Jun 27, 2012

The speed of life

The speed of life

Jun 26, 2012

On exorcism

Demons & the function of the idea of demons in America

Reposted from Nov. 1, 2011
How strange is belief in demons today?

How obscure is this, in the America we live in?

Not very.

There are, roughly calculated, 150,173,800 American Christians who believe in demons*. That's 150 million-plus self-identified Christians in America, who, when asked by pollsters, said they agreed with the idea there were evil spirits, demons, etc., at work in the world in such a way that they could control or influence a person.

150 million plus is not, it feels necessary to point out, a small number.

That's slightly more than 48% of Americans**.

This, of course, is not even counting people who don't self identify as Christians but who also believe in demons. It's not like demons are unique to Christian theology, after all.

In short, lots and lots of Americans' experience of the world and explanation of the world includes reference to demons. Demons, for them, serve an explanatory function, sometimes, and are part of the furniture of the cosmos, one of the types of entities that inhabit the world.

So: not obscure.

So: while you may think it's strange, and maybe objectively it is strange, and while there may be really good arguments for why people shouldn't believe in demons, maybe shouldn't even be able to believe in demons, what with science today being what it is, people do. Lots of people.

It's actually quite, quite common.

It's also not something to be freaked out about. Not only is belief in demons not that rare, sociologically speaking, it isn't really as freaky as it's made out to be, and, really, the more you know about it, the less important it seems.

Jun 25, 2012

Andrew Sullivan's anti-Mormon bigotry

A pro-KKK cartoon, crica 1920s, showing a happy Klansman triumphing
over the pope, with the aid of the Bible and the American flag.
In movements of bigotry, there are always two wings. The one is crass, unrefined, and generally marked as poor, and lower class. This bigotry is thought of as ill breeding, and something to be cured with education. The bigotry of hicks and yahoos.

There's also the other wing, though, which is more subtle, and more insidious: bigotry with a scrim of rhetorical finesse, refinement, reasonableness.

This kind poses as "just asking questions." It distinguishes itself and distances itself from the dirty, ill-mannered version, and declares itself concerned and thoughtful, not a thing of mouth-breathing hatred or hate-hearted viciousness, but just questions, just "raising issues." Still, it's bigotry. Just more clever. Its mode is not bald declarations denigrating entire groups, but frames for discourse that direct the conversation to that same end. It naturalizes, normalizes, justifies unfounded suspicions. It confirms the reasonableness of distrust, so that one can say "I knew there was a reason I didn't like those guys!" and feel better about it.

When the history is written of anti-Mormon bigotry in America, 2007-2012, we'll have a fine example of this "reasonable," "refined" bigotry with Andrew Sullivan.

Jun 24, 2012

A poem / That has revised itself out of sound

Imagine Lucifer
An angel without angelness
An apple
Plucked clear by will of taste, color,
Strength, beauty, roundness, seed
Absent of all God painted, present everything
An apple is.
Imagine Lucifer
An angel without angelness
A poem
That has revised itself out of sound
Imagine, rhyme, concordance
Absent of all God spoke of, present everything
A poem is.
                            The law I say, the Law
What is Lucifer
An emperor with no clothes
No skin, no flesh, no heart
An emperor!
-- Jack Spicer, "Imagine Lucifer," from My Vocabulary Did This To Me.

Jun 23, 2012

American religion, mapped

Adherent cartogram depicting the proportion of the population affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, as reported by the association, in each of the 50 states.

More at the 2010 Religious Census: Religious Congregations and Membership Study.

Maps of the distribution of United Methodist congregations & the county-level population ratio of the Assemblies of God after the jump:

Jun 21, 2012

Jonathan Edwards, Ayn Rand & the pursuit of good

The first words of Jonathan Edwards first sermon:
“Reasonable beings, while they act as such, naturally choose those things which they are convinced are best for them, and will certainly do those things which they know they had better do than leave undone. (And, indeed, who in the world could imagine that there were such unreasonable creatures in the world, as that at the very same time that they themselves know a thing to be much to their advantage, yet will not choose or do it?)”
For Douglas Wilson, as well as John Piper and a circle of Reformed Christians in American today, this insight serves as a starting point for understanding and explaining Calvinism. This is a key way in which Edwards “lives,” theologically, right now.

Curiously, there’s another near-contemporary figure who starts from this same place and has this same “disciplined understanding of what makes human beings tick,” as Wilson describes it, but who ends up somewhere very, very different: Ayn Rand.

She called it the virtue of selfishness.

Where Wilson says,
“Everybody chooses that which they believe to be good, and that which they believe to be good for them. Now there’s a way of doing it selfishly. The difference between good and evil is determined by what you call ‘good,’ not whether you pursue good.” 
Rand agrees,
Man has no choice about his capacity to feel that something is good for him or evil, but what he will consider good or evil, what will give him joy or pain, what he will love or hate, desire or fear, depends on his standard of value.”
For her, though, starting with this idea that people do bad things only because they’re confused and think those things are good things, and if they truly understood what was good they would want that instead, ends not in the imperative, “Glorify God and enjoy Him forever,” but rather: Be selfish.

Or, as her fictional spokesman John Galt declares, “I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine.”

The ideas are not the same, of course. The trick is articulating why. Which is the history of ideas part of the back-and-forth cultural translation of the tricky business of trying to understand Edwards in our time.

Read more of Edwards in our time @ The Jonathan Edwards Center Germany.

Jun 20, 2012

Shirley (& The Red Summer of 1919)

Jun 18, 2012

Whereof one cannot speak, race horses

I'm trying to imagine Ludwig Wittgenstein at the tracks, watching horses race:

Wittgenstein, dour and scowly, austere and logical, surrounded by Kentucky Derby decadence.

Wittgenstein, the ascetic who gave away his fortune twice,who lived in spare, bare, whitewashed rooms and wished to be a saint of the sort praised by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Kierkegaard, taking in the so-called "sport of kings."

I imagine him mumbling, surrounded by julep swillers and discarded racing forms. "I don't know why we are here," he would say, "but I'm pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves."

It's not entirely impossible, though. He could have gone to the tracks -- even the Triple Crown. He did, after all, fly a kite once. He was known to row a boat. He enjoyed detective novels. Maybe watching horses run for money could have been one of the past times he enjoyed between bouts of philosophy.

Or maybe not.

This is someone who once planned to emigrate to the Soviet Union for its (utopian) austerity, and advised students to give up academia for manual labor. Someone who twice himself tried to make a life as a monastery gardener. And who, of course, wrote forever of logic and language and meaning in an ongoing struggle with the seriousness and un-seriousness of thinking, who engaged from beginning to end in philosophical interventions into and against philosophy, who was fighting philosophy with philosophy most of his life, and attempting radical ethics the rest of it.

I find it difficult to reconcile these struggles -- the struggle to be an ascetic, a saint, and the struggle to defeat philosophy -- with the idea of Wittgenstein and horse racing. Wittgenstein and what Hunter S. Thompson once called "some jaded, atavistic freakout with nothing to recommend it except a very saleable 'tradition.'"

It's very odd, then, I think -- queer, Wittgenstein would say -- that in the biggest horse-racing story of the year, Wittgenstein turns out to play such a central role.

Wittgenstein, who doesn't actually make the news with any regularity, has been important in exactly one news story this year, and it's a horse racing story. The horse racing story of 2012.

Jun 15, 2012

The myth of infatuated Žižekians, ctd.

Maybe the perfect juxtaposition of an actual Žižekian to the imaginary infatuated Žižekian hoarde, from Logan Sachon:

1. "At the risk of upsetting Žižek’s fanatical global following, I would say that a lot of his work is impenetrable."

2. "I like the dude a lot, despite only understanding mayyyybe 10% of what he is talking about .... You will love him. Your head will hurt, but you will love him. And that accent: Incredible."

The funny thing is, one of the reasons to like Žižek is that he, of all people, has a pretty good explanation of why things like this happen, why "true believers" & "fanatics" have to be conjured up & invented, and what that says about our age.

It's belief by means of disavowal.

As Žižek would put it -- did put it:
"we don't now need to believe, we need another one ... [who is] supposed to believe."
Thus the usefulness & need for Žižek's addled ecstatics. Which don't exist, but still serve their function quite well while completely imaginary, allow skeptics to be skeptical & naive believers both with ease. As he opens in God in Pain:
"If, once upon a time, we publicly pretended to believe while privately we were skeptics or even engaged in obscene mocking of our public beliefs, today we publicly tend to profess our skeptical, hedonistic, relaxed attitude while privately we remain haunted by beliefs."
An HCA crowd

More pictures here.

Jun 11, 2012

Birthday music

148 years for Richard Strauss.
30 for me.

Jun 10, 2012

History & faith

Teaching in Germany

"History is based on an act of faith, the faith that events are susceptible of meanings." -- Albert J. Raboteau.

Prof. Raboteau, of Princeton University, is at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies this month, receiving the James W.C. Pennington Award and speaking about African-American history and faith.

More info here

Jun 8, 2012

Editing Jonathan Edwards

The Jonathan Edwards Center is asking for volunteers to help edit 750 of Jonathan Edwards' sermons. Some of these haven't been studied at all -- barely looked at and never heard since Edwards first preached them, more than 250 years ago.

More information here.

Jun 7, 2012

Corpus Christi in Tübingen

Watching from the windows

A holy day parade

'the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed'

My poetry preferences don't tend towards "laureate," but this -- "Pilgrimage," by Natasha Trethewey, the newly named Poet Laureate, an Emory prof & the 3rd African American to hold the post, the 1st Southerner since Robert Penn Warren in 1986 -- is nonetheless an interesting piece.

Trethewey is writing here about remembering & remembrances, & also the history that's importantly, critically forgotten, & remembering that too.

It's about history: history beatified, & history as trauma, beatified trauma & the trauma of beatification. Which is worth thinking about, if you think about history. It's a way of asking again the question asked here by a beleaguered white woman, a beneficiary of the white supremacy of a system that, at exactly that moment, is being destroyed, & maybe asking that question better: What is to become / of all the living things in this place?

Here, the Mississippi carved
                        its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
                        Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
                        as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
                        above the river's bend—where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed.
                        Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
                        on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,
                        in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

Jun 6, 2012

Oral Roberts refuses

Oral Roberts, as presented by Oral Roberts, is completely incapable of doubt. He's hermetically sealed against those kinds of second thoughts that start out "or ..." and map out alternative explanations, counter-narratives counter to one's own account of self.

He can't think that way. Won't think that way. In his version of himself that's not who he is, and he can't/won't/doesn't entertain alternatives or hypotheticals.

If there ever were any doubts, they've been excised from the self presentation of his autobiography, Expect a Miracle: My Life and Ministry. There's just one small nod in the first few pages of the book to acknowledge self questioning, and that's to dismiss it from the start. He doesn't second guess himself, he writes, because he doesn't allow himself to second guess himself. Because he doesn't believe in it: "Of course, there are times I am assailed by doubts, but I made up my mind a long time ago to cultivate the ability to doubt my doubts and believe my beliefs" (italics original).

Doubting one's doubts does not make for a great autobiography. Of course autobiographies can be self-haigiography as easily as full confession, exercises in self-justification just as much as self-interrogation. But either way, the literary form does require one explain.

And it's hard to explain things you think need no explaining.

It's hard to say "this is why I did what I did" if you can't imagine having done otherwise, can't entertain any question about your course of action and can't conceive -- just literally can't think it even possible -- of reasonable objections to what you did.

This leads to the most frustrating episode in his autobiography.

Jun 5, 2012

Got right in the dark

"He was in the middle of taking the last breath of his life before he realized he was taking it. But it was all right. Boom! Unbelievable! And another coming? How many of these things do you mean to give away? He got right in the dark between heartbeats, and rested there. And then he saw that another one wasn't going to come. That's it. That's the last. He looked at the dark. I would like to take this opportunity, he said, to pray for another human being."

-- Denis Johnson, Angels

Jun 1, 2012

What you said in passing, in passing