07/28/13

Christians Make the Best Politicians

I watched a clip from Real Time with Bill Maher last night that featured the Reverend Jim Wallis. Maher tried to get Wallis to say that the Bible was ridiculously contradictory, and Wallis ignored the questions and emphasized how Jesus was the true hermeneutic for Christianity and that there are 2000 verses about the poor in the Bible. Maher looked like his tendentious self, and Wallis made it clear without words that he ignores much of the Christian tradition in order to further his aims.Screen Shot 2013-07-28 at 2.29.37 PM

There are some similarities between this dialogue and Cornel West’s critique of Obama last week. Yes, I understand that the President is a much more powerful person and is an elected official, but the similarities are based on—to use Bill Maher’s fairly crude analogy—how many turds you’re willing to allow in the pool and still swim in it. Maher’s take is that if there are any, you don’t swim. Yet that’s not a position most people take, unless they have absolutely no vested interest in the pool. Maher obviously doesn’t have any interest in Christianity, at least none that he knows of, whereas Wallis—and if you believe the polls, most of America—clearly does. So how dirty is the pool really?

Wallis suggested toward the end of the interview that all the significant recent social justice movements have involved people of faith. Maher reluctantly agreed, and then quipped, “So why can’t we have the good stuff without the bad stuff?” While I don’t think all significant social movements have been spearheaded by people of faith, it would be ignorant to claim that people of faith haven’t been crucially involved in many of them. That is obviously the part of faith that Wallis wants to hang on to, the part that  motivates him and others to do “good” in the world.

So the question is, can we afford not to have a candid conversation about the “bad stuff” too? Wallis knows the political climate is such that he cannot be forthright about Christianity’s many failings without alienating a good portion of his constituency from the social justice work he is trying to do. I would argue that whatever good Wallis comes from Christianity is actually coming from himself, and he is finding himself, his motivation, through the foil of Christianity. Of course he would disagree. But in any other enterprise, if a product were designed to bring about the results Wallis says it is and failed per capita at such a high rate, it would be abandoned, or at least drastically modified.

In other words, if Christianity is designed to bring social justice to the world—setting aside for a moment the vast range of meaning in that phrase—and the majority of Christians who have lived have done little to nothing to advance the cause of social justice, why maintain it? Of course, it is not so easy as to simply discard one of the most historically significant ideologies of human history. My point is that although Wallis is pushing social justice Christianity, that is not the only reason he is a Christian. If it were, then maintaining his position would make no sense. We should therefore, look past his single-issue promotion of the tradition.

Wallis would point, as many do, to the great people of the tradition who have done disproportionally great things. Is it more logical, then, to suggest that these few are the only ones who really understand what’s going on with Christianity, or that their uniqueness and impact must be understood in other terms apart from their religious devotion?

Reza Aslan—a UCSB alum like myself—was part of the panel on Real TIme as well, and he attempted to mediate Maher’s critique of the Bible by suggesting that all readers interpret the Biblical text in some way, so no one is actually a literalist when it comes to the Bible. This was in response to Maher’s comment that fundamentalists aren’t fringe religious participants; they just read the Bible literally. Aslan’s comment, while very scholarly, evidences his lack of stake in the issue by missing the point. He is correct that interpretation is key, but as I have noted before, that interpretation is socially circumscribed. What this means is that it begins to strain credibility to ignore or allegorize, for example, God’s approval of mass murder on multiple occasions in the Old Testament.

However, like Obama, Wallis is too invested to commit political suicide by being completely honest about the myriad contradictions in his position. He won’t outright deny them, but he won’t admit them either. Is that the most morally pure position? No. But it is likely a more fruitful one than the one his opponents, including myself, would like him to take. I guess I’m suggesting there’s more value for the rest of us in working to change that political climate than directing attacks at important leaders for not living up to our ideals.

I would be intrigued to see someone be as committed as Wallis, who seems to know how many questionable parts of the tradition there are, absolutely denounce those portions while still committing to the “good parts,” the Jesus-y parts that motivate many people. Could such a person gain any traction? I don’t know. Anyone who tries to change the world from a religious worldview is doing so for a couple possible reasons. First and foremost, they have had personal experience with it. Second, they recognize the power of religious symbols and institutions. Thus, few of those people see the benefit of nitpicking the traditions they are relying on to spread their message. That is left to those who don’t have any significant investment.

So who is going to move? Will those who see no value in religion acknowledge the good that has been done from religiously motivated people and work to maximize the effect of those? Will religious folk openly denounce the many dirty and embarrassing parts of the Christian tradition and reject those in the hope of getting buy-in from nonreligious folks? Or is the best approach the status quo, an all-or-nothing where things are emphasized or deemphasized, hidden or exposed, but the structure remains the same?

From experience, I know that the most deeply held convictions can change, but what is beyond is unknown until experienced. Our identities are fragile, and our self-understanding about what parts are important is fairly inaccurate, I suspect. Nobody likes a politician, but we’re all politicians.

03/11/13

You Can’t Buy Flowers if You Don’t Get Right with Jesus

The owner of a flower shop in Washington state recently denied service to a gay couple who asked to use her services for their wedding ceremony. She told the customer that she couldn’t help in the wedding because of her relationship with Jesus Christ. According to the news story, the florist had served the customers for years, even as the couple had sent flowers to each other, but declined to participate in the wedding because she believes in exclusively heterosexual marriage. The customer was shocked, and the story gained popularity when he told about his experience on Facebook.

The situation has  legal, commercial, and ideological aspects, and much of the controversy in these situations is not “discriminating” between them. The clearest evidence of this is in the term ‘discrimination,’ evoked in this and nearly all other cases like it. At least one lawyer says that this is a violation of Washington’s law against discrimination, while the store owner claims she does not discriminate. She is of course responding to the issue in legal terms, because she is clearly discriminating, in that she decided not to provide service based on a given set of criteria; namely, a normative understanding of marriage. Of course, neither of them knows whether the case involves legal discrimination, since the law has no power until its judgment, and a case hasn’t been made formally yet. This is an interesting point in itself, that according to the report the couple is not certain whether they will pursue a case, but there are certainly those who want to use cases like these to advance a principle. There’s no problem with this necessarily, but it would take determination for the couple to decide not to take action. In any case, discrimination is something we all use in our daily decision making, and is necessarily the case in terms of religious belief.

In terms of the commercial aspects of the case, one could make an argument either that the florist should not be in business if she is not going to provide equal service, or that the couple should go somewhere else if they have a problem with her treatment. In a purely capitalistic sense, it makes little sense that either the store owner should refuse the transaction or that the customers should force the issue when they could receive better service elsewhere. My guess is that the story will not end well for the florist, because those customers who are offended will stop giving her business, and those who give her moral support will not likely actually support her business. But in terms of the woman’s religious convictions or the legality of the issue, the commercial aspects are irrelevant.

In terms of the moral or religious justification, there is more logic in the florist’s actions than she is given credit for. For the vast majority of Christians, their beliefs do not require them to hate gay people, though it’s clear that a vocal minority seem to. Most are told and attempt to make a distinction between “sinner” and “sin,” a distinction that is not fully appreciated by outsiders, to whom the florist’s actions seem erratic or contradictory. She feels free to employ and befriend gay people (in theory—chances are she doesn’t have an extensive list of gay friends), but participating in their wedding is different. Why? Well, typically the florist’s level of involvement at a wedding goes beyond preparing the arrangements in the shop and handing them to the customer. Often it means being onsite and helping in preparation for the ceremony. Whether that is the case or not, it becomes an issue because she (like the couple) views the ceremony as sacred, as involving powers higher than herself. (I have no idea whether the couple is religious or not. They may simply want the civil benefits that marriage offers, but it likely has more significance. Either way, they have entrusted the state with giving their relationship a significance that it would not otherwise have.) Marriage is a relationship with important religious significance in Christianity, as well as other traditions.

Those who would claim that the woman has been deceived by her preacher into discriminating against gays miss the bigger picture. It is not a misinterpretation of Christianity to be against gay marriage. A normative understanding of heterosexual marriage has been the dominant interpretation for the tradition’s entire history. It certainly behooves the religious hierarchy to reinforce beliefs that keep their congregants reliant upon their services (e.g., that marriage is sacred and that marriages should be religious in nature), but this issue extends throughout history. Is it possible that Christianity could be interpreted in a way that makes it more favorable to gay couples? Yes, but it hasn’t been. The situation is not solved by taking a liberal stance that asks, “What’s the big deal?”

The point is that someone loses in this situation. Either the couple loses their ability to engage in transactions without being discriminated against, or the florist is forced to provide a service that violates her religious belief. For what little it’s worth, I wish that the situation were such that the florist just performed the services for her customers and everyone was happy. If I were a florist at right this moment, that’s what I think I would do. But I don’t have the conviction of a tightly defined understanding of marriage. I would bank on the idea that the world is not going to fall apart if more gay couples get married, but many think that gay marriage is a symptom of societal decline. The fact that the belief is sincere does not automatically make it legitimate, but it does mean that it shouldn’t be belittled as unimportant, or the response of heartless bigotry. A way forward might involve a more sincere public discourse about the importance of the positions of both sides, a discourse that exposes the malleability both of religious and legal interpretation behind the rigid exteriors that both sides put forward.

Do you see a win-win situation here? Should there be one? If not, why not?

02/1/13

Religion and Science: Which is Oil and Which is Water?

Religion and science are domains that don’t mix well. The reasons these continue to be the parameters of the debate on religion in the public forum is baffling to me. I suppose one practical reason for this is that it brings out the extremes on both sides. Creationists  (many of whom believe Earth is only six thousand years old) use Neo-atheist denials of religion as proof that they are blinded to Truth, and Neo-atheists often use Creationists’ refusal to believe facts as evidence of their ignorance. It’s not surprising that warning scientists of damnation does no more to convince them than does browbeating Creationist Christians with archaeological evidence does to persuade them. The rest of us in the middle are led to believe we must choose one or the other.

There’s a clip I often show in religion classes when I’m talking about textual interpretation that usually segues nicely into a nuanced discussion about ways to interpret text, but it also addresses the religion versus science debate:

Religulous is a funny movie, but it is also a painful movie. Since those segments of the population who are the subjects of the film are not going to be watching it in any large numbers, we who watch are either already convinced of the insufficiency of religion, or consider ourselves more religiously enlightened than those depicted in the film. The juxtaposition of the Catholic scientist and Biblical Creationist Ken Ham sets us up to root for the scientist. His agreeable nature seems refreshing. A Catholic priest in another portion of the film even scoffs at the idea that other Bible stories such as the virgin birth might be literally true.Yet for hundreds of years it was the Catholic Church that denied evidence of material reality when it contradicted Scripture, so they are relatively new to this role.

One can see a certain systemic logic to Ham’s approach. If one accepts the premise that the Bible must all be true to be at all true, then it seems one must advocate for the creation story in a literal sense. It provides a good example of the logical consequence of holding strictly to one method of interpretation to find truth. Of course, no holds a strictly literal interpretation of the Bible, or else we would still be wringing birds’ necks for atonement and making women sleep outside every month to avoid contamination. Biblical literalism is, so far as I know, nonexistent. (On the other hand, the word “literal” in common speech has become essentially its opposite. If I hear, “Whoa. I literally almost died” while walking on a college campus, what I am to understand is “I almost died in the most figurative sense of the word.” But I digress…) Reading Ken Ham’s blog, though, you will notice quickly that the motivating factor behind his claims is fear of the complete loss of morality without God giving us moral standards. As we know, this is a common reason for a normative interpretation of Christianity. Until I left the church and my standards didn’t disappear, I thought that their primary support was my Christianity too. The idea simply ignores history, not to mention the millions around us who live moral lives.

If one were to make the claim that it is better for the church to adapt to a scientific culture, as Catholicism and some other mainline denominations have, rather than insist upon direct contradiction of the evidence of the scientific community, I might agree with you. These organizations have been around long enough to see that certain advancements in science will not be going away anytime soon, and have adjusted to accommodate them. However, there are other areas where they are as intransigent as they have ever been (homosexuality, gender roles, abortion, etc.).

I understand that there are some political decisions involved when one sees discrepancies with religion. I went through phases from questioning believer to disgruntled believer to cool, on-the-fringe, not-like-you believer, to non-practicing believer, to cool enlightened agnostic, to unbeliever (at least so far as the dogma of Christianity is concerned). However, I know of others who have taken the role of reforming-from-within. One example would be Roy Bourgeois, a recently defrocked Catholic priest who has long advocated against the US training of foreign soldiers to commit massacres against their own populations. The Church did not speak out on this, but when he in recent years showed his support for women in the priesthood, it began a process that ended in his removal from a position of authority in the Church. He continues to push for reform. I know of other theologians who are attempting to radicalize Christianity theologically and philosophically while remaining firmly within its bounds. The question we have had to answer is, “What is the best way to get my message out and make change?” There is not a correct answer to that question.

The point I am trying to make is that I am concerned about those who use (or advocate use of) science as an exit point from religion. The domains have some overlap, but are largely exclusive. Each reigns supreme within its bounds; the problems come when they try to legislate outside their borders. When, for example, religion claims to have the last word on global warming, we should be as concerned as when science discovers the key to happiness. (Yes, I know religion doesn’t have the keys to happiness, but neither is science presenting a unified front on global warming.) I don’t know of many converts from science to religion, but I know of some who cite a form of scientific knowledge as a motivating reason for deconversion. If held loosely as a method of skeptically examining reality and choosing the best (not right) course of action, the scientific method is a valuable tool, but used as the hermeneutic key to reality with the optimistic hope that it will someday unlock all the world’s secrets, science functions much the same as religion. Neither is the Wal-Mart Super Store of answers.

01/31/13

Jesus was a Circus Clown. Any Takers?

As I noted a few posts ago, my understanding of the Bible, and texts in general, was much like the positions I have been describing. I assumed there was a “best” meaning to a given text, and that my job was to find it. It was usually the most commonsensical meaning. I did not question that my habitus, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s word for the social structures that form and constrain my thoughts and dispositions, provided me with a common sense that was not common to other cultural contexts. When I read The Scarlet Letter in high school, I was frustrated when we had to explore the symbolic meanings of the “A” that Hester Prynne was condemned to wear. “It’s a friggin’ A!” I thought. “A is for adultery. End of story.” My quirky teacher wanted to explore the shame and isolation of the protagonist, the guilt of her lover, the self-righteousness of the town, etc., all within that little letter. It was my first significant encounter with the fact that the text does not and cannot constrain the range of possible meaning.

I’m now a proponent of reader-response theory, which suggests that the individual interprets and thus creates the meaning of the text. What this means is that there are no universal constraints on any particular interpretation. Why would this not create anarchy? Well, in a historical sense, it is the way that has been interpreted since the invention of script. In other words, it has not created anarchy yet. Second, and more importantly, meaning is constrained in a practical sense by the social environment, the habitus mentioned above.

This came up most clearly in a class on the historical Jesus I participated in. We were examining all the different portraits of the Jesus that scholars have created over the last couple centuries, ranging from Jesus the magician and Jesus the apocalyptic prophet to Jesus the wisdom sage, Jesus the social revolutionary, or Jesus the Jew. (These “portraits” are all painted by scholars using the historical-critical method, which serves as an indication of its limited ability to secure meaning.) I realized a couple things from being presented with so much different information about the same subject. First, there was an element of truth to each portrait. I liked some more than others, but there was at least a marginal basis for all of their claims, which means that truth is not as concentrated as I would like it to be. It’s not a matter of picking the right door. Second, I realized I could come up with nearly any portrait of my own, find some sort of textual evidence for it, and trot it out as the latest theory. There was nothing in the text to prevent me from doing so. The only limitation would be the level of acceptance my theory receives, and that acceptance is variable and dynamic.

Thus the title. I could certainly make the claim that Jesus was actually like a circus clown. He came to attract our attention with tricks and keep us entertained. It would be practically impossible to gain any traction with this theory, but that doesn’t mean it is not permitted by the text. If it is not permitted, it is because of a lack of reception. There are plenty of religious theories (think of any of the various second incarnations of Christ) that seem to us to have no logical basis whatsoever. Yet we come to know of these interpretations because there are people, sometimes a few and sometimes hundreds or thousands, who do believe them. If we contend that these movements are “wrong,” we would do well not to base this judgment on the text itself, but on the variety of other social constraints that make it in our interest not to accept them.

Admitting the lack of constraints on interpretation is valuable because it gives us a base level of understanding to engage those interpretations that seem, to us, to be radically off the mark. Though we criticize, condemn, and marginalize those who take socially unacceptable interpretations, we might admit that some of these folks have taken the harder road. We, on the other hand, have ceded the dictation of our moral worlds largely to others, other people, other institutions, other texts. More productive dialogue on the controversial issues we face can take place if we do not offload the source of our morality to an institution’s standards. We don’t have to reject any institutionalization for its own sake, but we do have to do the work to actively engage and verify its principles.

01/30/13

Shoring Up Our Sources

I’ve had some interesting conversations when I tell people that I study religion. I’ve learned to avoid the conversation by saying I study violence, or martyrdom, or something else, because if I say I study religion, there are typically one of two responses. The first and more common response is to ask if I am training to be a minister. This is understandable, except that ministerial training is not to be found at a state institution. So, when I respond negatively, they ask, “Hmmm…so what are you going to do with that?” Overall, that is the easier conversation. I mumble something about teaching and researching, and that’s usually the end of it. The other response people have is more dangerous, and more time-consuming. You can tell it’s coming when someone’s eyes light up when you use the word “religion.” Before you know it, they’ve launched into their own perspective on the state of religious affairs in the world or a special bit of religious insight they have. Interest in religion means being a sounding board for people’s thoughts.

This happens in the most surprising of places. A few years ago, I had to go to the Doc in the Box for something…bronchitis, I think. In response to his question about what I do, I stated that I study religion. The doctor’s eyes lit up. Uh oh. He pulled a pen out his pocket and said, “Check this out.” He began to write the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, in a triangle formation on the exam table paper. He proceeded to explain to me in significant detail how Yeshua, the Hebrew word for Jesus, is found within each book by taking out letters at a fixed interval. He was genuinely excited about how this proved the coming of the Messiah through Biblical numerology. (He followed his numerological explanation up by suggesting that evolution is disproven by a jar of peanut butter. If you haven’t seen the video, it’s worth watching.)

I managed to get him back to diagnosing my illness and prescribing my medication and I left relatively unscathed. I note this experience because numerology was this doctor’s method of supporting his existing worldview. While perhaps not many of us would actively cite numerological claims as religious proofs or put much stock in them, we might accept other methods that provide the same deceptive sense of objectivity. If we recognize, as most do in a practical sense, that interpretation varies from person to person, the next natural step would be to try to limit the variables of interpretation as much as possible, to establish criteria by which we can attempt to ensure the accuracy of our interpretation.

Two common methods Martin (who I introduced yesterday) notes by which we shore up our interpretations are authorial intention and historical criticism. These methods are often used by pastors and scholars as well. Authorial intention makes two assumptions, neither one correct. First, it assumes that we can determine the author’s intent if we just read the text correctly. (How do we know we read the text correctly? By finding the author’s intent, of course! Wait a minute…) Second, it assumes that the author’s intended meaning is the only one, or the most important one. While the author’s intention is an important consideration, it is not the only consideration.

When my son first heard about the f*** word, he decided to try it out and see what I thought. I heard him behind me coming down the stairs: “Buckin’…muckin’…luckin’…” I knew what was coming. “F***in…” There was a little pause as he let it sink in. We had a conversation about how if he said that word at school, he might get in a bit of trouble. I didn’t just say, “Go for it, son. If you mean it in a nice way, it’s okay!” Neither did I punish him for saying an evil word, because I doubted his intentions were malicious (and because words aren’t evil). All of us are more judicious in our dealings with people than applying a simple formula to determine meaning. It is the same with text.

The second method Martin notes, historical criticism, argues that the true meaning of the text is found when we examine its original context, the environment in which it was written. This may include the author, but in the case of Biblical texts it also works against the author’s intent, since historical criticism is a modern method. The fact that despite the preference of this method neither scholars nor churches can seem to agree on its results should provide some indication of its limitations. So although it sounds really heady when one talks about the socio-economic situation of the group responsible for the gospel of Matthew, for example, it provides no hermeneutic key for reading the text. I’ve often heard generalizations about how the people of such-and-such place were in this particular environment so they would have meant exactly this when they said this. However, I would never feel comfortable with one of those generalizations applied to myself. “Well, he lives in Idaho, so that must mean he’s a conservative.” “He’s from the Northwest, so he probably drinks coffee, drives a Subaru covered with liberal bumper stickers with a dog in the back and wears flannel year-round.” If I am usually uncomfortable with these stereotypes, am I at liberty to say that the author of the past was more a mirror of his environment than I am?

It is not that these methods cannot contribute to a workable meaning. Rather, it is that none of them allows us to escape the hard work of interpretation. Anxiety over the possibility of an anarchy of interpretation drives many to continue providing normative readings of texts, and thus traditions, but these readings are often contradictory and push certain groups of people to the margins of society. What if instead we admitted that there are no constraints on the understanding of text other than social ones? Would numerologists suddenly rule the world? I doubt it.