Reluctant Fundamentalists

Sometimes, I do things that end in me being frustrated.  And yet, there is a part of me that knew it would go exactly this way.  What is worse?  That part of me loves it, or perhaps, more accutately, that part of me loves to hate it.

I have had relationships, for example, where 95% of me is working hard at making the relationship better.  But 5% of me has this idea that I am the better person, the righteous person.  And so I begin to say and do things that are most likely going to end in conflict.  It is a conflict where I am on my way to the moral high ground.  Where I can be the person I want to believe I am, by reciting my lines in just the right way, by saying the things with the right emphasis, by being that guy who I want to be: victim, liberal, savior…

I am starting to recognize this in my every day life.  But Social media puts a new wrinkle on this whole thing.  Facebook is outstanding for this purpose.  In social media, I don’t even have to pretend to listen to the other side in real time.  This morning, I was about to brag about how I am watching “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” on Netflix.

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In doing that, ninety-five percent of me has  a reasonable set of motivationss for this.  I am wanting to reccomend it to friends.  I am aware that some of these folks might be positively impacted by what it says and what it is about.  Some of the stuff that I am counting in this ninety-five percent is probably a little less noble, but not really part of the problem: things like I would like to be seen as smart and hip.

There is five percent of me that knows exactly what will happen.  It does a pretty remarkable job of covering it’s tracks, though.  It is easy enough, most of the time, for me to deny that I saw it all coming.

Here is what would happen:

* I would receive about 8 likes.  (Roughly 2 of them would come from people who like everything, so they wouldn’t count.  The other 6 would give me half a second of warm and fuzzy feelings inside.)

* I would receive about 4 positive comments from politically liberal/film buff friends.  This would give me a slightly longer-lasting rush of warm fuzzies.

* Somewhere in there one of the great people in my life not likely to be sympathetic to the message of the film would chime in.  And then, that devil that stands, cartoon-like on my shoulder, that 5% of me…  He will be in his glory.  This is what he/I was waiting for.

I am contemplating, this morning, that it would soon be clear that we wouldn’t be arguing about the movie itself.  Really, what these discussions are about is “what stories are worth telling?” and  “What stories haven’t yet been told?”

The conservative would eventually admit that yes, the Pakistani protagonist in the movie could have been a really guy.  He would recognize that perhaps this might be happening somewhere.  He would go on to insist that the “liberal media” is too busy telling this story, over and over.  He would claim that the stories of European-bred Americans is being forgotten.

In the same tone he talks about the liberal media, I would bring up Fox News.  I would say that we have been telling white men’s stories for 200 years, now.  We would both bring up vaguely-backed statistics, anecdotes, and philosophical postures to justify the position that our respective stories need to be told.

I wonder if that is the the beginning of the path out of the mess that we are in: recognizing that we are both right.  More stories need to be told.  They need to be told well.  They need to sometimes be distilled into numbers and statistics.  The case-studies and the numbers need to be wielded with a tremendous weight, a deep sense of responsibility and humility, if we are to get anywhere approximating the truth.

And so here I am: finishing up this blog post and recognizing the irony of the situation.  In essence, I have created a long-winded version of the facebook status I disparaged a few hundred words back.  Further, I will probably go post a link to this post on my facebook feed.

I would like to think that it’s less than 5% of me, that is seeking out that same pattern to justify my silly ideas about myself.

But probably?  It’s not too much less than 5%.

So are you going to have your cake? Or eat it?

There is this whole line of argument used most commonly by people on the far(ish) right.  It’s also sometimes used by the people on the more extreme left.  The thing that occured to me today, is there’s a bit of inconsistency, whichever side is using it.

The argument goes like this: The American people are being duped by a media gone out of control.  At worst, there is a living conspiracy of people actively engaged in keeping the truth from us.  At the bare minimum, the media has become so one-sided that there may as well be a conspiracy.

This causes news sources that are generally regarded as moderate to be discounted out of hand: NBC, CNN, Time, and Newsweek.  For the sort-of far right wing, folks like Rush Limbaugh or Fox News are seen as the only sources not worth double checking their sources.  For the sort-of far left wing, NPR and Michael Moore are the sources above scrutiny.  There are extremeists on either end who go so far as to say that Rush is not right-wing enough; there are folks on the left who cry out that NPR is nothing but a corporate lap dog.

Here’s the thing.  Call it an inconsistency, an irony, or even a hypocrisy.

One of the biggest points of disagreements between the left and the right is around how big an industry should be allowed to get.

Generally speaking, the right wing tends to believe that the market will regulate itself.  They will tend to have less support for anti-trust and anti-monopoly laws.

Generally speaking, the left wing believes that government needs to play an active roll in breaking up monopolies and dealing with anti-trust issues.

If you’re on the right wing and you believe that the media is just the monolithic liberal plattitude machine, I have a question for you.  The question is this:

Which way do you want it?

Because it seems to me that if you’re right, and an actual or a default conspiracy exists, where all the outlets are basically reporting the same half truths, then this is a good argument against allowing too much of an industry to be controlled by one or two vendors.   There are unique factors about the media.  But what you’re complaining about the media is exactly the same thing the liberals are saying about Wal-Mart: when one (or a few) corporations call the shots, we end up with an inferior product, service, or price.

Is this the difference between us?

I had this thought in the shower.  (All my best thinking gets done in the shower.)  I wanted to toss it out into the blogosphere.  I’m hoping that my good friends– particularly conservatives– might respond.

This isn’t me trying to be argumentative.  It’s a real question, or atleast a real hypothesis.  A hypothesis around a fundamental difference between liberal and conservative.  I’m not interested in the definitions of these words.  I’m much more interested if I’m accurately speaking for you below.

Obviously, we all begin with the same data.  Suppose our data is an inner city adolescent.  Like too many inner city adolescents, he has done jail time and deals drugs.

We would both look at this child and agree that a failure has occured somewhere.  We would both agree that we must do everything we can to steer people away from decisions that lead to drug dealing and jail time and all the rest.

Could the difference be this simple: we have different emphasis (is that the plural for that word?) on where the responsibility lies?

For simplicities sake, let’s suppose there are three levels to society: There is the community, there is the family, and there is the individual.  Societies are made up of large numbers of communities.  Communtieis are made of large numbers of families.  Families are made up of individuals.

As a liberal/progressive, I would put a greater emphasis on community than a conservative.  I would say “At some point, this child did not hear the messages he should have heard.  He did not hear and believe that drugs are destructive.  He did not hear and believe that the laws exist for everybody.  He did not hear and believe that he can be succesful within the system.    The schools should have been teaching him this.  Churches and community groups and social networks should have done a better job.   The government should have done a better job of equipping and enpowering these groups to do this.”

For me personally, the issue is not so much that schools have failed to teach specific facts about the world.  (Though they have.)  It’s not that kids don’t who Columbus was, or how to calculate the area of a circle.  It’s much more that kids don’t recognize that calculating circle area and understanding who Columbus was are worthwhile pursuits. 

Some conservatives might disagree with me on this, but I think progressives and they place roughly equal emphasis on family.  But as a conservatives sense of who is responsible gets laser focused on an individual, a progressive would be typically least focused on the individual.

I am not saying that progressives don’t believe in personal responsibility.  I am also not saying that conservatives don’t believe in communal responsible.  But I think there is a difference in emphasis.

And unless we wanted to deny that personal responsibility exists, or we wanted to deny that communal responsibility exists, I think we would all do well to recognize that there is value in truth in both conservative and liberal arguments.

Jesus for President

An ongoing thing I wrestle with: If Jesus’ claims are supreme on my life, how political should I be? And given that I live in a Representative Democracy, what political decisions should I make.
One example of my attempts to come to terms with this is here
I picked up this phenemonal book: Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw. They state elequently and convincingly this tension that I feel: on the one hand, many things Jesus said and did had profoundly political repurcussions. On the other hand, Jesus was and is larger than politics itself: he transcends easy distinctions like left vs right, Republican vs Democrat, conservative vs. liberal. I’m going to share a couple passages and then spend a couple paragraphs wondering what these passages mean to me.
The passages:
“But it wasn’t as if Jesus, in using such (politcally charged) language wanted Rome’s power or wanted to gain a foothold in the culture wars of his time. He didn’t want to climb Caeser’s throne. This political language didn’t harmonize with the contemporary church project of “reclaiming America for God.” Precisely the opposite: Jesus was urging his followers to be the unique, pecular, and set-apart people that began with Abraham. He didn’t pray for the world in order to make governments more religious; he called Israel to be the light of the world- to abandon the way of the world and cultivate an alternative society in the shell of the old, not merely to be a better version of the kingdom of this world.” (71)
“It’s extraordinary that when the Devil said all political power in the world belongs to him and he can give it to whomever he wishes, Jesus didn’t dispute the claim: he just flat out refused the offer. He knew well the bitter fruits of this world’s power. He saw governmental power not as a coveted position to run after but rather as the Devil’s playground. Jesus’ ancestors had suffered from the bloodshed and hunger and pain inflicted by Kings and empires. He knew how the powers had killed the prophets before him, and so he abondoned himself to the imperial cross. Instead of ascending the throne of power to establish Go’d society, he would descend into the world as a slave.” (86)

It’s tempting for me to ally myself with people who play politics in the direction I agree with. If this account is right– and it seems like it is– then I shouldn’t do this. My temptation is a distant echo of Jesus’ temptation itself: will I just flat out refuse the offer, too?
So often I don’t. In truth, I don’t even know if I know how. Should I vote? Should I formulate poltical opinions? Should I share my political opinions? Should Christians run for office at all? If we do, what sense does it make to leave our convictions behind?
There’s more questions than answers here… But maybe they are the right questions to be asking.

Isaiah The political progressive.

I don’t understand how the Right Wing managed to hijack Christianity.  I won’t make the argument that Christ is more left than right.  And things are slowly changing.

I’ve been reading Isaiah tonight.  Probably me talking less and scripture talking more is wise on all kind of fronts.  So I’m simply going to toss out a few verses.  Maybe later I’ll babble some on Jesus’ affinity for Isaiah.

For those unfamiliar, Isaiah is calling out the entire country of Judah.  They’d grown complacent and corrupt, he’s promising God’s mercy if they repent and offering some amazing prophecies of Jesus.

From chpt 1:

15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
       I will hide my eyes from you;
       even if you offer many prayers,
       I will not listen.
       Your hands are full of blood;

 16 wash and make yourselves clean.
       Take your evil deeds
       out of my sight!
       Stop doing wrong,

 17 learn to do right!
       Seek justice,
       encourage the oppressed. [a]
       Defend the cause of the fatherless,
       plead the case of the widow.

23 Your rulers are rebels,
       companions of thieves;
       they all love bribes
       and chase after gifts.
       They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
       the widow’s case does not come before them.

Chpt 3:

14 The LORD enters into judgment
       against the elders and leaders of his people:
       “It is you who have ruined my vineyard;
       the plunder from the poor is in your houses.

 15 What do you mean by crushing my people
       and grinding the faces of the poor?”
       declares the Lord, the LORD Almighty.

Chpt 5:

 7 The vineyard of the LORD Almighty
       is the house of Israel,
       and the men of Judah
       are the garden of his delight.
       And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
       for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

 21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
       and clever in their own sight.

 22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine
       and champions at mixing drinks,

 23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
       but deny justice to the innocent.

I’ll stop today with Chapter 10:

1 Woe to those who make unjust laws,
       to those who issue oppressive decrees,

 2 to deprive the poor of their rights
       and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
       making widows their prey
       and robbing the fatherless.

I’m not claiming that Conservatives, or Republicans hate the poor.  I am saying that on the one hand we claim all scripture is inspired but then overlook or minimize passages that don’t fit into our world view.  These are the smallest handful of verses that I believe tend to get brushed under the carpet.

Leveling the playing field for God

God tells me to worry about the foriegner and the widow and the orphan.  It seems a safe bet that he’s talking about all the disenfranchised and disenpowered.

He’s located me in America in the year 2007.  He’s blessed me with an amazing career that’s exposed me to inner city, emotionally disturbed kids. 

I have no doubt that these are the widows and the orphans and the foriegners that God told me to worry about. 

So I ponder and I pray about how best to take care of these kids where I am.  One thing that I struggle with is people who think we are doing enough.

It’s awesome that I live in America.  I love my country.  I love democracy.  There are great things about capitalism.  We are doing a better job than many places and times in history of looking out for the least of us.

But I don’t think it’s enough.

People talk about equality versus equality of opportunity.  They characterize liberals (like me) as folks who just want to equalize everything: divide all the money we have among all the people, divide all the property we have among all the people, irrespective of the abilities, work ethic, risks taken, etc.

But this isn’t really what I want.

The folks who sometimes characterize liberals thusly say that we don’t need to do anymore, than in fact we shouldn’t do anymore.

They claim that all we really should supply is a level playing field.  And then people should just slug it out.  If they win, they win.  If they lose, they lose.  If they don’t try, then they didn’t try.

The thing is this: I totally 100% agree that  we should provide a level playing field.  Within certain limits, we should allow people to benefit or pay based on this performance.

My real issue is just how level the playing field is.  Does an inner city kid have the same shot as a suburban kid?  Does a person who starts off wealthy have the same shot as somebody who starts off with nothing?

No, No, no.  There is so much injustice in all this!  No!

I’m going to take a little trip in my brain.  I’m going to compare hypothetical sucessful person and a  hypothetical failure.

Let’s call the winner “Fred” and the loser “Barney”

Fred’s mother becomes pregnant.  She has access to adequate health care.  She is educated and has a support system.  She has access to adequate health care.  She’s able to afford a midwife, pregnancy books, etc.  Her doctor is top-notch and respected in her field.  She’s got a white-collar job during which she spends a fair ammount of her day sitting.

Barney’s mom recieves medicare.  And she is thankful for it.  But her doctor is not an expert in his field.  Barney’s mom does her best on a limited budget but can’t afford to eat healthily all the time.  She’s not much of a reader, perhaps, and has a few loving family members who don’t know much more than she does about healthy pregnancies.  Barney’s mom doesn’t get much time off during her pregnancy, and she works a physically demanding, blue-collar job which leaves her on her feet.

Fred is born healthier than Barney.  He hits his milestones earlier.  He learns faster.

Fred ends up with a college-educated Nanny that reads to him.  Barney ends up in a day care center.  Fred is frequently read to.  He has a library of books in his nursery.  Barney’s dad tries to get him to the library.  He often has a couple books around.

Fred’s reading readiness skills are all set by the time he enters kindergaren.  Barney?  Well, he’s starting to get some basic concepts, but he’s behind.

Studies show that we can predict high school success pretty accurately based on grade school performance.  Fred is at the top of his class in a suburban school.  Barney is somewhere in the middle.

Fred’s school has all the resources it needs.  It has well paid teacher and lots of technology.  It has lots of opportunities for enrichment. .. Much of it’s increased funds come from the higher property taxes of where Fred lives.  Also, Barney’s school is forced to spend it’s limited funds remediating the poor standardized testing results his inner city school suffers from.  The music teacher from Barney’s school is fired  (Never mind all the studies that demonstrate the academic value of enrichment classes.) to free up enough funds for the school to offer an after school program to low-performing students.  Barney, not particularly low performing, doesn’t participate. 

Fred’s parents new that they needed to start saving for college years ago.  They also have the resources to do so.  Barney takes out loans or works more hours than Fred.  But he went to an inferior school where he learned less subject matter, was taught less critical thinking and study skills, etc.  Fred graduates at the age of 22.  Barney is on the 6 year plan.

Barney has less understanding of business expectations because he comes from a blue collar family.  Fred’s loving parents take him out to buy interview clothes after college graduation.

Imagine Fred and Barney showing up at an office, interviewing for the same job.

Fred is suave and well dressed.  He is well prepared, having discussed his first big interview with dad.

He got a great night’s sleep on his new matress.  He traveled in comfort because he just had his air conditioner charged.  He learned stress management techniques at summer camp growing up.  He’s young and hip and seems a go-getter.

Barney’s old matress lead to his old back injury flaring up.  It’s scorching hot and his cheap hair cut is sticking to his scalp because his sensible car’s air conditioner is running down.  He made guesses about appropriate dress and couldn’t afford the most fashionable.  The boss deduces the 7 years Barney took to graduate by subtracting high school college graduation date from college graduation date.

The boss is sensible enough to know that it might not be Barney’s fault… He might be an amazing person.  But the boss has a responsibility to hire the best person for the job.  How could it not be Fred?

There are a hundred little ways that the field is tilted.  It seems petty to mention any one of them in isolation.  But when taken together, they form this barrier to equality… more than that, they form an empire that opresses God’s children as surely as the Romans and Egyptians did.

 

topic #2 I’m wrestling with God over: literal vs symbolic interpretation

There are some things that I’m crystal clear on.

This is not one of them.

I’ve been reviewing the issues I don’t quite have worked out.  I’ve been doing this because I’m interested in seeking out others’ counsel, and also because I want to lower the tenor of debate in some miniscule little way.  It seems like we tend to get dug in to our perpsectives, and we pretend that our way of viewing things is perfect, and it doesn’t really accomplish much productive.  I think Jesus calls us to be open in our weakness and with our weakness… But I digress.

An area I don’t have worked out: when is the bible meant to be interpreted literally and when is it meant to be taken figuratively or symbolically.

This doesn’t bother me as much as it might because I’m confident I’m not alone.  I haven’t yet found a very thorough account of criteria for consistently determining how to apply scriptural truth.

There are people who have begun this.  They can point out guidelines which sometimes help.  But there’s nobody that I’ve found with anything close to an exhaustive account.

And most of us have fairly large lists of things we think are literal and things we think are symbolic.  But it seems to me that we can’t generally explain how we came to this list. 

It appears that we do a lot of question-begging.  It seems like maybe we start with a set of beliefs and pick and choose which ones to interpret symbolically and which ones to interpret literally.   The progressives generally take more flack for this, but it seems to me that this is undeserved.  I think the progressives and conservatives tend to have different verses that they focus on taking literally.  But I’m unconvinced that one camp is more conistent than the other.

Are there gray areas between literal and symbolic interpretation?  Madeline L’Engle wrote about icons.  Icons, for her, are symbols which participate in the thing they are symbolizing.  I can almost (but not quite) get my brain around her meaning.  It seems like it might be fruitful to pursue this line of reasoning.

Might God have intended different interpretations for different eras?  I most definitely think so.  Micah Tillman’s blog (see blogroll at right) had some interesting thoughts and links on this topic that helped me clarify this issue. 

When I first ran through the topics that I’m wrestling with God over (about 3 blogs back) I had focused more on the topic of divine inspiration.  As I explore where my beliefs are, it seems like I’m not to concerned with this issue.  I’m clear that the bible is God-breathed.  There’s a few abstractly interesting questions about it, but the real direct focus of my concern is interpretation.

Looking foreward to responses,

Jeff