Saturday, April 05, 2003

Friends and relations

Telford explains the provenance of his name, which I'd been wondering about myself. (The most I got was when someone asked where his name came from, he answered, "It comes from Hell.")

The bit about his middle name is interesting. My family has a similar story, actually. My sister's middle name is Beecher, because we're distantly related to Harriet Beecher Stowe, her brother Henry Ward Beecher, and the rest of that rather colorful clan. Which I guess gives us about equal abolitionist cred, although when it comes to the quality of the writers, well, Telf has bragging rights.

Friday, April 04, 2003

The meaning of hunger

Peter Nixon wrote me a fine email in response to my Acts 13 post. Since he's given up blogging for Lent, I'm goin to be his "Sabbath goy" and blog it for him:
In general, I find that evangelical Protestants, particularly
Pentecostals, are much more likely to believe that they are getting highly
specific directions from God on various issues than are Catholics. I'm not
saying that one approach is right and the other wrong, but it is
something of a modest cultural difference.

For myself, rather than asking the question "is God asking me to fast,"
I'm more likely to fast so I can hear what God is asking me. Our lives
have become so noisy that God could be sitting right next to us
shouting at the top of His lungs and we still might not hear what he is
saying. Disciplines like prayer, fasting and abstinence are tools to help us
purify our awareness so we can hear the "still, small voice."

Another way to think about it is to envision God as a radio station
that is always broadcasting. We are the radio and we need to work to keep ourselves in tune (imagine you are a radio in the days before digital tuners, I might add!).

In my own life, I have found that discerning God's will for my life
tends to take a bit of time. That is, I think, as it should be. Jesus
spent 40 days in the desert, not 40 hours. Adults wishing to become
Catholics undergo a lengthy preparation process known as the Catechumenate that dates back to the earliest days of the Church. Candidates for the priesthood and religious life undergo years of formation, and the latter make temporary vows before they make permanent vows.

On the subject of fasting, I would say that one should be careful about
drawing a firm line between acts of spiritual and material solidarity
and always favoring the former over the latter. There is a story about
someone asking Mother Teresa why her sisters spent so much time praying when they could be out in the streets of Calcutta helping the poor. She replied, "if they didn't pray so much, they wouldn't be able to continue to go out into the streets of Calcutta to help the poor."

Well, yeah, my initial response was a bit churlish -- I understand how these spiritual pursuits can encourage one to be more giving of oneself. I think one reason I reacted that way to the pastor's remarks about fasting from food in particular is that our culture's equation of thinness with moral virtue really bugs me. People say they're "being good" if they eat lightly and exercise and such, and I can sort of understand that. But ultimately it's still self-centered: it's not "being good" on par with giving your time to help the unfortunate and so on. I'm not one to judge what was going on in the pastor's heart, it just pushed my buttons.

I like the metaphor of the radio tuning. That was sort of what I was getting at when I wrote about letting go of worldly things -- not that worldly things are inherently bad, but they can draw away your emotional and spiritual energy. You're also probably right that Pentecostals are more likely to think they're getting directives from God. The whole movement started with the idea of direct communication with the Holy Spirit, so it's not surprising they see it everywhere.
Acts 14

Paul and Barnabas go to Lystra and do healings, only to find themselves deified:
When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, ‘Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. (14:11-15)

It's interesting that this should come up, because I just had an email exchange with Telford about deifying people. Sure, in the modern era we don't literally call people gods or demigods, but we can act in ways that amount to the same thing. Famous people can be subject to it, like the weird cult of Elvis Presley (complete with after-death sightings). We can also do this to people in our personal relationships. A few months ago a speaker at church remarked that when he first got married, he and his wife looked to each other for an impossible level of fulfillment. "After about a week," he said, "we had to look at each other and say, 'Look, I'm not God, and you're not God.'"

Despite the fact that Christianity grew up in a revolt against that kind of blurring of the human/God boundary, I have been feeling like it strays into that realm sometimes anyway, with its great emphasis on "witness." Only a few people in world history actually met Jesus; the rest of us have to rely on the credibility of their witness, at ever greater degrees of remove. Nearly all the Christians I've talked and written to lately have placed great importance on this, and on how their relationships with and admiration of individual Christians brought them to the faith.

Personally, I can't imagine placing that much faith in anyone else's credibility. People are fallible. Their credibility may be fine for ordinary matters, but this is no ordinary matter and no ordinary degree of belief. How can I believe a second-hand account, no matter how sincere it is, to the point of placing my life in it? It doesn't help matters that a number of psychological experiments indicate that eyewitness testimony basically sucks.

The friendship and support of Christians at church and in the blogosphere has done wonders for me emotionally since my free-fall last year. But I've been reluctant to ascribe this to any kind of supernatural agency. In his last email to me Telford wrote:
When a Christian feeds a hungry brother or sister, God is involved,
though the immediate agencies are also thoroughly human. ... The Word's
incarnation, the Spirit's indwelling, and the restoration of the human
imago dei are like that. The mind-bending thing about Christian
eschatology is that Christlikeness means we are becoming both truly
ourselves again (and thus like the rest of creation), and like God (and
thus unlike the rest of the creation), yet without tension between the
two (for divinity and humanity are one in Christ without confusion,
change, division, or separation).

This is an appealing idea, but it also kind of creeps me out. I need and appreciate human kindness as much as anybody, but is it really right to worship it as the "indwelling" of the Supreme Being? Is this "imaging Christ" business so different from the idea of Paul and Barnabas being incarnations of gods? I don't know, this is giving me a headache...

Michael Kelly

As the blogosphere already knows, he died today covering the war in Iraq.

War correspondents have always amazed me. Of all the things I've imagined I might do with my reporting career, going into battle zones is just unimaginable to me. So I have all the more respect for those who do it, and even do it well.

Thursday, April 03, 2003

The chosen

A while ago I wondered if President Bush had messianic notions of himself or is just a typical evangelical. Over at Matthew Yglesias' place, a lively discussion has broken out on the same subject.
Acts 13

I'm going to digress a bit in this chapter, because what's foremost in my mind isn't my own reaction to it, but my reaction to someone else's reaction to it.

By way of background, last week I started going to this women's Bible-study group that meets on Wednesday nights. Telford's wife Kim suggested this a while ago, because she had gone for a time and met women there she considered to be spiritual "giants." I balked because I'm not especially fond of all-female groups, and wasn't feeling that sociable last fall in any case. But I've found I've really enjoyed the small-group discussions at Alpha, and since Alpha is going to end next week, I wanted to find something similar to do after that. So I decided to give it a shot.

An associate pastor at the church leads the group, and she speaks on the assigned passage at every meeting before we discuss it at our separate tables. The subject this week was Ephesians 4 but the pastor digressed to Acts 13, which she'd read on Monday morning. (Yes, this is Monday's reading -- I'm still behind!) She had found herself obsessing over a line at the beginning that I'd completely skated over when I read it: "Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off" (13:3).

This pastor has a compulsive eating problem, which she talks about a fair amount. (Strangely enough, so does our senior pastor. I don't feel like I have "food issues," but sometimes I think I'm going to get food issues if I listen to these folks long enough.) She found herself sticking on the word "fasting." She took this as a message from God that she was supposed to fast that day. Apparently this isn't the first time she's gotten that message: back at the 2000 presidential election, she got a message to fast from bread until it was resolved. (Not surprisingly, this turned out to be even more torturous for her than for the rest of us.) After a great deal of resistance she finally consented to the fast. At the end of the day what she learned, she said, was what a lazy and selfish disciple she was. With all the starvation in the world, she was making a big deal about a one-day fast.

I'm always interested in hearing how people think God communicates with them directly, because this is such an unfamiliar concept to me. But I had, and still have, extremely mixed feelings about this story. When describing how she determined that this feeling actually came from God, the pastor asked, "Would Satan -- would the enemy of my soul ask me to fast?" She asked this in a tone of voice that made it clear she thought this was absurd. But I'm not so sure. I mean, I don't know if Satan exists, but certainly people can fast for the wrong reasons -- especially if they have "food issues." Not surprisingly given my demographic, I've known people who've had anorexia and other eating disorders, and fasting for them was not holy but deeply pathological. Moreover, it was deeply self-centered; people with eating disorders become so obsessed with their own bodies they have little room for others. That's why I remember thinking, if you're bothered about the hungry people in the world, go out and feed them, don't just sit there and starve yourself!

Still, it's true that fasting has a long tradition in Christianity (and in other religions). Right now we're in the middle of Lent, and Christians all over the world are fasting in various ways. (Peter Nixon is showing his true dedication to the cause by fasting from blogging.) I can understand how refraining from these things can heighten you spiritually, in the sense that it proves your worldly attachments don't control you. I have been struggling with this problem myself lately, in that some of my anchor-holds in this world have been going away. Last year my mother rented out the house I grew up in; and in preparation for this she had the whole place worked over, basically removing everything that made it distinctive to us -- all the furniture my father made, the roses and the hibiscus I planted in the garden, everything. Now it's another blank rental house where three young men are living. I haven't been back, and I don't know when I will be able to. The whole idea of it has disturbed some deep place in my soul. I've had dreams of being in the house as it was, and realizing even as I was asleep that none of it was really there, it was all gone.

I think that this greatly contributed to my feeling of dislocation and aloneness last year, that eventually had me crash-landing at Christian Assembly. I remember driving up to the house on Labor Day weekend of 2001 to clear out the last of my stuff before the renovation, and then a few days later there were the terrorist attacks. The small personal loss and the big unfathomable loss together slammed me with the transience of everything in this world. Little wonder I've felt such a renewed urgency to find the eternal.

UPDATE: Dash recommends I read Ecclesiastes 3:11. Actually, now that I've looked at it I think I'll quote it all the way through 3:15:
He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.

My study notes say the translation "sense of past and future" is for Hebre ha'olam, literally "the age" or "the world" -- 'a difficult expression; suggested translations include "the world," "eternity," of "darkness" ("ignorance"). The quest to know all things ("the world") cannot be attained.'

Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Under the glass

The March issue of First Things is online, and includes an article claiming that science is coming in harmony with religion.

There's a lot in this, and I will probably post more than once about it. But foremost in my mind right now is its invocation of the "anthropic coincidence." I've encountered this idea a fair amount, and the article sums it up fairly concisely:
The term “anthropic coincidence” refers to some feature of the laws of physics that seems to be just what is needed for life to be able to evolve. In other words, it is a feature whose lack or minute alteration would have rendered the universe sterile. Some of these features have been known for a long time. For example, William Paley, already in 1802, in his treatise Natural Theology, pointed out that if the law of gravity had not been a so–called “inverse square law” then the earth and the other planets would not be able to remain in stable orbits around the sun. Perhaps the most famous anthropic coincidence was discovered in the 1930s, when it was found that except for a certain very precise relationship satisfied by the energy levels of the Carbon–12 nucleus, most of the chemical elements in nature would have occurred in only very minute quantities, greatly dimming the prospects of life... these coincidences do completely vitiate the claim that science has shown life and man to be mere accidents. If anything, the prima facie evidence is in favor of the biblical idea that the universe was made with life and man in mind.

I really don't get this. It seems to be based on a tautology, really: if the universe were different, well, the universe would be different. Why is it shocking that we couldn't live in a different universe?

I went to a greenhouse once that included a display of orchids. Most orchids were out with the rest of the plants, were people could walk among them. But a few were in a glass case, because their temperature and humidity demands were so exact that even the protected environment of the greenhouse was too variable for them.

Most people who believe in evolution at all would have no trouble saying that these orchids evolved in a very specific niche in the rainforest, and they can't tolerate anything else because they're so perfectly attuned to the environment in which they appeared. Yet the "anthropic" view seems to be turning this around: because the orchids are so fussy, the whole rainforest must have been created for them. After all, just a tiny change in the environment and they could never have lived!

I suppose people aren't used to seeing themselves as delicate hothouse orchids, but we are. More to the point, we are part of nature. We couldn't just be cut out of the ecosystem in which we were born and plunked somewhere else. To the extent that we do go into hostile environments, it's because we recreate parts of our natural habitat around us, in the form of oxygen tanks, central heating and the like. The anthropic coincidence, to me, affirms just how inextricably part of this universe we are, and how inseparable from the natural world. This certainly doesn't disprove the existence of God, but I don't see how it supports it either.

Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Acts 12

Herod Agrippa (not to be confused with previous Herods in the Bible) starts another persecution, killing John's brother and arresting Peter yet again. An angel comes at night and leads Peter out of prison, and he goes to Mark's mother's house and then to Caesarea. Herod then starts getting delusions of grandeur; when a crowd starts calling him a god and he fails to refute them, he dies from being "eaten by worms."

Peter was released from prison by an angel back in Acts 5, but this description is a lot more detailed.
an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He tapped Peter on the side and woke him, saying, ‘Get up quickly.’ And the chains fell off his wrists. 8he angel said to him, ‘Fasten your belt and put on your sandals.’ He did so. Then he said to him, ‘Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.’ Peter went out and followed him; he did not realize that what was happening with the angel’s help was real; he thought he was seeing a vision. After they had passed the first and the second guard, they came before the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went outside and walked along a lane, when suddenly the angel left him. Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hands of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.’ (12:7-11)

It's an unusually vivid description for Acts. A lot of the book feels like a spoken narrative of something imperfectly remembered ("So she said... and then they went there ... and someone came up and said something like ...) but the action gets a lot more lifelike in this chapter. It continues when Peter arrives at the house and knocks on the gate; there's an amusing scene of the maid coming out, seeing him, and getting so excited she runs back inside without letting him in.

I can't read this without thinking of Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, which included a painting of the escape scene by on of the masters (I can't remember exactly who, but I think Raphael). Sister Wendy remarked that it depicted not only the specific Biblical scene but the classic dream of freedom, where you can simply walk away from all your burdens and bonds and take off wherever you please. There is that seductive quality to the tale -- the chains falling from his wrists, the gates opening themselves before him. But of course, Peter is still bound to his reality, his church and his friends. The scene of him knocking in frustration on the gate until the maid comes to her senses drives home the contrast with the self-opening gates of the night before. Peter caught glimpses of the freedom beyond, but most of the time, like the rest of us, he was still knocking and waiting.

Monday, March 31, 2003

Acts 11

Peter goes back to the church and persuades them to accept Gentiles in their midst. The church is further persecuted but it grows, and for the first time the followers are called "Christians," as opposed to a Jewish sect.

In his comment on my Acts 10 post, Telford was surprised that I called the conversion of Cornelius easy, crossing the ethnic divide was very difficult. I realize that; I just meant that specifically convincing people to follow Jesus always seems easy in the Bible. When Cornelius shows up, Peter gives him his standard spiel about Jesus, and bang! Instant Christian. There wasn't six months of wrangling about the problem of evil and all that. Of course, it helps that Cornelius got a directive straight from God to listen to Peter. I don't know if the Holy Spirit moved me to write to Telford, but it didn't tell me to believe everything he says!

Anyway, this chapter got me thinking about the conflict that comes between keeping oneself pure -- the main preoccupation of the kosher laws -- and going out into the world the way Christians are supposed to. Last year I read a story about the young Australian golf star Aaron Baddeley, who belongs to the fundamentalist Assemblies of God church. He had granted an interview to a freelancer who led him to believe the article would run in some mainstream Australian magazine. But that deal didn't work out, and the freelancer sold it to Penthouse. Baddeley's father flipped out, and was especially angry that Aaron talked about his faith and the AoG in it, and those words had appeared in a porn mag. If I remember right, he said it made him "want to take a shower."

It reminded me of another interview I'd read years earlier, when Alex Haley had interviewed Martin Luther King Jr. for Playboy. King was apparently reluctant to talk to the nudie zine, but Haley convinced him: "Look, you'll reach people who would otherwise never hear you!"

The situations were different, of course; Baddeley did not consent to appear in Penthouse, and he's no MLK, he's an athlete. But his father's reaction, compared to King's, speaks volumes to me about their different attitudes. Baddeley felt the word of God was tainted by appearing in Penthouse; King felt Playboy might be uplifted by it. I know what it's like to be concerned mainly with keeping yourself pure, and it's a self-absorbed, depressing place to live. It's not the sort of Christian I would want to be, if I were one.
The Bible blog craze sweeps the country!

A few days ago I got an email from someone named Dash inquiring about my Biblical blogging. Apparently Dash liked the idea, because s/he has decided to start a new blog going through the Bible from the beginning. Wow. And there's already a Star Trek reference!

Sunday, March 30, 2003

Acts 10

For those of you who missed it, Telford left an interesting comment to my Acts 8 post as to why the African eunuch may not have been the first gentile convert:
In Jer. 41:16-42:6 a remnant of Judah (including eunuchs) whom the Babylonians allowed to stay in Judea are attacked and forced to flee. They refuse to obey Jeremiah's warning not to go to Egypt, and take onto themselves his curse. The eunuch may then be a Diaspora Jew, or at least one of Jewish ancestry, or perhaps just a typological figure of the original remnant. (In other words, it is not clear that he is a Gentile.)

In any event, in chapter 10 we have the first bona fide gentile convert, a Roman soldier named Cornelius. Cornelius, we are told, prayed to God and gave alms. One day he receives a vision of God telling him to visit Peter. Peter, meanwhile, gets a peculiar vision of a sheet falling on him filled with unkosher animals, which a voice tells him to eat. When Cornelius arrives, Peter realizes the vision was telling him to share Christ with gentiles as well as Jews. He does so, and and all the gentiles who hear him receive the Holy Spirit.

I suppose of all the people I've encountered in the Bible so far, Cornelius seems the most like me. He was unfamilar with Jesus, but he was praying and giving alms, much as I am. Luke doesn't explain why Cornelius was doing this, but for my own entertainment I like to think that he was doing it for the same reason I am: to align with his conscience. He was a soldier, after all, whose business was killing people, and defending the empire of Tiberius and Caligula. Maybe he hoped there was something beyond Roman imperialism and its hedonistic gods. The fact that Christianity spread so quickly through the Roman Empire suggests a lot of people hoped that.

Conversions are always so much simpler in the Bible than in real life, though. I suppose Telford wishes he had it as easy as Peter when it comes to identifying my inchoate yearning as the Holy Spirit. When I follow my conscience, though, it sometimes puts me at odds with the Christian God, as the recent Exodus debate shows (among others). But even in opposition, Christianity has helped clarify for me what my conscience is. A year ago I felt muddled and apathetic about everything, but now I feel sharper and much more passionate about what I believe to be right. I don't know if this will lead me to God, but I think already it's aligning me with myself, and bringing my soul somewhere closer to its home.