Thursday, July 27, 2017

Bernie and Condemnation

In my long tradition of dealing with contemporary issues long after they've fallen by the wayside, I'd like to weigh in on the confrontation between Bernie Sanders and Trump nominee Russ Vought from early June. It made a lot of headlines at the time, with people drawing lines and choosing sides and lobbing bombs back and forth at each other.

A transcript of the exchange can be viewed on any number of sites I'd rather not link to, but here's one anyway, since you need context.

The crux of the matter is Vought's comment, in support of his alma mater, Wheaton College, that people of non-Christian faiths (specifically Muslims in this particular case, but it's expanded to all) "do not know God" and "stand condemned." Sanders uses this statement as a means of rejecting (or voting for the rejection) of Vought in a government position because this view might be offensive or fear-inducing in people whom he's referenced.

In my view, both of these guys made real fools of themselves.

Sanders is easy - he falsely equated personal opinion with action. You need to show actual discrimination to justify denying someone a position of power, at least in the US government. Vought's belief that some people are condemned is just a belief, unless there's proof he acted on it. Shoot, this is a position in the Office of Management and Budget, for crying out loud, are there even religious issues that this guy would have power to rule on in the first place? Even if Sanders thought he might act prejudicially, he would be hard-pressed to come up with a scenario where such prejudice could even be possible.

People have rightly pointed out that this is, essentially, making a religious test for office - something the constitution forbids. Of course, what we conveniently never talk about in those scenarios are the ways in which our laws already impinge on the freedom of religion for things like child brides or abusive corporal punishment, to name a few. It's not outside the realm of possibility that "condemnation" on the basis of religion, might be one step on that same train Sanders would like us to pursue.

All of those are interesting, but what I didn't hear too much of is criticism for this notion of condemnation coming from Vought. It's terrible theology, to begin with, and just over-archingly anti-Christian to make such a statement. I could see justification, perhaps, for the condemnation of specific actions, but to condemn not just individuals, but whole groups of people, simply for a theological difference, feels like precisely the kind of thing Jesus denounced the Pharisees and religious leaders of his day for doing all the time.

In fact, I feel like Jesus said, at one point, "God did not send his son to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." Time and again Jesus failed to condemn anyone, except those claiming religious authority. We miss that boat a lot, as Christians, and maybe it takes a wildly over-zealous, secular Jew to get someone to notice.

I don't think Sanders was remotely right - at least constitutionally - in his statements and his badgering. In fact, it sounded an awful lot like condemnation in its own right. At the same time, Vought shouldn't be defending those words; he should be profusely apologizing for them.
To use the name of Jesus, the Church - his followers - as the means for doing it just makes me sad. The people most committed to the name of Jesus Christ don't appear to know Jesus at all. Rather they've bought into a dogmatic theology that serves its own internal logic more than the God it purports to represent.

It's intellectual assent taken to its logical conclusion - a person's acceptance or rejection of the idea of Jesus overrules individual action.
No one is saved or condemned based on their religious affiliation - we're saved or condemned by our commitment to love and selfless service -
you know, living in the way of Jesus Christ, whether you're in a position to admit that's what you're doing or not.

Neither of these guys did much to advance their cause in this matter. Neither one showed any real understanding of honor or respect. I'd say those actions - the words and actions of both men - are embarrassingly counter to the message of Jesus. Fortunately, that doesn't devalue them or their identities in any way. There's still plenty of love and hope and grace to go around.

At our very best, we're still more prone to condemnation than grace. I'd say the best we can hope for is to recognize it in ourselves, admit our failings, and work to be different moving forward. The intractable positions we see here are far more alike than they are different and we deserve better than either one from people we've placed in positions of power.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Putin the Feminist

This is a really old quote that's been sitting in my "to write about pile for a few months, but I think it's just interesting enough to bring back. You may not have even noticed when it happened, since we've been privy to a whole mess of ridiculous things said by major world leaders, but let me draw your attention to one Vladimir Putin, who answered a reporter's question about what he does on bad days thusly:

I don't have bad days because I am not a woman.

This is one of those things that relies entirely on context. If you read that line without any indication of who said it, you can take it one of two ways: 1) This guys is a total misogynistic jerk, or 2) This dude is incredibly woke. I don't think there are too sentences that can be interpreted in such different ways. It's a real anomaly.

Now, I imagine that Putin is probably more in the #1 camp, given the kinds of things he's said about less powerful sorts of people in the past and his penchant for macho power games. This is probably not a social commentary on the plight of women in modern society.

However, let's say the quote isn't from Vladimir Putin, but maybe it's the opening line of Louis CK's new stand-up act. It comes across in a very different way. I think it's a laugh line for sure - he tends to put things bluntly and speak in unique ways. The very fact that this line can be interpreted differently makes it something worth laughing about.

You can just see how CK would be able to spin fifteen or twenty minutes out of how terrible women have it in society. He could contrast his shitty life with just how much shittier every part of it would be if he were experiencing it as a woman. It's entirely within character, and he'd probably be lauded for insightful social commentary.

I guess there's no real point to this post - other than to point out just how fraught the use of words really is. All those French post-modern philosophers who spent so much time basically rendering language meaningless and then meaningful and then meaningless again probably have more of a point than we're willing to give them credit for.

Maybe this is just the ultimate example of the medium being the message - in this case the medium being from which pair of chapped, wrinkly lips the line happens to spew.

You know, now that I think about, there is a point: in this world men, like me, get to waste time and energy writing esoteric posts about how some enfeebled misogynist might not be entirely wrong about women if you absent context, while around the world, women are actually dealing with a whole bunch of unnecessary crap just because they're women.


Thursday, July 20, 2017

Real Artists Don't Starve by Jeff Goins

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

Jeff Goins provides a really compelling, motivational guide to practicing art in the age of capitalism. His main focus is to counter the "starving artist" narrative with stories of people who make art on different terms. Real Artists Don't Starve captures the "new renaissance" by emphasizing key principles that artists can use to maximize their place in society.

I don't necessarily have a problem with this approach and certainly found some good ideas for my own art and life, however, Goins does present his perspective on art - namely that capitalism is a given and artists should be a part of it in very specific ways - as the only option (much as the title indicates). On page 145 he does raise the question of artists who genuinely don't care about money and practice their craft purely for their own enjoyment - however he fails to answer the question in any meaningful way, instead telling the story of a web designer who shifted his clientele from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses, because he enjoyed the work more.

There's also some lip service paid, in the final chapter, to alternative forms of community. He calls it "art as gift," in which people are rewarded for art in the same ways people value and reward the work of doctors, but there isn't a ton of depth here and he really does explain what he's talking about very well.

As I said, it's a great primer for artists attempting to live within capitalism and for that, I highly recommend, however, for anyone, like me,
who may not be looking at their art or their life in the same way, there's a lot left to be desired. I'm trained in theology, so I tend to think about these things theologically, but even in a practical sense, at least mentioning the notion of a national minimum wage - an economic theory that's becoming more popular - might be helpful, since one of it's main selling points is the freedom it provides for people to follow their passions and create.

I'll overlook one of my major pet peeves (using "creatives" as a noun to describe creative people) and commend Goins for the effort. He manages to provide a very standard, practical perspective on art that actually feels like art. It's a conventional book about art that won't turn artists off - which is certainly an accomplishment of sorts.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Shape of the Church

At our recent General Assembly, a workshop with Scott Daniels re-introduced me to Nietzsche's analogy about slaying the dragon. It was his way of explaining the post-enlightenment attack on authority in the name of individual freedom. Each of the dragon's scales represent a command from authority and as they're attacked, the dragon is slain.

We live in a world where the dragon is long dead. We've prioritized individual determinism over authoritarian rule. It's all but inevitable (and probably good, in most respects). People are individuals, after all, and our recognition and respect for that reality is important to the flourishing of humanity.

I think Nietzsche's point was that society will keep hacking away at the dragon until it's dead. We'll go after institutions and authority until none remain. Nietzsche saw the problem from a long way off - if we kill authority, from whence does authority come?

That is ultimately our contemporary question.

From a Christian perspective, our tendency has been to reinforce the dragon, saying that killing it is wrong and those who try are evil. This isn't entirely consistent, though, since much of the Christian story is that of championing the underdog and standing with the oppressed - so being anti-anti-authority is not something we can sell out for with integrity.

At the same time, though, we're believers in community - believers that the individual is not the end all and be all of existence. We believe we're all connected in our shared existence and what each of us does affects every other.

There has to be some means of recognizing the individual, but not as ultimate authority. In other words, we've got to stand with the dragonslayer, but also stick around after the beast is dead to work together to pick up the scales that make sense for community. We are not our own; we're part of something bigger. We shouldn't be denied our independence, but we must also not be content with our independence and in doing so, deny our interdependence.

We must fight tooth and nail for individual rights and freedom, but we must then call these free individuals to sacrifice some measure of that hard-won individualism for the sake of community. We can say, "authority resides in free individuals," but existence is bigger than that. The dragon is doomed, if its not already dead, stop guarding the body and help us pick up the pieces. Authority comes in relationship - the very relationships we all need to be truly human. We have to be together, to work together - not to tell each other what to do, but to help each other do what we exist to do.

The dragon might be a terrible idea, but not every scale is worthless. Authority must take on a different shape, especially as it pertains to the Church. The age of institutionalism is over; authority works in new and different ways. Although, just maybe, we've had those ideas all along. Whatever the new shape of the Church, it must not be a dragon.

Perhaps we should try a slaughtered lamb?

Thursday, July 13, 2017

How to Train Your Dogma

Dogma isn't bad - we all need a set of principles by which to live - but uncritical acceptance of Dogma is really unhelpful. We have to be able to interact with people without bringing our dogma to the party as our definition of morality. That is not to say that morality is relative, but morality is relative. It just is. Whether we're talking about contextual differences or cultural ones - or just the way experience shapes the choices people make, things get messy.

That doesn't mean dogma is bad - we really do need to know what we believe and how that affects our actions. The dictionary defines dogma as "a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true," which makes holding them loosely difficult. Still, I don't think we have to filch on our own commitment in order to provide grace and real respect for people who may think differently or think the same for different reasons, or simply haven't thought through exactly what they believe on a certain issue.

It's important to bring our dogma to the party, just not as the center of attention. What we believe informs who we are, how we act, what we think - it is as much a part of us as our skin. We should be ashamed of or feel the need to cover over those underlying beliefs that make us who we are.
But, like our skin, dogma changes over time (we have an entirely new set of skin every seven years or so, based on the lifespan of cells). Holding our dogma as something we believe in, but also something we're not imposing on others, allows us to think critically about belief in general and evaluate our own ideas. I suspect, any idea worth keeping will stand up to such evaluation, but the real joy comes in finding those things we've always taken for truth might be slightly lacking.

That's real growth and it's real respect for other people, who, themselves, have a series of experience-shaped beliefs that underlay who they are as people. Life isn't going to work out for anyone if we treat it like a dogma fight, battling back and forth until someone emerges the victor.
No one wins those fights.

The negative portrayal of dogma is precisely its perceived permanence. Dogma, in a bad light, takes on a life of its own, disconnected from the religious principles it's supposed to support. Macklemore, in his tremendously unsuccessful follow up album uses the line, as advice to his daughter, "Find God, but leave the dogma," because there's some general understanding that God is more intangible, mysterious, complex, and transformative than staid dogma could ever be.

This perception doesn't come because dogma is, in fact, unhelpful or problematic; it comes because of the way we hold our beliefs: namely with a tight fist and a stubborn will. The false idol of certainty is a comfortable mistress and we're loathe to leave her side. We don't need to give up our beliefs to truly embody them faithfully, but we most certainly do have to give up our control of those beliefs to see all they have in store for us.

Truth is truth until its not. That might not be satisfying, but it's all we've got in this world. That shouldn't mean we abandon the search for truth or minimize its importance, we just have to remember its not something over which anyone has a monopoly. People are people and whatever we believe, we believe for a reason. Beliefs and reasons are different, but it's only in address each other as people that we'll be able to find any dogma that has any hope of fulfilling its purpose.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Principles and Guidelines

A few weeks back, I wrote a little about the moralism with which my generation of Nazarenes grew up. It was a very specific way of life that focused largely on rules. We had a right and wrong for just about everything - and while there may have been grey areas, we tended to just avoid them as bad so as not to fool around with where the line might be.

It's been reflected in the way we view our constitutional document: the Manual. In fact, for a long time, the various sections of the Manual were labeled "rules." What we now know as the Covenant of Christian Conduct was the "Special Rules," specifically because it was a list of dos and don'ts. We got to be very good about our Manual legalism. As Wesleyans, we might've been a little less legalistic about the Bible, but the Manual was another story. I hear tales, these days, about families where the rules weren't followed to the letter - but you never heard about those families at the time (if they really existed), because rules were awfully important.

This past month, at General Assembly, was really the first time I saw any public acknowledgement that life is a little messy. Our delegates were willing to admit, from the floor, pastors even, that accepting into membership, even leadership, people who occasionally drink alcohol, is a pretty common practice. That's light years ahead of anything I would've expected, but it was truly refreshing.

I'm not saying that the most recent US Presidential election had anything to do with this (because I'm loathe to equate anything positive with that shit show), but I wonder if, give the realities of that last post I mentioned, we might now be a little more comfortable looking around the curtain of moralism at the pompous wizard running the show?

This new generation (mine, but really the one immediately behind me) seems unwilling entirely to play the old games. We're much more comfortable with both ambiguity and grace. We see the Manual as more of a guidebook than a rule book and it's throwing a bit of a wrench into things. This General Assembly had us asking, "Why not set strong standards and then hold to them with grace, rather than legalism?" Which might've been a slap in the face to old Phineas Bresee.

We'll get into an argument about that, too, because it seems to me each generation sees themselves in the old man - he possessed enough legalism, grace, social justice fire, and prohibitionist dominionism for everyone to have a piece. That's become our go-to perspective on the Church of the Nazarene as well; each generation makes the denomination into the entity most appropriate for itself. One generation, those spry, pesky Baby Boomers, held onto the reins of power for an awful long time, but that time does appear to be ending and what comes next is totally up in the air.

There's a generation in between that's going to have an unfairly small window out of which to operate - and they might want to have their say, but times are most definitely changing. Things will certainly get more complicated, but probably a little bit healthier, too. Of course, health in one area often leads to the exposure of dysfunction in another - some area our kids will grind against and reject when their time comes.

Regardless, the moment of change may have arrived. It came quickly and almost without warning, but the movement from rules and structure to guidelines and grace is inevitable, especially given the way my generation looks at and interacts with the world. Because of my experience, I have a real hard time calling the next phase "good" or "better," but it's certainly refreshing. The age of moralism might finally be dead in the Church of the Nazarene.

And that is undoubtedly a good thing, no matter how it came about, or what might be yet to come.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Nazarenes, Moralism, and _ru_p

I got to spend a few days at the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene - this is the every-four-years gathering of my denomination, with delegates from around the world, but still largely dominated by very traditional, white middle-class Americans (despite the awesome fact that such people now makeup less than a quarter of our global membership). For ten days, there was a pretty big, insular bubble over downtown Indianapolis - one summed up by a tweet from a local waitress saying we weren't buying much alcohol,but the place is fresh out of dessert.

I had more than a few conversations about the crazy year in US politics. Most every friend I had from outside the US and/or under 40 had a similarly head-shaking confusion about the whole thing - a now familiar response. Those in another category were shaking their heads for other reasons. More than once I got some version of the same question - "Why have you [liberal/young/progressive/contrarian] gotten so much more upset that we [older/traditional/evangelical/Nazarene] voted Republican this time around; we've been doing it your whole lives?"

I recognize I had some angry responses to the election, inauguration, words, actions, tweets, thoughts, etc of Donald Trump, but I do think I've found some distance as a result of incredulous, but begrudging acceptance of reality. For the first time, I didn't really think about that question in terms of politics or even theology. Maybe it was the comfort and familiarity of the Nazarene bubble, but it feels like people in my generation - both radically liberal and heart-warmingly conservative - ended up with the same answer.

In short, our parents' generation* spent vast amounts of time and effort to make sure that good little Nazarene kids were uncommonly moralistic.
We were taught a vast array of dos and dont's with seemingly incomprehensible levels of logic that we just ate up and internalized. We didn't watch the Smurfs, because magic, or the Simpsons, because Bart was so disrespectful - I even remember having a conversation with my Dad about why I could watch GoBots, but not Transformers where the reason amounted to "the good guys don't always win on Transformers."

We skipped proms and dances, avoided movies, and thought the neighbor having a beer was as hell-bound as any terrorist. I spent most of my childhood genuinely believing you couldn't be a Democrat and a Christian (but that being American and Christian were almost synonymous) - and that abortion was the only issue worth voting about. We were inundated with the evangelical subculture, which I only realized in about fifth grade when a friend of mine thought I was talking about Opera when I told him my favorite musician.** (Notice I didn't even mention sex, because that's not something we do... mention sex, that is - definitely out.)

So, even if we learned to question and react against what amounted to benevolent indoctrination later in life, that foundation remains; it's buried deep inside each of us at subatomic levels. We've been shaped and formed with a guilt complex second to none,*** where even thoughts of the taboo were met with fear and hidden away. Above all else we were taught that Nazarenes - that good Christians - did things in a very specific, particular way (the right way).

We're the third generation, really, our parents were the kids of true believers, so they didn't understand exactly why we do things the way we do, but they respected them enough to drill them into our heads by rote. We learned all the whos, whats, whens, and wheres, even if the whys were sorely lacking.

So perhaps you might begin to grasp just how earth-shatteringly disarming it was to see those same people who spent so much time making sure we had a sound moralistic way of life so easily embrace a man whose very existence epitomizes the opposite of all we were taught was good and holy. That last word's not even a pun; one guy, last week, actually said to me, "I'm willing to be corrected if I'm wrong, but I'm hard-pressed to think of a single thing in Trump's life that would be acceptable to Nazarene thought and practice."

Yup. Not an exageration. He said it and it echoes everything I've been thinking and resonated pretty strongly with my Nazarene peer group - regardless of whether they were living out that moralism wholesale or striking against it in vividly intentional ways. Politics don't even enter into the equation - we're all just scratching our heads how the denomination we're trying to inherit could so totally accept a dude they (without name recognition or money) would never let walk in the doors of the church when we were kids.

It's a simple as that. You trained us to be this way. How else do you expect us to react?

*I do mean this collectively - as one generation to another - not so much my (or anyone else's) specific parents.

**Super props to fifth grade Troy for being so knowledgeable about opera, by the way.

***This sounds super harsh, because I'm focusing just on the moralism, but, really, there's a lot of benefits to this kind of upbringing - we had a strong sense of identity and a fantastic grasp of scripture and it's importance. Not incidentally, both of these things are really coming back to bite that previous generation, since we are challenging the status quo at present with a lot of well-earned Nazzy street cred.