talk about it jointly, so it becomes a joint product — that it’s not “Let me re-explain conservatism.” I don’t mean to walk away from conservatism, but we need to understand conservatism in the context of people who are talking with us.
This is almost stunning stuff.  In effect, Gingrich is proposing what in theological circles we can only call an incarnational approach to the practice of politics.  In order to become a party of all the people, the Republican Party has to go to the people and not talk at them about conservative principles but listen to them regarding their lives and needs.  Go to listen.  Then, Gingrich proposes, the party has to work collaboratively with the people to address real life problems, such as gun violence in Chicago or the collapse of Detroit.  Finally, he urges conservative Republicans to understand their conservatism in the context of "people who are talking with us."  In short, he is calling for a politics that is dialogical, collaborative, and contextual.  Theologically speaking, he is proposing a Christ-like, incarnational politics.

Two thoughts.  First, we would all benefit immensely if the Republican Party, by some miracle, embraced this path of political renewal.  Gingrich is proposing a set of attitudes and cognitive habits that would influence the whole way the party approached politics—including the way it related to Democrats, women, the LGBT community, and foreign nations.  Imagine a political culture in which both parties behaved according to the incarnational principles espoused by Gingrich!

Second, but back in the real world it is impossible to imagine that such a thing could come to pass as long as the tea party-ist radical right continues to dominate Republican discourse and behavior, such as it does today.  The recent flap over CPAC's failure to invite Gov. Chris Christie (R-NJ) to speak (see here) is but one reminder of where vocal American conservatism seems to be today.  The radical right's vocal indictment of less right wing Republicans as being RINO (see here) is another.  Only to the extent that the Republican Party can isolate and reduce the influence of its radical, dualistic, our way or the highway wing will it have the opportunity to become what Gingrich envisions for it.

Still, the vision is a noble one.


Monday, March 4, 2013

A Book Review at RPKR

It's been a year since I posted a book review at Rom Phra Khun Reviews, but I have just added a new one this morning.  It is a review of James L. Kugel's, How to Read the Bible (Free Press, 2007).  For some sense of what the book is about, please see the last posting below here, "The Bible and Evolution."

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Bible and Evolution

Aleppo Codex of Deuteronomy
Source: Wikipedia
In his book, How to Read the Bible (Free Press, 2007), James L. Kugel describes the evolution of the Bible and the evolution of the reading of the Bible through several stages.  The contents of the Bible were originally stories, law codes, oral traditions, and written pieces, which were cobbled together, added to,  re-cobbled, added to again, and then re-edited until they were all put into what we see as their "final form" in the Bible.  The process took many centuries.  From ancient times, moreover, the Bible has been read in different ways and the contents of its stories and writings have had different meanings.  Kugel also points out that the Bible as inspired scripture is not just a text.  It is also the idea that a text can be inspired, that this text is inspired, and that as inspired text it should be read in certain ways.

All of this troubles Kugel because modern biblical scholarship has torn the veil away from God's word and revealed that it is actually just a jumble of human words.  The Bible was assembled by us, not by God.  Where, he wonders, is the inspiration?

It is a fair question.  In fact, it seems to echo some of the similar questions that are often raised by the concept of evolution itself.   If the universe evolves naturally, then where is God in the process?  Isn't God just a human invention to explain things we can't explain in other ways?  Modern biblical scholarship does the same thing to the Bible that the other sciences do in their respective fields: subject observable reality to scientific scrutiny and thereby raise important (fascinating) theological questions.

If, however, we begin with the premise that God's creative will envelopes evolution in all of its expressions, Kugel helps us to see that the Bible itself is a piece with evolution.  It too has evolved and, in fact, continues to evolve.  Our understanding of it continues to evolve.  Just as the Spirit is Present with us in evolution so the Spirit is Present with us in scriptures. Now, obviously, there are any number of thorny issues we have to work through regarding the evolutionary nature of the Bible, most esp. why this book and not another?  What is the nature of inspiration?  How do we discern God's Word (Christ) in the words?  The truth is, however, these are not really new questions.  As Kugel makes clear, generations of biblical scholars from ancient times have wrestled with them.  Science only serves to sharpen the questions.  In the end, we can only do what we have always done, which is to live in faith.  Meanwhile, it only makes sense that the Bible has evolved.  How else would God speak to us as we ride the tides of evolution if not through the very processes that makes us what we are?