Friday, July 26, 2013

Not Dead Yet: Media and the Mainline

For reasons that we do not understand, America's religious mainline, conceived of as a single unity, has attracted more media attention in the past week than in the past decade.  (Atlantic Monthly, New York Times); debate at Patheos [here and here] and GetReligion).  What's next -- a re-issue of Protestant, Catholic, Jew?

The gist of the publicity seems to be that the traditional Protestant churches, particularly their white and liberal-leaning wings, are not entirely dead, and that they may still have some continuing role in shaping public debate around moral issues.

This is a surprising claim only because, for so many years, the widespread assumptions have been otherwise.  The story, told so often it has almost ceased to be questioned, is that the church bodies which defined US religious life in the first half of the 20th century -- Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, non-SBC Baptist and a variety of smaller ones of largely Reformed heritage -- spent the second half of the century squandering their inheritance, chasing after trendy leftist causes which drove their members into the arms of the burgeoning Religious Right.  (Weirdly, an alternative history argues that the same churches have dwindled because of their failure to chase trendy causes fast enough.)  Today, gray-haired and directionless, saddled with property they cannot maintain, these churches are a hollow shell, their implosion imminent.

There is some truth to the story, of course.  Membership is down, in some cases marginally and in others dramatically.  The American religious scene is far more complex than it was just after World War II.  Pentecostalism, non-denominational Christianity, Islam, even atheism -- these movements are hardly new, but they have carved out far more prominent niches for themselves in the past few generations.

Despite its more modest contemporary position, though, it should not be quite so surprising that the mainline continues to play a role in America's spiritual, and therefore public, affairs.  These churches are where tens of millions of Americans gather to worship, study, pray and -- often passionately -- talk about the difference between right and wrong.  They are, in sharp contrast to the churches associated with the Religious Right, broadly tolerant of different opinions, not only on hot-button political issues (Israel, homosexuality, abortion) but also theological ones (theories of the atonement, styles of worship, ecumenicla and interfaith relationships).

Beyond that, the mainline churches have, as a group, an unsurpassed collection of denominational colleges and seminaries, although many of the former could do with a strengthening of their confessional ties.  This is closely related to the fact that these churches, especially those of the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican traditions, have a treasure absent from many of the newer so-called "Evangelical" churches:  a long history of complex and many-sided theological scholarship.  While this makes them seem stuffy or undecided to those seeking easy, because-the-Bible-says-it answers to hard questions, it gives them an enormous advantage when speaking to those who seek to really understand a question.  (This, of course, is something that they share with Judaism and Roman Catholicism, the other standard-bearers of the post-war religious establishment.)

Obviously the mainline still has a role in public discourse.  How could it fail to?

So why the show of surprise?

Frankly, we believe that journalists have, somewhat gullibly, accepted a narrative spread by identifiable organizations with an institutional investment in the diminution of the mainline.  We are thinking of the Scaife family foundations and some of their various projects, from the IRD to the conservative "renewal" groups inside the old denominations.  (As well as independents in their orbit, such as the Wall Street Journal). Because it has been their desire to re-create American Christianity in a new form, one which is more amenable to their political program, they have found it expedient to make the old form appear more entirely passe.

This would be hard to prove, if the IRD didn't make it so easy.

To paint with the broadest possible strokes:  the political right was so troubled by Christian opposition to Viet Nam and segregation that it decided, decades ago, to destroy the old churches and create new ones.  It has succeeded, but not as completely as it had hoped -- and to the people it had hornswaggled with its triumphal narrative, that final clause, that "not completely," is news.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Preaching as God's Violence

Preparing to preach on prayer come Sunday, we took a moment to review John Donne's famous sonnet, "Batter My Heart."  It is a brilliant but disturbing series of petitions to the Almighty, asking God to beat upon the poet's stubborn heart, like soldiers breaking down the city walls or even -- yes -- like a lover taking his beloved by force.  Not, and we cannot say this too strongly, not a poem to be shared with the average congregation these days.  (Although we plan to quote a short section ourselves).

Anyway, this led us to a stray line from Donne's sermon preached before Charles I at Whitehall on 1 April 1627 (as a new war with France was heating up):

In this Church, [God's] ordinance is ordnance:  his ordinance of preaching batters the soul, and by that breach the Spirit enters.

Get it?  Preaching is God's weapon, God's cannon, used against our own souls, to break them open the way cannons breaks the city wall -- and send in the Spirit as an invading and occupying army.  He goes on to say that "[God's] ministers are earth-quakes, and shake an earthly soul."  There's quite a bit more in that line as well.

Not, we say again, imagery for all times and places.  But worth meditating upon before one stands up to preach.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

[Insert Weiner Joke Here]

In July of 2011, Anthony Weiner, an extremely fit-looking congressman from New York, resigned in disgrace.  After the revelation that he had been exchanging sexy text messages (including naughty pictures) with women other than his wife, Weiner had lied for more than a week in efforts to protect himself.  In May 2013, less than two years after his resignation, Weiner announced his intention to run for mayor of New York City.  This struck many of us as a remarkable display of chutzpah.

Now, in July 2013, he is embroiled in accusations of further sexting activity, with at least one woman to whom he is not married.  Then details are unclear.  Last we heard, Weiner's office had admitted that "some" of the messages were authentic; what remains to be seen is whether

Some people say, in essence, "This is between him and his wife."  We disagree.  The guy is a liar and a cheat.  Worse than that, he seems to lack the sort of self-discipline that is required for effective, long-term leadership, especially in a high-pressure position.

Yes, it is true that many effective politicians -- FDR, Ike, JFK and LBJ make four in a row -- were less than faithful to their wives.  And one takes for granted that politicians are liars as a class.  Still, Weiner looks like an addict to us, a man powerless over his own compulsions.  We predict that the sex scandals of a Weiner mayoralty would make those of Rudolph Giuliani's tenure pale by comparison.  (And Giuliani, lest we forget, announced his divorce to the media before telling his wife, whom he then kicked out of the house.)

Even if the serendipitous combination of his name and his most famous selfie were not a joke by itself, his campaign certainly would be.  Seriously, New York -- don't vote for this guy.

[P.S.:  Eliot Spitzer may not be quite as compulsive as Weiner, and comptroller isn't quite as tough a job as mayor.  But don't vote for him either.  Unless you're a high-rent hooker, in which case this guy is your best friend.]

Shameless Prayer

Yesterday, in an aside, we mocked the tendency of some Biblical commentators to see pet themes, notably "hospitality," in every story.  Oops.

Here's our general idea:  While hospitality codes clearly play an enormous role in the Bible, as they do in much traditional literature including noticeably Germanic mythology, surely they cannot be that pervasive -- can they?

Surely, we hinted, this is an overreaction by modern commentators to the decline of "Christendom," and to the realization that churches in a thoroughly Christianized culture had lost the knack of welcoming non-Christians.  A society of de rigeur infant baptisms had no need of an adult catechumenate; church bodies in which members were transferred like soldiers from one post to another had no need to explain themselves, carefully and lovingly and from the ground up, to each new face through the door.  But, as that society has disappeared, it has become evident that modern churches do need to change their assumptions about the strangers they seek to welcome.

From this indisputable truth, we have suspected, grows a certain anxiety on the part of church leaders -- attuned to their own churches' history of inhospitality, they have slowly come to see "hospitality" as an essential element of the Gospel, one which (in the worst cases) seems to squeeze out sin, repentance and forgiveness in some modern proclamation.

All this may be so.  We are not yet persuaded otherwise.  But by gum, hospitality really is everywhere in the Bible.

We are reminded of this by Pr. Elizabeth Johnson's comments on Luke 11:1-13, at Working Preacher this week.  Jesus tells the brief parable of "the knock at midnight," about the guy who pounds on his neighbor's door, demanding some food to give his own unexpected guests.  In Johnson's reading, the guy is about to lose his social standing -- his honor -- because he cannot comply with the hospitality codes.  This is convincing.

She makes the further, and to us more dubious, argument that it is the second fellow, the one awakened by this pounding, whose honor is at stake:
His friend displays no shame in asking for help to meet the requirements of hospitality. The woken-up friend would incur dishonor if he failed to help his neighbor in this essential obligation. So he will respond because of social pressure at the very least.
Really?  Or isn't he kindly -- graciously -- supplying the food, and thereby the honor, that his neighbor lacks?  We're not sure this is right, but we also don't know the anthropological literature that would clear it up.

Either way, though, Johnson points out something which we had entirely missed.  The first man's pounding, described in a word translated by the NRSV as "persistence" and the KJV as "importunity," is in fact anaideia.  This is best translated as "shamelessness" or "impudence." Indeed, it has the same etymological relationship to the Greek word for one's own private parts that "impudence" does to the Latin "pudenda."

Johnson argues that the fellow pounding on the door is not ashamed because, under the social system of his time, he has no reason to be ashamed.  This is the sort of obligation that neighbors have to one another.

Our own inclination is to read the story, and the word, differently.  We think that the first fellow is exposing something shameful -- be it his own lack of preparation or his poverty -- and that his neighbor is moved by this self-exposure.  And in the same way, God is moved by our own prayers when we dare to reveal our own shortcomings, our failures and fears and our most shameful secrets.

Both interpretations have their appeal.  Either way, we are fascinated by the idea that Jesus is not encouraging persistence in prayer but something more shocking and unfamiliar to most of us:  shameless prayer.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Popes?

Apparently they do.

Such, at least, is the premise of Clifford Simak's 1981 science fiction novel, Project Pope.  We picked it up recently at the bookstore Ken Cuccinelli wants to close, and read it through, flabbergasted by its combination of old-fashionedness and postmodernity.

Long ago, it seems, Earth's robots desired to join the Christian church, but were denied that opportunity on the grounds that, being machines, they lacked souls.  Insulted but undeterred, the robots struck out on their own, finding a far-distant planet upon which to found, or rather discern, their own universal religion.  Being machines, they are immensely patient; it has taken thousands of years, and their spiritual research project is still in its very earliest stages.

The chief goal of their faith is to create an artificial intelligence with perfect judgment and near-complete knowledge -- a genuinely infallible pope.  The chief danger to their project, counterintuitively, is that some of their psychic operatives seem to have stumbled upon the actual location of Heaven.

Simak's robots have a curious relationship with human beings, quite a few of whom live on the planet End of Nothing with them, most as collaborators in their spiritual quest.  Humans created robots, and so the robots (who are now both independent and quite capable of improving their own "species") have an affection, even a reverence for human beings.

This reverent affection the main reason that their robot religion has such obviously human trappings.  The robots seem especially attracted to the external forms of Roman Catholicism, with its hierarchy, logic and generally mechanistic operating system.  Nonetheless, despite the presence of "cardinals," "monks" and a "pope," not to mention a headquarters called "Vatican," their religion is not Catholicism, nor any other kind of Christianity.  (Indeed, the only times that the name of Jesus occurs in this book, it is used as an expletive).

Into this strange and largely secret project stumble a couple of human beings -- a square-jawed doctor on the run, accused of crimes he did not commit, and an intrepid reporter, seeking the story that will make her career.  They fall in love, both with each other and, gradually, with the inhabitants of End of Nothing.  They are excruciatingly dull, throwbacks to the sci-fi convention of the 1940s and 50s.

And yet these cardboard characters are thrust up against some truly hallucinatory plot devices.  For example, they spend a lot of time on a world whose creatures are composed, more or less entirely, of mathematical equations.  In one stunning sequence, a visitor to the gates of Heaven is greeted by a diabolical figure who emerges, waving a finger, and saying, "Naughty, naughty, naughty."

The storyline, it must be said, is a disaster.  The plot lurches and twists and ultimately makes little sense at all.  This would be forgiveable if Simak were truly committed to exploring the ideas that he throws out -- a robot religion!  An equation-world!  We would especially have enjoyed some depiction of robot rituals, or insight into the bands of alien pilgrims whose journey to Vatican, and apparently help fund its operations.  Sadly, Simak shows no real interest in the religious or philosophical aspects of his story.

Still, the book is a kooky and sometimes provocative read.  It marks a transitional period in science fiction history.  By 1981, Simak was an old pro, a veteran whose credits went back to the Gernsback era.  But the genre's conventions had already been re-shaped by things like 2001: A Space Odyssey, as well as the truly subversive work of writers like Philip K. Dick and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.  Here is one of the men who created the genre and its conventions, trying to catch up with the young Turks.  He fails, but it is an interesting failure.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Philip Jenkins Spoils It All For You

To mark today's Commemoration of St. Mary Magdalene, Philip Jenkins decided to throw a wet blanket over most of what is said these days about our patroness.

His article is here.  We blush to admit that the general strategy appeals to us; the Scriptures, especially of the New Testament, really do need to be read in the order that they were written, starting with Paul's letters.  Failure to do this results (and has resulted, all through history) in some foolish ideas.

That said, we wonder if Jenkins isn't just a smidge too dismissive here.  In his effort to tamp down fantasies both feminist and Danbrownian, we worry that he may err in the other direction, and understate the significance of a character who plays a prominent role in the Resurrection narrative.  (In other words:  "Honey?  About that bathwater.  Turns out there was a baby in it.  Whaddaya know, huh?")

In any case, don't forget to sing Lauda, Mater Ecclesia (or this versionat Vespers today:

To Christ, arisen from the dead,
And Death's great Conqueror, as she pressed
His earliest sight she merited
Who loved Him more than all the rest.

Sodom's Sin

And no, it wasn't just lack of hospitality.

(Note to late-20th century Christianity:  "hospitality," while extremely important to the Biblical worldview, isn't as important as you thought it was.  Not every single rite, ritual, custom, practice and parable is actually about hospitality.  Nor, needless to say, are almost any of them about sex.)

According to Nahum Sarna, in the JPS Torah Commentary, the "outcry" and "outrage" that reach God's ears concerning Sodom in this Sunday's first reading

... connote the anguished cry of the oppressed, the agonized plea of the victim for justice …. The sin of Sodom, then, is heinous moral and social corruption, an arrogant disregard of basic human rights, a cynical insensitivity to the sufferings of others.  The prophet Jeremiah  identified Sodom with adultery, false dealing, and the encouragement of evildoers – all without any feelings of contrition (23:14) – while Ezekiel sums up the situation as follows:  “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom:  arrogance!  She and her sisters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet they did not support the poor and needy.” (16:49)

Good enough for us.

Augustine on Prayer

If you are preaching this Sunday -- and especially if the subject of prayer will play a large part in your sermon -- take a few moments to read Augustine's Letter 130 (clunky English here, Latin here).

He is writing to one Proba, "a widow, rich and noble, the mother of an illustrious family," in response to her questions about how to pray and what to pray for.

He begins by urging her to be "desolate," so as to be separated from the transient happinesses of worldly pleasure.  If possible, she should distribute her money to the poor.  And yet, ironically, he advises her to pray for "a happy life," understood philosophically and spiritually.

Apropos of this Sunday's Gospel reading (Luke 11:1-13), Augustine offers these tidbits:

[T]he Lord gives [a lesson] in the parable of the man to whom a friend in his journey had come, and who, having nothing to set before him, desired to borrow from another friend three loaves (in which, perhaps, there is a figure of the Trinity of persons of one substance), and finding him already along with his household asleep, succeeded by very urgent and importunate entreaties in rousing him up, so that he gave him as many as he needed, being moved rather by a wish to avoid further annoyance than by benevolent thoughts: from which the Lord would have us understand that, if even one who was asleep is constrained to give, even in spite of himself, after being disturbed in his sleep by the person who asks of him, how much more kindly will He give who never sleeps, and who rouses us from sleep that we may ask from Him.

More tentatively, he also offers this symbolic interpretation of the egg, the rock and so forth:

With the same design [Jesus] added: Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened. If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evilknow how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give good things to them that ask Him?  
We have here what corresponds to those three things which the apostle commends: faith is signified by the fish, either on account of the element of water used in baptism, or because it remains unharmed amid the tempestuous waves of this world — contrasted with which is the serpent, that with poisonous deceit persuaded man to disbelieve Godhope is signified by the egg, because the life of the young bird is not yet in it, but is to be— is not seen, but hoped for, because hope which is seen is not hope, Romans 8:24 — contrasted with which is the scorpion, for the man who hopes for eternal life forgets the things which are behind, and reaches forth to the things which are before, for to him it is dangerous to look back; but the scorpion is to be guarded against on account of what it has in its tail, namely, a sharp and venomous sting; charity, is signified by bread, for the greatest of these is charity, and bread surpasses all other kinds of food in usefulness—contrasted with which is a stone, because hard hearts refuse to exercise charity. 
Whether this be the meaning of these symbols, or some other more suitable be found, it is at least certain that He who knows how to give good gifts to His children urges us to ask and seek and knock.

We're not convinced, but neither is he.

Chapter 11 is a quick commentary on the Our Father, and -- surprising nobody -- Augustine's words will sound instantly familiar to Lutherans:

When, therefore, we say: Hallowed be Your name, we admonish ourselves to desire that His name, which is always holy, may be also among men esteemed holy, that is to say, not despised; which is an advantage not to God, but to men. 
When we say: Your kingdom come, which shall certainly come whether we wish it or not, we do by these words stir up our own desires for that kingdom, that it may come to us, and that we may be found worthy to reign in it. 
Anyway, there's a lot more where this came from, and we recommend it highly.

Friday, July 19, 2013

"Fewer, As In Zero."

Elizabeth Warren's rise to superstardom among liberals largely took  place while we were saving souls in Byzantium, and so we have not really followed or understood it.

This video helps.

Here, a pair of CNBC hosts attempt to argue that Warren's support for financial regulations, and particularly a return to Glass-Steagall, may be misguided.  They are wrong, and one of them -- the man -- is both insistent and impolite.  She responds politely, firmly and decisively.

She eats the guy for breakfast.

"Fewer.  As in, of the big ones, zero."

NBC has gone around removing copies of this clip, so watch it while you can.

The Republican Party Hates My Bookstore

We live, these days, in a smallish town.  Small enough, at any rate, that it has only one bookstore, a place which sells used paperbacks. It's called BJ's, a name which has inspired quite a bit of sophomoric humor around the rectory.  ("Honey, come here.  I've finally found a store that specializes in the two greatest things in the world," and so forth.  Have we mentioned that Father A. is a pig?)

Anyway, the Republican candidate for governor of our new home state, Ken Cuccinelli, has declared war on our little town's used bookstore.  At least that's what we think it means, when he declares that if he is elected, "BJs will be made illegal."

Actually, he may be thinking of something else.  After all, politicians don't care about books; politicians care about sex.  Because that's what we elect them for, right?

Cuccinelli has, in fact, declared that as governor he would attempt to reinstate Virginia Code 1950, 18.2-361, a statute which, in its first paragraph, makes both oral and anal sex illegal -- even when performed between consenting adults, including married couples.

Incidentally, the Supreme Court has found laws like this to be unconstitutional.

Cuccinelli claims that his real interest in in the succeeding paragraphs, which deal with child abuse and incest.  But it happens that, when the Virginia legislature considered striking the first paragraph, which includes consenting adults, it was Cuccinelli himself who helped kill the move.  Here's how he explained it a few years later:
My view is that homosexual acts, not homosexuality, but homosexual acts are wrong. They’re intrinsically wrong. And I think in a natural law based country it’s appropriate to have policies that reflect that. ... They don’t comport with natural law. I happen to think that it represents (to put it politely; I need my thesaurus to be polite) behavior that is not healthy to an individual and in aggregate is not healthy to society.
So, no matter what the Supreme Court says, Cuccinelli supports anti-sodomy laws.

To call the US a "natural-law based country" is tendentious at best.  Natural law, like common law, plays a role in our complex legal theory.  But final authority, it seems to us at the Egg, rests with the consent of the governed.  And in the US, the governed have been notoriously reluctant to cede control of their private lives -- not leas their love and sex lives -- to the government.

Tip o' the biretta to Father Nedward, and the fine writeup at AlterNet.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Big News in the Middle East?

It is very possible that the Egyptian Army, in order to consolidate its recent coup, has declared war on the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, in ways that may change the status quo in Gaza -- and therefore in Israel.

There isn't a whole lot about this in the press yet; most of the articles are about street protests in Cairo.  But if you search for "Egypt" and "tunnels," you'll find that the the past two days, the army has flooded some 800 of the tunnels connecting Egypt to Gaza.  Doing this doesn't just mess with the economy of the southern Palestinian enclave; it strikes specifically at the governing party, Hamas, which has supported itself largely taxes on the goods imported -- or smuggled, if you prefer -- through those tunnels.

A friend in Israel also writes that the Egyptian army has suddenly killed a large number of "terrorists" -- we're not sure whom she means, so let's be careful with the word until we know more.  (One of her friends, apparently an Egyptian, writes with some hyperbole that his nation's army "is the best in the world," and that he will take his next holiday at Sharm el-Shaik).

Still, something is going on over there, and it's bigger than Tahrir Square.


Those of us who are preaching Sunday have likely speared a moment for the Greek verb periespato.  In Luke 10:40, it is translated as "distracted," as in the phrase "But Martha was distracted by her many tasks."

We ourselves have been awfully distracted lately.  Perhaps you have noticed just how infrequent these blog posts have become; trust us when we tell you that blogging is the tip of the things-we're-not-doing iceberg.  Shifting to a middle-sized program church brings with it a host of distractions ("host," in this case, meaning an army -- these distractions attack like Mongol raiders).  Many things get set aside, including some of the important ones.  Even daily prayer becomes a new challenge.

So we've been very much like Martha ourselves lately.  Which may be why we are very interested in periespato.  Floating about the Interweb, we have been told by two different "authorities" that the sense of the verb is "to be pulled in different directions."  How convenient, we thought, since that is just how we are feeling lately.

Also, unfortunately, how mistaken.

Periespato is the third person singular imperfect form of perispao.  This verb is compounded of peri- , meaning "around" or, in later literature, "about," and spao, "I draw or pull."  It seems to be common enough both in Biblical and non-Biblical literature, and Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich gives it two senses.  The first is literal -- "to be pulled or dragged away."  The second, a bit more figurative (and the one the lexicon applies to this passage) is "to be distracted, busy, overburdened."  Kittel reads it as "fully occupied."

The Latinate verb to distract is a good translation into English:  dis- meaning away, traho meaning to pull (related, obviously, to tractor, traction, and so forth). "I was pulled away," we sometimes say, explaining why we left somebody on hold too long.

But there is no sense of different directions implicit in the verb.  On the contrary, if we must find a direction, it is best to say that Martha is "dragged around" by her tasks.  That is the most literal use of peri- in Greek (think of pericardium, or peripatetic), although Kittel notes that by the late classical period, it is already reserved for poetry. In ordinary speech, "about" or perhaps "away" more nearly reflects the idiom.

This means, among other things, that when Jesus chides Martha for being "pulled away" from sitting at his feet like a true disciple, the language does not create a picture of many different directions in which she might be dragged, of which "toward Jesus" is merely one.  On the contrary, there are only two directions:  toward Jesus, or toward everything else in the world, everything that is not-Jesus.

She is not pulled, as the online mythology has it, "in different directions."  She is pulled in a different direction -- away from Jesus.  And his words re-orient her (Oriens nomen eius!) by turning her around (metanoiete!) so that she faces in the right direction again.

We hope it does likewise to us.  And soon, please, Jesus.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Hi-Yo, Silver ... Huh?

Like most boys over the last eight decades, Father Anonymous used to put on a black mask and a cowboy hat, pretending to be the Lone Ranger.  Antiquarian even as a tyke, Fr. A. grew up listening to the radio programs, reading and collecting the Fran Striker novels, watching (when he could) reruns of the Clayton Moore/Jay Silverheels television program, dreaming of silver bullets and cities of gold.  At one point, he owned a fairly detailed Lone Ranger action figure, and forced his kid brother to settle for Tonto.  (Such are the myriad privileges of primogeniture.)

It seems unlikely, after the release of the current Johnny Depp/Gore Verbinski film, that another generation of American boys will grow up this way.

The movie, which we saw last week, has been one of the worst-reviewed films of recent memory. A glance at Rotten Tomatoes turns up the words "bipolar" and  "schizophrenic."  It is too vulgar for kids, too silly for adults. Rolling Stone's Peter Travers is quoted as saying, "Your expectations of how bad The Lone Ranger is can't trump the reality."

They're not wrong.  But there's more to the story.  

We ourselves spent quite a bit of time squirming in our seat, wishing it were 1969 again.  That was the year of the last truly great Western movies:  Butch Cassidy, True Grit, The Wild Bunch.  There have certainly been some worthwhile outings since then, from The Shootist to Pale Rider.  But the genre has had a hard time figuring out where to go next.  From the comic deconstruction of Blazing Saddles to the pseudo-feminist exploitation of Bad Girls, Hollywood has thrashed about, trying to re-imagine the Western for modern times, and usually failing.

The Lone Ranger, of course, is not just a Western, but part of the very small subgenre of Western-themed superhero movies.  This is not an impossible nut to crack; the Zorro films are great fun.  And yet previous Lone Ranger reboots, in 1981 and (on television) 2003, have flopped badly.  (Not to mention the Dunwichian horror that was The Wild Wild West.) 

So Verbinski must have come into this project knowing that the odds were against him.  The obvious play would be to attempt conventional buddy picture -- Lethal Weapon in Monument Valley.  It might have worked, but then again it might have bored us all to tears. (The 1980s were so long ago!)  Pure parody might have worked, but he was never going to top Mel Brooks, so why bother?  

Playing it more or less straight -- trying to bring a Dark Knight sensibility to the project -- might have seemed logical, and is what we would have tried if it had been us.  But even there, the chances were slim.  In many ways, the Lone Ranger is more of a "comic book" character than Batman, in the most derogatory sense of that word.  Before Christopher Nolan came along, the Batman's abnormal psychology had been explored by Denny O'Neil, Doug Moench, Frank Miller and Tim Burton (and even, in a few truly strange 1940s stories, by Bill Finger himself).  In contrast, the Lone Ranger has always, always been portrayed as the straightest of straight men, the sort of character who shoots bad guys but magically never even injures them, and probably flosses his teeth each night by the campfire.  Pulling him into Nolan-land would have been a big jump.

So, faced with these unappealing choices, Verbinski went in another direction entirely.  He re-imagined The Lone Ranger as a surreal mystical adventure, a weird combination of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Luis Bunuel.  This movie is not merely distinguished by its repetitive and CGI-heavy railroad battles, which bear a strong family resemblance to those in the recent Sherlock Holmes pictures, but by a horse that climbs trees and a pack of savage carnivorous rabbits.

Yes, the Ranger is a spirit-warrior, and Tonto his shamanic guide, and Silver not a horse so much as a supernatural manifestation.  Or, perhaps, the whole thing is a mischievous fable, told by an old man to a credulous boy. And maybe, just maybe, Armie Hammer's weird resemblance to George W. Bush is intended to set up some sort of political allegory. It's hard to tell.  By the end, you barely care.  You just ride along, laughing and shaking your head and waiting for the next trick to be pulled out of the magician's hat.

And by George, it's actually kind of fun.

That's the thing about Verbinski's Lone Ranger:  is is indeed a terrible movie, if you judge it by the standards of other Westerns, or superhero films, or action movies.  The only movie it really resembles, in our experience, is Baz Lurhmann's Moulin Rouge -- a feast of deeply surreal excess, only nominally connected to its ostensible source material.  Both movies may both be enjoyed best while under the influence of mild hallucinogens -- and both movies may render such drugs superfluous.


Florida Jury Stands Its Ground

The truth is that we are not intimately familiar with the details of the George Zimmerman trial.  We've been busy repairing roofs and trailers in Appalachia, dodging copperheads, battling pinkeye and otherwise enjoying the first weeks of a new call.  So we didn't follow the trial, and don't know much about the evidence.

Moreover, neither we nor anybody else has a precise understanding of what happened between Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin.  We know how it all ended, of course, and we know about critical events on the way to the horrible denouement.  But what one may have said to the other, how they perceived each other, who was on top at what juncture in their supposed brawl -- only Zimmerman knows these things.  Memory being what it is, even he may not know the truth.

Still, since nobody else in America seems to be allowing mere ignorance to keep them from venting an opinion, neither shall we.

And here is our opinion, in a nutshell:  "stand your ground" laws are a travesty of justice.  They allow the discretionary use of deadly force by untrained civilians, based on nothing more than an emotion -- the feeling that is that one's life is in danger.  They remove proportionality from the traditional understanding of self-defense, and this removal is, by the standards of Christianity, evil.

Remember, if you will, the structure of the "just war" theory which has long guided our discussions of violence, at least among those Christians who admit that violence can ever be theologically legitimate.  A just war requires both ius ad bellum, meaning a righteous cause, and ius in bello, meaning a righteous conduct of the conflict.

Self-defense, on its surface, sounds like a righteous cause, and that is as far as the SYG laws seem to go.  But the elements of ius ad bellum include (a) provocation, (b) lack of other alternatives, (c) possession of proper authority, (d) right intention, (e) likelihood of success, and (f) a proportion between the means used and the end sought.  Each of these is problematic in its own way.  It is difficult for nations to determine what provocation is a just cause of war -- when North Korea sinks your fishing boats, do you respond, or do you grind your teeth for the sake of peace?  Proper authority is elusive -- America routinely sends troops into battle without the declaration of war supposedly reserved for its legislature.  Do those troops have proper authority to fight, and if so for how long and by what means?

Each of these elements and problems has its parallel in SYG laws.  As it is hard for a nation to identify the precise line at which war is justified, how much harder is it for a frightened individual to identify the moment at which his or her life is legitimately in danger?  But the real problem, especially with SYG laws, are the question of alternatives.  If you can run away without harming anybody, shouldn't you be obliged to do so?

Proportionality ad bellum may not be a factor in SYG laws, so long as the goal is in fact to save one's own life.  But when we consider ius in bello, the question of proportionality becomes extremely important.  If attacked by a boy with a slingshot, one cannot morally respond by nuking his entire city.  (Another factor is "discrimination" -- making sure you kill enemy combatants, not little old ladies walking their dogs.  This may apply in the Zimmerman case, but has a lot more to do with the drone war.)  Basically, the level of violence employed, and the number of people harmed, must be kept to the lowest level possible.  By parallel logic, it is wrong -- or at least deeply questionable -- to pull out a gun during a fistfight.

Here is how Fr. William Saunders, a Roman Catholic priest in our own neck of the woods, describes the teaching of his own church:
While affirming the right of a country to defend itself, the Catholic Church condemns indiscriminate "total war": the state of war between two parties does not justify or make fair the use of any means to wage the war. Vatican Council II therefore asserted, "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation" ("Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #80). 
As among nations, so among individuals -- conflict may be inevitable, but from a moral perspective, violence must be (a) a last resort, (b) directed against the right opponent, and (c) proportional to the opponent's own use of violence.

Even if we accept, charitably, the jury's finding that Zimmerman did not stalk Martin, and purposefully provoke a violent confrontation based on the difference in their skin colors, it is still difficult to see how laws that permit him to have used a gun in this case can possibly pass the scrutiny of moral theology.