Thursday, January 19, 2017

Post Election Political Philosophy

I'm disappointed, but it doesn't change my mind. I had a lot of people subtly and no-so-much ask, "Are you happy now - your privileged non-involvement got us Trump?" I mean, yeah, it's almost impossible not to have a preference when presented with the choice between two things - and the candidate I would've preferred to win, lost - but as Brian Zahnd is fond of saying, "Does anyone know the name of the 45th Roman Emperor?" (It was Probus, by the way, but the point remains.)

I don't think its necessarily wise to elect a sick person President of the United States, but Lord knows he's not the only narcissist to ever hold the most powerful office in the world (you can go back to that Roman Emperor list and throw darts). I certainly don't agree with his overarching philosophy or "me (or 'us') first," but that political philosophy is hardly new, it's just been stated more plainly.

This isn't an apology for Trump, either - I think those "respect the office, if not the man" arguments are way misguided. Our tradition has been "respect the office, if not the politics." Personal moral failure has been cause for resignation or impeachment in modern Presidencies.* I do think, though, people have too thoroughly conflated politics and personal morality, using Trump's abhorrentness to justify a vilification of everything he says. This is typical practice in political debates (regardless of whether the person in question has questionable morality or not) and thus holds little weight with the other side.

What I've been saying, and continue to believe is that there is no such thing as good and evil when it comes to gov'ts and elections. The pure pursuit and wielding of power is harmful to the world, unless its rejected and given away. Pope Francis is confounding everyone simply because he's refusing to use his power for anything other than loving people. Neither the conservatives nor the liberals can quite understand why he's not using the power he's been given to do more - of anything. I suspect he's just trying to wield power in a way that might be consistent with the theology that is supposed to run the Church.

We get seduced by celebrity and by power. It's no different if its Obama or Trump, just because we happen to like the ways in which one or the other uses that power. As I've said all along, the emperor has no clothes - the position is so revered and powerful because WE, THE PEOPLE, have made it that way. When we play into the power games, we support them. It can't just be something we pick or choose depending on our perspective.

In that sense, I have no problem separating Trump the man from a Trump administration. Power is generally nameless and faceless anyway, despite our desire to personalize it. I feel it will be pretty easy to critique both without having to mix them. It's different for my generation certainly because we've had Presidents our entire lives who were generally kind and decent people. Yeah, nobody's perfect - and one of them was, at best, super creepy, and at worse a serial sexual predator - but we've not generally had real moral issues with the personal lives of Presidents. It's new, and it's hard to deal with. I don't know that I'll ever be able to say the phrase "President Trump," out loud - it just doesn't compute with my life experience - but that's an entirely different thing than critiquing power or how its used.

I see it as the same kind of debate as abortion - the popular practice is to argue over its legality, but people rarely pause to consider its place within a larger moral framework of life and death - we're too individualized. When it comes to Presidents, we're much too consumed with arguing the minutia of bills, and executive orders, and judicial precedent, than we are about how these fit within the large framework of humanity and our responsibility to each other.

This power, and participation in it, is seductive. It makes us forget that the Affordable Care Act is, and always was, a giant travesty of legislation, argued by committee and amended piecemeal to get passage, and never really tackling the core issues of healthcare costs in the first place. It was, however, a grand step forward for the philosophical ideal that all people should be taken care of. Read the stories; people were well aware of that difference at the time; few are today. It's become a political football, not representative of the issue itself, but the struggle for power. That doesn't make it unimportant, but it does, perhaps, I'd argue, illustrate that the halls of power are not the means by which we should work to achieve whatever large ideals we hope to see embodied in the world.

The very magic of power is that it leads people to forget that other options exist. It is the Turkish Delight that blinds us to reality. That doesn't change just because it starts going badly. In fact, it's much easier to have an emperor who's an enemy than one who seems like a friend. Just look what Constantine did to the Church the first time around? Or Henry VIII? Or King Cyrus?

It's far too easy for us to imagine that power and empire are the way to get things done.

I am certainly a pragmatist at heart - in many ways, too much so - but I've learned, through this faith journey, that idealism matters. Not even that one should take precedence, but that one should never be sacrificed for the other. You have to do that in power politics, which is why I like to steer clear - and why I'd recommend others do also.

We are not called to do big things - maybe the creation of the nation state is our modern Babel - we are called to love those around us, and whatever we do in the realm of elective politics, those personal, everyday relationships can never take a back seat.

I've been thinking all along I'd just avoid the Inauguration coverage - and I'm not going to go out of my way to see it - but it is interesting and it feels almost like ignoring something both historcially significant and personally fascinating out of, I don't know, spite or personal offense, is playing directly into the hands of power I just spent all this time denouncing.

I have to get a haircut today. If I miss a speech or two, oh well, and I'm headed out this afternoon to the giant, public, welcome home party for Joe Biden - someone I respect a lot for keeping his sanity in the midst of insanity (even as I regret his choice of where to place a lifetime of energy and effort). I'm going to treat it like a regular day, because that's what it is.

During this week of MLK celebration, I agree with his famous quote, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." I just feel its far too limiting for politicians to invoke it as support for policy. Justice and peace and goodness and love are much bigger than that - we have to remember.

*And the revelations of Kennedy's bedroom antics took him off the list of "great Presidents" and put him on the list of "interesting historical celebrities."

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Blog is Back... Maybe

It's been a long vacation. I'd like to blame a lot of things. I was genuinely depressed after the election. I wrote a few things I'd been working on before Nov 8th and put them up, maybe a few reflections (garbled and incoherent as they may be) and then largely left it alone. I'm not so much upset by the ideas or the party than won - there are always things that go poorly, even if the best candidate comes out on top. Too much has been written about such things and I find no real reason to pile upon them - but let's say the best metaphor I've found to describe me feelings is that it's as if our country elected Bill Cosby President. Whatever his public words or opinions happen to be are entirely besides the point. That's what's so depressing.

I can't blame the lack of writing on the election, though - not entirely. I was certainly uninspired to write for a while (although you'll see there's an Advent reflection and a book review posted in the interim) and I'm not sure that inspiration is back yet. It's hard to tell, you see, because I have, in fact, been doing quite a bit of writing. During the basketball season, for those unaware, I am the Lead Columnist for and you can find several thousands of words I've written in the last few weeks there.

I know I shouldn't be depressed about the prolonged absence. I missed one post over Thanksgiving and then two before Christmas, but you've not heard from me since December 22, which is the longest absence I've had here in years. I don't think I should be upset with myself or apologetic for being busier. But the truth is, even if I couldn't have made all my normally scheduled (self-imposed) deadlines, I could have made some of them. I've gotten a bit lazy.

So, there is it. The election - a happy reminder that I was a bit too tied up in things I've worked really hard not to be tied up in; the basketball season - a really awesome (paying) outlet for my writing bug; and plain old laziness - a monkey I can't ever seem to get off my back.

Will I return in this new year? Perhaps. I'd sure like to. There are a lot of "drafts" sitting in the blog hopper. I'd like to keep up and maybe even back fill the space to mask my laziness for future generations (although this post may certainly reveal the truth).

I've got a few things to say - some reviews to make. I might even get around to the Grammy Best Album nominees as has been my tradition (although the thought of that is dreadful right now). We'll see.

I'm writing, at least - and that is a start.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

La La Land

The opening moments of La La Land are rapturous. The vivid colors and lively music, set beside the modern, Los Angeles off-ramp exploding into choreographed song and dance just fill the heart with joy. It's an impressive set piece, the magnitude of which is not lost on the audience. The film does an admirable job keeping that notion alive, although the rest of the movie does not quite maintain those soaring heights. The acting performances from Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are exquisite, reassembling their chemistry from Crazy, Stupid, Love, where they were the most redeeming part of an otherwise average movie.

The problems in La La Land are not really something they can control. Writer/Director Damian Chazelle (Whiplash) does such a perfect job showing us pure, unadulterated beauty through the first part of the film that inevitable conflict seems like defeat. I know no serious critic or film buff would praise a movie that's just a hand-off love story set to music, but darn it if that isn't what I wanted. The story we get, while formulaic in its bones, is paid off in its own kind of beauty. It's fulfilling if not fantastical and a real credit to the quality of the writing.

In the end, La La Land was just OK. It may very well be one of the ten best movies of the year - I'm not doubting its quality - I just think perhaps it was built up a little too much in my mind going in. There was a span, in the middle, when the drama was picking up, that they went so long without a musical number, when the next one struck, it took me five seconds to figure out why a character was uncharacteristically bursting into song. The songs are great, though, catchy and rewatchable - I couldn't help but think, in the might-have-been flashback towards the end, that the movie depicted there wouldn't have been a more interesting story to tell.

It was worth the trip to the theater, if only for the color palate splayed across the big screen, and I'd certainly recommend it to anyone, but I suspect if this movie wins Best Picture at the Oscars, it will be a really down year overall.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Atonement and Salvation by Eric M Vail

I'll be honest, when I got more than halfway through this book and we were still doing, essentially, preliminary work - setting the stage for a discussion of atonement and salvation - I was a little worried. Yes, because Eric and I had similar theological training (we were even in a class or two together in seminary), much of the important groundwork for his presentation is are things I take for granted. It's not that any of it was unnecessary, in fact I think it makes this book incredibly accessible, it's just that I like to read books for new information, and I was in near total agreement for the first 80 pages. Well, I'm in near-total agreement for the entire book, but you get the idea.

What I needed to do was get out of my own head and read Atonement and Salvation with a little more distance. In truth, it is one the most clear and concise treatments of, really, the whole of Christian theology, I have ever read. While the prose may not be the most elegant you've ever seen, it's clear and insightful - you can tell Vail took great, great care in crafting this book.

What shocked me out of my self-oriented perspective was Chapter 8, where he gets to the real meat of the Atonement and Salvation discussion. Chapter 8 is perhaps the most powerful, important, and accessible chapter of theology I have ever read in any book. It's simply tremendous, maybe not for my personal growth, but as a resource for introducing the average Christian to what has always been a difficult and confusing topic. He builds on all that important preliminary material and crafts a picture of atonement that rings true to experience and reflects the massive, unfathomable love of God, while also taking seriously the whole witness of scripture in really responsible ways.

The final two chapters deal with smaller associated topics, including Christ as peacemaker and a critique of penal substitution theory that both pulls no punches, but also exhibits incredible grace. I began the book wondering who it could possibly be for - it doesn't largely break new ground academically and I couldn't imagine any lay person would want to or be able to work through 141 pages on atonement, but Eric Vail has done it. He presents the theology in an academic and compelling way, but with the deft and simplicity that would allow intent readers of any theological depth to follow the narrative and understand his presentation.

Atonement and Salvation is a real gift to the Church and I'm glad the Nazarene Publishing House continues to cultivate and publish such important material.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Build Your Hopes on Things Eternal

I spent some time this morning trying to see if I could adapt Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens for an adult Sunday School class. Scott Daniels is a man of great wisdom who told me he'd tried in once and the book was just too dense for such a setting. I tried to do it anyway, but his advice allowed me to give up the ghost one chapter in. It's a great chapter, though, and I don't want to waste the effort.

The idea of Resident Aliens is primarily that the Church is a "colony of heaven," in the way that conquerors (they might call themselves explorers or liberators) develop colonies in new lands, which are reflective of the home culture, so the Church is called to be a colony of a different world in the midst of this world. A Greek colony in Egypt would've maintained the Greek attitudes towards education, commerce, and social relations, despite those things being at odds with the larger world they find themselves living in.

Christians are called to live differently - not to make the world in which they live more Christian, but to present an alternative means of living - one reflective of God's intentions for the world as revealed in Christ. Christ then becomes the key to all this. The book says that when Christians look a the world, we see something that cannot be seen without Christ - the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection provides a lens by which we see the whole concept of life differently.

I was reminded of a song we sung in worship a few weeks back. It's entitled "Hold to God's Unchanging Hand," and contains a line that really caught my attention: "Build your hopes on things eternal," which I imagine has traditionally been looked upon as escapist. There's a long modern Christian tradition of viewing the world as imperfect and temporary, thus the common advice when things go poorly is "don't worry, there's another world out there somewhere; think about eternity."

I see this line more in terms of what Hauerwas and Willimon are trying to say: that there is an entirely different way of looking at this world, an eternal view, a "heavenly" view, something more reflective of what God has in mind, as revealed in Christ.

This difference shows up in the second challenge of Resident Aliens' first chapter: to ask the right theological questions. The authors argue that we typically engage the politics of the world on their own terms - this stretches all the way back to Constantine, the Roman Emperor who first embraced Christianity as a unifying force. Since then we've largely asked "how can we run this world in Christian ways?" It's become a political preoccupation that's gotten us nothing but trouble. Instead, what Willimon and Hauerwas propose is that we ask "What would the world look like if it reflected the gospel?"

This is what I think of when I hear, "Build your hopes on things eternal." We don't have to take the systems and structures we have as inevitable. God calls us to build our lives on a different set of principles and realities, to be a true alternative to the way things seem to work in the world around us. This is the colony concept; the Church's purpose is to be something different, not take the world around us and make it different.

I know the immediate "but" in this is "but if you succeed in building an alternative, won't that just attract 'the world' to join, thereby changing the world into something Christian?" In a sense, yes, of course that leads into conversations about HOW precisely that is done - through an actual attempt to change or through a faithful representation of an alternative - but even that is getting ahead of ourselves, right? We're assuming that living faithfully into an alternative is easy - that establishing and maintain this colony of heaven is a given. It's hard work.

The book goes on to talk specifically about how our politics (in whatever way we've worked them out) have failed us and challenging the Church to a new kind of politics, one that operate on its own system, rather than trying to co-opt the systems around us. There's plenty to delve into there, and I'd love to have those conversations if you want to dialogue about them, but I think this first notion is a really important start.

Build your life on things eternal is not about spiritualizing everything, but it's also not about digging in to physical-ize everything either. We've had quite enough of activist Christianity already. I think rather the call is to have our foundational understandings shaped and formed by the gospel rather than by the world in which we live. We have to stop taking for granted the "realities" we're presented with and imagine our realities in light of God's revelation in Christ.

Well, just some random thoughts on a Thursday. Cheerio.