Yes, But Why Is It Worth Saving?

Even discarded bits of pop culture can prove illuminating. Some years ago, Jennifer and I were listening to the Big Broadcast on WAMU in Washington, and one of the very old radio programs Ed Walker was running was Space Patrol, which in the early 1950s told the story of Command Buzz Corry and his faithful sidekick, Cadet Happy, as they patrolled the Solar System for the United Planets battling evil, accented villains such as Prince Baccarati [sp?], a generic Commie-Nazi villain of American post-war pop culture, who wanted to destroy the peaceful democratic order of the United Planets and restore his dictatorial monarchy.

In one episode, Corry and Happy, on patrol somewhere between Neptune and Planet X (Baccarati’s home base, where he plots his evil with all of his enslaved minions), are talking about why the Space Patrol is so vigilant in trying to stop all of Baccarati’s plots before he can carry them out. Being new to the outfit, Happy wants to know. Corry responds by saying something like:

If we don’t, Baccarati may stage such a spectacular attack that the people of the United Planets will be frightened into surrendering, traumatized into giving up without a fight.

The program’s sponsor was Ralston-Purina, the maker of Chex cereals, and test pilot Chuck Yeager was RP’s spokesman for many of the show’s adverts. A clear connection was made between Air Force test pilots and the valiant men of Space Patrol, between the imagined villains of Corry’s solar system and the real villains America faced in the 1950s.

Growing up in the military, and around those who made participation in the defense of the country the life’s calling, I’d always discerned something of a mixed message from them — they staunchly defend a country they aren’t entirely sure (because of its decadence, cowardice and lack of gratefulness) truly deserves to be defended. Nowhere had I heard this more clearly articulated than in this lost bit of popular culture. And not a terribly significant piece either.

But this idea doesn’t get talked about much. I do believe history belies much of this thinking — Americans did not capitulate after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and no one simply curled up and called for surrender after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York City and Northern Virginia. But this idea, that Western societies are too fragile and too cowardly to defend themselves, especially when faced with the conspiratorial evil of Communism/Islamism, and thus need to be defended by a vigilant elite willing to do just about anything to ensure that those societies are never “traumatized” by attack, does appear to be pernicious, and it does appear to be bigger than America, as Stephen Walt notes in a recent blog entry:

What is even more striking about conservative extremists like Breivik is their utter lack of confidence in the very society that they commit heinous acts trying to defend. On the one hand, they think their idealized society is far, far better than any alternative, which is why extreme acts are justified in its supposed defense. Yet at the same time they see that society as inherently weak, fragile, brittle, and incapable of defending itself against its cruder antagonists. 

This is really an old story: American hard-liners used to believe that the decadent Western democracies couldn’t stand up to Soviet communism, and previous generations all believed that the current wave of immigrants would bring some sort of fatal infection to an otherwise healthy body politic. We’ve suffered a similar wave of paranoia since 9/11, somehow believing that a handful of radicals in Central Asia posed a mortal threat to a society with 300 million people and a $14 trillion economy. (Of course, the real threat turned out to be the self-inflicted wounds that we suffered in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on Wall Street.) By contrast, those of us who are more sanguine about such matters have greater confidence in the inherent strengths of a liberal society and are therefore more worried about departures from these principles undertaken in the name of “national security.”

For many on the right who think and speak this way, they have reduced the communities and societies which they wish to save to abstract ideals, bereft of any real people. Indeed, real people just get in the way of defending the good. I’m not sure which is more attractive here — being the virtuous defender of a noble idea, or being virtuous battler of irredeemable evil.

Who Edits This Stuff?

I love Wikipedia. I find reading Wikipedia pages a fun way to waste time, and learn a (very basic) thing or two.

So, I was reading this today on Gamera, the Japanese monster turtle (full disclosure: as a child, I loved Gamera and Godzilla films), and came across this description:

Gamera also has the ability to fly. Generally, Gamera pulls in his arms, legs, head, and tail into his shell, fires flames out of his arm and leg cavities and spins around like a flying saucer, a precedent unheard of in turtles.

Yeah, so far as I know, no turtles in nature can fly, much less pull their head, arms and legs and spin around, shooting flames out the arm and leg holes. Who edits this stuff?

How Not to Hear to God

Over the course of my very short (so far) pastoral career, several people have thrust into my hands copies of Craig Rennebohm’s (with David Paul) Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets, mostly because I have worked with the homeless and the mentally ill on Chicago’s north side (at Uptown Lutheran Church) and have loved every minute of it. Rennebohm is a UCC pastor who has worked with the homeless and the mentally ill in Seattle, and he appears to have done it with compassion with faithfulness.

I am about a third the way through the book, and so I make this comment knowing he may deal with this matter later in the book. But I’m also somewhat bothered by an attitude that Rennebohm and Paul take in the book. In the fourth chapter, “Approaching Mary,” Rennebohm and Paul tell several stories of people who struggled with mental illness, and how often the grandiose — religion, government, extraterrestrials — are present in the hallucinations and visions of the schizophrenic. They write:

Each type of illness expresses itself according to its own patterns. Hallucinations and delusions, for example, are generally symptoms of schizophrenia–as when a woman I’ll call Veronica believed she saw a store-window mannequin come alive and start talking to her, or when Al heard God’s voice in the shower telling him to stop washing because he was hopelessly dirty and there was no way he could ever be clean. Both were in fact experiencing schizophrenic episodes. (pp. 60-61)

After a brief discussion of the role guilt plays in depression, the authors then emphatically state the following:

God was not speaking to Al in the shower; his neurotransmitters were creating hallucinations and playing havoc with his sense of reality. (p. 61)

I find this statement troubling. Very, very troubling.

Some years ago, my friend John Hartwell (God rest his troubled spirit) told of a a time he had spent in a mental hospital, and of a young lady who claimed God was speaking to her. “What was God saying to her?” I asked him. “Oh, that we should love and care for each other,” John responded. “Was God really talking to her?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “She wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to ask. She liked to jump up and down.”

I find myself wondering about Rennebohm’s God. How exactly is that God present with people? How does that God speak to humanity? And, if every voice we ever hear God say to us is merely malfunctioning neurotransmitters, are we really capable of listening to God? Or are we now missing something?

Rennebohm could have said that Al wasn’t hearing God’s voice because of what God said — a kind and compassionate God would never have said such a thing. But he didn’t said that. Instead, Rennebohm made a categorical statement: the voice of God, as such, doesn’t exist — it is merely our brains going haywire.

Which makes me wonder — what then of all the times God speaks in scripture? To Abraham? To Moses? What of all the speaking God does to and through the prophets, many of whom see, and speak, and act in ways that would today be clearly indicative of some kind of illness. What would Rennebohm have made of Hosea marrying a prostitute on the “command” of God? Or Ezekiel’s visions of cherubim and wheels and the scroll he ate that gave him the power to prophesy judgement to unfaithful Israel? What of the word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah, which included a command not to pray for God’s people because God won’t hear that prayer? Or Isaiah’s unclean lips, made clean with a burning coal? Or Mary’s “meeting” with the Holy Spirit? Or Paul’s being struck blind on the road to Damascus?

For Rennebohm (at least so far in the book), God’s presence seems merely to be a non-anxious, compassionate, professional and caring presence. And this is fine. But it is limited entirely by being incarnate. In this construct, God can only be present to us as and in another human being. There can be no supernatural presence, no communication from outside our ordinary experience. Nothing save the sweet and pleasant presence of the rightly guided and properly trained.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, because twice in my life, God has spoken directly to me. Been in my head. (At prayer, alone, in mosques in San Francisco, 1991, and Columbus, Ohio, 1994.) It is an absolutely terrifying experience, one I do not hope to ever repeat. I have also had other-than-ordinary encounters (I do not know any other way to explain them) with something divine, at the Greyhound bus depot in San Francisco in 1991 and again at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Someday I will explain these things in greater detail. But not today.

The point is, God is still speaking to human beings in ways that don’t involve being incarnated in some non-anxious professional listener. God has at least spoken to me, and I know that God has spoken to others as well. As the UCC is happy to say, God is still speaking.

Which leads me to my second point. Are we still capable of listening? Are we so concerned with health and wellbeing on the one hand, and conformity to social norms and having people become well-adjusted contributing members of society that we are no longer capable of hearing God when God speaks to us through prophetic voices? Many compassionate, caring people wish to see others conform and be well-adjusted, but the desire to have people conform and be “properly socialized” and well-adjusted can also be an incredibly brutal, uncaring and violent act, one that damages people.

Would Isaiah (or any of the three Isaiahs) been able to give us any of those visions had they been medicated and hospitalized? What of Jeremiah on prozac, to make him better-adjusted, and thus more supportive of the government? Or Ezekiel on haldol and risperdol? What of his visions? It may be that God no longer speaks to God’s people prophetically, but it may also be that we, in our “scientific” understanding and acculturation, and our desire to create and impose a very narrowly constrained normative human existence, with the ability to medicate people toward that norm, it may be we are simply no longer capable of listening. Or even hearing.

And this brings me to my final point. I do not have a major, or even minor, mental illness, so I do not have that struggle. I do not wish to seem uncaring, but I have come to believe that what we call mental illness tells us something fascinating about God. I have come to believe that all human beings are whole and complete, and each whole and complete human being says something wonderful and interesting about the God whose image we are made in. My wife is severely dyslexic. This is not a disorder, and she is not incomplete because of her dyslexia, as difficult and painful as it is for her to function in a non-dyslexic world. But her dyslexia tells me something about the God whose image she is made in.

I see the same with the “mentally ill” that I have met. To treat someone who has schizophrenia as someone who is somehow not whole or right is to miss what such a thing tells of us God. The God whose image they were made in, the God whose wholeness and perfection they reflect. Mostly, I find this something to meditate, to help me as I encounter the “mentally ill.” And no doubt the Rennebohm does too, at least to an extent.

I have no easy answers. And I know how some of this might sound to those who struggle with mental illness. And I fear, perhaps too much, the desire of some to make others conform to a norm, whatever that norm may be. Tolerance, for me, is how much room is open for non-conformity, for the weird, the odd, the aberrant, and tolerant bourgeois social democratic liberalism is rarely as tolerant as it claims because its desire for conformity — however expanded and inclusive that conformity might be — is so powerful and unyielding.

But it may be that the God that bourgeois sensibility has reduced to a sentimental, non-anxious professional presence is too small a God. Far too small a God. The Israelites, and the followers of Jesus throughout history, often times found the experience of God to be as terrifying as it was comforting (and often times terrifying and comforting at the same time). To be met by God was to be overwhelmed (as Mary was), to be engulfed, to risk annihilation at the very hands of the infinite. This terrifying God who calls, gathers, redeems and loves God’s people may sometimes only be truly be apprehended by human beings on the ragged edges of reason and sanity, a God whose infinity fills our finiteness and utterly overwhelms us. I’m not sure Rennebohm gets that God.

And I’m not sure how much the church really gets that God either.

Okay, So Why Isn’t This Taken Literally?

I have been a long-time observer of Dispensationist Christianity and its various end-times teachings crafted around a fascinating editing of different passages from Ezekiel, Daniel, Matthew and Revelation. My mother, for some ungodly reason (she is not a believer in any sense of the word) took me to the movie The Late Great Planet Earth when it first came out in 1979, and I suspect that event more than any others sparked an interest.

Dispensationism is the default setting for non-denominational Christianity in the United States, so much so that belief in a particular fulfillment of biblical prophesy, and not confessing the Apostles or Nicene Creeds, are what it means to be Christian for many Americans. (It was the Christianity I was exposed to in high school, for example.) In fact, I think it would be safe to say that dispensationism is a confessional identity.

One of the things I find amusing is that, as they edit together various bits and pieces of “prophetic” scripture to tell the story of Israel’s physical regathering and coming war with the Soviet Union The European Union Iraq Iran _____________ (fill in the blank; it keeps changing), they take some things very literally, some things very figuratively (days and weeks in Daniel actually meaning years), and many things they simply ignore. All things, however, point not to events more than 2,000 years ago, but events today. And, oddly enough, political and historical events American believers in dispensationism always seem to be on the right side of. Hmmm…..

Anyway, I was spending some quality time with Ezekiel today, because I haven’t before, and came across this fascinating end of one particular series of commands God gives to Ezekiel regarding the fate of Judah. It’s chapter 12, and God commands Ezekiel to “prepare for yourself an exile’s baggage, and go into exile in their sight.” The goal is that the people, especially the rulers, of Judah may see Ezekiel hauling his worldly goods around, ask him what he’s doing, and he will tell them what God is going to do — “I am a sign for you: as I have done, so shall it be done to them.” Exile is coming, war is coming, famine is coming, and it is in exile and war and famine that Israel will be chastened for its sins.

And then it gets interesting at the end of chapter 12:

[26] And the words of the Lord came to me: [27] Son of man, behold, they of the house of Israel say, ‘The vision that he sees is for many days from now, and he prophesies of times far off.’ [28] Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord God: None of my words will be delayed any longer, but the word that I speak will be performed, declares the Lord God.”

Not 2,000 from now. But today. Sure, these few verses only apply to the oracle of Ezekiel walking around with his luggage. But you know, the next time I have to argue with a dispensationist who uses uses creatively edited scripture to make a point, I’m going to do some creative editing myself.

Modernity and Tragedy

Ugh. After a long period of being very sick, and an even longer period of not wanting to blog (blogging comes in bursts with me, it seems), I’m finally up to comment on something.

David Brooks has an interesting column in today’s (Friday, 15 July) New York Times. He’s wrong when he writes “[t]he fiscal crisis is driven largely by health care costs,” (it’s driven most by America’s insistence on living beyond its means, whether that “living” is waging war in the Middle East and dominating the world or being “generous” to the poor and supporting the elderly) but he is correct when he notes:

We have the illusion that in spending so much on health care we are radically improving the quality of our lives. We have the illusion that through advances in medical research we are in the process of eradicating deadly diseases. We have the barely suppressed hope that someday all this spending and innovation will produce something close to immortality.

There is, I believe, a larger point to this. The aim of Modernity and the Enlightenment — both stated and unstated — is the eradication of the tragic. Specifically, Modernity and Enlightenment seek the end of death, suffering, accident, inequality, misery and poverty. Modernity and Enlightenment believe that human reason, combined with science (technology and industrial production) and rightly guided (by Morality and Reason to become Progress) can effectively bring about the Kingdom of God on earth, or something akin to that kingdom. It may be these ideals are not as passionately felt as they were 100 years ago, but they are still very intensely felt, and the desires of Modernity and Enlightenment have been almost completely impervious to human history, and humanity’s inability to alter the tragic conditions and nature of human existence.

Modernity and Enlightenment have been quite capable of staggering change, mostly in terms of technology and organization. But that change has mostly been engineering, not moral. It has not altered the fundamental nature of human beings because it cannot. It cannot eradicate sin and all that springs from human sinfulness. And it is a delusion — albeit an incredibly powerful delusion — that somehow this engineering and organizational change can facilitate moral change. It cannot. We cannot evade the tragic, no matter how much we try. There will always be poverty, suffering, misery, accident, inequality, hierarchy and death as long as we are humans existing this side of the eschaton because those tragic elements are essential to the human condition. No amount of production, no amount of wealth, no amount of communication, will make us good enough to share what there is with all who need. Not because there isn’t enough, but because we are people incapable of doing that kind of good.

In scripture, God may promise an eventual transcendence of the tragic, and we who are called by God in Christ to live that kingdom live out that transcendence. But we do so also knowing that God came into the world not to negate or eradicate tragedy but to participate in it, and to be present with us in the midst of it. The goals of Modernity and Enlightenment are misguided, and the Liberal Church is deeply misguided when it mistakes Modernity and Enlightenment for the Kingdom of God. When it mistakes the goals of Modernity and Enlightenment with the promises of God. And when it mistakes society and the nation for the church, the community of people called out to follow.