creed without chaos

An MHP Interview with Laura K. Simmons
England, like bygone days, was ablaze with writers at the turn of the last century. Some knew well that evil might pounce at any time. H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw are good examples. And alongside this notion of evil was a belief that humanity can rise above its situation and defeat whatever might enter the scene.

Also around 1900, George McDonald takes on the creation of new myths that would later inspire the young talents of G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Agatha Christie wrote her popular mysteries during this period - an end of Victoria's reign and the launch of World War I - that war that created the waste land.

Modernism, industrialization, globalization, the mass killing of one war and the lead-up and start of another are backdrops to Dorothy Sayers when she enters the scene.

Sayers contributes widely to many discussions. You will find her words used to frame elementary school curriculum. She started as an marketing writer and coined the phrase, "It pays to advertise." She is best known for her stories of Lord Peter Wimsey's detective skills. What is less well known is Sayers's contribution to the theological discussion of the time, a direction she purposed after World War II brought such overwhelming evil on the scene.

Laura K. Simmons recently released Creed without Chaos: Exploring Theology in the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers (Baker Academic).

MHP: I want to start in a dangerous beginning, with application before the setting of stage. One of your closing chapters is entitled “Sayers for the Twenty-First Century.” What does Sayers, certainly best known for her detective fiction, have to say to our culture?

Laura Simmons: In one of her essays, Sayers wrote something along the lines of, "Christianity has been having a bad press of late." As we enter the 21st century, that's still true--if not more true.

People have stereotypes both of Christianity and of Christians themselves. As in Sayers's time, the fault for those misperceptions belongs mostly to Christians. One of the things I appreciate most about her writings is her exhortation that we have no business rejecting something we don't really understand. She believes that if people really understand Christianity, they won't be so quick to reject it.

One of the things I see happening in the Christian community today is that the Christians who don't fit the stereotypes are stepping up to the plate to say, "Let's have a broader view of what Christianity is--it's not just a list of Dos and Don'ts or a political platform..." There seems to be a renewed interest in communicating what Christianity is really about, so that people can make informed choices. Sayers's clarity on what Christianity is and is not is a refreshing way of discussing these issues, I find.

Sayers's convictions on vocation are also important today, I believe. Certainly, in a world where many employees live in fear of having their jobs outsourced, many don't have the luxury of working in jobs that match their calling. But we also see a lot of people sacrificing more lucrative opportunities expressly so they *can* pursue work that is life-giving for them.

And her views on women were way before her time. One distinction she drew in 1938 is still with us, especially in the church--we tend to look at females as either "the ladies, God bless them" or "the women--God help us!" It's frightening and saddening that we have not managed to get past these generalizations in the 48 years since she wrote that...

MHP: You return several times to the contextual place that Sayers writes, a world overcome with WWII, a war that “had emptied Christianity’s places of worship.” You seem to suggest that this scenario forces Sayers to move away from fiction writing and into the more rigid confines of theology. Is that accurate?

LS: I'm not sure it's entirely fair to say her context forced her to move away from fiction, although she herself did suggest that as the war loomed, it seemed inappropriate to be writing fiction--she didn't want people to believe the world's most serious problems could be solved as easily as the Death in the Library, she said. But she did, for example, use Lord Peter and her other fictional characters to comment on the war. The "Wimsey Papers" ran for several weeks, and Lord Peter, Harriet Vane, and Miss Climpson all had the opportunity to make observations about wartime conditions--in this case, fictional characters were Sayers's mouthpiece for her own concerns about life in wartime.

Why I think her context is important is that it most likely slanted the ways she wrote about theology. If her culture were still a mostly-churched culture, she wouldn't have had to focus so much on clarification of Christian truths, for example. If the war had not brought economic priorities into such strong relief, she might not have had to write as she did about work and business ethics.

MHP: Does Sayers compliment Chesterton’s Orthodoxy or Lewis’s Mere Christianity in Begin Here: A Statement of Faith and perhaps others? What are the similarities and differences?

LS: This is an interesting question! She was powerfully influenced by Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which she read when she was fifteen. She found him a breath of fresh air for the church, and she wrote an introduction to one of his plays and kept up some correspondence with his widow after his death. Certainly she is similar to him, both in writing detective fiction and in her intellectual approach (right belief was important to both of them, more so than right living or right feeling, which might have been more of Lewis's heart).

Her book Begin Here started as a "Christmas message to the nation," but ended up as a dense historical-theological tome much less accessible than Lewis's work for the BBC, I'm afraid. He is concerned in the messages that make up Mere Christianity with describing Christianity as simply as possible for listeners. In Begin Here, Sayers is drawing a complex history of theological movements over the years, integrating theology with the historical context of each period. Lewis didn't write quite as much on political themes as Sayers did, I don't think...

MHP: Do these categories still apply: (1) open heathen; (2) ignorant Christians; (3) pea-shooting churchgoers?

LS: I don't know that this language for them still applies, but certainly the population of this country has its share of people who don't know a thing about Christianity and may or may not care to know (I was one of these growing up--I always say that I grew up in the "church of the flaming pagan-heathen," which is not too different from Sayers's description of the 'frank and open heathen'), and I'm quite sure most churchgoers here know even less about their faith (why they believe what they do, why it's important to believe certain things over others, how we got to the beliefs we hold dear today) than her compatriots did. And certainly, in a country scornful about intelligent design and resentful of Christian politicians, many of us would be woefully unprepared to do battle with any intellectual unbeliever, "Marxian" or otherwise! We do have more venues for thinking Christians to make their views known ... which is important, as those views are sorely needed.

ZK: Among the theological points brought out, incarnation seems the most versatile and strongest held as it sits with the need for creeds as well. Why? Would similar emphases be advised for today?

LS: Sayers believed the Incarnation was the lynchpin for all other theology--if Christ was not really God, everything else fell apart. I've been intrigued as I've watched the various portrayals of Jesus on TV and film in recent years. Sayers, in discussing The Man Born to Be King, wrote about how hard it was to portray Jesus both as fully human and as fully divine, and some pop-culture renditions of him succeed more than others in capturing the fullness of his character.

I think we've really lost something by letting go of the creeds in most evangelical churches. I understand the aversion to/concern about "dead ritual," but I believe the solution to that is a vibrant program of education about why certain rituals (such as the recitation/ memorization of creeds) are important is the solution, not doing away with the creeds altogether. But it's easier for us to limit our picture of Jesus to the "buddy Christ" (as seen in Dogma) or the stern, punitive Christ portrayed by some of our more conservative brethren than to grapple with the complexities of the Athanasian creed, for example.

MHP: What is the difference of working to live and living to work? Are the misplacement of work and the impersonal touch from grocery stores to large corporations a reason for dissatisfaction – perhaps because the context is not incarnate?

LS: I have a perfect example of "working to live." After I finished my doctorate, it took me a few years to find a full-time faculty position. However, my student loans came into repayment 6 months after I graduated. So I spent two years working in middle management after finishing my PhD and before landing a full-time faculty post. I wasn't working there necessarily because that was what I was called to do for the rest of my life, but because it was the only job that paid enough for me to afford my student-loan payments. Don't get me wrong--it was a significant work experience, and God used it immensely in my life. But it was a bit of a tangent from my calling to teach--economically driven. Whether it's student loan payments, a mortgage, a family to raise, or ongoing medical expenses to fund, many people "work to live"--they take whatever job will pay enough to allow them to afford their lives. "Living to work," on the other hand, is what we see in those who take jobs paying significantly less than their capacities because they love that kind of work. They don't go to work wondering when they'll get off--they have to remind themselves to take time OFF work.

When someone cannot find satisfaction in their work, is it any wonder they are surly about doing it? I believe, as Sayers did, that the responsibility rests with the employer to incorporate into people's jobs the opportunity for satisfying work (as opposed to merely rote work, which really is demoralizing in the long run). It's hard to do this on a corporate level, especially if you are a large corporation. Hard, but not impossible.

MHP: As to art, she is harsh at the manipulation of art to wield some reaction or some second class form simply because convictions can cause people to take up art but their talent suffers greatly. The book casts a corrective to Plato’s utilitarian way of representation or imitation and wants to search for “eternal truth.” Are there examples that might be used especially in light of this “eternal truth”?

LS: She wrote about Aeschylus's Agamemnon: " not the copy or imitation of something bigger and more real than itself. It is bigger and more real than the real-life action it represents. That a false wife should murder a husband--that might be... a thriller to be read in the train--but when it is shown to us like this, by a great poet, it is as though we went behind the triviality of the actual event to the cosmic significance behind it." ["Toward a Christian Esthetic," 82-83]

I don't know if I quoted this part in the book, but there's another place in the same essay where she gives a delightful description of the work of any artist:

A poet so-called is simply a man like ourselves with an exceptional power of revealing his experience by expressing it, so that not only he, be we ourselves, recognize that experience as our own. ... And since he is a man like the rest of us, we shall expect that our experience will have something in common with his. In the image of his experience, we can recognize the image of some experience of our own--something that had happened to us, but which we had never understood, never formulated or expressed to ourselves, and therefore never known as a real experience. When we read the poem, or see the play or picture, or hear the music, it is as though a light were turned on inside us. We say: 'Ah! I recognize that! That is something that I obscurely felt to be going on in and about me, but I didn't know what it was and couldn't express it. But now that the artist has made its image--imaged it forth--for me, I can possess and take hold of it and make it my own and turn it into a source of knowledge and strength. [86-87]

MHP: Would a fiction writer- turned theological writer be at all concerned at the systematic approach to her works and thoughts?

She might actually hate it, for any number of reasons. As many times as Sayers called herself a theologian or others acclaimed her as one, she would also say things like, "I'm a storyteller, not an evangelist," or "I'm a writer, not a preacher." She simultaneously would suggest that if you wanted to know something about a writer, you should look to that person's work--and that it was unfair to assume certain things about a writer based on what they had written (with her fiction, for example, people would always say she was either Lord Peter Wimsey or Harriet Vane). She was worried about writing beyond her range and thus leading people astray (she wrote to C.S. Lewis about the "terrifying ease" with which people make celebrities into idols and authorities, whether or not those figures should be given authority or not).

I have tried, even while categorizing Sayers's contributions, not to suggest that any sort of traditional "systematic theology" can be made out of her work. Some theological themes she wrote on all the time (incarnation and the trinity, for example)--but someone has just critiqued me for not saying more about her "doctrine of Scripture," and I won't write on that because it doesn't appear often enough in her work (and because it would be overlaying a late-20th-century-evangelical doctrine of Scripture onto a British Anglican popular writer, which seems perilous).

We are also careful in the Sayers field not to fall into the trap of the young man who said, "And then there was Miss Dorothy Sayers, who turned from a life of crime to join the church of England." While moving from mystery writing to theology seems like a shift, it's also true that the same Dorothy L. Sayers was writing about heavenly mysteries and earthly mysteries both.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

confession in the canterbury tales

by Zach Kincaid
Chaucer is a fellow pilgrim on the road to Canterbury as he narrates the conversation and tales of those on the Canterbury Tales' journey: "But now is tyme to yow for to telle / How that we baren us that ilke nyght / Whan we were in that hostelrie alyght, / And after wol I telle of our viage,/ And all the remenaunt of oure pilgrimage.." (1). On the pilgrim's road Chaucer is able to document, on the ground level.

The story is divided into the telling of tales and the conversation between tales, some which account as confessory of personal actions or urge others to be reflective on their own, so to change vice to virtue and find salvation.

Chaucer exemplifies a changing opinion of confession that is reflective of his time, a time that would soon experience the conclusion of Catholic unity, and the opinions of Oxford don and preacher John Wyclif influence many. Might Chaucer have been influenced by Wyclif? Does the structure of his Canterbury Tales offer glimpses to the Wyclifite (or Lollard) proposition toward a new confession?

A majority of scholars agree that Chaucer remained Catholic until his death (2). Most also hold that the Canterbury Tales shows some Lollard sympathies (3). A few of his friends were Lollard Knights, namely Sir Lewis Clifford and Sir Richard Stury (4). Though Catholic pressure against Wyclif's ideas was not at its height, it is assumed that Chaucer recognized such tensions. As a longtime employee of the Crown which represented a part of the Holy Roman Empire, Chaucer would certainly have remained guarded to any Lollard influence.

However, there appears to be religious dichotomy in his work that has prompts one scholarto define him as a pre-Anglican, meaning that, "in his attitude to religion as to politics, war, chivalry, class and marriage, Chaucer was easygoing, ready to hear an opposite view and always quicker to laugh than to rage" (5). This may answer why Chaucer is able to foster confessional views similar to John Wyclif in the Canterbury Tales (6), and at the same time remain, for example, a devotee of the Blessed Virgin Mary (7).

Catholic confession is hierarchical; confession in the Canterbury Tales has a linear structure. "Also I prey yow to foryeve it me, / Al have I nat set folk in hir degree," the narrator says. "Heere in this tale, as that they sholde stonde- / My wit is short, ye may wel understonde" (8). Rank and sexuality are not of much importance on this journey; there is no hierarchical way the pilgrims are introduced in the General Prologue or the order they tell their tales. The pilgrims, in fact, draw lots to see who will tell the first tale (9).

In addition, each pilgrim has a similar objective of a pilgrimage, one of penance as part of traditional confession. However, no specific individual reasons are provided, so whether the Friar, Pardoner or Monk, those in the sacred professions, or Sailor, Miller, or Franklin, those in the secular profeesions, the common religious purpose is the same – pilgrimage as penance in keeping with confession. In the words of the host to all the pilgrims, "You go to Canterbury; may God speed / And the blest martyr soon requite your meed" (10).

This linear structure is enhanced further by the hypocritical way the clergy is described (with exception of the Clerk and Parson), greedy, gluttonous, and lustful. The General Prologue introduces the Pardoner as a charlatan selling pieces of Peter's sail and pig’s bones forged to represent relics from saints; he makes poor parsons "his apes" (11). The Friar easily gives penance it is said, because instead of a contrite heart, "Men moote yeve silver to the povre freres" (12). A third example is what the Host says of the Monk: "I pray to God, yeve hym confusioun / That first thee broghte unto religioun. / Thou woldest han been a tredefowel aright; / Haddwstow as greet a leeve as thou hast myght / To parfourne al thy lust in engendrure" (13).

The equal playing field among the pilgrims whispers Chaucer's religious leaning and sets the parameters for a discussion of confession in the Canterbury Tales. Among the conversations that accompany each tale, pilgrims share confessions with one another. It is safe to suggest that the reader also takes part in the conversation as Chaucer himself acts as an "unbiased" commentator (14).

Because confession cannot truly happen outside of honesty, this honest presentation to the reader makes an extended confession of sorts offered from the pilgrims' lips. Chaucer as narrator says, "That ye narette it nat my vileynye, / Thogh that I pleynly speke in this mateere / To telle yow hir wordes and hir cheere, / Ne thogh I speke hir wordes proprely," and further, "Who-so shal telle a tale after a man, / He moot reherce as ny as evere he kan / Everich a word, if it be in his charge, Al speke he never so rudeliche or large" (15).

Thus, the reader judges alongside the Host and other pilgrims, not only the tales, but also the spiritual wellbeing of the travelers on this holy road to Canterbury.

First, observe the exchanges between the tales of the Miller and Reeve (and thus the problem between the Friar and Summoner), followed by the Pardoner, the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, and finally the Franklin. The Parson and Chaucer’s retraction will be dealt with later.

The interaction between the Miller and Reeve is similar to the later dispute between the Friar and Summoner. In both cases jealousy fuels conversation and tales bathed in slander. The Reeve says to the drunk Miller who desires to share his tale, "Lat be thy lewed dronken harlotrye, / It is a synne and eek a greet folye / To apeyren any man or hym defame, / And eek to bryngen wyves in swich fame" (16). The Miller desires to share a story of a carpenter and his wife, and how a scholar tricks the carpenter to be intimate with his wife. The Reeve's comment not only addresses the competence of a drunk storyteller, a charge that the Manciple later brings to the Cook (17), but also the moral question of slander against one's neighbor because the Miller chooses a tale about a carpenter to offend the Reeve. However the Reeve’s Tale focuses on a miller; the Friar later tells of a summoner because "that of a somonour may no good be sayd" (18), and the Summoner on a friar. Each slanders the other one. The Miller does not heed the advise of the Reeve but, "He nolde his wordes for no man forbere, / But tolde his cherles tale in his manere” (19).

Surprisingly, the Reeve confesses his shortcomings that the Miller eludes to in his tale, that, "This white top writeth myne olde yeris, / Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris, / But if I fare as dooth an openers; That ilke fruyt is ever leng the wers" (20). But the Reeve also shares his judgement of the Miller: "Right in his cherles termes wol I speke, / I pray to God his nekke mote breke! / He kan wel in myn eye seen a stalke, / But in his owene he kan nat seen a balke" (21). Further, the Reeve says, "And therfore this proverbe is seyd ful sooth, / Hym thar nat wene wel that yvele dooth; / A gylour shal hymself bigyled be" (22). This exchange offers an example of attempted warning or restoration. The Miller is urged not to tell his tale because of his current behavior and the tale's subject matter. When the Miller fails to respond the Reeve summons a judgement on him that may simply be reactionary, but nonetheless has the appearance of truth aimed for the Miller’s reflection of his personal morality.

In the Pardoner's Prologue, the Pardoner admits with full clarity that he is a avaricious man. He starts with the ridiculous as he states that the relics he carries heals and also increases the harvest. He even says that he preaches only for covetous reasons:

Thus kan I preche agayn that same vice
Which that I use, and that is avarice.
But though myself be gilty in that synne,
Yet kan I maken oother folk to twynne
From avarice, and soore to repente. (23)

Does he believe that his preaching is effective? Does his honesty about his greed give credence for his preaching? The answer is negative on both counts. The Pardoner is as nonsensical as the three in his tale who go out searching for Death. The Pardoner is greedy but he is also dishonest, and his dishonesty breeds his avariciousness. Thus, his admittance of greed is not honest, and his preaching is not credible because he does not recognize his own greed in asking for pardons in exchange for money.

The Wife of Bath confesses her dissatisfaction of marriage in her prologue. "I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek," she says, "That hath but oon hole for to sterte to, / And if that faille, thanne is al ydo" (24). The "hole" in her heart is the need for forgiveness and love. The Wife of Bath knows she is guilty of the charge of divorce and remarriage and thus the charge of adultery (25). She admits her guilt by reference to the Samaritan woman. "That I ne sholde wedded be but ones," she says, "Herkne eek, lo, which a sharpe word for the nones, / Biside a welle Jesus, God and Man, / Spak in repreeve of the Samaritan" (26).

She also finds fault with her husbands, and suggests that if women were the authors of Scripture, the wickedness of men would be more "than all the mark of Adam may redresse" (27). The Samaritan woman allows Jesus to prod her to repentance; the Wife of Bath does not reach this point of confession at the conclusion of her tale, but may by the conclusion of the Parson's sermon.

The Merchant's Prologue references the excellent wife in good and patient Griselda that the Clerk's tale addresses. In contrast, the Merchant shares his personal marriage tension. "I have a wyf," he says, "the worste that may be…Were I unbounden, al so moot I thee! / I wolde nevere eft comen in the snare" (28). He makes this assertion after only two months of marriage, but the Host agrees with him after the Merchant shares his tale. The host say,

I have a wyf, though that she povre be,
But of hir tonge a labbyng shrewe is she.
And yet she hath an heep of vices mo-
Ther-of no fors, lat alle swiche thynges go.
But wyte ye what, in conseil be it seyd,
Me reweth soore I am unto hire teyd. (29).

Both these men place trust in their fellow pilgrims with their "secret" regret of marriage. Where a priest might reprimand such thoughts, the pilgrims allow tales to be told that support such accusations and so too comfort those with similar "conseil" or secret confessions.

The Franklin comes to the "pilgrims' confessional" with the difficult family situation with his son. He responds to the Squire’s tale and wishes his son were like the Squire. He says, "I have a sone, and, by the Trinitee, / I hadde levere than twenty pound worth lond" (30). He desires his son be, "a man of swich discrecioun,"' but, "I have my sone snybbed, and yet shal, / For he to vertu listneth nat entende, / But for to pleye at dees, and to despende" (31). The assumption is that the Franklin does not know how to amend this behavior in his fatherly role, and if it were not for the host urging the Franklin to tell a tale "or breken his biheste," the Franklin would possibly have received further counsel from the Squire.

Because so much of the conversation surrounding the tales suggests confession, it is natural to now reflect on the ideas expressed in the tales themselves. It is best to begin with the Knight’s Tale and proceed through tales of the Miller, Pardoner, Wife of Bath, the Parson, and finally Chaucer's Retractions.

"For trewely the game is wel bigonne," says the host after the Knight's Tale, and all agree that it is "noble tale for the nones." (32). The tale has two knights who become prisoners because of defeat, enemies because of covetousness, and noble because of chivalry. The tale is set in a pre-Christian landscape, but it has several points that pertain to God and confession. Perhaps Chaucer begins with the Knight to communicate the overarching issue of satisfaction in God’s providential care. The Knight says:

Allas, why pleynen folk so in commune
On purveyaunce of God or of Fortune,
That yeveth hem ful ofte in many a gyse
Wel bettre than they kan hem-self devyse?
Som man desireth for to han richesse,
That cause is of his moerdre of greet siknesse.
And som man wolde out of his prisoun fayn,
That in his hous is of his meynee slayn.
Infinite harmes been in thai mateere,
We witen nat what thing we preyen here.
We faren as he that dronke is as a mous;
A dronke man woot wel he hath an hous,
But he noot which the righte wey is thider,
And to a dronke man the wey is slider.
And certes, in this world so faren we; (33)

It is important to recognize the satisfaction of God's providence as any pilgrimage begins because of the physical journey involved, but in particular to this pilgrimage because of the spiritual and mental expositions that the tales may or may not fulfill. If the conversations and tales are seen as a type of confession, than the accountable parties are the fellow pilgrims (and the reader) to be judge of where the "infinite harmes been in thai," but it is God’s providence that leads the confessor to Canterbury's cathedral. The Knight also addresses the omniscience of God:

The destinee, ministre general,
That executeth in the world overal
The purveiaunce that God hath seyn biforn,
So strong it is, that though the world had sworn
The contrarie of a thyng, by ye or nay,
Yet somtyme it shal fallen on a day
That falleth nat eft withinne a thousand yeere.
For certeinly, oure appetites heere,
Be it of werre, or pees, or hate, or love,
Al is this reuled by the sighte above. (34)

Elsewhere God is defined as "the firste moevere of the cause above," and, "men by this ordre wel discerne / That thilke moevere stable is and eterne" (35). This is important to Chaucer's first tale because it places God alone as supreme Knower and everyone else as "dronke is as a mous." It reiterates the structure of the Canterbury Tales, God and then everyone else. For, as the Knight’s tale says, "He moot be deed, the kyng as shal a page" (36).

The Miller follows the Knight with quite a different tale. His is one of Nicholas' trickery, who tells John the Carpenter that "Noees flood" is coming again soon, an occurrence he learns (supposedly) through a study of the stars. Nicholas suggests to John that hiding in a bathtub that he will hang from a tree is the best way to survive.

Nicholas plans to spend the same evening that John spends in the tub with John's wife. The Miller explains, "Ful sooth is this proverbe, it is no lye, / Men seyn right thus, alwey the nye slye / Maketh the ferre leeve (absent lover) to be looth (slooth)" (37). John trusts his friend and Nicholas even demands, "Thou shalt upon thy trouthe swere me heere / That to no wight thou shalt this conseil wreye (betray)" (38).

However, as a result of trickery and at its root covetousness, Nicholas betrays his friendship. The only recourse that Nicholas receives is accidental, a hot iron on his backside from the parish clerk.

Similar to the Knight's tale, The Miller's Tale has covetousness a central theme, but the outcomes are different. The Miller ends his tale, "for the moore part they loughe and pleyde" (39). In contrast, the Knight’s Tale concludes with a confession of sorts by Arcite who remembers Palamon’s original love toward Emily as he is dying and gives her back to his friend. The Miller says of Nicholas and his study of astronomy that, "Men sholde nat knowe of goddes pryvetee" (40). The Miller seems to substitute "goddes pryvetee" for laughter, and reconciliation through confession for a "scalded in the towte (a branded butt)" (41). The Reeve's tale balances the Miller when he concludes, "Hym thar nat wene wel that yvele dooth; / A gylour (cheater) shal hymself bigyled be" (42).

The tale told by the Pardoner involves three drunken men that begin a journey from a pub to find and slay Death. Along the way they pass an old man who directs them to an oak tree where he says Death will be found and also several bags of gold. They find the gold, forget their search for Death, but soon suffer death themselves. One man journeys to a nearby town, and the two others conspire to kill him when he returns. They do kill him, but the two die from drinking poison the other man brought back from town.

The tale demonstrates the Pardoner’s own greed; it represents an extended confession. The old man desires the men to change their ways. He says with no avail, "God save yow that boghte agayn mankynde, / And yow amende" (43). Instead, when the gold is found, any noble search for Death concludes. The Pardoner has opportunity through the old man he speaks about to recognize his own greed and mend his ways. Instead, he uses the story to seek gifts from his fellow pilgrims. He says,

Now, goode men, God foryeve yow youre trespas,
And ware yow fro the synne of avarice;
Myn hooly pardoun may yow alle warice,
So that ye offre nobles or sterlynges,
Or elles silver broches, spoones, rynges. (44)

His confession of a greed-filled heart in the prologue does not recognize what the host tells him after the tale, that, "Thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech, And swere it were a relyk of a seint" (45). The Pardoner is as ridiculous as the men searching for Death, hocking relics and taking pardons for sins. Because an avarice man is represented as a pardoner, Chaucer makes light of a system that seems more concerned on filling its coffers then mending a person's heart.

The Wife of Bath's Tale shows her struggle with self-esteem. It begins with a knight who seeks an answer to the question of what women want more than anything else. He journeys throughout the kingdom to discover and return the answer to his queen.

The answer is found on the lips of an old, foul woman who demands a promise of betrothal if the queen accepts the answer. The queen accepts and the knight is forced to wed. Over time the knight becomes quite bitter, so the woman offers him two options: one, to have her old and foul but faithful, or, two, as a young and fair maiden but with a chance she might find other suitors. He replies that whichever makes her happy is what he desires, he kisses her, and she becomes faithful, young, and fair.

In her prologue the Wife says, "Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee / As wel over hir housbond as hir love" (46). The tale grows from this feeling of inadequacy, a feeling that plausibly results in part to her age, and in part to her desire to have the "bridel" within her hand. The nature of the tale concludes with the husband desirous of his wife’s best fortune, and the wife responding in kind. Recall what the knight says to the two options:

My lady and my love, and wyf so deere,
I put me in youre wise governance.
Cheseth yourself, which may be moost plesance
And moost honour to yow and me also... (47)

This third option of chosing what makes her most happy, is unannounced, yet it is discovered through the sincere love of husband and wife, a love the Wife of Bath has not experienced. She does not take her own advise to love with sincerity, but in her conclusion says, "In parfit joye;-and Jesu Crist us sende, / Housbondes meeke, yonge, fressh abedde" (48).

She concludes her tale the way she characterized her own experience in her prologue, "And eek I praye Jesu shorte hir lyves, / That nat wol be governed by hir wyves" (49). She has not stopped long enough at the well with the Samaritan woman and Jesus to discover that her needs are spiritual and emotional, and not only physical in nature.

The Parson has a unique place in the tales for it serves as the conclusion. Chaucer characterizes the Parson in the General Prologue:

And though he hooly were and vertuous,
He was to synful man nat despitous,
Ne of his speche daungerous ne digne,
But in his techyng discreet and benygne;
To drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse,
By good ensample, this was his bisynesse.
But it were any persone obstinat,
What so he were, of heigh or lough estat,
Hym wolde he snybben sharply for the nonys.
A bettre preest, I trowe, that nowher noon ys.
He waited after no pompe and reverence,
Ne maked him a spiced conscience,
But Cristes loore, and Hise apostles twelve
He taughte, but first he folwed it hym-selve. (50)
The Host during the Shipman's Prologue says of the Parson the other description we know, that he smells "a Lollere in the wynde" (51). It is a sermon that the Parson presents after he tells the Host, "Thou getest fable noon ytoold for me" (52).

The frame set around the Parson's sermon is both his sincerity and Wyclifite sympathy. Instead of a tale the Parson tells in plain truth what is needed as they approach Canterbury, confession and penance. It is what Chaucer the pilgrim needs as vulgarity and drunkenness is put aside and, "To shewe yow the wey, in this viage, / Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage / That highte Jerusalem celestial" (53). The sermon is said to all the pilgrims with, "no pompe and reverence, / Ne maked him a spiced conscience" (54), as the Parson is described in the General Prologue. His sincerity is not matched by the other clergy who struggle with at least one of the seven deadly sins that the Parson reviews in his lengthy sermon.

The Parson places all men equal under the Lord of Heaven. Wyclif was among the early reformers who “complain that the clergy fail to reprove the rich and influential, but mete out too severe penalties to the poor and obscure" (55). In the sermon itself, the Parson blends what Hudson says is, "a suggestion of Wycliffism that no contemporary reader or listener could have missed," with penance that reflects Catholic orthodoxy (56). This dual sensitivity is similar to Chaucer's own religious makeup, and because Wyclif would not be anathematized until 1415 (The Council of Constance) posthumously, this dualism was quietly and cautiously tolerated during Chaucer's day.

In conclusion, the "Lollardy Parson" puts a last impression on the Canterbury Tales that brings confession to the "Lollardy Chaucer" in his retraction. He says that if there be anything good in this book that thanks belongs to Jesus, and anything that is displeasing should be tallied as ignorance. He says his intention was for instruction, and asks, "that ye preye for me that Crist have mercy / on me, and foryeve me my giltes; and namely, of my translaciouns / and enditynges of worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in my / retracciouns" (57).

He hopes that Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints would, "grant me the grace of true penitence, confession, and expiation in this present life; through the benign grace of Him Who is King of kings and Priest over all priests." Chaucer confesses his sin as the pilgrims approach Canterbury, a confession that is to "alle that herkne thai litel tretys or rede" (58).

It is appropriate that this voluntary confession conclude a pilgrimage that had confession amid both conversation and tale. G.K. Chesterton says that that, "the Pilgrim of Chaucer is as genuine as the Pilgrim of Bunyan. He is not in such a hurry because he is not in such a horrible fright; and there is no question of the Franklin or the Squire putting his fingers in his ears and fleeing from London as from a City of Destruction. But he is none the less really fleeing to Canterbury as a City of Salvation" (60). This is the purpose of Chaucer, that though we must waddle through the sins in the pilgrims' conversations and tales, the holy cathedral stands to make amend for every pilgrim that seeks to find salvation.


Canterbury Tales is referenced according to the following Chaucer online resource:

(1) 1:722-726. (2) G.K. Chesterton, for example, in Chaucer (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969) says in effect that Chaucer and Wyclif were similar in their sympathies toward discipline but not toward doctrine; Chaucer never condemns the Catholic Church to the degree of Wyclif (52-55). Muriel Bowden says, "Chaucer never became an avowed Lollard as did some of his friends" (Commentary on the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. New York: MacMillan, 1967, p 9). (3) For example Muriel Bowden who tends to think that this is the reality of the late fourteenth century, that it had old and new in constant contradiction. (4) West, Richard. Chaucer 1340-1400, The Life and Times of the First English Poet. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000, p 178-79. (5) West, Chapter 9, "Wyclif and the Friars," p 166-186. (6) Aston, Margaret. Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literary in Late Medieval Religion. London: Hambledon Press, 1984, p 57; Hudson, Anne. The Premature Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, p 294-301. Hudson simply defines Wyclif's view of confession as 1) it should not be mandated and 2) need not be oral (to a priest). (7) As seen in the tales of the Prioress and the Second Nun. (Also, West, p 182.) Though the issue of Mary is not among Wyclif’s main grievances of Rome, the simple point is that Chaucer remained dedicated to the Catholic vision. Note too that pilgrimage being central to the story supports Chaucer as maintaining the Catholic faith. Hudson references the negative views Wyclif had for pilgrimages. Also John A.F. Thomson in The Later Lollards 1414-1520 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965. p 28) refers to the Lollard feeling that it was better to give alms to the poor than go on a pilgrimage. (8) 1:745-748. (9) The telling of a tale is even somewhat voluntary, as all the pilgrims agree to the Host’s suggestion before the journey. This would be similar to Wyclif’s view that confession should be voluntary. It is safe to say that the told tales are voluntary, but under the heavy hand of the Host. (10) 1:771-772. (11) 1:708. (12) 1:232. (13) 21:55-59. (14) Brother Anthony of Taize (Sogang University, Seoul, Korea) in "Chaucer and Religion." (First published in a miscellany offered to Professor Lee Gun-sop of Ewha University, Seoul. Published in current form on the Canterbury Tales website.) He states the role of reader as judge and pilgrimage as one that leads to Hell or Heaven, but he does not address the aspect of confession. He asks questions of the reader like, "Will we agree to which tale ought to win?" and, "What are we looking for? Sentence, truth, or entertainment?" I would argue that questions of spirituality and sinfulness, confession and lack of such on this holy path is what should be on our minds as readers. Also look at "'Modernizing' Chaucer" by Donald R. Howard in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1988, p 62. (15) 1:728-731, 733-736. (16) 3:37-40 . (17) The Manciple confronts the drunkenness of the Cook saying to him, "thy visage is ful pale. / Thyne eyen daswen eek, as that me thynketh, / And wel I woot, thy breeth ful soure stynketh. / That sheweth wel thou art nat wel disposed, / Of me, certeyn, thou shalt nat been yglosed" (50:30-34). (18) 32:17. (19) 3:60-61. (20) 5:15-18. (21) 5:63-66. (22) 6:399-401. (23) 28:99-103. (24) 30:562-564. (25) Matthew 19: 8-9. (26) 30: 13-16. (27) 30:686. (28) 38:6, 14-15. (29) 40:9-14. (30) 43:10-11. (31) 43:13, 16-18. (32) 3:9,18. (33) 2:393-407. (34) 2:807-816. (35) 2:2135, 2151-52. Here Jupiter is mentioned as the supreme being. (36) 2:2178. (37) 4:205-207. (38) 4:316-317. (39) 5:4. (40) 4:268. (41) 4:667. Brother Anthony points out, "We probably do not laugh in real life at people getting hurt and badly burned, marriage vows being broken, friendship being abused. What is our laughter expressing, and what moral stance does it support? Is everything okay if we only can laugh?" The Miller eludes God’s privity because he is scared of conclusions that may not offer laughter. (43) 6:400-401. (43) 29:304-305. (44) 29:442-446. (45) 29: 486-487. (46) 31:182-183. (47) 31:374-377. (48) 31:402-403. (49) 31:405-406 . (50) 1:517-530. (51) 12:11. (52) 52:31. (53) 52:49-51. (54) 1:527-528. (55) Bowden, 237. (56) Hudson, 392. She notes the Parson's refusal "to provide a fable, prefers to scatter whete than draf [chaff], and speaks not of Canterbury but 'Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage / That highte [is called] Jerusalem celestial.'" She says further, "To an educated Londoner of the 1390s, for whom Chaucer was writing, such language, such satire and unabashed admiration for such ideals must have recalled Wyclif and his followers." Aston (16), Bowden (237-238), and West (182) support similar suggestions. (57) 54:10-13. (58) 54:1-2. (59) G.K. Chesterton.

black rebel howls

by Zach Kincaid
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked… angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night… (Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, 1956)

Atlanta’s Roxy is dark. It’s nine o’clock. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is set to take the stage. Drinks mix with smokes and tangle between leather jacket types and high rise office hipsters. A single spotlight turns on. The piano waits at the end of it.

The Wild One, a 1954 film starring Marlin Brando, is based on the Hollister motorcycle riot which accentuated the tense lines dividing the marginalized and the mainstream of society. The film is the source of the Black Rebel name. Before 2005’s Howl, Black Rebel’s loud vibe was sharpened by this literary drawl – a gritty rock band that doesn’t play by the rules. Now, those impulse sounds are fused with more layers – a smoothed out mix that makes Howl zydeco punk… beatnik folk… starry dynamo.

The show starts when Peter Hayes walks out and sits down at the piano. “I leave myself behind in pieces,” he sings, “I know you'll need them when I'm gone.” His band mates still absent, Peter turns to the guitar and harmonica and belts out,

Restless sinner, rest in sin,
He's got no face to hold him in.
He feels his day's as dark as night,
He's been waiting with the blind just to find a place to hide his ghost.

Robert Been and Nick Jago join Peter as “Shuffle Your Feet” cautions that the peaceful protest keeps war in demand. Then everything stops as if time were to save souls. Back again. An infectious riff plants the attending eyes on the silhouetted threesome as they start “Ain’t No Easy Way,” their first single from Howl.

Everything feels desperate – the throwback strobe effect, the instruments rarely used at rock shows (like the appearance of a trombone and a makeshift accordion later in the show), the gut effort of Been who had the flu, the violent appeal to something more… for something more.

“White Palms” has Hayes hanging on doubt and prayer:

Jesus, when you coming back
Jesus never coming back
Jesus won't take me back
Jesus never coming home…
I wouldn't come back if I'd have been Jesus
I'm the kinda guy who leaves the scene of the crime.

Tease this with a little “Shade of Blue” anecdote that gives up, “U.S. Government” that drums out the deception of what is seen and what lies undercover “to keep a smile,.. to keep me in line… to keep me high,” and landing with “Stop” which seems to personify a drug dependence and admits that, “We don't know where to stop / I try and I try but I can't get enough / I won't fail you but you won't bleed for me.”

The trail leads the band and audience to recognize struggle and push toward what it means to be whole. Black Rebel dragged itself from a band breakup and various drug addictions, so the weight of the world and the promise held out and not forgotten are strong notes played out after “Stop” and before “Gospel Song.” It is here that Black Rebel lingers. A hymn-like ballad on the album progresses to full electric vibes tonight. And it lingers and it lingers as if improvising finds its heights stuck between two verses of walking and staying with Jesus.

The encore didn’t relax the prodding that makes Black Rebel more folk than rock. For example, "Devil’s Waitin'" seems ready to settle into a framework and hedge a bet that the devil may not be around the corner and there is some value in experiencing the battle and war... that there may be someone to, "Pull me up, on the other side," and not "leave me standing alone in the light."

Black Rebel knows how to blend a five act play into their show, dipping and driving for crescendo before dashing down again, only saved by conclusion and contentious hope. Their layers are peeled back with a vulnerable piano at the start and a tired accordion sucking air at the close. The in-between is a dance of sensuality and sincerity that makes you rally around questions of Jesus and love and long for some other answer besides the refrain "And we may never be here again."

And, to return to Ginsberg, his angst might fuel Howl in the sense of wander, but, where Ginsberg leaves off with little directive, Black Rebel pulls in with their anxiety and hooks on to a distant hope evident in the reversal: "And we may/hope to be here again."

If you have a moment, visit Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, likely my newest favorite find, at And, if you have a chance to see their show, go check it out.

the pity of bilbo baggins and the israeli-palestinian conflict

by Gary Alley
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13)

Dec. 2006 - I began living in Jerusalem in August, 1995, and was quickly initiated into the harsh realities of Israel's volatile political climate when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up wounding and killing many passengers on their daily bus ride in Jerusalem. I would later come to know two of those wounded passengers as friends and colleagues. To this day they will not talk about what happened. This was my first encounter with the Israeli-Palestinian battle for land and peace of which I only knew vaguely from newspaper clippings and prophecy books.

November of that year, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a young religious Jew, who was against Rabin returning land to the Palestinians through peaceful negotiations. Rabin’'s leadership in the peace process was considered exemplary because he had been a decorated general in the Israeli wars against the Arabs. The murder of Rabin exposed the immense political canyon which divided Israel evenly into two camps: one side for peace negotiations with the Palestinians and the other side against. Rabin's assassination in Israeli history is comparable to the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations in American history where the country is shaken to its core and a time of soul searching and questioning begins. I visited Tel Aviv and the site of Rabin's assassination just days after he was murdered. There were TV cameramen, mulling throngs, thousands of memorial candles, and Rabin’s portrait painted on the wall in the background. Alongside his deadpan face was scrawled in Hebrew, "the incitement continues."

I spent my first Christmas in Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace, with a gigantic five story high portrait of Yasser Arafat ominously staring down upon me and the masses of young Muslim men who had gathered from Hebron to celebrate Israel’s initial withdrawl from parts of the West Bank in December '95. Though few Christians were present at Bethlehem's first Palestinian Authority-controlled Christmas celebrations, I did have the chance to converse with different Muslims who invited me to visit them.

In January, I took two Muslim Arabs up on their offer, visiting their homes in Hebron along with touring the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Abraham's Oaks of Mamre. Through these visits with Palestinians, a new perspective concerning the land of Israel was opening up to me. I started to see there were two sides to the story. Hebron was a strife-filled city made up of over 100,000 Arabs with a Jewish settlement of a few hundred in the very heart of the town square. This Jewish settlement had crippled the daily life of the resident Arabs because of the briar patch of Israeli soldier check-points which impeded and harassed Arab traffic. The Jewish settlers were living there because they understood it to be their God-given inheritance. This tiny obstinate Jewish enclave was like an annoying bee pestering an enormous bear slowly awaking from its sleep in Hebron.

This newfound understanding was quickly stunted with my return to Jerusalem. When I attended my local Hebrew class the next day, I had planned to share about my adventures in Hebron. Before I was able to "show and tell," our teacher came into class and started crying. The principal’s son who was an Israeli medical soldier had been shot and killed by Palestinian gunmen on the very night I had returned to Jerusalem, on the same road which I had traversed in an Arab taxi leaving Hebron.

At that time, I lived in the same apartment building as the school's principal. I did not really know her, but I had seen her around. Not knowing what to do concerning her son's death, I wrote her a card. A couple of weeks later she saw me and sadly thanked me. Her face had aged; I never saw her smile again.

Around this time the Israeli government was cracking down on Palestinian terrorists, especially ones who were designing suicide bombs. The most notorious of these bomb-makers was Yehia Ayyash, nicknamed "the Engineer." Ayyash, an engineering student, was known to have developed the explosive device which was first used by Palestinian suicide attacks starting in 1992. This tactic had been responsible for killing 77 people and wounding more than 300 others from 1992 through 1995. Israeli authorities believed that Ayyash himself had built bombs which had murdered 35 victims and he had trained others in his deadly trade.

In the middle of January '96, Israeli agents succeeded in assassinating Ayyash in the Gaza Strip by detonating a miniature bomb secretly implanted in the cellular phone that he was talking on. It would seem that "the Engineer" had been aptly repaid, for he had flourished as a bomb-maker and had died by the very scourge he had proliferated. Ayyash's death was not the end of the suicide bombings, though, but a hydra that spawned forth many of "the Engineer's" bomb-making disciples.

Soon after Ayyash's assassination, the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas, quickly responded with a lethal barrage of suicide bombings in February, 1996. All hell broke loose in Israel as five terrorist attacks were carried out within a week's time. Over a hundred were wounded and dozens were killed. What personally hit close to home were two buses on line 18 that blew up on Jerusalem's downtown artery, Jaffa Road. The first bus exploded on an early Sunday morning and the next one blew up on the following Sunday morning, seven days later.

That second bus bombing occurred around six in the morning. Living within a mile of the attack, I went down that morning to witness the horrible aftermath. This last bombing had sent the citizens of Jerusalem into an angry frenzy against the Israeli government and the peace process, which was being continued by then Prime Minister Shimon Peres. There were bellicose crowds straining against police mounted on horses as orthodox Jews scoured the road, sidewalk, trees, advertisement signs, and building facing for remains of flesh from passengers on the ill-fated bus. This gathering of flesh is standard for every bombing in Israel in order to completely bury someone for their body's physical resurrection. I stood there and watched as shards of glass blown out of once familiar shop windows now lying on the ground were combed through by those looking for pieces of humanity. The broken glass, slivered and splattered on the sidewalk, reflected my face.

Three years later, I would visit the student office of Hamas at the Islamic University in Gaza City. Just as I had gazed upon the post-mortem portrait of Rabin memorializing his struggle for peace, I would stare into the eyes of an iconic painting of Yehia Ayyash, "The Engineer," hanging in the Hamas student office. Much like the immaculate mother showing no worldly emotion as she holds out her messianic child, so too Ayyash’s face was stern as his hand was activating a detonator splintering an Israeli bus beneath him into fire, blood, and skulls. At this shrine of Palestinian martyrdom the ideological worshiper was reminded of what drives this suicidal religious zealotry, with Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock looming behind the other-worldly "Engineer."

During my first six months in the "Holy Land," I had stared upon the gallows of prejudice and hate which was slowly choking the life out of two peoples. There was no longer any room to justify the oppression, humiliation, or terrorization of another person in spite of so-called biblical promises or religious fanaticism. Both Israelis and Palestinians were daily destroying one another, through settlements and suicide bombers. Israelis wanted peace and the Palestinians wanted justice yet neither group would extend the hand of mercy. More so than any apocalyptic omen of doom, the ageless words of the Bible began to resound within me: "love your neighbor as yourself."

Since September 2000, Israel and the Territories have been experiencing the most recent Palestinian uprising, dubbed "the al-Aksa Intifada." This time, the stakes are much higher than they were immediately following Rabin's murder. Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, who signed the Oslo Peace Accords alongside Rabin in 1993, stands at death's door today. He has much less to show for the Oslo peace initiative than the assassinated Israeli prime minister did six years prior. Every time that a Palestinian suicide bomber, gunman, or terrorist attacks the fearful Israeli public with belligerent actions, Israel's air force and army follow suit, recompensing the already beleaguered Palestinian masses with terrible vengeance. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…back and forth the two return evil for evil.

It does not take a wise man to recognize that Arafat's reign has crumbled beyond his control. Recently, Arafat threatened one of his top lieutenants with a gun. Yet Arafat's death or removal will not ease the boiling cyst which consumes this land. Israel's present prime minister, Ariel Sharon also is not unfamiliar with violence and bloodshed. His murky association with the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian massacres during the Lebanon War led to his resignation as Israeli Defense Minister in the early 80's. He is not comparable to Rabin as a peacemaker by any stretch of the imagination.

Since September 2000, more than a thousand people have died in the Land due to the escalating violence. For every Israeli that dies, three Palestinians die. Many Palestinian homes, farms, and trees have been destroyed and uprooted for Israeli security measures. Since the "al Aksa Intifada" began, over seventy Palestinian militants have been assassinated like "the Engineer" was in '96. Instead of eliminating the terrorist threat, these actions by the Israeli government have only solidified the grassroots of the Palestinian cause; for every militant who is assassinated ten children step up to take his place.

In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Frodo the hobbit wishes that his Uncle Bilbo Baggins would have killed his nemesis, Gollum, long ago when he first had the chance. Gandalf the wizard reproves Frodo, while praising Bilbo's mercy towards Gollum. "Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends… and when [the end] comes, the pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many—yours not least." So too, the future of Israel and the Middle East waits upon the pity of Bilbo Baggins.

aristide and the endless revolution

by Zach Kincaid
Namphy or Aristide - who’s better? For most of us the comparison is too foreign or convoluted to rightly answer. Perhaps if we ask, “Pericles or Pisistratus? How about that? Who’s better here?”

“It’s all Greek to me,” say most, and they never squirm out of their clichés. But these questions matter. Although time gapes a divide between them, both of these pairs represent transitions to democracy. Unlike the Romans after them who cycled through revolutions, the Greeks were dealt harder blows with tyranny as a commonplace thread. Bent toward gaining control of all Athens, Pisistratus masterminded a coup D'etat, creating a feudal lordship over the poor. But the cycle changes. With Pericles, Greece begins to see the ideas of democracy mature. Pericles listens to the populace, and he is touted as the first Greek official to be voted into office by the people. The year: 462 BCE.

Turn to Haiti. The year: 1986. General Namphy is in power because he took it by force when Dictator Duvalier fled the country. With Duvalier, there were too many poor, too much hunger, too little hope. The military overthrow offered more of the same. The brutality that characterized the long Duvalier family reign continued, and similar to Pisistratus who sheltered himself with the backs of his soldiers when he took the Acropolis, Namphy brought his military men and put claims on the white palace.

Instead of heeding the new Haitian constitution and calling for elections, Namphy said, “The time has not come to have elections in Haiti, the first need of the country is not politicians but education, development, and jobs.” The international community made known their disgust and pulled out aid dollars to Haiti. Generals should know better not to become tyrants came the rebuke. But how strong was this rebuke? Haitians have long experienced oppression. Napoleon began it as he reaped Haiti’s cheap labor mines. Was removing aid dollars just a soft punch in the gut and a dance to protect that which is also most valuable to the US – cheap sweat shop labor?

But the lack of basic necessities "disturbed" the poor a little too much, and a peasant revolt began to brew quickly.

Who better to lead such a revolt other than a Catholic priest? The mantel fell on a young father, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In stark John-the-Baptizer terms, Aristide hurled accusations of greed and criminality at Duvalier, Namphy, and the Plantation owners of the United States. His parish sat in Port-Au-Prince among the most destitute. Here, as Aristide preached in the chapel one day to a packed audience, Haitian military officials burned the church. 12 people died.

It’s the texture for revolution.

Aristide embraced liberation theology, an outlook in keeping with the Salesian order of priests who work to redeem the very poorest of people. Liberation theology is rooted in the claims of Jesus as one who feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and gives drink to the thirsty. The theology stands juxtaposition to the airbrushed niceties of suburban nowheres that bomb the American landscape with indifference and selfishness. But if you look hard at liberation theology, many of its tenets are shared with socialistic systems, not democratic ones. In its raw form, democracy gives no privilege to the poor. And, in the 1980s, Reagan’s administration saw this theology as nothing more than veiled Marxism. Survey the actions in Guatemala or El Salvador or Nicaragua, where the US disrupted popular elected leaders who talked of better lives and higher wages for their immense number of poor citizens. The US funded arms to rebel groups and pulled aid from these countries.

In 1990, Haiti experienced the start of such brutality by the international community. Aristide’s popularity landed him as the first democratically elected president of Haiti.

Rossier’s film touches a nerve in this highly charged season of abusive power. The new documentary, Aristide and the Endless Revolution, asks the questions surrounding the supposed American intervention to oust Aristide, who received 67 percent of the vote his first election and close to 90 percent when he ran a second time.

Why did the first Bush administration fund the opposition military that deposed Aristide in the early 90s? Why did the Aristide board a US military airplane in 2004 and resign his position in flight?

The film offers both sides. On the side that opposes Aristide’s government, Rossier presents several voices. Most notably is Roger Noriega, the US Assistant Secretary of State at the time of Aristide’s second term in office. Time and again the interviewer asks Noriega to explain the actions of the United States in reference to the facts that are known. As to the first situation that saw a takeover of the military, Noriega suggests it was Aristide’s poor handling of the country. Noriega pays no comment to the known arms support of the Haitian military whose leaders even came to the US to train at Fort Benning and who carried US commissioned weapons.

As to the more blunt actions in 2004, Noriega acknowledges that the plane was flown by the US military but Aristide was not forced to board the plane. “He made the decision on his own,” Noriega says. Aristide, who is interviewed from his exiled home in South Africa says that’s not true, that he did not know where the plane was to land or what was to transpire. The plane was to land in the Central African Republic, a country where the US has no diplomatic ties, says one source. That is, unless Aristide resigned from office. The hole that Aristide left was quickly filled by military leaders backed by the US.

“I have ordered a deployment of marines,” says George W. Bush on February 29, 2004, the day Aristide resigned. “We are working with the international community. It is essential for a hopeful future that Haiti rejects violence for this break from the past to work.”

That doesn’t come close in explaining why a band of 200 criminals could so easily depose a democratically elected leader who received close to 90 percent of the popular vote in an election that was not contested by the UN, who monitored the results.

In an eye-opening segment during the congressional hearings on the occurrences surrounding Aristide’s exit in 2004, Representative Charles Rangel asks what the definition of “coup de tat” means to Tim Carney and Orlando Marville, who work with the Haiti Democracy Project, a group that ironically opposes Aristide. The Project receives support from several companies that have economic reasons to dislike Aristide and his movement to fix the poverty of his people. Carney says that a coup de tat is a blow against the State. Marville cites it as a forcible take over of power. “What does not make this a coup de tat?” asks Rangel. “We have rebels, force, fear, flee.”

The Haiti Democracy Project clearly states that Aristide failed to deliver on his promises, willfully misgoverned, and as a result produced violence for a decade. Those who support Aristide acknowledge that Haiti is indeed “in crisis” and has long been in such a situation. Ray Laforest is a Haitian social activist that it defies logic to not support Haiti with aid knowing poverty of its citizens. “It’s a crime against humanity,” he says.

This question of aid divides those who know the Haitian plight. The opposition suggests that aid was indeed going to Haiti – 850 million dollars in aid. The side that questions such a response makes clear that these millions were not going to assist the government of Aristide - to assist a people to go from “abject misery to dignified poverty.” Rather, they were going to third parties. Representative Maxine Waters makes this point clear when she weeds out an affirmative response from Noriega who agrees that the transactions with Haiti did not directly go to Aristide to rebuild his country. (Noriega resigned from his post in July 2005.) And without such aid and the US-France trade embargo in full force, supporters say Aristide had a near impossible situation on his hands. Nevertheless, sustained peace occurred and progress seemed to gain momentum in Haiti.

Haiti might have worked. But, Aristide wanted to fix the problems of low wages, the class wars of rich and poor, and service basic needs like clean water and hospitals. What makes for a better life in Haiti might infringe on the cheap labor that its citizens provide for companies like Wal-Mart and Disney – no more than $0.50 per day per worker in sweatshop conditions.

It appears that the actions of Aristide did in fact live up to the principles of his religious beliefs to love the poor and his political convictions to fix a broken caste system propagated in Haiti since its earliest days.

The documentary ends with Aristide. “You can do your best to kill the truth,” he says, “But you won’t be able to kill it.”

Why is the world’s super power gutting the lowly that sit around them? Haiti joins the list with countries Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Jamaica. Is it the need for cheap labor and cheap goods? Is it a deliberate attempt to hold power over our neighbors?

The documentary leaves a taste of revolution in your mouth, that young take-on-the-world feeling before fists swing. It provides a context to ask what foreign policy is being enacted by the US not only in Haiti but in the other land masses that receive bombs bursting in air. The question is whether the US flag will still be there and along with it the experiment of America, as G.K. Chesterton puts it, that all people are created equal.

scientific mythologies: are aliens invading your religion?

An MHP Interview with James Herrick
Are there windows in the sky? If you listen to late night radio, the windows are flung wide open. The earthen sky to these true believers (or avid conspirators) is steaming with alien touchdowns and close calls. Are they good, evil, past morality, or even there at all? Most people land at the latter. But there is a growing population that rallies behind the idea of extraterrestrials - people who don't stomp on couches and who aren't necessarily waiting for the mother ship.

In reading James Herrick's new book Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs it's clear that the aliens that populate our imagination have a growing role to play in religion. Certainly we know of Scientology given the goofs of Cruise and Travolta. Less known is the Jedi faith (based in Star Wars) but it's numbers will surprise - 400,000 in a 2000 census in Britain alone.

Herrick starts early with the surprising history of science fiction beginning with BCE speculators like Thales, Democratis and Lucretius who thought earth was one of many worlds. He spends the majority of the book in the last 150 years, where the idea of our world interacting with visitors from other worlds has spurred on both fear and hope. If aliens are bad, maybe they will destroy us. If they're good, perhaps they will advance us into their dimension.

I recently asked Herrick about his book and subjects that span from the newest Indiana Jones film to Jacob's ladder to CERN to where heaven might be physically located.

MHP: First, what is your interpretation of the newest Indiana Jones film in light of your study of this field? Were you able to read the piece that someone wrote in Books & Culture comparing this film that includes aliens with the other films that have religious symbols in the center of the action? The author was not too keen on this latest installment. I wonder what your take is on the film especially in light of the evidences that you bring to light about the Soviet Union's work to find aliens and learn from them - and the idea that this pursuit doesn't seem far off the mark of true spirituality, perhaps...

James Herrick:
I came away from the latest Indiana Jones film feeling that audiences would not have been able to make sense of the story were it not for the propagation over the past fifty years or so of what I term the myth of paleo-contact. This is the narrative argument that early human civilizations were contacted by extraterrestrials who shaped human thought and practice about religion, law, social arrangements, technology, and art. Erich von Daniken’s books such as Chariots of the Gods famously developed the idea in the 1960s and 70s, and it has had its proponents in more recent science fiction such as the various iterations of Star Gate.

My other reaction was that this is the latest Spielberg-Lucas effort to tap the public’s fascination with the spiritual possibilities inherent in the idea of the alien-other, a fascination cultivated by a large number of members of the science and science fiction communities, including, importantly and not surprisingly, Spielberg and Lucas.

Finally, the movie reflects a gnostic impulse at work when it presents “knowledge” as the real treasure of these mysterious extra-dimensional beings. This is one version of our new spiritual hope.

MHP: Paul says to be kind to the stranger because they may be angels unaware. Jesus escapes the earth by way of a cloudy craft and Elijah on a descending and ascending fiery chariot. We see the sky ripped open for fire to drop down, food to be lowered, and brighter lights to hang loose and guide the wise or blind (like Paul on the Damascus Road). This interchange with the heavens appears active in the Jewish and Christian narratives (as you talk about in chapter nine to some degree).

1. A few questions: Could it be that angels are the cause of these sightings that the contemporary world reports? (Thinking here, perhaps, of Jacob's dream.)

2. It appears that Christianity especially has to reconcile the mobility that we hold to with our beliefs and the possibilities that galaxy may brim with life... because God is working from heaven—somewhere outside the bounds of our gravitation. Is this migration similar to the sci-fi hope or need to transcend this world (or planet) and into another?

3. Jesus leaves on a cloud. What is your take on that "magic ship?"

JH: I tend to think that the situation is the other way around. The contemporary reports gain some credibility because of their tendency to imitate supernatural events described in the Bible and elsewhere. Angelic messages and other supernatural manifestations in the Bible tend to occur as part of a meaningful narrative, and not as random events. Moreover, the messages they convey or reinforce are consistent with other messages conveyed by less spectacular means. They are not, in other words, random and indecipherable. Most such contemporary events are both random and indecipherable.

Much of the appeal of science fiction and speculative science, with their continuous reference to outer space and the alien other, reflects the human desire for transcendence. The cosmos that naturalism presents us is devoid of enchantment, of the supernatural, of magic. Much, though certainly not all, science fiction offers a version of transcendence and enchantment, but without God. That, of course, is an important difference from the biblical narratives.

I think this is a way of expressing what Jesus’ ascension looked like to the witnesses present on the scene. It may be the best the gospel writers could provide by way of an analogy—whatever occurred reminded them of a cloud. Any importation of a vehicle is an addition made by modern imaginations prepared by much later narratives to see “ships” in various unlikely places.

MHP: Where is heaven? Is it on a planet somewhere?

JH: I don’t think heaven is located on a planet, though the idea of a transformed earth as playing an important role in the eternal order of things is prominent in the Bible.

I appreciate the context you create for the current fascination with the aliens—that there is a history of thinkers and writers who have wondered what's up there and why the earth is on such a stage. You spend some time explaining why there has been an influx of interest in the skies and various kinds of alien races. If you would, could you summarize your view about why aliens and why now?

JH: A great deal of modern alien fascination, which begins at least as early as the seventeenth century, is due to the desire to find an other-worldly substitute for the God and angels of the Bible who were being forced off the scene by popular English, French, German and Dutch biblical criticism beginning around 1680. The fascination has gained important impetus in the past century or so from visualizations in both written and cinematic science fiction (we started to “see” them), as well as in some speculative science. Alien abduction accounts have also played a role, and these begin in earnest around the time that nuclear weapons, jet flight, and talk of rocket flight to space are beginning. A number of developments, that is, lent plausibility to an idea that was already shaping our corporate imagination. Recent cinema and written fiction have made the extraterrestrial alien as familiar as other exotica such as the frogs of the Amazon rain forest. The fact that the former has never actually been observed is sometimes forgotten.

MHP: Building from the previous question, how does the Shavian Superman of modernity and the omnipresent convergent world of today's post-modernity play into and of out of these ideas of something out there... and ultimately something in us? Do you see some similarities and differences?

JH: The superman of Shaw, Nietzsche, and science fiction writers such as Philip Wylie in his seminal novel Gladiator (1931) is an important character in our dreams of the future, particular as these dreams are about ourselves. Of course, in our own familiar Superman the ideas begin to blend. The Man of Steel is, in fact, a “superior” alien. But, because he is also much like us, he holds out the possibility of a post-human future. This was Wylie’s idea in the first real superman narrative, the one that likely gave rise to the more familiar Clark Kent version. Wylie’s superman—Hugo Danner—was the result of an experiment (by Hugo’s father) in chemical eugenics. Earlier fictional supermen, such as those of Bulwer-Lytton (Coming Race) and Wells (Food of the Gods), are also dreams of a possible human future. Unfortunately, these dreams seldom embrace anything like racial diversity.

MHP: Do you believe in an active God who not only acts inside our planet's history but shapes it for its end? It seems that this hunt for alien life is digging too far in the caves as Tolkien's dwarfs do or building too high a structure like the Babel story of the Bible. Do you feel that these questions are poking out into a galaxy (or the heavens) and demonstrating our godlike behavior in conceited ways (stemmed from the Garden tree)?

JH: I do believe that the God revealed in the Bible was and is sovereign over human history. The biblical narrative is redemptive in nature—God is working for the redemption of humanity as well as of the rest of creation. We have forgotten God, but still hope for redemption. That search has taken a large number of post-Christian artists and scientists into territories that suggest more about human hubris in the absence of Godly restraint than they do about the human future or our capacity to save ourselves. Eden and Babel are very much with us, though now enhanced by digital imagery and spectacular laboratories.

MHP: What are your thoughts on the CERN experiments? Are these products, at least in part, to the sci-fi hunt toward something more scientific?

JH: Christians are not opposed to science. In fact, it was the Christian worldview that made science as we know it possible. CERN is just among the latest and biggest scientific efforts. What is more revealing is the popular discourse about what we might discover via CERN and other technologies. Our guiding narratives always tell the more interesting story, so to speak.

MHP: And on a lighter note... What are your top five best sci-fi films? Books?

JH: Films - The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2001, Close Encounters, Contact, The Matrix. Books - The Coming Race (1871), Childhood’s End, VALIS, Dune, Out of the Silent Planet.

(November 2008 | For more information about Scientific Mythologies: How Science and Science Fiction Forge New Religious Beliefs by James Herrick visit InterVarsity Press. Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid)

subverting global myths

An MHP Interview with Vinoth Ramachandra
There are six that need subverting, according to author Vinoth Ramachandra: terrorism, religious violence, human rights, multiculturalism, science, and postcolonialism. In his new book, Subverting Global Myths, Ramachandra cuts through the notions (preconceived and postconceived) of our well manicured Western ideals and in so doing subverts another myth: that Christian authors can write these sorts of challenging books on a Christian press.

The categories Ramachandra helps redefine are often check-offs for socially conscious people who don't want spoon-fed media or liquid faith or chatty politics. But in every movement the book offers fresh insight to connect the dots of history, politics, religion and, in many cases, the thieves that Americanism hangs out with.

I talked with Vinoth Ramachandra about his new book recently.

MHP: The title of your book, Subverting Global Myths, what do you mean by this since most will quickly equate myth with stories that may be untrue but have some point to gain or lose. Is this how you're defining myth?

Vinoth Ramachandra: I take myths in the sense of large-scale public stories that a culture, institution or wider society tells about itself. They give its members a sense of meaning and identity, making them feel good about themselves. They often contain some grains of truth, but these are usually blown out of all proportion and counter-truths are suppressed. For instance, think of the way that many American Christians have been brought up to think of the USA’s prosperity as having been founded on the “Protestant work ethic” and “free markets”.

MHP: So the book tackles six major myths. For the readers who may not know, these myths are terrorism, religious violence, human rights, multiculturalism, science, and postcolonialism. If you would, briefly expound on a couple of these to give a picture of how you see these as standing out as points of deceitfulness. I'm particularly interested in briefs on the myths of postcolonialism and multiculturalism.

VR: These six concepts are not myths in themselves. They are rather areas in which myths are generated, either intentionally or unintentionally. For instance, the discourse of postcolonialism itself challenges widespread myths about the neutrality of anthropological research, the voiceless colonial subject, the contrast between a “Western mind” and the “Eastern mind”, and so on. But it is blind to myths that it, in turn, generates in the academy, such as the identification of Christianity with the colonial project, the irrelevance of religion to social emancipation, or the objectivity of its own readings of postcolonial globalization. “Multiculturalism”, likewise, has come to mean different things in different contexts. One common myth is that cultures are the prime source of identity for all people, another that cultures occupy self-enclosed spaces that never overlap or interact with others.

MHP: Your opening chapter seems to make the United States a terrorist among a world of terrorists, ignorant and arrogant at the same time. Did I read that right?

If so, what is the call to the church in the United States?

VR: I live in a country where the state uses methods of terror against people it calls “terrorists”. I can be imprisoned under draconian anti-terrorist legislation for simply making this comment, or if my book got into the hands of some people in the government. Now, if I can take such personal risks in writing about my own country in this way, I don’t understand why Americans, and especially American Christians who confess every Sunday that it is Jesus who is Lord and not the President or Congress, cannot do the same: namely, take a long hard look at your history over, say, the past 50 years, and decide where on the spectrum of “terrorism” your own government lies.

It is only Americans who seem to think that voting Republican or Democratic makes a real difference to what the US does in the world. The rest of the world, at least those of us who have read recent history, do not think so. The Bush-Cheney administration has become the whipping boy of the Democratic left who endorsed policies under previous administrations which were not so different to what we have seen in the past eight years. So the call to the church is: wake up and think as members of a global community and not as Americans. Behind the challenge of terrorism lies an even bigger one: will the new US administration continue America’s “exceptionalism”, or will they bring their nation under the rule of international law and of internationally-agreed treaties that seek the global common good?

MHP: The words of Jesus came to mind as I read through your book. He said on several occasions, "You have heard it said... but I tell you..." How do you stay critical and not make that criticism that stomps throughout this text into something cynical?

VR: I am very surprised that you only see criticism in this book. The bulk of it is a dialogue with complex issues. My arguments are usually nuanced, and in several places I suggest what I think are constructive ways forward.

MHP: Let me rephrase because certainly I see that your arguments are not only critical and I agree that you point to several ways forward. My intent in the question was more general than your text alone. I think it is easy for the Church global to become cynical and not talk through the complicated issues before them and in their criticism (or worse, their cynicism) they don't always point to the exits as to ways forward. Rather, the majority of congregants take a blind eye to the larger issues. So, my question is: what do you see are the guiding principles or disciplines that you deem helpful to see into these issues and hopefully participate in their redemption?

VR: There are sections of the global church that have been prophetically responsive to these issues for a long time. For instance, the World Council of Churches and the Vatican have often been way ahead of secular voices critiquing the ideology of economic growth and speaking out on environmental degradation and justice for the poor. Sadly, the majority of Christians-like the rest of society- only wake up to issues when they themselves suffer the consequences. Good examples are severe climate changes caused by global warming and the corruption and absurdities of the global financial system. I point out in my book that Christians have to stop thinking the way their political leaders want them to think, i.e in terms of 'national interest' or 'we, the American people' and start thinking as citizens first of God's universal kingdom. This would mean that, on every issue, we ask not 'how will this affect me or my nation?', but instead questions such as 'how will this affect the poorest of the world's people'?, 'how will this promote the global common good?', ' who are the most vulnerable groups and how will this enhance or reduce protection for them?', and so on. That is part of what it means to think with the mind of Christ.

MHP: You bring to light this idea of Juergensmeyer's about "email ethnicities." How do we act in a world that is quickly becoming borderless? Do we fight for no side? Is everything leveled and no claims of justice able to be made... even if tainted?

VR: It is a myth that the world is borderless. Only the rich (with rich nation’s passports and foreign bank accounts) see it that way. But, in any case, Christian identity is never defined by borders. Christians need to discipline themselves to read history not from the perspective of their ethnic or national communities but, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, “from the underside” (that is, the victims of both nationalism and globalization). That is not easy, but it is easier now than in our grandparents’ day because the Church is now truly global and can correct our narrow perspectives. Also, access to information is faster.

MHP: Why does it matter to know that the pizza was first made in Egypt and that rice came from Arab hands and chocolate was born out of South America?

VR: It might make us less ethnocentric. We have all learned and borrowed from each other over history, not just food but ideas and technologies, which makes talk of an inevitable “clash of civilizations” very silly.

MHP: You state that no pagan writer has raised the question whether human beings have inherent value irrespective of social value or any other label. In contrast, you state that Christianity does see this equalization and base it on a Jewish idea of the imago dei. How does that work, when on the street it appears the Judaism and Christianity have a severe lacking in working this idea out. Also, many of your references in the human rights chapter point out the Old Testament and little of the New, other than Jesus saying to love one's enemies, a command that comes much earlier by way of Confucius, at least. I guess, my question is what does it matter if in theory the Jews/Christians have pointed to this imago dei (which seems to be in other creation myths as well) if in fact it has not really been practiced?

VR: Frankly, I don’t know any non-biblical creation story that gives such a high view of humankind as does the Genesis story. I would like you to show me one. Anyway, I mention not only the imago dei but also the Christian doctrines of incarnation and resurrection as what have inspired people down the centuries to defend the value and equality of those human beings whom others considered worthless. I give some examples in my book, as well as confronting the failure of the Church in many periods of its history to live up to what its own foundational doctrines taught. The disobedience of the Church does not mean that we should “rubbish” all its history. Rather we continue to recover the Church’s contribution to what many secular thinkers take for granted today (until they step into societies untouched by the Christian gospel).

MHP: Agreed about the intensity of the Genesis story related to the "high view of humankind"... but I question whether it begins here, meaning that there seems to be ancient cultures that respect a high view of humankind as it defines itself by way of the divine. However, I concede that the Genesis narrative satisfies this need inside humanity in ways that pagan faiths are a far paler reflection.

Moving on to eugenics that you talk through in your chapter on science. I was curious if you were familiar with Chesterton's rant against eugenics in 1922. In Eugenics and Other Evils, he says a number of things that can have wide application (a typical Chesterton trait) and one is this: "The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal." Is this applicable to your thesis?

VR: I am not familiar with this book, but the quote sounds typically Chestertonian. I am unclear how it relates to my arguments.

MHP: Eugenics like so many modern ideas, value individuals not for their own sake but for their productivity - their functionality or usefulness. Certainly this is not in modernity alone. You write, "...not only does genetic selection undermine human solidarity, but it also blatantly violates the moral principle that affirms the equal worth of dignity of each human being." In a similar vein, Chesterton argues early last century that it is the normal that we've neglected and in so doing we've desensitized ourselves to the true value of human life.

Admittedly, your text is dense. At times I found myself wandering a bit as I read it simply due to the stacked criticism and explanation of world events and historical trajectories. What do you say about a common family, and thankfully there are more than a few of these birds in many corners of the world, who are quite naive about the plot that landed goods at their door or created enough peace or a deluge of peace that allows them to earn and keep a living? Are we to endlessly second guess and presume that what is in front of our noses hosts closets of skeletons behind it?

VR: I don’t know what “common family” you have in mind but most of my readers in the US will be college-educated or college students. They all have access to the internet, to libraries and to people from other nations and cultures not too far from where they live or work. In other words, they have access to sources of knowledge that are denied the “common family” in the country where I am living. So what’s the excuse for their continuing to be ignorant about the world? Laziness? Apathy? Fear? Surely it is the essence of citizenship in a democracy to hold accountable those who exercise power. How can we do this if we don’t question the stories they tell us? Moreover, Christian conversion- if genuine- always leads to a questioning of the status quo, a willingness to be rid of our “blinkers” and to learn how we profit through the exploitation of others, how our “peace” is secured by the torture of others, and so on.

MHP: You end with "The task of theology is to train... people who can improvise the gospel of Jesus Christ." Address this idea of improvisation.

VR: I am quoting from the theologians Tom Wright and Kevin Vanhoozer who both use the metaphor of musical improvisation to describe how we communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ in a changing world. Bach and Jazz virtuosos are the best exponents of this- music can better express some theological ideas than words. To improvise on a theme in music combines two thoughts: faithfulness to the original, and also (instead of mere repetition) a creative exploration of fresh expressions of the original. For instance, exploring the planetary aspects of Christ’s redemption in an age facing environmental catastrophe would constitute an improvisation rather than a revision of the original score of the gospel.

For more information about Subverting Cultural Myths: Theology and the Public Issues Shaping Our World by Vinoth Ramachandra visit href=" Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

culturing your culture

An MHP Interview with Andy Crouch
Go to the website of any major Christian publisher and search for books on “culture”. What you receive is a virtual Noah’s flood of materials. We’ll use IVP as our example since the book touted in this piece hails from their hands, but any of them - Zondervan, Tyndale, Eerdmans, Baker - have warehouses of titles.

Here’s a IVP pick list: Emerging Culture, How to Win the Culture War, Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment, Thinking about Pop Culture, The Hip-Hop Church, Jesus Made in America, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Or should we say, “Yadda, yadda, yadda” and invoke Seinfeld’s Kramer. For it’s Andy Crouch’s new book Culture Making that attempts to be the coffee table book about coffee tables. I suggested that there should be a package of clay that accompanies the book much like the little stand that Kramer’s book uses to become an actual coffee table, but this was likely cost prohibitive. At any rate, the world of culture books, let us say, is a Christian Charlie Foxtrot of dormant ideas that pass as passe when the sun rises the next morning. (And IVP’s list is a tame one.)

Account for all those hip sermon series by emergent church types, and we’re saps at the whims of culture.

Andy Crouch’s book is a bit different. It wants us to slow down our analysis and legions of criticism about culture and our interaction with it and actually create some of it... actually participate in the making of art and other expressions. He also seems to temper - in spurts at least - this idea that our actions should be directly related to evangelism, and world changing in the sense of a cross on every hillside.

In his chapter “Why We Can’t Change The World”, Crouch says:

"... I sometimes wonder if breathless rhetoric about changing the world is actually about changing the subject - from our own fitfully suppressed awareness that we did not ask to be brought into this world, have only vaguely succeeded in figuring it out, and will end our days in radical dependence on something or someone other than ourselves. If our excitement about changing the world leads us into the grand illusion that we stand somehow outside the world, knowing what’s best for it, tools and goodwill and gusto at the ready, we have not yet come to terms with the reality that the world has changed us far more than we will ever change it. Beware of world changers - they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin."

Although there is a back-and-forth on how to qualify and quantify culture and cultural expression. Many times the classic spheres of influence and long range effects of what we do are used as measures for successes or failure. For, Crouch says, “Culture is what we make of the world.” And certainly that’s part of it, but perhaps it’s less intended than actually setting out to sell a billion copies, oiling that marketing machine to osteen the masses.

For example, J.K. Rowling certainly had little thought of record book sales when she gave life to Harry Potter, but as an author she took pleasure to create a new world. Is it not in these types of co-creator acts that we find worship and celebration with the Arch Creator, who proclaimed his work “good” without need for audience? That’s not to belittle the fact that Harry Potter topped every sales record, but the beginning was not to produce a merchandising monster. Would not that be a most beastly motivation, the act of culturing your culture? Left Behind art?

I think Andy would agree. In his survey of cultural postures, he lands his claymation in this one line: “like our first parents, we are to be creators and cultivators...artists and gardeners.” Yes! Those gestures of condemning, critiquing, consuming, or copying are no good, he says, unless we are postured rightly.

And for the most part the posture of Culture Making is not the hunchback of other Christianity and culture books. A few weeks ago, I called Andy and we talked about his new book.

MHP: You say that culture is inescapable whether it be in my omelet or on my highway- so it's in everything. So what? For a person who doesn't analyze omelets or roads what is the message?

Andy Crouch: Culture, whether omelets or interstates, creates what I call the "horizons of possibility" for human beings. And Christians, at least, care very much about those horizons—both because we believe they are distorted and misplaced by sin, and because we have glimpsed another set of possible horizons. The biblical word shalom is one way describing a world where the horizons are in the right place. So if we're called to love our neighbor, we can't simply take the existing horizons for granted. Culture is cutting them and us off from God's shalom. So we're called to participate, in order to contribute to moving the horizons at least somewhat toward the reality that is disclosed in the gospel.

MHP: How does this message sit with a culture that is growing in its lack of literacy. Is the first act of culture cultivation helping people understand before they even try out avenues of adding to culture? Is that why there's a list of culture books like yours out there? Christian, it's not Kinkaid that we're after here. It's not Stryper... it's... what is it?

AC: I do think that one danger of my book and the title is that Christians might rush uncritically to create and contribute to what they think will change the world. Christian culture making requires a certain amount of preparation—a scriptural framework as well as cultural literacy. We haven't paid as much attention as we should to the need to patiently, seriously conserve culture, which after all is always only one generation away from extinction. It's amazing how fragile culture really is. There is a serious debate, for example, about whether the United States could land human beings on the moon today, because the generation that engineered the Apollo missions is retiring and all their tacit knowledge is being lost. The challenge is that this kind of knowledge is so much more about skill, discipline, and cultivation than simply analysis or awareness—you can have a cupboard full of recipes and yet not really know how to bake bread. So I hope that my book will not just add to the groaning shelves of Christian writing on culture, but encourage people to take up very specific disciplines of culture keeping, as well as culture making.

You talk about the workings of God and I wonder how these important cultural moments like the exodus and resurrection might play out in a global culture like our own... meaning, since so many points of information are splintered every which way, would the message be as monumental? And if not, does that effect the way in which God effects culture today... because certainly the resurrection was not the end but the dawning of more.

AC: Perhaps it is more difficult today to imagine a grand social movement. There is a sense in which our forebears picked some of the low-hanging fruit, so to speak: founding hospitals, establishing universal suffrage, ending chattel slavery. (Not that there isn't work still to be done in many parts of the world on every one of those fronts.) Today the mechanisms of culture are more fragmented and paradoxically both more global and more local. Our relationships are thinner, too. Facebook is great, but it doesn't substitute for being in the same town, working patiently together on change in that one place for many years. But I still firmly believe that the pattern of exodus and resurrection—God bringing life out of death, something out of nothing, raising the valleys and lowering the high places—is at loose in the world and in our human cultures.

MHP: Does God have a culture?

AC: I think culture was certainly God's idea—in a way, God's biggest idea—but it names the task that is distinctly for creatures made in his image. Culture is for us: it is what we are called to do. It is our response to the created world, and it has a cumulative quality that can only unfold over time. So God certainly has society, if you will—a relational reality that is the embodiment of Shalom—but because God is the eternal Creator, rather than a timebound creature, I don't think we can really say God has a culture.

MHP: The biblical vision of culture... does that involve miracles, plagues, white beards and concubines?

AC: Well, certainly the biblical record is chock full of cultural specificity, including some wild and crazy turns and twists, which I suppose is what you're getting at by mentioning white beards and concubines. Scripture tells a long, complicated story, especially in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, of a particular culture trying to work out this astonishing idea that our one god is not just our national god, but the one true God. It has all the particularity of any cultural story, and that's part of our heritage as Christians—but I would say that the biblical vision of culture, precisely as the universal nature of YHWH's identity sinks in, goes beyond any one culture to encompass all of humanity in its cultural diversity.

MHP: Does culture carry a dogma?

AC: There are some non-negotiable realities about culture, sure. Culture always happens between people. It also always happens through time. You could say there's a synchronic dimension—it has to be shared—and a diachronic dimension—it has to be handed on. For my children, for example, the world has never had anything but wireless phones. I don't think they've ever seen a phone with a cord attached. Unless I expose them to a corded phone someday, that part of culture simply won't exist for them. The other non-negotiable thing about culture is that although it is made up of concrete cultural goods, those goods always carry meaning along with them—often ultimate claims about the meaning of the world.

MHP: As believers, aren't we surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses... is that a public, a community? Is time perhaps part of culture and less so for the cultural landscape of Christians?

AC: Yes and no. It is certainly true that we are part of the communion of saints, living and dead, and in that sense we have a "public" that transcends time. And to the extent that we know their stories, know their work and writings, and most of all know the God who knows us all, they can shape our own culture making.

I remember being on the island of Lindisfarne off the coast of England a few years ago and feeling an extraordinary sense of my fellowship with, and accountability to, the great monk Cuthbert. At that moment he was as real to me as any contemporary. And yet in another way, we only know about Cuthbert because someone—a long chain of someones—passed on his story down to our time and place, through culture. The communion of
saints gives us a perspective on our moment in time, but it does not lift us out of our moment in time—we are still, like our neighbors, responsible for this place, here, now, and no other place or time.

Our culture making has to happen in response to our present world and moment, because, to paraphrase Tolkien, that is the only moment we have been given.

For more information about Culture Making by Andy Crouch visit InterVarsity Press. Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

is orthodox feminism like military intelligence?

by Kate Hallman
Orthodox Judaism has a reputation for being very patriarchal and unequal towards women. I certainly feel like a lesser member of society when banished behind the mechitsa (barrier to separate men and women), not allowed to sing in synagogue (because a woman's voice might tempt the men), and not allowed to become a rabbi.

Not everyone feels that traditional Judaism is misogynistic--those people primarily being the Orthodoxy themselves. Women are regarded as being inherently more spiritual beings than men. Following that reasoning, women don't NEED to read from the Torah in the synagogue, be counted in a minyan (10 men must be present for prayers to be held), or take part in other aspects of public religious life. Unlike much of the rest of the world, in Judaism women were never the property of their husbands. A woman can never be forced to have sex against her will, even within marriage. And women have always had the right to work outside the home (sometimes this is a necessity, as when their husbands are studying Torah all day).

The battle that is being waged has very clear boundaries, although they are extremely complicated for an outsider to decipher. First, one has to understand the nature of Jewish law. There is the written law (the Torah and other holy writings.) Second, there is the oral law which was supposedly also given to Moses on Sinai and then passed down through the years by various rabbis. It was codified into the Talmud. Basically, the written law is the big cheese not to be messed with at all, and the oral law is a fluid set of laws that can be argued about. Legal precedent is a big deal (ever wonder why there are so many Jewish lawyers?).

Some things are outright prohibited (eating pork or lighting a fire on Shabbat, for example). Some things are required (men must produce children). Some things are not required but encouraged (women having children). Some things are not forbidden by law but not outright permitted (MTV or lesbian sex). Some things are required for men but optional for women (wearing a prayer shawl). For Orthodox feminists, they are interested in the things that are not outright forbidden but, due to cultural reasons, are no longer done by women. They comb the texts for examples of Jewish women giving sermons, being kosher butchers, or wearing prayer shawls.

So why can’t we just observe at the level we feel most comfortable? In Jewish law, when something is optional but a critical mass of people feel it is necessary, it becomes obligatory. For example, there is no law saying that Jewish men should wear a kipa (yarmakule or skullcap), but you won't find a religious Jewish man without one. In the same sense, women who want to "be better Jews" by following more of the Jewish law run up against opposition by other Orthodox women. These women have a lot of children, most are the sole breadwinners in the family, and they frankly don't have the time or energy for additional obligations. The idea of "live and let live," letting the women who want additional responsibility have it and letting others stay the way they are, is an idea that simply does not work for the Orthodoxy. If the feminists believe in live and let live, it weakens their position. If a woman truly believes it is a powerful blessing to perform additional duties, then logically she should want all women to do it.

In Israel, Orthodox feminism has focused on two spheres: religious education and legal issues. In America, Jewish feminism has focused on the public sphere, specifically prayer services. Even if one works within the framework of "permitted but not done," such as reading from the Torah in public prayers or giving a sermon, they have met with fierce opposition. Many women are extremely frustrated and find they cannot both be part of the Orthodox movement and the feminist movement.

Partially in response to the American approach, Israeli Orthodox feminists have focused on the private sphere. There is the belief that anything fought for in the public sphere has some element of egoism and self-interest, whereas things in the private sphere have a purer intention. These women have argued for studying the Talmud (Jewish oral law). Orthodox women almost never receive a formal education in Jewish law--even though it is their responsibility in the family to pass on Judaism to the next generation. Many Orthodox men object, but others don't see the harm in women learning the rules of their own religion. Many have become Talmud educators, all within the Orthodox sphere--and it has been a big success. Fighting to learn Jewish law has had massive advantages when dealing with the legal sphere.

Even though parts of Israel are modern, part of the developed world, and players on the world sphere, much of Israeli family law is governed by the ultra-Orthodox, grounded in documents that were written thousands of years ago. No other society I know of--not British, not Chinese, no one--relies on laws that are that old. Regardless if you are religious or secular, in Israel you obey the Orthodoxy when it comes to family law. This includes weddings, divorces, inheritance, and other similar matters. So you can parade around in assless chaps all over Tel Aviv or never set foot in a synagogue in your whole life, but on the day of your wedding it will be presided over by an Orthodox rabbi.

First, a success story: under Jewish law, sons and daughters should not inherit equally. However, the government of Israel takes the position that progeny should inherit equally. Because this is a Jewish country, one cannot simply disregard a Jewish law. So in Israel, wills can be written that "gift" equal portions of an estate to their children. It's similar to how some Americans try to get out of paying estate taxes by deeding or gifting things to their kids.

Now, one of the big problems: under Jewish law, a woman cannot get a divorce unless her husband grants it. However, you cannot force a man to get a divorce or it is invalid. This has been a big problem for years--men disappear for whatever reason (accidents, MIA in the army) or outright refuse to grant a divorce, and there's nothing the woman or the state of Israel can do to grant that woman the right to remarry. The husbands who outright refuse present a particularly frustrating problem. Maimonides, one of the most famous Jewish scholars, advocated beating the crap out of a man until he agreed to a divorce. His argument is that a man isn't just holding a woman hostage, not letting her remarry or move on with her life, but he is holding the entire community hostage.

In Israel, they don't beat the crap out of people, but they can take away a man's money and chuck him in prison until he grants a divorce. Even at that point, some men still refuse, so there is a small population of women in Israel who are really at a loss as to what to do. The feminists took a very creative approach to this dilemma--they can't change Jewish law, but they can advocate that women ask for a pre-marital agreement in which the power of granting a divorce is turned over to the Jewish courts. Again, because they studied their Jewish laws, these women have precedents. Apparently, King David ordered all of his soldiers to write declarations that if they didn't return home within a certain period of time, their wives are automatically granted a divorce. And if it's good enough for King David, it's good enough for Joe Shlomo.

(July 2008)

a progressive friendship: shaw & chesterton

by Zach Kincaid
I want to start by placing Chesterton. He is considered part of the wider Inklings group that formally included Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and J.R.R. Tolkien. There are differences as well and it may be good to quip these off for the sake of placement. Chesterton lived from 1874-1936. That is prior to the formal Inklings and after George MacDonald who died in 1905 and of whom Chesterton wrote an introduction to a memoir written by MacDonald’s son. In it, Chesterton links MacDonald’s work as the place where he discovered that ordinary things like staircases can be enchanted. Late in life, he knew Sayers through a writers’ meeting called the Detection Club. But most of his friends, most famously, were those of whom he did not agree - politicians, authors and playwrights. He and his wife Frances never had children though they wanted them. Always orthodox, Chesterton did not formally join the Catholic Church until later in his life to the disdain of celebrities like Virginia Woolf, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw.

Chesterton was no academic in the sense of pedigree. He chose art school above traditional university and dropped out of it. Placed alongside the Inklings, his academic merit is failing.

But an academic’s life was not Chesterton’s. He became a public figure, well known for his work - week in and week out - as a journalist. And his fame extended worldwide. For example, the national and international press reported on his lectures when he visited America in 1922. In 1929, he accepted an invitation to visit with both Pope Pious XI and (separately) Mussolini (prior to Mussolini’s all-out fascism a few years later.) On the other side of the world, Gandhi was inspired by Chesterton. And in England, he made public appearances always with coattails on and sword stick in hand, usually geared up to debate the senior George Bernard Shaw, a Fabian playwright who was also his beloved friend and equally, if not, more famous than himself. Shaw called Chesterton “Man Mountain” because of his size and accused him of being “Cadbury’s property.” Chesterton had even harsher words for Shaw - heretic, puritan, and demagogue.

It is the friendship between Chesterton and Shaw that is progressive, a paradox unto its own since Progress is hotly contested between these two. They differ diametrically and I want to talk about these differences as it plays out primarily from Chesterton’s pen. I say primarily because there are exchanges of letters from Shaw to Chesterton as well as a series of debates where we hear Shaw’s point of view directly, but it is Chesterton who began fanning this difference in the public circuit and spoke out against Shaw’s propositions. There are several works of Chesterton I’ll refer to that dismantle Shaw’s modernism and showcase the threads of truth that weave him back together despite his errors.

First, Chesterton blacklists Shaw in 1905 with Heretics, where he says that he’s not concerned with the coherence of Shaw’s arguments, but rather that he is wrong, that he is a heretic of the top rank.

Second he publishes the kindly titled George Bernard Shaw in 1909, where he more gently but more extensively unmasks Shaw.

Third, Chesterton writes a play in 1913, a project Shaw had pestered him to do for years. The play is called “Magic” and it pits faith against reason, Chesterton’s sense of mystery versus Shaw’s matter of fact-ness. Shaw loved the play and financed it to release on stage but he wasn’t expecting its premise.

Lastly, is the 1926 publication of Do We Agree which is a rehash of the popular Chestershaw debate mentioned above that was moderated by Hillaire Belloc, Chesterton’s longtime collaborator.

Instead of organizing around these titles, I want to frame our time around three emphases: humor, humility, and a sense of what is holy or sacred. The real purpose is to see the Chestershaw relationship as a progressive one in that it challenges categories of simple tolerance and respect for the differences among people and forces fierce debate (a seeking out of truth) coupled with a deep love for the other person.

Each of these - humor, humility and the sacred stick on Chesterton and they fall off of Shaw. They give Chesterton the opportunity to be at once critical and light, esoteric yet exoteric, full of paradox and full of jolly Elizabethan foolishness. (Chesterton might say it’s due to his sheer body mass versus Shaw’s slender frame that these categories find a complimentary sticking point on him.)

Chesterton pegs his friend as a Puritanical progressive philosopher, dramatist, and critic. Shaw is no doubt both consistent and sensible in his approach to ethics and political systems but he is tone-deaf to the “mysterious laughter” of life. It is foreign to Shaw’s “purview altogether...” says Chesterton. “He is too grave; he is too serious.” While Chesterton talks about stars of heaven getting lost in the grass of earth, Shaw would pity the livestock that some stars might hit, or even tell you the facts that falling stars are not really stars at all... and say something like, “Beware of the man whose God is in the skies” (which he did say).

Humor and humility coat most of Chesterton’s work. While offsetting the serious tone of Shaw and other Fabians, Chesterton’s humor sparks his ability to be at once clever and poignant and create a level of comfort as laughter should do. It grounds the levity of those Goliath subjects like the philosophy of humankind inside humankind itself, the point that matters. Chesterton tells a story of a monster attacking a castle and there seems to be no hiding place. But the princess finds the only secure spot, inside the mouth of the beast. It’s the soul discovered inside carnality, the philosophy baked inside the bread of life. For example, when a publication wanted his opinion about what is wrong with the world he simply sent back the reply, “I am.” And when he published his book What is Wrong with the World, he said that he wanted to call it simply What is Wrong but discovered that when he told people “I have been doing ‘What is Wrong’ all this morning,” it didn’t receive a good response.

Shaw is not without humor (as an example, he ended a letter to the Chesterton’s “My love to Mrs. Chesterton, and my most distinguished consideration to Winkle. To hell with the Pope!” Winkle was their dog). But Chesterton says it is always trampled underneath the puritanical stranglehold of legalism. His life is void of poetry and withdraws from the “wild chastity” that allows careful or careless belief to bombard reason, weakness to take over strength, and hope to sacrifice security. That’s why biographer Garry Wills names Shaw as vain and Chesterton as humble. And laughter certainly does lead to humility rather than vanity.

Don’t you know, Chesterton surely exclaimed as loud as his high voice could take him and in-and-out of the soft laughter that lay hidden beneath nearly every sentence when he says, “It is better to speak wisdom foolishly, like the Saints, rather than to speak folly wisely, like the Dons.” According to Chesterton, Shaw is a man we should admire - the “Venus of Milo” as he calls him, but at heart he is boring, stale, and exhausted by being, for example, a vegetarian not out of moral conviction but because it is good taste to be such - it is the proper and refined alternative to cutting “lumps off of what was once living.”

Chesterton uses humor to alleviate the peculiar state of life- to be able to relate to the oddity of the rhinoceros and discover that it’s a creature that shouldn’t exist but does anyhow. When it comes to philosophy and the people behind the philosophies, Chesterton is not frivolous nor is his humor a mask that he wears, where underneath it sits what he really wants to say. He is not dishonest in his humor, but rather brutal at times.

To Chesterton, Shaw is a first rank heretic. True, Shaw is sincere and cannot err even the slightest from what he thinks is right, but that doesn’t make his theories right. And, Chesterton flat out tells him he is wrong. He measures his friend’s success by his dense consistency. If Shaw dislikes patriotism or lawlessness in one camp, he dislikes it in every camp. He does not play favorites. But this makes him robotic more than human and any sensibilities unnatural. And that goes for the progressives as well, a lot that found a certain affinity for science after religion, in their minds, was disestablished. Then Shaw enters the scene and resounds that science is a “mystical fake.” The result is a progressive movement that is void of anything outside effectively mattering - like how far the stars are from the earth or the origins of life. What is left is a very bloated Shaw who wipes clean his emotions toward people as people. They are now faceless, part of a mechanical modernity, a socialist superman who on their own have no value. But people are not faceless. “Every face in the street has the incredible unexpectedness of a fairy-tale,” says Chesterton. People make grace messy. No, Shaw rebuts, all people are idiots. What is to be done, then? Instead of asking for a new philosophy Shaw asks for new people - these two-legged types are not working out. Chesterton says he is like, “a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby.” Basically, Shaw has hung the world upon nothing because nothing is good enough at present.

How do these two even talk? When you stack it up, they are nearly in complete opposition with each other: Catholic vs. puritan, humble vs. vain, beer vs. tea, magic vs. logic, at home vs. homeless, disarray vs. order, Victorian vs. modern. But they share some common ground even though at every turn their is a conjunction that leads to a qualification. They are both optimists, both masters of paradox, both under the premise the world is moral, both willing to challenge and be challenged. But, they share an anxiety that leaves Chesterton knowing he’d be Shaw without Christendom and, according to Chesterton, that Shaw would be a saint in an earlier age where reason didn’t loom over but illuminate the mystical. “Shaw kept telling Chesterton to quit believing in God, while Chesterton replied that if Shaw did not rediscover the reason for believing in God, the human race was lost.” (Ward)

This leads us to the most significant difference that causes Chesterton to forge friendships with anyone or anything and Shaw to stand by, fascinated and puzzled at the big and jolly G.K.C., full of intellectual vigor yet on his knees every Easter, as he says in “The Case Against Chesterton.” The sense of sacred - that wonder and amazement of both miracle and commonplace - is Chesterton’s legacy. In Shaw the sacred is replaced with harsh criticism of life and liveliness even as it runs alongside optimism for a more moral, able super race. To wrestle this down completely demands a more extensive ring than we have today, but let’s enter “Magic” to see a slice of the sacred, a moment when the holy beads out.

The play opens with Patricia in her garden encountering a stranger who she thinks is a wizard. He turns out later to be the hired entertainment - a conjurer - for the evening to celebrate the return of Patricia’s brother Morris from America. Inside the house, a doctor and preacher are joined by an aristocrat and Morris. It’s the natural up against the concrete lines of modernity.

And when Patricia comes inside, she announces she has met a wizard who has told her “very many true things” and talked “the language of the elves.” What does the Doctor say? "We old buffers won’t be too strict with you if your view of things sometimes gets a bit-–mixed up, shall we say? If the stars get loose about the grass by mistake; or if, once or twice, the sunset gets into the east... But don’t forget the difference . . . between the things that are beautiful and the things that are there. That red lamp over my door isn’t beautiful; but it’s there." Essentially, the doctor says that if you believe in magic, take caution because beliefs are, in the end, superstitions. In contrast, physical objects like lampposts are facts. You can’t dismiss them.

The conjurer starts his routine. He does a few tricks - slights-of-hand, easily explainable tricks. Morris says, "I guess I wish we had all the old apparatus of all the old Priests and Prophets since the beginning of the world. I guess most of the old miracles and that were a matter of just panels and wires... I just want that old apparatus that turned rods into snakes. I want those smart appliances, sir, that brought water out of a rock when old man Moses chose to hit it... I guess it’s a pity we’ve lost the machinery." Then the conjurer does something that no one expects. He changes the red light to a blue one with no strings attached. In the end, the conjurer has to lie to Morris in an effort to keep him sane. The preacher says rightly, “The child who doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night’s rest.”

And so is the restlessness of Shaw and the restfulness of Chesterton. In what became known as “A Duel at Dusk,” Chesterton and Shaw debated in 1922 after his formal reception into the Catholic Church.

Shaw: Up to a certain point I am willing to believe that all this paradox-prancing, all this intellectual hunt-the-slipper and anachronistic nursery-nonsense, appealed to you. Whether you ever seriously believed in it, whether you have ever seriously believed in anything, I am quite incapable of deciding, since you don’t really know what you believe or disbelieve yourself... You are just like Don Quixote; and though your lunacy on some occasions makes his seem pale by comparison, you yet contrive in some mysterious manner to be your own Sancho Panza.

Chesterton: Exactly... The Catholic is not so pragmatic as the atheist or the Puritan. His faith is built on Belief, not on Knowledge (falsely so-called). He is consequently able to appreciate and sympathize with every form of human activity. He takes the whole world at heart. He loves because it is human to love, hates because it is human to hate, eats, drinks, and is merry because it is human to eat, drink, and be merry. He leads a crusade, not because it is right, but because it is glorious, to do so. He is neither positive nor conservative. He is not even consistent... Life is contradictious, and we are Life. We accept Life as a gift from God; we do not accept God as a gift from Life.

Chesterton is light enough with the gravity of life to take Shaw in stride and not be grounded by him. He finds humor in Shaw’s eagerness for super creatures because he knows where all those believers reside - in the insane asylum. And it is the sane that can look at ordinary life and see in it the workings of a schoolboy God who sits down and recreates the day, everyday, declaring to the sun “do it again,” and it happens again. We live inside those days, fresh with magic and filled with a lightness that allows humility to say the last will be first, the dead will be brought to life, and weakness is strength. Chesterton on Shaw --

"It is not easy to dispute violently with a man for twenty years, about sex, about sin, about sacraments, about personal points of honour, about all the most sacred or delicate essentials of existence, without sometimes being irritated or feeling that he hits unfair blows or employs discreditable ingenuities. And I can testify that I have never read a reply by Bernard Shaw that did not leave me in a better and not a worse temper or frame of mind; which did not seem to come out of inexhaustible fountains of fair-mindedness and intellectual geniality; which did not savour somehow of that native largeness which the philosopher attributed to the Magnanimous Man. It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as much as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend."

(May 2008)

stop the traffik

An MHP Interview with Simon Chorley
If you want a sex slave all you have to do is go to Craigslist. It’s easy. And it may become easier. Yes, slavery is not physically sitting on the street corner between the old Episcopalian church and saloon as it was 200 years in the old Georgia town where I work. Only the church stands today (even after Sherman poured syrup in the pipe organ and accidently blew up half of it before beginning his seaward march). But freeing our society from sight lines does not void Webster’s active use of the word. Cleaning your room, I tell our children, is not stuffing your toys under your bed; it’s putting them up where they go. And slavery has gone underground; it has not gone away. Humans are trafficked in a frequency that looks as busy as a bird’s eye map of airplane activity.

Stop the Traffik hopes to end human trafficking in the spirit of British politician Wilberforce who singlehandedly abolished the slave trade 80 years before the United States ever took action. His story gives legs to the possibility that the world can change and that faith must see beyond now and into the land of then, where woman and child are not tools, too weak to tear the mask off their oppressor and say “You lie and you will be punished.” Simon Chorley and the Stop the Traffik movement likes to pull off masks. Little by little the depth of these slave trenches is being uncovered. I recently talked with Simon.

MHP: Explain, for those who are unaware, how Stop the Traffik began and who is behind it. (Is there a story that really hallmarks the beginning point?)

Simon Chorley: Three years ago a worker for the Oasis charity called Phil came across some street children in Mumbai, India. He befriended them over several weeks until they went missing. On asking their parents where they were, he discovered that they had been sold into slavery to pay for their father's alcohol addiction. Phil then talked with Oasis founder Steve Chalke, who gathered a network of influential individuals and organizations to launch the Stop the Traffik coalition campaign in Brussels in March 2006.

MHP: What happened last year during the 200th anniversary of the Slave Act? What were the notable victories and challenges?

SC: 25th March 2007 marked the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Around that time, Stop the Traffik coalition member organizations and individual supporters ran hundreds of awareness raising events around the world to tell others about the modern-day slave trade. These raised public awareness, pressure on authorities, and resources for frontline projects working with victims of human trafficking. The media were slow to catch onto the continuation of the slave trade however, preferring to focus on events in the past.

MHP: Where is the hope that "when people act, things change"? Aren't the last 200 years testimony that they just move underground or find a new population group to ravage?

SC: Huge achievements were made 200 years ago in turning what was the acceptable status quo of the slave trade into a criminal act. It drew from all sections of society and brought them together in a common cause. Yet they only succeeded in criminalizing the slave trade, not abolishing it. The modern-day slave trade that is human trafficking is indeed more underground, and has moved to new population groups, such that men, women, and children from every country are now both vulnerable and implicit in this trade in human beings. This demonstrates how human trafficking can be tackled though. By mobilizing men, women, and children from every country, both the supply of and the demand for services provided by human trafficking can be reduced.

MHP: How has the global economy exacerbated the slave trade?

SC: So-called 'globalization' has presented new challenges to combating human trafficking. Human beings are now treated as commodities, their value being bartered over. The mafia are turning from trafficking drugs to trafficking people, as people can be re-used, and are thus more profitable. Increasing movement across borders and the increasing sophistication of criminal networks has also increased the illicit trade in people. Yet just as the globalized economy has exacerbated the slave trade, so it can also be harnessed to combat it, utilizing social networks and technology to spread awareness and information quickly, and enabling enforcement agencies to cooperate across the globe to apprehend traffickers.

MHP: Chocolate is highlighted on the website. Is this one of the major industries? I thought the sex industry was huge... that what we hear in the states most often.

SC: There are few reliable statistics regarding human trafficking, due to its subversive nature. The best figures estimate that around 80% of trafficking victims are female and around 80% experience sexual abuse. Thus trafficking for sexual exploitation is the main concern of most agencies, and Stop the Traffik are conducting a global inquiry into tackling sex trafficking, before launching a grassroots campaign on the issue. Yet trafficking into other forms of exploitation has received far less attention, and more research needs to be done in these areas. Regarding chocolate, with the UK public spending over a billion pounds on chocolate in the Christmas period alone, this issues connects with everyone - men, women, and children. Nearly half of the world's chocolate comes from Cote d'Ivoire in West Africa, and various UN agencies have reported on the trafficking of children into the cocoa industry in that country. Chocolate companies cannot guarantee that their products have not been made using trafficked children, which is unacceptable. This is an issue that everyone can do something about, not just politicians or police forces. We can all change what we buy and tell the suppliers why, we can all tell others about this, and we can all affect consumer patterns wherever we are.

MHP: What is the difference between slave labor and the trafficking of people? Shouldn't your numbers be added with the huge problem of slave labor that is disguised by brand labels?

SC: Slave labour involves the commercial exploitation of human beings against their will. Human trafficking means the movement of people by deception or coercion for exploitation, either commercial, sexual, or otherwise. There are many high-profile organizations and campaigns against slave labour, but few on the specific element of trafficking. By focusing specifically on this issue, we can present real actions that can bring real change. Although slave laborers are often trafficked, there are many who are not, and Stop the Traffik are therefore dedicating their limited resources to this specific aspect of slavery.

MHP: On the website the way to get involved seem easy and don't really effect my person too much. Is it designed that way? You have several examples of creative initiation of involvement. What are a few that stand out?

SC: Everyone will involve themselves at different levels. Some will sign the petition and do no more. Some will go a step further and sign up their organization, or do some fundraising. Some will go further and speak at local events, or represent Stop the Traffik in their region. Others will commit wholeheartedly, and look for careers in anti-trafficking projects. We aim to equip everyone to act at every level of engagement. The most creative initiatives continue to be around the Chocolate Campaign. See our website for examples.

MHP: Is there any religious or spiritual motivation behind Stop the Traffik the way, say Bono is perceived with his fight for Africa?

I don't know about Bono, but a lot of Stop the Traffik's supporters are spiritually-motivated. About a third of our member organizations are faith-based, but that leaves two-thirds that aren't, from corporates to societies to individuals. In the same way, about a third of supporters for the “Make Poverty History” campaign were also faith-based. It seems that religious communities as a proportion of the societies they are in are more active on issues of social justice, and that their faith is the main motivation for their action. Stop the Traffik works with people from all faiths and none who are active in the fight against the modern-day slave trade.

MHP: Where do you see the project in 2 years... 8 years?

SC: Stop the Traffik in two years will hopefully have successfully implemented a Global Fund to resource anti-trafficking projects in South Asia, and in 8 years will have replicated this in West Africa and Eastern Europe. The chocolate industry will be presenting consumers with Traffik Free products - there is positive movement in this direction already - and public awareness and community involvement across the globe will be substantially higher.

For more information, sign on as a participant, and watch for new developments visit Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

sexfest at church

by Zach Kincaid
Sexfest at church. Why not? God said he’d supply our needs in great abundance. And besides, these marriage conferences are as dry as dirt. But, sexfest? That’s the stuff of mud wrestling.

So my mind fills up with all kinds of images. Our church has a fair amount of 30-somethings but the majority of our membership are older than the hills. That’s one image. Lots of wrinkles. Another image is historical - the temple prostitution circuit of Rome and Greece. I guess the pagans figured out the simple logic of making promiscuity a religious pursuit - a sacrifice to the gods. And now we have jumbo-trons to enhance the focus even more. All eyes on the stage.

I also imagine the scowl on Augustine’s face. And Martin Luther surely regrets his rebel-rousing.

What is happening? Relevant Church in Tampa, Florida is challenging their members to participate in something they call the 30-Day Sex Challenge. The premise is for married couples to have sex every day for 30 days. From their site - “People are not having enough sex. An epidemic of breakups proves the needs that lead to a great sex life are being overlooked. Dirty dishes, frumpy clothes, and a lack of authentic connections are killing the romance. A great sex life is a challenge and takes focus, determination, and planning. Some say it’s an unrealistic goal, but we disagree. We believe you can have a great sex life, in fact we believe God wants you to have a great sex life.”

Okay, so it’s a little more purified than the prostitutes in pagan temples. But the focus on sexual appetite is the same. The challenge comes with a calendar that I suspect you sticker with shiny gold stars. They also supply readings from Song of Songs primarily - “Take me away with you - hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers.” Maybe this helps if you need to roll play.

The challenge sounds very chauvinistic to me. As ABC commentator Harry Smith said in an interview with the Pastor Paul Wirth, “I’m trying to think what the downside could possibly be to trying it...” I bet my wife could name a few things; I could as well. It puts both people in an awkward place by demanding a sexual performance because of a church commitment. I may be flying solo here, but I don’t want the church anywhere close to my bedroom (missionary position or not).

All of this focus on your family and now sacramental screwing is bothersome. The Bible seems to stand somewhat removed from both subjects. Yes, procreation was a command in the garden and there are references to sex all through Scripture. It is usually about sexual infidelity tagged with other issues. Abraham lacked faith, David - humility, Solomon - satisfaction. When we get to Jesus, he directs adultery inward, but there is no direct references to marriage let alone sex in that relationship. He changes water to wine at a marriage feast (which might encourage drunkenness with sexual activity), and he mentions bridegrooms in parables. And Paul has little to say (he might ask women to cover their heads) while Peter sees marriage as the representation of Christ and his church. It’s as if marriage and marriage sex is assumed and not hyped up.

It’s really just another gimmick along the Purpose Driven Life push and Debunking The Da Vinci Code nonsense. But we shouldn’t be surprised. One of the core values of Relevant Church is “to be as current as today’s newspapers.” And Relevant Church is launching this during the holiest days on the church calendar. Isn’t Lent more about abstaining from indulgent behaviors rather than erecting additional ones?

Maybe Relevant Church has figured out that you can add “under the sheets” to rock-n-roll Christian chorus music too. Maybe they even sell KY lubricant and WWJD thongs in their church coffee shop. I hope not.

(March 2008)

the messiah formerly known as jesus

An MHP Interview with Tom Breen
“Today’s Christianity is first and foremost dynamic,” writes Tom Breen in the new book The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus. “It is not merely something people are guilted into doing on Sundays by their nagging, churchy spouses.” No, Christianity has put a the mask of cool on top its ancient head (often with a goatee and ear mic as additional props) with the success of multi-million dollar businesses and megaplex churches.

So how does a 2000-year-old religion keep up with the contemporary world? Tom Breen suggests a few things in a Stephen Colbert-ish vein.

First, segmentation. The Reformation gave birth to the denominational mall that is today the consumer friendly church like the Emerging Church - “white people in their twenties and thirties who have at least one tattoo or body piercing.”

Second, scripture. Breen rightly identifies that the need is not only for translation into new languages but new dialects. "You see, the Bible is not a fixed document menacing us with its canonicity," he says, "rather, it’s a fluid work waiting to be shaped by each age as it sees fit. The Bible can be repackaged, retranslated, and even redacted, and still remain the Bible." If you’re lost on the word “canonicity,” Breen defines it a few pages earlier as a “popularity contest,” naming three criteria: “(1) Was this written by a big shot famous apostle? (2) Is this the kind of thing the Gnostics will be able to twist easily to support their nonsense? (3) Would this make a good film? Potentially starring Harrison Ford as Paul?”

Third, Christian music and business. “Why is that only Christianity has spawned an industry raking in millions of dollars by basing faith-centric lyrics on the conventions of popular songs? Where are the Jewish rappers? The Muslim heavy metal bands? How many Zoroastrian bands are there?” (The footnote says one: Queen.)

Fourth, Jesus building. This circles us back to the first. Breen offers a “Field Guide to the Major North American Jesuses.” He charts out several famous ones including “Extreme Jesus”, “Christ Among the NPR Listeners”, “President Jesus”, “Jesus H. Buddha”, “Big Bank Jesus”, and “Pop Historic Jesus.”

I talked with Tom Breen on the day his book released on Baylor Press (Yes, that’s a seemingly odd match, a university press, especially given Breen’s warning to stuffy professor types.)

MHP: Explain the title The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus.

Tom Breen: That was actually the suggestion of the publisher. It does reflect the overall thrust of Jesus and Christianity inside pop culture where the real meaning often times gets lost. It’s not straight-faced.

MHP: So, what is it that you do and what motivated you to write a book like this?

TB: I’m a reporter for the Associated Press. I write about healthcare. But, when I was in Connecticut (I’m now in West Virginia) working for a newspaper, I had a blog called The Medicine Box which had a similar tone to the book. When The Christian Century reprinted one of the entries, I received a call from Baylor Press. They asked me if I ever thought about writing a book. I hadn’t.

MHP: So, I guess you hadn’t thought of selling your book with a “Build-your-Own-Jesus” kit in line with the Build-A-Bear craze?

TB: No, I hadn’t but that’s an idea. You should copyright that.

MHP: Thanks for the suggestion. Now to your methods. You advocate skimming the results of Google searches and filling in the blanks with speculation. Is that the norm today? You later state as a credo, “Facts Can’t Stand in the Way When Truth Doesn’t Matter.” Can you elaborate?

TB: Nothing matters more than the easiest possible research. It makes you an instant expert and as long as you are not seduced by cranks, it’s pretty easy. My credo is from Reagan who said “Facts are stupid things.” The big picture is impressing people with assumed knowledge, right? It really doesn’t mean getting it right; an arguably correct fact will work.

MHP: In your discussion of the Bible as best seller, you present ways to cut down what is unneeded and use Leviticus as an example. You summarize, “God gives Mo’ the 411 on snacking.” Are there other books you've researched?

TB: Yes. Let’s take Exodus. You can narrow it down to a single admonition: “Bring a map.”

MHP: How about a New Testament example?

TB: James: “Be nice to panhandlers.”

[Breen also gives the example of John 3:5-7 in text message shorthand language -

JCMSIAH316: POS what r u doing LOL!

We encourage you to add your text message shorthand examples in a reply to this article.]

MHP: Good. Now, talk about the making of translations and “The Word of God for the Parents of Today’s Cool Christian Teens.”

To make a translation yourself, there are several things to consider. The most important in translating the Word of God comes from Athanasius who said, “Identify a market segment.” Remember that in today’s market micro is better than macro. Think about Martin Luther. His target was way too broad. All Germany? No, maybe just concentrate on professional women. That idea of segmentation is key. Like the text message Bible version. That has a market.

The second is to pick your title. It can’t be “Bible.” That’s used up and will put people to sleep. Maybe something like “A User’s Guide to Bars in New Orleans.” Think also about your market. Do rap songs work?

The third is celebrity endorsement. If Bono approves, it’s bono-fied. [The Message, for example.]

The last point is about text. It’s an afterthought. It doesn’t matter as long as the consumer buys it. That means the word has been passed along. Job complete.

I don’t know if producing these Bible products creates a need or not. Are people unwilling or so impatient to read that the Bible has to be couched in bite-sized verbiage to be successful? It goes back to times when people didn’t read the Bible.

MHP: The Emerging Church… you tackle this in a paragraph. Can you explain why they like candles so much?

TB: I actually wish I dealt with the Emerging Church in more detail. The ideal emergent liturgy appears to be a mix-match of new and old. There is a nostalgia and a longing for those things Catholic and Orthodox but they seem unwilling to take steps into those churches. Young people do like retro things for the timelessness. Again, it’s American; it’s make your own religion.

MHP: How about the sections about The Angry Part of God and the Happy Part of God, the two sections of the Bible that you repackage in those terms.

TB: Well, the Happy Part of God is most popular. Titling it that way fits into the prevailing mood of the culture which wants a fuzzy, glib message where Happy God becomes Hugh Beaumont from Leave it to Beaver, always understanding. Because, you know, there is a high percentage of people who believe in Hell, but there is a low percentage of those who think they’ll be going to such a place.

For me, in all seriousness, faith is wrapped up in history, in the Church councils, in definite answers. Christianity is not dependent on culture. It is not available to accommodate yourself in it. There are right answers.

MHP: You site a few examples of where this love affair of Christianity and popular culture has come from at the beginning of the book and where it might go in the age to come. Is it your belief that this has been and will always be the Christian thorny side - appeal versus manipulation, honesty versus skirting it for the sake of rock and roll, etc.

TB: Yes. I think there will always be the danger that the presentation of Christianity will obscure or distort the content of Christianity if people aren't vigilant in making sure that doesn't happen. Christianity has the challenge of being intended for as large an audience as possible, but at the same time being complex and sophisticated. Even something as seemingly elementary as translating the Bible is fraught with risk; the goal is to produce a version that will engage whatever culture it's aimed at, but at the same time you don't want to find yourself turning the psalms into gangsta rap anthems (or maybe you do, depending on your chosen niche market; I'm just saying that's a difficult task). That tension, though, can be creative and ultimately helpful; I don't think it's something Christians should seek to avoid.

MHP: How does one develop Christian taste?

TB: Wow, what an excellent question. My starting point is a thinker who was certainly not Christian: the German philosopher Walter Benjamin. He once wrote that an aesthetic work can only be politically correct if it's first aesthetically correct. The same holds true of Christian culture: if a work of art - a song, a movie, a novel, whatever - doesn't satisfy as art, then it won't satisfy as Christian witness either. There's a lot more evangelism in Bach or Mahalia Jackson or "The Power & the Glory" than in a thousand well-meaning sermons and tracts. Once you accept that _ the notion that the terms of art and Christianity aren't mutually exclusive _ you're already developing Christian taste.

MHP: You have charts detailing different Jesuses. I didn't see BeJesus or GayJesus or even SheJesus. Any reason? Also, can I have my own Jesus or does it have to identify with a group?

TB: The field guide was a way of gently satirizing some of the more popular variations on Jesus that have sprung up in American culture, with the goal of having readers get the sense of "I recognize that!" in at least some of the instances. I'm not familiar with a widespread popularization of the Jesuses you mention, but the charts in the book certainly weren't intended to be definitive. I suppose you could probably fill an entire book with different American interpretations of Jesus (possible title: Kung-Fu Jesus and a Nation of Messiahs). As for the second part of the question, I think one powerful tendency in American Christianity is certainly to create a custom-made, individual Jesus for every believer. That's certainly one possible outcome of the theology that demands a personal relationship with the Savior.

MHP: So, I listen to Christian radio, go to a Christian university, hang out with Christian friends, and critique movies and TV in relation to my Christian conviction. What do you say to me?

TB: Godspeed and best wishes. Seriously, I don't have a problem with any of that. My only caution would be that it's probably unwise to mistake that stuff for Christianity itself. Christianity existed long before Christian radio, Christian universities and Christian TV shows. While there's always been Christian art, there's also always been a recognition that Christianity is more than passive consumption of culture, that it actually requires believers to believe and do specific things. To the extent you can do that and hang out with Christian friends at Christian concerts, more power to you. But if you can name 10 Christian heavy metal bands without blinking but are a little shaky about what this whole "Trinity" thing is, maybe it's time to hit the Christian books and attend some Christian church services.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

wonder & imagination: chesterton

by Zach Kincaid
Chesterton was a journalist at the turn of the century and a prolific fiction writer. Whereas Heschel, the person discussed in part two, approached wonder and imagination with theology as his profession, Chesterton sees these in a more literary landscape.

Chesterton’s entire persona envokes elfland. Elfland, or fairyland, is the common way Chesterton refers to wonder and imagination - the unseen within the seen; the stuff that matters above and beyond the stuff that we know. He is also referring to those ancient tales that never change – “fairy-tales are as normal as milk or bread. Civilisation changes; but fairy-tales never change… Fiction and modern fantasy and all that wild world… can be described in one phrase. Their philosophy means ordinary things as seen by extraordinary. The fairy-tale means extraordinary things as seen by ordinary people.”

“He is like a visitor from some fairy tale, a legend in the flesh,” Gardner, a contemporary of Chesterton, said. “He is a wayfarer from the ages, stopping at the inn of life, warming himself at the fire and making the rafters sing with his jolly laughter.” Chesterton’s regular wardrobe included a black cape and walking cane, and with his heavy stature he gave the expression of a man living in a magical place, where “trees are giants waving their arms,” where each new day is a fresh discovery.

In Tremendous Trifles, a book of short stories, Chesterton tells the tale of two boys, Peter and Paul. One day, a magical milkman comes by and asks each boy to wish one thing. Paul wishes to become a giant so he can hop around the world and see everything. Peter wishes to become very small so everything would have an adventure. Paul sets out to see the world. He becomes bored at the size of all the things he sees, and eventually a woodsman chops off his head. As for Peter, he finds that each blade of grass possesses a different challenge.

Peter finds the world more enchanted when he begins to understand its overwhelming opportunity in comparison to what he knew before. Paul has the opposite experience when he sees the world in miniature and already conquered. Chesterton says, “The man standing in his own kitchen-garden, with fairyland opening at the gate, is the man with large ideas. His mind creates distance.”

In other words, to see the world the way Peter sees it, we needs a certain method to analyze our experiences. Then, even in our own garden the world becomes enchanted.

Christian theology is supernatural. That’s its definition. And it re-enchants the world because it speaks into it and points outside it. Like Peter who became small, Christian theology rightly positions us in reference to the Creator and the world – small and insignificant in the scope of all its moving parts, its nooks and crannies, its beeps, and buzzes, and whirls. In opposition, like Paul who becomes a tower of a man – a superman, to use George Bernard Shaw’s term –Chesterton believes modern humanity thinks itself in larger fashion than it should, outside the appeal that Christian theology offers.

We need to begin with Orthodoxy.

In 1908, Chesterton writes Orthodoxy. It’s central to his entire corpus. A key chapter is “Ethics of Elfland.” He says that true knowledge exists not in the mind but in fairyland, where the natural world is explained in terms of magic and miracle rather than reason and science. And because of it, even the tree becomes a mystery.

In other words, when the scientific person looks at the leaves on a tree, chlorophyll is discussed, whereas the person from fairyland believes the tree must have decided to produce leaves and not golden candles. Likewise, the rational person might reference the good soil and strong roots that keep the tree standing tall and healthy, while the fairyland believer knows that the ground has received a magic touch from the God who made the whole world.

The ethics of elfland is not what we might think. It’s not foremost rules of conduct, as much as what lies behind those rules. For example, to believe in miracles we need to be open to the idea that we can’t explain everything by reason alone. All of a sudden, the rocks may really cry out or have bellies of water ready to burst in wilderness lands. The trees might exchange limbs for hands and clap in worship. No longer is there a devalue of the stuff inside our world, but rather everything has the touch of divinity – everything is immortal.

The world does not need to change to be enchanted, rather, our perception marks even the mundane as bearing enchantment. It’s gaining a certain satisfaction with the romance and mystery before us – not how we can use a thing to our advantage. Chesterton says that fairytales “make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.” Now, the ordinary river is in every measure as thrilling as if it were to run with wine.

Chesterton does not view nature as a set of laws, but rather as a set of sentimentalities. He further argues that the modern scientist who says she believes in nature’s laws, really doesn’t. He says that eggs becoming birds a magical occurrence because no connection suggests eggs should take that course. The scientist only connects eggs with birds because of an historic association or sentimentality--eggs have always produced birds. The scientist “feels as if there must be some dreamy, tender connection between the two ideas, whereas there are none.” Nature is a series of “charms” or “spells.” So when the fairytales talk about golden apples it is “only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.” Likewise, when water is parted open by Moses and Joshua or Elijah and Elisha, and then Jesus comes on the scene and walks out and calms those waters, maybe the nature of water is not tied up in what it is as much as whose it is. The laws are kept by the lawgiver. He is above and outside the laws. As we saw with Heschel, this is what makes the Sabbath holy and enables Jesus to re-enchant that day as he heals and feeds the hungry.

We should talk like the old nurses used to instruct children, not of the grass “but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads.” Here, on the edge of the miraculous, five does not become six – it doesn’t change the obvious – but if someone has five beans that person may be able to grow a beanstalk that reaches to the sky. That person may be called Jack and there may be a giant who lives in the clouds. At the same time, Chesterton believes that eggs turning to birds have the same miraculous qualities of the mice turning to horses in Cinderella’s story. “We must answer that it is magic,” says Chesterton. “They are not a one-for-one.”

"I am much more disposed now to fancy that an apple-tree in the moonlight is some sort of ghost or grey nymph; or to see the furniture fantastically changing and crawling at twilight, as in some story of Poe or Hawthorne. But when I was a child I had a sort of confident astonishment in contemplating the apple-tree as an apple-tree. I was sure of it, and also sure of the surprise of it… The apples might be as little as I was; but they were solid and so was I."

Chesterton argues that when the world is properly seen, life is at once “precious” and “puzzling.” It’s the “if” or the “veto.” One may stay in the garden if one does not eat of that tree, for example. He says, “The vision always hangs upon a veto. All the dizzy and colossal things conceded depend upon one small thing withheld. All the wild and whirling things that are let loose depend upon one thing that is forbidden.” It is discipline that keeps a person a fair distance from the “forbidden,” and it is faith that allows a person to remain content despite what may not be understandable. It is the glass that can break but which also can remain for many years. It is about limits.

"It is plain on the face of the facts that a child is positively in love with limits. He uses his imagination to invent imaginary limits. The nurse and the governess have never told him that it is his moral duty to step on alternate paving-stones. He deliberately deprives this world of half its paving-stones, in order to exult in a challenge that he has offered himself… The charm of Robinson Crusoe is not in the fact that he could find his way to a remote island; but in the fact that he could not find any way of getting away from it… And the eternal interest of the Noah’s Ark, considered as a toy, consists in its complete suggestion of compactness and isolation; of creatures so comically remote and fantastic being all locked up in one box; as if Noah had been told to pack up the sun and moon with his luggage. In other words, it is exactly the same game that I have played myself, by piling all the things I wanted on a sofa, and imagining that the carpet around me was the surrounding sea."

It is also like the sun. Modern thought says when the sun rises each day it is simply working according to the laws of nature. Chesterton says that God must be similar to a child, for each day she may say to the sun and moon, “Do it again.” And, “It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike,” Chesterton suggests. “It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.” In other words, modern thought gives no room for the enchanted possibility that sun and moon and all creation continue to act not because of some evolutionary instinct but because of some mysterious, wild desire to begin again each day as if it were an adventure. Take up your cross daily and walk with me, as Jesus says.

I want to take several of his fictional works to provide a quick frame.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill begins in London in 1984, and despite the passing of time, London exists as it did in 1904, 80 years earlier. The cause for this similarity despite the time lapse is a result of a whole city losing faith in the idea of revolution, says Chesterton.

In 1984, on a foggy, dull London street, we are introduced to three government officials, two tall men and a short one. Each day, they walk together to their offices in a “mechanical” fashion. But, on this particular day, the short official comes out of his apartment later than usual and follows behind the other two. He sees something in the coat-tales of the gentlemen in front of him. He imagines the coat-tales turn into dragons, the buttons, eyes, and the slits, mouths. “If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe,” says the narrator, “if you look at it a thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” The Napoleon of Notting Hill ventures into a London seen afresh that thousandth time. Through this lens everything changes. A no-name person becomes king and sets up laws that are comical until one person, Adam Wayne, take them to heart. Wayne is forced to defend the historic Pump Street he is charged over so the king won’t demolish it for the sake of progress. In a remarkable set of events, Wayne wins and wards off the Royal Army.

Chesterton explains that Notting Hill is a divine place because Wayne is a poet. He says Wayne makes “violet roofs and lemon lamps” items of praise simply because they represent shadow and color. Wayne is a “natural mystic, one of those who live on the border of fairyland.” And because Wayne possesses such childlike beliefs, he realizes the city often encroaches onto fairyland as it did on Pump Street, where its “gas lights thronged and melted into each other like an orchard of fiery trees, the beginning of the woods of elf-land.” He had a certain passion in even the stone streets and railed-in gardens of Pump Street as if they were “things as ancient as the sky.”

After the battle, London returns to some semblance of normalcy for twenty years. Adam Wayne began a revolution and has, as King Quin says, provided romance for the whole world. In a tour through Notting Hill, Quin visits the grocer, Mr. Mead, who says he thought Wayne had odd ideas twenty years ago, but now he feels his own ideas are the odd ones. “I thought nothing of being a grocer then,” says Mr. Mead. “I thought nothing of all the wonderful places that my goods come from, and the wonderful way they are made.” The King responds, “Is this his victory, that he, my incomparable Wayne, is now only one in a world of Waynes? Has he conquered and become by conquest commonplace?”

Thus, London returns to certain normalcy. Yet, it is normalcy more aware of enchantment, for the “idealism of Notting Hill” has infiltrated London to form what Chesterton says is a “new world.” Adam Wayne describes Notting Hill as a new Athens and a new Nazareth, for like them Notting Hill has perpetuated an idea. Wayne explains that neither the popularizing of wearing chlamys or turbans happened as the respective result of Athens’ and Nazareth’s effect on the world. Rather, “the soul of Athens went forth and made men drink hemlock,” Adam Wayne says, “and the soul of Nazareth went forth and made men consent to be crucified. So has the soul of Notting Hill gone forth and made men realise what it is to live in a city.” In other words, the idea of Notting Hill should invigorate us with a renewed enchantment that city and citizenship outweigh the empire of England with its dull, dreary idea that no one believes in any change.

The Man Who Was Thursday begins in Saffron Park, a suburb of London. Here, two men meet: Lucian Gregory, an anarchic poet, and Gabriel Syme, a poet of order, under the auspices of a “strange sunset.” “It looked like the end of the world,” Chesterton says. The action centers on the debate between Gregory and Syme. Gregory says that the railway clerks are always bored because they know where the trains are going. Syme objects. “Man is a magician,” he says, “and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! It is Victoria.”

Syme and Gregory appear harmless enough, just two philosophers discussing their thoughts on the world. But, the story descends into a tale where truths are actually challenged.

It is important to note that The Man Who Was Thursday is autobiographical. Chesterton subtitles the work “a nightmare” because it represents segments of his own nightmare through a barrage of pessimism at a young age before ending up in a similar place to where he began, a place of Christian vision. “It was meant to begin with the picture of the world at its worst, and to work towards the suggestion that the picture was not so black as it was already painted,” says Chesterton in reference to the story. “I was trying vaguely to found a new optimism, not on the maximum but the minimum of good.”

The story turns everything on its head. The anarchical council that is named after the days of the week is really seven detectives in disguise, and the seventh, Sunday, is chief among them. As the story develops the detectives think the entire world has fallen to anarchy and is chasing after them. The mob encircles Syme and his friends, and the ethics he knew at the novel’s start are hardly worth quoting. Syme quotes them anyway as he claims with certainty that the “Christian lantern” will endure and he discovers again that it holds great strength.

Finally, the detectives find Sunday in a garden. Before entering in, someone at the gate asks each of them to put on a costume that reflects each day of Genesis’s account of creation. Chesterton is creating the image of a masquerade “as absurd as Alice and Wonderland, yet as grave and kind as a love story.”

In other words, the seven days have entered again into the Garden of Eden with all its order, enchantment, and mystery. Sunday reveals himself as the detective that inaugurated the Anarchist Council and the entire chase. The detectives still do not understand. They struggle to know Sunday’s identity and understand the reasons for his actions. Sunday is God in some fashion. Syme says his soul and heart are happy but his “reason is still crying out” for answers. Syme realizes that he can have every measure of faith in the Christian vision and have experienced even the extreme nightmare of a nearly collapsed faith, and he will remain an amateur in knowing the ways of Sunday and his person.

In other words, the Christian vision may set certain boundaries on how nature works and how miracle responds to the normal and supernatural realms, but the Christian vision is caught in a paradox: its boundaries follow a God that knows no bounds.
Sunday tells Syme, “Grab in the roots of those trees,” and “Stare at those morning clouds… you will have found out the truth of the last tree and the topmost cloud before the truth about me.”

Sunday continues: “Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf – kings and sages, and poets and lawgivers, all the churches, and all the philosophers. But I have never been caught yet.” Sunday says he was the man in the darkroom who made Syme and his friends detectives. They discover he produced the nightmarish adventure to help define anew the Christian vision, one that is born out of struggle, angst, wonder. And the struggle tosses Syme out on pier with no other security besides his belief in God. Here, Syme is forced to have “the glory and isolation of the anarchist,” the “tears and torture,” so he can say he has suffered and, “You lie.” In other words, the anarchist and the modern skeptic both carry out the same lie. The lie demands a universe with the absence of God’s laws; the lie suggests a world without law would possess more freedom. But Sunday rebuts this brings Syme and the detectives to a place of knowing that God is involved, but not knowing all the answers or even the questions.

At the end of the novel when Sunday asks Syme, “Can ye drink the cup that I drink of?” The question is riddled with mystery and supported by only a tinge of hope. Why did Sunday lead him down this journey and why by his own hands would he also relieve him? Can Sunday be trusted? The nightmare concludes with a fuller faith not a fuller understanding.

G. K. Chesterton wrote “Magic” in 1913 at the urging of his friend, the playwright George Bernard Shaw. “Magic” was the only play produced while Chesterton was alive.

The play opened in London with great success. It ran for more than 100 performances. In all, Chesterton wrote only a handful of plays. “Magic” was his first play, and “The Surprise” marked his last. Although “The Surprise” was written in 1932, it was not published until 1952, 16 years after Chesterton died and after his long-time secretary Masie Ward found it among some other papers.

Like The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday, “Magic” works out a renewed wonder and an invitation to imagination.

“Magic” is about belief: the Conjurer who performs believable tricks, a girl who believes in fairyland, a doctor who doesn’t believe in churches, a preacher who doesn’t believe in miracles, a man newly back from America who believes in progress, and an aristocrat who compromises to the point of believing nothing.

The play opens with Patricia in her garden encountering a stranger who she thinks is a wizard. He turns out later to be the hired entertainment - a conjurer - for the evening to celebrate the return of Patricia’s brother Morris from America. Inside the house, a doctor and preacher are joined by an aristocrat and Morris. It’s the natural up against the concrete lines of modernity.

And when Patricia comes inside, she announces she has met a wizard who has told her “very many true things” and talked “the language of the elves.” What does the Doctor say?

"We old buffers won’t be too strict with you if your view of things sometimes gets a bit-–mixed up, shall we say? If the stars get loose about the grass by mistake; or if, once or twice, the sunset gets into the east. We should only say “Dream as much as you like . . . But don’t forget the difference . . . between the things that are beautiful and the things that are there. That red lamp over my door isn’t beautiful; but it’s there."

Essentially, the doctor says that If you believes in magic, you’re cautioned that beliefs are, in the end, superstitions. In contrast, physical objects like lampposts are facts. You can’t dismiss them.

The conjuror starts his routine. He does a few tricks - slights-of-hand, easily explainable tricks. Morris says, "I guess I wish we had all the old apparatus of all the old Priests and Prophets since the beginning of the world. I guess most of the old miracles and that were a matter of just panels and wires... I just want that old apparatus that turned rods into snakes. I want those smart appliances, sir, that brought water out of a rock when old man Moses chose to hit it... I guess it’s a pity we’ve lost the machinery." Then the conjurer does something that no one expects. He changes the red light to a blue one with no strings attached. In the end, the conjurer has to lie to Morris in an effort to keep him sane. The preacher says rightly, “The child who doubts about Santa Claus has insomnia. The child who believes has a good night’s rest.”

“Magic” begins with the contrast between those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not. The contrast, as it develops through the play, demonstrates the failing of modern thought because it does not believe in the supernatural, an issue of boundary’s legitimacy. When the light changes color with no natural explanation, Chesterton has forced the reader to make a decision to accept the supernatural element or develop logical reasons for the light to suddenly change. This point of decision is one that centers on the main point of this thesis, whether Christian theology will inform the reader’s perception of the light or whether it will be ignored for something less mysterious. As with Patricia and the Conjurer, if the reader chooses Christian theology, true imagination begins.

(January 2008 | Part 3 of 3)

the blessings of africa

An MHP Interview with Keith Burton
These days, Africa is known more for its catastrophes and charities than as a center of early Christianity and a place of legendary kingdoms. Africa has been raped by foreign invasion, beaten by internal wars, and pillaged for its people, its stones, and its land. Desperate eyes wide with want and inflamed by disease have recently nudged the rock and entertainment worlds to answer the whys and hows with what ifs. And that is a gospel response to any suffering. as the temporal hangs on the shreds of the eternal peace to come. Yet, the story of Africa cannot be dismissed or stored away because of contemporary circumstances. It is a history tightly woven into the whole of civilization, from the dawn of cities and technologies to the high noon of religion. And, it is a history, if known in more ready fashion, that seeks to erode any scraps of indifference and bigotry that we might harbor. For, remember that it was a continent wider than the arms of its present footprint and holding testimony not only to Christianity’s growth but also the onset of Muhammad.

In Keith Burton’s new book The Blessings of Africa: The Bible and African Christianity (IVP) we get the meat and potatoes of Africa’s history. I recently asked Dr. Burton a few questions.

MHP: Explain the title, if you would- The Blessing of Africa, the title of the book.

Keith Burton: The Blessing of Africa is really a response to the popular myth about the “Curse of Ham.” Briefly stated, the myth proposes that Black people are perpetually cursed because of Ham’s disrespectful behavior towards his father, Noah, in Genesis 9.

The myth of a cursed Hamitic “race” has its inception in rabbinic literature which uses the biblical passage to explain the racial characteristics of African people. Centuries later, this same passage was used to justify the Euro-American enslavement of Africans. In fact, it is in the context of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that African people were most dehumanized, as their captors justified their actions in the name of Christianity.

Unfortunately, the notion of a “curse” against African peoples has had wide ranging repercussions that affects the way in which people view the place of the African in salvation history. “The Blessing of Africa” is intended to debunk the myth by providing biblical and historical evidence that details the role of the lands and people associated with “Ham” in the writing and preservation of the Bible.

MHP: One of your objectives is to reorder Africa from the origin of the name - a newly formed Roman province - through the expansive use of the term later in the Middle Ages. You also predate the Roman reference and talk about the Land of Ham. If you would, address the significance of these movements.

KB: As I explain in the book, I use the term Africa “rhetorically.” Historically, we know that geographical boundaries are continually shifting. For instance, the land associated with the United States of America today is drastically different than it was 200 years ago, and if the separatists in Canada have their way, that nation would be much smaller in coming decades.

In order to maintain geographical consistency throughout the study, I reconstruct the “land of Ham” which I equate to biblical “Africa.” Again, this is not to say that the ancients referred to this territory with these terms, but it provides a framework in which I develop my thesis. The parameters for the land of Ham are derived from the “Table of Nations” in Genesis 10, which appears to be a literary map reflecting the author’s recollection of the “world” in his day.

In providing a new option for the understanding of “Africa,” I also hope to start a discussion on the power of language in shaping our view of reality. That is why I also make it clear that I am not using the term “Africa” as a synonym to “Black”–this book is not about Blacks and the Bible, but Africans (the descendants of Ham) and the Bible. It is for that very reason that in addition to addressing events in Ethiopia and Egypt, I discuss incidents pertaining to the Bible in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and other areas of the so called “Middle East.” When the concept of a “land of Ham” is taken seriously, Africa’s biblical history includes such historical events as the birth and growth of Islam, the Crusades and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

MHP: I had not heard before your book (probably my naivety) the theory of Islam as a heretical cult of Islam, thought their early respect for "people of the book" is well noted. Is this theory well established? It seems to be well grounded in your study, but I wondered how radical an idea that is, especially given today's global challenges.

KB: The centrality of Jesus in the Koran and the respect that Muhammad had for the “people of the book” are indisputable and have been discussed by Christian and Muslim scholars alike. However, I have not come across anyone who has come out as strongly as I have with my assertion that Islam began as a Christian “heresy.”

We tend to forget that when Muhammad shared his understanding of biblical revelation, not all Christians adhered to the views of the “orthodox” majority. A significant number of Christians rejected the Trinitarian view of God along with the teaching that Jesus possessed two natures. Further, centuries before Muhammad, there were Christians who were appalled by the view that God was instrumental in giving birth to a son, and taught that Jesus only became the “Son” of God through adoption at his baptism.

The Koranic teaching about Jesus was by no means in the mainstream of medieval Christianity, but had its inception in Christian literature. The myths of Jesus’ miraculous feats in his childhood were first shared in a document known as “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” And the teaching that Jesus did not really die on the cross has its inception in Docetism. Further, the phenomenon of the Spirit giving unique messages through prophets already had precedent in North African Donatism.

It appears to me that Muhammad was engaged in an effort to reform Christianity with a simple message of submission to God–a message that avoided the complicated creeds of orthodox Christianity. This uncomplicated message was apparently successful as hundreds and thousands of Christians quickly deserted Chalcedonian Orthodoxy and Coptic Monophytism and embraced Muhammad’s version of biblical faith.

MHP: From Eden to the early church (Alexandria, especially), Africa has played a significant geographic point and a significant theological hotbed. Why then is it forgotten? I guess, can you name the historic meta-narrative episodes that eroded the awareness and respect for such an active piece of the global drama?

KB: It is true that until recent years “Africa” was far from most people’s minds in discussions about the biblical world and Christianity. I see this as the result of the movement of the “center” of Christianity from the lands associated with Ham’s descendants to western Europe.

On one level, the decline of Africa’s “Christian” image is directly related to the rise of Islam. It is true that in the earliest centuries of Christianity it was the land of Ham that provided the majority of the Christian intellectuals (Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa). Where would Christian theology be without Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, Arius, and Athanasius – to name a few? However, with the birth and independence of Islam, the religious nature of the region was transformed and Christianity became more associated with the countries of Europe.

Although a significant percentage of the inhabitants in Muslim lands maintained Christianity, the fact that they lacked political power minimized their impact on the global Christian scene. It soon became “typical” to think of the lands of biblical Africa as “Muslim” juxtaposed to the Christians of Europe. So embedded was the divide that when the Crusades against Islam were executed, the Crusaders made little distinction between Muslims, Jews or Christians when attacking the residents of Palestine and Egypt.

With the popular reception of Christianity in Europe, it did not take long for those responsible for transmitting the faith to immerse it in European culture. This is most evident in mediaeval art in which all the characters of the Bible are portrayed as Europeans. In later centuries, Europe’s cultural influence would also dominate the hymns of the church. This transformed Christianity was marketed to the world via Europe’s imperial quest to colonize the other continents. Since the expansion of the empire was justified in the name of Christian missions, it was only natural for the populations of the newly annexed colonies to assume that Christianity was native to Europe. Even Africans were led to believe that their enslavers were also their saviors as those who chose to embrace Europe’s faith were forced to relinquish their “pagan” names and embrace “Christian” names.

In sum, Africa’s role in the biblical story and development of Christianity has been obscured by the success of Islam coupled with a racist tradition that has been driven by the notion of European supremacy.

MHP: [An aside, perhaps... there seems to be an assumption that the biblical account is accurate when it comes to the players in and around wider Africa. Have you questioned how reliable the Old Testament is in casting, specifically when it comes to people groups and judgments upon them? I ask because it appears that God desired more inclusion and not less but it's often interpreted as us and them.]

KB: I believe the biblical narrative is clear in its portrayal of a God who showed partiality to a specific group of people–namely those who descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. However, when we look at the purpose of God’s selection of a people, it is also evident that even in His selection of a particular group, God had the entire world in mind. In his original revelation to Abraham, he reminded him that through his descendants “all nations” will be blessed. In this sense, God’s “partiality” was not for the purpose of excluding others, but was a paradoxical expression of his impartiality.

Interestingly, even the “chosen” people were integrated with those who did not share the same lineage. At least three of Israel’s tribes were semi-Hamitic (Ephraim, Manasseh, and Judah), and the biblical narrative includes a number of biblical Africans who were a significant part of Israel (e.g. Rahab, Uriah, Hiram, Ebed-Melech).

I have no reason to question the reliability of the Old Testament script. Geo-political realities would mandate violent conflict between a nation of invading settlers and firmly established tribes. Further, archaeology confirms that those at enmity with God’s chosen were steeped in idolatry and other practices that went against God’s revealed will. Of course, for me to even make such a statement is to assume that there was a time when apostate nations were aware of God’s will. It seems to me that the eventual fate of Israel brought on by it’s own apostasy evidences a God who treats all people equally–whether in redemption or judgement.

MHP: I have read and heard much about the re-Christianization of Africa, mainly from within. I am, in fact a graduate of Trinity Divinity School where Tite Tienou is dean, which is monumental in the west, but at seminary we learned that the movement is away from the West and toward Africa... not only in sheer population of Christians, but also the scholars and pastors that are and will contribute to the wider movement. Why now? Why Africa? What do you see "Western" Christians (specifically Americans) doing with this growing phenomenon, other than the occasional Christianity Today article - especially due to the problems of unity period?

KB: The Psalmist prophesies the day when “Envoys will come out of Egypt” and “Ethiopia will quickly extend her hands to God.” (Ps 68:31) I believe that day has come. The foundation of the road to the prophecy’s fulfillment was built with the jagged rocks of European missions which–for the most part–sought to pacify the natives. However, the very Bible that was abused as an instrument of oppression became the vehicle of liberation for millions of Africans who realized that all humans are equal in God’s sight.

In the Bible, colonial Africans found a Christ who could identify with their pain–a liberator who knew how it felt to live under imperial oppression. They were also fascinated by the emancipating God who delivered Israel from slavery and entered into a covenant with his people. Further, they had no problem relating to the stories of the gospels on the societal level, as they experienced the power of exorcism and faith healing, and engaged in other types of spiritual warfare.

While most “Western” Christians have not given much thought to the changing face of Christianity, some “Anglo” church historians have contributed major studies that will hopefully enlighten the masses. These include Philip Jenkins and Andrew Walls who have recognized the resurgence of Christianity in Africa and Asia and speak about its hemispheric movement from the “north” to the “south.” The forthcoming publication by Thomas Oden will also embolden others to tackle a subject that for to long has been taboo.

Having noted the general indifference towards the transformation of twenty-first century Christianity, there are some Christians who have had to come to terms with the reality as a result of church politics. I speak specifically of the current rift in the Anglican communion where some American parishes disturbed by the liberal trends in this country have chosen to come under the jurisdiction of African dioceses. The Catholic Church also has highly placed African Cardinals who could very easily be voted as the next pope.

As we come to terms with this new reality, I think it is important for Western Christians to accept the fact that the various expressions of African Christianity may not resemble “those” that predominate Euro-America. It is also essential for Western theologians to realize that useful theology can be conducted without reference to Barth, Tillich. Niebuhr, Bruce, and other revered “giants” who have shaped modern Euro-American theology.

MHP: Ethiopia. Are there ways that its historical keeping of Christian principles are the guideposts for African Christianity today?

KB: Ethiopia has a proud Christian legacy. Arguably one of the first nations to embrace Christianity as the official state religion, Ethiopia has maintained a strong Christian presence in the face of Islam, paganism and communism. Although organizationally tied to the hip of the Egyptian Coptic Church (until recently), the Ethiopian Church managed to maintain its unique brand of Christianity that strongly resembled its Jewish parent. As recently as the reign of the late Emperor Haile Selassie, the Church still promoted seventh-day Sabbath keeping, circumcision, kosher dietary restrictions, and held on to a liturgy that could very well have been borrowed from the worship of ancient Israel.

A number of the Independent African Christian Churches identify themselves as “Ethiopian” or “Zionist” and practice a more “Jewish” form of Christianity. Among them are Isaiah Shembe’s Nazareth Baptist Church and the Zion Christian Church, to which are aligned millions of members.

I must hasten to add that while Ethiopian Christianity has held on to ancient traditions, I would not recommend it as a “model” for African Christianity. Just like its siblings in the West, the Tewahedo Church has been hijacked by bigoted bishops, political priests and career clergy who have forgotten the essence of the Christian gospel. As I mention in the book, this is most evident in the recent rift between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which not only resulted in the development of two independent states, but saw the church fragmenting into two autonomous denominations. Imagine the message that could have been sent if the Church were more committed to the united Kingdom of God than to earthly government structures?

While I believe that Ethiopia’s historic commitment to biblical truth should be emulated, it is more important that African Christians imbibe the essence of the gospel imperative–empowering love. Bishop Desmond Tutu and President Nelson Mandela showed us how this looks with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in post-Apartheid South Africa, and if African Christianity is going to positively impact the global Christian community, the principle of love must permeate every cell of its growing body.

MHP: Your book has prompted me to wonder what Jesus expected out of his early adherents and whether he imagined his movement reaching the pinnacle of political acceptance that Constantine modeled and was subsequently followed throughout Europe. Isn't the contention with categorizing people and churning war and trade an arm of government? And when Christianity saddles up with government in an official capacity, the "other" people quickly get subjugated under a bigger hand than simply tyranny (or beaten-in democracy, as America is attempting to do in the Middle East). Do you have any thoughts along these lines... ?

KB: As I mentioned earlier, for Christianity to be effective, it cannot be beholden to earthly governments. Constantine’s understanding of the “City of God” (which in many ways parallels the notion of dar al-Islam) politicizes Christianity in a way that robs it of its liberating power. The Christianity of the gospels was apolitical, in the sense that while it acknowledged the authority of earthly governments, it anticipated that all would eventually be superceded by the Kingdom of/from Heaven. Consequently, all who called themselves Christians would understand that their decision refocused their primary patriotic allegiance to an empire that had not yet been established.

Unfortunately, the gospel vision has been obscured by an unhealthy merging of state and church that has resulted in untold atrocities being conducted “in the name of the Lord.” Remember, it was the Catholic Church that sanctioned imperial colonization and slavery under the guise of converting pagans. Further, although no New Testament writer has any interest in the restoration of the land of Israel, it was so called “Christian” nations that partnered together in the “Crusades” against Islam.

Most recently, many evangelical Christians have rallied behind the President’s effort to forcefully convert a section of the globe to a way of living that he defines as “God’s gift to humanity.” While I am in full agreement that God wishes all people to experience freedom and enjoy life more abundantly, I fail to see how current carnal methods have garnered the endorsement of influential “Christian” leaders. As I imply towards the end of the book, God does not desire Christians to win people to his kingdom by violent force, but by compassionate example.

A friend of mine just returned from preaching a sermon series in Rwanda where his translator was a pastor who had lost all of his family in the recent genocide. Those responsible for the death of his family members were fellow pastors from the same denomination–men he had studied, lived and fellowshipped with. Although it is widely known that some of these pastors were involved in the genocide, most of them are still overseeing congregations and maintain good and regular standing in their church. As fate would have it, the pastor who served as translator now has to attend meetings with some of the same colleagues who have caused him so much pain. My friend asked him how he could do it, and he responded with a testimony of God’s grace and forgiveness.

When I think of this living martyr, I wish that all Christians could understand the true cost of discipleship. I wish that all Christians could really learn what it means to trust in God. I wish that all Christians would find the strength to love the “other” with so much conviction that their object of disdain is transformed into a sister or a brother. I wish that all Christians would truly submit to the God who loved the “world” so much that he gave his only Son....

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

blade runner revisited

An MHP Interview with Doug Cummings
To commemorate the release of Blade Runner: The Final Cut, The Matthew House Project’s Kenneth R. Morefield sat down with film writer and critic Doug Cummings. Cummings runs the popular film site,, and is a curator at Masters of Cinema (

KM: Blade Runner has been available on VHS and DVD for most of its twenty-five year history, so why is its theatrical re-release now a big deal? Or is it a big deal?

DC: I think it’s a pretty big deal. Warner Brothers is making it a big deal. They are wheeling out a five disc DVD set next month that has every version of the film ever made and a three-hour documentary and something like an hour and a half of alternate takes and deleted scenes. […] Vangelis has a three-disc CD [of the music] coming out, so they’re really getting behind it, and the new print is playing all over the world right now.

I think we’re realizing right now, the film had an enormous impact on popular cultural aesthetics, on cyber-punk literature as well as film. You can see a direct line between Blade Runner and Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and The Matrix, for example. It had a huge influence on the sort of backlit, high-contrast lighting of the 80s. Ridley Scott actually directed the first commercial for Macintosh in 1984 [….]

So the film has just had a really big impact on culture even though it wasn’t that big of a critical or commercial success when it was first released. Over the years now, it’s become one of those rare films that spans cult, fan-genre—all the way up to academic film criticism.

KM: Just about every film now, it seems, has a director’s cut on DVD as a means of milking a little more money out of a product we’ve already seen, but this feels a little different.

DC: The Blade Runner DVD that’s out now—the so-called 1992 “Director’s Cut” --was one of the first DVDs ever released, so it’s a very poor quality disc by today’s standards. (Although Warner released a cleaned up version about a year ago in anticipation of the new Final Cut.) Practically speaking, it’s one of those DVDs that needs to be upgraded.

KM: When Star Wars came out as a re-release there was almost a backlash because some people seemed to be saying, ‘Don’t tinker with my sacred cow or my childhood memory.’ I haven’t heard that same backlash from the people who are revisiting Blade Runner. […] What, if anything would you attribute that difference to?

DC: I think the main thing is that the “special editions” that George Lucas made for the Star Wars series really changed the aesthetic character of those films in a pretty major way. Lucas was adding all sorts of effects and all kinds of scenes, whereas the stuff that’s been added to Blade Runner: The Final Cut is not that different at all. There are a lot of small changes to the film, but they’re mostly in the areas of dialogue or visual detail. Just little continuity problems that needed ironing—wire removal and things like that. They actually went out of their way not to change the look of the film in any way. […]

Blade Runner had a very difficult production, and near the end of it, they had gone over budget a little and Ridley Scott was actually fired from the film; some of the producers of the film basically took ownership of it. And there was a sort of panic due to poor test screenings, and they made some rushed decisions at the last minute and tried to reconfigure the film. So the initial theatrical release has always had a few continuity errors, and the Final Cut is just one last final polish to a film that never really had one. […]

KM: Perhaps some of the backlash against re-releases comes from the fact that it shatters some of the illusion. We as an audience may be aware, peripherally, that an actor may not have been a first choice or that a production ran out of money, but we like to maintain the illusion that the film we got was the exact vision the artist intended.

DC: I think, too, that film-going is such a communal activity. When filmmakers go back and begin to reedit their films, somehow it threatens that idea that I’ve seen the same film that you’ve seen and we can share that experience and talk about it, that it can be a reference point for our relationship. With Blade Runner, the differences are very minor, but just knowing there are five different versions of the film might cause people to suspect the authenticity of any cut. […]

KM: What was your experience in re-screening the film? Was it as you remembered it, or were there particular aspects—even if they weren’t the changes—that you experienced differently because you were different?

DC: […] The one thing I really noticed was what a historical last gasp Blade Runner was for pre-digital cinema. Pretty much everything in the film is either live action or props or models, and it just sort of resounds with an overwhelming physicality that’s missing from so many contemporary films that depend so heavily on digital effects. I don’t know…you watch today’s films…a lot of them have this sort of ethereal, weightless, artificiality to them, because everything is so digital […] I think the audience senses that. With Blade Runner you know what you’re looking at—even if it’s a model—is physical, it’s material, it’s real and actually exists in this world. Even if it’s just a subconscious thing, I think it somehow lends a lot of credibility to what you’re looking at…

KM: …Unlike a film such as, say, Transformers, where, on some levels, we think almost none of it is physical. It may be seamless, but we know very little of it is—I like the word that you used—weighty. It has a physical presence in there and it’s not just looking and feeling like Toy Story. It just feels two dimensional.

DC: Right.

KM: You quoted Harlan Ellison at Filmjourney in saying that he found the film deeper in human values than he had supposed and more than a glitzy melodrama. I’m assuming you quoted that in agreement?

DC: Yeah.

KM: What are some of the human values that you see in the film?

DC: I think it’s a pretty profoundly human valued film, but it’s set in a very dark dystopia. (Even though it looks a lot like today’s cities!) The central questions the movie asks is what it means to be human and whether or not our humanity can survive the commercial, social, and authoritarian excesses of contemporary times.

It’s based on a book by Philip K. Dick who in the early 60s wrote one of his most esteemed novels called The Man in the High Castle, and that’s basically an alternative history book where he imagines what the world would be like if the Nazis had actually won World War II. Apparently while he was doing research for that book, he was reading journal entries from various Nazi guards at concentration camps, and one of them was complaining in his journal that he wasn’t getting any sleep at nights because the Jewish children were crying and keeping him awake. Dick was pretty shocked by this. It made him begin to think that if we begin to lose our empathy for others, we lose a critical aspect of who we are as human beings. This was fermenting in his thinking and his imagination for a while, and in 1968 when he wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the novel that was made into Blade Runner, it was the height of the Vietnam War, so once again he was thinking about empathy and asking what separates humans from indifferent conquerors. The book and the film are really rooted in those questions. […]

I think what’s really interesting about the film is that it begins with this very, sort of science-fiction/action movie premise. It begins with a definition of killing, it’s not called ‘killing’ or ‘execution,’ it’s called ‘retirement.’ Already it’s sort of setting up this [expectation with this] sanitized word for killing and this action movie premise with Harrison Ford playing the ‘hero.’ But then I think the film systematically questions that premise and those genre clichés. Harrison Ford’s character, you see him drinking throughout the film, constantly, alone. And he’s really insensitive to everyone in the film, particularly women, which is interesting. The film kind of blurs the line between hero and villain, and I think its ultimate conclusions are that basically all of life is sacred…that genetically engineered people are just as worthy of compassion as natural born humans. And this undercuts audience expectations and the sorts of story elements it sets up at the beginning…which I think contributed to its lack of popularity at first. I think people were expecting a story that was more traditional […]

KM: One of the reasons there may have been some resistance, going back to your ideas of empathy…it seemed to me a lot of people got hung up on the literal question of whether or not Deckard is a replicant, the “Is he or isn’t he?” The literal answer to that question replaced the thematic question of “what does it mean to be human?” and I think it’s significant that the film leaves us—at least in the voice-over version of the film—with the question of Deckard questioning the question, of saying “well she doesn’t know how much time she has left, but neither do I…”

DC: Right, right.

KM: He’s questioning his terms and definitions about what it means to be human, so I think in some ways, to the extent people focus on that literal question they were expecting a literal answer rather than a film that made you go back and re-question the answer that you already thought you had.

DC: Or a film that just negates that question or dissolves that distinction […] At one point in the film the genetic designer, the head of this huge corporation, named Tyrell, says their motto is, ‘More human than human,’ which is kind of ironic, because by the end you realize that the replicants really are more human than the hero, at least, who very rarely demonstrates empathy at all. Certainly—and this is probably spoiler territory—by the end when Ford’s nemesis catches him before he falls to his death, you realize that act of grace is definitely a more human thing to do than…

KM: …the ‘human’ thing of ‘retiring’ the replicants.

DC: Absolutely.

KM: In my memory, when I think back on Blade Runner, it’s always sort of been framed as this dystopian counterpart cited in contrast to the more idealistic or humanistic Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. Star Wars and Star Trek are the positive views of the future [even though Star Wars is set “a long time ago”], the positive science fiction, that takes the best parts of humanistic belief in man and projects it into the future and says that the world is going to get better, and that Blade Runner will be the dark, dystopian view—things are going to get worse and worse. I scanned the reviews at Rotten Tomatoes and the adjective I saw most often was “dark,” and yet in our thematic discussion of the film, I don’t think it’s a particularly hopeless or nihilistic view of human nature. Is there some reason you think people tended to read it more pessimistically? Is it because the film is literally dark?

DC: I’m not sure that Star Wars is humanist as much as it is triumphalist; I mean it ends with the hero blowing up millions of people on a space station! But with Blade Runner, society is a dystopian society. It’s overrun by advertising, it’s polluted, it’s constantly raining, there’s probably some atmospheric damage that’s been done…things are overcrowded. So, yeah, it’s a scary vision. But one of the reasons it’s so scary is that it’s so similar to things we see in our own cities. At the same time, I think the message beneath the film is very much one that suggests that inner transformations and deeper human values can transcend that, or at least provide some hope for the future. I think it’s a dark world, but I think the themes of the characters, of the drama that’s playing out, is much more hopeful.

KM: In Jurassic Park, the Jeff Goldblum character says, ‘Life will find a way’ as a way of talking about chaos theory. There’s actually a more hopeful aspect of that scene’s message in Blade Runner...[…] It’s used in Jurassic Park to describe man’s hubris in thinking he could ever control life, but there’s a humility about that chaos in Blade Runner, which is saying, just as we can never control it, we can never totally erase it.

DC: Exactly. As dark as this world is, there’s still these characters that are concerned with ethical behavior and ultimate concerns. For me, that’s pretty hopeful. And it’s important to note that the film is not preachy about its themes, particularly with the Director’s and Final Cuts shorn of their narration. It really plays more ambiguously and trusts the audience to sort through the implications themselves. I’m not sure the audience always took it up on that invitation…

KM: But I think all the best art, or the great art, really if it’s going to err, it’s going to err on the side of trusting the audience to recognize that ambiguity rather than leading it by the nose [….] I’ve always appreciated that about Blade Runner. Even with the voice-over, it seemed to be less preachy than say, a Star Wars or a Star Trek where someone said, ‘Here is your fortune cookie philosophy doled out for you in nice easy chunks, and here’s some nice special effects to make it go down easily.’

DC: I also think the violence in the film contributes to the knee-jerk reaction that Blade Runner is dark, but actually the violence is very morally inflected. It’s not idealized or reduced to a cartoon…I mean on one level we see that even though these replicants are genetically engineered, they’re just like normal people, they’re made of flesh and blood. So it’s pretty relevant to the film, actually. […]

KM: One of my academic areas of interest is the way genre expectations mediate responses to works of film or literature. Maybe one of the reasons people don’t expect Blade Runner to be humanistic is that they don’t expect science-fiction to be humanistic [….] Is science-fiction a legitimate genre to explore these humanistic themes?

DC: […] Part of the problem is that I don’t think cinematic science-fiction has caught up to literary science fiction in terms of its depths or its themes…yet. I think cinematic science-fiction still tends to emphasize spectacle and technology over human psychology or characters or emotions […]

KM: That creates a snowballing effect, too, because the most important artists want to make important films, so they’ll gravitate towards other projects because science-fiction might not have the same amount of prestige…

DC: Exactly.

KM: […]That’s interesting for thinking about Ridley Scott. You seemed to indicate at Filmjourney—and I kind of agree—that some of his best, probing, deepest and more important films actually came fairly early, and that as he’s gotten more successful […] that some of his projects don’t really stand up to Blade Runner or Alien in terms of their level of importance. Do you think of Blade Runner as being an auteurist film? As a Ridley Scott film?

DC: I think it’s certainly his key film, and there are auteurist angles to it that one can certainly point out. I think it’s interesting that a core of the film’s dystopian vision is advertising gone wild, because Ridley Scott had just spent well over a decade directing literally thousands of European commercials, and I think it’s really interesting in Blade Runner to see this sort of outpouring of advertising for Atari and Pan-Am, all this neon everywhere. You sort of feel like he’s purging something…it’s a film that suggests the overabundance of advertising by one of the world’s most successful advertisers. I think you can look at that from an auteurist angle, and maybe a couple others.

Another is its story of an antagonist and a protagonist that are kind of spiraling in on one another to this decisive confrontation that’s moral as much as it is physical, which kind of recalls his first film—which I’m pretty fond of—called The Duelists

KM: A wonderful film…

DC: Yeah. It’s based on a story by Joseph Conrad. Blade Runner has a similar ending in some ways; I think one can find some interesting connections there.

KM: It has a lot of the same probing qualities as well, expressed in the duality or the conflict in terms of ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and ‘what does it mean to have empathy, even to someone who’s your antagonist?”

DC: That’s right.

KM:..or the central theme of honor. ‘What does it mean to be honorable?’ All sort of questions we have easy sound bites for but that make us look beyond the sound bites to really examine, ‘Is that true?’ So I think that’s a wonderful comparison.

DC: I think all his—especially his early films—you know his 80s films…after Blade Runner he had a really difficult time getting critical and commercial successes, until—well I guess he did Thelma and Louise—but in terms of genre pictures he did Gladiator, which I’m not that big of a fan of…but all of them have an aspect to them that it’s clear that he’s thought through them on a certain level, and as much as he’s attributed as being this visual stylist and sort of a quote/unquote ‘slick’ filmmaker, I think his films, when you really look at them, usually have an interesting moral component.

KM: […] You mentioned that science fiction as a film medium hasn’t quite caught up with literary science-fiction. Are there other science-fiction or fantasy works that you esteem as highly as Blade Runner or that are more generally esteemed? I did a quick scan of Internet Movie Database of other Philip K. Dick adaptations and wasn’t sort of impressed by the resume: Total Recall, Imposter, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly, Next…so, is this just a case of one person being ahead of his time, or have there been other entries in the sci-fi genre that […] might be less familiar to viewers but might be equally valuable?

DC: Definitely. You could certainly begin with Metropolis, which a lot of people have seen and was obviously an influence on Blade Runner. The science fiction films I think you’re asking about, and a lot of the ones that really stand out to me are the ones that move beyond spectacle—spectacle’s great, there’s nothing wrong with a sense of awe…but you have to ask yourself if it’s deserved. Just because it’s awe inspiring doesn’t mean it’s deserving of our respect.

Metropolis is a parable about management and labor, the need for them to have a healthy relationship and mutual respect, which is an interesting, timeless theme. […] I think a couple of the early science fiction horror films really still stand out and hold up well. The Bride of Frankenstein and Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are both very much about science versus the soul so to speak, and whether or not they can keep up with each other and what our responsibilities are. Blade Runner owes a lot to Frankenstein in many ways.

A couple of French science fiction films: La Jetée by Chris Marker and Je t’aime, je t’aime by Alain Resnais. Both of those are profound meditations on time, memory and identity. My favorite end of the world movie is a film called The Day the Earth Caught Fire by Val Guest. On the one hand it’s a film about journalists, and nuclear issues, and our treatment of the environment. But it’s also a pretty penetrating character study that’s done very well.

I think the apex of science-fiction films about the human person would be Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Stalker, both of which are pretty deep meditations on love and identity and spirituality. I think they set the standard for introspective science fiction…moving from outer space to inner space so to speak.

KM: […] [Anything since Blade Runner?]

DC: My two favorite science fiction films since Blade Runner have been Gattaca and Dark City. I think both of those films—which were arguably influenced by Blade Runner—have very distinctive looks as well, but certainly the visuals in both films are very tied in to their themes. They’re not just, ‘hey this looks cool’ but they are tied in to everything that’s happening…

KM: ..and are able to ask important questions. Not just ‘will he get the maguffin?’ but ‘why do I want him to?’ or ‘what do I want?’ Asking questions where I have a vested interest in the answer to that question as reader or viewer and not just questions about ‘how will it end?’ but ‘what is the meaning of how it ends?’

DC: Yes, exactly.

KM: Doug, thanks so much for talking to us about Blade Runner: The Final Cut.

Kenneth R. Morefield is an Assistant Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina.

toast me a little jesus

by Zach Kincaid

There’s a Nigerian myth about the sky. Once, it knelt close enough for anyone to reach up and touch it, take a piece and eat it like you and I pick an apple from an orchard. The sky became the sustenance for villages far and wide. There was no hunger, for just above your nose loomed a great blue dome of bounty. But this nearness to the heavens did not last. Soon, villagers took for granted the blessings of their blue neighbor and became greedy and gluttonous. They pealed off more than they needed and threw away the excess. Seeing the wasteful behavior, the great sky gave warning to take only in need and not a nimiety of its gifts. But the consumption continued until finally the sky said it must move away. It did, to where it sits today, buckled between dirt and the outer spaces.

When the sky let through Jesus, it dipped down in a vulnerable procession of lyric angels and bated stars. Jesus carried the torch of God and found needy people - outlaws, drunks, cripples, whores, robbers, zealots, and would-be preachers - hungry and desperate. People flocked from all over to hear him and perhaps receive his touch that would dispel their sickness or abnormality. You know the story. He consumed all of our calamity in an effort to move us back into the presence of God... to a place where the sky is close enough to procure our lives... the manna from old, now redeeming new wilds of soul and city. Right? Do not worry about what you eat or drink or wear. Your father in heaven knows you need it and he’ll keep you. And tomorrow? No worries. Today is enough to think about.

As Jesus ended his week of passion, he solicited an invitation to his disciples. Take and eat. This is my body that I’ve broken for you. Take and drink. This is my blood that I’ve spilled out from my side for you. It bids us to consume him rightly. For he has knelt close and has suspended himself between that dirt and those outer spaces in a horrowshow that beckons relationship with the divine and an uneasy sincerity about what can happen when heavenly stars get tangled up in the earthen gardens.

Consuming Jesus is the title of Paul Louis Metzger’s new book. It asks us to reevaluate how we build community and what it might mean to genuinely follow Christ in a society that commodifies everything. For many in America, Jesus is a name that wields a gavel and a voting box and fishy auto bling and Colorado Springs pilgrimages to prepare for Sunday justice with a psychiatrist-turned-radio-jock. And, if followed rightly, prosperity will be dropped in the form of material blessings and happier living... to make you a better you (jumping to Houston). Many churches, with their coffee bars and branded, survey tested worship styles, bring market values to measure rates of success and viability. One clear way to count your blessings in church today is attendance figures... and even more, identifying and targeting what population segment you’re attracting. The result is a consumerized model of church building, planting, and maintaining, and one that segments people and communities based on race, class, age, and everything in between.

“The church must rediscover its own story and its sacramental means of sustenance in order to reconfigure the structures to defeat consumerism,” says Metzger. “The consumer-driven church culture fosters homogeneity and upward mobility, not transforming harmony and downward mobility of the triune God that is realized in the cross and resurrection.” Given the premise of a church gone mad with consumerists principles, how does Metzger propose a rediscovery of the story?

He first clarifies. Fundamentalism. It has robbed the evangelical church of intellectual pursuit, social consciousness, and the idea that God’s kingdom is here and now (and not solely in the bye and bye). To the first count, in a movement against modernity, Darwinism, and humanism, it starved the universities of its presence by moving out and starting its own schools in the early twentieth century. To the second, one of the architects of the movement, Dwight L. Moody, noticeably shifted from feeding the poor with bread to feeding them with the Gospel alone, in part as a reaction to the social Gospel movement that linked up less and less the cause and call for work among the disenfranchised. This began a strident move to conversion-centered or conversion-only ministry. And, to the last, prominent startup schools like Wheaton College in Illinois exchanged the idea of a transformation of culture to a separation from it... because God’s kingdom is in heaven... because the true believers will be raptured up and meet their Lord in the sky.

With these three tenants as parts of its platform, Fundamentalism usurped the work of earlier abolitionists and underground railroad organizers and helped turn the idea of a church in culture to a church in contention with culture. Said a different way, the neighbor became the other and the other had to be battled against - Hollywood is evil, Sundays must be free of commerce, the consumption of alcohol is a sin, evolution should have no allowance. Later, gambling, prayer in public schools, segregation, and, more recently, the need for a marriage amendment due to homosexual threats all make up a look outward at the vices of the other as set apart from us. Meanwhile, race and class division, Metzger says, fail to be subjects of concern either inside the church or in the culture at large, which ripple out other oppressors from homogenous neighborhoods to healthcare access, from availability to education and technology to sheer income standards. Metzger -

"The fundamentalist reconfiguration of the church from a retreating fortress to a political battle camp to a homogenous unit is a faulty order that plays into this consumer cultural vision of social relations. Many evangelical leaders give the appearance of going to battle to maintain a certain morality or a certain standard of living and way of life - even a Kinkadian-like utopian vision of upward mobility and homogeneity... Moreover, the individualistic and otherwordly orientation of many evangelicals today involves a lack of awareness of the social context and structures that we inhabit and a lack of concern about overcoming the problems in the here and now. Focusing on getting people saved, especially those like us, and setting them apart as a righteous remnant that will someday rule with Christ, can lead to the unwitting quest for political power for our special-interest groups, coupled with market-driven church growth."

As a result, big-box churches deliver everything to its consumer parishioners, from worship to fitness to education to entertainment. With jumbotrons broadcasting palpable messages for a thousand Pavloff tongues (to sing), one begins to wonder what’s the point? What’s the point in a model that transforms worship into entertainment and preaching into motivational speaking?

It’s the consumer church mindset.

"Whether the evangelical subculture is conscious of it or not" Metzger says, "the consumer spirit is deeply entrenched in its soul: that is, in many ways its soul is but a reflection of the larger culture’s own narcissistic spirit. The consumer-church mindset, which offers self-gratification and fulfillment to the individual, is not redemptive. Rather, this mindset is violent: it enslaves and violates those who have bought into it, causing them to spiral further inward and downward in to the bottomless pit of their insatiable desires. The church must awaken and see itself as a peculiar people with a particular politics, a people whose mission includes shaping each other’s lives through conversion and participation in the crucified body of the risen Christ. This call for upside-down living flows from an inside-out heart in which heaven dwells. Hell, on the other hand, is in hearts and lives that are turned inward and upward (as in upwardly mobile), which we can observe in some evangelical gatherings today."

Ironically, Paul Metzger’s Consuming Jesus released within a few weeks of Joel Osteen’s Become a Better You, which invites you to "...embark on a remarkable journey... that will help you break free from the past and realize your full potential as a spouse, parent, or friend. Whether you realize it or not, miracles are happening all around you. I'm confident that reading this book will lead you to accept the gift of who you were meant to be and live a life filled with more hope, joy, and victory." This type of theological masturbation is exactly the opposite of Christ’s call. One look at the website of a prominent Christian bookstore chain, Family Christian Stores, provides additional fodder on this fire of Christian drivel. Titles on their homepage include: The Seven Pillars of Health, The Ten Second Prayer Principle, 8 Steps to Create the Life You Want.

In addition, highlighted titles that appeal to building up the family feed “diabolical” and “idolatrous” behavior seen in the church today, writes Metzger. The constant chatter about family this and family that misplaces our focus inward, securing our own kingdoms and legacies. “Given such a family-oriented religion,” he says, “perhaps there is not much difference in the end between evangelicalism and Mormonism, where focusing on the family culminates in the deification of the family.”

It is in “our DNA” as the organization Focus on the Family says on their website, “to encourage and strengthen families worldwide.” But, what’s the motivation? “We're on the front-lines,” they say, “wherever legislation threatens to harm the family.” Certainly, FoF’s mission is broader, but much of their work further isolates Christians into a “gospel of privatized affections” as they insulate and protect families from outside threats.

It is this way of thinking about society - as an outside threat - that we tolerate divisiveness and tailor our communities around our comforts and likes. But Metzger argues that the church is mobile, like the Ark of the Covenant - on mission to rebind, reconcile and redeem. And, he says, Christ teaches this himself. In the eucharist, Jesus “enters into concrete local space and transforms it, meaning that, as we partake of the Lord’s Supper - engaging Christ in our union with him - Christ takes us to where he is in the world.”

I recently spoke with Paul Metzger about Consuming Jesus, and he made special emphasis on the hope that it would be a constructive text, positive and reformatory instead of cynical and snide. This is certainly true in the two closing chapters of the book, “Reordering the Church’s Outreach” and “A Nobler Vision of Patchwork Quilts and Church Potlucks.” In the first, he centers on reconciling the church with the world in ways that redistribute resources, blame, ownership, and glory in ways that frame the church as sacrificial and not self-seeking or empire building. In the second, Metzger defines the Perkinsonian quilt as one that pieces together a variety of missional work including soup kitchens and car shops and medical clinics. It would also break down the megachuch palaces and distribute the abundance with impoverished faith communities. Metzger cites particular “patches” that help color the work of the church into something that is shared and not homogenous, one yet different. This American quilt weaves in the worn out and downtrodden and lets loose the golden threads that have kept captivated a church consumed by its own naveled gaze and not being consumed by the jesuses that Matthew identifies in the wide reflection on a dying society, of which the church is a member.

Maybe then the sky will hang down a little closer as it once did.

(December 2007)

not for sale

A MHP Interview with David Batstone
Ever wonder where the “pro bono” lurks in Bono’s messages about Africa? From Product Red – excuse me – (Product) red – that promotes indulging in and indulgences for the cause to the cost-nothing signatures harvested at overpriced concerts fueling the One celeb show, there is little demand to sacrifice because of personal ethics and activism. This bonofied approach that shows no discipline toward commercializing seems most concerned about how products can marry fashion with social concern. But why? Is it really instilling anything in an individual? Maybe just on… earphones roped in from schnazy red iPods or those cool again Converse shoes.

Too bad. We all wear our skinned-up justifications and now on a million hip hips Red has had its way and money has relieved a million guilts. But that’s not Bono’s point. He wants us to care the way he does… even more, the way Jesus would. But he’s been milking the US consumer market for years and he knows he can’t demand a pound of flesh without a tickle or a vertigo-styled rub. So combine it. Get Brad Pitt or Tom Hanks to seriously stare at us and all of a sudden we will listen.

Unfortunately, Bono has identified the truth about today’s populace: we like to wear the badge of “consumer” before anything else. And that has an effect on charity… on love of others. So why should we care about a new organization that carries the inauspicious title “Not For Sale Campaign”? Theirs is not Africa only, but the crime of modern-day slavery globally. Don’t worry fellow consumers, what is “not for sale” are the slaves that make our t-shirts and pick our vegetables; it’s not voiding out products altogether. However, there is a clear connection. Just go into one of our neighborhood GAP store and check out the labels. You’ll be hard-pressed to find anything American made. Yes, this does not automatically attribute the product to slave labor, but if the counts are right and more than 27 million people are enslaved, that makes our purchases with overseas tags more suspect.

Born from a refocus on the historic work of William Wilberforce (who helped pass the Save Act 200 years ago which abolished slavery in the British Empire), former Sojourners editor David Batstone is heading up this not-for-sale awareness. He explained the purpose of the campaign in a conversation I had with him a few weeks ago.

David Batstone: On the one-hand, Wilberforce had a global connection. There was a concentration of capital and power to address easily and boycott items like sugar. Today, it’s a global market and products come from all over the world. There’s more complicity. It makes you never able to feel self-righteous.

We must approach the subject with a sense of vocation and calling because modern-day slavery is an evil that’s diffuse. The task is daunting and forever overwhelming. However, there are some advantages in our current day. Wilberforce was dealing with a state-sanctioned institution and he had no one to turn to. Today, slavery is outlawed in every country.

MHP: So, who gets labeled as a slave? How is that label defined?

DB: The basic definition of slavery, modern day or historic, is forcing another individual to do something against their will without compensation. Many people lack justice. What does justice mean? In our Scriptures, justice is the fabric that allows us to live life. And where the poor lack an advocate their freedom is robbed.

The Not For Sale Campaign is focused on a worker’s compensation when null and forced labor is present. This is modern day slavery. We want to understand the mechanisms that drive this on each of the five continents and work against it. We want to highlight the heroes and bring out the patterns we’ve seen. First, modern day slavery starts with vulnerable people who lack protection. That usually means women and children. That usually means they are removed from their communities and cross borders. The outcome of sexual slavery is a blatant trafficking case. But more are forced into rug looms, brick making, and harvesting crops, from Guatemala to Florida.

MHP: How do we measure success – what’s the result?

DB: Where’s the Jack Welch in all this? We’re all influenced by Jack Welch, General Electric’s longtime CEO, as we ask how we measure the results – what’s the bottom line for success?

MHP: I guess.

DB: We need to return to Luther’s notion of mission and empower creativity for the best to result… no matter the skill set. If you are a journalist, you give that. You bring who you are to God’s table in an effort to effect relief. You can’t ask too much then.

With justice, it’s about building up the narrative. That’s why Batstone and the Not For Sale campaign website is working up to highlight a new person every day who is living out justice in their life, vocation, community, and all the repercussions that are possible when our intentions, prayers, and actions find more purpose than all the sprawl that feeds off the backs of slaves and into all those made up needs that dance like sugar plumbs in our heads.

Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.

black rebel’s baby 81 wants to feel

by Zach Kincaid
I took out a loan on my empty heart, babe
I took out a loan for my patient soul
And I feel alive as long as I don’t need you
And I feel alive as long as I keep hold
Dripping with a need to feel and get outside of the trapdoors within their souls, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club once again supplies a deeper pool of thought in a landscape of shallow, girl-inspired rock and roll. Baby 81 certainly has its share of lovers, but its hunt is not gratification or romance alone. Carrying over pieces of howlesque blues and layering in strident take-them-on guitars, Black Rebel recreates themselves again on this fourth release, countering their nonchalant rebel swagger with songs that won’t let you go.

“Took Out A Loan” is delicate underneath its blare that despairingly unwinds at the song’s conclusion. It’s a wake up call to shuffle you’re your feet a little quicker… or maybe start bouncing in the air to the renewed energy of a Black Rebel who fell from a wall and is now back together again. (Been and Hayes welcomed back drummer Nick Jago after an extended hiatus.)

The second offering, “Berlin,” blends lovers and killers to make killers of lovers and lovers set to kill each other. The result is feeding what we think is love yet does not feel like it according to love’s definition. Since love is an act that involves someone else, when the virtue of love is exchanged for its vice of hatred or anger or strife, the result is suicide of the soul. As the guitar tries to catch the voice Black Rebel belts out, “Suicide’s easy / What happened to the revolution.” Over again, “Suicide’s easy / What happened to the revolution.” If we’re lucky, we are awakened from our apathetic smug long enough to effect change.

But hold on. What’s in your war chest? How are you to succeed? What’s your weapon of choice? asks BRMC. Why? Because if we are to be passionate, passion must meet up with activism that is calculated – that is measured by more than simply feelings, whether amid political circles “Weapon of Choice” speaks about, or in love relationships that “Took Out A Loan” references. Frontloaded with a simple riff and tambourine, the song moves quickly until Been is screaming “I won’t waste it, I won’t waste it, I won’t waste my love on a nation.”

The next cut “Window” is regretful. The simple falsetto says, “You want it, you need it, the words slip away. Your crying your eyes out, your mind wants to break.” It pleads to turn away from world outside your window and instead, look through the pane of yourself and reconcile what’s inside you – those fractured senses, spidery trapdoors, buried feelings, and an altered realities. The song ends with a melodic refrain questioning “how many… how many… how many”… until we finally realize what is lost and the negation of what we’ve gained through deceit laden arrogance.
How many people must learn
How many roads must you turn…
How many tears must you cry
How many buried inside…
How many years must you fight
How many stories survive…
How many days must you brave
How many years must you pay
“Cold Wind” is a wake up call to step outside and feel again – the elements that break us down each season, that rape the landscape of green and ring it out with a slow transition from death and life again. “I’ve been waiting for the right time just to begin…” is the driving lyric. And when the right time hits, it’s as simple and mysterious as a cold wind breaking into the guise of summer’s permanence and tempting it into a sway of change.

And “Not What You Wanted” swings in, leading the listener into the best chorus of Baby 81, falling into it with ease. It sticks to you. And it serves as notes from that unmarked place where genuine feelings get masked by unchecked emotions (and the other way around) –
You know you’ve got a long way down
You feel it when you hit the ground
It’s not what you wanted
It’s not what you came here for
This place just leaves you cold
Where nothing matters
Hung on the line “You’re lucky words don’t bleed,” “All You Do Is Talk” says that simply talking about love doesn’t give the word any meaning. Love is only completed by actions; that’s the only way it finds true hooks into a soul. So, Black Rebel “took out loans” on an untried love in the first track and they make dreams indebted in a song titled “Lien on Your Dreams,” the nicely punned ninth song on Baby 81:
There’s a lien on your dreams
That keeps you going under
And a hole in the floor
That drops us all together
You can fight all you like
There’s no way to hide it
The next three songs, “Need Some Air,” “Killing the Light,” and “American X” follow a similar format of identifying void spaces within us and grasping for something outside, something bigger than soul alone – fresh air, the constancy of the sun, no-strings-attached honesty, and all-out societal reparation are themes. For example, from “American X:”
There’s nothing here that is left to be saved…
You feast your eyes on American sex
You sleep in shores of American bliss
Growing wings from the sorrowless excess
Your frozen eyes cut the chord to their last depth
You share your young with the wolves of a nation
There’s nothing left ‘til you pray for salvation
“Am I Only” provides a tinge of resolve in the mood it sets, though the lyrics still stab back and want to assess the value of ideas and songs and expressions and people themselves.

In the end, Baby 81 leaves us hanging from a precipice, ready to fall into something more solid than baby 80 or baby 82.

(August 2007)

checkmate: indigo girls at the roxy

by Zach Kincaid
Checkmate. It’s a move that leaves you with no options. You loose the game. In theology, systematizers attempt to move into gray areas and pin them down. “It’s black or white and that’s that.” Loosy-goosed theologians think everything is made of wind, and when something doesn’t blow away they want to label it “intolerant.” Ah. There’s Chesterton at the door. “The word ‘heresy’ not only means no longer being wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous. The word ‘orthodoxy’ not only no longer means being right; it practically means being wrong.”

As true Christianity sinks deeper underground and popular religion pays their bills by way of rock show homilies and righteous indignation of the “other,” the dinner table at Matthew’s house is often neglected at best and cornered in with checkmate moves that leaves grace dangling by threads.

We stood in line at the Roxy on Monday night, July 30, thrilled to see the Indigo Girls in a small, sold out venue for the taping of an upcoming DVD. The line slithered down the neighboring alley and opened into the Roxy’s back parking lot. It was a rag-tag group of gays and lesbians, straights and narrows, hipped and hyped, pierced and prodded.

Once inside, the show started on a stripped down stage, where the music served for the main attraction. The Indigo Girls fell into the spell of an intimate hometown room, a crowd cheering and crooning as if alone in their cars.

Two guitars and signature harmony took the lead the way it ought to at an Indigo Girls show. Minus a few older tunes like “World Falls” and “The Wood Song,” the first dozen songs showcased Despite Our Differences,” their latest release. The predictable all changed when “Tried to be True” brought out Brandi Carlile and band as backup. What began as expected turned a corner to find Amy Rae’s brother and kids singing “This little light of mine” to end the provocative tune “Let it Ring” –

Let it ring to Jesus 'cause he sure'd be proud of you
You made fear an institution and it got the best of you
Let it ring in the name of the one that set you free
Let it ring
As I wander through this valley
In the shadow of my doubting
I will not be discounted
So let it ring
You can cite the need for wars
Call us infidels or whores
Either way we'll be your neighbor
So let it ring

“Closer to Fine” had Tina Meade of three5human and Brandi Carlile sharing the vocals, which brought a twist to the most successful Indigo Girls song to date. “Kid Fears” took a similar queue, nestled between a shared stage with Amy and Emily supporting a Carlilie song before it and a three5human tune afterwards. And so too, a full band stroll to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Lastly and rightly, “Galileo” and “Land of Canaan” ended the night three hours after it began.

Thoughtful music steers theology into a quiet corner and asks it to listen awhile. As flat judgments find texture in the wiles of Main Street, the pillars where sanctification was thought to reside get cut down to gutter level. Here, Matthew 9 and I Corinthians 13 have no padded rooms where “Amazing Grace” can be belted out without the belches that break us back to creature status.

Checkmate. The difficult mandate of Christianity is not tolerance alone. That’s easy enough in today’s pancaked world. Jesus adds love to the dance, and love must be felt, not simply reasoned out. And U2’s right – love is blindness. It’s also messy. Anyone who reads the Bible realizes that righteousness blows in the wind and that nothing lasts save the grace of God. As to the question of morality, we have a limited space to roam. Scripture, Church, and the Trinity teach us about boundaries and setting right behaviors so to aid our souls in finding the inn at the world’s end. May we each pray that our pilgrimages – though pointing down crooked lines – might find the reckless love of God. We’re all in checkmate. Let it ring. This one from “Tether” –

Cause we may flicker and fade,
But we never will be through with this
I see this world battered but not broken
There's a fallow heart, it's waiting on a sowing hand
You can grow what you want, But one day it's gonna rise up
So plant what you need to make a better stand
And we'll bring it together
And we'll call from the mountain to the valley below.
And we'll make it better
Let go of the hawk, we let go of the dove.
I sing to you, all you true believers
With the strength to see this and not be still.
I'm telling you now, find the hope that feeds you,
Don't let 'em bleed you of your will.

Set List
Pendulum swinger
Little Perennials
Shame On You
Hope Alone (w/ Brandi Carlile)
World Falls (w/ Brandi Carlile)
Lay My Head Down
Three County Highway
The Wood Song
Money Made You Mean
Fill It Up Again
Dairy Queen
Last Tears (w/ Brandi Carlile)
Tried to Be True (w/ Brandi Carlile band)
Rock and Roll Heaven's Gate (w/ Brandi Carlile band)
Let It Ring (Amy solo w/ Amy's brother and nieces and nephews)
Closer to Fine (w/ Trina Meade and Brandi Carlile)
Cannonball (Brandi Carlile w/ Indigo Girls)
Kid Fears (w/ Trina Meade)
Genocidal Youth (three5human w/ Indigo Girls)
Trouble (w/ three5human)
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (w/ three5human)
Rock and Roll Heaven's Gate (w/ three5human)
Don't Think Twice, It's Alright (w/ Brandi Carlile)
Midnight Train to Georgia (w/ three5human)

(encore #1)
Tether (w/ three5human
Galileo (w/ Brandi Carlile)

(encore #2)
Land of Canaan

(August 2007)