Thursday, April 29, 2010


This strikes me as an intelligent idea that hasn't been tried here: Forcing bureaucrats to justify their spending. In a court of law, which side has the burden of proof is an important advantage. The way budgeting is currently structured, the taxpayer has the burden of proof to attack a particular bit of spending and show that it is unworthy. Why not reverse that? Those who are spending our money must be prepared - not to defend against a cut of their budget, but to make a positive case for that which they wish to spend. Reverse the burden of proof. I think the really valuable government actions will rise to the top pretty quickly.

Tedious? Sure, but compared to what? Open to abuse and manipulation? Sure, but any more than the current system? Time-consuming? I call that a feature, not a bug.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


I am quite pro-Israel in my sentiments, and while I don't post on the topic here very often, I get into discussions on other sites.

I always seek to simplify arguments as much as I can see my way to. The public arguments on all topics are often wading in the shallows, picking up shells and seaweed while ignoring the foundational sea. There is one foundational argument which underlies any defense of the Palestinians, and I think that argument false.

Just in case there are readers with the usual criticisms of Israel ready to hand, I should note that arguments which claim to disapprove of Hamas or the PLO but maintain that Israel is not above criticism seem to always end in the same place. While that sentiment is certainly reasonable in theory, I find that in practice such people go on to spend 95% of their energy criticising Israel. They deceive themselves that they are being open-minded. They make a mere nod to deploring the actions of the Palestinians. David Bernstein's criticism of Human Rights Watch over at Volokh brings out many commenters of this type. They protest often that of course they don't approve of the actions of the Palestinians, but they resent what they see as a blind support for Israel.

Blind support, upon examination, turns out to be any support at all.

Here is the simple argument which I believe underlies all those defenses, the ocean which enables the shells and seaweed to exist. They believe that the Palestinians are the "real" owners of the the land, so everything they do is self-defense; that Israel is an intruder, so everything they do is unwarranted agression. Few would admit that this level of prejudice motivates them - shreds of reason and evenhandedness are important to them - yet it just pours out of them. If one tries to enter into any discussion of the original UN resolution, of Balfour, of purchase of land, of continuous presence, we find that all of these things aren't really part of their discussion. All those arguments are rejected out-of-hand.

I would ask what the basis of unassailable Palestinian ownership is. Not that the Palestinians have no claim, but I wonder what is the overwhelming, slam-dunk rightness that allows their defenders to dismiss all treaties, negotiations, history, and rights of property as irrelevant? Because when one strips the other debris away, that argument, whatever it is, is the one that supports all the others. Why do people believe that the Palestinians are the "real" owners of every square inch?

There is, of course, another type of critic of Israel who simply believes that more talk, more negotiation, more concession, more niceness, is what is needed but has never been tried by Israel. I can't see any point in even addressing that

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Adoption Series

Nothing new here. It's the March series on adopting the boys, collected in one place in order to put it on the sidebar. Includes an excerpt from each one.

Part One

Riding on an ancient train, with all instructions written in faded Romanian, Hungarian, Russian, French, and Italian, overnight across areas of Romania I had not been before, sleeping poorly, up many times in the night to have a cigarette and look out into the dark. We would stop at occasional stations, islands of dim light with signs in a strange language, all looking like some black-and-white spy film from the 1950’s. Much of Romania still looked like the 1950’s then. For good reason. Tracy slept fitfully in the lower bunk. I don’t remember what I thought about, other than the odd, depersonalised observation of ourselves, as if looking down on the train from the sky: Here are two American people riding in the night through an almost-forbidden country, out to pick up two teenage Romanian boys who barely know us, to take them away from everything they know. Yes, it does have a certain romantic atmosphere to it when I describe it like that, but like Sam and Frodo, one finds that adventures look quite different to the people in them...

Part Two

Ben was almost 17 while we were discussing adopting in two from Romania. We had asked him to think about what his opinion was on that, as he would be greatly affected as well. Three months later he announces, out of the blue, "About adopting those kids? I think we should do that." Nothing more. Okay, then. Thanks, son...

Part Three

I first went to Romania - Transylvania, actually, that NW third of Romania which has often been separate from the other two parts - in February 1998. We landed at the old airport in Budapest, Hungary, and the more experienced members of my team marveled at how few soldiers with machine guns were patrolling the lobby. I thought there were quite a lot, myself. The whole place was populated by grim, defeated-looking Hungarians in battered and shapeless clothes. These, I was told, were the cheeriest people in Eastern Europe, except maybe the Poles, and I would find the Romanians much less friendly and generally more oppressed. This turned out to be true, but I was only able to perceive comparative Hungarian lightheartedness on my return...

Part Four

I looked at the group. Huh. These kids need parents. You know how to do that. Huh. I called Tracy, still a dollar a minute in those days, and talked for half an hour. This team traveled more widely for our village medical clinics, and I had lots of time to think while bouncing in battered Dacias or the old Vanagon. I was sick for two days and stayed away from others. The second week I kept looking at the kids and thinking Could you be my child? Are you supposed to come home with me? I tried each of them on, so to speak...

Part Five

So flying to Budapest, renting a car, and going to see the boys as their father for the first time was a great adventure. People at work asked if I was nervous about seeing the boys, which seemed a bizarre question to me. I was worried that they would be nervous, apprehensive, suspicious, uncertain, or any number of uncomfortable feelings along with the positive excitement. But I was fine. Couldn’t be better...

Part Six

The final adoption approval in Romania was scheduled for Friday, May 11. Three days after John-Adrian's 16th birthday. Somehow our agency in-country got that moved up, just to make sure. There was something about some relative(s) signing off, perhaps their aunt and uncle. Which in both cases, may imply bribery of someone, somewhere...

Adoption Photos

Return To Romania

In the summer of 2005 we all went to Romania. Chris and John-Adrian went back; Tracy and I went again; Ben, Jonathan, and Heidi went for the first time. This was just before I started this blog, so I haven't written about it much...


Monday, April 26, 2010


Kalmykia is a country in Europe.

No, really. At least it's a state, a Republic in Southern Russia. I don't think I had ever heard of it before. It's in the Caucasus, one of those many obscure tribes that live there in the mountains, mostly hating their neighbors. There are a dozen dialects among the 300,000 Kalmyks, if that tells you anything about the level of fellow-feeling in the homeland.

I may have heard of it before, because it was one of those groups that Stalin internally deported in entirety to Siberia and Kazakhstan, which I did know about. But Stalin did that to lots of groups, so I may be confusing them with someone else. Kruschev allowed them back during destalinazation, but apparently clumps of them had already settled in Belgrade or Sofia (frying pan, fire) and Paterson, New Jersey (slightly better) and weren't coming back.

I thought being a tourist there, however briefly, would be quite a novelty. I mean, everyone's been to Romania these days. The Kalmykia tourism sites had pictures of two very interesting Buddhist temples, so I thought it worth exploring further. But apparently, these are the only two interesting buildings in the country, as they are the only ones mentioned, no matter how many sites you go to. Kalmykia also has a nature preserve of some sort called the Black Lands that has a unique antelope. It's on the Caspian Sea but you can't go there, as the Russians have the access guarded. The national beverages you are urged to try are a milk tea with salt, a sour horse milk, and milk vodka. I'm seeing a trend here.

You can get there from Volgograd by minivan taxi, but you have to wait until all four seats are filled before they'll go. There is a weekly flight from Moscow. The category of how to get there by car is blank. I guess if you rent a car in Calais and get on the E40 to Kazakhstan, you could take a side trip out of Astrakhan. Maybe there's a road or something. I wouldn't mention your plans at the car agency, however.

Don't ask how I stumbled on all this.

New Sites, and Postliberalism

Here are the sites: the unexcitingly-named My Own Thoughts, and The Postliberal, a classics prof who claims it took him 40 years to see the postliberal light. Both fun, and may make it to my sidebar.

Here's the story behind it.

I encountered the word postliberal in an essay at First Things, and wondered if someone else had started using my original coinage. My search engine (Bing) revealed 33,000,000 hits. It seems there is something called Postliberal Theology, associated with Yale Divinity, that I would likely take to. It has its own Wikipedia entry, international conferences, heroes and villains. Huh.

I removed "theology" from the search and got down to a more manageable 10,000 hits. I am #11. Poking around, I found the two sites above. Sample quote from the former
In a private fee-for-service medical system, a dead patient is a revenue loss. In the National Health Service (UK), a dead patient was a cost savings.” -Harry Bailey MD 1930-2003, Sheffield (England) University Medical School 1950-1956; Harvard Medical School 1958-1981, US Navy Medical Corps 1982-1991.

The above quote is from my late father.
Sample quote from the latter
As far as the believers in Maximum Administration are concerned, the express train to the future has merely experienced a inconvenient delay, because somehow a wagon train of reenactors was permitted to cross the track the train is on: in other words, because somehow the "Right" temporarily figured out a better way to deceive the public. Are highly educated lawyers and journalists supposed to listen to the public? I doubt it ever crossed a single liberal's mind. The political fixers don't believe there's any public to listen to. It's the public that listens. What else could they do? Anybody who took Psych 101 would know that the public is just a herd of animals that needs feed, shots and exercise like the other animals. The fixers and spokespuppets produce polls telling the voters what they themselves think!
I particularly liked the coinage "spokespuppets."

Suzi at My Own Thoughts linked in turn to a blog that seemed to be named Well-Meaning Opposition, and quoted heavily from it. I liked the quotes. After two paragraphs, I believed I had found a kindred spirit. In the third paragraph I realised how kindred indeed: it was my own post from this March, Well-Meaning Opposition.

Suzi's husband also has a blog, where he claims they still have daily sex after 20 years of marriage, so I know that he knows that their children, if they have any, don't read his site. Two of my children do read my site, so I will mention only that Tracy and I try to have a daily conversation. The Postliberal does not comment on his exercise of conjugal rights, which is fine with me.

There is also a meaning of postliberal that I find more alarming. It refers to post classical liberalism, with its tradition of individual rights. I would call this subliberal, giving up our previous ideas of justice in favor of a model in which outgroups - even radical, violent, and exclusionary groups - seek power to defend their own conceptions of what they are entitled to against liberal democracies. It is the abandonment of classical liberal values of negotiation and accommodation. It seems to be a derivative of postcolonialism.


Brewer Dick Leinenkugel of Wisconsin is challenging Russ Feingold for the Senate.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I think I have discovered a new way to help the Republican Party. And I already liked their beer anyway.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Highwayman

And "Night Ride Across The Caucasus"


I think the Patriots are setting up to have the entire 7th round of the draft in 2013.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The System

A psychiatrist at our hospital speaking before a conference today about an expensive procedure, mentioned with some disapproval that two procedures had been done at once when only one might have been necessary because of cost considerations. Ignore for a moment the physical cost to the patient of going through brain surgery a second time – which to my mind should be a powerful factor in the decision-making – and stay focused on that dollar cost. The good doctor said “We still work in a system where money is an important factor.”

I wondered what countries he was thinking of where money isn’t an important factor.

I have said many times before that if you brought these examples of bad progressive thinking out in the open, they would immediately recognise that of course there isn’t some magical place where medical costs are not counted. They didn’t mean that. But they do. The dominant unexamined idea is that in Canada, France, Germany, Denmark – all those civilised countries – doctors decide what the patient needs, write an order, and someone goes and does it.

This in turn drives the idea that of course the US can afford to sign on to a system like that. Why, other countries do it all the time, and they’re not broke. We’re richer, so we must be able to afford it. If we can’t find the money lying around, it must mean that 1. Someone somewhere is sucking up all the money unfairly and/or 2. The society has a failure of moral will to do what is eminently possible. Well, both those things are possible, of course. But it might be good to consider other possibilities, based on clearer thinking.

Lots of people really do believe these unreasonable things. It is not unfair to make the accusation, because the truth leaks out of even the nicest and most knowledgeable people at times.

Chomsky Quick-Hitter

In checking out the youtubes for Buckley, I watched the first few minutes of one on Chomsky alone. Link here, but I'm not embedding. It is a great example of bullying. A student rather timidly asks whether the rising standard of living under capitalism isn't an argument in its favor? Chomsky counters by noting that standard of living for slaves rose from the 18th C to the 19th - would that be an argument in favor of slavery? That's a terrible argument, he claims.

Well it was a new argument and caught me by surprise, so in one-on-one debate in such a situation I would surely have looked a fool and seemed to have lost the argument. But it took me only two minutes on my own to see the hole in it. Think of it - one of the supposed great minds of our era, puts forth an argument with a sneer and encouragement to the audience to laugh, and a non-expert such as myself, who has never considered the issue, can strike it down almost immediately.

No, you knucklehead, that wouldn't be an argument in favor of slavery. It would be a particularly good argument in favor of capitalism. Your own example destroys your argument. We can fairly assume that not all slaveowners had the wellbeing of their slaves in mind, except insofar as it protected their investment. (Some may have, but let us stay with the safe bet that many did not.) Even without anyone trying to raise their standard of living - even with people actively working against it and trying to extract as much work for as little cost as possible, you reveal that slave standard of living rose, at least compared to their earlier generations. Yet it did not rise in non-free market places. In fact, it's not much better in many places of the Caribbean now, two hundred years later. You have made a powerful argument in favor of the student's point.

One might well contend that some other system might have done better. One might fairly claim that even rising standard of living isn't enough to remotely justify slavery. We could all provide examples of how it still wasn't fair. Fine. But by Chomsky's own example, capitalism did improve the lives of even the poorest, almost accidentally, as a byproduct of working for the economy as a whole. I could hardly make a better argument in favor of the free market than the one he made against it.


The futurist folks tell us it may be possible to upload the brain to storage, to be installed in another body, in the not-ridiculously distant future. I’m sure hijinks will ensue, as Ben says. I’m picturing that guy, who is me, but in another body. If one puts it far enough in the future I like him alright, I suppose. But if you bring it really close, with me dying in a hospital and they hook me up to transfer my brain to a new body, I don’t like that guy at all. I’m not seeing him as me, I’m seeing him as a monster or demon that needs to be strangled. I don’t want a recreated wife or kids being palmed off on me as the real thing either. Drown them. I can’t even bear to imagine that with any precision.

Well, that uploaded brain, now in a body, feels just the opposite. He thinks he’s the real me and that shriveled collapsing heap on the respirator is the ex-me, mostly just a mass of tissue at present. The old joke about the woodsman’s axe: six new handles over the years, two new blades, but it’s the same axe - begins to take on a grim reality.

It’s not like cloning, where there’s a what-I would-have-been-like element that provides some emotional distance. Meeting my father’s clone, my age, or imagining my clone growing up best friends with a descendant of mine – doesn’t sound creepy at all. Sort of cool, actually. This would be more like a robot being taught to be you, then taking your place. Sound creepy? Because installable parts will become more common, the final leap will be much shorter than we imagine now.

But that final step may be larger than advertised. We grow very attached to what we consider the essence of a person, especially ourselves. I am not being silly with that. When people are treated for mental illness they sometimes have the subjective impression that their real selves are being taken away and some similar but not identical person is being installed. And they don’t like the feeling. Even with family members saying “No, you’re coming back to your real self, the one we all knew and loved,” or hearing reports about out-of-character things you have been doing, or even seeing films of yourself or reading your own writings from the period of illness (or brain injury), the subjective impression of the self being taken away is very powerful.

Watching relatives with dementia or stroke can give us much this same feeling from the outside. My mother is not really present in that body. That’s some robotic thing that has some of my mother’s mannerisms, but she has left the building. Sense of self – ours, others – is one of the central characteristics of the human personality. But it is having its supports removed. Will crossing those lines provoke a crisis, or will they just slip by, to be discussed at leisure years later, as we now discuss the changes in marriage or communication?

God Out Loud

In discussing the mystery of the Trinity in Adult Sunday School, we followed the thought that reading silently to oneself was uncommon in history until quite recently, and thus the believer’s experience of scripture, lessons, and discussion about God was quite different. God was known out loud, most often in a group. Jesus didn’t carry scrolls around, nor did he sit and contemplate it a long time and then speak extemporaneously when they handed Him one at synagogue. Talmud was written in the form of a conversation about the text, and Torah was discussed. Paul Saenger has an academic book brought out by Stanford University Press Space Between Words tracing how differences in writing slowly changed reading from oral to silent. When Augustine read silently to himself, people wondered whether he was just faking, and whether it “counted” as having read the text, the effective reverse of modern debate debate whether listening to books on tape consitutes reading them or not.

Reading silently, then, drove the development of printing as much as printing encouraged the spread of silent reading. An interesting history and thought discussion, of course, but I am more concerned here with the effect this has had on faith and the experience of God. As a culture, we are at the extreme of this perception of God as something that happens on the page and in our heads, so it is not surprising that bibliolatry and gnostic abstraction are among the particular heresies Americans have been prone to. As one who does not partake in most religious media, neither music, nor film, radio, TV, conferences – I think I am on the outer edge of silence even in this culture. I do discuss a fair bit. I attend services. I read. But there is clearly a danger for me of experiencing God mostly in my own head.

It is very Protestant, an uber-Protestant personal faith that sees its expression in both the evangelical and pietist Quiet Time/ Meditation/ Sola Scriptura branches of the faith, and the academic and seminary portions of all our denominations. It is isolating one part of the faith, often necessarily and with powerful effect. But it would be a foreign and dry faith to the huge majority of those who have carried the name of Christ – and most Jews, frankly.

Saying things out loud gives them a reality they did not seem to have before, as anyone who has ever shared a personal secret knows. The faith was always much more concrete and physical in earlier ages, and still is in most places of the world.

Church Shopping

We will be church-shopping again come June when our congregation scatters to the four winds. When Tracy and I did this thirty-odd years ago, I was very open to God’s leading because every place we visited seemed a wonderful adventure, ripe with possibility. Even congregations we were immediately convinced were not for us seemed deep and charming places which could be wonderful for someone.

I am now equally open to God’s leading for the opposite reason. I know there will be something that really bothers me everywhere we go, and accept a certain amount of irritation as an expected cost.

The closest church by road is Roman Catholic; as the crow flies, the closest church is an independent startup meeting at Northeast Sheet Metal. That’s quite a variety right there, isn’t it? Having been 35 minutes from church is one of the problems we would prefer to trade for another problem at this point. That much distance is a serious obstacle to community.

We hope God is clear about his direction this time, yet know that sometimes He is and sometimes He isn’t.

Firing Line

Researching some of Noam Chomsky’s history in the political debates of the second half of the 20th C, I came across William F. Buckley’s interview with this most well-known socialist-anarchist. Buckley dominates him so completely that I found myself feeling sorry for Chomsky, even pleased when he would make a decent point. I had a natural human reaction that it was not polite for someone to be picked on publicly in that way.

The tone is very civil, much more so than we see today. The dominace is intellectual. The complete confidence of that wink early on says a lot, doesn’t it? You might slip one past or bully others, but not I.

This was jarring, because the other half of my brain kept reminding me that Chomsky’s ideas were responsible for much misery around the world, and I should hope for his complete evisceration in this intellectual duel. Turning over to the Gore Vidal interview, I experienced something similar.

At the time, I would have accepted Vidal's protestations of peaceful assembly, dismissing Buckley's accusations as fevered and a bit paranoid, thinking that all these nice young people actually meant what they were saying about revolution. Why, it was just rhetoric - just a way of getting attention and making a point. This is near the beginning of the cultural shift, when Cronkite could still point out that raising a Nazi flag in a park during WWII would have been considered an incitement to violence.

Buckley is a bit less civil here, however, following Vidal's command to shut up.
Still, one never gets the impression that he actually will punch him, but is merely woofing.

I wonder if something like this prevented Buckley from convincing more people at the time. We remain social more than intellectual creatures for all our efforts, and may resist the intellectually more compelling idea because its presentation seems to imperil group comity. I rail against liberals doing this, insisting that we all attend first to the rational argument. But I find myself unable to take my own advice.

Bitter Pill

Timothy Reichert has a First Things article Bitter Pill about the effects of contraception on the cultural economy. Specifically, it is about the changes in trade-offs between men and women in matters of sex and marriage.

I kept thinking he was leaving important factors out, only to find that he addressed them further along. There are still some missing pieces, but there is much to think about.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Post 2300 - Illegal Immigration

The proposed legislation in Arizona has brought forth a flurry of impassioned responses. I don't know much about it, whether it's wise or unfair, whether it will bring great abuses of the rights of citizens or an excellent tool of law enforcement. It's not that I don't care about such things, it's just that I don't know enough and haven't thought enough about it. There are discussions over at Volokh and neo's that are interesting. I haven't checked, but I'll bet Maggie's and Tigerhawk have some, too.

But there is a missing point in the arguments of those who insist on avoiding the "illegal" part of the equation, calling all of them simply immigrants and going on about how we are a nation of immigrants, and quoting isolated Scriptures to the effect that we have obligations and interpreting that to mean rights of citizenship. It is another one of those kindnesses to one person being a cruelty to others. The American economy can indeed absorb a fair number of immigrants every year. If we did not have so many illegals, we could increase the number of legal immigrants from other places. This means that every spot taken by a current illegal - even if they are hardworking, even if they are upstanding, even if they just want a better life and all that - is a place that belongs to some Croatian guy or some nice lady from the Philippines who is never going to get here.

I'm rather partial to Eastern Europeans myself, and deeply resent that more of them can't come. There aren't places, because too many illegals are already sopping up the excess in American society. Those people are invisible, more truly (and literally) marginalised than those that bear the label now. It feels more Christian to show compassion on the person you can see in front of you, but it is a failure of imagination not to recognise the hidden others.

Unintended consequences. Hidden cruelties.

IQ and Racism

The discussion came up at work again - I didn't enter it - about how there must be something wrong with IQ tests, or their interpretation, or bad schools, or whatever, because African-Americans score lower on them. Folks were also quick to say that they were only a few points lower, which would seem to make the energy they devote to declaring them unimportant a little ridiculous. If the white average were 100 and the AA average 97, who would care, really?

So they have heard that the difference is in fact much larger, but don't want to say that out loud. Or something.

More fascinating to me (I will have to pipe down and just smile during controversial discussions more often) was letting the topic go where it would and noting the implications of what people were saying. There was some talk about poor whites also scoring lower, and political stereotypes about how they vote and their attitudes, and what could be done to teach them about such things as health care so they wouldn't believe these myths.

I first noticed wryly that they were not worried about teaching the African-Americans anything, presumably because they already voted the right way. But that led to a rather alarming thought, which I have have entertained the rest of the day, wondering if I have understood rightly. They believe that smarter people have some inherent right to rule those less intelligent. If this were brought out in the open, I think most people would recognise it for the racist, classist garbage that it is and claim not to believe it.

But I think they do, and mean themselves, mostly. Yet they are worried that the wrong sort of white people are going to rule black people just like in the bad old days, so they have to maintain that at the low end of the scale, there's little difference. So that the wrong white people don't get uppity.

Here's a novel thought for their consideration: Even if it were absolutely true and worse than it appears, and some groups really are less intelligent, it would still not give other groups the right to rule them. I am more fit to rule in my persona of Assistant Village Idiot than my real-life self is. Cut-throat competition and meritocracy, even if some were sure to fail, would be less racist and less damaging to minority groups than the current method of giving a few of the favorites a place at the table and letting them speak for the others. The buried, unacknowledged idea is far more dangerous than the mere suspicion and contempt for out-groups common across human history.

Also, I want to be on record saying this as a defense against the possible race of enhanced humans we will build over the next generations. You have no right to rule us, even if you are smarter.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


Christians are persecuted in many countries at present, many unto death. Is anyone else there for us in this? Any Hindus, Moslems, Western secularists, Jews, Buddhists, communists - or anyone - taking our side even in words if not actions? My search of the UN website reveals some mention of the troubled areas but not the identity of the victims. Amnesty and HRW do a little better, but still far short of direct acknowledgement of the obvious connection between the persecuted in many places. I cannot find even passing mention on American Moslem sites, socialist sites, nor sadly, on Jewish sites either. On the latter, there is sometimes reference to religious groups other than Jews themselves: Falun Gong, Sikhs, Bahai, and at least twice, specific denominations of Christians. My search of news sites from Europe under "Christian" is all national and local reports of our sins and foolishness (some quite legitimate); searching under "persecution" displays a half-dozen other categories of victims.

We have a pastor who keeps up with Voice of the Martyrs and the persecution of Christian believers around the world, and I know that many Christian organizations pay attention to this as well, getting news out.

We are at present getting killed, tortured, or imprisoned a good deal more than any other group, in dozens of locations. Has anyone but us noticed?

No One Sees God

In the introduction to Michael Novak's No One Sees God: The dark night of atheists and believers there is an arresting comment. It is something I have long thought - probably from Lewis - but have not seen put so succinctly.
Gathering force over many years, one discovery has hit me with the force of a law: If you make mistakes about your own nature, you will find as many mistakes about God, and quite properly then, reject what your inquiries put before you.
I have seen this in Christian school faculty, in pastors, in a great many popular Christian writers, and certainly in myself.

But it is most glaring in nonbelievers and half-hearted believers; in the religiously-raised who believe they see (or see through) what they have understood only superficially. Their own need to kick their parents, or to fit in with new friends, or prove their superior morality or cynical wisdom fairly screams at those of us who nod, dumbly and sympathetically, to their threadbare explanations.

The Self, not in an abstract sense of being human and having an identity, but the particular self we have each constructed, is the greatest obstacle to knowing God. The most ruthlessly honest of even the eastern mystics grasped the beginnings of this. The serpent of

Friday, April 16, 2010

Parachurch Changes

Derived from a recent post.

Parachurch organizations have changed the church permanently. This has happened before, when religious orders created a separate hierarchy within the Medieval church, printed books created new networks beginning in 1500, and religious schools and foreign missions boards changed denominational structures in the 19th C. It is not merely that a younger generation tends to get much of its churchy interaction online – that is more a result than a cause. Much of what used to be supplied by the local church is now available elsewhere: preaching, teaching, worship music, study, evangelism opportunity. TV church, beginning about 40 years ago added prayer to that list. Believers could now write to an organization and get people in their prayer rooms to intercede for them. One could call and get some trusted stranger to pray with you over the phone. Community and social needs are met by outside organizations as well – superficially, if one is a only an attendee; more deeply if one is a staff member interacting with those other Christians more frequently.

That leaves Liturgy – still hard to do without physical presence; Sacrament, impossible to do without physical presence (but who knows?); and some aspects of community of greater importance than is realised. Parachurch concentrates people of like-mindedness. This is a path-of-least-resistance type of Christian community in which people of similar age, education, and style will be drawn to each other. Interestingly, this alternative method of segregation has already pretty much overridden ethnic barriers, and may yet be the most powerful force overriding racial barriers.

This last may be a net gain. Churches have always been groups of fairly similar people. A rural Romanian Orthodox Church was pretty much entirely made up of Romanian peasants. An urban Roman Catholic Church was nearly always highly ethnic, all congregants descended from immigrants who arrived here in a narrow band of decades, until very recently. This was more subtle, but equally present in the Protestant churches. I think it is a great loss to have the diversity of ages, wealth, origin, and opinion of the last two generations of churches fade away, as I think they are good for us. Yet there are other diversities with value as well. But community is of more value than diversity of any kind. I read with great distress about an Emerging Church of mostly younger people who identified the serious illness of a key member as having had a significant effect on growth of community in their church, was was meeting in nontraditional ways. People, that is called Real Life, and it is a typical week in even a small congregation like ours. I’m glad you found the use of that, but the fact that you considered it unusual illustrates how narrow your self-selection is. People get terribly ill; people die; people lose jobs; people have children that limit their mobility to do cool stuff like have church after lectures at art museums.

The churches without liturgy or sacrament will have the easiest time of developing new structures. Easier at first, I suspect. But the need for physical presence required for those acts of worship forces congregations to be together. I worry that there are deeper levels of community that will become rare. Breadth and distant interconnection of community may prove to be the enemy of depth. I hope not. I can certainly envision community that is actually closer because folks can keep in touch remotely, can share deeply in privacy, and can swarm to meet needs. Yet I worry that the opposite will happen invisibly. People will slip from the group unnoticed, as only the charming and articulate people can claim a place.

The old model has passed, though our current church-going retains much of the appearance of older days. Those appearances are half-deceiving. Though real, they mask the truth that church is already very different from fifty years ago because parachurch structures have created a new web of loyalties


We have tried many different bacon-cooking methods. Recently I have switched to making it on the George Foreman grill and have found that excellent.

The Existence of Evil

Nonbelievers most often raise an objection to a belief in God along the lines of His allowing evil and injustice, including great evil and injustice. We know it’s a good objection because believers raise it themselves when tragedy seems overwhelming. Entire bookshelves are devoted to attempted explanations. When standard answers do not satisfy, it might be because they are inadequate. But more likely, they appear inadequate because they answer the wrong question.

Two questions are being raised when this objection arises, and it is not possible to answer both simultaneously. More especially, it is not possible to quickly answer one of them at all. Yet longer attempts to answer are off-putting from the start. Well, if you have to go on chapter after chapter, maybe you’re just being evasive, mate. I like plain answers with no baloney.

Try this imagination experiment, then: You are in my kitchen. I am making a sandwich, my back to you. You ask, with some emotion, how God can allow some great evil – a large public one like the Holocaust or a personal one such as the death of a child dear to you. I shrug and say emotionlessly “Logical necessity. You can’t have free will without the possibility of evil. Think about it. Once people have the power to do something nice, they have the power not to.” And continue with my sandwich. If I did this, you would have the profound impression that I was not-quite human, and did not understand the conversation at some basic level. I would be not merely irritating or infuriating, but a bit chilling. True?

I think folks are willing to grant the cold and logical explanation for small evils. But we’re not talking about a fender-bender that inconveniences someone for a few days; we’re talking about a three-year old being run over senselessly. We see that in theory the two are the same. But they are not the same, because we are human. That nonbelievers, however much they claim to be looking for logical answers, do not accept this logical answer is not to their shame, but to their glory. They are not merely logical, and that is a good thing. We think of ourselves as supervisors over others and think it is one thing to let a few accidents go, but irresponsible to let great injustices proceed on our watch. We apply that same standard to God, who might as a good teacher let us learn from our mistakes, but would not countenance the destruction of the whole classroom.

We cannot help but anthropomorphise here. We regard the believer’s second line of defense, to explain that God’s ways and our ways are not the same, as a mere evasion. It feels like a cruel and terrible thing to say. How can these great injustices not be evil by whatever measure we choose? Yet I will point out that this is an anthropomorphising on our part. Logically, it is a perfectly good explanation. We are rejecting it on some emotional grounds. We have smuggled in a batch of second questions underneath the first. Don’t you care? Does God not care? Is God not good? Anyone who responds so emotionlessly and callously to such great evil must not be Good, or not in any sense we can recognise. All else is evasion.

Well, we are hard to please, we humans. We ask for a simple explanation, but when it comes we realise there were harder questions underneath. Yet we don’t want book-length answers to hard questions either. Apparently, what we really want is for bad things to go away, or us to be protected from them. We didn’t really want answers at all, we wanted relief.

So be it. Sumus quod sumus, we are what we are. But let us at least admit that, and not pretend to be asking high and logical questions when what we are really seeking is comfort. There is no shame in seeking comfort, and God has offered to provide it. It may be a wiser request than our original demand of God that he provide debating points for our approval. It turns out that we cannot even ask questions well until we have submitted to self-honesty, and pondered what we are really asking.

It’s a tough answer to hear. I don’t have another.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

One-Word Sermon

Was two words. Only. Son.


Back at work after a week of fixing stuff around the house.

Don’t get me started on the death penalty! Albert Camus said if we want to discourage crime…(Head of the psychology department)

That would be the noted criminologist Albert Camus?

The Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington is now moved back to March, and yet people insist global warming has nothing to do with it. (Psychiatrist, retired medical director)

The Cherry Blossom Festival has started in March for decades. The trees might be blooming slightly earlier the past few years.

The Governor keeps cutting funding for programs. We have enough money for wars, but not to take care of things here. (MSW, Supported Housing Director for SW NH)

I believe the State of NH’s defense budget is quite small, dude. And why the state gov’t should be putting more money into expensive programs that don’t produce better patient outcomes escapes me.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

One-Word Sermon

I think it was better live. But there's apparently not podcast.

To keep you from cheating, I'm leaving part out.

The sermon is going to be two words. I had it down to one last week, but didn’t like it and had to go back up to two. The introduction to the sermon, however, should go on for quite awhile.

I first read about the one-word sermon 30-40 years ago. I believe it was in that fine theological journal of the age, Reader’s Digest. A pastor somewhere had an annual tradition of preaching a one-word sermon. He said it was the hardest sermon of the year to write, but it was worth it, because attendance was always 100% that week.

Hardest sermon to write. Yeah, right, I thought. I was a liberal arts major, and a coffee house folksinger. Piece o’ cake. You just come up with a really cool word like mystery, and gain a reputation for being very deep and wise. I thought inventing a word would be especially cool. Instead of doubt-less, I would use Undoubt, or something like that. Hardest sermon. Give me a break.

A few years later we were going to a Lutheran church, under a pastor with a very narrow cycle of sermons. You know how in the Screwtape Letters the senior demon talked about a priest who preached the same twenty sermons over and over? Well, Hal had it down to about twelve, and looked like he was dropping down to eight if somebody didn’t stop him. So I told him about the one-word sermons this other guy preached. Just as a funny story, hoping he’d try it.

Did you ever have one of those moments where someone destroys your entire brilliant idea with just one sentence? Well, that happened here. Hal smiled and instantly said “I know what my word would be. Praise!” I immediately saw the weakness of my think-of-as-cool-word-and-go-home theory. It could get ugly fast. So I abandoned the idea as stupid, and didn’t bring it up again. That’s one part of the introduction. Put that in a box and set that aside for now.

You wouldn’t think that a person running onstage, spitting a mouthful of water at a girl in a wig, she dies, he dies, would be much of a play, would you?

Tom Stoppard wrote a play called 15-minute Hamlet. It is actually 13-minute Hamlet, followed by 2-minute Hamlet. Recommended. Especially to Linda, and to Anne. But another group, that started at the Renaissance Faires in California, went that one better. If you ever go to London, I recommend you go to The Reduced Shakespeare Company. All 37 of Shakespeare’s plays in 97 minutes. Very funny. I don’t recommend the reduced History of America, BTW. Not so funny. But the former ends with several versions of Hamlet. One-minute Hamlet. Ghost, To Be or Not to Be, Ophelia drowns, everyone dies. Backwards Hamlet. Two second Hamlet. Which is the mouthful of water, Ophelia dies, Hamlet dies.

I will note parenthetically that we bought front-row tickets at half-price. They brought Tracy up on the stage to play Ophelia for one line. The guy in the blonde pigtailed wig who had been Ophelia pouted and sat next to Jonathan, and brought him into the play. It was one of the great moments in Wyman family history.

I thought how much fun it would be if someone did a one-minute Bible. Like Stoppard, you would have to lead into it with a 13-minute Bible, so that people would get the jokes. But in the end, if you had the talent, you could do it. Let me set it up for you. There’s a boat onstage. And a stand-up picture of a Temple, like about 8 feet by 5 feet, lying face down. A throne. A cross. Pyramids on one side, a cave on the other. And zip lines, so that people can come in and out quickly. You ready?

The stage is dark. A light comes on. A guy bites an apple. People run onstage, and everyone stands in the boat. Sound of rain and thunder. Everyone gets out of the boat and runs down to Egypt. Then everyone runs back out of Egypt, and the 10 Commandments come in on a zip line. One guy shoots a sling and another guy falls over. The picture of the Temple goes up. Everyone gets dragged offstage, the Temple goes down. Then they come back and the Temple goes up again. A woman rocks a baby in front of the cave, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings “Hallelujah!” Everyone gets in the boat and Jesus walks past it. One guys gets out and nervously walks across the water to Jesus. People put Jesus up on a cross. He dies. They put him in the cave. He comes out the back of the cave, everyone hugs him and he gives them all miner’s lamps on their heads. He goes out on a zip line. They turn their miner’s lamps on and scatter over the stage. The Temple goes down again. Pause. Pause. Jesus comes back in on a zip line with a crown and sits on the throne. Curtain.

Okay, that was the second part of the introduction. Put that in a little box and leave it aside. Time for the third and last part of the intro.

For the last five years, I’ve been writing online a lot. I’ve learned something about lengthening things and condensing things that I wish I had known when I was writing papers for school. So those of you who are in school, listen up. It is easy to lengthen whatever you’ve got by 10% or shorten it by 10%. If you’ve got a 4.5 page paper and it’s supposed to be 5-7 pages long, no problem. Easy to stretch that sucker out onto another page. If you’re supposed to do a 4-5 minute persuasive speech and you’re running about 5’15”, no problem. More than 10% either way, it starts to get difficult. If you find you need to increase by 25%, it’s going to start sounding awfully thin. Here’s what you do: make it twice as long, and then cut it back naturally. Because to make it twice as long, you’re going to have to find another point to make. Then the whole thing’s easy. If your speech is running a minute over, no matter how fast you talk? Cut it by 50% and let it expand. Because if you cut 50%, you’ll have to identify what wasn’t really that important. Then you can explain the important stuff without rushing. And if it’s still too long, cut it by 50% again. Be ruthless.

I enormously admire people who can sum up a profound thought in one sentence. I can’t do it myself, but I admire it.

The idea of the one-word sermon came back to me about a year ago. I wondered if I should give it a try. But instead of just trying to find a cool word for you to meditate on, I approached it differently this time. A young friend asked for advice on reading the Bible a different way. I told him to pick out one story from Genesis, adopt it as his own, and think about it for a year. I don’t know if he did that, but I still think that’s a good idea. Pick a story. Pick one story. Think about it over and over. Two of the stories I focused on are the scripture lessons for today. Abraham and Isaac, and Hannah and Samuel. Both are very uncomfortable stories, worth immersing yourself in. Then I tried to get down to one verse. About half a dozen nominated themselves over the last year, from all over the Bible. I settled on one. Then I tried to get down to phrase. And here there were all sorts of possibilities. Every phrase that struck me as interesting, I wondered if it should be the next step. When it became clear that our church was going to scatter and sow, and I would get to share from my heart to this congregation just one more time, I ramped it up. I cut phrases, I added phrases. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get down to one word, but I figured I would at least get close. A phrase. I decided on a two word phrase about a month ago.

Last week it all fell apart in both directions. Just before church, standing out in the parking lot, I figured out how to get it down to one. I was happy. Just tickled. Then Dave read the scripture lessons, and the one verse that I had previously chosen was in one of the lessons. I got nervous. I am not a mystical person, and I get very bothered by ideas of little signs from God. Some people love ‘em, and I’ll bet they’re happier than I am. But there was the verse, and I wondered if God was telling me that I’d gone too far and should back up. From 1 Corinthians 15: For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. My verse from a few months ago. And neither my word nor my phrase was anywhere in it. Hmm. Problem. I have never gotten an answer to the question God, was that You? any time in my life. I compromised. This week I went back up to two words.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Growing Up In Parachurch

Reflecting on the message of Stephen's video below, it occured to me that kids in evangelical culture grow up in parachurch as much as in church. I don't want to knock this too hard; there are more than a dozen "ministries" outside our congregation that we contribute to, and over the years, the number of such organizations we have given our support to is large. Christian schools tend to be more like parachurch groups, drawing on numerous local churches for a specific purpose. Popular Christian music is more tied to parachurch ministries than local congregations.

Parachurch groups tend to have better speakers (if they are to survive financially). With narrow purposes, it is easier to ease difficult people out of the picture. And for all their lip service about working with local churches and supporting them, they are the most notable group criticising the churches in general. At least since Keith Green's "Asleep In The Light," Christian musicians have made their careers by bemoaning how inadequate the church is, (supposedly) neglecting this important ministry or that one. Elderly ladies caring for disabled husbands never seems to qualify as being as important as evangelizing college students or revitalizing marriages or engaging in dialogue with (fill in the blank).

Stephen movingly described growing up in the church, and all the children in our Bible study, including our own, would say the same. Our two oldest were as home-church centered as one would likely find. Yet even they went to Christian schools at churches they did not attend; went on short-term missions with still other groups; volunteered with us at Seafarer's, with Angel Tree, at CHOC; at festivals, conferences, crusades, camps, VBS. And finally, denominational colleges from other evangelical groups. And ours were at the low end of that scale in our group.

I wonder how much of this has driven the desire of the rising generation for other church structures. Over the last decade we have noted that few of them have gotten married in a church (Stephen was one). The complaint against parachurch organizations has usually come along the lines of drawing resources from the local church. This has turned out to be true, but I wonder if the drain by these organizations hasn't been more powerful in another direction. They have drummed home the continual message of how inadequate The Church has been on various issues: evangelism, AIDS, homelessness, slavery, hunger, Reaching Out To Troubled Youth, Supporting The Traditional Family, Putting The Scriptures Into The Hands of The People. And The Church, when you look at it from that perspective, pretty easily translates into Your Church.

As I said, we support a lot of these organizations. Heck, a large percentage of our family members arrived as a direct result of these things. I don't knock it. I don't say they shouldn't do it. Prison Fellowship, Mercy Corps, American Bible Society, Friends of Forgotten Children and all the rest, those are good things. Things like IHOP, Goddard, and various Seminars, I'm less sure.

But to read about Christians even a few decades ago is to enter a different world. Lewis, Chesterton, Tozer - even the original parachurch people like Graham, Schaefer, Wilkerson - describe a world in which churches, congregations, were a central part of the picture.

I wonder what we have wrought. The functions that local churches provide - sacrament, community, enactment - have become less important in the Christian's mind. Impact, feeling, connection, international action - these have risen in importance.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Not Again

David Ortiz needs to be gone. I said that last year, then he posted somewhat respectable numbers from June-September. Even if he does that again this year, it's not enough. JD Drew, for all his failings, at least gives you some fielding, smart baserunning, and walks. Yeah, I'd like to see him move along also, but Ortiz is simply a higher priority.

One-Word Sermon

The delivery went well enough. Whether it actually was a good sermon will take a year to know. It was taped, and if it ends up on the church's website I will link to it. If that doesn't

Friday, April 09, 2010


I find, thirty-five years after first reading, that The Screwtape Letters still makes accurate accusations against me. About every third chapter, something shows up. The rest of the accusations, of course, induce in me a self-congratulatory air that says "Yes! I guess he told them! They should read this."

Most disquieting is the knowledge that some of these accusations are those that applied on first reading, were dealt with, and went underground. They have re-emerged in newer, subtler form decades later. From Chapter VII:
Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and toweard the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the "Cause" is the sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal. Even when the little group exists originally for the Enemy's own purpose, this remains true. We want the Church to be small not only that fewer may know the Enemy but also that those who do may acquire the uneasy intensity and defensive self-righteousness of a secret society or clique. The Church herself is, of course, heavily defended, and we have never yet quite succeeded in giving her all the characteristics of a faction; but subordinate factions within her have often produced admirable results...
That mutual admiration could certainly include sectors of the blogosphere, where we congratulate each other a bit. That is often simply encouragement and innocent enough. Yet it leads oh so quickly to disdain for the Others who don't get it.

I tread an especially dangerous ground in this on the political side, and should be more careful. As a postliberal, I am often concerned with disassembling the logical from the social and emotional arguments of the left. If there is one summary statement for my political side, it is Progressives believe their opinions are morally developed and morally motivated. This is demonstrably untrue. As that is confronting, and seems insulting even when it is merely an observation, I am quite intentionally knocking down the usual social barrier which suggests we conduct all discussions with mildness. As that is also the main barrier in discourse against insult, it is easy to slip into that without noticing that any line has been crossed.

In other settings I have been more notorious for confrontations in the other direction. But I regard this as a more public forum - the discussions are not all in-house - and in the national cultural conversation, the balance is still very far on the other side. It remains rare that liberals even entertain the possibility that their political views are self-serving. Ah well, all confrontation feels like insult, and they may just automatically shut down from listening further. In the meantime, my own task is to detach from my own beliefs those parts that are self-serving.

One-Word Sermon

I am preaching Sunday, likely for the last time in awhile. With our church closing at the end of June, we will touch down elsewhere eventually. Wherever that is, they are unlikely to let the new kid preach anytime soon.

So if you are on 106 in Concord near Sam's Club Sunday at 9:30am, drop in. The title is "One-Word Sermon."

And no, I'm not going to tell you the word now. I will likely report on it after. I will reveal that I thought I had it down to one word, but am back up to two.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

War Weariness

I commented going in to the 2006 and 2008 elections that Americans are willing to put up with three years of war, and then they just want it to be over. I had noticed this time-frame when reading about the Civil War, and recognising that the growing popularity of the arguments of the Copperheads were extremely similar to the current American scene. I did a quick check on other wars. In WWII, we actually became involved in 1942, and were tired enough of the whole business by 1945 that we declined to put up much resistance to the Soviet Union's post-war demands. WWI, we were not in three years, as was true for the War of 1812, Mexican-American, Iraq I, and Spanish-American Wars. We signed an inconclusive armistice in Korea almost exactly three years after entering. We trickled into Vietnam, but the major troop buildups occurred in late 1965. By 1968 there were increasing protests and popular opinion moved toward getting out. After hazily developing the theory, I found it was in no way original: The Pentagon operated on exactly that timetable when we liberated Iraq. We would have to win decisively in 3 years or the American people would lose its will to continue. It was mentioned in many places that various enemies counted on the American unwillingness to stomach a long war, though I did not see the specific three-year figure anywhere.

I thought this was just Americans. Reading Chesterton's commentary in 1917, one finds him arguing against the exact same excuses we hear today. After three years, perhaps, certain excuses began to appeal to the Brits much as they now do a century later to Americans. The type of inconclusive peace that would leave Germany unpunished for its severe injustices against other nations was described as magnanimous, enlightened, and the best hope for a world of peace in the future. A good peace, doncha know, among equals who in wise an civilised fashion decided that war was unacceptable. Chesterton warned that any refusal to defeat Germany utterly would be quickly reinterpreted by that nation as a near-victory temporarily denied. Not that every nation must be thus thoroughly defeated in war, but that Germany's peculiar narcissism, its insistence on its ultimate superiority and destiny, would prevent any lesser defeat from penetrating its arrogance. He further predicted that such later wars would be even more horrible.

Which is exactly what happened. It is worth noting that the same attitude of historical inevitability was present in our communist enemies in the Cold War and is present in out Islamist enemies now. Even more significantly, the accusations of German atrocities were dismissed almost immediately after the war as exaggerations, propaganda, and outright lies. Even after they have been shown to be true, the disbelief remains the common wisdom of our time. Worse, on that basis, new accounts of German atrocities from 1933-45 were disbelieved as being part of the same type of propaganda.

I dare not quote the entirety of GKC's essay "Wars More Horrible" for reasons of length. Yet it is hard to know what to cut.
Long before the war a very modern moral theory of Pacifism had disseminated certain assumptions; and they are to-day the exact opposite of the actual facts. We were told that our brute passions or desires might drive us towards blood and destruction; that our more fanciful feelings of vanity or vengeance might inflame us for war; but that reason and right thinking, if they prevailed, would always prevail for peace. Turn this position entirely topsy-turvy, and you have something like the truth to-day. Our brute desires are now all for repose, and almost for sleep; our mere passions would flow in the direction of peace. It is exactly our reason, and almost exclusively our reason, which tells us to finish the work of war...Man is not a fighting animal; he is fighting because he is not an animal; he is fighting long after any animal would have fled.
I was sent a link about the opinions of some Republican congressmen expressed at the Cato Institute recently. A war lasting longer than three years was certainly a political disaster for Republicans, which may be influencing their view here. But that isn't the same thing as the cost to the nation. Their argument about blood is amnesiac: we expected to lose ten times more. The complaint about cost is much stronger - if we knew it would cost us a trillion going in, we might have decided we could get better result from other strategies. (Separate discussion) But I wonder about that "time," cost they refer to. It is not actually a cost at all. It correlates with money and casualties, of course, but once we have counted up the money and the casualties under their own categories, what extra cost does "time" impose?

Yet I think that time, though we recognise it not, is the cost we most minded paying. An emotional, not a rational response.

And The Winner Is...

A young friend, Stephen Byrd, has just won the "Why Church?" video contest on 12 Cities/12 Conversations. His video is also at the link if you want to forward it without embedding. You will like him immediately.

We have known him since birth and continue to have Bible Study with his parents. He is an even closer friend to my filmmaker son, Ben (go figure, eh?). Bright young man, full of energy and enthusiasm. I am assuming the friend he is allowed to take with him to New York for this conference will be his new wife, Tina. (But I'm probably second./faciety.)

Monday, April 05, 2010

Now You Know

Why there was no "French Invasion"

or "Finnish Invasion"

in Rock 'n Roll.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Pushin' Too Hard

Questions arise: How have I never heard of this show, "The Mothers-In-Law?" What was it opposite that I must have watched instead? (Answer: Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights.) How did I not fall in love with Deborah Walley? (Answer: At 13, I likely saw her as older and intimidating, and didn't even allow her to register. She was five years older than Hayley Mills, after all.) Who would wear such a ridiculous cape? (Answer: I would have, at least onstage. With a medallion.) The question "Why aren't their instruments plugged in?" has no answer that makes any sense, but was typical of the times.

Similarly, there is a video on youtube of Bettie Page dancing to The Seeds. That open a sexuality would likely have intimidated me to near-disgust in 1966, and she didn't register in memory either. But with my now older eyes, I immediately shook my head and thought "she was molested as a little girl." Turns out that guess was right.

The Seeds? They went psychedelic, joined a religious cult with platitudinous teachings and lots of sex, and did reunion tours with other bands when they got old. The usual.

Peace That Will End Peace

This war did not begin because international agreements were not made, but because they were not kept. GK Chesterron "Peace That Will End Peace," 1917
This, and the conclusion of the previous post, rather points up the inevitable weakness of the UN or any such organisation which admits tyrannical governments. All such organizations will discourage good nations from fighting, by appealing to their better natures. And it follows, as the night the day, that they will encourage bad nations to keep fighting, whatever the organization says. For these have not a better nature to appeal to, and use the willingness of decent people to doubt and discuss as nothing more than another battleground where they might weaken them. An arbiter among reasonable people who have lost their tempers and are temporarily unreasonable is an excellent thing. But there are spouses who want only power and revenge; businessmen who are mere cheats; with these there can never be negotiation, only enforcement.

American Pacifism

Reading Chesterton's commentary on America's entry into WWI, I was struck by his claim that America was a deeply pacifist nation. He uses this American reluctance to go to war as evidence of how egregious Prussian aggression was, not merely at violating Belgian neutrality but in its ongoing violation of other neutralities. Eventually even the Americans were drawn in, unable to ignore the injustice. The same might well be said of WWII. Our European allies, in fact, regarded our entry into the war as delayed unconscionably in the face of clear injustice.

We usually call this strain of American thought isolationism now. I had never seen it equated with pacificism. Yet I take the point immediately. In our history up until WWII, we showed ourselves quick to resort to skirmishes at need, but extremely reluctant to get dragged into full war. Even some things called "wars" by Americans did not involve anything like the full weight of the nation massed in battle. The Indian Wars were ongoing encroachments and skirmishes over many decades. The War of 1812, The Spanish-American War, the Mexican Wars were decidedly limited. Only the War Between The States was war in the sense that other nations know it - and it can be argued that it was so intense precisely because it was so long delayed. The Revolutionary War was mostly skirmishes at first, with many Americans reluctant to get dragged in.

We don't have that reputation now. We are regarded by many as overeager to go to war, involving ourselves where we have no business. Even many of our own citizens regard us as overeager, isolationists on the right who believe we should let the dang fool world get into whatever trouble it wishes, but without us - and the internationalists on the left who believe any assertion of our national interests interferes with the growth of international institutions. Yet the presence of both strains up to the present day argues for some continuity of the American "pacifism" Chesterton describes.

Since 1950, we have been involved in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq twice, and a number of skirmishes in Latin America and the Middle East, all of which have been criticised as unnecessary intrusions by America. (I will note in contrast that there are many conflicts we have stayed out of where a victim party wished very much for us to intervene.)

Well, what changed? Do we act differently, or is this mostly propaganda by our opponents, trying to achieve a free hand to oppress?

Both, and the key to understanding this is the internationalism of our enemies. From the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, and certainly during the Cold War 1945-1990, our enemy was not so much Russia or China as an hegemonous communism of a dozen flavors. These movements mutually supported each other in many nations. Rightly or wrongly, American was drawn in in much the same way it entered the World Wars - reluctantly, unwilling to commit full resources. We retained the same willingness to skirmish, but not to even officially declare most wars.

Now also, it is not so much individual countries we war against as an international Islamism, powerful but not universal even in the countries we have gone to war against. We are at war with parts of nations which show the same mutual cross-boundary support we saw in the USSR.

Both of these international movements are comparatively new things in the world. Worldwide, or even continentwide alliances were not much known before the 20th C. The closest equivalent was empire, uniting many tribes as a powerful force. But no one ever went to India to work there to spread the idea of the Roman empire; nor to Spain to advocate for the Mongol way of doing thngs; nor to Ohio to assist in the formation of a greater Austria-Hungary.

Interestingly, and with grim irony, Americans were one of the earliest examples of this spreading of ideas. Our revolution illustrated powerfully the virtue of self-determination. We set the idea out in the world, to conquer by pen instead of sword. Even earlier, Christianity spread by both sword and pen - but far more the latter. We created this world where ideas of how people should live and govern crossed borders without having to conquer.

There is a parallel here with the development of my own pacifism into some different attitude toward conflict. I remain a peaceful man, prefering to be left alone, prefering to see if something might be worked out with an antagonist. But like America at large, I have come reluctantly to the idea that this doesn't always work. There are people of real evil, unwilling to even entertain the idea that they might be wrong, and thus unwilling to stop aggressing. And that is in fact how we shall know them - there was never the slightest hint that Germany or Japan, China or Russia, Palestinians or Taliban were even dimly aware of any fault. There was never even a hypocritical acknowledgement that they might have overreacted or misunderstood. Their enormous certainty, contrasted with the tradition of the West, inherited more from Jerusalem than Athens, to doubt one's own goodness, is the dangerous pathology we war against. It is the attitude of criminals and sociopaths. Even the wildest anti-jihadist, the most implacable anti-communist, could always admit many things America had done wrong. Honest men can see at least some of their own sins; our enemies have generally been those who can see none.

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Last Gift of Mary Magdalene

Reposted from April 2006

When Mary of Magdala went to the tomb on Easter morning, hoping with the other women to give the body of Jesus a proper burial (Friday afternoon's preparations had been hurried and the bare minimum), her situation was different than all of Jesus's other followers. The men could go back to their previous jobs and families. At least I can go back to accounting/fishing/building again. They would be humiliated, of course, but that would pass. They grieved for their friend, but lots of people grieve. Some of the men had wished to go back to their previous lives, and wanted assurance from Jesus that what they had given up to follow him was worth it.

Jesus had at least attempted to provide for his mother at the end. "Mother, behold your son; son, behold your mother" he had said to John. As far as we can tell, the other women had come from some sort of families, and after suitable punishment by their patriarchs, would be accepted back. Mary the mother of Jesus would have the greatest grief, of course, but no worse than a thousand other mothers in Jerusalem who had lost sons.

Mary had nothing to go back to. There were always job openings for Beggar, of course, but the other beggars would have been schooled for a lifetime in eliciting pity by appearance and tones of voice. She might not be able to make even a subsistence living. She might give herself as a slave, if anyone would have her - the woman of the house in any rich family might have something to say about the master taking on one of the girls from the Pampered Palestinian Escort Service, no matter how temporarily reformed. Ms. Magdalene had seemingly stayed somewhere the last two nights. Perhaps she had stayed with one of the other women, or one of the disciples - if she could find one out of hiding. But it could have been that she had nowhere, nothing, starting in about two hours.

We might hope that the followers of Jesus would remember at least something of what he taught, and that someone would take a poor woman in and provide for her. But if not, her own family was unlikely to take her back. She had shamed them already and was dead to them. Whatever friends she had formerly had among her customers wouldn't want to be that close to her new holiness, unless they were utterly depraved and would enjoy even more trying to take advantage of her need. You thought you were something for awhile there, didn't you - better than the rest of us, huh? Now look at you.

And yet out of love and duty, which are not as incompatible as we make them appear in our era, she wants to give what last little she has in the pointless gesture of doing things up properly for someone who wasn't even a relative. Just because it was the right thing to do. Just to show gratitude one more time, even if only only she noticed.

It was a gift of generosity unmatched by any of Jesus's other followers, a pouring out of her own self, probably pointlessly, in imitation of his own pointless sacrifice. Just because it had to be done. We lose too quickly in the immediate discussion of the resurrection how great must have been Mary Magdalene's despair at finding the tomb empty. Even this last ability to give a little gift had been taken from her, and she must have thought as well "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

No wonder that Jesus's words to her are "Touch me not." What other impulse could she have had but to wrap her arms around his ankles, touch his face, burrow into his chest, weeping? How did even the Son of God move quickly enough to prevent her?

There are no tears that will not someday be dried, no lonely depths that will not somehow be filled. We hunger; food exists. We thirst; water exists. What else then could hope be for, but for completion?