Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Truth and the Bible

I know I've written something similar before, probably many times. Perhaps last month. But I had occasion to write this for another reason, so I thought it would be good to share. Sorry the Tuesday post is a day late.

I had a struggle in freshman year of college, I went into a class and was told something that bothered me to my core and changed my perception of the world and my place in it. It was Introduction to History and my professor told me: "History has only been around since the 1700's."

What he meant was simply that the study of history as the pursuit of factual knowledge of the past is a relatively modern concept - when, in the modern era, we began to attempt to separate what happened from the biases of those witnesses who recorded it.

Prior to that (including the world view of everyone who wrote scripture and the first 1000+ years of interpreters) people were working with an entirely different definition of "facts" and "history." "Histories" were written not to recount an event, but to provide some lesson from such events; they were written not to serve the past but to serve the present.

In that light, we look to scripture for what it intends to do: namely to provide a trustworthy foundation for creation's relationship to its creator. Our faith does not rest on the trustworthiness of the scripture, but on the trustworthiness of the one to whom our scripture testifies.

I take the Bible literally. I have no problem saying so. To take the Bible literally, it requires an ongoing process of discovery, learning about the people and cultures who shaped the narrative, the languages and processes through which we see and understand what is written.

The inspiration of scripture is far broader than the men who put ink to parchment, it encompasses the oral tradition that preceded them, the editors and compilers who brought the texts to their present form, the councils and elders who debated the canon, the readers and scholars who study the text, those who preach, teach, and proclaim it, as well as each and every one of us who hears and receives this marvelous testament to almighty God.

For me, this is exactly what the text means when it says the word of God is living and active - it is not simply words on a page, but a relationship that extends across all time. For us to think we can nail down exactly what it says misses the whole point.

The Bible is not fiction and it is not non-fiction; it is scripture and it is true. We can't simply reduce it to logical categories (and that goes just as much for the "liberals" and the "conservatives" - both equally upset me in their casual superiority), because the thing itself, by its very nature, prevents it.

We can and should certainly discuss the various ways in which we read and understand this scripture, we should challenge and be challenged in love and good faith, to examine ourselves in light of what we read not to read in light of what we know (or think we know). To me, this is what it means to have a high view of scripture.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

God of Speed?

I may have been accused, from time to time, of being a bit overly intellectual. I imagine it's a fair criticism to say I live more in the realm of ideas than of action. Still, even I find it humorous how often and to what degree some people take conversations about God.

There's the tired philosophical questions - can God create a rock so large even God cannot lift it? - which only illustrate the need some of us have for logic and precision. Science and Math do teach us that such intellectual pursuits can bear fruit in the real world... if we have our assumptions right.

It's those particular assumptions that might just need questioning. I recently saw a random, unserious internet post about God being very, very fast (something like - God delivers faster than dominos). It got me thinking about the ways in which we categorize God's abilities and, more importantly, why would we ever need a God who can do everything better than anyone else?

There is the old argument for God's existence that says God is that which nothing greater than can be imagined. Thus, however one conceives of God, that God be real would be greater than that God being imaginary.

There are obvious problems with this argument, which have likely been discussed to absurdity over the last 400 years. But, even if it's completely true, it only really deals with the reality of God.

I want to ask: What if someone could actually beat God in a footrace?

It would be easy to say that a God who is faster than anything else in the universe is "greater" than a God who is not - and thus it must be true. That just seems totally irrelevant.

Would a God with entirely un-superior speed change anything? Would it matter theologically or philosophically? No one claims God is more selfish than anyone else or more vindictive - at least not as philosophical imperatives, anyway. No one needs God to be supreme in traits we consider negative. We only need God to be the best in positives.

What constitutes a positive?

In what way is God's speed important for God's mission in the world? Would a flash-like deity be required so God's redemptive efforts can outpace the degradation of the world wrought by human selfishness? Could evil then, outrun God, essentially?

That seems far-fetched.

Ultimately, God created the world and God is working to finish that creation in the redemption of all things. My faith revolves around the notion that God is actually going to accomplish this mission. In other words, I believe - whatever God is, however we describe God - God is sufficient to see God's purposes accomplished.

If you look at things this way - let's say with a more practical, less theoretical bent - the conversations about speed or love or knowledge or power don't have quite the same bearing. Does it matter is God is fastest, most powerful, all-knowing; or does God just have to be sufficiently capable of bringing creation to completion? Whatever that may entail.

If God has to outrun evil, I'm sure God is fast enough to do so. I'm confident God knows whatever is necessary to know about the future for redemption to occur. I believe God loves enough to change the world.

I'm just not so sure comparisons or quantities are all that helpful.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Charlie Sheen, LeSean McCoy, Andrew Jackson, and Grace

Sorry for two tangentially football-related posts in a row, but this one is truly interesting to me.

Last week, when the rest of the country was distracted by Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, there was a brief story about Philadelphia Eagles running back, LeSean McCoy. Apparently, he was at a restaurant and lets a twenty cent tip on about $60 of food. The owner of the place posted a picture of the receipt within seconds of McCoy leaving and it was on Deadspin in an hour.

A lot of Philly folks got on twitter to defend him, remarking that the restaurant is known for terrible service and there's little surprise McCoy had a bad enough experience to react as he reacted.

McCoy did eventually make a statement - that he indeed had bad service and felt personally disrespected by the wait staff and thus left a twenty cent tip to send a message.

In the middle of all this, Charlie Sheen, of all people, ran across the story and stated he'd send the stiffed waiter $1,000 to make up for McCoy's rudeness. I'm not sure if he did or not, but Charlie's spent far more money on far more frivolous whims - no reason to doubt him.

It struck me as beautiful, the juxtaposition. Here we have McCoy - a professional football player who had to work hard for everything he's got. He went to the University of Pittsburgh (not always a hotbed of NFL talent) and languished, underappreciated, for a while, on the Eagles, playing a position where even the best players are tossed aside at the slightest hint of slowing down. Of course he expects people to earn what they get; of course he's going to send a message with harsh reality.

On the other hand, you've got Charlie Sheen. Yes, a ludicrously undisciplined addict who seems to be miraculously immune to the consequences of his destructive actions - but also a guy who's been at the bottom of a lot of holes. He's practically killed his father with his wasted talent, near-death, experiences and a refusal to learn from them. The guy has burned through wives and girlfriends and hit televisions shows left and right. He deserves almost nothing he has and he keeps getting second chances.

Charlie Sheen is a dude who understands grace - even if he doesn't quite understand it enough. He's leaving a big tip for a bad waiter. Maybe the waiter is just lazy and cruel - maybe he's terrible at his job for no good reason. But just maybe the guy's had a rough day, a rough week, a rough life and he's just trying to do his best. We don't know. LeSean McCoy didn't know. Charlie Sheen doesn't know.

What Charlie Sheen does know, though, is how wonderful it is to be the recipient of grace, to be given something good when you don't deserve it, to have your faults and failures overlooked. Charlie knows what it's like to be kicked when you're down. He knows what it's like to be ostracized and persecuted for your problems. Because of that, the guy exudes grace. He's recklessly, ridiculously generous.

I finished up John Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson this morning. Towards the end of the book is related a story about the final Christmas he spent in the White House - with the children of his son and nephew running about, enjoying the lavish gifts he provided for them. His nephew's wife, Emily, commented that he'd been spoiling the children - quoting scripture, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," to which President Jackson responded, "I think, Emily, with all due deference to the Good Book, that love and patience are better disciplinarians than rods."

Now if Andrew Jackson - by all accounts one of the least patient people on earth, a man who literally bore the bullets (plural) of failed duelists in his body for most of his adult life - if Andrew Jackson could figure this much out, AND could do so in agreement with one Mr. Charlie Sheen...

...well perhaps its worth considering a good tip for your next waiter, stellar service or not.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Ray Rice

So Ray Rice, (former) running back for the Baltimore Ravens, punched his then-fiance in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino back in February. A picture of him dragging her unconscious body through the halls of the hotel led to his arrest, subsequent two-game suspension, and a quickie wedding the next day.

Rice apologized, his wife sat by his side; even her father showed up to the press conference, affirming that the family loved Rice and would work through the pain together. Coaches, friends, media members all came out in support of Rice, who does not have a history of criminality and seems to be a responsible person. He did not shy away from the truth, owned up to his wrongs, and professed a desire to fight domestic violence in the future.

Earlier this week, video from the elevator came to light. I haven't watched the video; it seems like something I wouldn't enjoy. Consensus says it shows a professional athlete knocking a woman unconscious and then seemingly be more upset he has to do something with her body than that he's hurt the mother of his child.

Almost immediately, the Ravens terminated Rice's contract and the NFL made his suspension indefinite. The Ravens contend the video shows exactly what Rice described to them in an earlier investigation, yet the visceral pain of seeing it on film made them change their mind about an ongoing relationship. To muddy things even more, the NFL claims the video does NOT match the story Rice told them and, by inference, is accusing him of trying to hide the truth.

Adding even more fuel to the fire, Rice's now-wife, continues to be vocal about her anger with the Ravens, the NFL, and the media. Her contention: if she's moving past the incident, everyone else should, too. She might be completely sincere, then again, victims will do almost anything to prevent further victimization; it's just impossible to know.

Listen, hitting your wife is never acceptable. Hitting anyone is wrong, as far as I'm concerned, but there's near universal agreement that physically assaulting someone weaker and more vulnerable than you is cowardly and vile. No one is going to excuse what Rice did, and, despite what I might say about media coverage, this shouldn't be swept under the rug. People don't need to pipe down.

I do suspect, though, we'd all benefit from taking a step back and a deep breath before diving in for round three.

The NFL has ridiculously bungled this debacle in every way imaginable. A lot of the media attention is rightfully focused on how the league is handling the fallout. I'm less concerned about this, mostly because everyone else is concerned (at least) enough to get something done.

I'm struggling with exactly what kind of message we're sending to people.

Yes, Rice needs to face the consequences of his actions - something he's at least said he's willing to do. Shortly after this incident, the NFL released new guidelines for domestic violence - a six game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second - which have so many loopholes they really mean nothing. I'm fine if Rice misses a whole year for this. Josh Gordon is sitting out a year for smoking pot a few times - that offense and this one aren't even measurable on the same scale.

I think it might be too serious a penalty, but if Ray Rice can never pay football again, he certainly can't complain an injustice has been done. Part of confessing and submitting to discipline is the loss of control. It comes with the territory and if Ray Rice is the kind of otherwise stand-up guy everyone seemed to think he was six months ago, then he'll be prepared to do just that - even if he disagrees with the punishment.

We have to send the right message to our children. Our sons and daughters need to know what to expect and how to act in a relationship. Too many young men think it's ok to dominate their partner and too many women agree. Part of the reason I'm happy to have this ongoing public conversation is simply because it needs to be had. If this allows even one person to question their own abusive relationship, it's worth it. Yes, it's unfair that the Rice's private pain needs to be so public, but this is just the kind of public service to combat domestic violence Rice claimed to want to dedicate his life to doing. It's a worthy uncomfortableness.

At the same time, it really feels like we're throwing Ray Rice away. His team - the only team he's ever played for, the team that stood ready to back him up - has tossed him away. The league has made him a pariah, the media is portraying him as essentially worthless. As much as I want my daughter to know what to expect from a partner (and how to treat one), I also want her to know that when she makes mistakes, even big, giant, public, unconscionable mistakes, that her family will stand beside her. We may not shelter her from the consequences, but we'll walk with her through them.

Right now, no one wants to be anywhere near Ray Rice - and that's going to be bad. It'll be bad for him, for his wife and daughter, their extended families. It's bad for his teammates and for society at large.

We've become such a throw away culture that the air of disposableness extends to people. Our celebrities are fictional - they are personas, specifically created to tell a story and make money. We don't really know the people we so desperately want to know. This makes them easier to throw away. If Ray Rice is never on TV on Sunday or on Jimmy Fallon's couch, is easy to believe he no longer exists.

When an NFL player is caught using drugs - not PEDs, but real drugs - when an NFL player has a problem with addiction, be it alcohol, cocaine, or painkillers, the league provides a ridiculously comprehensive treatment plan. They do everything they can to show the player, despite the suspension and loss of income, that they actually care about their well being (the sincerity of that care is a topic for another day - cough, cough, concussions).

Maybe the league will take similar action with Rice. Perhaps they will, once the PR storm dies down, come alongside him and his family, provide counseling, accountability, education, and a path to redemption. If so, then why not make that clear from the get go? They haven't even talked about supplying help to Rice's wife. If she wants to get out of this relationship, it'll mean heavy court costs and a vastly different lifestyle than the one she's become accustomed to. An abused wife doesn't face a fair fight against a rich and famous husband - at the very least the NFL could be on her side.

Ray Rice can't be thrown away, because Ray Rice is human. If Ray Rice can be thrown away, then I could be thrown away, or you or your son or my daughter. As easy as it is to rationalize, we can't simply ignore, eliminate, or otherwise forget the people we can't deal with. We have to live with each other, we just do.

If I'm a man, struggling with my conscience over the way I treat my wife or my kids, what about this incident would make me seek help? I think it would do exactly the opposite. When the result of confession is condemnation and retribution, you'll have no more confession. Forgiveness does not equate to forgetting, to letting someone off the hook. Consequences are consequences - and, quite frankly, it's easier to make sure they're faced when the person in question believes you have their best interest at heart.

It's real easy to try and satisfy our anger and the injustice of the moment by sacrificing the guilty party - that just doesn't help anyone. Doing something simply because it makes us feel better is a terribly selfish way to act.

I think we cling to condemnation as a way on insulating ourselves. We refuse to admit that we're capable - given different circumstances or opportunities - of doing the awful things we see on the news. Because we flee from that admission so readily and so easily, we have to prove people like "them" are somehow different than people like me.

They're not. They're us.

The only way we can truly tackle huge problems like domestic violence and uncontrolled anger, is to do so together. There are no good people and bad people; there's just people. We do awful things sometimes. We do awful things a lot of the time. We're people. It's not a reason and it's not an excuse, but it is a reality - and we have to deal with it.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Forgotten Tragedy

Fall is in the air. Tomorrow is supposed to be the last AC-day of the summer around here and professional football arrives this weekend. It's the time each year when I'm ready to admit that the catastrophe of US race-relations reached it's absolute nadir in our treatment of African-Americans - then the NFL kicks off and I'm snapped back into reality.

Think of it this way: I can't even type n----r on the internet without getting onto some terrorist watch list, let alone emblazon it on the premier sports franchise in our nation's capital. The same is simply not true for Native Americans.

Yes, yes, I know some native people aren't offended by the name and are proud to have their legacy and tradition remembered in Washington (although I thought that was what the beautiful and profoundly moving National Museum of the American Indian was all about). But seriously, when do we let democracy (or even a small minority) dictate the words we consider appropriate or polite?

Yes, that previously mentioned n-word fell out of favor largely through public pressure. It turns out when segregation ended and lots of people were regularly having conversations and relationships with angry black people, it was more difficult to use insulting, offensive names for them. Go figure.

I suppose a similar campaign would have worked for Native Americans, except while we were busy raising the percentage of Americans who were black from zero to fifteen percent, we were also making the native population 99% smaller. Most of us don't know any Native Americans because we've largely confined them to small tracts of otherwise useless land, which we proceed to ignore, allowing the reservations to languish in poverty and substance abuse in out of the way places we'll never have to go. And this is the best our relationship with Native Americans has ever been. Let me repeat:

And this is the best our relationship with Native Americans has ever been!

I'm young enough to have lived through a relatively fair portrayal of the native place in US history throughout my education (which includes a top-notch undergraduate degree - in history, no less - from a great institute of higher learning). Thing were not whitewashed.

Still, when reading the under-appreciated classic, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I was faced with a more intimate and detailed portrayal of this sad relationship. It should probably be required reading for Americans at some point in our public education (it's at least as important as Romeo and Juliet, which I had to read three times in school). This episode in US history recounts only the third generation of engagements between white settlers and Native peoples (the first two were, in order, virtual extermination and a series of forced death marches).

I'm not sure what spurred my desire to write a lengthy post about our forgotten national embarrassment - probably guilt - I mean, I feel so woefully incapable of even beginning to figure out how to address such injustice and perhaps telling others about it helps in some strange (largely selfish) way.

We lost Richard Twiss last year - a great Christian leader and advocate for Native American reconciliation - when I was only beginning to discover his wisdom and hope. I have at least one friend working on initiatives with and among native peoples - but it really isn't like we can just walk down the street and volunteer. It's one of those problems that deserves more attention than it gets, but is also so incredibly wrong that hope seems distant if it exists at all.

We live in a world where reparations for slavery are largely dismissed as fantasy; just imagine similar compensation for Native Americans? We might as well just hand over all the shares of the Fortune 500.

At the very least, it seems like we could put the most visible symptom of this ongoing tragedy in better perspective. It's great that a few writers and broadcasters will try hard not to say the nickname of Washington's professional football team on the air. It really is. But, honestly, given the history (and I mean the full history, not the history which only goes back to the team's founding - I think we can all agree the name was far more culturally appropriate then than now), couldn't we hold ourselves to a slightly higher standard? The vigor of the owner's intransigence is really more Donald Sterling than crazy uncle. Shouldn't this be more of a thing?

Think about it this way: if Uncle Ben can get a makeover, if Aunt Jemima can go from this

to this,

then surely we can do better than Chief Wahoo.

(Who is, somehow, impossibly, MORE racist than the original.)

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

A Nation of Depersonalization

A few months back I saw an article or blog post or maybe just a facebook comment bemoaning the duckface - that pouty-lipped expression so many of the female persuasion assume when posing for a photo or taking a selfie. It was a mom, shocked and horrified that her young daughters took these awkward knee-out, hand-on-hip, pouty stances when asked to pose for a picture. She knew the family had worked hard to keep them sheltered from the type of mass media which spawn these things, but ultimately, they couldn't be sheltered from the mass population of young people exposed and influenced by these pictures. The girls didn't know they were copying some ill-conceived celebrity trend, they were just responding to the way their friends took pictures - nothing more out-of-the-ordinary than "say cheese."

It's easy to condemn the celebritizing of our culture. Everything we (the societal we - you can self-righteously exempt yourself at whatever point you wish) do revolves around professional celebrities. (Kim Kardashian made more money from the release of her cell phone game than any actual artist will make from their work this entire year.) Our celebrity-obsessed media culture sets the tone for life - what's cool, what's important, what's "news" - and it's all, essentially, a facade. Celebrity culture is marketing - it's fake.

I can remember the sadness I felt as a teenager when I discovered that even the "personalities" our favorite stars exhibit when on the couch with Kimmel or Fallon is an act. We don't ever get to know the "real" people because we don't actually have relationships with these people. I mentioned to my wife just this week how, in my memories, Gwyneth Paltrow always seemed so cool and now she seems, at best, really odd - never thinking that perhaps her life got busy enough and complicated enough that the maintaining of her public image isn't a top priority any longer.

Ultimately this is about depersonalization. We don't want our celebrities to be people - we want them to feed our egos. We want celebrities we love unconditionally - Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are insanely beautiful people who found each other and travel the world helping poor people; it doesn't make sense that she'd get married in an ugly dress simply because her kids helped design it. The notion that her family means more than our image of her makes Jolie a person, and that makes us uncomfortable.

We'd be incredibly uncomfortable knowing as much about our neighbors as we know about our favorite athletes and actors. We'd either feel creepy for knowing so much or uncomfortable because there'd be some expectation of reciprocal life unveiling. We don't want people to know that much about us - they might not like us, they might point out all the faults we're already well aware of and secretly beat ourselves up over ever night as we cry ourselves to sleep.

To treat someone like a person is to be included in everything - and frankly, most of us are pretty messed up people. Celebrities can't be themselves on TV because real people are boring and strange and troubled and ultimately uninteresting (and just in case you want to go that direction, the people on Jerry Springer are just as much depersonalized characterizations, they're just otherwise anonymous ones).

But what really made my heart sink was the realization that our society has depersonalized itself. I came to this tragic conclusion reading some of the stories about the recent dump of hacked celebrity cell phone pictures. I was intrigued because this seemed to be getting far more media coverage than the typical leak. It is because of the sheer volume - several dozen (some accounts more than a hundred) female (and it's always female for some reason) celebrities had nude or risque pictures and videos released to the wild. There was also a groundswell of opposition - reminding the public that these people are indeed people and it's an invasion to even look at the pictures.

Despite that warning, a lot of the articles had samples - albeit with blacked out eyes and digitally imposed modesty bars. I didn't even recognize most of the names, let alone out-of-context necks and midriffs, but what I found most shocking is that these celebrities, in their most private and intimate moments, assumed the same poses our kids do when snapping a selfie.

With the salacious parts properly covered, few of the photos I saw looked any different than those these women are paid to pose for. They've essentially participated in the mass depersonalization for so long, it's shaped and formed them as much as it has the rest of society. There was nothing natural or normal about these pictures - no one looked like they were taking candids in the privacy of their hotel rooms - even if they were.

I've talked before about how some of our societal problems we created ourselves, but have now grown so large than we're incapable of actually defeating them. Things like hunger, homelessness, violence, etc. It's part of the reason I believe in God; I recognize humanity's inability to fix itself, even if we're the cause of our own problems.

Selfishness is nothing new - and that's exactly what this sexualized depersonalization is: a feeding of our own selfish desires. When I think about the kind of girl I wanted to date when I was sixteen, it was usually someone who could exist in my life without challenging or changing it. I wanted someone who looked pleasant and attractive at all times, someone who liked the same things I did, someone who understood me completely and always knew what I wanted or needed. In short: I wanted someone to indulge me. I didn't want someone who possessed traits and abilities I lacked, I wanted someone who would give me what I wanted, but didn't have.

In growing up, getting married and staying that way, I've realized the most important thing in another person is a different perspective. My wife and I are frustratingly different. I never know what to expect or how she thinks. I guess I'm better at it than I used to be, but in many ways we're still struggling to live together well - because real relationships involve real people. Real people are sometimes tired, stressed out, and unpleasant. They push you to think differently; they expect you to change and adapt to the world around you. They won't be content to give and give without getting something in return - relationships take two invested people.

Our society has long fought that notion, because it's bad for business. Selfish indulgence makes money. It makes money because selfishness is never satisfied. We want more and whatever we get isn't enough. At some point, this was an intentional ploy by marketers - tapping into our insatiable desire to drive the economy - but I wonder if now, it's just an uncontrollable force. I'm not even sure those perpetuating it - the actors, directors, producers, advertisers - even realize what they're doing any more. Clearly these actresses come by it naturally - or they learn to do so very quickly, not just in front of the professional cameras, but in front of their own as well.

This doesn't excuse the invasion of privacy or the continued depersonalization that dominates the comment sections of these stories. But it does, I think, move the problem from one of "us and them" to one that we all have to own.