Saturday, February 28, 2015

Good Stuff - February 2015

Here are the best things I've read on the Internet in the month of February:

Leonard Nimoy, the Man Who Gave Star Trek Its Heart by Graeme McMillan on MSN, speaks to me in my sadness that this man who enriched my world so much has passed on:
And even when he, along with the rest of the original crew of the Starship Enterprise, retired with 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, it turned out that Nimoy’s Spock lived on, and prospered, making appearances in Star Trek: The Next Generation and J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek as the character. It was unsurprising, in many ways; a Star Trek without Nimoy felt incomplete, somehow. There was both a gravity and levity in his performance, a humor behind the stone-faced, eyebrow-raised stare of disbelief he so often employed. Star Trek, as a series, is a mixture of tones and genres, as much comedy as drama, and Nimoy managed to embody that in a way unlike any other.

"Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed" a Year Later: Why Calvinism (Still) Isn't Beautiful by Austine Fisher on Roger Olson's blog, gives voice to something I have long felt, that the poet Keats' words "beauty is truth, truth beauty" tell us something real, and that Calvinist doctrine (particularly the doctrine of limited atonement, that Christ didn't die for all humans, but only for some) just doesn't fit into that:
Because God is infinitely good and beautiful, theology must be good and beautiful or else it’s not true. When properly understood, the truth invites not only the mind’s assent but the heart’s affection. The truth should make your heart sing. This notion of the truth’s beauty is not an invention of secular humanism or some other boogey-man, but belongs to the deepest intuition of biblical Christian sensibilities. . .

The New Calvinists attempt to paint a ravishing picture of the manifold excellencies of the self-glorifying, all-determining God of Calvinism, expressed primarily through the doctrines of grace. I say that picture is a false veneer that only works when you ignore the reprobate. I say that picture cannot contain, as its central image, a crucified God who would rather die for sinners than give them what they deserve.

Why I Love Being a Black Girl by Austin Channing, is a horizon-enlarging viewpoint from a perspective I need to listen to:
Though there are many great soul food restaurants, none compare to the smell of my grandmothers dinner rolls wafting through the air, the sweet smell of history filling the small kitchen. We sat on the edge of our seats the night Michael moonwalked across the stage, then we hopped up and did it with him. We couldn't afford to see Whitney in concert, but you better believe we knew every note to every song... even if we couldn't reach it ourselves. The NBA possesses some great players, many of whom were good guys from around the way- taking girls to prom, participating in the school talent show, being cheered on by the brown faces around them. Yes, we do shape culture, but first we live it ourselves.

The Myth of the Absent Black Father at ThinkProgress, shows that things aren't always the way they have been made to look:
Considering the fact that “black fatherhood” is a phrase that is almost always accompanied by the word “crisis” in U.S. society, it’s understandable that the CDC’s results seem innovative. But in reality, the new data builds upon years of research that’s concluded that hands-on parenting is similar among dads of all races. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to bust this racially-biased myth. 
The Pew Research Center, which has tracked this data for years, consistently finds no big differences between white and black fathers.

Holiness Among Depraved Christians: Paul's New Form of Moral Flourishing by Richard Beck at Experimental Theology, shows a way to read and understand some of the main themes in Paul's epistles that really explains a lot:
Paul was setting up these Jesus-communities whose members consisted of, in the eyes of skeptical Jewish onlookers, morally depraved and wicked people. To Jewish onlookers it looked like Paul was handing the keys to the liquor cabinet to a bunch of alcoholics. Morally speaking, this was a recipe for disaster. Paul was hopping around, going from city to city, setting up these communities. And then leaving them! Without the Torah, and the habits of spiritual formation embedded in the culture of faith communities who had been shaped by Torah obedience generation after generation, how were these new Gentile Christians going to lead holy lives? 
This was the great moral experiment of Paul's gospel. Could a new form of moral flourishing emerge among the Gentiles separate from the Torah?'' . . .

In a nutshell this was the heart of Paul's vision for morally forming Gentiles: The Holy Spirit, the Golden Rule, and the Imitation of Christ. This, Paul felt, would be enough to transform depraved pagans into a "holy people." . . .

Specifically, Paul's Gentile churches were moral demonstrations to Jewish skeptics. And I think this explains a lot of why when Paul gets outside the core of his moral vision--the Golden Rule, the example of Jesus--he falls back upon Jewish (and Greco-Roman) visions of moral flourishing. I think this is why, for example, Paul's household codes are patriarchal. That's what Jewish moral flourishing at that time looked like. And given the skepticism Paul faced he was keen to make Gentile households look like Jewish households, seasoned albeit by the love ethic of Jesus (e.g., mutual submission).

The framework of fundamentalist propaganda distorts how we view every religion by Fred Clark at Slactivist, addresses the flaws in the reasoning that insists terrorists like ISIS embody what Islam is really all about, and counters the dangerous idea that all Muslims are evil, and that any Muslim who isn't evil isn't a "real" Muslim:

This framework is pervasive, shaping our perception of every religion, not just Islam. We’ve been tricked into seeing inquisitors and crusaders as a more genuine expression of any religion than that religion’s saints or mystics. We’ve swallowed the idea that the inquisitors must be correct in their interpretation of religious texts, while any who disagree with those interpretations must be willfully ignorant, or sweetly deluded by some irreligious “political correctness.”

And in this related post at Slacktivist, Clark makes this profound observation:
This kind of separatist/exclusivist, prideful fundamentalism will always be schismatic. That’s its nature. That’s true whether we’re talking about Real True Christians or Real True Muslims. Their entire self-concept is driven by the need to confirm their own authenticity by condemning the inauthenticity of others — or, rather, by accusing others of inauthenticity and seeking or inventing new ways to support that accusation. And they can never stop doing that. . .

Real True Christians do not base their identity on their devotion to the Bible or to the Creeds, but on finding ways to elevate themselves above other Christians they can denounce as false, apostate, liberal and inauthentic. Real True Muslims do not base their identity on their devotion to the Koran or to the pillars of their faith, but on finding ways to elevate themselves above other Muslims they can denounce as kuffar.

What this means for the rest of us is that we cannot hope to learn anything about the substance, character or meaning of any religion, belief system, or fandom, by looking to those who proclaim themselves the Real True believers. They may be the ones talking the loudest about “authentic” Christianity/Islam/fandom, but they are bound to be the least reliable examples of what such “authentic” belief might entail.
The idea that those whose religious practices are gentler, more loving, kinder and more accepting are somehow less sincere, less authentic in their faith than those who are harsher, more judgmental and intolerant, is something this blog continually strives to counter-- and not least by sharing these various links today.  As I've said many times, to follow Jesus's teaching and "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" includes listening to others with an open heart and mind.  And when we do that, it can't help but make us gentler, kinder and more accepting.

And I think that's what following Christ will lead us to in the end.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

If We Say We Have No Sin...

If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.… 1 John 1:8-9
This is a basic principle of Christianity: that we as human beings are prone to sin and error and should admit as much.  "Confession is good for the soul," the old saying goes, though our natural inclination is to deny error and not admit to wrongdoing.  This inclination seems especially prominent in politics, as this Washington Post article details:
No one likes to admit that they made a mistake. We have an ingrained reticence to do so, a near-primal response that little kids learn probably before they can speak. Admit your mistake, get punished. Don't, and maybe you can wiggle your way out of it. 
If your job involves being judged and evaluated by people, that instinct is almost certainly worse. And if your job involves being evaluated and you have a group of people committed to defending you on an ideological basis no matter what you say, admitting error becomes all but unthinkable.
Christian grace, on the other hand, is all about the freedom to admit wrong in ourselves and accept others in spite of their faults, knowing that God loves and forgives and wants us to do the same.  And I think this goes not just for our individual sins and errors, but for group ones too.  Humans don't just sin individually.  We sin as groups-- as nations, as communities, and yes, even as churches and religious communities.

So why are so many of us Christians involved in vigorous denial of any such thing?  Why are we more interested in defending ourselves than examining ourselves?  And why, when someone does point out how our group sins or how we might have participated in sin in the past or present, do we attack that person as if the only real wrong was the perceived insult to us?

The main thing that's bothering me is the reaction of prominent Christians against President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, when he said:
So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities -- the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends?

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India -- an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity -- but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs -- acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.

So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.
The response to this has been really troubling, as detailed in this Slate article, as prominent Republicans and conservative commentators (largely professing Christians)  "reject the suggestion that Christianity has anything to apologize for."  They claim that the Crusades were justified and were the fault of the Muslims (the same article claims the Church had "almost nothing to do with the Inquisition").  They claim that Jim Crow laws were over thousands of years ago instead of being part of  reality for the Baby-boomer generation.  They claim that Obama was wrong to claim Christians have any responsibility for racism. And they accuse the President of not being a real Christian because he would dare admit that yes, Christians and Christian communities have sinned.

And yet it's the person they're claiming isn't a real Christian who is following the Christian principles of humility and confession which they seem to have lost sight of.  I can't help thinking that politics are partly to blame.  I'm not saying Christians shouldn't get involved in politics or shouldn't vote their consciences-- but that's different from practically turning Christianity into a political movement. And when we do that, it's not surprising that we end up acting according to political "admit no wrong" wisdom.  However, President Obama is a politician and a Christian, and this time (possibly because he's not part of that movement) he got it right.  It's too bad that his Republican Christian opponents can't see wisdom when it comes from someone on the other team.

I think, actually, that defensiveness against any admission of racism is actually one of our biggest problems even today.

Racism is still very much a part of our reality today in America, and most, if not all, of us white people have imbibed racist attitudes to some extent just by being born, growing up and living here.  And yet we have also been taught to believe racism is some archaic evil from the past-- so what upsets us most is the idea that someone might think we're racist in some way, or call us a "racist" because of something we said or did. The Agabond blog calls it "the R-Word":
The r-word is the word“racist”. It is in effect the n-word for white people:they get upset when you call them that and lose all sense of reason. Even on the Internet it pretty much ends any fruitful talk about race. . . Two things are going on here: 
1. Many whites seem to think “racist” means joining the Ku Klux Klan, flying the Confederate flag, using the n-word, stuff like that.The old Jim Crow sort of racism that was common in America before 1970. Most white Americans born since then are colour-blind racists. It is this subtler racism that most people of colour have in mind when they use the word “racist”. 
2.  White Americans have a self-image of themselves as fair and just, of not being racist. So when you say they are racist it threatens their self-image. That is why they get so upset. 
But that self-image stands in the way of any further progress.
It is like the kind of patriotism where people feel threatened when you say anything bad about their country. It is a false patriotism that stands in the way of making their country better.
It's interesting to me that Agabond equates the same two things I've been talking about-- denial of racism with do-no-wrong Christian patriotism-- because I think they're both rooted in the same thing. We're being "conformed to this world," as Romans 12:2 says.  We're following our natural, human desire to exalt ourselves and our causes, and our natural unwillingness to admit to wrongdoing.  But Christ would have us humble ourselves, be assured of grace, and let go of our fear of being found in the wrong.

Anyway, it seems to me that I, as a white person, can't really understand what black people go through as well as they do themselves, and certainly not without listening to their side of things. But when I first started reading Agabond's blogsite, I had to quell my defensiveness and my sense of injury at this word "racist," and learn to say, "God's grace is with me, even if I'm racist in some way and don't know it-- so am I? Because God can help me change, but only if I admit the problem!"

The fact is that being so defensive against the word "racist" and "racism" is keeping us from seeing where we might need to confess and repent.  And this isn't the Christian way to live.

Dr. Beverly Tatum on the By Their Strange Fruit Website puts it so well:
I consider myself a racist in the same way that I consider myself a sinner in need of forgiveness (see post Basically Good). People bristle at both characterizations (“I’m a generally good person, I don’t need Jesus”; “I’m not a racist, I’m color blind”). But to me, these terms simply identify the latent issues that I know I still have to work on, which is better than pretending the issues aren't there at all.
 As Christians, we ought to be the first to admit that Christians have done (and still do) wrong.  We ought to be the first to examine ourselves, the first to confess our errors and faults, and the errors and faults of our group, our nation, our community. The fact is that many times our faults are visible to the observing world anyway-- and when we act blind to them, we only come across as hypocrites.

Gregg Easterbrook in a 2011 Reuter's editorial encapsulates what most people probably really think when we do that:
Just as lying about what you did may be worse than what you did, refusing to admit an error may be worse than the error itself. 
All human beings occasionally are wrong — trust me, I’ve had plenty of experience! Honest admission of error makes a person upright and sympathetic. Refusing to admit error, by contrast, suggests deviousness or even megalomania.
We aren't enhancing either our own reputations, or God's, when we refuse to even open our eyes to our wrongs, much less confess and apologize. And we're not doing Christianity any good by pressing it into the service of a political agenda.

It's just making our Christianity look less and less Christian.