Archive for the ‘Rant’ 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.

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.

What’s Wrong with Theology: A Short Case Study

Earlier today, browsing the Amazon page for Augustine’s Essential Sermons, I came across this passage from the “Product Description”:

The eleven volumes of Augustine’s popular sermons (Sermones ad populum) . . . showcase Augustine the brilliant speaker and engaging preacher of the Word and have proven an indispensable resource for contemporary scholarship. . . . [Edmund] Hill’s translation and extensive notes have received many accolades by scholars, but professors have clamored for a one-volume anthology in paperback form that would be affordable to students and that could be used as required texts in teaching undergraduates, graduate students and seminarians. . . . Students and preachers alike will discover Augustine’s masterful interpretation of the Word of God and creative skills in engaging the people of God.

What’s wrong with this description? More importantly, who is missing? These sermons are “an indispensable resource for contemporary scholarship,” and the translations have received “many accolades by scholars,” and this one-volume anthology will be useful for “undergraduates, graduate students and seminarians.” But where is the layperson? There’s a reason they ain’t titled Sermones ad professorum. They were preached in a church to laypeople, and now they are tragically of interest primarily to scholars and students training to become scholars. The devoted layperson has been left out of the picture altogether. Language like this is a symptom of a disease — the co-opting of theology by the academy from its place in service to the church.

Augustine himself would have been unhappy with our bifurcation of theology and spirituality, or their institutional parallels, academy and church. Consider:

Factum audivimus: mysterium requiramus.
(We have heard the fact, let us seek the mystery.)

One of the maddening things about my “Christian spirituality” classes in grad school was the constant separation students fretted over between “head” and “heart.” This may have been a legitimate problem, but the way they articulated it made it sound like the problem was somehow too much theology. Wrong! A bifurcation of “head” and “heart” is the result of faulty theology, not too much. Something we could learn by reading more Augustine.

(A bracing post-Enlightenment tonic for this ailment is Andrew Louth’s marvelous book Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology, which Eighth Day Books has put back in print.)

(crossposted at Nonnus.)

Dear Scholars

As a proofreader/editor of academic books, I feel compelled to inform you of a few things that you should know, but clearly some of you do not.

First, Your job is to inform, elucidate, clarify. So ending lists with “etc.” and “and so on” generally does not help your readers, whom you are to inform, rather than assume they already know what you would say if you deigned to tell them. While we’re at it, when citing multiple Bible verses, it is not helpful to the reader to write, for example, Rom 8:1ff.  Oh, of course, I know you always use it to mean the following two verses, so that it means the same thing whenever you use it. But your colleague down the hall didn’t get that memo, did he? Because he’s using it to mean Romans 8:1-9:4 or really whatever he wants, but I wouldn’t know the difference, would I? Because instead of doing the work of a real scholar and looking up the reference, you just assumed we would do that work for you, didn’t you? So let’s be done with the obfuscations and actually be a little more careful, shall we? I’m glad we understand one another.

Second, and this is more serious, when you publish a book, you are selling those particular ideas in the form of those words to the publisher. You don’t own them anymore, so you cannot reuse them. Of course, you may need to summarize the same ideas or even say the same things throughout the course of your career, but this is different from cutting and pasting words from one document to another. And let’s face it, despite what I’ve heard a lot of you say, the editors working at the publishing house you sold your manuscript to (remember?) aren’t morons, and even if they were, this is the twenty-first century, old man (or old woman, let’s be fair). There’s a thing called the Internet. And they have this fancy new thing called Google Books. And your book is probably on there. And all somebody has to do is type in a few of the words from your book and the book you plagiarized will be on there too. Do you have students? Don’t you tell them that plagiarizing is wrong? You do, because I was a student too, and your syllabuses all threaten to fail and even possibly expel your lazy excuses for students for doing it. Oh, you’ve got tenure? Well have you ever heard the word lawsuit?

And third, for goodness sakes do not ask your editors whether or not you should include a footnote! Did you come up with the idea? Did it originate in your mind or someone else’s? If you didn’t think of it first then cite it! I don’t care if it’s not a direct quote. And this next thing should be obvious but the fact that I feel the need to write it clearly demonstrates that it is not. Provide page numbers. Do I have your personal library in my office? Can I read your mind? Again, much of this information can be found on the almighty Google Books, but let me remind you one last time. This is your job. Why do I feel like I’m addressing Comp 101 students? You are a scholar. Do the work of a scholar.

Now I feel a little better.

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!

Hey, Remember When Printable Pages Were, Um, Well, You Know, Printable?

Alas, the ineluctable, glacial creep of advertising into the remotest corners of our lives continues unabated. I have noticed lately that  “printable” pages of articles online are including more and more ads, images, and html-encoded text (which not all printers can handle equally well). Where is the public outcry? Why this injustice? This visual scattershot utterly contravenes the purpose of the “printer-friendly view.” Furthermore, these pages were my one remaining boon from the overcommercialization of the web. I would even often link to them directly from here or on Facebook because they provided a much cleaner and unobtrusive viewing experience. But now, even while I’m reading these articles in my bed at home, I am confronted with the latest ad for Viagra, or whatever wares these evil companies and their internet minions were flogging the day I printed them off.

I Am Buying Gas for Under Two Dollars. Tell Me Why I Should Not Be Happy About This.

Every I repeat every news outlet tells me every single day why I should not be happy that my gas budget has been cut in half since July. (NPR has even told me twice, since they inexplicably played the same news broadcast this afternoon as they did yesterday.) Here is the explanation from the News Media of why I should be upset about affordable gas: It is the sign of a shrinking economy.

Oh horrors!

Well let me tell you something, News Media. This. abstraction. is. not. helpful. to. me.

I still have a job. I am still among the 92.4 percent of the population that does. And as far as I can tell my job is still secure. I have lost money in my retirement fund, but I will not be retiring for, um, let’s see, thirty-eight more years. I’m pretty sure I’ll get my money back by then. But really what it comes down to is that I have at least fifty more dollars to kick around in my budget every month. Boohoo!

I get it, though. I get it. I’m no Pollyanna. I know generally and vaguely how this stuff works on a macro/global scale. I also know that my socioeconomic stratum is not the one hit hardest by these types of things. So forgive me if my critique seems a little bourgeois. But don’t people below me on the economic ladder stand to gain just as much or more than me? And don’t I remember from Econ 101 something about a shrinking economy being a natural and healthy part of a free market economy? Okay, okay. I know what we’re in the middle of is a little more than your garden variety shrinking economy. I’ve read enough of the doomsayers to realize this. But tell me again how lower prices for gas, food, and homes is really actually bad news. This is what seems bourgeois to me. Fifty dollars means a lot more to me than it does to the pundits in Washington.

So until the failing economy actually affects me in a more concrete way than the unexpected-but-welcome surprise of falling prices on necessary commodities, I will not let you kill my joy, News Media. No way. I am going to buy an SUV from one of the failing automakers, fill it up with premium gasoline, fill myself up with Twinkies and YooHoo, and drive that behemoth all over God’s green creation. And then I’m going to park it in the driveway of the foreclosed house I just bought for a song. Because now I can afford to do things like this, and you can’t take that away from me, News Media, no sir, not ever.

How to Cash In on the Latest Fad and Exploit Religion at the Same Time, Or What It Looks Like to Subsume Religion under the Cause du Jour, Or Is the Tail Not Wagging the Dog Here, My Friends?


Website. Despite the intellectually respectable veneer, this is just another version of BibleZines. Lord help us.

Just Split the Infinitive, Alright?

Several times recently I’ve come across prose that is worded awkwardly in order to avoid splitting an infinitive. And I’ve had it. The phrase that tipped me over the edge and sent me running for my computer just now was,  “. . . appropriately to engage . . .” And what initially spurred this monomania a few weeks ago was a professor’s remark to a student, in one of only four “errors” in his student’s entire fifty-page thesis, was that a split infinitive should be fixed. Several episodes in the intervening time set me to foaming at the mouth and spinning into fits of apoplectic rage with increasing intensity. Back to the example at hand: “appropriately to engage.” Nobody speaks like this. It sounds weird, archaic, and stilted. But thankfully it’s not just my own soapbox. While searching out an answer to another tricky grammar rule, I was leafing through Patricia T. O’Connor’s helpful little book, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English, when I came across a section of “dead rules,” each of which had a tombstone in place of a bullet point. Lo and behold, one of the first dead rules was that of avoiding split infinitives. She explained, first, that the to in an infinitive (e.g., to go) is not technically a part of the infinitive to begin with but is a preposition to let you know that an infinitive is coming. (N.B. In most languages, the infinitive form is built into the word itself, and you don’t need anything to tell you it’s coming.) Second, she explained that most of the zeal for fusing the to and the infinitive stemmed directly from Victorian grammarians who wanted the English language to closely resemble Latin, in which it is impossible to split an infinitive. In fact the rule doesn’t even show up until 1866 in a book titled A Plea for the Queen’s English.

So let’s be reasonable, people. Is it generally good to  avoid splitting infinitives? Yes, of course. But when splitting an infinitive produces crappy prose, I ask, Is the tail not in fact wagging the dog? The rules of grammar are our guides, which enable clarity and facilitate communication. If they blind us to the good, they have stopped serving their purpose; they have become our masters, we their slaves. Therefore let us split our infinitives with alacrity! And let not any of the poopypants who assume that taking grammar seriously means memorizing a set of rules tell us otherwise!