Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Slayer's Undisputed Attitude - Entering Middle Age with Angry Resolve


The first time I saw Slayer was on the Diabolus in Musica tour. It was at Roseland Ballroom in NYC and Fear Factory and Kilgore Smudge opened. I was 17 and it was cool because I was the first of all my friends to see Slayer play live.

The show was the most chaotic, dangerous thing I had ever been a part of in my life up to that point. I couldn't hear for a few days afterwards. Someone got seriously injured and Tom Araya stopped the show out of concern for their safety, probably before playing Dead Skin Mask or Killing Fields. Burton Bell from Fear Factory threw me the microphone to sing part of Scapegoat.

At some point Slayer played Gemini, which was the sole original song from an album of punk covers (Undisputed Attitude). My first exposure to the album was a 15 second Quicktime movie posted by MTV that I downloaded from America Online. That short clip came up the size of a postage stamp and probably took me an afternoon to download.

Kerry King is the worst and he was in rare form in his interviews for the album and in the linear notes, doing what a lot of people who are into extreme music do when confronted with someone else's musical career and hard work: criticizing whole oeuvres by line-item and swerving someone else's personal taste into anathemas. He tore apart the bands he was paying homage to.

But maybe it was Jeff Hanneman's homage. It's clear from the linear notes and interviews from the time that he was the dude who was really into punk and hardcore. Jeff Hanneman was the Cliff Burton to Kerry King's James Hetfield, the superior taste that transcended the morass of classic rock. He really was brilliant, excursions into fascist aestheticism and memorabilia aside. I also never liked the lyrics, which is fine because I almost always ignore a band's lyrics. It's usually for the best.

Gemini was great because it had the same mid-tempo style that they used on Divine Intervention (the song) and Seasons in the Abyss (the album). It has aged better than a lot of their stuff and, as far as maturity in a metal band goes, I still think it sounds more like a step up than a step down. Live it was everything I could hope for because I actually DID spend money on Undisputed Attitude and had to skip forward on an awful lot of songs for a 33 minute album. Gemini is at the end and is a complete about-face to the rest of the album. The name of the song and the song itself sound like the "Gemini Man" level of Mega Man where everything looks like translucent Jolly Ranchers, which is to say a sort-of frosty futurism.

The album sounds desperate in both senses of the word (grasping at straws and nothing left to lose). Some of it is just too much, like the cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" (renamed "I'm Gonna Be Your God") and "Can't Stand You". But some of it sounds truly angry which is a feat considering that they were in their mid-30's and, in Tom Araya's case, married with a child on the way. It's strange to think that the album was recorded while his wife was entering the third trimester of her pregnancy. His daughter was born two weeks before the album was released and undoubtedly he could no longer be the same man who recorded angry music made by young men in their teens and early-twenties.

In a way, the album is a consummate resolution to the dilemma most men face when leaving their youth: what did it mean to be old and what does it mean now that I'm there? Will my relationships be padded with conversations about sales goals and kitchen renovations? Will there be dyed hair and bad plugs? What does responsibility look like and can value systems shift without losing your identity? What does it mean to be a person of integrity? What does it mean when the kids in the audience are closer to my children's age than I am to them?

Undisputed Attitude is usually remembered by most fans as one of Slayer's worst album...without any realization that the critics themselves might trip over the same threshold that they ridiculed the band for having just crossed.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What is reality?

It's not every day that I read something that blows my mind, but today happens to be that day. A worthy read (and reread).

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Being Critical of Being Critical (at least with yourself)

"The capacity to doubt herself, to abandon - albeit in the face of strong resistance - her self-assurance and self-satisfaction, lies at the heart of Europe's development as a spiritual force. She made the effort to break out of the closed confines of ethnocentricity, and her ability to do so gave definition to the unique value of her culture. Ultimately we may say that Europe's cultural identity is reinforced by her refusal to accept any kind of closed, finite definition, and thus only affirm her identity in uncertainity and anxiety."


-Leszek Kolakowski

"Looking for the Barbarians: The Illusion of Cultural Universalism" (1986)



What does it mean to be self-critical? In the Catholic tradition, we have what's called an "examination of conscience": a means of reflecting on our lives to see where we've gone wrong or to try and reconcile hard decisions with our values. It presupposes a couple things: that there is a God, that we possess a human nature, that there are ways to offend God and our own human nature, and that this rupture betrays that nature. The result of this is guilt, bad consequences, and redefinition of our own nature. To offend conscience is to recreate ourselves instead of allowing a Creator to continue to sustain His creation and to develop you in an ongoing act of creating.


This all presupposes the ability to think and reflect. Hannah Arendt defined "imagination" as the process in which we are able to dialogue with ourselves. Under that is some concept of a higher good or criteria that our actions are subservient to. To make ourselves and our own actions that highest criteria of right thinking or right action, in a sense, obliterates the dialogue because, at some level, one side of the interior dialogue is suppressed and the other is allowed to dominate. That suppressed side of the dialogue is most likely the one that doubts and criticizes actions that are (or allowed to be seen as) ambiguous.


But that act of dialogue with oneself also presupposes a few things too: a sense of self, the concept of an "other" (even if that "other" is a projection within oneself), the superiority of one view of another, and a final, binding judgment. Anxiety may come from a suspension of judgment or even the rejection of that judgment but, at some level, it presumes the validity of the idea of judgment. Even when someone is considered too critical of themselves, there is a "self" that is being judged and the resulting anxiety testifies to both the presence of an interior dialogue and an imbalance that seeks equilibrium.


When that interior dialogue is happening - so long as it actually is a dialogue - the acceptance and use of judgment, discernment, and even "otherness" presupposes something higher than the point of views, an ultimate "criterion", however elusive.


To avoid presuming a predictable conclusion for too long, this is one way to see how that the idea of an "ultimate" criterion that aids in discernment and judgment is a helpful way of understanding a tacit acceptance of the idea of "truth" that we all seem to have. Some people feel that this idea of "truth" is a useful way that our minds manage the things we think about, a sort-of silent party that allows for the possibility of a final judgment but for many others its a witness to the way God organizes our conscience and to conceptualize the reality of transcendence, that which exists beyond ourselves and our judgment.


Kolakowski's point in the quote above sees that the heritage of self-criticism is itself a sign of civilization and (to run the risk of a kind of triumphalism) is also a sign of a higher sort of civilization. As such, it's also a higher sort of humanity, a sign that something is going right and a principal for growth.


Though it's natural to avoid guilt and coming up short in examining our lives and failures, it's also "supernatural" to embrace self-examination. The tension and the anxiety is a sign that, at some level, something is going right. Better to go through it than walk past it.

Being Critical of Being Critical (at least with yourself)

"The capacity to doubt herself, to abandon - albeit in the face of strong resistance - her self-assurance and self-satisfaction, lies at the heart of Europe's development as a spiritual force. She made the effort to break out of the closed confines of ethnocentricity, and her ability to do so gave definition to the unique value of her culture. Ultimately we may say that Europe's cultural identity is reinforced by her refusal to accept any kind of closed, finite definition, and thus only affirm her identity in uncertainity and anxiety."

-Leszek Kolakowski
"Looking for the Barbarians: The Illusion of Cultural Universalism" (1986)


What does it mean to be self-critical? In the Catholic tradition, we have what's called an "examination of conscience": a means of reflecting on our lives to see where we've gone wrong or to try and reconcile hard decisions with our values. It presupposes a couple things: that there is a God, that we possess a human nature, that there are ways to offend God and our own human nature, and that this rupture betrays that nature. The result of this is guilt, bad consequences, and redefinition of our own nature. To offend conscience is to recreate ourselves instead of allowing a Creator to continue to sustain His creation and to develop you in an ongoing act of creating.

This all presupposes the ability to think and reflect. Hannah Arendt defined "thinking" as the process in which we are able to dialogue with ourselves. Under that is some concept of a higher good or criteria that our actions are subservient to. To make ourselves and our own actions that highest criteria of right thinking or right action, in a sense, obliterates the dialogue because, at some level, one side of the interior dialogue is suppressed and the other is allowed to dominate. That suppressed side of the dialogue is most likely the one that doubts and criticizes actions that are (or allowed to be seen as) ambiguous. 

But that act of dialogue with oneself also presupposes a few things too: a sense of self, the concept of an "other" (even if that "other" is a projection within oneself), the superiority of one view of another, and a final, binding judgment. Anxiety may come from a suspension of judgment or even the rejection of that judgment but, at some level, it presumes the validity of the idea of judgment.  Even when someone is considered too critical of themselves, there is a "self" that is being judged and the resulting anxiety testifies to an imbalance.

When that interior dialogue is happening - so long as it actually is a dialogue - the acceptance and use of judgment, discernment, and even "otherness" presupposes something higher than the point of views, an ultimate "criterion", however elusive. 

To avoid presuming a predictable conclusion for too long, this is one way to see how that the idea of an "ultimate" criterion that aids in discernment and judgment is a helpful way of understanding a tacit acceptance of the idea of "truth" that we all seem to have. Some people feel that this idea of "truth" is a useful way that our minds manage the things we think about, a sort-of silent party that allows for the possibility of a final judgment but for many others its a witness to the way God organizes our conscience and to conceptualize the reality of transcendence, that which exists beyond ourselves and our judgment.

Kolakowski's point in the quote above sees that the heritage of self-criticism is itself a sign of civilization and (to run the risk of a kind of triumphalism) is also a sign of a higher sort of civilization. As such, it's also a higher sort of humanity, a sign that something is going right and a principal for growth.

Though it's natural to avoid guilt and coming up short in examining our lives and failures, it's also "supernatural" to embrace self-examination. The tension and the anxiety is a sign that, at some level, something is going right. It's worth going through it than walking past it.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Jesus, the quirky teacher


Luke 14:25ff

The crowd wasn't quiet because the teacher told them to hate their family.

They weren't really mad either because this guy told them to hate their family!

No one remembers what that person asked that made the teacher say something so absurd but they didn't forget his response:

"Whoever comes to me and DOESN'T hate father and mother..."

Wait, what? You could practically hear the crowd's brows furrow in their confusion...

"...DOESN'T hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters..."

Elbows started to nudge and eyes started to wink. Quick glances communicated jokes about nosey mother-in-laws, boozy wives, and lazy husbands who probably deserved a mention too. The teacher's eyes bugged out a little when he said "doesn't". It's always interesting when a storyteller is the teacher instead of having a lawyer give cases and aphorisms.

Clearly he was being absurd with his extremes. The lawyers started to get antsy with their throats starting to stutter an obligatory interruption. Already this idiot told these sheep to break a Commandment, at least by implication. That was one of the many problems with this "teacher": you could never quite pin him in breaking the law. Patience, they thought. All in good time.

The crowd, however, seemed to be understanding the message just fine. In the span of about 15 seconds they were all grins, laughter, and interest in how the punchline would pan out. Even the kids seemed to get it.

"Whoever DOESN'T hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own LIFE, cannot be my disciple!"

So this was it? Who wanted to be this guy's disciple? To the side of the teacher we're his disciples, a strange collection of men who were either rugged, ragged, or both. One of them had what was clearly fine clothing before he decided to sleep outdoors while wearing them. Another had a large sword and another was a short, barrel-chested pug of a man.

And yet...

These men sat with purpose, listening to the same things the rest of them but with greater eagerness. You could see some of them were really torn up about what they were hearing. The crowd had no idea that some of them had left wives and children at home. One of them choked back tears while he slowly nodded.

It was was hard not to see that they had something that was, well, attractive. Peace, resolve, purpose, and an odd, resigning strength. You know it when you see it. It has a little something you want without ever realizing you wanted it.

The teacher continued.

"...and whoever does not CARRY THE CROSS AND FOLLOW ME CANNOT BE MY DISCIPLE."

Silence. Then a few gasps followed by the shriek of a mother whose sons had died by crucifixion for staging an attack on Roman soldiers. Her loud, painful reminisces provided an overture to a confused, uncomfortable crowd that was starting to get mad. His disciples, who just a moment before followed the same uneasy rhythm of nodding heads as everyone else, now looked positively stoic in the tumult, quivering stones that gave the appearance of the rocks of a fortress.

As the crowd rows started to shake apart, a few people were clearly frozen in their spot and conflicted. This strange, quirky teacher had danced with them until he stopped, looked them square in the eye and laid it out...a marriage proposal paved in both pain and purpose, not a demand but a pledge.

This is it. It is what it is.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"I told myself I wouldn't say 'Anything...'"


I told myself that I wouldn't say anything about anything but here's the thing:

If you are anything or anything, you better hug anything and get ready to stand by anything because anything can and WILL happen now that anything is anything.

We are better than anything or we are no better than anything: we'll be WORSE than anything.


Remember: if you anything'd than YOU are to anything. You are on the wrong anything of anything.

But now isn't the time for that. Anything might happen but anything COULD happen. Accept anything. Or get over anything. Just get over anything.

Here's the anything: anything is the problem and anything is the solution. We've got to stand to anything: stand up for anything and stand against anything.

Years from anything we will look back on this anything and see it as the moment when we were anything.

Nothing is anything and everything is anything and that's everything.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Strange Gratitude

I'm reading Charles Taylor's "A Secular Age", a massive analysis on the massive shifts in how humanity in the west has made sense of existence throughout the millennia. In what is surely no surprise to anyone, society largely does not think religiously, at least not in the way it used to. It's rough out there if you are both religious and want to carve a place for yourself and your tradition in a pluralistic society after that same society has branded that worldview as refuse from a superstitious era.

I certainly think that the representatives of different world views are in a crisis of communication. It's why I really admire the Richard John Neuhauses of the world who tried (and others who continue to try) to establish some sort of commonality in the public square that allows all of us to speak honestly, to challenge each other, but also to be civil with one another. We all advocate for our worldviews within our understanding of the common good. We're not always successful at doing that peacefully.

In reading Taylor's book (a book that is certainly critical and, sometimes, both prone to inaccuracy and editorial and yet demonstrates a level of reasearch and originality that I can only aspire to), I'm filled with gratitude.

I'm grateful for my own formation and how I was educated. I'm also grateful for what books came my way and the things I thought were interesting enough to learn about. His book is a tour de force of sociology, culture, philosophy, psychology, theology (albeit imperfectly) and a history of western thought from the Middle Ages until now and his analysis is original. It's like Foucault in that the analysis is at the service of introducing bigger ideas rather than an accurate representation of things, but it's great to be along for the ride.

I'm grateful for a couple classes I had on Medieval philosophy and religion that I stumbled into during my final semester of college. I'm grateful for staying up on philosophy because Taylor is using stuff that I only read after graduate school. I'm grateful for the "lay of the land" that college and graduate school gave me. If I didn't go through all of that, this book wouldn't make any sense at all.

I'm very grateful for humanity and I'm grateful for the desire to understand who we are, how we got here, and where we're going. It leaves me a little scared because we don't bring up the "big questions" that got us through the last few thousand years often enough and I think that we'll regret it as our use of technology keeps disengaging from ethical questions. I'm worried that our pragmatism isn't really critiqued or reflected upon but simply assumed (a dangerous sort of dogmatism). But I'm also grateful that I think that I get that and hopefully it'll make for some good conversations and practical advocacy.

I'm grateful for everyone who has helped humanity understand God and how even the strangest byroads became opportunities to clarify and purify. The only way to the present is through the past and the groundwork of everything we're grateful for was laid down by others. Sometimes I look at all the mistakes of my life and I get sad. But when I realize that all the good things and bad things helped me meet my wife and allowed us to have our children when we did, I make a bit more peace with my mistakes in life. It's the same with history. We might abbhor what humanity has done over the years, but hopefully we've learned from it as a warning sign or used some of it as a stepping stone for something positive. One thing we certainly can't do is undo it because to do so would mean undoing the complex web of circumstances that allowed for our own existence and experiences.

I'm most grateful to God because as time goes on I experience Him as Providence, the guiding light that wove my desires, experiences, needs and graces into an interlocking whole, where what was needed is usually met and what was lacking is usually provided for. It's hope that things will ultimately be okay and, eventually, reconciled. If not here, than certainly in there hereafter.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Supertzar: Black Sabbath as Both Comfort Food and Friend

Black Sabbath's Supertzar is an instrumental on their Sabotage album. I was probably 14 when I first heard it and it sounded like something on Lawrence Welk's show. It was really dark and weirdly triumphant.

Sabotage was one of the first Black Sabbath albums I bought. The image on the album cover was completely washed out but I got it because it was like $8 on CD compared with its $15 cleaner looking alternative.

I later found out the reason for that. Black Sabbath had signed one of the worst record contracts imaginable and that allowed their management to issue cheaper versions with a mixed up track order that sounded really bad. I was used to the album ending with Am I Going Insane (Radio) but, truthfully, The Writ was the last track. I later realized that if a Black Sabbath album was released under the "Dorchester Holding" that it was bogus and probably didn't help Tony Iommi pay the Tony Martins of the world who got Rockstar'd into singing for the world's best band remembered for their worst singles.

My best friend and neighbor at the time was really into bodybuilding and competed while we were still freshmen in high school. He needed music and the music we listened to together was really weird (The Iron Eagle soundtrack, Life of Agony, and Garth Brooks were interchangeable). I suggested he use Supertzar and, even though he didn't use it and most likely doesn't remember it, I still think Supertzar was the perfect choice for expressing Wagnerian grandeur.

When I get bummed out, I listen to Black Sabbath. In the last few years its been back and forth between Volume 4 and Master of Reality but, truthfully, any of those first eight albums are a comfort.

Whatever they stumbled into from 1970 to 1978, I'm grateful. They apparently didn't realize that they made some of the world's most special music over the course of eight long playing records (Live at Last doesn't count among their album releases but should). Over the years they've consistently avoided the best songs for live shows and some of the best stuff that they do play are played wrong, as though they were a bad metal band.

Black Sabbath is not a metal band. They were a mediocre jazz and blues band who had to turn up loud so the audiences couldn't ignore them and translated meandering jams into something total and absolute.

There are plenty of books that are meant to teach you how to be rich and successful but they don't always get it. There's some kinds of genius that are just stumbled into. Black Sabbath stumbled better than anyone.

Monday, October 3, 2016

I Hate Metallica's Black Album: It Sounds Like a Dusty Hillbilly

I don't hate many things in this life, but I hate Metallica's Black Album. It's not a festering hate. I don't even realize how much I hate it until it somehow comes up, and of course it's going to come up on the 25th anniversary of its release.

I hate it while knowing the album extremely well. I've listened to it countless times. At least once a year I listen to it for the ten millionth time just to make sure that I haven't missed something. My first copy of the album was the Japanese import that has "So What!" as the bonus track. As much as I hate the Black Album, I hate it ten times more for that stupid song. It cost $30 in mid-90's money and would be about $90 now if everything on it hadn't be made available for free on many different formats.

My friend Scott posted something about it online and I must've blacked out when I saw it. When I came to, this is what was on my screen. It's unusually cruel and dismissive of people who poured their hearts and souls into such a bad piece of art. They spent about a year on that album and I am so sorry they wasted their time. It contains some of the most recognizable songs in the history of radio, some of which almost fool me into thinking that they are good. That feeling usually dissipates soon after but not without me feeling guilty for falling for it all over again.

Any time I've put it on, I get a bad feeling in my stomach. Then I'm bored. Then I'm angry and a little embarrassed. I make a face like I just sipped milk that is in the process of turning bad, like I'm mulling it over when it was clearly a mistake, when the decision to ingest it was regretted far too long after my initial unease.

I feel most bad for the things I said about Bob Rock in the below. He's a person and he's probably very nice. He was just trying to make the band sound their best. He's very patient in the "Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica" home video (which was 2 videotapes long), trying to get Kirk Hammett to reach deep within to play the Unforgiven solo at a level he'd only hoped he could reach. He's so patient and professional and I reduced him to an assortment of bad hair and poor decisions. I hope that he never reads my theology/culture blog that has a readership of about 5 people.

Someone might say that people who write on theology and culture shouldn't write like this...but clearly they have never read anything by St. Jerome.

Thanks to Scott for the opportunity.











Thursday, September 15, 2016

Ricky Martin in 1999: Latin America, Endless

When Dreams Come True

In 2014, Ricky Martin had already sang "Livin' La Vida Loca" hundreds, THOUSANDS, of times.

He was tired.



But it wasn't always that way.

Not in 1999...



Not on Oprah...



Or on Jay Leno...


On television, still excited...


At the Blockbuster Awards, getting tired...


Duets and diversification with Kylie Minogue...


In Italy...



..and in Monaco, an international star. 


With shaggy hair...


Finally he would have the chance to sing something else, something different... 



...but only for 2 short minutes...

Eternally sad...


...and forever exhausted...


...all because...

...his dreams came true.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Blessings and Curses

I have Hebrew class in about 45 minutes and this chapter isn't going well. It's Deuteronomy 28 and it's just piles and piles of unique vocabulary. Up to now I felt like a Hebraic rockstar and now I feel like I'm fumbling through the main riff of Iron Man.

It's also a depressing chapter, the blessings and curses that Israel takes upon themselves in accepting a covenant with God. They seem more than a little vivid and harsh but my Hebrew teacher passed on to me the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon, an Assyrian royal document from the 7th century BCE, giving a sense of a cultural milieu that wrapped the destinies of two parties into a binding and everlasting covenant, which neither party is looking to transgress, calling curses upon themselves if they do so. In Assyria this is between the king and a number of vassal princes. In Israel it's between God and Israel.

Plus, as uncomfortable as Deuteronomy 28 is, it can't really rival this treaty's curses. The line "may the urine of an ass be your drink, may naphtha be your ointment...may demon, devil and evil spirit select your house" really gives Assyria a leg up on imagining something that would make even an Eli Roth cringe.

But that's why context matters and why recovering the (non-homogenous, multivalent, and unceasingly fascinating) biblical world is important. We have so few strands that run through the scope of global human history that extend up through today, that reconnect us to this path that humanity has travelled over thousands of years and what has consistently mattered to us. Is this a story of gross insensibility? Of course not. The grotesque and extreme always finds its way back into the culture. If you're not sure of this, check your local Redbox.

But here in Deuteronomy (and even in the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon) these fates - some imagined but some real observations of illness, affliction and desperation - are to be avoided at the service of fidelity and honor. At weddings we say the words "til death to us part" not thinking of funeral parlors, embalming fluid, and coffins but it's all assumed and it's all there.

As much as I don't like the passage I remember that at the very core of this section (and this is apparent, not the product of creative readings) is the desire to bind ourselves irrevocably to the Wholly Mysterious, Wholly Other who communicates Himself not in silence but Presence and Providence. Where some see a gap we see an eye. Where some see neglect we see a hand hovering just below to carry and rescue. Faith isn't a flight of fancy but fidelity to one who is experienced as wholly faithful.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

World War I and the Hell We Create

Franz Ferdinand, Whose Assasination Sparked a World War

I recently read that if we live in a "post" anything world (postmodern, post-colonial, post-patriarchal, or anything else), it's a "post-World War I" world. It's the single most important event in modernity.

It signaled the end of the confidence in the ability of modern technology, economics, national structures, and art to provide solutions in a new world. It reinvigorated old rivalries while bringing new innovations in mass murder. It scarred soldiers and redrew gender and family roles in their absence. The retribution of the victorious nations was so crippling to the losing nation that they welcomed a lunatic dictator who would give the world an unprecedented embodiment of evil.

I don't think that there is a single issue we deal with today that wasn't in some way affected by the First World War. It should shock us still if for no other reason then we don't flinch at mass violence in the media, at least not as much as our parents and grandparents did.

We're constantly swirling around a lot of big issues and controversies and tragedies but when we're in that mindset it's probably helpful to put things in perspective. I think that by going back to "patient zero" and reexamine the circumstances that brought in the era we live in today. It's all there: the weird "cause célèbre" of a scandalous relationship, class struggle, international politics, new technologies, national hubris, a myopic concern for particular issues over and against brotherhood and coexistence.

It's like no one wants to get along unless the other side changes. It's not even like we try to build bridges. We just want our enemies to disappear or at least change their mind (and even if they did they would never be trusted again...I don't think we're as much a culture of "forgiveness" than a culture of protracted penances that seem to ever go on unappeased).

World War I didn't happen because an Archduke was shot. It started with thousands of little things and attitudes that fermented and collided until it almost had to happen. At the beginning of the war it seemed like an adventure until it brought hell on earth. While we cheerfully goad and gloat at the people we don't like and the sides who are always wrong, when we welcome the conflict we shouldn't be surprised when we find ourselves living in a hell of our own creation.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

A Pamphlet War in New Jersey

I just left a parish Mass in New Jersey while on vacation. I was flipping through their fairly innocuous collection pamphlets when I found these little gems peppered in with trifolds about Sacraments and the dignity of all human life.

It's a weak and cowardly move to leave pamphlets instead of talking to people. I hate the passive aggressive Christian pamphlets that masquerade as comic books or fake money to get you to say a special prayer with the suggestion to find a church. But these pamphlets are the opposite side of the same coin. Filled with presumptions, mischaracterizations, and, worse, zero real engagement. It deals with the impression of Christians found in the media or in random family members rather than an entire tradition. The same goes with some Christian mischaracterizations of atheists. Both hardly deal with the real thing because it's so much easier to drop a pamphlet than deal with the real thing, have a good conversation, respectfully disagree or concede each other's fair points, and to find common ground in a world of division.

The really sad part is that both sets DID have a common ground if the person who dropped them bothered to read the others instead of cowardly dropping a couple papers and running away. There could have been a great conversation in that. Both sets of articles affirm the "dignity" of every person. "Dignity" means the inestimable wealth of every person, which involves the complicated amalgamation of thoughts, experiences, values, and understanding that make up each of us. To treat people with "dignity" involves not seeing them as deluded idiots, the kind that can be swayed by a silent, uncaring pamphlet.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Parable on False Gods, Faking Faith and Vertiginous Modernity

The best thing I read today:

Secretly Seduced By Science: Hasidic Atheists Lead a Double Life

The essay describes the experiences of Hasidic Jews who have lost their faith in God but who also stand to lose their community and families in the process. Instead of leaving them, they still live their lives within their tradition while trying to reconcile their newfound joy in personal enlightenment with their devastation at having lost something so integral to their identity and personal foundation.

Some of the stories sound bitter, some resigned and others are a little wry. But the theme involves the incruguity of their undeirstanding of the biblical Book of Genesis and modern science. This isn't a new story, though usually you don't see it from a Hasidic perspective, and it's at the crux of many contemporary science and religion debates. It's a crisis of faith and it's overwhelming to have so many doubts yet so few answers.

It's also avoidable. For ministers it is easy to trade in difficult questions -and the far more difficult realities that they force you to face - for pious platitudes. I do not believe that God is interested in pious posturing. I do not believe that God is asking a person who is imbued with, animated by, and themselves embody the same rationality that sustains His creation to accept absurdities. It's not fair to people who have serious questions to give them riddles if they're looking for answers. Yes, challenge a worldview that is radically materialistic, even to the ontological level. Yes, insist that divinity cannot be reduced to atoms and particles any more than it can be divided into turns of phrases and the accidents of grammar. But more than anything, challenge your own understanding of God because anything other than God Himself is an idol, a false representation, a concept masquerading as the real thing.

What's heartbreaking in all of these stories is that the people who they went to for answers didn't seem to engage with the real problems that they faced. If you're not willing to accompany them down a road that can challenge your own view of things then at least know enough to at least point them in the right direction. If a friend asked me to get them to Los Angeles I might not be able to personally get them to California but I can at least drive them to the airport. I think the greatest experts don't see themselves as experts. They see themselves as students who know where there own understanding of things ends and are honest about it.

When I began studying the Bible seriously -serious enough to learn the main biblical languages, serious enough to learn everything I could about the world that produced the people who made it, serious enough to make it my life's work (and I am by no means an expert)- I found that I had a pretty huge choice to make early on. I could either be an apologist for a bunch of things I didn't quite understand at the service of things that I thought would be challenged by asking hard questions, or I could just be open to what I was hearing. When I tried to the former, I learned nothing, confirmed suspicions, and became arrogant. It never worked and I would skim through the difficult stuff and posture an agonizingly putrid sense of authority. Maybe no one noticed it but I sure did. It's poisonous.

But I did a couple things that I think helped me learn more and, I believe, afforded me a much greater faith.

  • Keeping an open mind - For every potential "deal breaker" that could potentially destroy my faith I found an opportunity. Realizing that the first chapter of Genesis isn't a science textbook doesn't destroy Genesis. It allowed me to learn more about the conceptual world of the priestly writer who saw creation as a great Temple to God where mankind is imbued with a great dignity. The idea that perhaps the early Israelites were originally Canaanites gave a whole new hope in resolving religious conflict. Dealing with the most violent stories of the Bible helped me see how those instances weren't granting permission to do likewise but cautionary tales whose consequences would have been missed without a proper perspective. 
  • Trying not to be defensive - If my faith is so fragile that it can't withstand some difficult questions, then maybe I need to learn some more. If I can't handle being wrong, then I'm never going to find the right answer. If I can't keep my cool in a dispute then I really am being irrational. 
  • Not mischaracterizing people who think differently and not mischaracterizing their opinions - What I love most about Pope Benedict XVI as a theologian is that he would always refuse to be anything but fair to other people's points of views. He could spend pages recounting an opinion before criticizing it and it would be done in such a way that the person who he was criticizing could hardly accuse him of being unfair. If someone puts an idea out there, it's intellectually dishonest to reduce their ideas just so you can deal with it better. You can't get to the heart of an argument unless you are willing to deal with it as it's presented. Sometimes an argument is framed poorly and needs to be reoriented. But if your going to venture having an opponent at least be fair to them. 
  • Being fair but critical - ...and while you want to be fair to someone you disagree with you also have to be able to question assumptions, clarify loaded terminology, point out biases and so on. 
  • Be okay with feeling dumb and being wrong - I read a quote attributed to Al Pacino that said "If you are the smartest person in the room then you are in the wrong room". Maybe it was Madonna. Either way, it's right on. I've been lucky enough to be around lots of smarter, older people with way more experience than me and I've always been better for it. In biblical studies you'll find yourself in the room with people who might know a few dozen languages between them all and have more abbreviations appended to their name than you could possibly discern. If you want to be the smartest person in that room then you'll have a lot of work to do. 
  • Enter the debate - For every idea, there is someone else who can debate it. For every great point made by a Richard Dawkins there are a hundred responses that you owe to yourself to read if your going to take his as the right one. And those responses have responses. And so on. It doesn't end. If you hold up one quote or one meme or one bad example as an exemplar without offering a challenge to it, then you are no different than someone who uses the Bible to justify the belief that the cavemen rode dinosaurs. You got caught up in your thing and stopped there. It doesn't stop and you'll learn a lot more from the debate.
  • Concede a point, even if it conflicts with yours - being right is severely overrated. The truth matters more and no one says you have to be the one that has it. The obsessive need to be right pales in comparison to being lucky enough to be around to hear or witness the truth for yourself. 
  • Respecting those who came before - GK Chesterton referred to the "democracy or the dead", those people in history who are silent simply because they were too busy preparing the world for you. I think mostly of those respectable and kind members of our families who have passed on but left a tradition of faith and core values. I simply refuse to believe that my great-grandmother, who was one of the greatest witnesses to my Catholic faith in my life, was simply deluded at best or a fool at worst. As a kid I could tell that she had something precious and I'm still trying to understand it. 
  • Not being the center of the world - My worldview is not the world. The way I see things is not the way. I am not the way, the truth, or the life. Only one person dared say that He was and that's a role I'm most happy to relinquish. Just because something doesn't make sense to me doesn't mean it's wrong.
  • Praying - God is not a character in a book. My faith is not in a book. The "book" isn't even a proper book. It wasn't written in one sitting. It's the product of an entire tradition engaging with the real world and wrestling with their understanding of God, so feel free to do the same. They had powerful experiences of God and they didn't want you to read the book so it would all terminate in the book. That would be like a book on dating hoping to rope you into its pages instead of engaging a potential mate. Engaging God directly means being unafraid to shatter your idols, even if that idol is a lovingly recreated version of Him.

And that's really at the center of my heartbreak over that article. We make idols of God all the time. Any concept of God is ultimately an idol because a concept is your mind's way of reducing something so it's understandable to you. It's like someone who is obsessed about getting married and thinks they understand it without actually being married. The idea is not the reality. It's an invitation to the reality but it can also mar any meaningful engagement with that reality, especially when the object is the relationship itself and not the person that it is supposed to link you with.

Lastly, we have more access to information and more possibilities than anyone in history. With that comes a danger: we can confirm any suspicion or validate any bias. Working in ministry, I am tempted by laziness to gather a collection of platitudes and factoids as though they were snake oils in a charlatan's bag, promising to salve cancers and serious maladies with simple postures that ultimately offer no real solutions. They won't work for the day it matters most and my faith in a living God won't allow it. I can't face Him having faced modernity so poorly and having offered no real contribution to helping people to understand Him honestly.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Dissolving the Habit of Faith


I posted this a couple years ago, but it's still worth thinking about...

------------------------------------------


The passage above might not seem like a big thing, but it's been gnawing on my mind this last week.

This passage is from Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, a book from 1952 that presents Catholic teachings with the weight that each teaching has in the Tradition. For example, "de fide" teaching has the strongest level of authority and that includes things that deal with things that either God has Himself revealed in this tradition (either through the life of Christ and Scripture or through the wider Tradition, or something more or less "direct") or that has been declared with the formal teaching authority of the Church, which the Church understands as something given to it by God. This probably makes no sense if it's not your thing, but it's a 5-cent overview of dogmatic theology (dogma is a very dirty word in this culture, which should be unusual because it's etymology is basically related to the idea of a weighted teaching).

Other teachings carry a different weight. Some are theological opinions with varying degree of consensus, some are pious opinions, some are merely tolerated, and so on.  Knowing this stuff gives you a sense of how Catholic theologians think, agree, and even disagree about different teachings.

This passage is the one that's been getting to me. The big line is highlighted: "The habit of the light of glory dissolves the light of faith." It's an explanation of an oft forgotten Catholic teaching: that one day faith will become unnecessary and obsolete for us. In the Catholic tradition, faith is a way of "knowing", a way to get to a certain kind of "knowledge". "Faith" is synonymous with "trust", but just as we act on trust in our every day life (trust that certain people love us, trust that trains run on time, trust that our money has some kind of value, trust that traffic lights are programmed properly, etc) and we allow that trust to become a sort of knowledge (or at least a working hypothesis) that allows us to live our lives, so it is with our faith in God. 

But when our life is through, we no longer know God through trust or faith, with something that allows for the possibility of uncertainty. After this life, we know God through His glory (this is what the passage in the picture is saying). What is glory? We've more or less ceased to use this word in our every day lives (and have begun to lose the concept), but glory is an absolutely tangible expression of greatness. For example, I could refer to real things that I've done that I'm proud of as my "glory" or even my children (who I love greatly and am most proud of) as my "glory". God communicates His glory in ways that are both tangible (like in nature or in the presence of great Love or in the presence of His Son) or seemingly-intangible ("seemingly" because they refer to the metaphysical underpinning to reality, things that we think are less real but are in reality more intensely real).

If that last point is true (that being-as-such represents the ground, the basis, of everything real) then to be in the presence of God is to be in the presence of a Being who is "more real" than the reality we know. This life is the shadow, the next is the real deal. Because of that, we'll know God differently and it will be a far more immediate experience than anything we experience here. God will always be mysterious, whether in this life or the next, but we'll have a better grasp on what all that means.

Sometimes we get hints of this here in this life: when we experience a love that takes us out of ourselves, when we "transcend" ourselves in prayer or even meditation, when we come to a knowledge of something profound that shakes how we see the world, when we experience purpose. When its real, it's not an opiate or masking of reality. Rather, it uncovers reality. And the beauty of it is that most of us have had those experiences, whether we are religious or not, whether we acknowledge them or not. No matter what we make of those experiences, they most definitely point us to someplace and it would be wise to take a step in that direction.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ghosts of Latham

The lines blur between where we stand and where they stood. Summers shouldn't have to be so cold.





















Compendium Absurdum (6/9/2016)

Compendium Absurdum (6/9/2016)

  • Band/themed cruises: Everything is absurd and life is meaningless.

  • Live music (in general): The tedium of convincing yourself that it's all worth it.

  • Bank-sponsored concert presales

  • Elderly metal

  • Middle aged metal

  • Weird Cirque du Soleil-esque (and probably publically funded?) satantic rituals to dedicate a bridge

  • Old lady memes taped to the walls of secretaries and phlebotomists: This happens a lot.

  • Theological myopia


  • Two-party sorting: You are Slytherin because Slytherin exists. Even Hogwarts had more options than we do.



    • Seasonal activism

    • Election-related atavism

    • The early history of man and what it would be like to be eye to eye with a Hobbit-like anthropoid: I can't comprehend what would it feel like to look at a prehistoric ancestor that would fill in the gaps between and ape and us, but I think it would make me light-headed.

    Thursday, June 2, 2016

    An Emoji Bible and the Art of Biblical Interpretation



    I wanted to dismiss this right out of the gate.

    A Bible composed in Emojis is a little more than, say, a book of Bible stories for children or a comic book Bible. What might have seemed like a quaint Twitter project raises up very important considerations for biblical translation.

    (Skip past the second line if you want to skip the historical and philosophical end of it)

    -------------------------------------------

    The Bible is the product of oral transmission. The first recitations of Biblical passages by and to a congregation happens in the books of Deuteronomy. The words of the prophets come in the form of oracles spoken in the name of the LORD. Before the exile, the Judahite king Josiah reads the newly-found book of the Law (likely the book of Deuteronomy) to the people of Jerusalem as a precursor to the re-establishment of their Covenant with God that was ratified in a similar manner some 800 years before on the plains of Moab before entering the Promised Land (2 Kings 23:1ff, Deuteronomy 29:1ff). The reading of the law out loud to the returnees from the Babylonian Exile by the priest Ezra once again re-established the Covenant with God around the time their Temple was rebuilt and rededicated and their fortunes restored (Nehemiah 8:1ff). 

    The New Testament emerged from the oral proclamation of Jesus' saving action for mankind: "For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received; that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures..." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The letters of St. Paul largely predate the final form of the Gospels and are themselves written exhortations, written in light of the Apostle's inability to be present among the community, and were meant to be read aloud (Colossians 4:16, 1 Thessalonians 5:27). The Gospels first found their form in the stories told about Jesus after his death and resurrection with most scholars accepting that it was his the spoken words remembered among the early Christian communities that were first collected. Afterwards, attempts at a complete narrative were also attempted (Luke 1:1-4, John 21:24-25).

    The connection between what is written and what is read aloud cannot be severed without damaging the integrity of what was intended by those who composed the different books of the Bible. In written Hebrew, manuscripts were preserved without any markings for vowels until around the 6th century. Before that, the vowel sounds of certain Hebrew words were preserved here and there in transliterated form in Greek and Latin translations of the Bible, both of which had a vowel system.

    How did readers know how the words were supposed to sound? Memory and the regular use of the language within a community. What was spoken, what was read, and what was heard were weaved into one another.

    So what's the big deal of an Emoji Bible?

    Think of what occurs when you read a word. Language itself is a system of symbols. We use them to approximate and organize certain concepts and they allow us to communicate with each other in a shared social arrangement. A word like "apple" invokes approximately the same image to anyone who speaks English. We associate the word "apple" with shape, colors, texture, etc. It is such a powerful word that if we are hungry then its very utterance can stoke hunger pangs. The word "apple" by itself is arbitrary but emerged from a long evolution of associating things with sounds in order to organize our understanding of reality and to communicate it with others. All of this is possible through our capacity to remember. We remember that certain words arranged in certain ways can mean certain things. Furthermore we have the ability to recall certain arrangements of words spoken by another, or to recall actions that have already passed in a narrative that describes what has already happened. 

    So what is spoken both relies on memory and can itself be remembered. 

    The written word adds an entirely different layer to the process.The word "apple" is an arrangement of 5 symbols that have been given a meaning as to reflect certain sounds in a firm but still somewhat flexible way. The written word is an extension of the concept of communication and, in particular, communication through speaking. Because of the more permanent nature of the written word, a concept can then be objectified and reflected upon in way that does not require a sustained attention span. The duration of its permanence determines its enduring value. Because more concepts, words, and actions can be reflected upon beyond the capacity of ordinary memory, new and deeper meanings can emerge.

    It's something we take for granted but it's a big deal. With the Bible, an entire series of books are collected in one book that was itself dependent on the spoken, written, and conceptual language of the culture its writers emerged from. Its enduring value has been demonstrated in its continual transmission from an oral culture to a literate culture. The preservation of written documents and their continued propagation reflected its spreading influence and ability to transcend a particular culture (Israelite/Jewish) and its varying historical developments. The Hebrew Bible itself was a major contributor to the conceptual matrix of first century Palestine at the time of Jesus, along with several other historical, sociological, and religious considerations.


    -------------------------------------------

    At the heart of an Emoji Bible is the relationship between the written and spoken word and how that corresponds to our reception, internalization and subsequent externalization of these forms. 

    So check it out!

    Psalm 19:14-20:3




    Besides abbreviated words ("b" for "be", "&" for "and"), entire words (and concepts) are approximated in a symbol.

    The shiny heart (πŸ’–) in 19:14 approximates the Hebrew word ΧœֵΧ‘ (leb). For a moment, let's ignore the surrounding English of the verse and see how well a πŸ’– approximates the Hebrew word and the corresponding concept standing behind it. 

    The word leb is more than just the organ that pumps blood throughout the body and rarely is it used that way in the Hebrew Bible. It's an expression of our inner life and emotions. It reflects those unthematic and difficult to define aspects of our emotions and our deepest understandings. In fact, here it is clear that the word leb is very much something beyond words.

    Here, what the Psalmist is presenting to God is their very self, that it is that self, in all of its undefinable dynamism, that is being submitted to God for acceptance. It would not be economical, never mind possible, to articulate the ever-constant nature of our deepest reflections: God here is my love, conflict, brokenness, awareness, understanding, convictions, righteous yearnings" - and so on. So much more would have to be left out than could ever be included.

    Our shiny heart emoji is itself a curious translation of the Hebrew "leb". It is an interpretive choice, chosen above others: ❤️πŸ’›πŸ’šπŸ’™πŸ’œπŸ’”❣πŸ’•πŸ’žπŸ’“πŸ’—πŸ’˜πŸ’ . Would not one of these better encapsulate the meaning of leb here? I think that πŸ’ž better expresses the dynamism of the human heart while πŸ’— captures the layers and depth of the human experience. In this regard, I would consider πŸ’– to be a weak translation. In emphasizing the inner depth of a person as sparkling, it seems strangely self-centered.

    Yes if the twinkles of the πŸ’– are indicative of an impeccability, it would best express the desire of the Psalmist: to submit a righteous heart to God. The Psalmist may be saying that his heart is truly πŸ’– and that God will rightfully accept such a heart.

    The verse itself is poetic and in Hebrew poetry a doublet within a verse is meant to support similar concepts: "the words of my mouth and the hegyon of my heart" (אִמְΧ¨ֵΧ™־Χ€ִ֡Χ™ Χ•ְΧ”ֶΧ’ְΧ™֣Χ•ֹן לִΧ‘ִּ֣Χ™). The πŸ’– is expressed by the hegyon (Χ•ְΧ”ֶΧ’ְΧ™֣Χ•ֹן), which in the above is translated as "meditation". Χ”ִΧ’ָּΧ™Χ•ֹן/higgayon itself is a dynamic expression that perhaps could have been translated as πŸ™, which denotes reflection or πŸ˜– which can reflect difficult contemplation.πŸ‘“ could denote clarity, which is how the acceptable heart perceives. But higgayon denotes the expression of an internal quality, and in some instances can be translated as "melody". An Emoji might better express the concept than the word "meditation".

    In some ways, the image breaks down an otherwise unseen barrier created by our language, which can limit the possibility of the concept as it is expressed in its original language. Translation requires a great deal of consideration, one that is not unknown in choosing an Emoji in communication. Clearly, the "shiny heart" Emoji is not the simplest choice and, if chosen for reasons beyond the aesthetic appeal of a shiny heart, reflects how the translator internalized a profound concept.

    So is Emoji a proper way of doing biblical translation? Our language is always changing, whether we like it or not. Every year, the Oxford Dictionary adds new words with recent additions being: manspreading, vacay, humblebrag, and tweetable...none of which register as correct within my web browser's spell check. It isn't absurd to think of Emoji not as an end to itself but as an indicator of a transition to a new symbol system. Languages with less words have to make do with ambiguity, where multivalence trumps a wide, nuanced vocabulary.

    There's a great scene in the comic series "All-Star Superman" (written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely) that illustrates this in a stray communication from an imagined 24th century. A scientist from the future expresses his gratitude to Superman for something he did in his own time, using a version of the English language that is an evolution of the way many people communicate now in the use of symbol substitution, stylistic and alternate spellings, and invented onomatopoetics and slang that could be possible when the freedom to invent or modify language finds its way into spoken language (think of how words like "lulz" have found their way into everyday speech).



     It's good to remember that the King James Bible is a masterpiece of the English language because it walked the fine line between dynamic and formal equivalent translation methods: between being true to the perceived meaning of the text and being true to the more formal aspects of original word choice and syntax. The original languages let us work back to the original mode of expression in hope of finding the heart of what was being expressed. This hopefully leads to a participation of the original experience, one that is extended to us today and unites us not only to God but to every person who helped transmit that message to us as well, explaining and translating in ways they hoped would convey the heart of that message to us. When heart speaks to heart, it is hoped that lives are transformed and gladdened enough by that encounter that their heart can do no other than to sing.