Thursday, January 24, 2008

Whole Lotta Talk About Love

I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but it's way past time that the Christian church had a conversation about love.

What prompted my latest outburst? Well, I watched the movie Juno, which is about a teen who gets pregnant, and decides to give the baby up for adoption. At the end of the movie, Juno's child is adopted by a loving and infertile woman who is convinced she was born to be a mother, and Juno ends up happily in a relationship with the child's father. There's no guilt, no unhappiness, and surprisingly few negative consequences to her pregnancy.

The surprising thing about the movie (to me at least) has been the astonishingly mixed reaction from the church (where by 'church' I mean the SBC). There have been some reactions of 'good, she didn't get an abortion', but just as many reactions of 'That slut!' or 'That film is unrealistic for not portraying the many negative consequences of pregnancy!". In mainstream culture, the movie has been embraced, and has been nominated for four Oscars. Many review have noted that, contrary to the Evangelical 'it's unrealistic!' meme, the film is fairly unflinching at the undesirable aspects of pregnancy (physical changes, concerns about the worthiness of potential adoptive families, etc).

Which brings me to the topic of this post. I recently ran across an article on Girl With Pen from a noted sex researcher, who talks about Juno. She's not interested in the sex, though, or in the portrayal of pregnancy. She's interested in the portrayal of love, and specifically teenage love. She points out that a lot of objections to the film came from an interesting source: the belief that it's not realistic for a teenager to find real romantic love. The fact is, our (American) culture doesn't talk that much about the possibility of love for teens. Subtly, there's a pervasive message that teenagers can't really fall in love, that somehow one needs more life experience or something in order to be validated in one's emotions, or capable of commitment. Parents tell their daughters not to sleep with their boyfriends, because regardless of the way that the girl feels, she can't really be in love.

And to some degree that's true. More life experience does in some ways deepen emotions or emotional commitment. But I think that it's true to a far lesser degree than many people suppose. Greater life experience also omplicates emotions and emotional commitments, and often those complications can make it more difficult for a couple to remain committed, not less. How quickly we forget that the great love stories of all time took place between teenagers. Romeo and Juliet (however ill-fated) were probably eighteen and fifteen respectively. Mary and Joseph were likewise probably in their teens. History is filled with the stories of teens who fell in love, got married, and lived happily ever after.

Our era, however, looks in askance on a twenty-year old who gets married. 'She's too young', people say, 'She doesn't know her own mind'. There's a certain element of patronization to this statement, especially since many parents were in their late teens or early twenties themselves when they were married. But there's also an assumption, which I don't think that many people realize that they're making: teens aren't capable of valid emotions, because of their age. I think that teens are capable of a lot more than society gives them credit for, personally.

But my personal opinions aside, what implications does this have for the church? Well, for one thing, it makes the whole 'abstinence until marriage' thing more difficult than it ever was before. Even fifty years ago, many couples were married before the age of twenty. Is it so surprising that many place the average age of first sexual experience now at nineteen? The average age of first sex hasn't changed, it's just that the average age of marriage has risen sharply.

Abstinence isn't the only thing that gets complicated when we implicitly tell teenagers that their emotions aren't valid, though. Many people make commitments to religion based on an emotional state, on the feeling of experiencing God. Over the past five or so years, it's been a growing concern among SBC churches that youth ministries are shrinking, and that it's harder to draw teens and youth to church. Most of the literature within the denomination that I've seen attributes this to the supposed evils of secular culture, but I think that's got far less to do with the problem than a more organic cause: it's difficult to keep teens involved in church when the church constantly sends an implicit message that their emotions and feelings aren't valid. From stories of 'summer camp romance', which are winked at patronizingly by adults in the youth group to bombardments of 'wait for marriage, and wait to marry until you're old enough' messaging in literature, teens are assailed by the idea that their judgment isn't good enough when it comes to their own emotions. And I think that this may be the single largest, and single least-acknowledged, factor in the attrition that most churches experience once their devout children become teenagers.

I think that it is time for the church to have a talk about love. And this time, amybe it will include all its members.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Church and Art, Part III: The Beholder's Eye

In Part I of this series, I established that I disagreed with the way that Evangelical Christianity greeted the film The Golden Compass, for two primary reasons:

1) The film did not seem threatening to Christian beliefs, as it depicted a church and god that were clearly not the Christian church and/or God.

2) Even if the film was viewed as a critique of the Christian church/religion, the proper way to respond to critique is to consider it and then address the critique by showing why it's invalid or reframing the debate, not to refuse to consider the criticisms at all. Refusal to address criticism is not a sign of faith or loyalty, but of weak belief.

Given that, I wish today to address the question of why Christians habitually respond to challenging art in the same way that they did the Golden Compass film: by refusing to view it, and by attempting to censor it without considering or addressing the critique implicit in the art itself. I've thought a little about it, and my conclusion is that Christians, and fundamentalist Christians (cough*SBC*cough) in particular, lack a coherent philosophy of aesthetics on which to evaluate art.

What does this mean? Well, when a secular art critic looks at art, they evaluate it based on a number of metrics: Is it beautiful to look at? Is it thought provoking? Did the artist have a clear purpose or message in mind when she/he created it? Does it succeed in communicating that message? Is it valuable as cultural commentary, or as a symptom of a larger cultural moment? Does it make allusions or enter a dialogue with prior works of art, and if so, what does it add to that tradition/dialogue? There are many, many other ways that art gets evaluated on the secular art scene, but suffice it to say, there is clearly a deep and interesting aesthetic philosophy that motivates a secular art critic's response to a work.

Christians, on the other hand, seem to have a disturbing tendency to evaluate artwork based on a single metric: Does it seem portray a message that is sympathetic to Christian values? A painting that depicts Christian virtues, by this metric, is valuable art. A film that questions or demeans Christian values (as many Christians seem to suppose the Golden Compass would), by this standard of evaluation, is not valuable.

The problem with using this as the only, or even as the primary, metric for Christian art criticism is that it seems to get a lot of situations wrong. It allows for praising common kitschy Jesus art (as one sees in convenience stores and Family Christian Book stores, in the Left Behind series of books and many other so-called Christian novels, or in low-budget Christian films with gooey morals and terrible acting), but eliminates many extraordinary achievements of artistic technique as unworthy (The Dark Materials books, for example. Or most of the work by Titian or Delacroix, films like The Godfather or Citizen Kane, music like Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen or Schumann's Dieterliebe or countless others). The problem with this Christian aesthetic is that it may applaud many works which seem aesthetically bankrupt by other metrics, like measurements of artistic achievement or cultural significance, while ignoring landmark works simply because they are not explicitly Jesus-oriented.

How, then, should a Christian evaluate art? I would argue that the answer is the same as for a secular art critic: by standards of beauty, depth of thought and message, and cultural significance. The (insufficient) standard that many Christians seem to use might be paraphrased as 'how holy is it?' or 'does it cause me to turn my eyes towards God?' It is not art's responsibility, however, to turn our eyes towards God, nor should that be its goal. It is our own responsibility to see to our spiritual condition, to consider the spiritual implications of a piece of art that we see, whether or not that art is explicitly religious. Therefore we should aesthetically evaluate art just as any secular critic might. The 'Christian' aspect of interacting with art should come not in evaluating what art is valuable to see, or what art is worthy or promotion, but instead should come after we see the art, in evaluating our own response as viewers. There's no reason to shy away from or censor controversial art. It's in examining not the art itself, but our own responses to that art that the valuable lessons lie.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Everyone's a little bit crazy, but some are crazier than others.

It's always funny to me to read/listen to other religions explaining themselves. This, for example. It's Tom Cruise, giving little soundbytes on Scientology.

The funny thing about it is that if you substituted "Christianity" for "scientology", and changed a few jargon words, he could easily be an Evangelical Christian. A Southern Baptist, in fact. It's all so remarkably similar, listening to Tom Cruise talk about how to evangelize for Scientology, and listening to a new Southern Baptist missionary who's still all excited about his job. It's also a little scary.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Killing Bulls

Unwisely, I suppose, I recently asked the pastor of our church why Jesus died. He looked at me like I'd lost my mind, and said very slowly, as though he was speaking to a small child, "For our sins?"

I rolled my eyes. "Yes, for our sins blah blah blah. But why? What is it about God that demands sacrifice?" The crux of the Gospels is that question, and so very few people ever think to even ask it. Sure, maybe Jesus died for our sins. But what in the world does that mean? Why did he even need to die in the first place?

My pastor was still a little boggled. I don't know that he'd ever considered what those words "died for our sins" meant. "Uh, think about it," he said, "I'm sure you'll figure it out."

Sure, thanks Rev. Lots of help that was. In my quest for an answer, I went online (duh), and one of the first hits on google for "why did jesus die" was this page. It's a rambling little rant about how God respects us so much he gave us free will, and how somehow that means Jesus had to die.

Call me skeptical. Actually, call me laughing my ass off. This person has huge problems understanding what 'free will' actually means (hint: it doesn't mean that a choice made by one person gets passed down to the rest of the human race, who then by definition have no ability to make that choice on their own), so his ramblings are a bit off. But it's mostly a great argument for not understanding the creation story literally.

Even if we ditch biblical literalism, though, we haven't solved the problem of Jesus. Why does God need a sacrifice? What is it about sin that needs a sacrifice to forgive? Yes, it's antithetical to God's nature, but let's think about that a little bit. It's the opposite of God. God hates it so much that he's willing to condemn you to hell for all eternity. Burning, burning hell for all eternity. All eternity. So let's just suppose (you know, for argument's sake) that God really, really hates sin. Think of it as the anti-God. If God and sin meet, maybe they eliminate each other in a huge explosion, I dunno. Anyway, God hates it.

Why sacrifice, then? If sin is the anti-God, then what is it about sacrifice that eliminates the unholiness of sin? Think about the Old Testament: bull calves or lambs were enough to atone for most sins. What magic of bulls, when they're sacrificed, makes the anti-God (sin) okay enough that God can be fine with it? How does this forgiveness thing work, if such a metaphysically insignificant thing as a bull can somehow transmute the anti-God into something that God can be okay with?

If I stop and try to answer that question honestly, I know that there's nothing metaphysically special about bulls. It's the repentance behind the idea of sacrifice that matters. The bull is just a physical manifestation of someone saying "Look, I screwed up, and I'm sorry." But the fact remains: repentance alone isn't enough. Plenty of really poor ancient Jews repented of their sins, but they weren't considered clean again until they could scrape up the money to make the appropriate offerings. So repentance alone isn't enough; there's something about sacrifice that gets to God in a difference way than a simple "I'm sorry".

What am I getting to here? Well, what we think about sacrifice is inextricably related to what we think about Jesus. Wait, let me rephrase: what we think about sacrifice just is what we think about Jesus, if we accept the truism that "Jesus was the lamb of God; a sacrifice for our sins". So explaining what's special about bulls is central to the question of explaining why Christianity matters: both are answers that get at the question of why "I'm sorry" isn't enough for God's forgivenenss, and sacrifice by death is required.

I think that in the future, I'll post more on a few of the schools of thought surrounding the metaphysics of sacrifice in the Christian paradigm. Now that I've started reading about it, there are some interesting things that people have said, and that I want to say in response. But this post is long enough, so I'll leave off here for now.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Barack Hussein Obama

It's been less than five hours since the Iowa caucuses were certified for Obama, but already a disturbing trend is arising in the media. Barack Hussein Obama. Barack Hussein, not to be confused with Saddam Hussein or other Muslims. Hussein Obama, not to be confused with Osama or other Muslims.

There's been a tendency in both the mainstream news sources and right-wing blogs to pointedly use Barack's middle name. Hussein. Why does it matter? No one refers to Willard Mitt Romney. Your average Joe Oblivious probably can't even tell you Mitt is Romney's middle name, much less what his first name is. Why Obama, then?

Because Barack's name sounds foreign. It sounds like a dictator we went to war to depose, just like his last name sounds like a terrorist we still can't find. Unlike 'Willard', news sources use Barack's middle name because it sounds non-Christian, even if he isn't. Because sad as it is, those things matter to the American people.

The really interesting thing is how closely the 'Muslim' meme (the false suggestion that Obama is Muslim) gets connected to his name. America won't elect a Muslim any more than it will elect a Mormon. The fact that Obama is a member of the United Church of Christ is secondary to how a few syllables sound. Tactics like this in our political scene never fail to frustrate me.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Hegel And I Chat About Spiritless Ages

There's sort of a funny paradox about the soundbytes I've heard recently about the health (or lack thereof) of Christianity in modern culture. Christians claim that they're persecuted, and that they must evangelize to spread what they view as a marginalized belief system in a godless culture. Atheists and non-evangelicals, on the other hand, have bemoaned the influence of Christianity in the culture, and assert that religion is less a marginalized sub-culture than a pervasive influence, whose often-backwards ideas must be combatted in the name of fairness and human rights.

People on both sides of the debate seem to assume that it's a recent development; Christians in particular often seem to long for a time in the past when Christianity was somehow the only cultural influence. Reading some early analytic philosophy recently, I realized that the feeling is anything but recent. Hegel talks about the same thing in Enlightenment-era Germany.

Ah, Hegel. Kant's truest and brightest idealist son, father of the modern logicians. With Kant, one of the most famously difficult-to-read of all philosophical writers. Without a doubt, Hegel is a giant in the philosophical tradition, difficult to decipher though he may be. He is not, however, to my knowledge commonly read as a religious philosopher. This is actually a bit of a curiosity, since he spent his early years as a theology student, and much of his early writing is religion-centered. The later work on logic is best-known of his oeuvre, but his work in philosophy of religion anticipates Kierkegaard on a number of salient points.

In a series of early essays, Hegel writes about what he sees as the major problem with religion in his day: its objectivity. Hegel defines 'objective religion' as the outward aspects of religious life that can be codified in formal ceremonies, historical traditions, and discursive doctrines. I highlight discursive doctrines, because I think it's important to remember, while reading Hegel, that objective religion isn't just comprised of the religious things one does. It also includes the discourses that represent or typify a large body of believers. Hegel makes the point that in their own ways, these discourses are just as ceremonial as the actual sacraments. Taking the Lord's Supper and ascribing to an anti-choice mindset are both objective aspects of religion, on Hegel's reading of it.

These things are objective in comparison to the other prong of the dialectic that Hegel is developing: subjective religion. Subjective religion is the person-by-person experience of God. It's impossible to codify, because it will necessarily be different for every person who experiences it. Hegel believes that both elements are necessary in a living religious tradition, but worries that in his age the objective is becoming divorced from the subjective, leaving only objective religious structures (or dialogues) that linger long after the subjective reasons that motivated them have left or changed. When this happens, the objective traditions can be maintained only by coercion from authorities, or by "superstitious adherence to pure external formalities". Hegel labels such spiritless belief "fetishism".

On the other hand, subjective belief, per Hegel, is "alive, effective in the inwardness of our being, and is active in our outward behavior. Subjective religion is fully individuated, objective religion is abstraction..." Subjective religion is the only way to interact with God, and is thus in many ways more important than objective religion. But there's a hitch: because subjective religion is so individual, it's not conducive to participating with others in the joys of the faith, as Jesus commanded. To solve this problem, Hegel's dialectic resolves itself: the opposition between the subjectivity of the individuated believer and the objectivity of established religion is overcome through a process of personal appropriation wherein the believer reconciles outward expressions with inner feelings and intentions, so that instead of being coercive, the external forms are adapted to objectify internal dispositions and creatively guide individual and corporate activities for all members of a given community. (That was me trying to clarify his points. See why Hegel is the very devil to understand sometimes?)

The point is, Hegel sees in his age the same problem that many liberal (or even just non-fundamentalist) Christians see in ours: people adhere dogmatically to certain doctrines or traditions "because the Bible says so", or "because it's always been that way", but do so with no understanding of the deeper reasoning behind the doctrines. Death penalty? Reproductive choice? Feminism? Queer rights? All of these are issues that fundamentalists dogmatically oppose, but often with a very limited understanding of why. Hegel sees this behavior as a harmful divorce of the objective from the subjective: an individual Evangelical may oppose feminism because the pastor said women should be submissive, but their opposition has no relation to any subjective beliefs that they may hold about the nature of God. Similarly, if you ask them to articulate a connection between their subjective concept of a God that is all-loving and cares deeply for all his creations, and their objective espousal of a homophobic stance on gay marriage, very few can remain coherent in their explanation under even the most superficial questioning. I think I agree with Hegel that there's a significant way in which the objective practice of religion has become divorced from subjective religious life, to the detriment of both.

But how to resolve this conflict? Should we all become hermits or ascetics, eschewing all to concentrate on our subjective spiritual lives? No, says Hegel, if you do that then you miss out on all the good that worshiping together can bring. Instead, the answer is an effort from every believer to integrate the subjective and objective religious lives. Think about what you're doing, he says, and then think about why you're doing it and how that relates to your most fundamental beliefs.

It sounds so easy. It's not, though, particularly for Christians who have good ideas about what their subjective beliefs are like, but find that most of the objective rituals and discussions in their local church conflict with those beliefs. Hegel describes the ideal reconciliation of the objective and subjective opposites as a sort of 'folk religion', vital yet necessarily localized.

What does one do, though, when the folk religion of one's locality (Evangelical Christianity in the Bible Belt South for me, heretical Lutheranism in Enlightenment Germany for Hegel) necessarily excludes one's subjective beliefs? Well, if you're Hegel, you realize that perhaps the proper folk religion for your beliefs isn't located in space-time, per se, but in a system of ideas. You begin to study Kant, and you write in a tradition that allows you to examine your beliefs in the context of generations of other philosophers talking about the same things. If you're me, you likewise realize that perhaps the proper community for your beliefs isn't located in space-time, per se. So you go online, and discover other scattered liberal Christians, alienated in their own localities, but slowly resolving their dialectics nonetheless by creating a dialogue, forming new traditions and new celebrations, in the communities found online. My method is a lot less likely to make me immortal than Hegel's, but hey, at least I'm easier to read.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

May Allah Grant Her Rest

I'd like to take a moment to mourn the passing of Benazir Bhutto, killed earlier today at a political rally. She will be remembered as twice Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the first woman to lead a Muslim country. Her regime was not without corruption (far from it), but at the same time, she was an example and a figurehead for Muslim women and Muslim centrists alike.

Her killer shot her in the neck and chest, then blew himself up during a campaign rally. About twenty others are also estimated to have died.