Archive for the ‘Asking for It’ Category

Pat Robertson’s Remarks

I don’t know why I’m doing this. It goes against all of my better judgment, and I always, always, regret it when I do something similar. Nevertheless, I do. So, despite the fact that my opinion don’t matter jack to no one, I offer a disclaimer: I in no way condone the words Pat Robertson uttered in regard to the earthquake disaster in Haiti. They were wrongheaded, misguided, and utterly devoid of anything approaching tact or sensitivity. Nevertheless.

Here is a principle that should go without saying. If you are going to correct errors in judgment—even if they come from the theological theater of the absurd—do not, in doing so, commit your own errors in judgment. To wit:

Pat Robertson did not say that God is judging Haiti. He said that they made a deal with the devil and implied that their poverty results from the fact they are beholden to the devil’s will, not God’s. I know this only swaps one type of absurdity for another, but it seems, to me at least, significant. Does this imply God’s judgment? Maybe, but then you’re opening up a whole different theological can of worms, having to do with the nature of God’s interaction with the world, one not so simple as the indignant caterwauls all over the internet make it out to be.

The media did not “give him a platform.” As far as I am aware, everything he said was either on the 700 Club (his own show) or in an interview on CBN, hardly a media outlet whose agenda differs from somebody like Pat Robertson. The only thing the media did was run with it. It’s not like CNN sought him out as a correspondent just for a ratings hike.

The things he said were in the context of compassion and prayer. His timing was awful. His lack of tact was reprehensible. His delivery bordered on the plain obtuse. But he did not say the earthquake was a “blessing in disguise” because evil people died and were judged by God but because he hoped it would give them a chance to rebuild in a more fruitful and successful way. Directly following that comment, he urged people to pray for those who were suffering in Haiti. Good advice! He was wrong about blessing though. It was not a blessing. Hopefully it will provide an opportunity to root out political corruption and for the people of Haiti to reorganize their society in a way that mitigates suffering instead of perpetuates it (a little debt relief from the developed world wouldn’t hurt either), but things like that happen in a way that is wrapped in divine mystery, where somehow amid the tragedy of human suffering hope can rises from the ashes.

Any accusation that Robertson is not a Christian or that we should pray for his soul only perpetuates the intolerant, fundamentalist mindset it decries.

The alternative to a theological interpretation of a historical event, especially for Christians, is not a solely immanent interpretation about a historical event. What I mean is, it is entirely unhelpful to say things along the lines of “You know why the earthquake happened? The earthquake happened because tectonic plates shifted in the earth’s crust” (which I have heard). Well, duh, Einstein. It takes a lot of hard thinking to try to parse out the nature of God’s interactions with the world and to unravel the question of evil and suffering—and the answers from the people who have thought it through are either unsatisfying or appropriately vague. Nevertheless, giving the natural explanation is like folding your hand in the middle of the game. Do some work. Think of at least a better theological explanation than Robertson. At least that doesn’t take a whole lot of work.

Pat Robertson is a sinking ship. An absurd, sensationalistic sinking ship. The hardcore religious right has been waning in power and influence for some time, and you only fuel their fire by being ready to get all angry every time he drops one of his theological stink bombs. I have no doubt that all the negative attention he garners with his remarks only reinforces to his mind that he is doing the right thing. You, and the media who runs stories and commentary about him, are only playing into his hand by getting angry.

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Dear Shane Claiborne, Thank You For Saving Us from Ourselves!

Shane Claiborne has a letter to nonbelievers in Esquire, in which he reinvents the liberal Protestant wheel, heroically distancing himself from street preachers, televangelists, and all other Christian meanies and then articulating a gospel of love and social justice to replace it.

Now I’m not trying to provide a rebuttal to his message by showing how classically “liberal” it is—that he’s unwilling to speak clearly about judgment or hell (though he is) and that he puts social justice at the heart of the gospel (though he does)—but rather that his letter deploys a certain cultural strategy of Christian engagement with the world. First, he shows an astonishing willingness to throw all of Christian history—and many of his contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ, while he’s at it—under the bus, in order to prove his own authenticity. (It’s amazing that after all these years, Shane Claiborne is the only one who’s gotten it!) And second, he interprets, and presents, the gospel in such a way that his unbelieving, secular readers will find nothing scandalous about Christianity. In other words, he wants to make Christianity relevant, a word he probably thinks is pretty good, and I think is very bad.

Take this for instance:

I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

This echoes Donald Miller’s now somewhat-famous stunt he pulled on a secular college campus, where he set up a confessional and, to the students’ surprise, the Christians confessed the sins of the church to their non-Christian peers.

Oh, but he’s reaching the heart of secular America! Maybe. I don’t think this is a strategy that’s going to stand the test of time, however, or even win Christians any long-term intellectual respect, which seems to be his primary goal to begin with. I don’t mean all this as a complete defense of the status quo. I don’t have much patience for televangelists or belligerent street preachers either, but could you choose a much easier target? Who, especially among the readership of Esquire, likes these people?! There should be a Christian equivalent to Godwin’s law of Nazi analogies (whoever draws a comparison to Hitler first loses the argument), except that in the place of Hitler you put televangelists. Also, and more importantly, the idea that religion-qua-Christianity is historically at the heart of the world’s ills, and consequently that we need to apologize for adhering to any form of historically grounded Christianity, is a pretty significantly flawed thesis, one generated from the heart of Modernity, and there are writers out there combating it. (For a relatively short and extremely clear treatment of this, see this article, by William Cavanaugh.) Furthermore, Claiborne often takes a lot of his cultural cues from the likes of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder (generally, Christendom bad, alternative pacifist ecclesial enclaves good) but seems to have missed the fact that these thinkers offer trenchant and inextricable critiques of modern liberal democracies in general, not just of American Christianity’s capitulation to it. In other words, the people Claiborne’s appealing to in Esquire are just the other side of the same coin. A more consistent critique for Claiborne to make would not be that Christians in America have corrupted the gospel and that he’s found the answer by being the first person to read the parable of the Good Samaritan but that Christians in America are actually unwittingly in league with the very people he’s trying to get to take him seriously. Because in the end, his message sounds like a public service announcement. Be loving! Be Nice to poor people! Be tolerant! In the end, Claiborne’s critique is not radical enough. It sounds like civil religion.

The whole thing comes off, on one hand, as a smug dismissal of his own tribe and, on the other, as a plea for religion’s cultured despisers to take Christianity seriously. The nerdy kid on the playground disavowing all of his nerdy friends in order to hang out with the popular kids.

We Interrupt This Blast of Nonposts to Bring You A Testy Conservative Rant

I know better than to base my opinion on editorials with summaries that say things like, “the pope deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings about the value of condoms in slowing the spread of the AIDS virus” (from where else), so when I saw those very words in my daily headlines email I did what I usually do when major (liberal) media outlets cover the latest supposedly inflammatory words from the current (conservative) pope: Ignore. And then I assume that somebody will provide me with the context or perspective lacking in the sputtering, apoplectic screed with which I was originally confronted.

It turns out this time around that that “somebody” was the Harvard School of Public Health, specifically Edward C. Green, a senior research fellow there.

But let’s go back to the original editorial. The little summary sentence, it turns out, is an elision and conflation of the first two sentences, the first of which reads, “Pope Benedict XVI has every right to express his opposition to the use of condoms on moral grounds, in accordance with the official stance of the Roman Catholic Church.” (How magnanimous. Here’s my headline in response: “New York Times Gives Pope Permission to Exercise Role as Infallible Magisterium of Roman Catholic Church.”) Then the second sentence reads, “But he deserves no credence when he distorts scientific findings about the value of condoms in slowing the spread of the AIDS virus.” Distorts? Really? Duplicity and willful deception are pretty strong accusations to lay at the feet of one of the world’s most influential moral voices, and a careful and pedigreed scholar to boot. But when somebody not only questions but assumes to be false a central piece of ideological dogma, its defendants naturally can get pretty antsy. To be fair, at almost the end of the editorial, the authors concede, “The best way to avoid transmission of the virus is to abstain from sexual intercourse or have a long-term mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected person.” But this is in the middle of an otherwise unceasing torrent defending condom usage as the best way to prevent AIDS.

And then this.

Edward C. Green—a self-professed liberal mind you—steps up to the podium and defends the pope! Here’s a chunk of what he has to say:

Yet, in truth, current empirical evidence supports him.

We liberals who work in the fields of global HIV/AIDS and family planning take terrible professional risks if we side with the pope on a divisive topic such as this. The condom has become a symbol of freedom and — along with contraception — female emancipation, so those who question condom orthodoxy are accused of being against these causes. My comments are only about the question of condoms working to stem the spread of AIDS in Africa’s generalized epidemics — nowhere else.

In 2003, Norman Hearst and Sanny Chen of the University of California conducted a condom effectiveness study for the United Nations’ AIDS program and found no evidence of condoms working as a primary HIV-prevention measure in Africa. UNAIDS quietly disowned the study. (The authors eventually managed to publish their findings in the quarterly Studies in Family Planning.) Since then, major articles in other peer-reviewed journals such as the Lancet, Science and BMJ have confirmed that condoms have not worked as a primary intervention in the population-wide epidemics of Africa. In a 2008 article in Science called “Reassessing HIV Prevention” 10 AIDS experts concluded that “consistent condom use has not reached a sufficiently high level, even after many years of widespread and often aggressive promotion, to produce a measurable slowing of new infections in the generalized epidemics of Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Amazingly enough pope Benedict doesn’t just make stuff up as he goes along! This is something I thought the New York Times would have figured out by now.

Now I know that this is a contentious and complex issue, and I don’t hinge my arguments solely on the latest scientific study (and what this excerpt points out is that clearly many pundits on the other side of the issue don’t either, though they would like to believe they do), which is why this whole argument seldom goes anywhere, because it tends to be cast as progressive, empirical science vs. outmoded moralism. And so it goes.

A Friendly Reminder in Light of the Upcoming Lenten Season

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It’s interesting to me that most low-church Protestants find their way into the liturgical calendar by way of Lent. I tend to think that maybe it says something about how, in our society’s glut of superabundance, we feel a subconscious need for renunciation, and so we turn to the resources of the Church. But I want to write about something else related to Lent, and it is this.

Lent is forty days, right? Right. Well, there are actually forty-six days in between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The forty fast days of Lent don’t include the six Sundays therein. each of those Sundays is a feast day. If this is your experience with Lent, you’re thinking well, duh. But in my experience, most of us low-church converts don’t realize it to begin with. When Jess and I were first told several years ago that we didn’t have to fast on Sundays, Jess was scandalized. “It’s cheating! They’re changing the rules on us!” For me it was like an epiphany. Everything clicked into place. (I think I was in a Christian spirituality class at the time that leaned heavily on the theology of asceticism.) Here’s why.

Every Sunday for the entire year is a mini Easter, a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. As such, it is also a day on which we Christians look forward to our own resurrection at the Second Coming. Lent, on the other hand, is a period of waiting and penitence: we wait for Christ, who, in between his ascension and his return, is physically absent from the church, and we are penitent for our sins, clinging to Christ’s atoning work in his death on the cross. Fasting physically reinforces these more abstract realities to us. But even in gloomy Lent, Good Friday—death—cannot be complete without Easter Sunday—resurrection.

So here is my reminder. If in Lent, you either decide to “go the extra mile” by fasting on Sundays, or you feel guilty, so you don’t break your fast on Sundays: you are denying the resurrection. Both Christ’s and your own. You have taken the purpose of fasting—union with Christ—and made it about your own supposed holiness. You have missed the point of fasting, you have missed the point of asceticism, and you have missed the point of Easter.

Have a nice day!

An Open Letter to Obama-Loving Evangelicals

Read this excerpt from Rod Dreher’s contribution to an election symposium in The American Conservative:

I can’t vote for Barack Obama. He is a pro-abortion zealot and wrong on all the issues that matter most to social conservatives. Mind you, one should not be under any illusion that things will markedly improve under another Republican administration. But there is no question that on issues related to the sanctity of life and traditional marriage, an Obama administration, with a Democratic Congress at its back, would be far worse.

The best case that can be made for John McCain is that he would serve as something of a brake on runaway liberalism. But the country would be at significantly greater risk of war with the intemperate and bellicose McCain in the White House.

This goes a long way toward how I feel. Dreher’s conclusion is that he’s not voting in this election. I’m not sure that’s where I am, but then again I’m not sure where I am. (We’ll see in a week.) But I’m not writing this to sort out my own decisions. Rather, I want to make an observation. It seems that so many Christians of my generation, eager to throw off the strictures and bloviations of the previous generation’s right-wing zealotry, have replaced uncritical conservative dogma not with robust critical thinking but with uncritical pseudo-liberal dogma. Mostly this takes shape under rhetoric along the lines that there are more issues for Christians to be concerned about than just abortion and gay marriage and that feeding the hungry and not killing for the sake of oil or democracy are also “pro-life” issues. Fine and good. I agree. But I have not observed that this has resulted in a more holistic political vision; it has resulted in complete silence on more typical republican-platform issues (other than to repeatedly drone, “There are more issues for Christians to be concerned about than abortion and gay marriage”). Then they go and simply write Obama a blank check.

I’ve experienced firsthand that people who advocate not voting (in this election or any time) are not winning any popularity contests Christian or otherwise, so I won’t try to make that argument. Moreover, I can even see the validity in voting in the direction that the scales are ever-so-slightly tipped in favor of your convictions. But I regularly see all-out evangelical ardor for Obama this campaign season. To my mind, it seems the only proper Christian response in this election is at best bewilderment. Or maybe tentative-but-qualified endorsement. But enthusiasm?

Readers Poll: Help Me Decide What to Read!

I’m taking a poll. The current book I’m reading, though good, is extremely dense and long, and my momentum has ground to a halt. I’ve been floundering around with short stories and essays for awhile now, so I’m going to read a novel to pick up some steam. But I can’t decide which one. So, dear reader, I enlist your help. I’ve narrowed it down to three that are already on my bookshelf, but I need some guidance from here. The books are:

Dosoevsky: Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky: The Idiot

Cormac McCarthy: The Road

I will read all of these eventually, so it’s not an incredibly important decision, but my floundering has left me in a vortex of indecision. Help!