Tuesday, May 22, 2007

John vs. Jon? Thoughts on Mel White, homosexuality, and marriage

Not much more than a link, really... John Smulo has blogged on former ghostwriter for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, now gay activist, Mel White and the latter's newest book Religion Gone Bad. I left comments which disagreed with what I thought were some of my pal Smulo's conclusions. He in fact may not have disagreed with me after all... I just didn't catch the last bits of his blog entry. Dang speed reading! But the comments may be worth a read anyway...

Running MS-Windows "virtually" in Linux? WMWare may save the day.


You know me well enough by now to know that once in a while I have to talk about my favorite operating system, Linux. In short, though I love Linux for its stability and its price (FREE!), and Ubuntu Linux as my current preferred "flavor," I also end up running Windows far too much of the time. The main reason? I use Windows-related programs which do not function under Linux. At least... not usually.

There are ways to get Windows programs to run on the Linux Desktop. First, there is the freeware but also unreliable "wine" (WINdow Emulator), which does run my old Quickverse Bible program under most Linux releases. But it does not run MS-Office, and it also will not run DreamWeaver UltraDev or Photoshop. There are alternatives to the freeware version, most notably Codeweavers' Crossover (currently version 6.1). I tried an earlier version and it did in fact (based on the wine project's code) run MS-Office. But I also experienced some anomalies. The newer version promises better stability. The price tag of $39 seems reasonable -- quite so.

But even more reasonable is the price tag on what has long been the Cadillac of Windows on Linux software solutions. VMWare's "virtual machine" solution actually allows a complete Windows installation to be created within Linux (actually it also allows for the reverse, but who wants to do that?!). And this software, once quite expensive, is currently available for FREE download.

Caveats... you need a newer, faster machine to run this all on. After all, you have a Linux box running a complete windows 95, NT, 2000, or XP install -- you choose at installation time which -- inside the Linux desktop. You'll also have to make sure you created enough free space in your Linux partition that you have room for the size of Windows installation you'll need. And of course, as one might expect in Linux, I ran into a snag during my Ubuntu install I hadn't expected. That was easily fixed by doing a web search on the newest Ubuntu kernel and update, which I had just installed previous to downloading VMWare Server. Once I typed in "VMWare" and "Ubuntu 7.04" (the current version) I found a few descriptions of a fairly simple fix having to do with a needed set of Linux library files. I urge you to look up your exact Linux distro and version in regard to VMware before attempting an installation.

There are sometimes issues as well with video drivers, depending upon what you are using. Installing an added set of files from within the Windows virtual system called VMWARE Tools should solve those problems in many cases.

I long ago installed a version of VMWare on my computer, and it was a bear to install the Windows virtual machine. But that process has been made so simple with VMWare Server's current edition that anyone can do it in an intuitive manner. And, as I hoped, Windows has no idea Linux is even there. It literally "reboots" the computer (but only inside its little virtual window) and can run anything run on normal, non-virtual, Windows desktops.

If you love Linux, and want to run some Windows programs, this is the program for you. I should note also that those who love their 3d games and such may not be as happy with WMWare. I have no idea, as computer games, no matter how clever, bore me to tears. Give me a solitaire or hangman game and I'm happy.

Perhaps in the future I'll actually post some desktop photos of my own with VMWare running on top of Linux. But for now, the above photo of someone else's Winduhs on Ubuntu Linux desktop will have to do. Geek on, you fellow Linux Loons. Er, that would be Penguins, actually...

A final note... VMWare allows the installation of many different OS's, including all Windows versions, MS-Dos, Linux (within a Windows desktop), or I suspect even a different version of Linux within a Linux desktop. My question, which I haven't looked into yet... can OS/2 be installed within either Windows or Linux? If you don't know what OS/2 is... never mind.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

David Hay's 'Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit'


As someone tormented by rationalism's rejection of the Supernatural, yet haunted by life's meaningless without a transcendent reality, I have long nursed myself on existentialist faith writers such as Soren Kierkegaard (when I can comprehend him), Blaise Pascal, Gabriel Marcel, novelist Francois Mauriac, and the like.

What has continually surprised me, though less as I go on through life, is how the questions that always haunted me before and -- to a lesser degree -- after conversion, are questions that seemingly don't bother other people. I'm talking "other" in both Christian and non-christian crowds. On the one hand, I encounter many believers (including my dear wife, Carol) who never questioned the existence of God even before converting to a specific faith. God seemed as real as the Grand Canyon to her. That wasn't the case for me.

On the other hand, I encounter (in print and in person) cheerful rationalist / atheists such as Richard Dawkins who find in my existential angst something silly, even neurotic. And of course, there are elements of the neurotic in it, though to borrow and mangle an old saying, "Just because I'm a religious neurotic doesn't mean God isn't out to get me." For me, the world of a Dawkins is just as strange as I suppose mine is to his. If I were to be an atheist, it would be one of a decidedly darker, more nihilistic persuasion.

When I stumble upon a book, then, that has the Pascalian flavor to it -- that strange mix of knowing and unknowing rooted in the human experience itself as a (maybe the) basis for faith -- I am deeply grateful. David Hay's Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit (Templeton Foundation Press, 2007) carries such a flavor.

Speaking of Pascal, one of the earliest portions of the book deals with modernist reductionism applied to Pascal's (and others') religious experiences:

Underlying the fuzziness and dispute about the meaning of the term "spirituality" is a longstanding split in Western culture. At this moment the division enters every vein of our creative experience, that is, the way we go about explaining the mysterious reality in which we find ourselves.

Hay goes on to note the centrality of Jesus Christ's life and teachings in western culture, the fact he is our "culture hero [...] who claimed to speak with the utmost familiarity with God and urged his followers to do the same."

Hay quotes from the fourth-century liturgy of St. James and the eighteenth-century poet George Hebert, who wrote:

Teach me my God and King
In all things thee to see
And what I do in anything
To do it as for thee.

Hay offers in two paragraphs his explanation of this traditional Christian-imbued view of reality vs. the Enlightenment's idea of God as psychological projection:

Not only is European history littered with speech acts directed toward God, multitudes of people, obscure as well as famous, have claimed to have encountered God at the heart of their lives. The champions of the culture, the saints after whom streets, churches, hospitals, schools and entire cities are named, from St. Petersburg to Peterborough, are traditionally people to whom God has spoken particularly clearly. In concert with thsi, devout Christians are urged in the Scriptures to listen to what God has to say to them in their daily lives; they are advised to place themselves in the presence of God; to wait upon God; to see God in all things, or as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, to see the world 'charged with the grandeur of God.' To summarize, in traditional western culture the most practical of all human experiences, because it is an encounter with the source of all being, is the encounter with God.

So where does the split Hay talks of come in?

[W]hen we consider the thought arising from the Enlightenment, we find that it culminates in a central assertion from the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He claimed that we can have no direct experience of noumena, that is, things
in themselves as they really are, as opposed to the given world of physical appearances, or what we can perceive with our senses. It follows that for Kant it is perfectly all right for people to think about God (and Kant thought a great deal about God) but there is no way we can encounter God directly. In other words, neither for ordinary people nor for philosophers has God any reality beyond being the subject of a theoretical belief. If people do make any further claim to personal experience of the supposed divine presence, they are deluding themselves. It is only a short step from this conclusion to Ludwig Feuerbach's famous projection theory of God. In his book The Essence of Christianity, published in 1841, Feuerback claimed that the Christian religion (and by implication, every theistic religion) is a projection onto an imaginary God of all the best qualities of human beings, leaving them helpless and degraded, or as he put it: 'the more empty life is, the fuller, the more concrete is God.'

Now I have not read Kant, and am leery of all neat summations of very complex philosophers / philosophies. (I probably was badly burned enough by Francis Schaeffer's treatment of Soren Kierkegaard to forever mistrust others wishing to summarize those with whose beliefs they may not concur, and with whom I have not enough knowledge to independently discern.) But regardless of accuracy regarding the specific names mentioned, the overall split is one I personally am very familiar with, having grown up in it and tormented by it.
Hay's summary of the split is best in that personal regard:

So, there we have the split at its sharpest. Ranged against each other are the ancient view of encounter with God as the most directly practical of all experiences because it is a meeting with the 'really real'; and the Enlightenment view of God as the most remotely theoretical of all intellectual fantasies. Over the last few centuries the strength of this latter claim has put religion out of court for increasing numbers of people in the Western world.

But here is where one again senses the Pascalian flavor of Hay's worldview. Because precisely at the point where one expects him to begin constructing an argument for God (and against the rationalists) he instead appeals to a different stream of thinking altogether. It is neatly summed up in his citation of zoologist Alister Hardy (1896 - ). In the mid 1960s Hardy, a Christian who was puzzled by both Christian and secularist interpretations of Darwinism as being antithetical to belief in God, spoke out in a series of lectures. (They were later published as The Living Stream: A Restatement of Evolutionary Theory and its Relation to the Spirit of Man.)

Hardy's premise was fairly simple, as Hay observes:

In spite of the great emphasis that philosophers and theologians have given to the argument from design, there is something perverse about coming to an
abstract conclusion about the direct experience of a transcendent presence that people were already aware of anyway. For them to set aside their own direct experience of that 'something' in favour of a philosophical conclusion, would be rather like a man who is bothered by an uncertainty as to whether the friend sitting opposite him is really there. Having decided on the basis of a logical argument that his friend is indeed slouched in the armchair, he can relax and safely proceed to invite him for a game of snooker or a drink. That kind of behavior might be fine for bored philosophy undergraduates with nothing better to do on a rainy day, but even philosophers in their everyday lives act on the assumption that their direct intuitions are in most caes, reliable.

This whole idea that human beings are "religious animals" -- that it is part and parcel of our make-up, deserves deeper exploration. Hardy developed a very interesting side-line discussion (which has more impact than one might think on the direction Hay takes) on a free-will version of evolution. Forgive me, the free will bit is my addition, trying to encapsulate a fairly complex concept of Hardy's. But basically Hardy seemed to think that animals (and to a greater degree, humans) participated in their own evolution all along, whether consciously or unconsciously. That issue, however, is not the one central to my own interest in Hay's book. I also don't want to battle over evolution here... not my main pony to ride.

Hay intriguingly takes us on a journey through the historical, cultural, and religious past. But more importantly and perhaps more controversially, he begins also to use human experience itself as a litmus test for spiritual reality. Again, this resonates with Pascal, whom I personally so benefit from (helped in the beginning via Making Sense of it All: Pascal and the Meaning of Life, a small, popular book by former Notre Dame professor Tom Morris).

Pascal talks at length in his Pensees ("Thoughts") about dogmatists who have no trouble seeing God in everything vs. the skeptics who seem unable to believe on the basis of creation. While dogmatists see God in everything, and even before actual conversion believe in God as real, the skeptic's great obstacle to faith is her or his inability to have even the most abstract belief in a God who is actually there, independent of human constructions or inventions. That latter camp is where I dwelt, and my journey toward faith continues to be rooted in the struggle against that sort of unbelief. Pascal doesn't talk about dogmatic skeptics, though Hay does.

So what does David Hay do to help us toward belief, using this rather Pascalian approach? Well, much of it is rooted in an evolutionary approach which is going to irritate a lot of evangelicals. My own non-embrace of that portion of the program has to do -- despite the "free will" caveats -- somewhat reductionist vibrations so-called "spiritual evolution" always leaves me with. I suspect Soren Kierkegaard would have wondered if Hay was a Hegel fan...

But Hay, via Hardy, is battling reductionism as he sees it, the rationalistic belief that the universe is mechanical, and religious experience (which Hay calls "spirituality" to expand outward to even non-theists) is merely part of the mechanism. Rather, as Hardy once wrote in 1942:

I believe that the dogmatic assertions of the mechanistic biologists, put forward with such confidence as if they are the voice of true science, where they are in reality the blind acceptance of an unproven hypothesis, are as damaging to the peace of mind of humanity as was the belief in everyday miracles in the middle ages.

It is not possible for me, in this short (??!!??) space, to exhaustively explore the rest of Hay's book. He has long been associated with Oxford University's Religious Experience Research Unit (now located at St. David's College, University of Wales, and called the R. E. R. Centre). No doubt his own experiences there have provided him with much of the depth in Something There.

A final, personal, note. As I read through this book, I was confronted with my own moment of illumination. I suppose on some level I have always subconsciously thought there was something to be a bit proud of regarding my inability to easily believe in God's existence, much less his personal interest in me. But as I read David Hay's words I came up against a harsh reality regarding my own inward struggle. I was, am, and in this life may continue to be a deformed person. My wife, and many of my friends, never (even before conversion) disbelieved in God's existence. Yet for me, this disbelief was the source of anguish.

I was, and to a degree remain, spiritually blind. And yet, despite my blindness, I also did have encounters with the numinous that led to my conversion in 1973. And I have continued to encounter God through his tenderness, his grace, his people, and the suffering of others whom I often cannot meaningfully help yet once in a while am enabled to try.

David Hay's Something There: the Biology of the Human Spirit is not a book with a nifty Christian pitch to come and meet Jesus. I suspect its greatest impact -- whether or not its readers can subscribe to some of Hay's scientific assumptions re evolution and the like -- will be upon those of us who believe in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. Human beings really are the strangest, most wonderful mixture of animal and spirit, flesh and soul, basic lusts and existential longings. As I thought upon this book, I remembered one more Pascalian theme. We humans, and not merely nature, are clear sign-posts to the One in Whose Image we are created.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

UPDATED: Rev. Jerry Falwell Has Died

Rev. Falwell, at 73 years of age, has died.

He will be remembered for his 1980s "Moral Majority" and subsequent involvement with the Religious / Christian Right. As someone in disagreement with many (not every) issues he spoke out on, I will likely blog on my own memories of his influence, and the one momentary time I actually spoke to him by phone. But for now, please let us all continue praying for his fellowship and family.

--- Previously posted:

Sure, Rev. Jerry Falwell isn't my favorite evangelical. But this isn't that sort of post. Rather, I would ask we all join in praying for him, his family, and his fellowship in Lynchburg, Virginia. He was found this morning unconscious and has been rushed to a hospital. No other info seems available at this time.

Please do pray. It's what Christians, blue or red or in between, ought to do best.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"A Christian Because of Erotic Love"?

photo, Jon Trott (c) 2005

Responding to a short paragraph introducing My Scarlet Seven lyric of a few days back (I guess the lyric itself wasn't worth a comment! Haha), an anonymous poster asked:

Can you clarify what you mean by "in fact a Christian because of erotic love" ?

I posted the below as a reply there, but then decided I might as well post it as a blog entry on its own. Sex is always fun to talk about, and controversial (?) as well. What follows I typed while preparing to teach four classes, so let's just blame any obvious stupidities on haste rather than mental wattage, shall we?

An Introduction

Erotic love is a complex mix of hunger (sexual), hunger (relational), and various other needs, including being one answer to existential loneliness and lack of meaning. Remember, this is only me, who speaks non-authoritatively (or at least with a sense of the silliness of claiming to "know thyself" -- sorry Socrates) even when speaking of myself.

Erotic love is also, like everything human, laced with human failure and selfishness. Yet, simultaneously, erotic love is the greatest experience of union, ecstasy, and the doorway to caring about another as deeply as one's self (and potentially moreso).

Erotic love is not merely sex. One can have sex of sorts with an inflatable doll (bleah!) or victimize someone by forcefully (either violently or via manipulation) taking it. That is not erotic love, nor even animal sex, since (as someone noted) the animals do not rape.

"I wanted to kiss in a world with meaning, rather than a world without it."

Erotic love is, by definition, the meaning we humans find in what to a reductionist researcher appears only as the biological act of coitus. Erotic love is not as much about what goes on between penis and vagina (or tongue, fingers, and so on), but rather what goes on in the minds of the two participants in that act and relationship.

The Answer to "what I mean by saying I'm a Christian because of erotic love"

I was (and fairly often still am) haunted by what I see as the lone credible alternative to Christian faith. That alternative is that, as novelist Walker Percy once wrote, "In America, everything is true. Which is the same as saying that nothing is true." Or perhaps he said it more like this: "Americans believe everything, which is the same as believing nothing."

I believed as a younger man that nothing was true, that all religions and also all atheistic / agnostic attempts at morality were useless. If we were in the midst of an impersonal, unfriendly, and accidental universe, then both Billy Graham and Richard Dawkins were simply white noise generators.

Yet, erotic love -- the desire for it in my case, rather than the reality of it -- led me to realize what the above meant. No such thing as erotic love could, as my feeble brain and heart perceived reality, exist. Everything changes, I thought. Nothing is certain, nothing is reliable, nothing can be said to have a real (as in existent outside my incredibly short and transitory life) meaning.

The post-moderns today would say that Erotic love was a human construction, and that hits at part of it. For me, erotic love was worse if my nihilistic hunch was correct; Eros was mere delusion.

Yet I looked at my father and mother, whose love burned bright and always had through my childhood, and their love was concrete evidence that something lacked in my worldview. My own hunger -- an insatiable one not at all eased by masturbatory expression or occasional disappointing forays into porn -- cried out for love, not merely sex. I wanted not only to be held by another and loved (and allowed to love in return)... I wanted to kiss in a world with meaning, rather than a world without it.

All religions worth the name hint broadly at a world in which something is very wrong, yet also in which beauty, delight, passion, and celebration hold aspects of a divine meaning outside mere human constructions / delusions. Christianity then and now seems to me to bear the most profound answers to the terrible anxieties of meaninglessness, hopelessness, faithlessness, and therefore lovelessness I experienced.

And just so it doesn't remain still a bit abstract...

When I surrendered to God it was in a state of complete despair. My literal expressed feeling was this: "God, I'm so tired of the struggle to understand, to believe. Whether you exist or not, I do not know. And I cannot find out. If you are there, I will give you everything. But if you do not answer me, I just don't have the strength to continue in this. I will live the life, perhaps, of a gentle hedonist, until that too wears thin. And then I will cease living."

"The Universe according to Eros is not empty, but is instead unbearably full of light and sensuality and excessive beauty of all and every kind."

Sounds a bit melodramatic, doesn't it? It was. But it was also heartfelt.

On Huffman's farmhouse floor, the Spirit did in fact fall upon me, fact because if I know anything at all worth knowing, it came to me at the moment Agape penetrated me to the core of my being with absolute joy and certitude that I was God's beloved.

Eros was Agape's handmaiden (or handservant, if one wishes), and though I at times have not remembered which goes first, when I do remember Eros has continued to bless, instruct, and lead me toward Agape. Agape in turn has made every moment with my dearling, whether in bed or merely watching her tend her flower-box outside our Chicago alley-way window, a literal embodiment of God's own Presence.

So not only did Eros play a large role in leading me to Christ's love, Eros continues to play a huge role for me in remaining in belief. Thomas may have needed the wound in Christ's side, but all I need is my dear one next to me. I need not touch her, though prefer to touch. If I can or cannot, I can see her. And Eros and Agape tell me what the meaning of this strange, transitory, often sorrowful life is. It is to love another, even more than one loves oneself. It is to be faithful and true to another (and Another). It is to be pure in all relationships so that in one relationship love burns up like a fire, or lies quiet as two lovers after their crisis has passed.

Christ is the significance. And because He is all in all, everything else -- every breath, every kiss, every embrace -- has meaning. The Universe according to Eros is not empty, but is instead unbearably full of light and sensuality and excessive beauty of all and every kind.

So, to say that I am in fact a Christian because of Erotic Love is only to give proper praise to Erotic Love as a lesser love. In being lesser, however, it is more than it ever could be in our paltry human imaginations. We can imagine all sorts of positions and techniques -- nothing wrong with that. But what is harder to imagine is loving one's beloved not only with the powerful, even possessive, strength of Eros, but also with the Agape Love reminding us that we are -- before anything else -- to love one another "as we love ourselves."

Erotic love unbound from Agape becomes either a dictator or (more likely in our culture these days) a shallow mimicry of itself. We mistake mere sexual attraction for erotic love, failing to understand that Eros' flames fluctuate, that it cannot be depended on when changing our child's diapers, having a nasty argument over money or who will do household chores, or (heaven forbid) differing sexual appetites. These matters need "neighbor-love," need Agape.

So. In the end, Eros drove me to find meaning for its existence, a meaning others may not find convincing. Eros also drove and continues driving me toward Christ as I see my complete inability on my own to love my wife as I love myself. As passion overflows its banks, I often think of Christ and His Hedonistic creation. Every nerve ending is there for a reason, every molecule of skin upon skin merging.

He, not it, is the meaning. This I believe, while also believing that it has meaning because He is.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"Authority": who has it, who doesn't, and how can we tell the difference?

Authority -- who has it, who doesn't, and how can we tell the difference? In the blogosphere, and perhaps even moreso within the "Christian" blogosphere, that issue can become quite compelling.

When I began thinking about blogging on the word "authority," I immediately pulled up the Webster's Dictonary definition. Why? Because Webster's to me is a quick and usually trustworthy source for understanding a word's historic roots and present meaning. That is, for me Webster's is normally authoritative regarding word definitions. But by so saying, I am not truly sure I stand on solid ground. Is Webster's the or even an authority on the meaning of "authority" (or any other word)?

So we hit our first hurdle in trying to come to an understanding of authority. We can't be absolutely sure that our alleged "normative" definitions from Webster's are in fact definitive. And so, I ask my readers to step out a bit on faith that Webster's is reliable. We can always come back to that in the comments section if I'm wrong (which does happen).

Etymology: Middle English auctorite, from Anglo-French auctorité, from Latin auctoritat-, auctoritas opinion, decision, power, from auctor1 a (1) : a citation (as from a book or file) used in defense or support (2) : the source from which the citation is drawn b (1) : a conclusive statement or set of statements (as an official decision of a court) (2) : a decision taken as a precedent (3) : TESTIMONY
c : an individual cited or appealed to as an expert2 a : power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior b : freedom granted by one in authority : RIGHT3 a : persons in command; specifically : GOVERNMENT b : a governmental agency or corporation to administer a revenue-producing public enterprise 4 a : GROUNDS, WARRANT b : convincing force synonym see INFLUENCE, POWER

Okay, now I run into my second problem. Let's say the above definitions are "correct" and therefore accepted as authoritative for this discussion of authority. My next normal step would be to unpack their meaning further. But now I'm again stuck. Because the moment I begin to use any words, phrases, or sentences not actually in the Webster's definition, I am again stuck regarding the authority of those words.

Or should I say my reader is stuck? Because the reality (and here comes one of those authoritative-sounding statements) is that it is not my claim of authority that matters. What matters most is whether or not my reader actually gifts me with authority... or more accurately, temporarily at least lends me authority over her / him to teach, instruct, or illuminate on the subject I'm speaking on / writing about.

Then God comes into it. And what a mess that makes.

Socially, then, one might expect that "authority" is constructed. (Uh, duh Trott! Like the post-moderns didn't figure that out a gazillion web words ago?) So a policeman's authority is real enough -- he pulls me over and tickets me for speeding because collectively his fellow human beings (me included) lent him the authority to enforce "rules" or "laws" for our common protection. But the authority, nonetheless, exists because we collectively assent to its existence. The community's idea of authority (whether we like it or not) often trumps the individual's idea of authority. (The gun on the policeman's hip might also give "authority" its most primal meaning, that is, a fear-based respect for what the one carrying it can potentially do in defense of the "rules.")

I suggest that authority should be seen as something a speaker, teacher, or policeman views with special suspicion. He who holds the authority often (and one might say invariably) abuses the authority at some point. This might be in one case an anomaly, in another case part of a larger pattern of abuse rooted in the community's own abusive communal realities. That community can be a nation, a race, a family, or even an individual. Race is often cited by post-moderns as the most pernicious shared delusion of our culture, and has led to horrendous usages of authority in order to reinforce that delusion. The oppression of women by the vast majority of cultures throughout history is perhaps even a better example (though not much moreso) than race. Both underscore and provide a foundation for widespread mistrust regarding authority.

Then God comes into it. And what a mess that makes.

While I still consider myself old-school Jesus Freak by raising, I am largely encouraged and blessed by what has come to be known as the Emergent / Emerging Church. I would find it presumptive on my part to suggest I am emergent, emerging, or whatever other lable one might affix to me. Rather, I have my own issues I'm still working through, and while they do parallel in many ways what is going on among emergent folk, I cannot claim to be riding that new wave. (Rather, the last new wave I rode was probably back in the 1980s or 90s -- red mohawk, anyone? Tats? Piercings?)

I bring up the Emergent folk because what has happened to them at the hands of a certain set of bloggers has also happened to me and others with whom I labor in ministry. Mostly, their comments re myself were funny. For instance, when one "discernment ministry" blog posted that my body piercings were directly from "shamanistic animism," I did laugh. That is, I found the lable doubly humorous, first because it reminded me of the early linkage of rock and roll to voodoo we endured from critics in the Jesus movement era, and second because it was said with such a straight (and authoritative!) tone. Just like the demonic rock'n'roll "authorities" used back in the day!

At the core of that wholesale assault has been the repeated claim of authority -- an authority these critics say is God-given, straight from biblical truths. And their repeated claims reminded me of the Webster's definitions. That is, we can read Webster's words about what a word means. And then we can begin trying to explain what Webster's meant by those words, using our own individual / communal / cultural words and experiences, plus other documents / histories as well. (The latter of course also emanating from individuals / communities.)

My Jesus Freak framework finds in Scripture a set of documents which -- unlike Webster's -- are absolutely authoritative. By faith, I do believe they are God-breathed, God-gifted to us for instruction on matters of faith and practice. I note this not in order to argue it, but rather to make explicit my own framework for attempting to interpret God's will, God's heart and mind, in the various situations I find myself.

Yet simply because those Words are life to me does not mean I can properly, by fiat, interpret them correctly. I, for instance, believed at one point that the Word taught women should always obey their husbands, while the husband was not required to reciprocate. I no longer believe in that sort of "one-way" submission relationship based on gender, and have long promoted the ministry of Christians for Biblical Equality in public and private. Some fellow believers disagree heartily with me on this, yet are also able to understand the reality of honestly differing interpretations of the Word. In other words, "authority" lies in the Word, and not in my words about the Word (or their words about it, either!).

That introduces a significant amount of ambiguity. And of course ambiguity undermines authority. I would be more nervous about making such a suggestion re the ambiguities of the Word, except that the Scriptures themselves seem fairly self-conscious about this reality. For instance, the issue of faith vs. works. While we remain somewhat divided on this issue (the one popularly seen to divide Catholic from Protestant, though that isn't quite as clear-cut historically as it is in our own imaginations), Paul and James seemed less so... again, in my opinion. N. T. Wright among others has gotten in trouble for examining just what Paul did teach on some of this. (Though not yet finished digesting Wright's book on Paul, I suspect Wright is right... but that's another discussion.)

Remember how I said I was a Jesus Freak? That's my historical pedigree, saved in 1973 via (both directly and indirectly) the Jesus movement. And as one pundit from back then said, "The Jesus movement is about Jesus moving." Christ is the ultimate authority, as he himself said before his ascention:

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20, NRSV)

The disciples, who walked with Christ and saw him die and rise again, still couldn't always agree one what his will was. Paul, Peter, and James had quite a fuss right in front of a new gentile church over the issue of circumcision and related matters. Yet Peter recognized Paul's letters as the Word of God, even as he warns against those who misinterpret Pauline writings and the Scriptures as a whole:

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:14-16, NRSV)

That ends my attempt to be philosophical after a blog fashion. Below is a short list of stuff regarding sussing out true and false authority while reading blogs (including mine).

1. What claims for authority are made? In my (again, non-authoritative!) opinion, the first time someone makes a claim for authority, it is a strike against them. Do it twice to me and I'm very unlikely to take that blogger, or her/his blog, seriously.

2. Claims to be "biblical" should raise one's caution flag. Look, I am guilty of this one myself. I often say (though hopefully less often than in the past) "the bible says" and then go on to say something myself! If I say "the bible says" I think in most cases I am also constrained to go ahead and actually cite the bible. From there, it gets trickier, because when I do draw from the Word what I think it is saying, that tends to lower the guard of those reading me. Which leads to...

3. Test everything, in humility. "Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil." (1 Thess. 5:20-22, NRSV)

4. Paul and the other apostles verified their authority most often via their acts rather than their words. This echoed Jesus' own approach, which drew admission of his authority from those who saw his deeds. See Luke 4:30-36, where Jesus' words are immediately backed up by him casting out demons, or Matthew 7:28, 29: "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." (NRSV) My words are far more numerous than my deeds, and my deeds (such as they are) often leave me wondering if I've done the best thing, or merely a good thing (hopefully), or a useless, even destructive thing. One shouldn't obsess about such self-analysis, since it is God not us who judges most accurately. But one also shouldn't claim authority which has not been shown to be real in one's own life. Thus, no self-awareness is as dubious as excessive self-awareness.

5. Look at the links the blogger makes to other blogs. Are they thoughtful bloggers, or more intrested in crowning themselves "experts" (a code word for pomposity!)?

6. Does the blogger actually have real education (not a guarantee, but at least a signal of, some knowledge) in the area he/she is specifically speaking to/about? If not, be very careful. All it costs to blog is a little of one's own time and a computer connection to the internet.

7. Check Gretchen Passantino-Coburn's website, answers.org, for this great primer on critical thinking. It well equips someone for the wild world of self-apppointed blog "experts" and web quacks.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

My Scarlet Seven (Skin and Lies and Bones)

As a lover of erotic love (in fact a Christian because of erotic love) I nonetheless often find our culture's simultaneous naive worship and cynical usage of sex highly disturbing. Below is a lyric of sorts which (like so many of mine) may be mock-worthy. It was inspired by some thoughts about human eros trying to live in the midst of such a thanatos-loving culture. And since I don't have Resurrection Band to fob this sort of stuff on any more, I'm hoping to further diminish my vast audience by inflicting it on you.


My Scarlet Seven (Skin and Lies and Bones)
(c) Jon Trott

Struck desire in my deepest places
Mined my gold and took my pearl
We twins of erotic beauty
Wove so tight who’s boy, who’s girl?
Empty locket where you used to be
Hole in pocket, lost my scarlet seven
I yearn for you, or it, or me when we
Pretended we’d discovered heaven

And our jealous friends all sang
Bow the knee to love’s royalty
She is him and he is she…
And our hopeful hearts soft sang…
Eternity lies so close, so close;
but love was changing, hope was dying
We’re skin and lies and bones
We’re skin and lies and bones

With my seed fresh-spilled inside you
And our dreams so warm and new
I couldn’t stop with touching
Because of gladness bleeding through
But our poor bodies could not carry
The burdens of our sickened minds
It is not true that I blame you
Love dies in a world without crimes

And our friends all mocking sang
Bow the knee to love’s royalty
She is him and he is she…
And our broken hearts sad sang
Little death won’t keep Death down
You fled and quietly I drown
We’re skin and lies and bones
We’re skin and lies and bones

We promised we would not become
Our broken mothers, cruel fathers
We said we would not beat that drum
And then like all the others
We fell and fell and fell, still falling
Our arms outstretched but neither calling
Where is love, or hope, or faith tonight?
Here in the dark with one insight…

We’re skin and lies and bones.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Spiritual Gardener: Chicago Sun-Times Reviews Rolland Hein's "Growing with My Garden"

Chris Rice, who oversees our "little publisher that could," Cornerstone Press, along with those of us on the CSPress board, have all over the years tried to make each book from that Press a gem that will last. One of Cornerstone Press' understated gems is Professor of Literature (emeritus) Rolland Hein's Growing with My Garden: Thoughts on Tending the Soil and the Soul. A one-page feature on Professor Hein, his garden, and his book appeared today in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Cathleen Falsani, who wrote the Sun-Times piece, was a student of Hein's. As she pondered her own garden's beauty and meaning, he unexpectedly came to mind:

Gardening is an inherently hopeful endeavor. You put the seeds or the seedlings in the ground, water and watch, hoping that leaves will leaf, flowers will blossom, and fruit will appear, sometime in the future.

This got me thinking of one of my beloved college professors, Rolland Hein, now an emeritus professor of literature at Wheaton College. Hein was, to my mind, all tweed and Faulkner until one summer evening more years ago than I care to mention, when I saw the august professor dressed in a gardener's jump suit, wild-haired and sweating as he worked in his immense garden that abutted the yard of one of my roommate's parents' home in Wheaton.

I was shocked to see Hein in a setting so viscerally and dramatically different from an austere classroom at Blanchard Hall -- kind of like a third-grader who runs into her teacher at the supermarket. I was simultaneously kerfuffled and intrigued by Hein's agrarian alter ego.

Recently, I watched for a second or third time that marvelous film "The Constant Gardener," which had much more to do with justice than gardening, and thought of Hein, who wrote a lovely tome a few years ago called
Growing With My Garden: Thoughts on Tending the Soil and the Soul.

The visit she then has with Rolland Hein cements further their commonality regarding gardening, and perhaps just as moving, the spiritual lives of at least two gardners. As Hein told her, "It not only soothes the spirit, it brings a sense of peace and satisfaction."

Hein's literary background comes into play when in Growing with My Garden he quotes from Frost, MacDonald (whom he's authored another book on), and others. But some of the best "lessons" need no explanation, such as this rumination on the gardener's plan vs. the garden's reality:

I have never planned a flower bed that did not in fact turn out differently from what I had intended. I have tried to imagine vividly what I wanted, calculated accurate measurements of the garden site, transferred them to drafting paper, and pasted colorful pictures clipped from nursery catalogs on duplicate sheets. (It is a pleasant way to pass dreary winter afternoons.) In the summer, however, after the plans have been carefully executed and the plants are all performing, the bed I look upon has a reality of its own, quite distinct from what I had thought it would be in the planning stage.

Admittedly, the bed is certainly better than if no plans had bee made, but its reality falls short of my expectations. What to do? I can have one of two responses: I can be dissatisfied and nurse my disappointment, or I can reconcile myself to reality and enjoy what is before me. The latter response is the only sensible one, and when I make it, I find my pleasure in the mystery of gardening is deepened. To be dissatisfied is not only to waste another season but also to nurture the dangerous exercise of preferring the images resident in the mind to the real flowers before me.

As one might expect from a professor whose positive form of Christian faith is, nonetheless, distinctly Christian, Hein finds more golden ore in this vein:

The discipline of committing something entirely to God and patiently waiting before Him for its resolution is one of the most difficult of the Christian life. One should do all one feels led to do, as though everything depended upon one's own efforts, yet at the same time commit in prayer the situation entirely to God, trusting as though everything depended upon His resolutions, as indeed it does. Then, be entirely satisfied with what comes to pass.

The book Growing with My Garden: Thoughts on Tending the Soil and Soul can be ordered from Cornerstone Press via the link. (Yes, Amazon and others also sell it, but [here comes the guilt trip] if you order from CSPress, you are aiding ministries of Jesus People USA which can really use the money.)

Rolland Hein also has two other Cornerstone Press books. The revised edition of The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald. And Christian Mythmakers (2nd Edition). The latter includes overviews of Dante, C. S. Lewis, MacDonald, Chesterton, Tolkien, Bunyan, L'Engle, Charles Williams, and Walter Wangerin. Both preceding links are for ordering online from Cornerstone Press.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Palestine, Israel, and the "Opinion Elite"

I spent a few hours on my birthday (back in April) reading through some excellent Holocaust memorial websites. In fact, I had to suddenly stop reading when victimized by a "Surprise Birthday party." The emotional yank from one extreme (reading about and viewing photos of dead Auschwitz victims) to the opposite (a crowd of friends and family celebrating my 50th year) almost shorted out my system. More recently yet, I viewed a portion of (and taped the rest for later) one woman's story of surviving the camps. Her matter-of-fact recounting of that experience, from getting off the train and watching her mother be marched off to the ovens to finding -- of all things -- a Nazi guard who seemed intent on saving her life, was overwhelming. "Never again" indeed. Or, as I tend to think more often, "Why?"

But today I got yet another in a long string of emails from The Israel Project, and as usual was frustrated by it. Their poll of an "Opinion Elite" in America boasted a tremendous wave of support for Israel over and against Muslim cultures:

Support for Israel in the conflict with the Palestinians is also at a five-year high, with 65 percent supporting Israel, while support for the Palestinians remains at 10 percent. This is the largest spread recorded between support for Israel and support for the Palestinians in recent years. Additionally, fully 84 percent of U.S. opinion elite consider Israel one of the United States' strongest allies, an increase of 7 percent since October 2005.

What the heck? I guess I'm supposed to go with the winner, eh? After all, this is the "Opinion Elite" of America talking, the people who really matter, the Voices We Should All Be Listening To. Uh... well, kinda makes me wonder what results a poll in Hitler's Germany would have pulled from the "Opinion Elite" of that nation concerning "the Jewish Problem":

Support in Poland for Germany's conflict with the Jews is at a five year high, with 85 percent supporting Germany, while virtually no one (who has not been arrested) supports the Jews. Poland's opinion elite, esp. since the Jewish elements within it were removed, considers Germany one of Poland's strongest allies...

Okay, okay... maybe that's a little over the top. A few notes, however, on the "opinion elite":

As a Christian who considers himself pro-Jewish but very unhappy with Zionists (both the Jewish and Christian Fundamentalist varieties), I would point out others whom I personally would label "opinion elite." Catholic Relief Services, for instance, also sent me an email today:

“The humanitarian crisis [in Palestine] is unacceptable,” said Tom Garofalo, CRS Country Representative for Jerusalem/West Bank/Gaza. “Nearly half of Palestinians don’t have reliable access to food, one in four Palestinian workers is unemployed, and others are working but not being paid because of economic sanctions and basic services like health and education have been severely compromised.”

Garofalo will be in the U.S. from May 7 through May 18 to educate church and political leaders about the humanitarian crisis and help engage them in the peace process.

The United Nations reports two-thirds of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – two million people – now live on less than $2 a day and rely on humanitarian assistance to support their families. More than 500 checkpoints and obstacles in the West Bank, an area the size of Delaware, impede freedom of movement. The Separation Barrier, when finished, will enclose 274,000 Palestinians and block 400,000 others from their fields, jobs, schools and hospitals.

No one is suggesting we do away with Israel, or (as Bob Dylan wrote) is Israel "supposed to lie down and die / When my door gets kicked in." But what we are suggesting is that Israel's behavior toward Palestine is gravely unjust, inhumane, and (speaking pragmatically) stupid. The Jew I worship both taught and exemplified a different approach to conflict. As he told his own disciple, "Those who live by the sword will die by the sword." Sowing suffering and death among one's neighbors is a sure way to become their forever enemy. And though we in America find Jewish suffering -- because of its concentrated horror (and our own historic complicity in that horror) -- more disturbing than the suffering of Palestinians, this is due to blindness, not intelligence or spirituality.

Israel is the west's excuse for the Holocaust. Israel offers meaning for the terrible evil visited upon 6 million Jews. But that meaning is a lie. The evils of fascism, the death of those six million children, women, and men, have no meaning we can so easily decifer. And in my non-elite opinion, it is a blasphemy to suggest differently. Isn't the very heart of evil all about a lack of meaning?

One death. Six million deaths. The only difference between them is the repetition. Though I do believe Christ's death, that one death which represents all of our deaths both physically and spiritually, has meaning, I do not believe it excuses anyone. Rather, it demands of us a response. Likewise, the death of one Jew, one Palestinian, by another's hand demands of us a response. That response should not be rooted in ideology or "us vs. them," but rather in the twin realities of individual loneliness and human community.

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Christians Launch Ad, Grassroots Campaign Calling for Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Bluechristian recieved this press release from "Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform." I'm glad to pass it on, and hoping some readers who are journalists might even get to go to the rally described below. I can't make it, but will certainly be praying for CCIR's success.

(Washington, DC) – Evangelical Christians from across the ideological spectrum will launch a national grassroots and ad campaign calling for comprehensive immigration reform that is consistent with biblical values Monday at 11:30 AM on Capitol Hill. Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform will mobilize at least 200,000 letters, tens of thousands of calls, and hundreds of lobby visits to Members of Congress by the August recess. Ads announcing the campaign will run in Roll Call and CongressDaily on Monday to coincide with the launch.

Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform will mobilize churches and faith groups to pressure political leaders nationally and in five targeted states: Florida, Arizona, Kansas, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The campaign will include:

* Ad buys in national and local newspapers and local radio stations.

* Letters and phone calls to Members of Congress (more than 30,000 letter have already been written), lobby meetings, rallies, house parties, opeds, and letters to the editor.

Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (see Joint Statement of Principles below) is a of coalition Christian organizations, churches, and high profile leaders, including, World Evangelical Alliance, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Evangelicals for Social Action, Sojourners, Christian Community Development Association, We Care America, The Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education, American Baptist Churches USA, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist Church, Mennonite Church USA and Church World Service.


Jim Wallis, Founder, Sojourners and Author, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, President, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, America's largest Hispanic Evangelical organization, serving 10,700 Hispanic evangelical churches with 15 million members

Marcos Witt, Pastor of one of the largest Hispanic congregations in the U.S., Lakewood Church (Joel Osteen, Senior Pastor) and Latin Grammy award winning singer

Rev. Dan Soliday, CEO, Nazarene Compassionate Ministries, Inc. Derrick Harkins, Pastor, Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, Washington, DC

Also attending the press conference and available to answer questions are: Juan Hernandez, President, Hispania and one of the foremost experts on U.S.-Mexico immigration reform; Mark Gonzalez, Hispanic Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform and National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; and Jen Smyers, Immigration and Refugee Policy Church World Service.

WHEN: May 7, 2007 at 11:30 AM

WHERE: Dirksen Senate Office Building, Room 628

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Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform Joint Statement of Principles

Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform represents a coalition of Christian organizations, churches, and leaders from across the theological and political spectrum united in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Despite our differences on other issues, we are working together to see comprehensive immigration reform enacted this year because we share a set of common moral and theological principles that compel us to love and care for the stranger among us, including the following:

* We believe that all people, regardless of national origin, are made in the “image of God” and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6).
* We believe there is an undeniable biblical responsibility to love and show compassion for the stranger among us (Deuteronomy 10:18-19, Leviticus 19:33-34, Matthew 25:31-46).
* We believe that immigrants are our neighbors, both literally and figuratively, and we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and show mercy to neighbors in need (Leviticus 19:18, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:25-37).
* We believe in the rule of law, but we also believe that we are to oppose unjust laws and systems that harm and oppress people made in God’s image, especially the vulnerable (Isaiah 10:1-4, Jeremiah 7:1-7, Acts 5:29, Romans 13:1-7).

The current U.S. immigration system is broken and now is the time for a fair and compassionate solution. We think it is entirely possible to protect our borders while establishing a viable, humane, and realistic immigration system, one that is consistent with our American values and increases national security while protecting the livelihood of Americans. The biblical principles above call us to support comprehensive immigration reform legislation that includes the following elements:

· Border enforcement and protection initiatives that are consistent with humanitarian values while allowing the authorities to enforce the law and implement American immigration policy;

· Reforms in our family-based immigration system that reduce the waiting time for separated families to be safely reunited and maintain the constitutionally guaranteed rights of birthright citizenship and the ability of immigrants to earn naturalization;

· An opportunity for all immigrant workers and their families already in the U.S. to come out of the shadows and pursue the option of an earned path towards permanent legal status and citizenship upon satisfaction of specific criteria;

· A viable guest worker program that creates legal avenues for workers and their families to enter our country and work in a safe, legal, and orderly manner with their rights and due process fully protected and provides an option for workers to gain permanent status independent of an employer sponsor; and

· A framework to examine and ascertain solutions to the root causes of migration, such as economic disparities between sending and receiving nations.

Immigration reform that incorporates these elements, rejects anti-immigrant and nativist measures, and strengthens our American values will enrich the vitality of America and advance the common good. We stand together in calling upon President Bush and Congress to seek humane and holistic immigration reform within this legislative year.

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