Friday, January 17, 2020

Frankenstein et moi

It's not exactly a six-degrees-of-separation story, maybe, but I think it's what you might call "close enough for government work."  I've just discovered I have a connection with Frankenstein's monster.

It goes like this.

If you know me, you know I have a favorite cousin. Her name is Betty. She's my father's cousin, actually, my first cousin once removed, but why fuss? She has a special place in my history because she's the one who taught me to milk a cow, back sometime in the late 1940s.

Cousin Betty was born into the Johnston family, the Nova Scotia family of my father's mother. Because people had so many kids in those days, I have a ton of great aunts and uncles and it didn't take long before I was able, partially with the aid of, but even more with the aid of Cousin Betty and my own childhood recollection of personal connections with all the Johnstons, to create a family tree with leaves and branches looking like a wonderful old Great Oak.

Betty lost her mother quite young and that led to her being taken in by an aunt and uncle. Lots of kids in those days were raised by aunts and uncles, but that meant hers was the life of a farm hand, not that different from that of an indentured servant.  At some point she saw a chance to escape and took it. Climbed out the window and left the drudgery behind.

Betty found her true love and married into the Imlay family.  Now, all these years later, she has a prominent place on the family tree with grandchildren and great grandchildren galore, all going back nine generations to the first Johnston who was shipwrecked on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, on his way from Scotland to Ontario to be with his brother. He never made it, and I can almost guarantee that if you go back several generations in Nova Scotia, you're probably a second, third or fourth cousin, twice or three or four times removed.

But let me get back to Frankenstein. I had never heard the name Imlay before. A Gaelic name, a variant of Imlach, found in the records of Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1402.  After watching a movie about Mary Shelley, the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, to whom she lost her virginity in a cemetery, I looked her up and learned that she was the daughter of the early advocate of women's rights, Mary Wollstonecroft, who was involved for a time with an early American scoundrel named Gilbert Imlay, no doubt some fourth or fifth cousin.  Mary Shelley is the author of the early Gothic novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, which she published in 1818.

So Betty is connected to Frankenstein, if only by marriage.

That, I propose, has to put me within six degrees, and I did it all without the aid of the Mormon family archives, so there.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Sufis and Krishnas and Lubavitchers in the Hood

Sufi Temple at Telegraph and Oregon
When I walked past the Sufi Meditation Center now nearing completion one block East and one block South of our house the other day, I was reminded once again that I am living in a part of the country where America’s separation of church and state has born fruit in a marvelous way. We are constantly reminded by the white supremacist Christian right bullies now riding roughshod over America’s vulnerable democracy project just how much these awful people owe to multiculturalism. In their rush to assert dominance over other religious faiths, they fail to see just how pitifully they are crapping up their own nest.

I’ve been focused in recent weeks on the nefarious side of organized religion. It all started with the trial of Australia’s Cardinal George Pell, now sitting out his last years in the slammer for diddling with the altar boys of his cathedral in Melbourne some twenty-odd years ago. I’m not 100% convinced of his guilt. He maintains his innocence, but if you followed the trial and if you listen to the justification the judge gave for sentencing him to six years, you will probably join me in thinking the Australians have a pretty trustworthy justice system. His accuser comes across as quite credible. In any case, I have also been following  the coverage by folks like Paul Collins and Jason Berry (Render Unto Rome) and reconfirming for the nth time just how much rot the church has to contend with. I’m also halfway through a terribly informative book on the slow but sure decline of American evangelicalism by Robert P. Jones, entitled The End of White Christian America.

Until I became fully aware of how much harm the political evangelicals, Mormons and Catholics are doing to their own kind, I used to believe it was almost a duty to bash the life out of organized religion, smash it into the ground until there was nothing left, so furious was my realization of the harm they had done to gay people over the years. And, given their embrace of patriarchal authoritarianism, to women as well. To say nothing of the long haul people of color have struggled with to get to where they are today. Check out the history of the Mormons. I was already thirty-eight years old when the Good Lord in his wisdom decided to tell the Mormons that it would be OK to allow black people to join their church. And the history of the Southern Baptists, who pulled away from the Baptist Church to form their own church in order to maintain the institution of slavery. All is forgiven these days. Blacks are in, at least officially. But we have not forgotten.

I posted a blog entry the other day on my current fascination with a cowboy preacher, trying to make the point that I also haven’t forgotten the people of good will who I went to church with as a youngster. I know there are plenty of them around, and my heart aches for what they must be going through, having to listen to the fear-mongering twits whipping up support for the moral dumpster fire in the Oval Office with claims that we’re on the verge of outlawing “Merry Christmas” as part of a campaign to wipe out Christianity in America.

We’re not, of course. I just think it’s appropriate that we not lose sight of non-Christians in our public life and public announcements. But that’s the sad part. The wackos like Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker and this latest dumbdumb to hit the news, Dave Daubenmire  sure don’t help the evangelical cause. Daubenmire has an organization called Pass the Salt Live Ministries (I kid you not). He wears a cross on his Maga hat and informs his viewers that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have “poisoned” the royal blood line because she’s half black. Daubenmire was fired some years ago as coach of the local high school in London, Ohio because he insisted on leading his team in prayer and was sued by the ACLU. (OK, so maybe “civil liberties” means you’re supposed to worship the devil.) Not his fault that his son was arrested for messing with child pornography, of course. There are bad seeds everywhere. Like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr., both making their evangelical daddies look like Mr. Rogers of “Won’t you be my neighbor?” fame.

It’s all about polarization. We used to have American coastal culture vs. “flyover” America. Now it’s urban vs. rural more generally, the racial divide, the Confederacy that refuses to die, objectivity vs. “alternative truth.” The gerrymandering and the tragic holdover of the electoral college system put the guy with fewer votes in 2012 into office, and he discovered his “base” in a bunch of religionists willing to surrender all principles to get behind the guy who would reverse Roe v. Wade and same-sex marriage and put America back into the hands of white folk. And convince the 51% earning less than $30,000 a year that by cutting taxes on the rich he was keeping America safe from the socialists.

My friends and I are arguing these days over Bernie vs. Biden. Biden supporters insist Americans are too freaked out by socialist Bernie, and to nominate him will guarantee the democrats will lose in 2020. Bernie supporters insist with equal enthusiasm that the cruel inequities that divide Americans run so deep now that only a person who is willing to show the courage to break away from the business-as-usual middle-of-the roader Democrats like Hillary and Biden can bring out the disgruntled folk who have washed their hands of American politics altogether and sit home on election day. I just can’t read the tea leaves. I sure hope the democratic socialists are right - I’m throwing in with Bernie - but I am yet to have anything more than desperate hope we’re right about this.

Meanwhile, I feel privileged to live in a part of the country where diversity is ever-present. I mentioned the Sufi Center opening soon two blocks away. Two blocks north of that (and one block away) there used to be (they’ve recently moved to University Ave.) the home of the Chabad-Lubavitchers, an orthodox Jewish group that makes friends despite its Jewish exclusivity for its outreach to people in need. And half a block away - a one-minute walk - is the Hare Krishna Temple, more officially known as ISKON, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

Expand your spiritual practice
Not that it’s all peaches-and-cream. One of the Krishna folks ran afoul of my friend Jerry one day some years ago. They walk the neighborhood in their orange robes, and people have a nagging memory of the time they used to bang their tambourines at the airport and annoy the hell out of tired passengers. They don’t do that anymore, but this one time one of them picked a rose from Jerry’s front yard. “Hey,” said Jerry. “Hands off my roses.” “God put them there for everybody,” said the sweet thing, apparently unaware that if he picked one for himself that would end the enjoyment for the rest of us. “Like hell he did,” snapped Jerry. “I’m the one with the water can, not God! Buzz off!” Jerry had little use for the “Harvey Kushmans” as he called them.

But mostly we’re on friendly terms.

First Congregational Church of Berkeley
I don’t know anybody in the neighborhood who goes to church. There might be some, but unlike the rural part of America where I came from nobody here seems to be in the church-going lot. Unless it’s to that wonderful brick building just up the street - the First Congregational Church - that looks like it was lifted straight out of the New England of my youth and plopped down here to remind us this was once a church-going society. Today it’s the venue for a wonderful series of lectures and concerts, including, until the fire, the Berkeley Philharmonia Baroque, which we’ve been attending for years now. They suffered a terrible fire in 2016 and for some reason, probably insurance, have yet to rebuild. And look at me, ma, crying over the loss of a church!

If I believed in the power of prayer to make things happen that run counter to the laws of nature, I’d pray that the First Church of Berkeley is returned quickly to its former splendor. And that the good evangelical folk of America are freed from the white supremacists that now bend the president’s ear in Washington in their name.

They deserve so much better.

As do we all.

As do we all.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Studying theology with a cowboy - a blog review

Matt Whitman
I'm constantly on the lookout for intelligent Evangelicals. I'm so put off by the mindlessness of the lemmings who have sacrificed biblical Christianity for political ass-kissing in recent years that I feel sorry for the sincere believers. I grew up among good people and feel a real sense of sadness watching how their church got hijacked. I also believe the best way to keep those who oppose you in check is to follow what they're up to. For that reason, I run down one rabbit hole after another to see what the Evangelicals are up to.

To my surprise and delight, I came across a guy a few weeks ago who strikes me as a sincere dude, to use a word he himself is fond of using. He's got a blog, and I found myself telling friends the other day that for the past couple of weeks I have been enrolled in an Introduction to Theology Course taught by a cowboy.  I think of it as Theology 101, but there’s no need to give it a name. The dude I'm talking about is a guy in Wyoming named Matt Whitman. His vlog is called The Ten Minute Bible Hour, and he uses it to share his knowledge of theology, the Bible, and the history of Christianity with the world at large. He is a teacher of religion, rather than a missionary, and a really good one. Definitely a popularizer, but without knowing the academic world in which theology makes its way, I’d wager he’s right up there with the best of the lot. I label him a cowboy because he sounds like one. And he's an outspoken Wyoming Cowboys fan.  Until recently he has pastored a Free Evangelical Church in Lander, central Wyoming. If I’m not mistaken he has now left Lander, a town of fewer than 8000 souls, for even more rural Wyoming (or maybe South Dakota), the Black Hills. He is nonetheless clearly a man of considerable erudition. 

Let me lay my cards on the table. I've got a huge bias against the people of Wyoming. Not because they're cowboys, not because they tend to get behind the NRA and have saddled us with the likes of war criminal Dick Cheney, although that hardly prepares a warm place in my heart for them. But because with a population of fewer than half a million eligible voters, they get as many votes in the Senate as the 25 million of us in California get. T'aint fair, I say. T'aint right.

So right from the get-go, this city boy from the land of fruits and nuts whose idea of sports is watching the Igor Moiseev ballet on YouTube doesn't line up all that well with the Wyoming Cowboys.  All the more reason to celebrate the fact that I've become a fan. I like the guy. He's proof that there's room for a whole lot of difference among us in this country. That, plus the fact that although I'm not a believer, I remain, as I said, after all these years, fascinated by the intersection of politics and religion, and am therefore still open to listening to what sincere religionists have to say.

I wish I could find a way to talk to those who have remade their church into the political action group which now provides the cannon fodder for the party of the super wealthy and their I-don’t-need-no-stinkin’-Congress leader. But that is a goal for some future time, if ever I can find a way to talk to people who advocate not talking with the enemy at all, the enemy being anybody who disagrees with them. In the meantime, I am fascinated by the things Americans talk about with each other, especially those things I don't find folks in Europe and Japan - my other homes - much interested in at all. The more Europeans and Japanese profess to be baffled (and that includes my Japanese husband) about America's preoccupation with religion, the more interested I get in seeing if I can somehow explain it.

 I have learned a whole bunch from listening to Matt Whitman's videos. The last time I checked, he had some 274 of them posted. The introductory video of the lot is dated February 3, 2015 and he is apparently still going strong nearly five years later. I’m surprised I didn’t run across him sooner. Shows you how much is going on out there in YouTube land.

According to his bio, he is from Colorado originally, but moved to Chicago, where he graduated from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, which seems to produce the most earnest and intellectually capable evangelical theologians and preachers America has to offer.  He's a family man with three kids. He writes, acts, directs, and hosts the The Ten Minute Bible Hour, as well as a podcast called No Dumb Questions.  If you go digging for more information, don't get him mixed up with the Matt Whitman who is a councilman from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

I have no idea how big his following is. That introductory video has 36,000 views, and more recently he claims it’s up to 37,200 if those numbers are any indication. I’m not really interested in the numbers. I assume his audience falls into two categories, those of a liberal Protestant persuasion who are already inclined to be receptive to his message, and those who would like religion explained to them, for whatever reason, in plain language. As an outsider to the church, I have to admit I can't get all that worked up about the fact that Whitman's church has now decided it no longer insists you must believe that when Christ comes back he will literally set up a kingdom on earth for a thousand years. Of interest to me is the way in which theology is being done these days, at least the theology of what I'm calling the "low" churches. And how they're all still pedaling as fast as they can in light of the fact that their numbers are dwindling in Europe and the United States and they're being replaced by people from Africa and Asia. I'm also interested in him because he seems to represent white Christian rural America, the kind of folk who live at the opposite pole from the culture in which I live, the kind of folk we city folk are accused of looking down on.

To illustrate what I'm talking about, just listen to a video of Whitman doing a pretty good bible study with another country-boy friend of his, from Beulah, North Dakota. If "country-boy" sounds like a slur to your urban ears, this should cure your bias. They're two smart, personable dudes. And they're both Evangelical preachers.

Whitman’s videos cover a lot of ground. He gives a great introduction to theology by breaking down things I tend to take for granted, such as the need to recognize what gets lost in translation, or the fact that there are as many stories as there are narrators. He’s absolutely great for beginners, in others words - a born teacher. He also does something I find admirable: he gets people from other faith traditions to tell their stories in their own words. Rather than talk about what Roman Catholics believe, or Lutherans, or whoever, he sits down with them, first letting them show him around their churches and explain their aesthetic approaches to religion and some of the symbolism, then sitting down with them and inviting them to introduce their faith in their own words.

So far he has done this only with the more liturgically-oriented Christian faith groups - those who center their worship on the Eucharist/Communion/Lord’s Supper (the terms vary according to the faith tradition), the Roman Catholics, the Greek Orthodox, the Missouri Synod Lutherans, the Anglicans and the Episcopalians, folks I like to think of as “high church” Christians. He has not yet done this with other “mainstream” groups like the “mid church” Methodists and the Presbyterians, but he has with a “low church” evangelical pastor, in what I think is the best video of the fifty or more I’ve seen to date. The most theological meat, in digestible form.

The terms high, mid and low, incidentally, are my way of describing what I see as location on a spectrum from high adherence to doctrine and ritual on one end to an inclination to think of religion as something between you and the Holy Spirit and nobody else’s business, on the other. Conspicuous by their absence are the outlier groups, the Quakers, Unitarians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Seventh Day Adventists, or Pentecostalists, as well as the groups most likely to be labeled a cult (I’ve got the snake handlers in mind) by the mainstream groups -  Whether he has a reason for this is not clear to me. Maybe he just hasn’t gotten around to it yet; maybe he’s only interested in Big Box Christianity.

He can be extremely entertaining. If you aren’t into biblical exegesis, give a listen to his video on Pontius PilateUtterly fascinating history I had never come across before. Growing up Lutheran, I found his treatment of Luther a bit too simplistic (although I loved how he referred to him as “this German dude,”) but then I realized that without telling the story of Gutenberg and the printing press you can’t grasp the full significance of the Protestant Reformation, and my admiration grew once more.

I’m with those who maintain that without at least a passing knowledge of Shakespeare and the Bible, one cannot consider oneself familiar with the cultures of the English-speaking peoples. And without a passing knowledge of Christianity, with world culture. And no matter how well you remember what your were taught in school, it’s always useful to give yourself a refresher course now and then.

Dive in, I say. Listen to his lectures, his interviews, his discussions with colleagues. They each open doors to new knowledge and new ways of looking at old knowledge.

Let’s hear it, I say, for the Internet, for YouTube, for earnest, intelligent folks who take the initiative to counter the horrible aspects of social media with solidly good and useful educational television, updated now to the stuff you take in from your computer screen. Forget about what you were taught in Sunday School.  Get past your (I think justified) view that “bible study” is better described as indoctrination than as education. Give a listen to a guy who seems to have both a heart and a brain. A cut your everyday populist evangelical.

Go to YouTube, type in “Ten Minute Bible Hour” and have at it!

P.S. And lest you think I just curled up and put all four paws in the air in adoration of this guy, I did find a place where I disagreed with him. He made a short video making the argument that voting in the U.S. (unless I’m mistaken, and I’m sure I’m not) is making a choice between getting injected with herpes or getting injected with chlamydia. I used to think that, but these days I think the Republicans are way worse than either, and getting rid of them means voting for the other guys. It’s between chlamydia and indigestion, maybe. Sorry, Matt. I differ strongly with you on this.