May 31, 2012

The strangeness of Charles Fox Parham

Buried in the footnotes of an excellent biography of one of the founders of American Pentecostalism, there's this detail, which surpasses most everything in early Pentecostal weirdness:
"An example of questionable behavior was his practice of asking all females in the audience to cross and then uncross their legs. Following the exercise ... by exclaiming to the women, 'Now you've just opened the gates of hell.'"
Whether or not that's relevant to anything is really an open question. While that's being questioned, though, the above should maybe best be supplemented with this Kansas City journalist's description of Parham, circa 1901, the year Pentecostalism was first formulated:
"Parham ... has a fierce reddish-faddish beard, a voice like a pirate and a manner as brusque as a janitor in a flat."
Now read the first quote again, but this time in a "voice like a pirate."

So weird.

May 29, 2012

The Arctic Cross


Dmitry Trakovsky, the acclaimed directory of the documentary film "Meeting Andrei Tarkovsky," is now working on a film on the Russian Orthodox Communities of Native Alaskans. He's raising funds for the project, "Acrtic Cross," here.

Given my previous complaints about the failure of introductions to American Religious history to adequately formulate a narrative of the Eastern Orthodox in America, or articulate the way they fit into the larger story of religion in America, I think this project is really worthy of support.

This looks to be a fascinating project that will get at the spirit of Eastern Orthodoxy, as well as the unique character of one American form of the faith. It will be a great resource for those interested in American Orthodoxy, specifically, and those teaching and exploring American religion more generally.

Along with efforts to made original Russian-Alaskan mission records available and efforts by churches to tell and record their own stories, this could herald a very good time in the study of Eastern Orthodoxy in America.

From  Trakovsky's description of his aesthetic:
Arctic Cross will have no voice-over, few titles and, ideally, no sit-down interviews.  Instead, long-takes will observe the characters as they go about their work, speak to one another, and interact in their environment.  One portrait will flow into the next.  My goal as a filmmaker will be to find the cinematic means capable of expressing the complexity, depth, and mystery of the lives portrayed.  There are many ways to do this if I remain attuned to the environment.  In winter, the aesthetic is dominated by long, starry nights, stunning aurora borealis, and the ubiquity of whiteness and snow.  In summer, I will observe boundless panoramic grasslands, muddy rivers and, in the villages, the tattered mobile housing units characteristic of the region.  My stylistic approach places paramount value on the expressive possibilities of a rhythmic, rather than concept-driven, cinematic language.  However, this film will also tell a thematically intertwined and compelling story accessible to all viewers. 

Taking up snakes

May 28, 2012

The myth of infatuated Žižekians

If you don't like Slavoj Žižek, there's a very good chance that part of what you say you don't like is how other people do like him. They, you think, are slavish droolers. Fawning idiots. Adoring ditto machines too obsessed with trends and fads to question, even for a moment, the absolute buffoonery that is the culture-munching joke-monger who hails from Ljubljana.

That's what you say if you don't like Žižek.

In one of the more famous critiques, for example, the critique of Žižek at moments is transformed into a critique of the Žižek "phenomena," which is, when it comes down to it, a critique of people who listen to him.

Adam Kirsch, calling Žižek The Deadly Jester, writes,
The curious thing about the Žižek phenomenon is that the louder he applauds violence and terror—especially the terror of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, whose "lost causes" Žižek takes up in another new book, In Defense of Lost Causes—the more indulgently he is received by the academic left, which has elevated him into a celebrity and the center of a cult.
Another critic, in an ostensible review of the documentary Žižek!, writes about "hating the academics who take this non-thought seriously," the "academic world's small population of postmodernists" who have made the "shambling, rambling Slovenian philosopher" into a "folk hero."

It's not too hard to multiply examples of this. A particularly colorful one to add to the point I'm making here: "I don’t read or pay attention to much of anything Zizek says anymore, he’s more of a clown to me, albeit a predatory clown surrounded by a bunch of wannabe fanboys."

Leaving aside the question of the truth of the accusations against Žižek, not even bothering to defend him, can we just ask who are these supposed fanboys? Are there specific leftists and academics being referred to here?

Can we get even one name?

If there's a cult of Žižek, who exactly is in it?

May 24, 2012

Hope and the cardinal

"Wir brauchen endlich wieder gute Nachrichten," said Father Klaus Mertes. "We finally need good news again."

There's some consensus forming about the "good news" of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki's response to that plea, a statement he made last week about homosexual relationships.

I read Woelki's words as guarded, a cautious concession with sharp limits.

That, I'm being told, is too pessimistic: It's actually significant, another sign of a major shift, and "good news again." A big deal.

The church in bondage

"The church is in bondage to capitalism ... No antithesis could be greater than that which obtains between the gospel and capitalist faith. The church has known from the beginning that the love of money is the root of all evil, that it is impossible to serve God and Mammon, that they that have riches shall hardly enter into life, that life does not consist in the abundance of things possessed, that the earth is the Lord's and that love, not self-interest, is the first law of life. Yet the church has become entangled .... captivity of the church is the first fact with which we need to deal in our time."
-- H. Richard Niebhur
"Towards the Independence of the Church," 1935

May 21, 2012

German Catholic cardinal calls for homosexual equality

A minor report, misreported, seemed to signal a sea-change in Catholic Church hierarchy's attitudes towards homosexuality this last week. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, who is the archbishop of Berlin and the youngest of the church's cardinals, was reported as having "join[ed] a growing chorus of episcopal voices who are calling for change in the hierarchy’s traditionally absolutist refusal to acknowledge the moral goodness of lesbian and gay relationships."

That's not exactly accurate, though.

The report came from an English-language recapitulation of news of an exchange Woelki had with a critical crowd of laymen and women and the Jesuit priest who exposed the German church's cover-up of years of sexual abuse of children, Father Klaus Mertes.

Mertes is something of a hero to many Germans, a trusted representative for many Catholics in an institution that has not seemed particularly concerned with trust in recent years. He has, however, faced major obstacles in getting church officials to even acknowledge the seriousness of sexual violence, much less entertain questions about making changes to the church. There has been, he has said, "silence about the abuse and silence about the silence." When he first began asking questions about rumors in the mid 1990s, a fellow Jesuit shouted at him, "I know exactly what you want. You just want to lambast your fellow brothers." When his investigative report on systematic abuse and cover-up was released in 2010, an Italian cardinal called it "the petty gossip of the moment." A leading conservative in Germany, Archbishop Joachim Meisner, has ignored calls for dialogue about the abuse.

At Katholikentag, a major annual conference of Catholics in Mannheim, the Jesuit priest was able to facilitate a dialogue between Woelki and lay Catholics concerned about the direction of their church. This in itself was significant. Perhaps because of previous statements Woelki has made about how homosexuality goes against the "order of creation," Mertes took the opportunity to challenge Woelki to "Hören Sie sich die Geschichte des Leidens an, die Lesben und Schwule in den christlichen Kirchen machen." (Listen to the history of the suffering of the lesbians and gays in the Christian churches).

According to The Local, which reports German news in English and alerted some American observers to the cardinal's comments, Woelki told the crowd "the church should view long-term, faithful homosexual relationships as they do heterosexual ones."

If that were accurate, it would be very significant.

For one thing, it would be a dramatic turn around, as Woelki's previous statement on the subject is that homosexuality is in opposition to "Schöpfungsordnung," creation order. For another, as a relatively young cardinal, Woelki is likely to influence the direction of the church for years to come, along with the other cardinals selected by Pope Benedict XVI. If Woelki is open to some doctrinal change on this issue, that might say something about where the Catholic church hierarchy will be in 10, 20, 30. Thirdly, if Woekli called for recognition of the equality of homosexual and heterosexual relationships, he would to be the highest-ranking church official to do so, going perhaps even further than Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, who said the church should judge homosexuals by the quality of their relationships, rather than just whether or not they have homosexual sex.

That report, however, misses the context of the cardinal's statement -- both the immediate context, which qualified what he said, and the larger one, the way in which Woelki has positioned himself on this issue, and was not announcing his own evolution on this subject.


May 18, 2012

"Please don't hesitate to say": Wittgenstein & social cues

Ludwig Wittgenstein has a reputation for being ... fierce. Intense and too aggressive. In the one of the most popular renderings, Wittgenstein's seminal moment is waving around a fire poker, threatening people who disagree with him. In a more recent popular depiction, Wittgenstein seems almost maniacal for logic. Just having a conversation with him is presented as threatening.

He certainly appeared this way to British academics he spent time with. John Maynard Kaynes called him a maniac. Bertrand Russell called him an infection. One wonders, though, how much of that was no more than the kind of failed cultural translation so common in cross-cultural encounters.

In a new book collecting some of Wittgenstein's letters and other things, for example, we find this note to Cambridge philosopher GE Moore:
"I should like to know whether what Mrs Moore wrote to me was an honest to God invitation for me to come and see you on Tuesday, or whether it was a kind of hint that I’d better not try to see you. If it was the latter, please don’t hesitate to say so. I will not be hurt in the slightest, for I know that queer things happen in this world. It’s one of the few things I’ve really learnt in my life. So please, if that’s how it is, just write on a [post card] something like 'Don’t come'. I enclose a card in case you haven’t got one. I'll understand everything. Good luck and good wishes!"
That letter could have been written by pretty much every German I know. I have made similar requests to Germans: please explain and spell out the social rules involved in X, because, God knows, "queer things happen in this world," and all I've learned is  I don't understand them.

Little things, such as how long one is supposed to stay at dinner, are terrible difficult to navigate. The social cues for what's polite are near impossible to pick up. Americans here regularly offend Germans by leaving too soon; Germans insist on social engagements that are more like marathons.

In the end you just have to hope people won't describe you for the rest of history as strange and rude, and you beg people to please tell you if what they said was coded in "a kind of hint" or was honest to God what you think they said.

I'm sure Wittgenstein was intense. You don't do that much of that kind of philosophy without some intensity. But maybe some of it, the way he's been characterized now for forever, has something to do with just not knowing what the unwritten rules of acceptable social behavior were in Cambridge.

For that, it's only fair to give him a bit of a break. He was trying. And that story about the poker's probably apocryphal anyway. 

The 1st Pentecostal scandal

In 1907 in San Antonio, in the heat of July and Pentecostal revival, Charles Fox Parham was arrested. Parham, the father of Pentecostalism, the midwife of glossolalia, was arrested on charges of "the commission of an unnatural offense," along with a 22-year-old co-defendant, J.J. Jourdan.

Details are sketchy.

They rumors about what happened are out there, to the extent they still occasionally surface. The whole incident has been effectively wiped from the standard accounts of Pentecostal origins offered by Pentecostals, but references are made sometimes in anti-Pentecostal literature, as well as in academically respectable works. It's a curious historical moment in the history of Pentecostalism, regardless of whether one thinks it has anything to do with the movement's legitimacy, just because Pentecostals are no stranger to scandal, but the scandals talked about and really well known happened much later. In the full light of mass media. Here's one that happened much earlier -- at the beginning, involving those who were there at Pentecostalism's start -- that has almost slipped off the dark edge of the historical record.

It's curious, too, because of how little is known.

It's not known, for example, where Parham was when he was arrested. Was he in his hotel, or a car, or walking down the street? Was he where he was holding meetings, healing people and preaching about the necessity of tongues as the evidence of sanctification, the sign of the coming End of Time? What was the unnatural offense, exactly? Who reported it to the authorities, and on what grounds, what probable cause, did they procure a warrant and execute the arrest?

We just know he was arrested. This -- unlike almost every other detail -- is not disputed.

May 16, 2012

The Lord of the Lord's Prayer

"Although Defendants' two experts, Dr. John Dominic Crossan and Dr. James Edward Jones, opine that The Lord's Prayer does not have exclusively Christian content, it is likely that the Court will ultimately find The Lord's Prayer to be a Christian prayer. The Court recognizes that specific words within The Lord's Prayer are not solely associated with the Christian faith. Still, viewing The Lord's Prayer as a whole, it appears to be a distinctly Christian prayer. Defendants' expert Dr. Crossan even admits that, as used in religious observances, The Lord's Prayer is specifically Christian. Defense counsel stated that it is undisputed that The Lord's Prayer comes from the New Testament. Defense counsel further stated at oral argument that Defendants did not dispute that today only Christians say The Lord's Prayer as part of their religious observances."
-- U.S. District Court Judge Leonard P. Stark's legal decision to grant a preliminary injunction requiring Sussex County, Delaware, stop starting county council meetings with a recitation of The Lord's Prayer.

Stark also cites eight federal court rulings calling the Our Father a "specifically Christian prayer," as well as one that states the prayer is not specifically Christian. In a footnote, the judge adds to the above by noting, "it is undisputed that 'The Lord' of the title of 'The Lord's Prayer' is Jesus Christ."

It's one of the persistent ironies of these sorts of legal fights that those supposedly defending public prayers, etc., do it by arguing they don't mean anything.

It's a "destroy the prayer in order to save it" kind of strategy.

Or, in the words of one Sussex County councilman, "I don't know how we're going to get around it. But we're gonna have to find a way."

Ethics without imperatives

Try to ground ethics and morality in nature and natural processes, and one of the common results is fuctionalist descriptions.* The problem with such descriptions, though, is that while they work fine to account for how some particular culture's moral rules got the way they are, they fail -- really fail -- to offer any account of an ethics that could actually critique the status quo.

And if your ethics can only ever serve the powers that be, never unsettle them, never challenge them or manage even a weak threat, then what good are they?

Case in point: Patricia Churchland.

May 9, 2012

The politics of 'personhood'

Two questions about the efforts to pass "personhood" amendments:

1. Is there a reason the pro-life definition of a person has to be as unclear as "any human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being to natural death"?
I'm not an expert in the legal requirements for the language of initiatives, but the above seems to imply, for one thing, that a person continues to be a person after unnatural death. Unless "natural death" has some other meaning?

More importantly, for the purposes of supporters, the definition hinges on "biological development," which I know is supposed to mean the fertilization of an egg, but couldn't it also be extended backwards, so that "biological development" also meant the biological development of the egg and the sperm separately? If not, isn't it because the "biological development" is of "that human being," but doesn't that just recapitulate the debate about when life begins, meaning the definition is tantamount to "life begins when life begins," and not actually very helpful?

In Mississippi, the personhood amendment kind of doubles the ambiguity by declaring a person to be a person "from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof."

If there's any explanation of what the functional equivalent of fertilization and/or cloning is, I have not seen it, nor can I imagine what it might be.

May 8, 2012

Maurice Sendak, rest in peace



"But Max stepped into his private boat and waved goodbye."

Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, Chicken Soup with Rice, and other classic children's books, died today of complications from a recent stroke at the age of 83. May he rest in peace.

NY Times obit.
Sendak talks to Terry Gross about life, death, and children's literature.
Sendak talks to Terry Gross about being old.
Sendak in "Tell Them Anything You Want," a documentary on his life.
Younger Sendak in pictures, at work. 
Sendak on how best to read
Sendak's mural in New York.
Sendak exhibited at the Jewish Museum. 
Sendak as cranky old man.
Sendak memorializing Eugene D. Glynn, his partner of 50 years.
Sendak with Stephen Colbert.
Sendak at 80, thinking about his legacy and coming out as gay.

Speaking in tongues


Aluet prayers in Orthodox missions

"When you do not pray for us, who will then help us? Therfore, we earnestly continue to ask the intercessions of the Mother of God."
-- English translation of a fragment of an Aluet-language prayer written in Russian characters in a financial report, possibly circa 1872, at a Russian Orthodox Mission on what is now St. Paul Island, Alaska (pdf).

All Saints of North America Orthodox Church has undertaken the project of transcribing and printing the records and surviving texts of Orthodox efforts to evangelize in Alaska -- religious texts in Aleut, Alutiiq, Tlingit, and Yup'ik.They have recently published their 60th document online. They have also collected mp3s of liturgical hymns in the indigenous languages of Alaska, and made them available free of their site.

This is an important historical project and deserves attention. Few of the documents have been translated into widely-known scholarly languages yet, which will limit their use for the time being, but this church has made it possible for scholars to expand the knowledge of American religion, and hopefully eventually allow for a fuller, more complex account of the Eastern Orthodox in America.

May 7, 2012

Singing old songs anew

On the meaningfulness of books bought, but not read

There's a moment, late in the documentary Derrida, where the documentarian is with Derrida in Derrida's library, and asks, "Have you read all these" books?

No, he hasn't read all these.

"But you've read most of them?"

"No, no" Derrida says. "I've read three of four of them. But I read those four very well."

It's a joke, and a joke about Derrida and Derridian reading, but seriously, who has read all the books they own?

Even if one does, eventually, read all the books one owns -- itself a dubious proposition -- there's a delay, a lag. There's no easy, simple link between buying a book and reading it. There's no simple formula by which one could predict readership based solely on sales.

If this seems obvious, it should. Yet, without fail, cultural critics act as though there's no difference between book purchase and book reading, as if measuring the one were measuring the other. As if the one always and everywhere meant the other. As if there were a simple relationship between the two acts, and the only reason anyone ever bought a book was to read it, the purchase a promise always made good.

Somehow, this needs to be broken.

There has to be a way to talk about book purchases as culturally meaningful and yet distinct from and different from acts of reading.

May 2, 2012

The trick, obviously, is to make sure the question is always asked in the second person and never the first, thus ensuring it's rhetorical, and not ever answered.

(via Kurt Willems)

The beginnings of Tyndale House

The beginnings of Tyndale House were audacious -- even beyond audacious. The start of the publishing firm was so implausible, it's success springing from a kind of obviously crazy idea, and yet it has been so successful, it calls for some sort of explanation.

The Christian publishing house is, today,  the third largest Christian publisher in the United States, with nearly 10 percent of the Christian market. Tyndale published such pivotal and important evangelical books as Left Behind, and Tim LaHaye non-fiction, James Dobson's bestseller, Dare to Discipline, and Josh McDowell's More than a Carpenter, as well as more recent successes such as the best-selling memoir of Indianapolis Colts' coach Tony Dungy, and an account of missionaries held hostage in the Philippine jungle, In the Presence of My Enemies, which sold 200,000 copies in hardcover.

The company is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, with events starting May 3. 

Fifty years ago, this was a kitchen table operation, by one 45-year-old man, the author of a children's picture Bible who had a degree in zoology, a bit of experience on the distribution side of publishing, and a manuscript he couldn't get published.

Kenneth N. Taylor's initial idea -- rejected multiple times by established publishers -- was to rewrite the Bible into everyday American English. Not re-translate, rewrite. As Christianity Today noted in 1979, scholars were skeptical of the proposition. 

May 1, 2012

Faith leaders' lost faith

People of faith lose faith. This is neither new, nor news.

It's intrinsic to belief, to what belief has to be to be belief, that however much one has it, and one hangs on, it's never so certain, so owned or ensured, that it couldn't just disappear. "They ought to make it a binding clause," Phillip K. Dick once said, "that if you find God you get to keep him." That's not how it works, though. There's no "they," and no rule, and no way to bind the finding of God so the "God" found will always be God, or the found always found, the belief believed forever. People lose faith. It's a gift, if it's anything, that can for any reason or no reason just go away. Faith goes away. Not always, but sometimes: sometimes suddenly, and sometimes like a slow realization you've it's long since passed.

Even faith leaders lose faith. Maybe even especially faith leaders.

Sometimes, like Jim Casy in the beginning of Grapes of Wrath, preachers and ministers find they "Ain't got the call no more,"  and then what are they to do? Casy says:
"I ain't preachin' no more much. The sperit ain't in the people much no more; and worse'n that, the sperit ain't in me no more. 'Course now an' again the sperit gets movin' an' I rip out a meetin', or when folks sets out food, I give 'em a grace, but my heart ain't in it. I on'y do it 'cause they expect it."
And:
"I figgered there just wasn't no hope for me, an' I was a damned ol' hypocrite. But I didn't mean to be."
It's hard to say exactly how often this happens. Numbers are easy to come by: reliable ones probably impossible.

One study says 33% of pastors felt burnt out in the first five years on the job, but that was only the percentage of those who stayed in ministry anyway, and didn't include those who quit. A survey of a specific evangelical group -- the Independent Christian Church -- found that half of all ministers who enter ministry will leave shortly thereafter. Other studies have placed attrition rates as high as 80%: of those graduating from seminary and starting in ministry, only 20% will still be ministers in five years, and of those who continue on, 40% will have extra-marital affairs, and 70% will struggle with depression. Reportedly, among the Southern Baptists, nearly 100 ministers leave the ministry every month, and ten times that number call an anonymous hot line for help and counseling. According to a New York Times study, 57% of ministers "would leave the pastorate if they had somewhere else to go or some other vocation they could do."

How much of that is loss of faith is hard to say. Though some of it is, we know.


The first May Day

  
Samuel Fielden, socialist, anarchist, labor activist and organizer, pictured above, testifying about what he saw at the Haymarket Affair, on the first May Day, during protests for an 8-hour work day:
"I spoke briefly and told them not to boycott the red flag as they had been advised to do, because the red flag was the symbol of universal freedom and universal liberty.

"I didn't speak very long about that, and I was just closing my remarks--I think I had just closed that part of my speech--when someone said 'It is going to rain.'