Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Monday, April 23, 2018

Fake truth won't set you free

The persistence of support for our pagan president by white evangelicals has become a topic of greater and greater interest. We've known about it for a while, but it seems to have deeper roots than other groups in his "base." (Support beyond the "paler born-again folk" minority, never high, continues to crater - much lower than averaged polls tell us.)

What's going on? It's tempting to accuse the white Evangelical base of hypocrisy for supporting a leader so evidently not living a life of Christian virtue; perhaps it's a religious veneer for patriarchal white supremacist nostalgia? I've been taking comfort in a study from the primaries, cited again when Roy Moore seemed headed for Washington, that the most fervent supporters are those who call themselves Evangelical but don't go to church much.

But this lets religion off the hook, and Christianity. I'm persuaded by a recent article by Hollis Phelps in Religion Dispatches that one can't just accuse these people of hypocrisy. The "narrative of the morally ambiguous, repulsive individual" used by God to do God's work is biblical: it recurs in the Bible (not just the in "Old Testament") so often that "covering over the 'darker' aspects of the faith for the sake of love, as more liberal Christians tend to do" should be condemned as a simplification, too. These wouldn't be the first Christians to claim biblical support for bigotry.
This leaves me in an uncomfortable place. First, as a religious studies person I feel obliged to note that the very definition of religion as about love and morality rather than power and politics is problematic. Also as a religious studies person I feel that, though hypocrisy is no doubt real, religious self-identification needs to be taken seriously. If a large number of self-described X do something the textbooks tell me X don't do (like Catholics using birth control or approving of gay marriage) then it's time to revise the textbooks. And who's to say that church-going X are more truly X than those who do X at home?

But I'm uncomfortable also as a self-identified Christian. For a number of years now I've prayed the Our Father in church holding my hands face-up in front of me. Every time I do that I recall Christians unlike myself who pray that way - Evangelicals, I'm thinking - and try to feel solidarity with them. This is a habit from Anglicanism (by way of Rowan Williams). I'm aware that my own queer-friendly Christianity is no less a departure from tradition than their personal relationship with Jesus. Perhaps I hope that if I make space for them in my understanding of Christianity, they'll return the favor.

But this aspirational ecumenism has been getting harder over the past year, as surveys claim (though I continue to resist believing them) that the prez enjoys the unwavering faith of white Evangelicals. It reached a breaking point during Holy Week. At some point I found myself wondering if those who think God fights his culture war with guns and the bullying grifter in the White House might, in fact, not be Christians at all. Oblivious of theology they are validated in their judgments because Jesus tells them they're right. But is it Jesus who speaks to them that way, fueling their fears and stoking their rage? Until now I guess I've taken a benevolently skeptical view of those who claim to converse with Jesus - what harm does it do? But of late the harm question seems very real, and I found myself thinking they're either dangerously self-deluded ... or that it's someone else answering their prayers, not Jesus.

I've spent countless hours rebutting students' view that religion is all about judgment, about exclusion, separating the sheep from the goats, condemning the Other to hell. True religion is about humility and inclusion, the goodness of all God's creation! But perhaps sometimes judgment is appropriate. We "liberal Christians" need to be more humble, yes, but are Christians not called to defend the Gospel from "Good News that is fake," to quote an Evangelical?

I'm still working this out. Perhaps I need to learn to use the "powers and principalities" language of Stringfellow... And "religion" - maybe it's time to stretch my "religion is not nice" muscles a bit more again.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

By any other name

Garden State glory-of-the-snow, trout lilies and Dutchman's breeches 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Atlantic northwest

Weekend outing... to Skylands, New Jersey's unexpected northwest!

Friday, April 20, 2018

Spring fling

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden's magnolias and many of the cherries are in full bloom. The Chinese witch hazel is a rush of delight, too. But it's a joy of another order to see the native plants garden coming to life - something I suppose only city people need a botanic garden for!

Thursday, April 19, 2018


When new robes are received the old robes are used as coverlets, the old coverlets as mattress covers, the old mattress covers as rugs, the old rugs as dusters, and the old tattered dusters are kneaded with clay and used to repair cracked floors and walls.

These lines of Ananda to a King Udena celebrating the frugality and thrift of the early sangha are quoted in several works on Buddhism and ecology. Possibly from Vinaya II 291, we found them quoted in a chapter by Vijay Kumar Thakur in Ecology and Religion: Ecological Concepts in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, Christianity and Sikhism, ed. Rajdeva Narayan and Janardan Kumar (New Delhi: Deep & Deep Publications, 2003), 60. Love the name of the publisher!

But it seems to me they might be about something more. Your relationship with a thing - a robe, in this instance - doesn't end when it ceases to function as that thing. What is now a rug was once a robe, just as what is now a robe will one day be part of a wall. You might not even know it in the particular case. It's kind of wonderful.

Now it doesn't make sense to say it is a robe throughout this whole sequence of functions and relationships, does it? Likewise, against the background of rebirth, it doesn't really make sense to understand any relationship solely in terms of the present form and function of the parties involved. Famously one should regard everyone one meets as once having been one's mother.

Deep & deep indeed, a challenge to the commodification of all relationships in "throwaway" consumer capitalist society...

Tuesday, April 17, 2018


A building I pass all the time on the junket between school and the library at Washington Square Park had a crowd assembled in front of it today. Turns out the NYC Landmarks Preservation Center was unveiling a plaque commemo- rating that Edie Windsor, whose case won the right for LGBT people to marry in this land, had lived there. I lingered a while and heard Robbie Kaplan, the lead lawyer on Windsor's SCOTUS case and a close friend. She observed that this was the first Passover in years that her family had spent without Edie, who passed away last Fall. She reflected that it had long seemed unfair to her that Moses was not permitted to set foot in the promised land. Now she thinks that if all you've aimed to achieve has been accomplished before you die, you weren't aiming high enough.

Monday, April 16, 2018

I alone have escaped to tell you

In my course on the Book of Job and the arts today, it was time for Archibald Macleish's 1958 play "J. B." - my own introduction to Job, back at Torrey Pines High School all those years ago. (I was Messenger 2, as I recall.) Most of the students hadn't read it yet - their discussion sections are later in the week - so I tried to whet their appetites by exegeting some choice passages without giving away the whole story. This whole story is prefigured in a singsong we hear from Nickles, the washed-up actor turned circus popcorn seller who will go on to play the part of Satan.

I heard upon his dry dung heap
That man cry out who cannot sleep:
"If God is God he is not good,
If God is good He is not God;
Take the even, take the odd,
I would not sleep here if I could
Except for the little green leaves in the wood
And the wind upon the water.” (11)

The third and fourth lines have a life of their own in the literature on the Problem of Evil, but there's more here. Take the even, take the odd refers to J. B.'s acceptance of evil with the good. The next two lines, however, refer to his wife Sarah, who will ultimately try to kill herself, only to be stopped in her tracks by a new leaf (forsythia) growing in a ruined landscape. And the last line? It's complicated, and rich, I told them. There are references throughout the play to wind and water, as in the psychoanalyst-comforter Eliphaz's exquisite image for the ego's illusions of autonomy.

Science knows now that the sentient spirit 
Floats like the chambered nautilus on a sea 
That drifts it under skies that drive:                                     
Beneath, the sea of the subconscious, 
Above the winds that wind the world. 
Caught between that sky, that sea, 
Self has no will, cannot be guilty. (122)

But of course wind upon the water is also a reference to the very beginning of Genesis, when the spirit moved on the water, to the world human beings love into being despite the terrors and trials of existence, to the endless consternation of the Nickles and Eliphazes, Bildads and Zophars, Marxes and Freuds and Becketts.

                   He does not love. He  
        But we do. That’s the wonder. (152)

 I hope the students find the time to savor this magnificent play!


It'd been such a long time since last I was in the part of Germany where my mother grew up that I had forgotten what it looks like. Indeed, inspired by self-mocking stories of the Ochtruper Berg, Ochtrup's diminutive 60m "mountain" and the proximity of Holland, I'd been picturing pancake-flat landscapes from Dutch paintings! In fact there are rolling hills and woods; nearby Bad Bendheim even has a proper castle on an impressive rocky rise. In early Spring, as now, the tilled fields are blankets of bright green, and gauzy sprays of new leaf make the lower trees on forest edges a pale yellow. Forsythias and magnolias offer splashes of brighter color. This picture, taken taken from the train my misty last morning, doesn't quite capture it but it's pretty enough.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Our town

This is where I've been keeping the last few days, the town of Ochtrup b/ Münster i/ W (as it was inscribed on the case of my German grandfather). The town center is dominated by the neogothic spires of St. Lambertus, represented here on a glazed tile in the paved sidewalk leading from the old textile factory (now a booming outlet center) to the town center (hollowed out, in no small part, by said outlet center). What took me to St. Lamberti was my god-father's funeral, a beautiful mass in a church dear to him his whole life. May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

JFK --> Dublin --> Amsterdam --

and then two hours on the train to the German town where my mother grew up, where her brother - my godfather - is being laid to rest.