Friday, February 14, 2020

Yuval Noah Harari


When depression sets in, a common response is to label it a problem - which it is, to be sure - and go in search of a solution. I’m talking about real depression, not simply being down, feeling blue, out of sorts, or in a funk - there are so many expressions for the phenomenon because it’s so very common. If it’s just a light case of ennui, which some mistake for depression, the solution is probably a change of scene. Take a hike, get the body in motion, treat yourself to something you save for these occasions - chocolate, some uplifting music, whatever works for you. No, I mean serious depression, the mental condition that there’s something terribly wrong that can’t be fixed. In that case you probably need outside help. 

I like the image that depression is something you “fall” into. Like falling into a hole you can’t find your way out of, or falling down and not knowing how to get up. It’s generally the false conviction that the place you’re in is the only place there is and the time you’re in the only time. I call that a false conviction because I am persuaded that the Buddhists have figured out correctly that the only certainty is change. The here and now is always temporary, and that’s something you lose sight of when you get depressed. The solution is to recognize you need external help. If you’re good with words, psychotherapy may work for you. And it may be that the problem is chemical, and the best way out is anti-depressant medication.

I’ve been dealing with depression recently and my first thought was to ask my pulmonologist whether depression was a side effect of the new medication I had just gone on. The old one gave me nausea and vomiting and diarrhea, so I switched to an alternate medication, which was fortunately available.

The doctor said the medication was still new and there was not enough research on it. He suggested I give it up for a while and see if I felt better. I said no. The depression was bad, but the medication was something that could potentially extend my life for years, so giving it up didn’t make sense. I would find my way through the downturn in mood. Tough it out and find another way to go. Which means, of course, that the depression was probably not that bad. Not the kind where you can’t get out of bed, can’t work or eat or sleep. Just the kind that makes you want to shut all your doors and windows and talk only with your dogs, and maybe your spouse, if he begins to feel neglected.

I’ve got a good friend who is inclined to blame depression on chemical imbalance. I decided I’d be contrary and insist that’s not what’s going on in my case. In my case, I said, I was depressed not because of something wrong with me, but because the world really is all fucked up at the moment. One of those times when you have to say to others, “If you are not depressed, it’s because you’re not aware of what’s going on!”

Here’s what’s going on in my life. My country is in the shitcan. The people running it at the moment run it for the superrich, the way we structure the mechanics of government has turned out to be dysfunctional and the Republicans, who benefit from the dysfunction, are spending a good part of their wealth on convincing the low information voters among us that God put the Leader in power and they need to get behind him. And getting the opposition organized is like herding cats and things are looking bleak for November. The ice is melting at the North and South Poles and a billion animals lost their lives in fires in Australia. We spend more money jailing people than educating our young, and a significant percentage of the American population can’t locate the Pacific Ocean on a map. The question isn’t why am I depressed. The question is why aren’t you?

I opened the February 17/24 edition of The New Yorker the other day and saw there was an article by Ian Parker on this Israeli guy Yuval Noah Harari. I had heard of him but had not read any of his three books: Sapiens: A brief history of humankind; Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow; and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. The Parker article was long and my mind wandered mid-way for a while, but I soon realized I had come across a way out of my depression. Harari is a globalist. A historian and a philosopher. His concerns are the big picture, the mega questions. Pretty soon I had found my way to YouTube where I discovered about sixty videos of his speeches and interviews and before I knew it I had stopped fussing over who was going to win in November, or even whether American democracy was going to survive.

Don’t get me wrong. I still care. I just stopped fussing and switched focus. Harari is convinced there are three existential challenges the human race is facing: environmental destruction, possible annihilation through a nuclear holocaust, and the biggest one of all, what to do about the fact that after millions of years of human life on earth we are at the point where we could turn ourselves over to control by artificial intelligence.

For the next several days I was glued to YouTube videos of Harari beating his drum on these topics. He’s a brilliant man. I don’t know why it took me so long to discover him - obviously I don’t have all my priorities straight. I’ve reached the point where I think I’ve picked up his message and can move on now. The point is not that I’ve discovered a new guru; the point is that I’ve rediscovered the healing power of books and ideas. Harari got the wheels turning again. Instead of stressing so much over the American political nightmare I’m now back where I think I should be. Fussing over whether the coronavirus is going to invade Japan, fussing over whether Brexit is going to lead to the breakup of the UK, fussing over whether the AfD election in Saxony is giving the neo-Nazis real traction in Germany, whether Ukraine can get free of Russian hegemony, whether I’m going to live to see my 90th birthday.

And whether we can solve the climate crisis, cool down the nuclear threat, and come up with a way to keep the human race from handing over its collective brain to machines.

And whether we can keep that piece of shit Donald J. Trump from getting re-elected in November.

I haven’t stopped worrying about the old stuff; I’m just back in the world of ideas.

Which has always worked in the past to keep me going when things got rough. Ideas are my all-time favorite medicine. Works to counter aching joints, crotch itch, arthritic hands, hair loss, loss of balance, and runny nose.

And depression.

Too much to think about to be depressed.

Just needed a little boost, that’s all. Yuval, you’re my man!






Friday, January 31, 2020

A French Village - a film review

A French Village - main characters

For twenty-five years, I’ve had a book on my shelves titled France Under the Germans. An impulse purchase.  One of those times when you buy a book because you think you ought to know the topic it addresses, but soon discover once you sit down to read it that there are any number of other issues that strike you as more pressing.

I’m a great history buff, especially European history, but I burned out years ago on books on the Third Reich. Just couldn’t keep up with all the depressing evidence of human depravity, and kept coming back to the idea that I knew all I needed to about how Germany, a land of my roots, the pride of the loved ones who raised me, could have gone so wrong. I didn’t need to keep beating my head against the wall.

But over the years, with great regularity, I’ve kept coming back to this study in evil, sometimes because I discover a new approach, as I did with Daniel Goldhagen’s argument, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners, that one needed to stop putting all the blame on Hitler and start recognizing the extent of anti-semitism that has existed among the Germans since the days of Martin Luther that Hitler was able to tap into. To put it bluntly, it’s not Hitler we should be focusing on, but the whole damned German race.

If you put it that way, it’s but a short jump to the question of why we’re blaming Donald Trump for what ails us as a nation when we should be blaming the white supremacists who have joined hands with Corporate America and the 1% and those who follow a strong executive for any number of reasons: because everybody wants daddy to take care of us, because it’s a cold cruel world and they’re out to get us, because we need to keep foreigners at bay, because the people who win are the people with the biggest guns, because despite all our protestations in favor of democracy, we are all tribalists at heart.

One reads history, I would hope, not to laugh at how foolish people were in the past, but because it sheds light on human eternals, human universals. One reads it to avoid making the same mistakes all over again.

I pulled France Under the Germans off the shelf the other day because I’m nearing the end of a made-for-French-television series called A French Village (Un Village français). A whopper of a series - 72 episodes in all - covering the years from the German invasion of France in May 1940 through the end of the war and the year following as the French nation tried to get back on its feet.  Filmed between 2009 and 2017, it is a rich close-up history of the occupation in all its brutality, from a wide variety of perspectives. French history made by and for the French, but a story with a far greater appeal to anyone interested in understanding the human condition. Thanks to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and others it is now at last reaching a broad English-speaking audience.

An objective view of culture and society is hard to come by.  Amateurs fall into a common trap; they line the best aspects of Culture A up against the worst aspects of Culture B and conclude, voilà, Culture A is superior. And the observation that history is told by the victors is corroborated by the fact that after the war, there was a huge rush to claim one worked for the Resistance. What we get in A French Village is a more complex picture of the struggle between those in the resistance, and the communists, two groups working at cross purposes for the same goal, and the collaborators. And between those who collaborated with some enthusiasm and those who saw collaboration as a necessary evil. A series such as this is a perfect antidote to our tendency to speak in generalizations such as “Most French supported/opposed the Vichy government,” a statement which, if examined closely, proves to be both true and false.

Some parts of the series will make you want to turn away and run. The lack of will to stand up against the round-up of Jews, for one. One is familiar with German anti-semitism, and Polish anti-semitism, but we often forget that what motivated Zionists like Theodor Herzl, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow to seek out a national home of their own for the Jews was the conviction that they would never be accepted in any European country as equals, no matter how well integrated they might become. A French Village might be considered a promotional film for that perspective.

The power of the story of Vichy France, the Resistance and the eventual liberation by the Americans lies in the ground that it covers, the countless struggles on a national level to maintain the dignity and values of the Third Republic and the countless individual stories on a human level: a naive German soldier falls in love with a naive French girl - he dies, she bears his child, has her head shaved and is labeled a slut. Stories we have all heard but which take on a new urgency when you’ve had time to grow with the character and develop the kind of sympathy you would toward any other friend. A new consideration for me was the degree to which France was sympathetic to the German invaders to start with. Many apparently felt the Germans provided a kind of disciplined approach to work and to morality and welcomed, at least initially, its new role as a German protectorate. Until, at least, overwhelmed in the end by German brutality.

There is an upside to these binge-worthy series, over normal dramas, the fact that there is sufficient time for characters to grow and develop and become more and more real. The downside, of course, is that to keep the plot active you almost have to give the story a soap-opera series of twists and turns, and fall back entirely too frequently on coincidence to move events along. That’s a definite weakness in A French Village. Hopefully, you will agree with me that that flaw is offset by superb acting. And the plus is also a minus. The filmmakers clearly set out to show human complexity, but there were times when I tired of watching bad guys turn out to be good guys and good guys turn out to be bad guys. I am clearly programmed to see theater in terms of protagonists and antagonists. I don’t want my heroes watered down.

But then I don’t write scripts like this wonderful history of France under the German occupation.

Set aside 72 hours of your life and have at it. You won’t be sorry.


photo credit - photo is lifted from https://oldaintdead.com/review-a-french-village-un-village-francais-season-1/ a good review with much richer detail than I have presented above.



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 ancestry.com, 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.





Sunday, January 5, 2020

A modern-day filioque

The United Methodist Church is about to split in two over whether to maintain its official stance that there is something wrong with homosexuality.

Currently, there is a ban on same-sex marriage and on accepting LGBT clergy.

But 60% of the church's members would like to lift that ban. That is causing the split.

They plan to meet in a few months to decide whether to remain one church body or two, and possibly more. Since 60% of Methodists are accepting of LGBT people, their group would get to keep the current church title of "United Methodists," but lift the ban. The new group, the homophobes, will be known as "Traditional Methodists."  What is "traditional" is keeping the ban.


I found the labeling here confusing as hell. One has to remember that the "existing church" wants to get rid of its homophobia-colored rules - the ban on gay clergy and same-sex marriage - and the "traditional church" wants to hold onto them.

Apparently they have been struggling over this issue for some time and the existing UMC folk are now willing to pay the "traditionalists" to go. Some $25 million dollars, in fact, no small sum. Methodists from around the world will meet in Minneapolis in May to make the final decision. They're hoping for an amicable divorce. 


Splits among Christians are nothing new. If you know church history, you will remember when church leaders came to blows over what's known as the filioque controversy. You've got your Father, and you've got your Son, and you've got your Holy Ghost. Ah, yes, but does the Holy Ghost come from just the Father or from the Father and the Son?  Filioque = "and the son." May not mean much to you (or much of anybody these days), but at the time, in the 11th Century, the Roman Catholic Church split over it.  The boys in charge of things in Rome decided the Holy Ghost came from both the Father and the Son. But another group, centered to the East in what is now Istanbul, and far enough out of reach of the Roman Catholic bureaucrats to exercise a little independent thinking, decided it came from the Father alone. And voilà, you've got your Eastern Orthodox Church (Greek and Russian).   

There's no escaping the fact that once you organize yourselves into an institution with others who think like you, you find a need for people to run the show. That makes you like any other bureaucratic institution. What starts out as a group of religious believers ends up a political action group.

America is regularly misunderstood to be a democracy. It is not. That would imply majority rule, and everybody knows we don't work that way. We have an electoral college, for example, and representatives in state capitals and in Washington making decisions for us. Democracy is an aspiration, not a reality. It's the destination, not the journey. And what best describes that journey is the painfully slow but hopefully certain progress in extending civil rights to more and more of the population.  Politically, those pushing the extension are called liberals, although that term is fraught with such baggage that increasingly we choose to call them progressives.  Those holding out for the status quo are labeled conservatives. 

In the days of slavery, progressives advocated abolition; conservatives held out for the status quo. In the days of child labor, progressives advocated child-labor laws; conservatives held out for the status quo. When only men could vote, those advocating extending the right to women were the progressives of the day; the conservatives liked things the way they were.

Religious leaders tend to believe they are doing the work of God, and that means the ideas they come up with are God's ideas. Sometimes he puts those ideas in books, sometimes he talks to you directly and you have a revelation.  Once he has made his will known, it tends to get written in stone. You can't have a God who changes his mind all the time. That means religious people are inclined to be conservative. Progressive believers have to make the argument that God's will is ongoing, that he never reveals himself all at once, that you have to go with the flow and change with the times, as God gradually shows you the error of your past ways. Conservatives slap such labels on that method of dealing with doctrine as "cafeteria Catholicism" - picking and choosing doctrinal beliefs that suit you at any given time. 

Go back in history and you find it filled with this same struggle the Methodists are currently struggling with. You need money to build St. Peter's? How about selling indulgences, promises to forgive sins you haven't even committed yet for a few coins. It works. That majestic glorious building gets built and becomes the head church of the Vatican. But progressives, like Luther and others, find the whole idea stinks to heaven and voilà, (a second time) you got your Catholics here and you got your Protestants there.

The problem always centers on the speed of change. Today the "traditionalists" (another name for "conservatives") in the Methodist Church want to hold onto the practice of excluding gay people from the inner workings of the church, even though the majority of its members are pressing for change. You can still call yourself a child of God, but you can't be a leader, and you can't exercise your civil right to marry the partner of your choice unless they are of the opposite sex. That's the "traditional" way, you see.

Remember when the Baptists had this problem? Back in slavery days, the majority of its members decided it was against the will of God and they wanted  the Baptist Church to take an official stand against it. Which they did. And sure as the sun rises in the East, a significant minority of their members broke away. "Traditionalists," you could call them, who wanted to go on holding slaves. And here now we have a third voilà - otherwise known as the Southern Baptist Convention. * 

The Southern Baptists have come a long way since then. They used to be known for their advocacy of allowing each individual congregation to make its own decisions; today they make many more demands on the beliefs of their faithful. But at least they are now open to black people living with not only full civil rights in the larger community, but they allow them to have leadership roles within the church body. Times change. Conservatives too progress.

It would be nice if the Baptists could look back on their history and not find that stain, when "conservatives" held out for what all decent people today recognize as the insidious evil of racism. But there it is. Full-fledged racism is part and parcel of Baptist Church history.

In the Lutheran Church there are three main subdivisions. There is a relatively progressive wing known as the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and a more conservative bunch known as The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Then there's the arch conservatives who call themselves the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The more conservative you get, the more homophobic. Once it was filioque; once it was slavery. Today it is homophobia that divides not just the main Protestant denominations into progressives and conservatives; it's not just the Methodists, although they're in the limelight at the moment.

I was raised a Baptist but became a Lutheran when I reached adulthood. I also had a job as church organist in the Methodist Church in my home town. I have a close connection with all three denominations, in other words. I no longer share any of their doctrinal beliefs, but although I've left the church my respect for these folks remains in tact. They were the good people of my youth. They taught me right from wrong. They modeled, many of them, what I should do with my life, once I went out into the world. I wish I could push a button and make them all progressive overnight. I wish I didn't find myself cracking jokes like I did with friends over dinner last night?

Q: What church do you go to?

A: Methodist
Q: Homophobe Synod?
A: No, United Methodist.

But Rome wasn't built in a day.

And I still haven't got a clue whether the Holy Ghost came from the Father alone, or from the Son, as well.

I just know that we are free to join any of these organizations. And equally free to join none of them.

And that's real progress.


*
Protestants have a habit of naming themselves after meetings: the breakaway Baptists, rather than call themselves the Southern Baptist Church or some such, call themselves the Southern Baptist Convention. Another word for an assembly of clergy, and sometimes lay people as well, is synod, as in Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod.]


The photo above is of La Mesa Methodist Church in La Mesa, California, a church chosen at random. I have no idea how its members feel about the upcoming vote. I just wanted a picture of a Methodist Church.