Tuesday, April 29, 2008


While we were typing the testy little note below -- in fact, while typing the windy conclusion re: denial of death, and wondering if this weren't a bit too much -- the telephone rang.  It was a woman from England, planing to visit her daughter in our neighborhood, and asking what our services were like.

We danced around a bit, looking for cross-cultural references.  And then she blurted out, "Our son died last year.  We're Baptists, but our own church is too happy-clappy for us now.  We just can't bear it anymore."

"It's okay," we said.  "This is the kind of church where people don't have to be ashamed of being sad."

And then we finished typing, confident that we were right.  Churches, if they want to be faithful, must avoid the temptation to deny death.  

Death [Be/Be Not] Proud

We at the Egg spent a rainy spring day at a meeting of our synod's ministerium yesterday.  In one sense, it was a jolly time.  Our colleagues are a fine bunch, and we greatly enjoy their company, almost without exception -- and the exceptions didn't make the trip.

In another sense it was a bit frustrating.  The chief issue before us is the election of a new bishop next month.  The topic raises some anxiety, and our interim bishop, David Olson, had invited us to talk about it.  He started the ball rolling with an interesting question:  Since bishops are not superheroes, and need to divide their time like anybody else, how involved did we pastors hope that the new bishop would be in evangelism and church growth (as opposed to administration, teaching, discipline, or I suppose tea parties with wealthy widows, like David Niven in that great Christmas movie)?

The question was good, but the responses were ... well, weird.  For perhaps half an hour, we watched our friends get up and talk about their own experience as evangelists.  Dear Bishop Olson thanked them each in turn, and then reminded each of the question that he had actually asked.  Some of this was posturing by aspirants to the Big Hat, but most was not.  People just didn't want to talk about the new bishop as much as much as they wanted to talk about themselves.  It's actually kind of touching:  they find their own ministries more interesting than any other subject in the world, and well they might.

We got a bit closer toward the end of this session.  There was much discussion of whether numbers (attendance, membership, offering) are a good indicator of effective evangelism -- an old question, but one of unending interest, since ministers compare numbers the way investment bankers compare penis sizes.  A member of the synod staff, who does not serve a parish in our city, averred that evangelism is easy, and that the trick to building large parishes is "to get the right people [i.e., pastors] in there."  A young pastor serving the suburbs declared that numbers were actually the measure of a pastor's competence, and that the rest of us were soft for occasionally telling a friend that it wasn't his fault when things went south.

Statements like these bear some scrutiny.  Consider a certain parish we know -- let's call it by a coy nickname: "St. John's," in the mythical realm of "Greenpoint."   It was founded 1867, and in 1918 -- despite competition from another more liberal Lutheran parish blocks away -- it claimed 2500 members, half of them children.   By 1944, as the neighborhood changed and the Brooklyn suburbs expanded, that number had dropped to 758.  By 1963, as the city's fortunes declined, the number stood at 353.  In 1982, it was 116 members, and in 2003, according to the official records of our denomination, membership stood at 33.  That's not a typo, and it's not our smallest parish, either.  (Paging Mt Calvary, in Ruby NY)

My question, then, is whether every single pastor to serve St. John's since 1918 has been the wrong people, or whether, just possibly, there might be other things at work to affect the fortunes of a parish.  (And I have a follow-up question, posed to a former bishop who once told a group of young pastors the powerful story of how a certain colleague had gone to St. John's and "loved them back to life" in the 1980s, making some of those young pastors feel terribly guilty about their inability to do likewise with intractable parishes:  How did that work out in the end?  Hmm?)  

This sort of talk is the worst kind of clericalism.  Pastors are not superheroes, any more than bishops are; expecting us to "save" a moribund parish is just foolish.  The most gifted can catch hold of changes in a neighborhood's population and exploit them effectively.  This can buy time, but it cannot turn back the tide.  Only God can do that -- and, as the reliability of tidal charts demonstrates, God generally does not.

The truth is that between the 1850s and the 1920s, Lutherans in New York City built an enormous number of congregations, to serve enormous communities of Lutheran immigrants.  Within a few generations, as the neighborhoods changed, many of those congregations became redundant.  It is not that the city doesn't need the witness of Lutheran churches -- merely that it doesn't need the same number it once did, many of them within blocks of each other.  This is an obvious fact, more or less proven by decades of actual experience.  Churches close, fairly often in New York, because their time has passed.

But as Bishop Olson said, "The one thing I can tell you is that nobody who admits this will ever be elected bishop."  Much as we hate to say so, he may be correct.  Because since at least the 1960s, bishops and other church leaders have seen the wave coming, and with it a threat to their influence.  Their response has been to deny the reality of it all, to declare that all the church needed to do was change -- to find the right formula of language, worship, social work -- and everything could be as it once had been.  Some inspiring rhetoric along these lines has heartened generations of frightened people, both clergy and laity.  And churches have changed, dramatically in some cases; some very fine ministry has come out of these efforts to become newly-relevant to an altered neighborhood.  But decade after decade and year after year, parishes (including the ones that change according to the prescription of the day) have continued to close -- and often, those closures are accompanied not only by the natural and appropriate grief of the faithful, but also by wholly unnatural and inappropriate hard feelings, blame, shame, and lawsuits.

The denial of death, as you will be told by any physician, is not a viable health-care strategy.  Nor would we at the Egg have much use for a physician who proposed it.  And yet, year after year, that is what we look for from our leaders.

This means, of course, that declining congregations cannot often be effective parts of the greater church's mission strategy.  They expend their every asset (and often, the time and money of the synod as well) in the vain effort to survive, rather than asking how they can pass on their treasures -- a building, an endowment, a treasury of experience -- to those who might use it best.  Because we cannot admit that they are dying, we cannot help them plan their estate.  Biblically speaking, they eat up their seed, rather than letting it fall into the ground.
Worse yet, there is a theological issue in this mess.  One suspects that for many Christians, the faith does serve as a massive engine of denial:  Jesus will make the cancer go away.  Jesus will keep my Grandma on life support so that she will never die.  Obviously, most of us know better.  All pastors and nearly all laypeople know, from frequent experience, that death comes.  To pretend otherwise is both foolish and un-Christian, because death is central to our faith.

If we deny the reality of death, we deny the Cross itself.  Jesus did not seem to die, as some heretics once insisted; he died.  And his death does not keep you, me or Grandma from dying.  Death is real.  It is simply not the ultimate reality, represented for us by the empty tomb and the new Jerusalem.  

In a similar way, the pretense that a parish, once established, has the right or even need to exist forever is a denial of reality, and it prevents us from proclaiming the ultimate reality:  death, including the death of a local community, is a thing which cannot be evaded, but not for that reason a thing which should be feared.  Our parish churches and their worship are precious and deserve our love; but they are not feast for which we live our lives in longing: the liturgy of the Heavenly City, where saints and angels gather around the throne, and they gaze upon the Lamb of God. 

Friday, April 25, 2008

Clinton and Obama are Both "Losers"

That's the blunt assessment of Gerard Baker at the London Times.  He is merciless, especially regarding Obama's otherwise-widely-hailed speech on religion.  But I can't help thinking that he may have just said what American voters have been slowly realizing, even while the pundits don't quite say it.

Even in the midst of war, recession, declining American prestige, global warming and an international food crisis -- all of which have been created or at least exacerbated by Republican policies -- it may be a tough battle for the eventual Democratic candidate.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Al Qaeda Chief Sides With Tancredo

Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's #2, released one of his occasional tapes to the media.  It's the predicatable homicidal rant.  We get it already:  you don't like Shiites, Americans, the Japanese or much of anybody else.  Honestly, the feeling is mutual.

But right near the end of the story, he drops a thought-provoking little nugget:  According to al-Zawahri's interpretation, it is against Islamic law for any Muslims to take up permanent residence in a Western country, where they would "have permanent stay under the laws of the infidels."

Hmmm.  What does that judgment look like in practice, do you think?  Are all Muslim citizens of the US or other Western nations therefore candidates for the Salman Rushdie treatment, no matter how otherwise faithful and shariah-observant they might be?  (And not just citizens, but permanent "guest workers"?)  Ought Western nations, out of respect for foreign customs and in order to preserve the peace, bar all Muslims from permanent residence?  I'm thinking tourist and student visas only, three weeks and three months respectively, with mandatory weekly check-ins with Homeland Security.

Obviously, we at the Egg would never support policies like this.  But we know plenty of people who would, many of them currently occupying lawn chairs at the Arizona-Mexico border.  Apparently, Tom Tancredo and Ayman al-Zawahri are political allies.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Bitterness versus Elitism

Good Thomas Frank (What's the Matter With Kansas?) op-ed piece at the WSJ, to which I was referred by Andrew Sullivan.  He explores the notion of Obama's supposed elitism.  Two particular passages stand out:

Conservatism [unlike liberalism] has no problem with bitterness; as the champion strategist Howard Phillips said almost three decades ago, the movement's job is to "organize discontent."  And organize they have.  They have welcomed it, they have flattered it, they have invited it in with millions of treason-screaming direct-mail letters, they have given it a nice warm home on angry radio shows situated up and down the AM dial.  There is not only bitterness out there; there is a bitterness industry.

This opens a window onto something that I have been arguing for a long time.  The so-called conservative and neo-conservative movements appear, more and more clearly, to be misnamed.  They do not desire to "conserve" anything in particular.  Or rather, they desire to conserve only particular things.  For example, they restore Teddy Roosevelt's imperialist foreign policy, while leaving their opponents to continue his very progressive antipathy for "malefactors of great wealth."  Nor are they really conservative in the sense of exercising restraint.  The Reagan and Bush administrations spent money like a fleet of drunken sailors.  (In both cases, that's roughly what they spent the money on, too.)  More broadly, what Americans call "conservative" trade and fiscal policies are what the rest of the world calls "neo-liberal."  It is maddening.

The root of the linguistic problem is that "conservatives" have claimed, with greater or lesser frequency, to uphold a single set of values which are both consistent and traditional.  The claim is demonstrably false, but it has been repeated so often that many people now make the mistake of imagining that Bush, for example, somehow reflects the ideals of some vanished age, most likely that of the Founding Fathers.  The mind reels.

Meanwhile, except perhaps for the Great Society era, their opponents have resisted this rhetorical move.  True leftist politics, of the kind that have never really flourished in America, are indeed all about sweeping theories, and often startlingly dumb ones.  Likewise, the politics of the right.  And even if the Democratic Party has provided a notional home for crazed ideologues, the style of government for which it has shown a preference is driven largely by casuistry -- that is, by research and planning for actual eventualities, rather than sweeping Platonic theories of how things ought to be.  That's why Democratic presidential candidates have so often seemed a bit enervated: they are usually technocrats, rather than visionaries. 

The Reagan revolution was in a sense the victory of a visionary, theory-driven wing of the Republican party over the more traditional and practical wing.  This victory was cemented by the rise of the neo-cons, and the near-eclipse of, for example, the "realist" foreign policies associated with Bush pere and Brent Scowcroft.  Iraq, the high-water mark of their influence, was a war driven entirely by theory, and a proportional contempt for evidence.

None of this makes sense if we believe that "conservatives" are defined by genuine conservatism.  But if we realize that their actual goal has always been to achieve power by organizing discontent (or "bitterness"), it all makes sense.  They should call themselves Bitterists, or at least Discontenters.  And their opponents, who may or may not care about freedom ("liberals") or progress ("progressives") ought really to go by their own distinctive characteristic:  the Casuists.

All this leads Frank to his climax, which is less original but still worth noting.  He calls upon the supposedly more "liberal" of the two Democratic contenders to move in a genuinely, as opposed to rhetorically, conservative direction:

If Barack Obama or anyone else really cares to know what I think, I will simplify it all down to this.  The landmark political fact of our time is the replacement of our middle-class republic by a plutocracy.  If some candidate has a scheme to reverse this trend, they've got my vote, whether they prefer Courvoisier or beer-bongs spiked with cough syrup.

Turning back the clock!  Reversing the trend!  Now that's conservative.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Fantasy Ideologies

Are we at war with al Quaeda?  Almost seven years after 9/11, this fundamental question remains impossible to answer.  In war, after all, there are two or more sides, each seeking to achieve political goals.  Terms can be negotiated, surrender accepted.  But the goals of bin Laden and his devotees are inscrutable at best, and it is by no means clear that there is any authority, including his, with which the US could nengotiate terms or from which it could accept surrender.

In a provocative Policy Review essay, Lee Harris argues that "war," in the Clausewitzian sense, is the wrong metaphor to use in understanding 9/11 and its aftermath.  Instead, he says that Quaeda as possesses a "fantasy ideology," in which action, including violent action, is undertaken not primarily to effect any meaningful strategic goal, but rather to express and validate the actor's chosen self image.

Harris draws an analogy to Mussolini's invasion of Ethiopia.  There was no real prize to be won -- the nation offered neither a threat nor any resources to strengthen Italy.  Conquering it was merely a symbolic action, serving to illustrate the Fascist myth of a resurgent Roman Empire. In the same way, al Quaeda has no realistic hope of destroying America, much less the West as a cultural force; but that was never the objective.  Bin Laden seeks merely to illustrate the myth of a divinely-empowered Islamic militancy.

This is exactly correct.  Harris describes the behavior perfectly:  

What is common in such interactions is that the fantasist inevitably treats other people merely as props -- there is no interest in, or even awareness of, others having minds or wills of their own.  The man who bores us with stories designed to impress us with his importance, or his intellect, or his bank account, cares nothing for us as individuals -- for he has already cast us in the role that he wishes us to play:  We are there to be impressed by him.

As I said, Harris describes the behavior.  Sadly, he fails to use its proper name.  Like many think-tank professionals, especially on the right, he is more comfortable with intellectual history than with social science, and so he spends a lot of time sorting through William James, Vilfredo Pareto and Georges Sorel, when he might simply cut to the chase by calling this "fantasy ideology" by the name that psychologists have long given it:  narcissism.

Had he done this, his conclusions would have been greatly strengthened.  There is a lot of good writing, based on clinical study, about narcissistic personalities -- their magnetism, their ruthlessness, et cetera.  People who study business, for example, have read the psychology and started to come up with advice for corporate honchos who have a narcissist in middle-management.  (Bottom line:  they can get great results -- just remember that they have no loyalty, and don't care who they hurt, up to and including your company.)  An earnest effort to grapple with the effect of narcissistic leadership styles on geopolitics would be new and exciting.

Lamentably, Harris misses the boat.  His essay concludes with a tepid effort to find substitute metaphors for the present conflict.  Instead of "war," he argues, we should talk about "disease," to be eradicated.  Offhandedly, he suggests that this substitution would help people understand the need for racial profiling, making an embarrassing analogy to screening immigrants at Ellis Island.  Worse yet, he argues that President Bush's early characterization of OBL et al. as "evildoers" was right on target, and criticizes liberals who objected to the phrase because it "dehumanizes" the enemy.

This last bit shows the particularly partisan failure of Harris's imagination, in two related ways.  First, he proposes that to dehumanize the enemy is exactly what the situation calls for, on the grounds that by first dehumanizing us, they have effectively dehumanized themselves.  This is just nonsense.  The enemy is as human as we are, and can only be understood -- and fought effectively -- when we accept this, and deal with it.  Harris shies away from psychology for the same reason that incompetent interrogators gravitate toward torture rather than the more sophisticated and effective means of extracting information:  driven by moral outrage, none of them is willing to exert the intellectual self-discipline required to perceive the enemy as fully human.

And ths, of course, leads into his second partisan failure.  Harris lucidly describes the behavior of the narcissist -- or the "fantasist" -- and identifies it in the behavior of the enemy.  But he seems blind to the reality that the American response has also been far less than Clausewitzian.  What was, or is, the strategic goal of our Iraq invasion?  There is none; it is an effort to illustrate the fantasy of imperial potency.  Strategically, it has weakened the US beyond words -- alientating our allies, draining our treasury,  and limiting the flexibility of our armed services.  Trusting a magnetic leader whose ultimate loyalty is not to our national interest but to his own self-image, we have blundered into a combat which serves only to project a fantasy, and not to further any meaningful strategic goals.  Just like our enemy.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Tancredo Attacks Pope

And guess what the issue is?

Tom Tancredo, who gives Know-Nothing a sublime double meaning, proposed recently that Benedict XVI's concern for immigrants, legal or otherwise, is merely a ruse to get more bottoms into Roman Catholic pews.  Per the Denver Post, he said:

"I suspect the pope's immigration comments may have less to do with spreading the gospel than they do about [sic] recruiting new members of the church.  This isn't preaching; it's faith-based marketing."

For the record, Tancredo is both an ex-Catholic and an ex-candidate for anything that requires a single Hispanic vote.

Ben Stein Channels Michael Moore

Ben Stein, as we have said before, is our favorite Nixon staffer.  Or at least he was, before we learned about his new movie, Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed.  From the ads that run on Comedy Central, we had concluded that it was some sort of academic romp, on the order of Animal House or Stein's own star-making turn in Ferris Bueller.

It is not.  Expelled is a documentary, which intends to show that exponents of creationism, or its deracinated clone intelligent design, are being treated unfairly by the academic establishment. And in a display of paranoid camp worthy of Michael Moore at his most excessive, Stein argues that the schools that deny creationists tenure and the journals that reject their articles are tools of a totalitarianism on par with those of Stalin or Hitler. 

This is nonsense.  ID is a philosophical position, not a scientific one -- and whatever consideration it deserves belongs in classrooms dedicated to philosophy, not science.  Moreover, and despite the film's various misstatements of fact (or "lies," as they used to be called) it appears that no otherwise qualified scientist has lost either a post or tenure specifically because he or she supported ID.  Note the "otherwise qualified" there.  A scientist with poor teaching skills, a weak publication record, or limited ability to bring in grant money -- in other words, a marginal performer -- is always in danger.  And if two such marginal cases are in competition for the same job, support for an hypothesis which is not taken seriously by most of your professional cohort surely cannot help.

Worse yet (and more like Moore), Stein has apparently filled his movie with fakery -- a "lecture at Pepperdine University," for example, was delivered to a room full of movie extras, in space rented for the occasion.  No wonder they run their ads on Comedy Central; this is the sort of "journalism" we expect from correspondents to the Daily Show.  (Which, as its host takes great pains to remind us, is fake news.)

We at the Egg are surprised and confused by all this.  Surprised, because Stein has always seemed like a pretty sharp cookie, with strong commitments to the reality-based community.  And confused because ... well, golly, Ben, what do you hope to gain from lining up with the crazies, particularly as their star begins to set?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

"World's Worst Religious Leaders"

Per Foreign Policy magazine.

These guys are bad, and they're only the tip of the iceberg.  I just have to keep reminding myself that Stalin was an atheist.  As were the Khmer Rouge.

Hindu Goddess Born Again

A baby with two faces has been born in India, and is being received as an incarnation of the Goddess.

She has a truly stupefying condition -- craniofacial duplication, which gives her two mouths and noses, and a total of four eyes, all of them apparently functional.

Here is why we have a soft spot for Hinduism.  In the West, this little girl's life would suck eggs.  At worst, she would be a sideshow exhibit; at best, she could look forward to decades of surgery.  In the East, people make pilgrimages to touch her feet.  

McCain Threatens to Destroy Economy

Asked about his plans to balance the federal budget, John McCain told a Connecticut audience that he would emulate Ronald Reagan.  Heaven help us if he does.

As the Times reporter points out, Reagan actually tripled the deficit, by cutting revenue while raising expenses.  (No matter what they tell you, balancing a budget is simple:  take in more than you spend.  Period.  There's no other way to do it.  And no matter how you try to pretend military spending isn't really "spending," those tanks still cost money.)

But it gets better.  Here's what McCain actually said:  "When Ronald Reagan came into office, we had 10 percent unemployment, 20 percent interest rates, and 10 percent inflation, if I've got those numbers right.  And so what did we do?  We didn't raise taxes, and we didn't cut entitlements.  What we did was we cut taxes and we put in governmental reductions in regulations ...."

Well.  Where to begin?  How about "if I've got those numbers right."  Which he doesn't.  To his credit, McCain is about right on interest rates.  He's somewhat fuzzy on inflation, which peaked in the Carter administration, but never exceeded 14%.  It was declining fast when Reagan took office, so let's call it 11%. 

Where McCain blows it is employment.  When Reagan took his oath of office, civilian unemployment was 7.5%; within a year, it was 8.6%, and within two years it was 10.8%.  In other words, Reagan quickly helped push unemployment up to its postwar high.

Reagan didn't cut entitlements.  Which is strange, really.  The soi-disant "conservatives" like him, even though he tacitly continued the welfare state they used to complain about.  Meanwhile, conservatives can't quit bitching about Clinton, who actually did enact massive welfare reform.  All of which suggests that the people who call themselves conservatives in this country either (a) don't actually believe anything they say, or (b) can't count.

As for deregulation .... Hmm.  Oh, yeah, Reagan deregulated like crazy.  And how did that work out in the long run?  Ask the airlines.  Since the Reagan era, they have gone from flying comfortable jets and making a comfortable profit, down to bankrupt economic jokes flying airborne hellholes.  Oh, make that terrifyingly unsafe airborne hellholes, since just yesterday, they had to ground big portions of the fleet.  It turns out the FAA hasn't been making them inspect their planes.  And are all struggling to stay in business.  All told, we sort of like some regulation on our industries.

So McCain wants to take Reagan as his economic mentor?  Get ready for him to double our present 5% unemployment rate, and cripple a few more of our industries.  But hey, it won't all be bad news -- at least we'll get the dole back.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Pope to Address Sex-Abuse Crisis

According to Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone,  Benedict XVI "recognizes the damage and pain caused by the clergy sex abuse crisis" -- to which one can only wonder how anyone could be sufficiently callous and out of touch, even by Vatican standards, not to recognize those things.

Bertone says that, in his upcoming US junket, the Pope will "address" the problem by delivering "a message of trust and hope."

Sigh.  Trust and hope are what got them into the mess in the first place.  People trusted their priests, and hoped that the bishops would know how to handle those who went astray.  Wrongly so, in both instances.

The message required now is not hope, and certainly not trust -- it is a series of public smackdowns.  Here is what the Pope should do, and should have done long ago:  (1) Cooperate fully with law enforcement, and require that every diocesan bishop and the superior of every order do likewise; (2) Remove the faculties of every priest known to have abused those in his care; (3) Send bishops who have failed to exercise adequate discipline to titular sees, such as good old Partenia; and finally (4) Declare publicly and often a zero-tolerance policy for present or past infractions.

I hope the Pope does this, and soon.  Because then, and only then, will American Catholics begin to trust again.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Wright's Jeremiad

A few weeks ago, when Obama's parish pastor was all the buzz, we wanted to say a few words on the subject, but were distracted by weightier concerns, such as the annual celebration of our Lord's Passion and Resurrection.  (Click the link for a thoughtful discussion of Jeremiah Wright and Chicago's Trinity UCC, by Kelefa Sanneh of the New Yorker.)  Here's our two cents:  the whole flap was at the same time enlightening and a little silly.

Enlightening because it opened a window for many of us, the Egg included, onto a unique ministry and its theological vision.  Trinity is the largest congregation in the United Church of Christ, the prodigiously left-leaning denomination that is the direct linear descendant both of colonial Puritanism (think Jonathan Edwards) and of the catholic revival within Calvinism once led by John Williamson Nevin from his base at Mercersburg.  Perhaps more significantly, it was also the denomination in which Paul Tillich found an American home.  The press has for the most part been satisfied to quote ad nauseam a few words from one of Wright's sermons, and to paint him as a radical whose message flirts with the revolutionary ideologies of the 1960s -- which seem dangerous to conservatives of a certain age, and quaint to most other people.  But the press has largely overlooked the more interesting story, of an Afrocentric congregation led by a radical preacher which is the tallest steeple in a largely white, largely middle-class, denomination still wrestling with its own complex and contradictory beliefs.

Enlightening further because it has reminded many of us that James Cone, the principal theorist of "black liberation theology," is not yet an historical relic.  He still teaches at Union Theological Seminary, and many preachers continue to be shaped by his vision of the Gospel.  This is not a bad thing, by the way.  Although it may be argued that Cone has taken significant liberties with the English language, redefining words like "black" (which he uses to mean "in solidarity with the oppressed"), when you cut through it all his theology offers a sharp challenge to the comfortable version of Christianity which has been conformed to its culture, like the seat of a Town Car conformed to the rear end of a plutocrat.  That is why, along with his well-publicized criticism of the United States, Wright has also been sharply critical of the "prosperity gospel" preached by frauds like Creflo Dollar.  In seminary, we studied Cone, at least in passing, and our professors took pains to point out his intellectual debt to Karl Barth.  At the time, we thought they were pushing it -- at Princeton, they can make a cloud in the sky look like Barth.  But by gum, they were onto something.

Enlightening  yet further because it has cast a beam onto the generational divide between Obama and his pastor -- and onto the generational continuity.  Obama has suggested, as delicately as he can, that he is among the number to whom the firebrand posturing of Wright's era looks less prophetic than quaint.  But he has also made it clear that even if the style has become a little embarrassing, he honors the substance -- both theologically and politically.  It's a bit like having an old uncle who won't stop talking about how he "kilt a lotta gooks back in the war," and you wish he wouldn't talk that way but you don't stop being proud that he won a medal at Okinawa.

And of course the whole kerfluffle was also a tad silly, because the TV news seemed to have an awfully difficult time distinguishing Obama from his (retired) parish pastor.  Look, we at the Egg say some pretty wild things from the pulpit -- for example, we talk, almost obsessively, about a guy rising from the dead.  Then we claim he's still here with us, somehow, in a cup of wine and piece of flat wafer we euphemistically call "bread."  And we know that on a typical Sunday, there are some people who think we are a little daft for believing all that.  They have a different vision of what the Gospel means, and they have come to church not because they agree with every word that drops from our golden tongue, but for reasons of their own.  So they sit politely through our sermons, sometimes enjoying the rhetorical flourish and sometimes squirming at what seems like the embrace of irrationality.  And when it's over, they take away something else -- the pleasure of being with friends, or the connection to their heritage, or even the renewed hope that they may someday come to believe what they do not yet.  

But here's the point:  We love them, even when they disagree with us. And vice-versa.   Adults, including adult religious believers, can have that kind of relationship.  As, apparently, do Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright.