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.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Church and Art, Part II: The media is art too

It's a fascinating thing, watching Christianity interact with today's teenagers. Evangelical Christianity, in particular, is often amusingly out-of-touch with the realities of day-to-day life as an American teen. Take for example a prototypical Focus on the Family advice article about protecting your teen from "bad" entertainment. "Make a family constitution", the article advises, "and then weed out whatever music/movies/games don't fit your constitution!" The thing that strikes me about the article is how juvenile the tone seems. Teenagers now are smart about media: most are adept at getting it online for free, and at keeping it on computers or MP3 players, often in hidden folders designed to prevent parental access. Boys have been hiding Playboys from their mothers for years; girls discover fanfiction online, or pass around Cosmo magazines at school during lunch.

The funny thing isn't that FotF is advising a campaign that won't work with today's media-saavy teen, it's that they're approaching the subject from the same point of view as they approach movies like The Golden Compass: they give a nod to the idea of discussing themes in the media from a Christian viewpoint, but ultimately advocate strongly for a strategy of total avoidance as the only "biblical" approach. Every time I see one of these articles (and they are plentiful in the Christian press), I want to shout "Prostitutes!". Jesus hung out with prostitutes! He slept in brothels, and chatted all day long with heathens. He would have been in the corner with the goths and the yearbook freaks in high school. He'd have written letters to the editors of Playboy, making points about female exploitation.

"In and not of" is the soundbyte that gets bandied about a lot in relation to Christianity and the arts and entertainment world. Christians are supposedly to be "in the world but not of it". This is scriptural, a direct quote, in fact, but I don't think it means what a lot of Christians take it to mean. Jesus didn't mean "shun all R-rated entertainment and don't listen to pop bands", he meant "do those things, then think about God while doing them". Being in and not of the world means being completely in the world, doing what the world does, seeing what it sees, and then engaging your brain to think about how the world is commenting on (or how we could comment on) religion in relation to the secular. Jesus is saying be in dialogue with God, listen to what God is saying about the actual things of the world. Not the hypothetical, "I haven't seen it, but I'm sure its evil because it's rated R" things of the world, but the things of the world that we've experienced and understand.

Why is it important not to avoid supposedly "secular" entertainment? (Secular is in scare quotes because I don't think there's a distinction between sacred and secular entertainment, except for perhaps how "secular" entertainment has better production values.) Because it's impossible to minister to a world that knows you don't understand it. Try talking about a movie you've never seen with people who've actually viewed it multiple times. You may be able to make vague generalizations, but they will understand plot details, be able to analyze tone and intention in ways that will completely escape you as a non-viewer. If you keep the conversation up for long, they will realize that you haven't seen the film, and will discount your opinions about it, because you clearly have no idea what you're talking about. Similarly, trying to minister to people who live in the real world while trying to remain aloof and in the Christian subculture is like asking people who've seen a film to accept your vehement opinions when it's clear that you don't know what you're talking about. That's why Jesus wasn't hanging out with the temple priests (even though he could debate with them on their own level): because if he'd only hung out with the elite temple subculture, he'd have missed the opportunity to realistically minister to the normal people who needed it. Instead, he'd gone fishing with them, he'd eaten in their brothels, he'd held his debates by their wells. They knew that he understood their lives and their experiences as well as they did. So when he said "look, there's a better way out there", it sounded genuine.

Likewise, when a newly-fanatical parent says to a modern teen "This media/art/video game is unChristian! Let's write a family constitution and get rid of it!", the teen is likely to roll their eyes and just hide the porn a little better. They know that the parent, cocooned in their Christian subculture, has no idea what the world the teen is living in is like. It's a common enough complaint for teens anyway ("You don't understand me!"), and in cases like these it's justified. The parent is making no attempt to have the same experiences as the teen and believe in God anyway, they're avoiding it all in hopes that the big scary world will go away. Teens know it's a recipe for being uncool, but the fact is, it's also a recipe for immature Christianity. The only real way to reach teens, or non-Christians, is to be in the world in every sense. That way, when we as Christians talk to non-Christians, we can genuinely say "We get it. We've been there, we've seen the film, rode the ride, got the T-shirt. And you know what? God still matters."

Monday, December 24, 2007

Holding Out For A Hero

Our church's sermon yesterday was oddly political for a Christmas message. The general theme went something like this: Jesus was born to be a moral leader, and clearly amoral liberal culture is brainwashing us all and killing kittens, so we need a moral leader now. Elect Huckabee as President, QED.

This is something I've noticed for years in discussions about politics: they're never framed as discussions about politics. They're discussions about morality, or about safety, or about anything other than the actual policies that the future President/Senator/dogcatcher in question intends to enact. America cares more about who's holier when electing its President than about who has a substantive plan to prop up Social Security.

Why is this, and does this impulse that we have towards electing happy heroes rather than policy wonks actually have a place in representative democracy?

The reasons for this impulse are plentiful, I think. One of the main ones is that people like to measure candidates based on their own experiences. Precious few of us have ever had to think deeply enough about energy policy to craft a coherent national strategy, but we've all thought about whether the death penalty is good at some point. We relate to candidates' thoughts about topics like the death penalty or abortion, because they're something that Joe Ordinary, sitting in his desk chair and drinking his coffee, can figure out or at least think deeply about. Energy policy, on the other hand, would require Joe Ordinary to do quite a bit of research, and isn't something that he can come up with opinions about on the fly.

Now, ease of contemplation should not be a measuring stick for how important an issue is. The death penalty affects only a very limited portion of the population at any given time, while energy policy affects all of us every minute of the day. Nonetheless, I'd bet anything I own that more people can describe a given candidate's stance on abortion or the death penalty than can describe their proposed energy policy. People fixate on issues they can understand, whether or not those issues are representative of what will constitute a good leader.

Another reason that the electorate focuses on issues that don't matter in lieu of questions of importance is that we aren't electing a Chief Executive. Sure, that's the actual position that the victorious candidate will end up filling, but that's not how the electorate conceptualizes the position when they vote to fill it. No, when America goes to the polls to fill the position we call 'President', most people are in fact voting for Figurehead in Chief. They are choosing someone who will represent them, and the emphasis is placed on 'represent' in the figurehead sense rather than in the policy-making sense. America wants a President who is like them, who represents the electorate in the sense of being the same as much of the electorate. That's why Romney's religion is such a sticking point: most Americans aren't Mormon, and are reluctant to elect someone who is unlike them. Romney's speech addressing the issue was indicative: there was very little actual Mormon doctrine in the speech (something to the tune of two sentences worth), and a whole lot of generalized solidarity. Romney knows where his bread is buttered: he needs to be as like the electorate as possible if he wants them to elect him.

Is this a useful approach to electing a President? Not particularly. The sad fact is, the vast majority of Americans are fundamentally unsuited to holding the most powerful office on the planet. Electing someone who resembles these Americans seems like a poor method of getting someone who will be competent. But national political strategists figured out over a century ago that emotional appeals (and the knowledge that a candidate is desirable because he is like you in some way is a form of emotional appeal) are far more powerful than logical ones. Logical appeals take time, take effort and consideration on the part of the electing public. Emotional appeals bypass the effort and time, and produce instant attachment to a candidate. So national political strategies are crafted around the idea of keeping policy out of debates, while focusing them on how similar a candidate might be to you, the potential voter.

If similarity to the voting public doesn't seem like a reliable way to elect a leader who's good at the things that would make for an outstanding President, why do people so consistently use that criteria as the primary one in making their decisions? Well, there is one argument that gives the impulse a little traction. The idea is that a voter can't possibly know what decisions a President will have to make, so it's best to elect someone very similar in values and life situation to the voter, in hopes that the candidate will make decision in the same way that the voter would when faced with these hypothetical situations. If we elect someone who is enough like us, maybe that person's decisions will accurately track our own decisions in situations that we can't know about.

It's an interesting selection strategy, because it relies heavily on the idea of the grand unknown. The key to making this selection strategy more appealing than a strategy that chooses a candidate based on known values like issues positions is the idea of the unknown. The situation that would come up to make a selection strategy like this plausible would need to be:

a) vitally important, even more important than issues like energy and Social Security on which candidates can produce platforms in advance.
b) completely unforeseeable to the electorate in advance. Basing a selection strategy on choosing someone whose decisions you hope will track yours is only useful if you think they'll be making decisions that there was no way you yourself could foresee (if you could foresee it, you could ask them about it, and the 'trust that they're like you' strategy starts making less sense).

Granted, some decisions like this do arise. Wars are usually unforeseeable. Terrorist events are likewise unpredictable, though I would argue that a candidate's general security strategy is probably enough to give a good idea of how they'd respond to such eventualities. Upon considerations, though, I would guess that there are fewer situations that would fit both of those criteria than one might imagine. The big domestic issues that a given President will face are generally foreseeable by the electorate before the election. If that's indeed the case, why choose a candidate based on how similar they are to us, when we could choose a candidate based on what they actually think?

... I don't know. There aren't easy conclusions here. I only know that people do it, in spite of logical evidence that such a strategy might reliably produce less-than-fit candidates for the job. Can we stop people from doing it? Would a massive, nationwide "Think about Issues!" campaign successfully get Joe Ordinary to take a break from his coffee and decide which candidate can actually present the best plans and policies, and not just a vague sense of moral feel-good?

Probably not.