Saturday, August 27, 2005

A short exercise in fun

Well, it is fun to me. One of my past acquaintences has this survey on his blog, and I thought it looked very fun.

1. Number of books you have owned: I'm going to assume that this means the number of books I currently own and keep in my house or office. Otherwise, I would have hundred of wonderful children's books to also count. I probably have around 300 books right now.

2. Last book I bought: Introduction to Theory of Popular Culture. It is for a pedagogy class on how to teach popular culture classes.

3. Last book I completed: Of Hospitality by Jacques Derrida. I know what you are thinking, but it is a good book and short.

4. A few books that mean a lot to me: This list is not ordered in any way, nor is it the books that mean the most to me.

1. Ethics of Freedom by Jacques Ellul This a great culmination of a great deal of Ellul's work. he brings together his ideas about the technological society, how it functions, ethical thinking, and a very orthodox but revolutionary Christianity. The result is a powerful argument about why Christianity offers something particularly meaningful. It also points out how much damage that fundamentalist Christian Righters are doing.

2. God, Death, and Time by Emmanuel Levinas. Makes a striking argument about why views of knowledge lead to unethical behavior. He sets up a description of personal and relational ethics that gives Christians a very strong connection between faith and secular humanist philosophy.

3. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. A very awesome story that takes the detective story a long way from Agatha Christie. It is interesting to read this book at the same time as Levinas' book above.

4. Of Hospitality by Jacques Derrida. This is not your standard PoMo linguistic theory. In fact, it is not really linguistic at all. Rather, Derrida sets out to ask why and how we should treat a stranger in our home. He draws on a wide variety of narratives and metaphors from Oedipus to cell phones.

5. Watchmen by Alan Moore. This is not your daddy's comic book. Moore crafts a fascinating story by weaving together a number of threads that touch on the important questions of the 20th and 21st centuries. Power, sex, politics, fear, and justice all are questioned in a meaningful and vital way.

6. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Not only is this an Oprah book, like that should mean something, but it delves into questions of race, faith, and culture in a brilliant story of South Africa in the middle of the 20th century. In addition to talking about fascinating topics in a new way, Paton writes in a beautiful prose in which he tries to use the rhythms of the many native South African languages while telling his story in English. I honestly cry every time that I read this book.

7. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. Many people would put Lord of the Rings on a list like this, but I think that this story touches on something equally as epic but in a different perspective. There is something truly magical when one reads about Bilbo's journey because it is not a huge quest to save the world. It is just one little person who gives into their desire for adventure and finds themselves much deeper than they had supposed. I also love the end so much when Tolkien has Bilbo knocked out fairly early where he must hear about the battle in hindsight.

8. There is a teen knitting book that I can't remember the title of that is really cool. I began knitting to relieve stress, but it is fun too. Oh! It is called Teen Knitting Club. Thanks, Amazon! Knitting books have a wide variety of crapitude of instructions for beginners. This book has excellent pictures, directions, and some really fun beginning projects for people of any age.

5. What are you reading right now?: Well, i was reading the Book of Daniel an hour ago. I will have to do a post on why Daniel, a very devout man of God, allowed himself to be named for Big N's god. What is the difference between this an bowing down to the idol? There seems to be a lesson there. I just started Cash by Johnny Cash. It is really very good. Many autobiographies are obviously, wholly ghost-written, but this has a great deal of effort by Cash and the "with" author to make the book read in a very effective and oral manner.

This post has taken me much longer than I had meant. But please feel free to send me your ideas and readings.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Sex and Christianity...

As I take a bit of a break from my walk through philosophical development, I would like to comment on the complete inability for Christian publications and cultural analysts to understand how narratives work.

Let us take for example the recent review by Plugged-In of "40 Year-Old Virgin." In this review, Marcus Yoars makes a number of huge blunders in understanding not only how this movie works (and doesn't work) but also of how the presence of movies like this should present a hopeful view for Christians.

First of all, Yoars does not understand the MPAA rating system. He writes, "Andy Stitzer is a virgin. And he's 40. Hence the movie's title. Hmmm, I wonder what could possibly happen next in this should-have-been-rated-NC-17 smutfest." I am not sure if Yoars intends this to be a joke, but due to his lack of a sense of play throughout the rest of his review, I doubt it.

NC-17 is a rating reserved for films that display repeated graphic violence and/or sexually explicit material that would be detrimental to viewers under the age of 17. Now, while I agree that this is not a kiddie movie, there is very little depicted that would be encountered by the average 13-17 year-old that is willing and able to convince their guardian to take them to this movie.

Secondly, he makes the supreme blunder of mis-identifying the purpose of the film. He writes, "I understand the subtext here. I do. In a backhanded way, writers Judd Apatow and Steve Carell give props to celibacy by surrounding Andy with ludicrous, sex-crazed friends, neighbors and co-workers. In contrast to these characters' absurd foolishness, Andy's convictions (if you can call them that) stand out. The writers even keep him virginal until he's tied the knot. And they convey the frustrations of every virgin who's tried to remain unashamed about their celibacy while being bombarded with social messages that mock them."

One wonders if he really does understand the subtext when he follows this astute summary of the purpose of the film by saying, " But none of that—can I make this any clearer?—warrants or redeems The 40-Year-Old Virgin's outrageously abusive conversations, actions and situations. "Why does everything have to be about sex?" Andy yells in frustration at one point. My feelings exactly."

Indeed it is exactly the fact that Mr. Yoars is so offended by the context that shows that the film has accomplished its goal.

How else should one show the absurdity of the sexual drive of our culture, unless we show it? Sure one can imagine a movie-of-the-week approach where Jane or John is assaulted by their "bad" friends to engage in all sorts of activities that their parents warn them of. They could struggle and fall, only to be forced to face the reality of their situation and the costs that loose sexuality present, but in some ways this approach gives too power power to the sexual tones of our culture.

Anyone who has spent any time in a sports bar near or on a college campus will hear 18-22 year old men and women speaking about sex constantly. We see advertisements that constantly tell us that we are ugly and not sexual enough.

Apatow and Carell take a step back and show us (the American culture), through hyperbole, how stupid this sort of approach is.

Are there problems with the film? Sure. It does use f*** a lot, but then so do my students and friends. Should Trish push her daughter to wait until marriage? Sure, but is this realistic at all given her own life and the nature of today's culture? Does the average viewer "get" the complexity? Or do they just laugh at Carrel with an erection?

The important thing to keep in mind about comedy, and satire in particular, is that is must walk a very thin line between hyperbole and reality. It has to place a distorted lens up to things that the audience encounters daily.

Rather than tear the film down, or laud it outright as many critics have, Christian critics must take the time to outline for parents and kids how films and stories work. What is the film saying? How does it say it? What is admirable, and what needs work? My question above about whether the average viewer "gets" it comes into play here. We, as Christian scholars and writers, must go out of our way to make Christians better-than-average readers of cultural texts, rather than just ordering them what to see and what to avoid.

Plugged-In and Focus on the Family have a fantastic opportunity to reach out to their readers and teach them how to do more than tune out every time that they see a breast or hear f***. They could create media savvy Christians who can navigate and choose for themselves what they and their family encounter as well as what they take from it.

However, this does not seem to be what mainstream Christian organization want. They want followers. They want subscribers who will adopt the "right" path. There is no/little desire to have individuals who can find the Truth on their own, in consultation with other believers.

This has led to the acceptance of the graphic depictions of "real" events, such as in Gibson's "Passion," while they refuse to accept another graphic representation of something that is even more present in contemporary society, sex.

Monday, August 22, 2005


Before I discuss anything further in my main thread, I think that I need to set up what kinds of things I am opposing. To do this, we must look at the foundations of the current philosophical and theological position.

For today, I would like to talk a bit about the Enlightenment.

Ahhh...yes...the Enlightenment. That magical time when the European branch of mankind progressed out of the Dark Ages. Philosophers, artists, mathematicians, theologians and scientists all looked at the previous millenium or two and asked, "Why have we always done it this way?"

While I cannot claim any solid expertise in the realm of philosophical history in any significant depth, I have gathered some understanding of some of the major trends. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on three major ideas: resurrection of reason, rise of empirical evidence, and adoption of individual identities.

First, I must note that these are very clearly interelated. There is no way to separate the process of devloping a concept of the individual from empiricism or reason. Nor would we want to. Still, it is important to talk about these as different processes in light of how they have evolved in contemporary society. Second, we should all be fully aware that these are not processes that can be said to reach a "conclusion". We should think about these as new lenses which became more readily available to the general populace, although in fact this was limited by gender and class identity.

Let's start by talking about bit about the resurrection of reason. I say "resurrection" because it is fairly clear that the ancient Greek tradition had a significant reliance on the reason and spent a good deal of time defining and refining it. However, with the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, among many other events, reason as it is classically defined became a small concern to almost everyone in the Western world.

With the advancement in the arts and sciences, reason began to be seen as a very real way to improve the lot of humanity. By following a logical process, one could exert some measure of control on the environment and be considered more fair. Furthermore, reason represented a significant separation between humanity and the wilds of the earth. It separated man from beast. (Indeed, it was seen to separate man from woman as well.)

Moving into the realm of faith in the Enlightenment, this separation presented a valuable tool for a church in crisis following the beginning of the Reformation. On one hand, reason allowed Luther to see the reasons and ways that he opposed the policies of the Church and, on the other, it presented a valuable weapon for advocating a position of humanity in a special role above the natural world.

Empirical evidence and methods give a method for framing and repeating operations of the mind. Again, these are ideas that existed in the ancient Greek traditions. The Enlightenment served to reintroduce and broaden the scope of inquiry with the resulting advancements of technology and communication.

Side Note: Empirical evidence seems tied in many ways to the advancement of printing and navigation. With these tools, information could be reproduced relatively quickly and disseminated quickly as well. The production and export of ideas, especially facts, provide a mode of consistency that furthers the sense of order and control that directly opposed the chaos of previous eras.

Finally, we must note that philosophers of the late Enlightenment (17th-18th century) began to spread some of the individualism of the reformation theology into the political spheres. This advances the concept of individual rights, which, in turn, begins a significant understanding of people (at least economically stable people) as individual moral agents that think and act alone.

The genealogies of these sorts of ideas are most important when we look at the movement of the contemporary church. Many of the current assumptions of Conservative Christianity go back to the philosophical changes of this period rather than having a basis in the presented authority of the Bible.

Next week, I will talk a bit about how these ideas changed with the rise of industrialization and modernism.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Aside (Marriage and Divorce):

As I work my way through this process of writing my huge view of the problem of evil, postmodernity, and faith, you will find that I will often take a post or two to have a bit of a creak and vent about something that I have read.

I am a devoted reader of Focus on the Family's "Boundless" e-zine. I was raised on Dobson on the radio, and I read the many magazines throughout my child and young adulthood. Much of this was because my extended family often gave subscriptions as gifts, but I think that more than this, I have always been intrigued with how Christians, including myself, view themselves and the world.

This week, I think there is an article that shows one of the biggest problems in contemporary Christianity and more specifically in Christian intellectualism. In this article, "Scott M. Stanley, Ph.D." seeks to enlighten the "twenty somethings" about the "Myths of Divorce".

Now, I have no problem with Christian publications bringing their own scholars and experts to the public sphere in order to give a more well-rounded view of significant issues. I think this is great, but I also think that they must hold themselves to a higher standard of scholarship than those whom they oppose.

Stanley's argument itself is good. He seeks to point out that too often, in contemporary society, married couples go through a tough spot and do not see any hope for it to return to the magic that they had at the beginning. He writes that many people in a downturned marriage think that since they are unhappy, then their kids might be better off with divorced parents, and so they pull apart.

I couldn't agree with Stanley more. I think that, in general, this is tied to the "youth"-centered idea of beauty and success. (This is not a realistic picture of youth, meaning actual kids with real thoughts, feelings, and problems, but that is a topic for another time.) If we saw happiness as something other than toned bodies, perfect smiles, and a plethora of exciting sexual intercourse, then we might start looking for positives in other places. Also, all conflict is not always bad. Furthermore, to make any real relationship work, both people need to be willing to lose their pride and be vulnerable.

Having said that, Stanley's thesis, "That brings me to some advice for those of you who are married, have children and have a lot of conflict in your marriage: Learn to handle it better," leaves something to be desired in the gritty world which the rest of us live in.

Yes, if you have a marriage where both people are actively engaged in making it work, then this is great advice. Theoretically, this is what Christian marriages should be shining beacons for, but realistically, this is not so.

I can't pull statistics to prove this statement. I don't have colleagues doing research on this topic. So, I will have to defer to Dr. Stanley on making positive factual statements.

So before I talk about the flaws in the argument more specifically, I want to say which points I agree with.

1. Yes, divorce can have bad effects on children. (psychological, sociological, spiritual, etc)
2. Yes, there is such a thing as a "good enough" marriage. (see article for definition. It is a bit different than it sounds.)
3. Yes, if both people are committed to change and are willing to be vulnerable, then it can be extremely rewarding to stick it out.

Here are the problems:
1. Domestic Abuse: It is clear that domestic abuse is a huge issue in society today.

Statisticians say it is up, down, changed, more against men than thought before, more unreported all around than ever before, and numerous other things of that ilk. The numbers themselves do not matter. The point is that it exists, and that it exists in greater numbers than we imagine. This means in the Church body as well.

Stanley's response to this huge issue is,

"If you are in a dangerous relationship, do all that is needed to be safe. Get help and advice and support. You may need to call a domestic violence hotline. If you are in a high-conflict but non-dangerous marriage, the single best thing you can do for your children is to change the pattern with your spouse by doing all you can to treat one another differently."

So, if you are being beaten, verbally, or sexually assaulted, Stanley's advice is to, one, call a hotline and, two, change from both sides.

Ummm...I don't want to be a wet blanket, but the men, women, and children that I have met who have been victims of a variety of forms of abuse would love to pick up the phone and change their situation like they were ordering Domino's. However, that does not happen. Generally, women (and I say women because most of the studies on domestic abuse focus on women) who are killed as a result of domestic violence have repeatedly run away but returned to "work it out" or because "he's changed."

2. The Church's Views on Divorce and Masculinity:
I have read the Bible, and I understand why the church frowns on divorce at the very least. However, I also know that the contemporary Conservative Christian church is not really doing its best job of creating a new generation of men who can and will participate in marriage in the ways in which Stanley advises.

Yes, I know that the men is meant to be the head of the household, but I also know that that house is meant to be run as a joint partnership in the image of Christ with the Church. There is to be love, respect, honor, and obedience from both sides.

Now, how does this mesh with the support for leaders who refuse to admit wrongdoing or error? If we were to look to W as a role-model, which many pastors have advised from my personal experience, then let's not look at the way he treats his wife. Let's look at the way he treats his nation.

In addition to the Church's view on leadership and masculinity, we must look at the ways in which the Church, specifically youth groups, treat the differences between genders. How can we expect men to really relate to women on a realistic level, when for the decade-plus between most of us reach puberty and when we get married, we are told that to spend time alone with a girl is tantamount to ripping one's clothes off and fornicating in the grass.

You might say, "Steve, buddy, that is a complete exaggeration of the truth. We have to teach kids to respect themselves and their bodies, otherwise they would be off in the woods having sex at every church camp." Youth pastors, you all need to lean in here. THEY ARE!!! It happens. Not all the time, not in every church, or every youth group activity. I could provide examples, but that would just be gratuitous.

Ok, but I will provide only one. I went to a bible camp from the time I was in 6th grade through college. One year, we had a very athletic high-school girl come to camp. She was in training for the Junior Olympics, but despite the advice of her coach who told her to stay at home and train constantly, she loved God and Bible camp so much that she came anyway.

Now it was not allowed for kids to be out of their cabins before a certain time, but the girl had to get up at 5am in order to get her run in, since she would be unable to train during the rest of the day. It was feared that she would run by the boys cabins and raise thier interest. (I'm not kidding. I was a counsellor at the time, and this is what was argued.) She was finally allowed to get up because she convinced a female counselor to get up with her and make sure that nothing crazy happened.

She was unable to wear the actual outfit that she trained in because it was a skintight singlet and soccer shorts. So she had to wear a bulky t-shirt and long shorts.

Finally, she was used to training with her younger brother, who was about 12 or 13 and also in training, but there was a huge uproar when it was discovered that training involved helping each other stretch out. It was stated in my hearing that it was "unseemly" for a brother to hold his sister's leg and push it to stretch the hamstring.

The problem is that when the leaders and parents tell kids constantly that these are the prescribed gender and sexual roles, that kids might actually believe them!

For example, boys are told that girls are to be cared for and treated nicely, but they also raise up sinful thoughts by their exposure of legs, breasts, arms, ankles, or whatever. We were told that girls who raised these thoughts by dressing in a certain way were not good godly girls. Girls, on the other hand, were told that their bodies were dangerous weapons that could cause these hormone bombs, called boys, to go off at any moment. They were also informed that sex was the sole motivation and desire of every male, or so I am told by reliable sources since we were instructed separately in these secret truths.

Now, if we are constantly taught that sex is the central fear and desire, then might we start to assume that these feelings of tenderness or "like" always meant sex? Furthermore, if the girls who were raising these impure thoughts were doing so because they were not godly, then it is not a long jump in logic for the boy to think that it is not entirely his fault if his desires lead to rape or sexual harrassment. After all, if she didn't want boys talking about her breasts, then she shouldn't have them.

No, of course, not every youth group will spawn a rapist. I know that, but my point is that these sort of perspectives of the contemporary chruch contribute as much to marital problems as the wider culture's push for "happiness".

I mean, how can we expect men and women to know how to converse about important and trivial things, if they are never given a chance to learn? It is vitally important for young people to learn how to interact with one another meaningfully in a way that does not immediately mean, "I want to love you madly." Otherwise, the church is buying into the popular cultural concept that it is all about sex. Sex, Sex, SEX!

What does this mean for Stanley and his article? Well, I guess that I all of this long diatribe was just to say that I think that it is a supreme oversight for people like Stanley who claim to be scholars and intellectuals to not bring up a valid counterargument.

Stanley glosses over domestic abuse. He never mentions the alternative reasons that divorce might be MORE likely in young Christian couples than in the general population. He fails to acknowledge the limitations that the Church might be hardwiring into the boys and girls in its youth groups. Finally, there is no mention that the forbidden nature of sex outside of marriage might, JUST MIGHT, nudge Christian young people to get married for the wrong reasons.

Hey, yeah, let's take the culture to task for its views on sex and happiness! But let's also turn a critical eye to ourselves and look at the ways that we might be contributing to the same problems through what we are doing. We, as Christian academics, scholars, and thinkers, must not only act as watchdogs for the culture at large but more importantly for the hypocracy in ourselves. I think that Jesus had some opinon along those lines...

Talk to you later.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Problem of Evil...

The problem of evil has a couple different manifestations in my mind. (Yes, in my mind, I use words like manifestation regularly. I am such an elitist nerd. I am truly sorry.)

First, there is the religious view that I learned as I grew up. This "problem of evil" centers on the question of, "Why would a good God allow bad things to happen to good/innocent people?" This cuts to the nature of the relationship of the divine to the created world.

Secondly, an alternate, but related, question comes from the secular front: "What does it mean to be evil?"

These two questions rest at the center of my intellectual pursuits. It is my goal to work of outlining the connections between these two inquiries.

Sure, this sounds great and deep, but why should anyone care about my little game with language? I recently read an article by a French philosopher, Badiou, who wanted to diagnose one of the problems of contemporary philosophy as its dependence on playing with language.

This article wanted to reestablish the realistic and practical approaches to the questions of the universe by refocusing on reason and rationality. What amazes me and makes the combination of these two different perspectives on evil so important is that both take an issue of life, "evil," and point to the problem of relatibility that is embedded within these questions.

Both questions point out an unknowability of the answers to these questions. Knowing indicates some measure of certainty. In the first question, even though there is God to act as an independent measure of the truth of the answer(s), our ability to know God's answer means that we function, to some degree, on faith and assumption.

In the second question, asking what it means to be or do evil indicates that the meaning is not set. There is a cultural aspect that manipulates the understanding of the question.

Since both of these ideas point to some measure of the impossibility of gaining a definite epistemology of "evil," then one aspect of the meaning of being human centers on dealing with, not resolving, these sorts of locations of fluid knowledge. Dealing with good and evil as fluid terms is one of the perspectives that the contemporary church has taken up arms against in their conflict with postmodernism.

In the future, I want to look into some ways in which a postmodern understanding of morality and ethics might provide more room for a Christian perspective in contemporary culture than the traditional, rational, enlightenment approach to thought that the American conservative church espouses.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Bad Christians...

In a time where the Internet is cursed as a source of the vacuousness of society, I would like to take this chance to point out a couple websites that I find very useful for very different reasons.

In the first, brandon writes daily (I know it is very impressive) about his struggles and thoughts in life. Brandon gives me an interesting and envigorating jolt of togetherness in growth as academics and Christians.

Reading his writing not only makes me jealous of his ability to communicate deeply personal and deeply fundamental issues that he comes across, but it also makes me mad that I am unable to contribute to my own forum of thoughts as readily.

Recently, Brandon has been working on a series titled "Why do I write what I write (a christ haunted life)". The title really explains a great deal, but I would like to take some time to explain why I write what I write.

1. Why write:

First, I have explained in the past that I see alternative venues, no matter how poorly attended or presented, represent viable places for new ideas and connections to be developed.

Secondly, I have talked about the need for Christian academics to speak out. This need to speak out must not be limited to academic matters or just Christian matters. Rather, by expressing ourselves, we place ourselves in a vulnerable position where we are open to community, even in its weakest forms.

Finally, I have struggled a great deal in the past two years with the place and role that God has placed me in. I found that I had been very fortunate to find the places and friends that I had had in my undergrad and masters program. Moving to my current program, I have found much more fighting and discord, and I still recognize that my position is less tenuous than many. All of this is to say that writing about my feelings and thoughts, even if only my friends and a couple colleagues check them, really helps me maintain an even keel.

2. What do I write:

This is a more difficult problem. Unlike Brandon, I lack a central theme in many ways. I have left the door of ideas open too wide. To rectify this, I am going to begin to discuss a cluster of ideas that revolve around questions of faith, identity, story, and culture.

A few posts ago, I mentioned my opinion and enjoyment of the film "In America". In many ways, that article represents a number of my goals for writing this blog. I want to examine the problem of evil in the world and how we have, should, and will deal with this problem.

You might state that this is no less broad than before, and you might be right. Still, we all have to start somewhere.

Tommorrow or maybe later tonight I will start by defining the problem, at least one of them.