Saturday, March 01, 2003

Holy fools

The Gutless Pacifist is upset at Christianity Today's coverage of Bono. I only read the main article, which is basically quite sympathetic, and includes an interesting bit about Dublin's religious atmosphere at the time Bono converted:
Bono's spirituality is more than just a reflection of antisectarianism, said Steve Stockman, a chaplain at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and author of Walk On: The Spiritual Journey of U2 (Relevant, 2001). "At the time Bono was involved with Shalom, something unique was happening in Dublin," he explains. "There was a movement of the Holy Spirit that you simply cannot deny. In some ways I think it was the Jesus Movement hit Dublin eight years late. That radical, almost hippie attitude at some level, that this is a radical thing to live in the Spirit . . . It gave Dublin something that was vibrant and exciting and trendy, almost. Bono and [Alison] were certainly caught up in the middle of that. They've never been able to get over that, no matter how their faith has changed. The roots of what they're doing now are in whatever the Spirit was doing back then."

I have been thinking of this in context of what I wrote in the previous post, about American religious vitality vs. European secularism. There have been new religious movements in Europe, but they don't seem to really take off the way they do here. I don't know enough about European culture to really know why, but it does seem to follow that if you're in a society where almost everybody at least nominally belongs to one church, it'll be harder to bring in a new one.

Some hint of that attitude, I think, can be seen in the European moves against "cults." As the State Department reported, several European countries in the last few years have fought against small religious groups working in their countries. And their ideas of what makes a "cult" are, uh, different from Americans'. As the report says: "In Belgium, the Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Sectarian Organizations collects and disseminates information on harmful sectarian groups and devises evaluative criteria to assess the risk for brainwashing, financial exploitation, and isolation from family. The Belgian list of sects includes Baptists, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, the Roman Catholic prelature of Opus Dei, and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA)."

Any country that thinks the YWCA is a dangerous cult has got to be a tough place to start a new church! Although Americans have our own intolerances, of course, we seem to accept religious weirdness a lot more easily than Europeans. If it produces the occasional disaster like Jim Jones or Heaven's Gate, we accept that risk. So to reiterate my original point, I think cultural factors are influencing Europe's and Japan's secularization at least as much as wealth and education are. There's no rule that because it happened a certain way in a couple cultures, it will play out the same in all of them.

Friday, February 28, 2003

I can't help myself, it's a new religion

David Brooks opines in this month's Atlantic that predictions of the death of religion have been greatly exaggerated:
Until September 11 I accepted the notion that as the world becomes richer and better educated, it becomes less religious. Extrapolating from a tiny and unrepresentative sample of humanity (in Western Europe and parts of North America), this theory holds that as history moves forward, science displaces dogma and reason replaces unthinking obedience. A region that has not yet had a reformation and an enlightenment, such as the Arab world, sooner or later will.

It's now clear that the secularization theory is untrue. The human race does not necessarily get less religious as it grows richer and better educated. We are living through one of the great periods of scientific progress and the creation of wealth. At the same time, we are in the midst of a religious boom...

Moreover, it is the denominations that refuse to adapt to secularism that are growing the fastest, while those that try to be "modern" and "relevant" are withering. Ecstatic forms of Christianity and "anti-modern" Islam are thriving. The Christian population in Africa, which was about 10 million in 1900 and is currently about 360 million, is expected to grow to 633 million by 2025, with conservative, evangelical, and syncretistic groups dominating. In Africa churches are becoming more influential than many nations, with both good and bad effects.

Chris Mooney begs to differ:

A recent poll of 44 nations by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that on the whole the secularization theory is correct, with the following exception: The U.S. is both modern and wealthy but also very religious. This puts us in start contrast with other industrialized nations in Europe and countries like Canada, South Korea, and Japan...

I think you'll find that he basically fudges the difference between developed and developing nations in order to support his thesis. But a comprehensive picture of the world does indeed show wealthy developed nations growing more secular -- with one glaring exception.

Let me try to split the difference here. Religiously speaking, modernization -- including the phenomena of increasing wealth and education -- has brought profound changes in both the U.S. and the other nations that have been through it. The difference is that, while a lot of people in other countries have responded by losing interest in religion altogether, the U.S. responds by generating new sects.

Brooks mentions a fact that often surprises observers, that it's the churches "refuse to adapt" that are growing fastest, rather than liberal ones. That's true in the sense that they tend to stay morally strict, but that does not mean they're identical to pre-modern churches. In fact, many of those churches and movements are new and non-traditional. As Brooks says elsewhere in the article, the biggest movement in Christianity today is Pentecostalism, which is just over 100 years old. And I can tell you that the Pentecostal church I attend, with its unstructured service, casual dress, and raucous approach to worship, is anything but traditional. (And then there's the funky business of speaking in tongues, which I've never actually seen in my church.)

Even fundamentalism, which often styles itself as the protector of old-time faith, is a new movement, even younger than Pentecostalism. And dispensational premillennialism -- the colorfully literal interpretation of the Book of Revelation featured in the Left Behind novels and a lot of cheesy movies -- only dates back to th 1820s. American Christianity has changed profoundly in the modern era. It just hasn't changed in ways that people expected.

America was initially colonized by followers of then-new religious movements, and it has continued that bottom-up approach to religion to this day. Europe and Japan have had state churches (if you can call Shintoism a church), and their top-down models haven't aged so well. What happens to the rest of the world as it modernizes depends on whether it's more like America or more like Europe/Japan. Outside of the Islamic world, poorer countries don't seem to be going for the state-religion approach. Africa has already turned into a major generator of new sects, much like early America. So it seems unlikely to me that, just because America is an anomaly today, it will always be so.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

Fred Rogers

Jeanne d'Arc does a stunning tribute. What could I possibly add?
Loving your enemies

There's been a discussion going on among Catholic bloggers about praying for your enemies. Karen at Disordered Affections claims that some people (Hitler, Osama bin Laden) are "perfectly possessed," the embodiment of evil, and shouldn't be prayed for. Minute Particulars has a knockout post in response, pointing out, among other things, the actual nature of prayer:
Whatever it means to "pray for someone," it surely doesn't simply boil down to "wishing them well." But this seems to be a notion of prayer that many have, especially those who object to praying for the enemy or a human being who seems utterly evil. After all, the objection seems to be something like this:
Okay, let me get this right. You want me to pray for _________ so that ______________ will have health and prosperity . . . so _________ can then continue to slaughter the innocent!?.
This, of course, would be absurd and it's not what most have in mind when advocating that we pray for the enemy or a person who seems "the embodiment of evil."

I'm only beginning to pray in a halting sort of way (especially since Pentecostals, unlike Catholics, don't have any programmed prayers you can just recite), but I've always figured praying for someone doesn't mean asking God to give them whatever they want. In fact, I came up against this a few weeks ago when I was praying with Telford a few days before this Important Event he had coming up (I'm still not sure if he wants it public, so I'm still being vague). I wanted to pray for it to go well for him, but it felt kind of ridiculous to just ask that it turn out the way Telford hoped it would turn out. Aside from the fact that it felt vaguely like a child asking a parent for some toy that caught her fancy, I knew that I ultimately don't know, and he ultimately doesn't know, what's best for him in the long run. So I said something like, "Help Telford find his way in life, and find where he belongs."

I see no reason why I couldn't ask for the same thing for Saddam Hussein. If the Christian God exists, the best thing for Saddam in the long run is that he become Christian, and surely that's the last thing Saddam actually wants. It would probably get him killed, though it would win him eternity in heaven. Is it really Christian to hope he doesn't repent just so he stays out of heaven?

I don't know if "perfect possession" exists, but it seems arrogant to believe we can really know if someone's perfectly possessed. We can't look inside Hitler's and bin Laden's heads. If we pray for them and we're mistaken, is that so awful? When did Jesus ever criticize anybody for meaning too well, for being too merciful? (I mean being truly merciful as opposed to lazily letting things slide, like the authorities letting the money-changers in the temple.) I just remember him criticizing people for being too judgmental.

Wednesday, February 26, 2003

Glory days

Cinderella Bloggerfeller writes about the Hungarians, Romans, and ethnic origin myths:
Of course, as Molnar points out, providing an illustrious ancestry for your people or your dynasty was hardly confined to the Hungarians and, indeed, was pretty widespread in Medieval Europe. One of the most common ideas was the belief that your people were descended from the Trojans, presumably in an attempt to rival the Roman claim that the descendants of the Trojan prince Aeneas founded their city. Molnar cites the example of the French. The capital of France is Paris, Paris was the prince who stole Helen- geddit?- so there is obviously a link between the French and the Trojans. Bad puns and wordplay are the stock-in-trade of the cranky linguistic genealogist. Actually, the name Paris comes from a local tribe, the Parisii. This didn’t stop the French from creating a mythical history in which their kings were ultimately descended from Francus, or Francio, a prince who had fled the sack of Troy. Across the Channel, Geoffrey of Monmouth provided a similar genealogy for the British, claiming their nation was founded by Brutus, a descendant of Aeneas, meaning they had connections with both Troy and Rome. Brutus was said to have founded Troynovant, or New Troy, later renamed “London” (again, the name “Troynovant” was probably suggested by a local British tribe recorded as living in Essex, the Trinobantes). These fanciful myths often took on the status of official history, promoted for political reasons, and it was sometimes a very bad idea to challenge them. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the French scholar Nicolas Fréret was slung into the Bastille for claiming the Frankish founders of his country were in fact a Germanic tribe with no connection to the Trojans. As this site puts it: “At the end of the reign of Louis XIV, it wasn’t a good idea to contest his descent from King Priam.”

This brings to mind the amusing scene from Spenser's The Fairie Queene (which I'm sure Eve will recognize!) where the lady knight Britomart and some swain recount their genealogies over dinner, leading back to -- you guess it! -- Troy. It also reminds me of college, and the whole "Afrocentrism" debate. That seemed to be a similar quest: trying to descend yourself from "ancient greatness," however torturously.

The funny thing is, if you want to be on top today or in the near future, it seems like it's better not to be descended from ancient greatness. It means your best days are probably behind you. Look at the countries that have the longest and most storied histories today: Iraq, Egypt, Iran, India, Greece. Not exactly ruling the joint, are they? The younger offshoots are doing better: America is more powerful and dynamic than Europe, China has been eclipsed by upstart Japan.

Some old civilizations do resurge: China has had a few resurgences in its history, and it may yet have another. But overall, getting hung up on a glorious past seems like a good recipe for stasis. Give me a bunch of unlettered barbarians with big dreams, and I'll show you the rulers of tomorrow.

(Via Ideofact, who disputes part of what I quoted above. CB responds here.)
You can't beat the system

I went to Alpha again last night, although I seem to be attending less and less of the actual course part of the Alpha course as I go. Last week Telford and I got deep in conversation over dinner, and kept talking at the table while the singing was going on in the next room (since I was getting sick, I wasn't much up for singing anyway). This time we deliberately played hooky from the singing again to keep talking, but wound up talking all the way through the lecture too, so when the people came back for the discussion we were still sitting there.

Telford was embarrassed and apologized to the discussion leader, but she cheerfully said that this was what Alpha was for. And I suppose I knew that all along: the real purpose of Alpha is to get people together and talking about Jesus. The lectures explain basic concepts, but they are mostly there to provoke discussion. Of course, some of us need no provocation; we'll talk about God all night. And since the discussion leader knew Telford, I'm sure she figured I was in capable hands.

In this case, our conversation didn't even stop when the people came in, because there were so few of them. As I said before, the larger group broke into three for the discussion, but for some reason our usual people weren't there last night. So we were joined by just the leader and one other person, who was not a seeker (he had, in fact, just come back from evangelizing in Asia). It made for an intense evening, as I talked and questioned and debated with these three committed Christians. Being an introvert, I was totally exhausted by the time ten o'clock rolled around (unlike the extroverted Telf, who can keep talking till Judgment Day).

We discussed a lot of things, but the basic theme was systematic theology. There had been a bit of a strain developing between Telford and me about my basic approach to understanding Christianity. I tackled it pretty much the way I tackle anything intellectually, by trying to understand the system as a conceptual whole first, and then getting to the specifics. So I kept asking questions about the overarching structure, God's intent in creating the worlds, the origin and nature of evil, that sort of thing. Telford got frustrated by this and kept telling me that to understand Christianity I really needed to start with Jesus. That was part of what provoked the dying-for-sins discussion that some readers will remember from last month; I was trying to understand the Crucifixion as a starting point. But as you will recall, I approached that systematically too, trying to grasp it from theory and general principles. Again, I was told by a lot of people that I was looking at it the wrong way.

A couple days before Alpha, I wrote Telford an email basically saying: look, you can't ask me not to think systematically any more than you can ask me to turn my eyes blue. It's the way I think. I'm so fascinated by systems that back when I lived in northern California, and didn't have a car, I taught myself the whole public-transit system in my county. Partly because I used it, of course, but also for fun. (Yes, I have a weird idea of fun.) Whatever I seek to understand, I start with the big picture.

Once I explained it to Telford like that, he was more sympathetic. For me to walk into theology as a total outsider, he explained, was like walking into a room after there's been an argument: whatever I say, however innocently, might set people off again. In this case, my rationalist, systematic approach pushed his "anti-modernist" buttons, so he kept steering me towards Karl Barth and his anti-modern, Jesus-centered theology. But Telford's own area of specialty is actually systematic theology (somehow I hadn't quite realized that), so he understood my desire for conceptual scaffolding.

I think it has been hard for a lot of people, both in Alpha and in the blogosphere, to understand why I have such a burning need to see a system underlying everything. I think it's just one of those inborn differences in people's brains. A few days ago Mysterium Crucis reminded me, via the whimsical Bloginality, of the whole Myers-Briggs personality-type systems that I used to be into about 15 years ago. Like a lot of personality systems, it oversimplifies, but it serves the useful purpose of explaining people to other people who are vastly different from them. I have kind of a split personality in that system, because I'm about equal parts INTP (that's the rational systematist in me) and INFP (that's the quixotic God-seeker in me). The fact that I have both these personalities often clashing within me probably explains why I'm so terminally ambivalent, seeking faith and yet always arguing with the faithful. I appreciate the forbearance of those who have put up with my endless grappling, both in the blogosphere and in the flesh.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

You'll put your eye out with that!

Mark Kleiman has an action movie pet peeve:
Just once, I’d like to see someone in an action flick get hit by a car as he or she blindly rushes across the street through heavy traffic, either pursuing or being pursued. It could be the good guy or the bad guy; I’m not picky. I mean, didn't their mothers ever tell them to look both ways before crossing?

Here's my peeve, or rather my whole family's peeve: people going through windows without a scratch. I say this because when I was about seven or eight I was playing Tag with my sister and her friends, and my sister's arms went through a window. She screamed like I have rarely heard her scream, because she had little shards of glass embedded in her skin all over her arms, and it hurt like a motherf@#$er. My father (who is, conveniently, a doctor) had to pick them all out and sew up some of the bigger holes. She still has visible scars.

So shattering glass may be a cool visual, but treat it with respect, boys and girls.

Monday, February 24, 2003

Blinking into the sunlight

Whenever I'm home sick for a few days I seem to go into this mental cave, completely inward and detached from things. I was back at church yesterday and at work today, but I'm still in a daze. An appropriate time, I suppose to read Jonathan Rauch's humorous piece about the care and feeding of introverts. Patrick Nielsen Hayden also blogged it, with a typically interesting comments discussion ensuing.

This reminds me that long ago I had a boyfriend who was that odd creature, a shy extrovert. It was proof that introversion/extroversion isn't the same as shyness/boldness, though they often overlap. My boyfriend was soft-spoken, awkward and easily embarrassed. Yet everywhere he went he seemed to make lots of friends, and whenever there was a social event he wound up in the middle of it. It was because he drew energy from being with people -- he felt a magnetic pull to wherever the social action was, even though he lacked confidence in his conversational abilities. This made him a charmingly good listener, in contrast to a lot of extroverts.