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Archive for September, 2010

Luke 18:9-14 (ESV) 

 9To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

 13“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

 14“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

How often do we thank God that we are not like other men? In one sense, probably not often. Christians have heard all the Pharisee stories repeated ad nauseam, and know pretty early on that the word “Pharisee” is basically a Christian swear word. 

But, maybe it isn’t necessarily overtly thanking God that we’re not like other people. How often do you find yourself with like-minded people, talking about how wrong some other group is and how right you guys are? Is this not a manifestation of the very thing Jesus is talking about here? I find myself doing it regarding political groups or denominations that I think are in error, like Tea Partying Glenn Beck lovers, charismatics, etc. When I was evangelical, it was atheists, liberals, Muslims, and Catholics, to name a few.

I’m not talking about a simple intellectual discussion. It’s good to know what you believe, and why you believe it, and where you differ from others; and frankly, I wish these truly intellectual discussions would happen more often, because theological ignorance within Christianity is unfortunately the norm. I’m talking about when you are incapable of describing different beliefs without an implicit, unspoken, but severe judgment on those beliefs. When every sentence about another group is shaded by the silent suffix: “which OF COURSE is INDISPUTABLY WRONG and anyone who disagrees is either BLINDINGLY STUPID or a PAWN OF SATAN.” When the positive is overlooked and the negative highlighted. When we frantically build straw men, so we can beat them senseless.

It’s completely pointless. No one is edified by everyone sitting around agreeing with each other about how something (that no one in the room actually believes or is anywhere close to believing) is wrong. It only serves to distance everyone in the room from everyone else in the world.

So here’s a baseline principle to stop the spiritual masturbation. (Although you’re not allowed to use this rule and be like “I’m so glad that I follow this principle, UNLIKE THOSE GUYS OVER THERE.”) If you’re not part of a particular group, and haven’t ever been part of said group, you are, for your own sake, probably better off shutting up about what’s wrong with them. Even if there is something glaringly wrong with them. It is more important to understand what’s wrong with yourself or your group than what’s wrong with the others. Stop harping on the speck in someone else’s eye, and deal with the massive plank in your own.

And if that’s too much, try this on for size: thou shalt not be a dick.

Of course, if this was followed consistently, the entire blogosphere would be cut at least a quarter of its current size. And I’d be doing a lot less posting.

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I’ve written about media ecology once before on this blog, and it’s pretty likely that I’ll write about it a lot more in the future. Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is the single most illuminating book I’ve ever read, and introduced me to the field of media ecology, which (in my mind) is the most important academic field that no one has ever heard of.

In a couple of sentences, here is the thesis statement which I have come to accept in reading Postman and other media ecologists (borrowed and plagiarized liberally from those authors): television communicates primarily through entertainment. As such, it is often inhumane in its treatment of its content matter, and dehumanizing to its viewers. Furthermore, it is extremely manipulative, and robs viewers of their capacity to understand and respond to reality as it is by creating the pseudo-reality of the program. Though the contents of the pseudo-reality may be based on events in actual reality, the pseudo-reality is about as real as pixie dust and leprechauns.

(Disclaimer: I am not an academic, and have not taken a single media ecology class, at any academic level. I have a bachelor’s in Finance, and a blog. And I’ve read some books that were written by academics, and that academics say are good. So everything I’m about to say about what I watched last night could be a big pile of crap.)

Last night, I was watching a program on the Discovery Channel about the rescue efforts following the 9/11 terrorist attack, and the personal stories of some of the individuals involved. It was intensely emotional, and the images of the smoking towers brought back memories of that day. Intermingled with the stories of rescue workers, some waiting for news of their family members, it was impossible not to immediately become emotionally invested in the program. One woman, whose husband worked in one of the towers, had watched the towers fall on her TV. “I was watching my husband die, and there was nothing I could do about it.” It was heartrending. Then the screen went briefly to black. Then:

“Could switching to Geico really save you 15% or more on car insurance?”

Snap. Moment gone. It was like a funeral had been interrupted by a vaudeville act. While I was still stunned by the sudden lurch, there came a Captain Morgan commercial that included the word “brochacho.”

Believe it or not, the rest of the program didn’t seem as meaningful after that. The introductory music and graphic felt contrived. The grave, ominous music behind the program felt cynical (oh, should I feel sad and serious now?). The happy uplifting violin strains, played as the husband of the woman from the previous segment (who did not die, but was rescued from the debris) pushed his daughters on a swingset, weren’t quite as happy and uplifting as they might have been.

It was also remarkable what happened with my family as we watched the show. While the program was on, everyone was still, quiet, focused on the screen. Then the commercials came on. After a couple of commercials, people started to talk. We made the cat jump for a feathery toy hanging from a stick by a string. The cat jumped, missed, and almost hit the wall. We laughed; what a stupid cat. Do it again! Jump kitty! Then the program came back on. The toy was set down, everyone quieted down. Next commercial break, the same thing happened.

Think of the implications this has for our ability to comprehend, process, and respond to tragedy. 9/11 was absolutely shattering. It was monstrous. The nation was attacked, and civilians were the targets. This demands a response of mourning, weeping, and wailing. Ever see news footage of overseas funerals? People aren’t just sober and sniffly. They wail. They raise their hands to the heavens, cry out, keel over, and drape their bodies over their beloved dead. Multiply that by a factor of 3000 civilians, and you have (in my opinion) a very appropriate response to 9/11. And as an ongoing act of mourning and remembrance, you make room on the calendar every year to commemorate the individuals who died, and to just remember this national tragedy. In so doing, a culture makes an event sacred.

A 9/11 TV program, on the other hand, requires good editing and appropriate mood music to elicit a response from viewers, and can’t sustain that response past two commercials. Is this the extent of TV’s power to honor something that is sacred: by producing a short-lived emotion? A feeling that is not even dependent on the reality of the actual tragedy itself, but the reality of the program–a reality which is one hour long, and interrupted by a series of 30-second realities wherein a kid stomps toy cars to demonstrate the durability of the newest Nissan, and can be terminated at any moment by the push of a button?

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That is the question I have for today. It was sparked by Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial last weekend. I didn’t watch any of it, so admittedly, my thoughts might be completely off base.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have a very negative opinion of Glenn Beck. Although I’m pretty libertarian in my political views (and therefore more likely to agree with him on issues than not), I can’t stand him. I think he’s a hack, and that he has the critical thinking skills of an average middle schooler. Politicians fall into more categories than “fighting for freedom” and “trying to impose tyranny,” and this has yet to occur to Mr. Beck. But I digress; I’m not trying to explain why I don’t like him. The fact that I don’t like him, and that I’m therefore biased, will suffice.

Beck’s rally was advertisted as being religious, not political. From what I have read about it, this was largely the case. Beck called for America to pray, and declared that “Today, America begins to turn back to God,” or something pretty close to that.

Now, being suspicious of Beck as I am, I am inclined to question his motives. Prayer, and turning to God, are pretty good things to do, and what he said naturally appeals to serious religious people. But I think that he knows that. And while he may believe it himself, he’s very well aware that lots of other people do too. And I think that his end in all this has less to do with God, than with America. To paraphrase Mary Poppins, a spoonful of religion helps the political agenda go down.

I voiced this opinion on that bastion of courteous civil discourse, Facebook. Some people agreed with me. But others thought it was awful that Christians could say that. No religious leaders have done what Beck has done, someone pointed out. Yes, Beck is a Mormon (and therefore, according to most Christian denominations, a member of a cult and probably going to hell), but he was doing a very good thing, calling Americans to pray. And, despite the religious nature of the rally, Mormonism never came up; it was all about God, Christ, and turning back to him. Prominent religious leaders weren’t doing that, so why jump on Glenn Beck?

So why haven’t religious leaders been telling America to devote themselves to prayer, and to turn to God? (Well, first off, anyone who thinks religious leaders haven’t been telling America to repent/pray more/turn to God hasn’t been paying attention for a long time.) Well, I thought to myself, because religious leaders have been telling the adherents of their religion to pray more and turn to God. This is what’s supposed to (and, the majority of the time, does) happen at a church, but not necessarily outside of one. Think about it. Assuming you aren’t trying to convert them, why tell a crowd of people who aren’t part of your religion to pray, or “turn to God,” or anything at all? Imagine if the Dalai Lama stood up and told a bunch of random people, who weren’t necessarily Buddhist, that they all needed to, as a group, submit themselves to the Eightfold Path. Not that they needed to convert to Buddhism (yes I know that it doesn’t quite work that way with Buddhists but stay with me), but that they simply needed to be better Buddhists. There would be a bit of confusion. Well, okay, but, why are you telling us this? We aren’t Buddhist. We respect you and what you do, but the ethical imperatives of your religion, and your authority as a religious figure, mean nothing to us. Because we aren’t Buddhist. In short, the reason that religious leaders haven’t been telling Americans to be better religious people (even though they have), is that there is a sense in which they don’t have the right to. “American” isn’t a religious affiliation, it’s a national one.

At this point, it occured to me: what if America is considered almost a religious affiliation? Which then led to the question: what if America, for Christians, has replaced the Church? I don’t mean the church in the sense of a place where Christians pray and hear sermons and sing songs and find out how to go to heaven and be a good person. I mean the Church–the universal church, the transcendent Bride of Christ, reaching across time and space, the one holy catholic and apostolic church that Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox all declare in the great Creeds. What if the great, sacred brotherhood, THE great transcendent reality, based in historical figures and documents that have assumed mythical proportions, in whose association we find our deepest, truest identity, is no longer The Church, but America?

The more I think about it, the more it makes complete sense. The sort of traditions that have, historically, been so important to the Church, have been largely rejected (or worse, ignored) by American Protestant evangelicals. Chanting the Apostle’s Creed (much less the longer Nicene) scares people–all that chanting sounds cultish. (And what do they mean by “holy catholic church” anyways?) Catechisms (or even commentaries and theological treatises) are viewed with suspicion or ambivalence, because teaching doctrine and theology about non-essentials only divides people; just teach the Bible instead. The hymns are good and all that, but they’re boring and inaccessible to people today; let’s do contemporary praise choruses instead. The church fathers were great, and we should respect them, but they were sinners just like anyone else. It’s not like everything they said was infallible, or like because they said it we should give it more credence than what other people said. But they’re definitely worth reading where they were right. And the Church calendar is largely ignored (Lent, Epiphany, Pentecost, to name a few), with the exception of the two most commercially lucrative religious holidays, Christmas and Easter.

But the American traditions, however, are still strongly defended by those same people who reject that of the Church. Try to take the Pledge of Allegiance out of as many schools as churches have removed (or simply ignored) the creeds, and see what happens. Even attempting to change the wording causes anger. As catechisms, commentaries and treatises are largely ignored, there is a revival of interest in the Federalist Papers–what you might call the commentaries of the Constitution. And can you imagine trying to rework “America the Beautiful” like some of the hymns have been gone over? Give it a catchier melody, simpler chord progressions, and of course, write a new little chorus that can be sung with emotional abandon (a la this and this from my least favorite Christian “artist”). And I recall a backlash against pointing out the chinks in the mythology of the Founding Fathers (they owned slaves, Thomas Jefferson was his slave’s baby daddy, Ben Franklin was a horndog, a bunch of them were Deists who denied miracles and the divinity of Christ). Some said that people who studied the Founders did so to demythologize them, so that they could in turn deny the special beginnings of America and remake it in their own image. And the American calendar (Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, etc.) has not faded as that of the Church.

To further the parallels between America and the Church, consider the “sacred writings.” For the Church, it obviously has been the Bible; but it has not fallen out of favor the way that the creeds, catechisms, and liturgies have. The Constitution was the foundational document of America, and it remains so, just as the Bible remains so for the Christians. (Actually, it’s worth considering whether the Declaration of Independence could be treated as the Old Testament, and the Constitution as the New.) And there are similar battles going on over both. There are Biblical literalists and inerrantists, just as there are strict constructionists. There are those who are willing to reinterpret the Bible in light of changes in society today, just as there are those who refer to the Constitution as a living, breathing document.

So there it is. The Church used to be the defining reality for Christians. For the great thinkers of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Protestantism, the invisible, mystical Bride of Christ, physically manifested in the visible, institutional, apostolic Church, was the primary spiritual reality on earth. I think it is fair to say that this high view of the church as The Church is no longer the dominant view in American Christianity.  But has The Church been replaced by America, for many evangelicals? Glenn Beck’s rally was religious, but what religion was being rallied for? There was mention of God, and of Christ, and prayer, but what Christianity was Beck speaking for? Mormonism is rejected as heretical by pretty much every other branch of Christianity. And as far as I know, there was no mention whatsoever of salvation, or an afterlife. Was he speaking for Catholics? Presbyterians? Methodists? Orthodox? Baptists? In the name of which institution did Glenn Beck speak? And, most importantly, which institutional affiliation made his words so powerful to evangelicals?

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