31 August 2009

everything old is new again

Here are yet more cartoons from our unpacking excercise.  They both date back to the mid-90s, and they demonstrate, as the title of this post says, that "everything old is new again."

Now that we have a Democratic president, we've been experiencing a return of the lament against big government regulation, even to the point of it being called "socialist."  (Never mind that with each successive Republican presidency, the government has become larger than ever.  It's just a question of where we spend our money.)  But Democrats are not off the hook!  Both of the major parties are simply two heads on the same corporate beast.
And speaking of corporate, now that Disney has appropriated Marvel to the tune of $4 billion, here's an image for all seasons.  (You'll notice some other recognizable logos!)

24 August 2009

must consume...must consume

The word “consumer” is an insult! That is, the way the word is usually employed by the media, the government, and our society in general makes it an insult.

In his book, Leap Over a Wall (which I mentioned in my last post), Eugene Peterson is comparing “ordinary” people versus those who are “experts.” He makes the observation, “Our culture holds experts and professionals in a regard that’s inflated out of all proportion to reality. The corollary of this is that we regard the layperson as a near idiot, competent only when consulting with or deferring to the expert.” (p. 18)

Including himself as clergy, he notes how this mentality infects the church. We abdicate “the original splendor of a new life in Christ and [decline] into the wretched condition of the consumer. The consumer is passivity objectified: passive in the pew, passive before the TV screen, vulnerable to every sort of exploitation and seduction, whether religious or secular.” (p. 21)

It’s long seemed to me that referring to people as “consumers” is a disparaging command. Especially in America, whether in the church or out of it (sadly, it doesn’t seem to make a difference!), we are given an order to consume. Take the earth’s resources, turn them into all kinds of useless crap, buy them, eat them, put them in off-site storage units, use cheaply-made products which soon break, throw them away, and then consume more in a ridiculous cycle.

But I need to stop now. I’m getting hungry; I need to consume something…

22 August 2009

unpacking a hidden treasure

After four months, my wife Banu and I appear to have landed at a permanent residence. (But then, I'm forced to ask, is any residence on this planet permanent?) Before moving, I expressed my feelings regarding the practice of packing. In recent days, we have been unpacking. I just happened to have stumbled across a hidden treasure in one of my wife's many boxes of books. It is Eugene Peterson's Leap Over a Wall, published in 1997.

I've just begun reading it, but I've already found a little jewel in this book of reflections on the life of David. Peterson talks about the central role that story plays in the scriptures, and how the story of Jesus is linked to the story of David. He makes the (I would think) non-controversial observation that we have more problems with seeing Jesus as human than as divine. We would rather be "spiritual" than "earthy." Now retired, he has elsewhere spoken of his appointment at Regent College in Vancouver as professor of spiritual theology as an "embarrassing position."

On page 8, he says that "the brisk trafficking in gods and religion through the centuries—our own generation not excepted—provides no evidence that it improves competency in being human. If anything, it has a reverse effect: the more religious activity, the less human competency."

Perhaps he's overstating the point, but who can seriously doubt that hiding behind religious jargonand claiming that God has ordered ushas a way of shutting down meaningful discussion? (Especially when we claim that God has ordered us to do things that are anti-human and anti-love!)

19 August 2009

bad theology in the wrong hands

As we Presbyterians sometimes say, "Theology matters."

I received an email from a parishioner of ours, which directed me to a piece by James Haught, editor of the Charleston (WV) Gazette. In his article, "Agog over Bush's comments on Gog and Magog," he notes, "Incredibly, President George W. Bush told French President Jacques Chirac in early 2003 that Iraq must be invaded to thwart Gog and Magog, the Bible's satanic agents of the Apocalypse.

"Honest. This isn't a joke. The president of the United States, in a top-secret phone call to a major European ally, asked for French troops to join American soldiers in attacking Iraq as a mission from God." This, according to Chirac in an interview with journalist Jean-Claude Maurice, who relates this in his new book, Si Vous le Répétez, Je Démentirai ("If You Repeat It, I Will Deny").

I am all too familiar with this type of theology. Some refer to it as Christian Zionism. I was once in a church that was comfortable with, if not insistent upon, a view of the scriptures that would lead one to this position.

Now, I present what I believe to be a more faithful understanding of the Bible. Of course, I've never encountered someone who is armed, or far worse, someone with the authority to order thousands of people to their deaths—based, in no small part, on bad theology.

16 August 2009

Jonah, was it the whale breath that got you so mad?

Of the few memories I have from my brief attendance at Sunday school when I was a kid, one is of the story of Jonah. (I have few memories because we didn’t go to church for very long back then!) Our teacher, a nice old lady named Mrs. Williams, was fond of using those figures that adhere to a felt backboard. Seeing the figures of the prophet and the whale floating on that two-dimensional sea of felt inspired all kinds of questions within me. How could Jonah possibly survive inside that creature? How could he breathe? Why didn’t the animal’s digestive juices go to work on him?

Something I never learned in Sunday school was what an angry fellow Jonah is! That’s something to notice about him: the book bearing his name goes to great effort to point out what a grouch he is. He is sent to call the people of Nineveh to repent—they are part of the Assyrian Empire, enemies of Israel. Can we appreciate the depth of Jonah’s anger? Does his rage make any sense to us? Can we understand why the prophet would be so upset at having to watch his God forego punishing the enemy of his people? And I do intend to stress that pronoun: his God.

There’s a very loose consensus that the book of Jonah was written after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, in either the 5th or 4th century B. C. The idea is that the book was written as a kind of satire, a kind of political joke, intended to warn the Jews about being too inward-looking. By this time, prophets have been saying that they are to be a light to the nations. The hatred that comes from nationalism and hyper-patriotism no longer has a place among the people of God. The awareness is beginning to dawn that they have a responsibility to all the world, including their enemies.

Maybe we can see in Jonah the contradictions in all of us. Indeed, even as the book is drawing to a close, Jonah still has his priorities messed up. He’s upset because the plant that gave him shade from the hot sun has dried up, but he couldn’t care less what happens to the people in the city. Can we see ourselves in that bone-headed prophet, caring more for our own comfort than for the welfare of those in desperate need? With all the recent sound and fury over health care, maybe it’s a question we should ask ourselves.

The image is “Jonah Awaits the Destruction of Nineveh.”

12 August 2009

a matter of perspective

I remember reading about the democratic uprising in Burma while a student at Bible college in 1988. Aung San Suu Kyi went on to lead her party, the National League for Democracy, to a decisive win in the 1990 election. However, the military dictators simply ignored the results. Awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1991, she has spent most of the past twenty years under house arrest. Now her term has been extended for another 18 months. The Burmese generals are terrified of this slender, aging woman.

In our country, we like to throw around incendiary language. Certain talk show hosts compare President Obama to Adolf Hitler. Some figures on the left demonize former Vice President Cheney. I would like to humbly suggest that we really don't know what we're talking about!

05 August 2009

keep fanning the flames

The fellow in the photo holding the threatening sign is symptomatic of an increasingly paranoid quality to American life. (By the way, sir, you have "your" where you should have "you're.") A dangerous trend started at least as far back as Sarah Palin's irresponsible campaign rallies in 2008, when she allowed the flames of hatred to be fanned. The Secret Service reported a spike in the number of death threats issued against Barack Obama.

Now, as President Obama, the Secret Service reports a skyrocketing of death threats, compared with the number received by President Bush. As with any president, the large majority of such threats are hoaxes, but the sheer volume and the sheer venom can't be dismissed.

With town hall meetings turned into town "hell" meetings, with people screaming and refusing to allow others to calmly state their opinions, I do fear that something horrible will happen. One thing we should not be able to claim is that we had no way of seeing it coming.

02 August 2009

radical availability

Tomorrow, 3 August, is a day that I note for several reasons. First, it’s the anniversary of my baptism. (It will be #23.) Secondly, it’s the day which commemorates St. Lydia, who we meet in Acts 16. She has her own baptism story, and she practices some radical hospitality, as well. Plus, she’s a dealer in purple cloth—purple being my favorite color (with green as a close second).

Paul, in the midst of his second missionary voyage, stops at Troas (the ancient city of Troy). It’s there that, in the night, he has a vision of a man pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us” (v. 9). Paul and his associates then set sail through the Aegean Sea and arrive in Europe.

They encounter Lydia in Philippi, one of Macedonia’s biggest cities. She is considered to be Paul’s first European convert. After she and her household are baptized, she urges Paul and his friends to “come and stay at my home” (v. 15). Lydia practices availability with a vengeance! I like the way the verse ends in the NRSV: “And she prevailed upon us.” The New Jerusalem Bible reads, “And she would take no refusal.” You’re coming to my house—I insist!

Lydia’s persistence in hospitality serves Paul well after he and Silas are released from jail. The magistrates, realizing that Paul’s and Silas’ rights as Roman citizens have been violated, urge them to get out of town—quickly and quietly. They really don’t want word of this to get out!

Still, having a place in town to stay gives Paul a great opportunity to encourage the church before they leave, an opportunity he refuses to pass up. All because Lydia insisted on being available! If not for her hospitality, none of this would have been possible; she became a great benefit to the church.

Lydia’s availability is a challenge to all of us. What transformations can happen if we practice availability to God and to our neighbors and to our enemies?