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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Pro-Life & Pro-Choice Sides Agree!

After years of bitter debate, pro-choice and pro-life activists have agreed to bury the hatchet -- in Britney Spears.

Or anyway, in a sculpture that shows her giving birth, naked, on a bear-skin rug. The sculpture, "Monument to Pro-Life: The Birth of Sean Preston," was made by Daniel Edwards, whose resume includes a bust of Ted Williams' severed head.

The Brooklyn gallery where it is to be displayed has been pounded with emails from concerned political extremists. The pro-choice side doesn't like the name, the pro-life side doesn't like the subject. (Remember, they're the same power bloc that draped a nude statue in the Justice Department. A far more decourous nude sculpture, too.)

The sculptor doesn't care. Doesn't side with either party on this. He just wants to be rich and famous. And here's the Egg, helping him toward that lofty goal.

Friday, March 24, 2006

A Tale of Two Converts

The first is a fellow in Afghanistan. You know, "free," post-Taliban Afghanistan. Abdul Rahman converts from Islam to Christianity, and now prosecutors are calling for the death penalty.

Why? Because, even though the new, USA-approved Afghan constitution claims to recognize international conventions regarding human rights, it also lets shariah prevail when there is any conflict. And under shariah, as we all know too well, apostasy is punishable by death. Oh, and if the court doesn't kill him, senior Afghan clerics have promised to incite mob violence that will.

(The guy may get off the hook because he's insane. The judge certainly hopes he will. Go ahead, my secular humanist friends, make your obvious jokes about Christianity. But remember that Stalin classified a lot of people as insane when they disagreed whith his party line, too.)

The second fellow is
Phillippe Troussier, a French soccer coach (or "le football," as they say). He and his wife have converted from Christianity to Islam. Nobody is calling for much of anything. Certainly not death. Why? Because France is actually a free country, in which basic human rights (such as freedom of religion) are protected by law.

Yes, yes, I know: the French won't let schoolchildren wear burkahs or crosses in class, which to American ears doesn't sound like freedom. But it is, in a convoluted Gallic way, because it keeps religious symbols, and any bias based on them, out of state schools.

Darkly funny remark from Islam Online, quoted in the article: "thousands of French revert to Islam every year in France, but not all of them declare their new faith outright, fearing discrimination at home or work and a stereotypical view that reverts tilt towards extremism."

Poor babies. They're afraid of job discrimination. And why is it that Muslim converts to Christianity, even in Western countries, often keep silent? Are they afraid of job discrimination, too? Oh, right: they're afraid of being murdered.

Friday, March 17, 2006

How Bad Is It?

Sandra Day O'Connor thinks the United States is slipping toward dictatorship.

The recently-retired Supreme Court Justice cites the increasing numbers of death threats directed toward judges, and -- in particular -- efforts by the other branches of government to interfere with the independence of the judiciary.

The money quote is:

"We must be ever-vigilant against those who would strongarm the judiciary into adopting their preferred policies. It takes a lot of degeneration before a country falls into dictatorship, but we should avoid these ends by avoiding these beginnings."

Good God, this is scary stuff. Paranoiacs of both left and right have always warned about an American dictatorship, going back at least as far as the Jefferson presidency.

But Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee whose departure is mourned most by Democrats, is not the Mel Gibson character in "Conspiracy Theory." Nor is she a politico on the hustings, seeking to motivate voters by the application of fear. She is the opposite of all these things: a an elder stateswoman, one of the longerst-serving of the nation's living leaders -- and a retiree from what is, in any case, the most circumspect of the three branches. These people aren't glib, they aren't facile, they aren't alarmist.

So ask yourself:

How bad do things have to get for a retired Supreme to warn us about dictatorship? And how bad does that mean things already are?

Monday, March 13, 2006

Motley Fool Opines on NY Senate Race

The New York senate race is shaping up to be another high point in the saga of democracy.

The Democratic candidate is the incumbent, Hillary Clinton. For reasons that elude the Egg, she
makes conservative blood boil like nobody's business. This despite the fact -- or perhaps because of it -- that she has proven to be a pretty good senator.

So you might think the Republicans would throw their heavy artillery at her: Pataki. Giuliani. Well, not those guys of course -- they both want to run for President. But somebody like that.

Instead, the first challenger was Westchester DA Jeannine Pirro. She's a pretty good DA. She wasn't much of a candidate, though. She made a fool of herself in her first press conference, and things went downhill from there. And her husband seems to be a crook, which is generally not the way to atttract "law & order" votes. They pulled her before the embarrassment could get much worse.

So now comes
John Spencer -- not the late lamented actor who played Leo McGarry, but a former mayor of Yonkers. Lovely town, Yonkers, if you can just get past the town. Spencer's a soi-disant "Reagan Republican," which doesn't necessarily mean he's a low-IQ ideologue who switched parties, divorced his wife, advertised cigarettes as a health aid, and told "personal stories" that were really plots from old movies. It does mean he takes the standard hard-right positions: anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, pro-gun.

He also comes up with gems like this: that Sen. Clinton "aids and abets" America's enemies with her criticism of President Bush's handling of the Iraq war. (That despite Bush's own statement that "it's perfectly legitimate to criticize my ... conduct of the war.")

Spencer's primary opponent, as of recently, is a
Kathleen Troia McFarland, a more traditional New York Republican -- Park Avenue blue-blood with liberal social views. (Never forget: this combination brought us Nelson A. Rockefeller, of blessed memory).

So here's where the fun starts. The Post quotes McFarland's self-description in a pre-campaign memorandum: "I believe in a woman's right to choose, stem-cell research and full civil rights for gays. Our family worships in the Episcopal Church, but we are not evangelical."

Well. To hear the
Rev. Duane Motley tell it, she has -- by simply describing herself -- issued a fatwa against all "Evangelicals." (The word has been misappropriated, but never mind...) Per Motley, "She's saying, 'I'm a Rockefeller Republican, I'm not one of those religious wackos over there on the right . . . she's insinuating that evangelicals are the religious right and they're controlling things in the country. Well, evangelicals are not running the country, I wish they were, but they're not."

Defensive much, Duane? She's saying no such thing, obviously -- however much one might wish it were true. But Motley doesn't hear what she's actually saying; he hears an entirely different speech, one directed against him. This is what family-systems therapists call a reaction against
self-differentiation. In other words, simply by saying "Here's who I am," McFarland has earned the sputtering rage of Duane Motley, who can't live with the fact she is different from himself. This is scary stuff. It is a sleazy kind of religious bigotry. Put bluntly, in the new world of American politics, candidates no longer have the right to announce their religious views, whatever those may be -- they are required to claim at least token allegiance to the militant Christianists.

Spencer is calling McFarland "a Clinton pawn," and so forth. Sure she is, John. Because I'm sure she'd prefer to fight a long, hard battle against a classic made-for-New York Republican who shares many of her social views but (a) is aligned with the ruling party and (b) lacks her many negatives. Rather, that is, than crush you like a bug, and Duane Motley with you.

But here, for my money, is the kicker: McFarland was a Pentagon official during the Reagan era. Unlike Spencer, who claims the mantle, she actually worked for President Reagan. On defense and security issues. So if you're a knee-jerk right winger, ask yourself: Who in this primary combines authentic Gipper bona fides with a legitimate chance of winning? And if you're not, then ask yourself: Who in this race combines traditional New York Republican values and genuine Defense Department national-security experience?

And who's just blowing demagogue smoke?

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Disappointment of the Week

You don't have to click -- the Times headline tells all: "Advisers Say Discontent Hasn't Discouraged Bush."

Of course it hasn't. Why should it? Losing the 2000 election didn't discourage him. His own witless failure to read the PDB warnings about bin Laden didn't discourage him. Letting bin Laden escape at Tora Bora didn't discourage him. When Daddy's point man Unca Brent warned him that Iraq would be a bad move, it didn't discourage him. Forcing Colin Powell to lie to the UN about WMDs didn't discourage him. The Downing Street Memo that proves he knew about the lies doesn't discourage him. The steady stream of former staff members who either say outright (Richard Clarke, Anthony Zinni) or imply by their silence (Powell) that he combines a frightening zeal for war with a stunning lack of aptitude for fighting it hasn't discouraged him. Squandering the surplus and creating a gazillion-dollar deficit that will be paid off by our great-grandchildren doesn't discourage him. The evident need to keep changing rationales for a pre-emptive war that defies both international law and the traditions of the faith he so vocally espouses didn't discourage him. Having his torturers and secret prisons revealed to the world didn't discourage him. Having his administration called "Worse Than Watergate" by one of the Watergate conspirators (!) didn't discourage him.

The man is positively undiscourageable.

Not to mention shameless. Not to mention unimpeachable, no matter how much Garrison Keillor and I might wish it otherwise.

Or, to put it another way: He doesn't care about the facts. He doesn't care about the will of the voters. He doesn't care about the good of the Republic, now or in the years to come. Why on earth should anybody expect him to care about a few rebellious voices in a party so ferociously disciplined that it will easily silence them before they can actually do any good?

Monday, March 06, 2006

Sex Sells (Biblical Version)

Interesting and not-snide article from the Kansas City Star on the Song of Songs. Apparently, some people -- meaning some US evangelicals -- are rediscovering the naughty thrills of the Song, and using them to draw crowds.

I know these thrills well. In a long-gone Confirmation Class, my lay catechist described it as "the Bible's dirty book," and said that in some pious households the pages were glued together to keep children from reading them. Always an oponent of censorship, I rushed home and read the thing start to finish.

Honestly? I was a little disappointed. Great poetry, but not the easiest stuff to read. There seems to be an underlying narrative, but the details are awfully hard to figure out. Readers usually wind up imposing their own heavy-handed interpretations on the text. (To judge from the Star article, the Kansas evangelical preachers choose a narrative that is very, very different from my own. I see -- and have preached -- a tale of forbidden love, love outside the boundaries of social convention, perhaps even the law. They seem to see a married couple on the honeymoon. Well, as we said in the Seventies, whatever gets you through the night.)

But here's something interesting: several of the editors and professors quoted for the article mentioned that they had never seen (or presumably heard) a sermon on the Song. Okay, the Song is one of those books -- like Esther -- that lectionary committees have traditionally skipped over. So it's an understandable omission for those of us who use the lectionary -- but passing strange in the free-church world. This is great stuff, and powerful stuff, and if you spin it jussssst right, it can even be stuff that speaks clearly about God's love.

Here's my proposal: Let's make 2006 the Year of the Song. I challenge my free-church readers (there must be one) to lead a summer series on it. For the rest of us, perhaps a mid-week Bible study. Or thinking about it in relation to our appointed texts -- surely a creative mind can find in the Song some relationship to St. Mark's Gospel.

Yes, there will be a few repressed pew-sitters who wig out. But there always are -- if not over this, then over a sermon explaining that torture is bad, that the poor need our help, or that God is not actually in the White House. And isn't that always one of the joys of priesthood?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Renewing Worship?

Lutherans -- or at least their publishing house -- have long felt the need for a new hymnal and service book. (Unlike our Anglican cousins, we typically combine the two). Be careful what you feel the need for.

1978's Lutheran Book of Worship is a masterpiece of liturgical scholarship. Inter alia, it restored to the Eucharist an eschatological dimension; eliminated faux-Jacobean worship dialect; offered three practical Mass settings, appropriate for congregations with differing levels of musical skill; acknowledged that the introit had become an anachronism; and offered elegant orders for daily prayer, which have drawn praise from no less an authority than
Robert Taft. And plenty more.

But it was never perfect. It lacked a complete psalter. The hymn choices and harmonizations were sometimes questionable, and the texts were frequently altered to dubious effect. The emphasis upon German, Scandinavian and "traditional" 19th-C. American hymnody became ever more limiting, as Lutherans struggled to receive the gifts of African and Latin American Christianity.

So now comes "Renewing Worship," the culmination of a 15-year process, now in its last stages. A new book will be published soon -- and this is a big event in American Lutheranism. We take our "new books" seriously. Which makes the readily apparent problems with Renewing Worship especially worrisome. Here are a few preliminary concerns. I'll raise more later:

Inclusive language. Well, the Egg is all for it. Strongly, loudly, frequently. The LBW rightly eliminated the "masculine neuter," an historically questionable grammatical trick by which both men and women were referred to as "man" or even "men." God -- as Trinity, Christ, Father and Spirit -- remained "he." A few congregations have adopted the practice of emending the texts to remove masculine pronouns for God -- a common enough practice among US Protestants. (The Romans flirted with this, but Rome told them to stop.) Most haven't.

RW goes further in this direction. A few more hymns lose their pronouns -- hardly a surprise.

And the truth is that hymn texts have always -- always -- been subject to ideological editing. We love Luther's Lord Keep Us Steadfast, but it is a long time since we sang about "murd'rous Turk and papist's sword." How many of us have ever sung the true verse 3 of Lift High the Cross? (It's about "false sons" of the Church, "those who hate her," all meaning exponents of the Higher Criticism). Or verse 3 of "Faith of Our Fathers," about how "Mary's prayers" will overthrow Anglicanism?

But RW goes a step too far: It gender-neutralizes the Psalter. We are not talking about the sort of gender-accurate translation that the
NIV publishers tried a few years ago, before Southern baptists threatened a boycott. We are talking about translations which distort the Biblical text. Psalm 1 -- "Blessed is the man" -- becomes "blessed are they." In Hebrew, it's "ha-ish." That's "the man." A person in general, or humanity in general, is "enosh."

More typically, this business involves a change from third to second person -- God is not "he" but "you," which the publishers call "the language of prayer." Oh, piffle. The psalms themselves are the language of prayer -- they have been for millennia. And they aren't like hymns -- they are are Scripture. They shape the way we pray, and we dare not reshape them to fit our desires. If we don't like them, we should pray something else (and find another religion. Taoism is sort of nice).

publisher's note is a little deceptive. It claims this second-person business is common in Hebrew poetry, and brags about the "Lutheran Old Testament scholars" who have been consulted. All well and good, but it skips over the basic, irreducible fact that the words are being mistranslated. People in the pews deserve, at the very least, to know this.

But this isn't really what burns our britches at the Egg. As I said, we like inclusive language. We really, really do. Here's what gives us agita:

Dumbing It Down. There's a great song by folk-rock-Lutheran guy
Jonathan Rundman about how often leaders dumb down the language -- and content -- of worship. This idea is always to welcome strangers, by making worship accessible even to the uninitiated. So they make it sweet and easily digestible, like baby food. Get rid of the hard words. Replace the crucifix with a cross, and the cross with a painted angel. or better yet, an abstract design, so people can project onto it their own hopes and dreams for a religion.

But you are supposed to grow out of strained carrots and applesauce. The problem with these dumbed-down services is that they take away the substance, and never bring it back. And so the depth of the Christian message goes missing, and is not retrieved. Rundman's refrain ends, prophetically, "we're creating monsters." Damned right we are, with an emphasis on the "damned."

There aren't many good Transfiguration hymns. The best is probably "O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair." Or was, until RW rendered it "O Wondrous Image." These words are close in meaning, but not the same. An image is, etymologically, an imitation -- as human beings are of God, or a picture of the thing depicted. In Christian theology, a "type" is something rather different -- a prefiguring, as the Ark is of the Church, say, or in this case, the Transfiguration is of the Resurrection. (In fairness, the original Latin of this hymn has the less precise word "forma;" John Mason Neale made the typological point explicit in his translation.)

Worse yet, consider one of the brilliant Eucharistic hymns by Thomas Aquinas. "Thee we adore, O hidden Savior" is the traditional, and accurate, translation of Adoro te devote, latens Deitas. The hiddenness of God is the whole point here -- that even though we cannot see or taste the presence of Christ, we nonetheless trust that he is present because he said so. A very Lutheran idea, by the way. Or it was, until RW butchered it: "Thee we adore, O Savior God most true." Still an accurate idea theologically -- but simply not the point of the verse or, indeed, the hymn. For an idea of how badly endumbed the RW version is, compare the seven-verse original
seven-verse original to RW's four bastardized verses. (You'll have to scroll to find them; it's a long document, but the hymns are alphabetical). Worse yet, RW credits its translation to Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose actual version is so scrupulously good. (And we don't much like Hopkins, generally).

So what shall Lutherans do, if all this ticks them off a bit to much? Well, RW can't be stopped; it's almost in print. But that doesn't mean we have to buy it. The LBW is good for a few more years. This Far By Faith is a pretty good book. The Episcopalians have a hymnal, and their prayerbook is okay, except for the Calvinist parts. or maybe we should go back to the Common Service. I'm game if you are.

Because I Do Not Hope To Turn...

The line, of course, is from T.S. Eliot's poem for today, Ash Wednesday. Great poem, to be sure. But the first verse is misleading to a casual reader.

Ash Wednesday is all about turning. That is, turning away from sin and toward God. It is about repentance, reconciliation, return. For Christians, these things are always possible. No matter how far we have strayed, how low we have fallen, the presence of a loving God is no further away than one prayer, one sacrament, one turn in the opposite direction.

We have a lot to repent, no matter who we are. Republicans lie, Democrats are cowardly; the press asks foolish questions and fails to ask the ones that might make a difference; the rich forget the poor, and the poor burn with envy. America is fighting a war in which neither side uses just tactics, or even tries. (Here's more scary documentation of the Bush Administration's effort to make torture legal). Gay activisits want immediate change, and don't care if they split their churches; and their opponents want to live in the past forever, and don't care who they prevent from hearing the Gospel. And as for us who serve in the clergy ... well, our sins are at least as scarlet as anybody else's. At least.

But maybe this year we will change. Maybe this year we will repent, and be reconciled to God, and renew our spirits. Probably not -- but maybe. The possibility is always there. Whenever we want to come home, God is always willing to receive us. That's the point.