Saturday, June 21, 2003

And as it turns out, Telford ain't the only one moving

I'm leaving blogspot! I've joined the notfrisco cabal! Please update your links to:

The adventure continues!!

Thursday, June 19, 2003


I apologize to those of you who've gotten interested in the historical-Jesus discussion, that it's going so slow. I've come down with a cold and have had a hard time concentrating lately, while the Westmont server seems to have gone down and taken Telford's blog with it. Before it disappeared, though, the blog announced the happy news that Telford found a house. Which will also slow down the discussion since he'll be so busy, but it's a relief for Telford.

He's been looking for a few months, ever since he found out Westmont was going to rehire him (this time on a tenure track). It's tough enough to find a house in Santa Barbara, which is one of the most expensive places in the country, but Telford's task was made harder by the size of his family. It occurred to me when I heard him talking about this, that one thing that's hard about having a lot of kids in modern American society is that our shrinking fertility rates have upped the expectations for how children should live, especially in terms of how much space they have. I remember in the movie My Left Foot, the first half of which was set in an enormous working-class Irish family, the brothers and sisters squeezed together in communal beds by sleeping head-to-foot, and kept those arrangements until they were old enough to leave home. Nowadays we tend to think there's something vaguely incestuous about a brother and sister even sharing a room. Yet throughout human history, the movie's image of family life was probably more normal than what I grew up in. (And as I pointed out in an earlier post, having relatives in your face all the time may be precisely what de-eroticizes them.)

When my family moved to California, when I was three, we bought our four-bedroom house from a very large family. The oldest daughter lived in the little bedroom that was to become mine; two brothers lived in the larger bedroom next to it, that would be my sister's; and two more kids lived in the downstairs bedroom (I forget the gender). When we showed up, they'd just had another baby, and decided they needed a new house.

With just two kids in the house, we had a lot of room. This was even more so because there was a field out back that actually belonged to a neighbor, but he wasn't doing anything with it, so he let us run around there. Since we lived in a pretty well built-up suburb, half a mile from the freeway, it was nice having that patch of nature. There was a stretch of meadow grass where we'd play; farther from the house, where there must have been an underground water source, there was a bramble of blackberries and a quince tree that must have been planted for some long-abandoned garden, but that still fruited. There was also patch of wild fennel, which the local kids called "Indian chewing gum" because when the stalks dried out you could peel off the hard skin and get a soft chewable core. It didn't taste very good, but when you're a kid there's an odd thrill to finding a source of something that isn't through your parents.

When we got older, new residents in the house tried different things with the field. First there was a terraced garden; then when I was in my teens, they fenced it off and raised sheep there. Now, as I said this was a built-up 'burb, with no agriculture for miles around, so it was always entertaining when visitors to the house would suddenly hear a "Baa-a-a-a." They would stop with the expression of someone who thinks they must be hallucinating, and say something like, "Did I just hear ... something like a ... sheep?"

There was quite a bit of animal life in the area. There were deer that aggravated my mother and me by munching on the garden. There were stray tomcats who managed to impregnate both our female cats before we could spay them. I watched the birth of one set of kittens; as you can imagine, it was quite fascinating to a six-year-old girl. I still flash back to those images, when I think of what birth is like. It wasn't much like a human birth, but it's still the only one I've seen in the flesh.

That house carved so much of my mental landscape, it's hard for me to imagine growing up moving around the way the Work children have. This is something like their fourth house in the last six years. But I guess that, whether in Pasadena or Santa Barbara, four to a bed or one to a room, children always adapt somehow.

Tuesday, June 17, 2003

For goodness' sake

T.S. O'Rama wrote me an email in response to my remark here that when I read about God in the Bible, he doesn't always seem especially good. He writes:
Here's my 2 cents: Part of the difficulty is that the bible wasn't written for us. It was written for all times, for all peoples - including the people *at that time*. So the Old Testament necessarily had to be written in a way that would instruct and help people who had not a clue scientifically or morally, while preserving a kernel of truth (the important part) for all generations. God colors with crayon until he can paint with oils.

For example, if I am a caveman who rapes every woman I see and don't know any better, then if you are God you'd probably get across the idea of respect for God first (so I'll listen) then respect for women second (so I'll understand why raping is bad) and finally I go down the "monogamy only" path (i.e. faithfulness and exclusivity). But the latter comes later. First you'd get the respect idea down. People who are cruel only understand cruelty.

The bible may, in some places, induce head-scratching. But fortunately there are parts (especially at the end) that display total love for us, like the idea that God would come down as a man and die for us. Here's a quote I came across that unfortunately I cut & pasted but don't know who said it:

"I do not understand suffering - but I know it is real. But a God who is in any way responsible for this terror of our lives, such a God must be terrible, a Molech consuming the children we love in contempt for any individual's striving and selfhood. But that is not the God revealed in the history of Israel and in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, a man whose life is written to echo the history of his people. Our God shows that he is with us - Emmanuel - in the slime of life, in the pain of life, in the joys of life, and in our death. I still do not know why people should die meaningless deaths, but because God is with us, he can look me in the face and I will not turn away in disgust. This story is so powerful that its symbols grip me absolutely. If all the details are wrong or ahistorical, the story itself remains true. Perhaps it is a dream, although I think not, but the story of Christmas is that life has meaning, humanity is worthwhile, and ultimately "all will be well, and all will be well, and all things will be well".

I've been around this a zillion times with Telford (to the point where he's heartily sick of it), but I'll say again what I've said to him: this would all be a lot easier to believe if I didn't have to believe Yahweh is the omnipotent creator. It would be easier if I didn't have to believe in an omnipotent creator at all. If somebody said there's a powerful but limited force for good in the universe that's doing what it can, that might excuse certain klutzy moves it makes along the way. But that's not the argument Christianity makes.

This reminds me of Joel Gazis-Sax's interesting post on Zoroastrianism. I don't know a whole lot about the faith, but what I know agrees with what he says. In that scheme, there is a good, but non-omnipotent god who is constantly at war with an evil one. It has heaven and hell, and an apocalyptic end-times scenario similar to Revelation (some think Zoroastrianism influenced Revelation, but that's another story), but with a rather different spin on them:
Zoroastrians believe that we have two linked souls, one which animates our earthly body and another which remains in Heaven with God (Ahura Mazda) at all times. This heavenly soul never becomes corrupted. But Ahriman, who can be called Satan if you please, can and does work to pollute the earthly soul. When he succeeds, he gets to drag you down to Hell. But not for eternity.

Hell resembles Christian Purgatory, but with a lot more pain and suffering. Good deeds performed during your lifetime help to ameliorate your pain. Once you have been cleansed, Ahriman has no more hold over you. Your earthly soul reunites with your heavenly one and you are with God...

I'm not about to convert to any religion, but if you've got to have one that demands an unequivocal belief in good and evil, Zoroastrianism's formula solves a lot of questions. God doesn't cause suffering: Satan does. In the struggle between Good and Evil, though Satan makes advances, he can never completely win. God will reclaim all that is good and beautiful after a period of purification. No one is damned for all time because God loves us. We suffer in hell so that all that is Satanic in us can be removed. In the end, we all join God in Paradise. Zoroastrians don't fret about the behavior of others: they labor to perfect themselves.

Christians, Jews, and Muslims, it seems have corrupted these ideas, largely I think for political reasons. When Satan's role changed to resemble that of Ahriman more, these other religions failed to incorporate compassion for the suffering soul here on earth completely. Therein, I think, is the root of the contradictions which drive so many of us mad. The critic of the Levantine religions asks "If God is Good, why does He allow evil to flourish in this world?" And it's a good question, one for which the answers I have heard are halting, selfish, and unconvincing. The Zoroastrian replies "God does not cause the evil in the world. Satan does. God can win, but He needs your help. Work hard on your own soul."

I find that empowering.

I tend to agree. I'm comfortable enough speaking the language of good and evil, but the Zoroastrian version makes more sense to me than the Christian version. It would be interesting to talk to a Zoroastrian one of these days, but sadly, there aren't a lot of them left.
Yearning to breathe free

Recently I got around to reading Freedom House's latest report on the state of freedom in the world. In the essay prefacing the data, the house points out that the news is mostly good. The authors say a "third wave" of democratization began in the 1970s, and continues today. (So, you poli-sci wonks out there: what were the first two?)

The report gives some attention to the regional trends, especially the fact that the "wave" so far hasn't hit the Middle East. There's been no general improvement in the freedom ratings there in 30 years. A lot of ink has been spilled about why that's so, and I'm not going to try to add to it.

Also interesting when you look at the data is the fate of the post-Communist world. As FH noted in its Nations in Transit report, a split seems to be developing between the western and eastern parts of the former Soviet bloc. The nations of eastern Europe, as well as the Baltic states, have mostly succeeded in democratizing. (The exception has been the Balkans, but even there it seems to be happening now that the war's subsided.) The rest of the former Soviet Union, however, has had a much tougher time of it. Some, like Turkmenistan and Belorus, have fallen under the sway of outright dictators. At best, as in Russia, the scene is mixed.

This trend continues if you look at China and Indochina, which have de-Communized themselves but remain repressive. The former non-Communist, authoritarian states of east Asia, like South Korea and Taiwan, have mostly democratized successfully.

So where did the wave hit? Africa, to a certain extent. In the early 1990s there was a wave of popular protest there, no doubt inspired by eastern Europe and the end of Cold War shennanigans in the continent, and a lot of dictators lost their jobs or were forced to compromise. In only a few places did this end up with complete democracy, but the improvement is significant. (And today, via Eve Tushnet, comes news that another thug is gonna hit the road.)

Perhaps more significant to the U.S. is Latin America. Despite various setbacks, democratization there seems to be for real. This is, I think, part of a larger point: Latin Americans are in some ways becoming more like us northerners. Much has been made of the Latino cultural influence in the U.S., but politically, economically and even religiously (given the inroads Protestant groups have made there), the movement is going both ways.

This is an important point for people who fear Latino immigrants, I think. Last year when Pat Buchanan's book The Death of the West came out, several commentators criticized how he defined "the West" -- especially his including eastern Europe and Russia but excluding Latin America. As Jonah Goldberg pointed out, he was really defining a racial group rather than a cultural one. (And a rather dubious racial group at that, since the boundaries of "white" are pretty blurry.)

This point is even more striking when you add economic data to the mix. One obvious difference between "the West" and "the Third World" is the former is rich and the latter is poor. Yet according to the World Bank, Latin America is richer than the former Soviet bloc. (Look at the column where it says GNI per capita.) In fact, one real shock to me when I first saw the Bank's table last year is how poor some of the old Soviet states are. If you scroll down to the third page -- to the poorest countries in the world -- you'll see Ukraine, Moldova and a couple Central Asian republics lurking there.

If there's one thing that's clear from all this, it's that the old Cold War division of the planet that we imply when we say "Third World" is way out of date. What the next arrangement will be -- well, we'll see.
The meet market

On Saturday I wrote about this costume I wore to this party I went to, but I didn't write that much about the party itself. Like I said, it was put on by a singles group associated with church, but I really didn't know anything about it. After I got there I found a couple of surprises: it's for singles 35 and up (making me three years too young for it), and a lot of people there were actually from other churches. I guess the market for middle-aged Christian single people isn't that big even in L.A., so these groups are networked together.

Whenever I go to one of these singles scenes, I end up with ambivalent feelings. I chatted with some people and attracted a few interested men, and like any woman I like getting that kind of attention. But as always seems to happen I gave my phone number to a guy I really shouldn't have. He danced with me toward the end of the night -- he danced rather uncomfortably close to me, I thought -- and after that he immediately asked for my phone number, without even asking my name. That seemed a bit ... aggressive to me. I said I needed to rest and went to a sofa and sat down, and he followed me, and finally I gave him my business card. He called me at work today, where I put him off with the convenient excuse that I was busy. I've gotten much worse pickup attempts before, but this kind of thing just makes me feel ... ugh. Scuzzy.

It wasn't all that bad, though. There was another guy who hung around me the first hour or so of the party; I gave him my card too, but I think he got the feeling that it wasn't really happening for me and by the end of the night he'd moved on to another woman. I also met a couple of friends who were a bit younger and hipper than the rest of the crowd, who invited me to a party on a yacht this weekend. It costs $52 apiece, so I don't think I'll go. But they seemed to be part of some vaguely Christian party scene, so I gave one of them my card too, and told him to put me on his email list if anything was happening.

Another guy, though not an "interested" guy, that I met at the party turned up again in a weird way. After church yesterday I went outside with Telford, and he prayed for me. Telford does most of the talking on these occasions, but sometimes I make an attempt at it also. I don't really do anything in a formal "prayer" style; I just start talking about whatever's on my heart. This time I spoke about how I'd seen other people experience God, like someone they know whose presence they carry around with them always, and suddenly a voice said, "Yeah, I see him like that!"

I opened my eyes and he was already walking away, waving back at me and smiling impishly. Telford was totally confused, of course, but when I told him I'd met the guy at the party, he said, "Oh. Cool."

I was pretty disconcerted -- not just because I'd been interrupted in prayer, but because he'd been eavesdropping on me. I guess CA people don't think of prayer as a private act, especially when it's done in a public place, but I do pray with the expectation that only Telford and maybe God are going to hear me. I am not sure how freely I would speak if I didn't.

At any rate, I think a singles group is not the thing for me right now. I'm single and I don't want to remain single forever, but really, I'm not in a good place for dating at the moment. It did occur to me, though, that instead of my phone number I should have just given them the url to this blog. If they read it and still want to go out with me, then it might be worth doing.

Monday, June 16, 2003

In the name of love

Somehow -- call it feminine intuition or something -- I get the feeling Telford is still not happy with Borg.

Actually, he makes criticisms similar to the ones I made, about how Borg tries to categorize Jesus. I would defend Borg on one charge Telford lobs at him, though:
His religious experience would have been "shaped by" his Jewish heritage (64). (Not defined, but merely shaped. Borg has already ruled out the applicability of Israel's tradition of a God set apart from the world and occasionally intervening and dwelling there, on 62 and 258 nn. 25-27. This "Western supernatural theism" has "seriously negative consequences.")

I read Borg's position as a little more nuanced than that. He agrees that "...imaging God as a personlike being is very common in the Bible. It is also the natural language of worhips and prayer, and there is nothing wrong with it in such contexts." But he regards the concept of God as a separate person standing outside the universe "is theologically deficient: it affirms only the transcendence of God and neglects the immanence of God, despite the fact that the Jewish and Christian traditions have consistently affirmed that God is both."

This actually kind of agrees with what I was told in the Holy Spirit part of the Alpha course, and by Telford himself, that the Holy Spirit has been a rather neglected part of the Trinity in the last few centuries. Indeed, I gather that the Pentecostal movement arose largely in response to this. What I took from Borg's comment about "supernatural theism" is that we should not look at Yahweh as if he were one of the Olympian gods of Greece, sitting up in a remote heaven and only noticing us if we do something to grab his attention. The God of the Bible is personlike but in a different way from that. I don't know, maybe he's going too far in the opposite direction with his "panentheism" concept, but I don't think he's rejecting outright the Jewish way of looking at God.

Anyway, that's kind of a side issue. Telford, like me, wondered why it was so important to Borg whether Jesus knew he was the messiah; unlike me, who disposed of it in one paragraph, he goes through a long series of guesses. I think I should elaborate a bit more on the reason I perceived this to matter to Borg, although maybe all I'm doing is projecting my own concerns onto it.

Borg wrote that he thought this went to the question of whether Jesus wanted people to believe in him, specifically, or placed more importance on what he taught. I wrote that I sympathized with this question because sometimes the focus on the name and the person of Jesus seems like you're "siding with the winning team" -- that is, if you say the right name, fly the right flag, wear the right colors and so on then you're saved. But the question that raises for me is, what is the difference between the one side and the other side? It seems to me that if this side-picking isn't based upon moral superiority, this is no more than tribalism. Our side is better because it's us. Or -- even worse -- our side is better because it's going to win.

I think that danger has always existed in religion. In fact, in a lot of ancient paganism that seemed to be more or less explicit: gods were partisans for one nation or another, and if another nation conquered you, your god "lost" so you might as well start worshipping the conquerers' gods. Back when I was blogging Exodus I griped that I saw a strain of it there, and it's pretty clear that in Christian history a lot of people have used the name of Jesus that way.

In my experience it's pretty common in liberal circles, whether Christian or not, to want to exalt the principles of Jesus over the person of Jesus for exactly that reason. I suspect that Borg's attraction to the idea of Jesus not knowing he was messiah comes from this. If he did not know, if he thought he was just a guy who had an unusually close relationship with God, then his message would have been more about goodness than power. In other words, "This is how to be the best person," rather than, "This is who you follow if you want to come out on top in the end."

I can already hear Telford protesting that this dichotomy is way too crude, and he's right. In fact, I should say that only since I've known Telford have I realized the problem with that way of thinking. But since I first read Telford's post a few days back, I've been concluding that this shows a kind of running tension between the way Telford and I look at things.

Some years ago Carol Gilligan famously, and controversially, claimed that men and women use different forms of moral reasoning: men think in terms of abstract principles, while women seek harmony in relationships. I don't know if that's true in general, but with Telf and me it's the exact opposite, because I'm always pushing principles while he's always pushing relationships. For him, religious faith is all about relationships: with God, with Jesus and with the fellow faithful. We've argued about this enough that he seems to believe I don't like the idea of faith being relational. Actually I do like it, but I put principles ahead of relationships. A lot of the disagreements we've had over Bible reading come from me looking at God's behavior and saying I do not want to have a relationship with him because he does not seem especially good. Telford seems to look at it the other way: you have a relationship with God and so you trust that even when it looks bad, it's all for the good.

But getting back to the subject, I think that this heavy emphasis on relationship is the more benign reason why a Christian would want to see God as a specific person with a specific identity. You can't have a relationship with abstract moral principles. And I can see why it would be hard to have a relationship with something as vague and floaty as Borg's "panentheist" vision. Jesus gave a name, a body, a personality to God, making God someone you could relate to like a human being. No other religion that I know of did it in quite that way.

The fact that I understand both these points of view doesn't mean I completely like either of them though. Borg, from my point of view, has a way of raising issues I understand but offering solutions that I don't really like. The pre-Easter/post-Easter Jesus idea was one of those, and the he-didn't-know-he-was-messiah thing is another. On Telford's side, I like his idea of a relational God but it's ethically troublesome to me, especially the idea that one's salvation depends on it. Telford complains at the end of his post:
Borg shows us a way to admire Jesus for "knowing God" as intimately as he did, without feeling bothered by the calls to follow him alone or the warnings of rejection's dire consequences that litter the canon of his followers, even when they appear to come from his own mouth. We can have our other ways to God without having to turn away from him.

The funny thing is, though, that Wright himself seems to have an answer to that one. As I mentioned in my Chapter 3 post, Wright believes Jesus' "judgment talk" was attached to the specific place and time: if the Jews didn't heed his words, the Romans would destroy them. It makes you wonder then, if those commands to follow him or else would really apply to all people in all of history in quite the same way. But I suppose that may come in a later chapter.

Sunday, June 15, 2003

Get this party started

Last night a singles group associated with Christian Assembly threw a '60s costume ball. Seeing as I've had no life for a while now, I thought it would be fun to go. But I had no idea what to wear. The '60s were not a very good fashion decade for someone who looks like me, so I don't own anything that looks '60s even in a vague sort of way. And since this was, after all, a singles event, I also kind of wanted to look good.

So I emailed my sister, who seems to know everything there is to know about clothes, especially historical clothes. I had hoped that she could just give me some general tips about what sort of thing to look for, but she took it on as a project. She went to a vintage clothing store in her town and found a genuine '60s candy-pink polyester minidress. Now, I should point out for those of you who don't know, a candy-pink polyester minidress is definitely not me. But it was the right size, it cost $10, and I was running out of time, so I said sure, get it. And then, unasked, she also somehow found a white pillbox hat with a pink bow on the back and netting over the top, faux pearl earrings, and a white purse that was actually a modern item from K-mart but looked properly retro.

She mailed all this to me. I put it on and thought, this is definitely not me, but it's actually kind of cute. The only trouble was that the hat seemed to be too small, which is not surprising given that women's hats almost always are on me. (I like to think it's my outsized brain, but maybe it's just my swelled head.) Also, the only shoes I had to go with it were pumps with two-inch heels. I try to avoid wearing heels to dance parties because they're uncomfortable and because they make me taller than most of the men, which makes them less inclined to dance with me. But I figured, it'll do, so I put everything on and headed off.

I went as "establishment" '60s, but most other people there went hippie. There's got to be a cultural comment somewhere in the fact that an evangelical Christian church would throw a party imitating the Summer of Love, but I don't know what it is. There was a live band that played the Beatles, Hendrix, and other counterculture music. Toward the end the female singer even did a Janis Joplin impersonation, complete with whiskey bottle, but it didn't actually have any whiskey in it because there was no alcohol at this gig. The band also did a strangely clean version of "Shaft," if you can imagine that.

Anyway, despite the heels I did find guys to dance with. I realized then that an era's dance styles probably have as much to do with clothes as with music, because when you're in a short skirt and high heels, all you can really do is stand there and shimmy. The outfit won third place in the costume contest (the prize was a Betty Boop mug, for some inexplicable reason), and was variously described as "Jackie Kennedy," "airline stewardess" and "Junior Miss." When I received the prize some photographers there jumped in front of me and took a bunch of pictures. If they turn up at church tomorrow, I think Telford's going to be in for a big laugh.