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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Umm, Arianna?

The HuffPo ran a piece of Newt "Serial Adulterer" Gingrich today, and this was the lede:
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was asked about how "personal and political baggage" he perceivably carries could affect his chances if he runs for president in the next election cycle in an interview on "Iowa Press" last Friday.
If you want to read the rest of the article, be our guest. If you think that Newt is a morally challenged buffoon with delusions of grandeur, be our friend. But either way, help us to understand why the Huffington Post, which was recently sold to AOL for more money than we can actually imagine, has writers who use the word "perceivably."

Perceptibly, people. Or, if -- as is likely -- you don't really mean that the baggage is "subject to perception" but rather that it has already been perceived, then you could rewrite the sentence. For example, you might say, "Former House Speaker and moral reprobate Newt Gingrich was asked whether the widespread perception that he lies like a rug and then blames his country for it might affect his impending vanity campaign."

Now, one explanation for this stylistic lapse may be the fact that HuffPo doesn't actually pay its writers. We had assumed they simply neglected to pay the big-name bloggers, who were in the game for their own reasons. But maybe this neglect extends all the way down the foodchain, to the poor scrubs who churn out the quickie link-lists. If so, it is easy to guess why AOL put Arianna in charge of the combined organization: she's a business genius. She can perceivably get people to work for free.

Friday, March 25, 2011

"Reader, Put it Down"

We have rarely read a review as scathing as this one by Gary Wills on All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly.

It is not that Wills -- who has devoted much of his recent life to St. Augustine -- objects to reading the Western classics, or finding meaning in them. Quite the contrary. What he objects to is the meaning Dreyfus and Kelly claim to find: that choice is an unmanageable burden, and that the reflective interior life should be replaced by impulsiveness. Oh, and that a football game is not only as moving as a church service, but has just as much significance.

He also objects to the bad Classical scholarship Dorrance and Kelly seem to display. For example, they claim that Homer's characters "do not think too hard" about difficult choices; Wills pulls out numerous examples of Homeric characters thinking hard indeed.

More laughably still, they argue that the fall from grace, the loss of this (supposed) Homeric impulsiveness, is the fault of St. Augustine, who "was the first important Christian to interpret Christianity using the categories of Greek philosophy."

As Wills is quick to say,
Anyone who knows anything about either Augustine or Greek philosophy knows that this is nonsense. There were any number of important Christians who did this before Augustine—Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Mallius Theodore, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose of Milan. These people were not only earlier than Augustine, they were acquainted with Greek philosophy more deeply and intimately than he was. They read and spoke Greek, and he did not.
Come to think of it, we're not sure why Dorrance and Kelly imagine that -- had Augustine been what they claim -- his use of Greek philosophy would have created a revolutionary interiority in the first place. Had Socrates no capacity for self-examination? Really?

We'll never know, because this is a book we have no intention of reading. But we want to express our admiration for Wills's choice of taglines. He is appalled by the number of intellectuals who have written appreciative blurbs for the book, and -- referring to Vartan Gregorian's claim that "I couldn't put it down," ends by urging, "Reader, put it down." This would be clever enough if it were no more than a reference to Gregorian. But surely, after so much talk of Augustine, it also casts a glance at tolle lege. As well, of course, as reminding us what one does with a rabid dog.

Lady Day

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation.

For obvious reasons, it falls just nine months before the Feast of the Nativity. It is a reminder of the Incarnation, of God's willingness to to take on human flesh, in order to buy it back from sin, death and Hell. Ancient Christians also identified March 25 as the date of the Creation and of the Crucifixion -- tying up much of God's work in a single package.

We all celebrate in our own ways. Zuhlsdorf has posted the old and new Collects of the Roman Rite, which are well worth a read. If not leading a public service, one might celebrate by saying the Angelus. And of course, as a feast, it is arguably an opportunity to relax one's Lenten discipline.

The editors of Lutheran formularies, for their part, have historically chosen to celebrate by providing a collect (used after comunion in the Gelasian sacramentary) which fails to mention the Virgin Mary. To whom, we hasten to point out, the Incarnation was actually announced. For pity's sake.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Great. Another War.

So, the troops are steaming toward Libya. And beloved, we have to confess to some deeply mixed feelings.

Bottom line: per Reuters, 20 minutes or so ago, an anonymous US source announces that a five-nation alliance is beginning military action to cripple Libyan air defense, and keep Gaddafi from bombing his own people. The five nations are the US, France, Britain, Canada and Italy. Apart from Italy's participation, this is hardly news. We are a little more interested by the claim that "At least some Arab nations are expected to join the coalition later." Call when that happens, but pardon us if we won't hold our breath.

We're a bit foggy about the long-term plan here, and apparently we're not the only ones.

Now, look. We've said already that Gaddafi is a creep, and both Libya and the world will be better off without him. That's not the question. The question is whether it is in the best interests of the United States to kick him out. We don't have an easy answer.

There is a part of us that believes, deeply, that it is always in the interest of free nations to oppose tyrants. On the other hand ....

A few weeks ago, we were talking with an Egyptian journalist, about the situation in his own country. He was -- to say the least -- peeved with Obama's handling of the transition there, on the curiously paradoxical grounds that the president said the wrong thing and said it too late. The "wrong thing," in this case, was the remark, apparently delivered by a White House spokesman, that "Mubarak must go." This hardly seems off-target, and indeed our Egyptian friend claims t have said the same thing, often, for many years. His objection was that the toppling of the Mubarak regime was Egypt's own business, and that Egypt should be left to handle it.

We don't quite agree with the guy, mind you. First off, this was an opinion, not an order, and countries are always offering unasked-for opinions about each other's internal affairs. As long as they don't roll the tanks, who really cares? And, second, we do believe there are times when a timely foreign intervention may be a very good thing -- Rwanda might have turned out differently, after all.

Still, our friend was all but spitting in our face as we spoke. He was very, very excited about this, and even if we disagree with him on some of the substance, we have to take seriously his sense of outrage. The United States has spent down most of its capital in the Muslim world, and there is precious little that we can do -- with our military -- to reclaim it.

So, honestly, we wish that Europe were handling this on its own. For that matter, we wish that the Arabs would handle it by their own dang selves. We've sold our Saudi masters an awful lot of high-end aircraft over the years; wouldn't this have been a swell time for them to see some action?

Still. The guy has been bombing his own people. And, frankly, Lockerbie. So we shed no real tears over this, and will certainly shed none of Gaddafi's eventual departure from the scene. Anyway, we expect it's academic by now. If we launched the F-22s an hour ago, it's a safe bet that Libya no longer has any air defenses. [UPDATE: We didn't send F-22s, we sent Tomahawk missiles. Same outcome.]

Thursday, March 17, 2011

China Stamps Out Flaming Monks


A Buddhist monk in China is reported to have set himself on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Chinese soldiers are then reported to have beaten and kicked him.

First, let us say that if the Vatican has some trouble managing its image, China has even more. Seriously, people, hire a PR firm. Or, better yet, stop doing bad things.

Second, let us point out the obvious: this is how real oppression works. It not only provokes people to take terrible actions, it then -- and gratuitously -- punishes them for it. The guy was already burning himself alive, for crying out loud. What possible purpose could a sound beating have served?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Friend of My Enemy ...

... gets no love from the two Roman Catholic bishops of North Dakota.

Per the Grand Forks Herald, Bishops Samuel Aquila and Paul Zipfel have released a joint statement naming various charitable organizations to be shunned by the Papist faithful. Included on the list:
  • CROP Walk
  • Church World Service
  • March of Dimes
  • Amnesty International
  • Susan G. Komen for the Cure
  • American Association of University Women
And, of course, the one you least failed to expect:
  • Planned Parenthood
Obviously, it isn't that Their Excellencies hate crops, amnesties or dimes. (We won't venture to guess their feelings about university women, which may indeed be subtly nuanced.) The underlying complaint about all these organizations is that they support things that the magisterium find objectionable, be they condoms, stem cell research or abortion.

Let's be honest and admit that all this displays consistency. But let us then remember that thing about the hobgoblin of little minds. We wonder whether any harm that these groups do with their support for the bad things can possibly outweigh the good that they do.

Consider Amnesty, which ticked off a lot of its churchgoing supporters with the 2007 decision to advocate for the decriminalization of abortion in cases of rape or danger to the mother's health. Mind you, it doesn't actually provide abortions; it just declares that they should be legal in some cases. It did not make this decision because of any conviction that there is an abstract right to abortion, or even -- as American law has it -- to privacy. At the time, Amnesty leaders explained their decision this way:

"Our researchers found that in armed conflict, in places like the Congo and Darfur, the pregnancies were not only unwanted but led to ostracism. ... Women were further stigmatised if they had a child from a combatant from the other side. If a woman is raped and doesn't have access to abortion, that's cruel and degrading treatment."

"Our core business is people suffering from growing human rights abuses. Rape is used as a weapon of war."

So, sure, Amnesty could have remained neutral about abortion. But that would have meant deliberately choosing to leave soldiers -- and subsequent nonmilitary abusers -- in possession of a weapon that is illegal and immoral. Which is, naturally, immoral in its own way.

In the case of CROP Walk, the issue is apparently that a small portion of its funds go to the parent organization, Church World Service. So far as we can tell, CWS doesn't actually give away condoms or perform abortions either, but it seems that "some of its partners" do, and CWS doesn't object.

Now, the bishops (and various other dioceses have released similar lists in recent years) may simply want to establish a sort of cordon sanitaire, keeping Catholic hands pure from any taint of immorality. But as the Amnesty example suggests, this is difficult at best. Real life is not a dogmatics textbook, and sometimes there is no way to remain pure. (Fine, then: we learned that from The Dark Knight, okay?)

There's another thing here, though, which it may be impolite to mention. We mean the public-relations element, something at which -- as both the Egg and the US State Department have previously noted -- the Roman Catholic hierarchy seems chronically inept. Do Aquila and Zipfel really imagine that their church, already (and unfairly) associated in the public mind with the oppression of women and toleration of child molesters, will benefit from public condemnation of well-known charities devoted to the protection of women and children?

Astonishingly, they probably do.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Omnium Gatherum

It's amazing how, once you have to do some real work instead of sitting around in your jammies eating Cool Whip from a spoon, all the things you used to blog about seem to stop happening.

Or maybe they are happening, but you just don't care so much. Think of Lent as a chance to practice Buddhist non--attachment.

Still, a few things have caught our attention lately. (Apart from Japan, which is too unbelievably serious for a yellow-bloggerism rag like the Egg to deal with. Do we have to say it? Okay, then: Pray. Give. Repeat.) More up our alley are these tidbits:

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Remember That You Are Dust

Like most of you, we at the Egg are bracing ourselves for Ash Wednesday. (Also the fourth birthday of Preschooler Anonymous. He's getting a bike and a Tintin book. Ssssh -- don't tell him.) It will be, as it often is, a long and tiring day, which begins a long and tiring season. We love Lent, madly and desperately; but it is the one part of the church year that sometimes makes us wish we were laypeople.

Okay. Maybe that's an overstatement. One of the things we love about Lent is the chance to preach a little more, at parishes which have midweek services, or to lead Bible studies, or to do any of those clerical things we should probably be doing more of during the rest of the year anyway.

But still, it's demanding. We often describe Lent as a sort of train tunnel. Once you go in, there is no way to change course by even a few degrees, much less turn back. You just keep going until you break out into the light. (In our case, that's usually about two weeks after Easter, since it takes us at least that long to catch up on the routine tasks we have deferred.) And never mind that the tunnel ends with a long, steep hill called Holy Week.

So if we don't keep up our frantic blogging pace for a while -- if, indeed, we don't blog much at all -- don't be concerned. It's not that we are ill, nor any less outraged by the antics of the Devil and his minions. But mad dogs, bad priests, military maneuvering, strange science, Christianism, bad vestments, Baroque prose and comic books will all be there when we get out of the tunnel, fifty-four days or so hence.

Right now, though, we've got a train to catch.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

2012 Is Gonna Rock

Or anyway, the rest of 2011 will.

Skimming tonight's news, we see that Newt Gingrich says it is his "expectation" that he will run for president. No real surprise, and we actually give FoxNews some credit for firing him, along with Mike "Mau-Mau" Huckabee.

And then, further down the column, we see that Michelle Bachmann is talking about a run. The National Journal proposes that she will "steal Palin's thunder."

Okay, people. Newt and the Huckleberry are not viable candidates, in the sense that their many negatives (serial adultery on one hand, feinting toward the Christianists, Birthers and Portman-bashers on another) outweigh their limited positives (reasonable IQ on one, respectable guitar licks on the other). If the polls are to be trusted, Palin is pretty much the same, with more stylish eyewear. But Bachmann goes beyond "not viable" into "no freaking way on God's green earth." At best, her run could be to the Tea Party what Kucinich was to the Socialists, or Nader 'o8 was to ... well, the three people who voted for Nader '08. Vanity, thy name is campaign.

A Bachmann candidacy is this close -- this close -- to a Cynthia McKinney run. And be honest, what would you pay for tickets to that?

(Not to mention, as the beautiful Mother A. reminds us, of Donald Trump and John Bolton. Yes, that'a right, the original short-gingered vulgarian and the third- or fourth-most hated appointee of the single most hated president in living memory. Those're gonna happen.)

In other words, this is going to be great theater. As we've said before, these people are the rodeo clowns of presidential politics. They come out now and thrill us with their antics. In hope of a little publicity, they will say or do damn near anything, no matter how stupid, cruel or tasteless. We fully expect the Gingrich sex tape one week, and the Palin Plan for Israel and Palestine the next. Or vice-versa; it barely matters.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is remaking himself again, pretending to like NASCAR and skinny jeans. Rodeo clown or real deal? We still don't know. Chris Christie is hanging out quietly in the background, as are a bunch of other Republicans governors. Any one of them is more credible than the next few months of sideshow acts, but none of them is half as entertaining.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Harvard Stops Hating America

On the surface, it's as simple as this: The Navy says, "Go ahead, ask and tell." A few weeks later, Harvard says, "Welcome back, NROTC."

In fact, of course, it was never just about gay people. There is a lot more to the story of the Reserve Officer Training Corps's exile from, and now return to, the Yard. And the "lot more" in question, like so much else in American cultural life, has little to do with the obvious issues, and more to do with the pathology of the Boomers.

It was, as we all know, Viet Nam that drove ROTC from Harvard and many other university campuses. Or rather, it was the protest against the war in Viet Nam; and while the war was unconscionable and the protest movement largely correct in its goals, let us be honest and admit that many of the protesters said and did some dumb things. Consider this Time magazine coverage of a 1969 student takeover of some Harvard buildings:
They had charged that the university planned to tear down Negro slums in Roxbury to make room for the expanding Harvard Medical School, and that members of the Corporation had illegitimate vested interests in preserving ROTC on campus: "These businessmen want Harvard to continue producing officers for the Viet Nam war or for use against black rebellions at home for political reasons."
You can just feel the youthful outrage, not to mention the limited grasp of the facts. And a few years later, after they had succeeded in getting their way, even some of the student leaders began to have second thoughts. In 1974, John Hook (class of 1969) wrote a letter to the Crimson which said, in part:

I advocate the full return of ROTC to Harvard. As an undergraduate in 1969, I was twice suspended from Harvard for occupying buildings with the demand to abolish ROTC. Why is my position changed? ...

[Because] the United States should seek the best officers possible for our armed forces. The best officers combine leadership and discipline with humanitarian instincts. Harvard has an obligation to educate men and women to complement the officers of the military academies. We need Marshalls as well as Pattons.

Pompous, sure, but this is the Ivy League. Still, Hook's letter, which is includes no shortage of leftie sniping at Kissinger and Nixon, makes a point that was obvious to people of common sense all along: for a school to prepare its alumni for military service does not necessarily endorse the policies of the military; it provides a means to help shape those policies. And by making such preparation more difficult, as Harvard did by banning ROTC and forcing its students to participate in an off-campus ROTC consortium hosted by M.I.T., is to miss an important opportunity.

The thing to remember here is that, although the actual decision to kick ROTC off-campus was made by a vote of the faculty, it was made under immense pressure from Students for Democratic Society, as well as like-minded protest groups. A close look at groups like this reminds us that they were creatures of their time, not of ours. Remember Stokely Carmichael on "the place of women in the SNCC"? Or Anita Hoffman, visiting Timothy Leary and Eldredge Cleaver in Algiers, so offended by the mistreatment of women that she crawled through a window to escape? If we we remember correctly, the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful opens with a collection of sexist remarks by leaders of the old "New Left." By contemporary standards, it is shockingly insensitive stuff.

This is what we need to remember about the campus agitators of the 1960s. They wanted to end the war; beyond that, they wanted to end the Cold War, more or less by surrendering. Their sympathy for African-Americans, while genuine, was also touched with Romanticism, paternalism and condescension. They had little concern for rights of either women or gay people. By contemporary standards, they were as crudely sexist and homophobic as the miscellaneous adulterers at Sterling, Cooper.

Which means that, when Harvard later linked its ban on ROTC to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, it was changing the rules. The ban had never been about sex, until the faculty decided to use sex as a pretext for maintaining it.

They did need a pretext, too. After all, the war was over, and had been for a good long while. What lingered was the sense of hostility between the government, especially the armed services, and some of America's best universities. Mind you, this hostility didn't keep them from accepting enormous government grants for scientific research, or keep Harvard from putting Kissinger on the faculty. No; the lingering hostility simplymade it harder for students at these schools to prepare for military service -- depriving both the students and the nation.

If, as is often suggested, the armed services of the United States have taken an unfortunate turn toward rightist politics and Christianist religiosity, much of the blame lies with the end of the draft. But at least a little also lies with gradual removal from the officer corps of many young men and women whose educations were as good as those of the military academies, but shaped by vastly different conditions.

So we congratulate President Drew Gilpin Faust for steering her university back toward a more reasonable course, which provides an important opportunity for its students and also for the American military.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Twilight of the Idols, Sixties Style

"My Father's Disappointed Generation" is a nice piece in The Cresset, by Paul Gregory Alms. Sensitively and generously, Alms talks about his father, who was born in 1940 and spent a lifetime working for BF Goodrich, and worshiping in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

Here is how Alms describes his gather's generation:
My father, and men like him, were men of faith, shaped by loyalty to company, country, and church. Theirs was not a “greatest generation” who were called on to sacrifice their lives on the foreign shores of Europe or Korea or Vietnam. They gave their lives in the office and the sanctuary and the voting booth. ... It was the fabric of how they spent their time. The days and weeks and years they spent meant something beyond paychecks and possessions. They were Christian Americans who worked for a living in the greatest country that had ever been. Church and country and company all blended into a way of life that was sacred and special.
We have known people like this. They exist, and in large numbers. But be careful. A lot of people born in the 193os and 40s fought in Korea and Viet Nam. Many leaders of the 60s counterculture were just the age of the elder Alms (Jerry Rubin, born 1938; Abbie Hoffman, born 1936; Grace Slick, born 1939). Had he wanted to, Alms pere might as easily have chosen to turn on, tune in and drop out. To some extent, the way of life Alms describes -- that of the classic Company Man -- was an individual choice, not a generational marker.

Still, there were a lot of these guys. And we love those guys. And Alms is at his most touching when he talks about their collective "disappointment":
By the 1970s and 1980s my father watched the objects of his faith dissolve. The basis of his vocational, civic, and spiritual attachments fractured and collapsed. One by one, everything he held to be most holy and essential to his way of life slipped away and changed shape, so much so that he could no longer recognize it. ... His frustration was more existential than political. His country, which had once been both victorious and morally good, was no longer either. He had believed in the divine specialness of America, and now there was very little in which to trust.
This is, of course, all about civil religion -- and civil religion, is by definition, the worship of a false and changeable god. But "real" religion was an integral part of the disappointment:
The same cultural pressures that bent America in the 1960s and 1970s pressed hard on the LCMS. As the synod became more and more Americanized, it absorbed the diversity and divisiveness of the culture. The monolithic Missouri Synod, where all believed, worshipped, and acted in common, slowly went away.
A great battle over the inerrancy of the Bible came to stand for many of these changes and tore through the denomination in the 1970s. ... Yet in the aftermath of that great struggle, congregations continued to go their own ways in matters of belief, worship, and practice and became more and more splintered. For my father, this was heresy. The Synod, in order to be the Synod, had to be of one mind.
My father quit going to church for a number of years in the 1980s because the local LCMS congregation to which he belonged was using a non-LCMS hymnal and embracing practices that were unknown in the LCMS of his youth. The smaller issues revealed larger ones. His synod had ceased to exist.
Well, yes and no. In fact, after the flare-up, the LC-MS did settle down on a particularly strict interpretation of its shared belief. And while liturgical uniformity is, to be sure, one way to indicate and even create doctrinal uniformity, it is not the way historically favored by Lutherans. Sure, there's Muhlenberg's "one church, one book," not to mention our beloved Common Service. But in the final aanalysis, there is above these things the section of CA VII that we quoted the other day, to the effect that "it is not necessary for the unity of the Church that rites and ceremonies instituted by men should be everywhere the same."

So all this raises a specific question about the Missouri Synod, and several more general ones about the characteristics of religious belief in our society.

The question about Missouri is how much of its internal wrangling, either then or now, is about the desire for the emotional comfort provided by external signs, and how much comes from a genuine concern for the Gospel as the Gospel? When the elder Alms stopped worshiping because he didn't like the hymnal, he was clearly missing the CA VII boat. What about the Steadfasters, and their desire to repristinate "your grandfather's church"? Only Missourians can answer the question, and -- note the irony -- they will never agree on the answer.

For Americans as a group, the questions are not so different. The 1950s and early 60s are often sentimentalized (or villified) the way Alms describes his father's life: as a generation of conformity and trust in God, Country and Corporation. In a sense, this was what Americans were trying to get back when they elected former GE spokesman Ronald Reagan. But those were also the days of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover, of segregation and the John Birch Society -- that is, the days of an intensely paranoid political effort to suppress dissent at any cost, including fundamental rights of a free society. And the simple, unreflective and patriotic conformism of people like Alms's father placed its trust in these forces, which preyed upon it like savage beasts.

So the questions abound, especially for religious people, and most especially for people who like their religion traditional. We have to ask ourselves, at every turn, whether we are holding onto the Gospel or to our own dreams; whether we are placing our faith in institutions for their own sake, or for the sake of the values those institutions are meant to serve -- liberty, or prosperity, or God. The institutions, even the Church when its is considered as a body of rules and practices, are human creations; like the Sabbath, they are made for man, and not vice-versa. We can trust them, if we can trust them, hesitantly, contingently, and never without question.

Otherwise, we are sure to be disappointed.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Peter Gomes, R.I.P.

During our years in seminary, it was the custom to invite foreigners -- meaning speakers from outside the seminary cloister -- to deliver commencement addresses. One of these was the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Harvard's Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.

Gomes, a Baptist minister, was a well-known figure, not least for being a Republican at Harvard. And not a "Republican-in-name-only," either; Gomes gave the benediction at Reagan's second inauguration, and preached at George H.W. Bush's.

He was just the sort of person our seminary liked to invite: intelligent, ecumenical, conservative.

The invitation was sent and accepted shortly prior to an incident of gay-bashing on the Harvard campus. In response to the incident, Gomes publicly declared that he was "a Christian who happens as well to be gay." The declaration caused a stir, and we expect that Gomes lost a great many friends. And what of his invitation? We remember quite a bit of heated discussion on campus at the time.

Here is how Gomes described it, in a 1999 speech in London:

About nine years ago Tom [Gillespie, then the president] invited me to give the Commencement address at Princeton Seminary and I happily accepted; and between the acceptance of the gracious invitation and the time that I was to appear at Princeton, I created a spot of bother, I guess one would say, and gained my fifteen minutes of notoriety on a subject that has seemingly obsessed the Presbyterians for many years. So, not wanting to embarrass Tom, and not wanting myself to be embarrassed, I called him and told him that I thought that, considering everything, I should withdraw from the obligation and we would call it a draw. I was aided in that decision by a letter from several Christian students from Princeton who, in the name of the gospel, asked me not to come because my presence would be divisive.

Who was I to divide the Presbyterians? So I prepared not to go. Well, Tom Gillespie, praise God, would not hear of it. He said, "You were invited and you must come, and I promise you a warm-hearted and faultless reception here at Princeton," even though our views -- he didn't say this, but I understood it -- on the subject of sexuality are not only different but pretty widely publicized.

So I girded up my loins and made my way to Princeton Junction, and found my way to the Chapel. As you know, Princeton Chapel is an enormous parking garage of a place, and thousands and thousands of people were there, and there was that slight undercurrent that you know so well -- nothing explicitly stated but you could feel that there was a little something going on. It was just as Tom had said, however, with everything very nice and pleasant.

Then came the moment when I was to preach, and up I went into the enormous pulpit -- it takes half an hour to get into that pulpit -- and there was a hushed moment of expectation. I said to them, "I want to commend you at Princeton for your courage, I want to commend you for your hospitality; you have done a brave and good thing in inviting me, an out and open and affirming and practicing Baptist, to speak to you on this occasion."

It all sounds very jolly. On the other hand, during the last years of our education, the seminary decided that it would no longer invite foreigners to deliver the commencement address. Perhaps there is no connection.

During the years since he came out, which proved to be the last of his life, Gomes changed course. From the Times obit:

I now have an unambiguous vocation — a mission — to address the religious causes and roots of homophobia,” he told The Washington Post months later. “I will devote the rest of my life to addressing the ‘religious case’ against gays.”

He was true to his word. His sermons and lectures, always well attended, were packed in Cambridge and around the country as he embarked on a campaign to rebut literal and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.

To his credit, Gomes managed to do this while retaining his donnish public persona. There were some changes of association, to be sure. In 2006, he joined the Democratic Party. But so far as he was able, Gomes tried to remain Gomes -- the black Yankee scholar of New England Puritanism, politically engaged, now just a bit more frank about his own life and commitments.

His death, at the comparatively early age of 68, comes as a shock to us, and leaves a curious hole in the constellation of American religious leaders.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

What the Huck?

Mike Huckabee is neither the craziest nor the dumbest of the Republicans currently nosing about in hope of a 2012 nomination. While we don't share most of his politics, we have always thought that he was a reasonable enough guy.

For example, he has told the Birthers that they "are wasting their time," which is of course the least valuable thing they are wasting with their pernicious mischief.

So why, when talking to a New York City radio station, did the Huckster take a plunge into their tidal pool of delusion, by saying that

President Barack Obama's childhood in Kenya shaped his world view ... [and that] that Obama was raised in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather.

In fact, as the AP/HuffPo story here points out -- and anybody who has paid any attention at all knows -- Obama was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia. Neither of which is even on the same continent as Kenya. Obama first visited Kenya as an adult. He was not raised by his father, and we don't know offhand whether he ever met his paternal grandfather.

Frankly, we're mystified. Which part of the story does Huckabee not understand? Surely, he isn't dumb enough to be confused about the facts of Obama's life. It is possible that he made an honest mistake but, given the size of the factual error -- it is vast -- we have to doubt the honesty part.

What worries us is the possibility that Huckabee may just say things like this in conversations and interviews, knowing that they are false, but trusting that, in the markets where he usually works -- undereducated rednecks and Fox News viewers, if there is any significant difference between the two -- people will just nod their head and agree, because it fits with their own muddled understanding of the facts.

Sexy Religious Geek Love

First, let's confess: when writing about sex, it is difficult to avoid at least the semblance of sexism. We live in an age which has been primed to detect callousness and incivility everywhere, especially when men begin talking about women, and most especially when they begin talking about women's bodies.

Given certain details of his background, Father A. has probably been more completely primed to do this than the average blogger. In those formative college years, he was trained to speak about sex -- not merely the act, but the entire field of gender and sexuality -- with an almost Victorian delicacy. Everything and everyone was to be shown polite respect, but nothing was to be giggled at, whether in mockery or genuine delight.

Age has coarsened him a bit, and if you don't believe it look at all the offensive bits in the Jane Russell post. In his middle years, he giggles more than he should, but there are years to make up for now.

We were thinking about this as we read Max Lindenman's piece at Patheos, "On Dating Nice Catholic Girls." Lindenman, a recent adult convert to Roman Catholicism, begins by admitting that he has only dated two women fitting the description. The essay is brief account of his time with the first, whom he calls Melissa. From this, it builds into a meditation on the ways that sexuality manifests itself among unmarried women whose religious views restrict the act to married life. He starts from the idea that such women give good cuddle. (At least the Catholic ones; he believes -- apparently as a result of spending too much time in the South -- that Protestant girls are just a bunch of teases.)

An essay like this could easily have been churlish, if not simply gross, and Lindenman avoids the worst of it. if anything, her errs more on the side of cloying. The piece is funny, touching and not without substance; we hope you'll give it a read.

We were especially touched, for reasons best left to the imagination, by the way Max and Melissa connected around the twin poles of Catholicism and geek culture:

Like me, she doubted her vocation for religious life. But she was pious enough to kneel before the Blessed Sacrament for an hour without squirming. She was also one of those fangirls who spoke of sci-fi and comic book characters as though they had real Social Security numbers. The second night, we stayed up late in the kitchen, drawing parallels between Catholic saints and X-Men.

"Nightcrawler?" I asked.

"Martin de Porres," she answered, with a teacher's pet's promptness. "Both were healers, both faced discrimination because of their colors. Martin bilocated, and Nightcrawler teleports."

So been there.

And yet, funny and touching though it may be, the essay also left us feeling a little creepy. It's hard to say why. There's nothing that screams "sexist" in any overt way; quite the contrary. At least on the surface, Lindenman shows Melissa a great deal of respect; she is smart, droll, self-knowing, and when she dumps him, we can't help admiring her for it. So what's wrong?

It could be that his admiration rings lightly false, and that this apparent praise of a sweet and chaste young lady masks a deeper passive-aggressive attack. Could he, between the lines, be making fun of her? Exacting, even, a public revenge for keeping her legs crossed? Surely not.

More likely, though, it is the way he describes a pivotal moment in their relationship:

I remember climbing Camelback Mountain on a breezy winter morning, watching in a trance as her strong legs hauled her over the files of boulders just below the summit. When we gained the top, panting, the wind chilling our sweat, I said, "I love you." It was not a voluntary act; the words shot out of my mouth like a ball-bearing from a wrist rocket.

"Oh!" She exclaimed, looking pleasantly surprised. "I love you, too!"

Lindenman calls this "reckless" self-revelation. But "pleasant surprise" is never reckless; it is pleasant more than it is surprising. And this seems to be the tone of the friendship. If they are in love, it is the dullest love imaginable, and when she ends it, by email, neither seems deeply affected. The reader is frankly relieved.

At least part of our discomfort with the essay, then, is the way it dodges the central conundrum. Sex outside of marriage is indeed contrary to the vast bulk of Christian doctrine. And yet, as practical theology has always acknowledged, it is the frequent result of passions which cannot be controlled by a mere act of human will. (It is also, of course, the frequent result of social norms which do not take doctrine seriously; that is another matter entirely. We're talking about sex among thoughtful and committed Christians). But abstaining from sex with somebody for whom you feel no particular passion is morally unremarkable.

Lindenman knows this. During the relationship, trying without much enthusiasm to talk her into the sack, he hints that their snuggling itself is sinful, accuses himself of being "Jesuitical." She answers that it's a sign of comfiness, or something equally trite. But he's on to something, here. If they are guilty of anything much, it is of using one another's bodies for pleasure, not merely outside marriage as defined by canon or civil law, but outside the sort of profound relationship in which even little intimacies have their proper place.

Hmm. That sounds awfully preacher-y. Or, worse yet, parent-y. It's as though we're telling them to leave the door open if they're in a room together. So let's be clear. We're not really concerned that Max and Melissa snuggle outside the bonds of matrimony. We're concerned that, like so many people in the world, they declare that they are in love when they really aren't.

On one hand, relationships like this are sweet and innocent and we certainly hope that our own son enjoys at least a couple when the time comes. But on the other hand, and this is the old Romantic talking rather than either the preacher or the dad, it is relationships like this that give love a bad name.

"A Mean-Spirited Right-Wing Christian Bigot"

There are two things about Jane Russell that attract our attention. And no, not those two things; get your mind out of the gutter.

The first is that The Outlaw, the picture which established her as a Hollywood star, was held up for years -- years -- by the various voices which declared it immoral. Among the most prominent of these was the Roman Catholic Church. The second is that Russell was herself a committed and outspoken Christian of a socially conservative bent, who organized Bible studies for movie people and spoke freely and often about her faith.

The New York Times obit quotes her this way:
“These days I’m a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist,” she told an Australian newspaper, The Daily Mail, in 2003. Bigotry, she added, “just means you don’t have an open mind.”
The Times also tells us that she "remained active in her church," but it doesn't say which church that was. Since Russell hailed originally from Bemidji, Minnesota, we had some fond hope that she might have been one of our bigots -- and perhaps she was, once upon a time. But the Los Angeles Times obit says that her funeral will be held at Pacific Christian Center, an Assemblies of God congregation.

One moral subject of great importance to Russell was abortion, to which she was opposed even in cases of rape and incest. Her passion regarding the matter apparently grew from a botched -- and illegal -- abortion, which left her sterile. To her credit, she was also a passionate advocate for adoption. You'd be surprised how rarely those two passions are found together.

Russell was an alcoholic who, urged by her family, entered rehab at the age of 79. That takes a certain quotient of guts.

Now, this story offers ironies nestled within ironies. The woman became famous for something that was, by the standards of its time, morally questionable. These days, nobody much faults an actress for showing a bit of cleavage -- okay, a lot of cleavage, but all of it carefully arranged, with a wardrobe so carefully engineered as to allow not the slightest malfunction. Even in her time, the "scandal" was more a creation of Howard Hughes and his drive for publicity than of any widespread moral sentiment. And yet the fact is that, once again, yesterday's censored moral outrage is tomorrow's censorious moralist. Paging Chuck Colson!

It is a little sad that, for people of Father A.'s generation, Jane Russell will always be associated, and often primarily so, with her advertisements for the Playtex Cross-Your-Heart 18-Hour Bra. In our tender years, they introduced us not only to Russell, but also to the very ideas of a "full-figured gal" and a brassiere. Dare we say that, in later life, these ideas have been, ahem, foundational?) Obviously, she would never have made these ads if she hadn't already been famous for ... well, something. But for many of us, this was her legacy.

That's unfortunate, and unfair to Russell. She was an actress, and not by any means a bad one. Even after her time in movies ended, she did a lot of stage work, and continued performing into her 80s.

Truth be told, we've never seen many of Russell's movies. Westerns don't interest us all that much, and Bob Hope's mugging needs to be taken in small doses. But we have seen Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and more than once. It is, as they used to say, a swell picture. And she is swell in it, more than holding her own in a swell ensemble. In the LA Times obit, she is quoted complaining about her career: "Except for comedy, I never went anywhere in acting," which is a bit like saying that except for relativity, Einstein never went anywhere in physics. Comedy is notoriously difficult, and she had the gift.

Jane Russell died yesterday. Should you be so inclined, there any number of ways to honor her memory -- donating to one of her causes, or to your own parish, for example. That would be nice, at least if her causes are also yours. But we ourselves will probably just try to find a copy of Gentlemen, and watch it again, wishing there were more.