Monday, October 31, 2011

if sexual ethics are not that big a deal...

...then why do liberal Christians keep talking about it. Scott Paeth, a professor of religious studies at DePaul University, in a post called "sex for Christians", written in response to Tim Dalrymple's observations of carnality among Princeton seminarians, has a few things he wants Tim and his conservative ilk to know...
  1. sex is not a big deal
  2. conservative Christian ethics are irrelevant
  3. there are bigger fish to fry (see #1)
  4. sex is a splinter that plank-eyed conservatives are picking at
  5. every Christian is "of this world" in some way or other
  6. it's too hard, good thing God has grace on us

Well, it's weird to discuss Christian ethics with a Christian who doesn't interact with the particulars of the Bible. I was thinking of the general reluctance to hearken to Paul among liberals when I read 2 Timothy a few weeks ago, and Paul tells him, Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God...2 Timothy 1:8. So I won't be ashamed of Paul and will quote him some more, 2 Corinthians 6
16 Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, "The two will become one flesh."
17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.
18 Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.
19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,
20 for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

Sexual ethics do seem to be a big deal to Paul. As a conservative believer, I believe that Paul would only write that because it's a big deal to Jesus. According to verse 18, sexual immorality is a separate category of sin, which defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit. That sounds like "big deal" type of stuff. Of course there is grace and forgiveness, but that comes with repentance. Chastity also can be encouraged by good teaching, which Paul does right before these verses, 12"All things are lawful for me," but not all things are helpful. "All things are lawful for me," but I will not be enslaved by anything. 13"Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food"--and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Grace makes all things lawful to us, but wisdom teaches us to back away from things that enslave. Our bodies are the Lord's. Denying the effect of our bodies on our spirits is a teaching contrary to Paul and wallows in old Epicurean heresies. If one must appeal to science, Dr. Bradley Wright's book called Christians are Hate-Filled hypocrites..., among many other studies, shows the positive effects of traditional Christian sexual ethics on families who practice them.

It seems to me that sexual ethics are #1 a big deal and #2 relevant to God's people.

Jesus told his hyper-legalistic religious critics in Matthew 23 that everything needs to be submitted to God,
23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.
24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
25"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.
26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
27"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness.
28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
In my humble opinion, this warning cuts both ways for conservatives and liberals. Each side values one side of the cup and plate more than the other. Conservatives, generally, value personal piety to the neglect of their neighbor and liberals, generally, value their neighbor to the neglect of their personal piety. Jesus' point, reiterated by the epistle writers, is that they go hand in hand. Thus, #3 and #4 the fish are all about the same size.

Worldliness is most directly expounded on by John in his 1st letter,
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
16 For all that is in the world--the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions--is not from the Father but is from the world.
17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
Paeth uses examples such as owning a car and using the internet as proof that conservatives are worldly, but he's not using John's definition. John exhorts us to disentangle ourselves from lust and pride, proofs of a love for the temporal more than love for eternal God. One might even deduce from John's exhortation, that if one's lusts are not resisted and repented (piety) then perhaps one does not have God's love in him to share with others (neighbors). That's a scary position, and, contrary to #5, means that we are all called to piety, a disentangling from the world.

Regarding #6, which he doesn't number but is really his concluding statement, we can find multiple celebrations in the New Testament, like in Titus 2
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,
12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,
13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,
14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
15 Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
God's power to transform our lives is real. His word is living and active (Hebrews 4:12) and, when engaged with regularly, can convict us and be used by the Holy Spirit to liberate us from our sinful (in this particular discussion, sexually immoral) ways, helping us to love God internally, piously, and externally, with mercy and justice towards our neighbors.

I think Dalrymple is discussing both/and, but Paeth argues as either/or, which is so limiting. Why does he put God in a box like that?

Bonus material from the Cyberbrethren Lutheran blog, "Which is to say, the entire life of the Christian, powered by the forgiveness of God, is an ongoing war against the sin that remains in our flesh. There is no peace treaty with that sin because of forgiveness. The exact opposite."

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

book report: The end of Sexual Identity by Paris (2011)

If you are straight and think gay people just need to get over it, this book might be for you.
Dr. Jennell Williams Paris is an anthropology professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. She's straight, married, mother of 3, and teaches at a conservative Christian college BUT she's learned some things, like "it's complicated." More than that, she argues, the labels of gay and straight or hetero- and homo- don't convey the complication.
Just because it's complicated does not mean that the author is arguing for gay marriage. Don't jump to conclusions. She doesn't, but do read this short book from IVP to get you thinking.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

book reports: two memoirs by Vietnam veterans

This summer I read Loon: A Marine Story by Jack McLean, when I went on a war history bender. Last week, when I brought my kids to the library, I have a bad habit of sitting on the floor in front of the history section of the "New Arrivals" and checked out What is it like to go to War by the fellow marine Karl Marlantes. I no longer have the books in hand, so I won't have long quotes, but both are terrifying and heart wrenching tales that point to the primary battlefield in a soldier's soul. Nate Self's account of his battle experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan in Two Wars, which I reviewed in the spring, also has many of the same overlapping themes. The biggest theme is the ongoing injury of the soul called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Both men suffered through it, as did their families. Both Vietnam vets are highly educated, McLean went to Harvard after his tour of duty (the first Vietnam vet). Marlantes left Oxford to go on his tour of duty. They write very well. They wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Marlantes gives himself a more ambitious task of trying to explain humanity's warlike nature. One thing new to me, was his admission that in the middle of the battle, the warrior enters a transcendent state. He describes the sensation of a 20 year old toting a powerful weapon, surrounded by men at their physical peaks also toting powerful weapons with a high degree of competence, working as a team whose collective force is overwhelming, who can then call in air support and artillery support in the midst of a deadly firefight. That sense of power, he says, can make a 20 year old drunk with power. But this exposes an important component of training for the modern American warrior, the spiritual. He looks at other cultures and through history at the rituals used by warriors to acknowledge and assuage the spirit. Marlantes believes that spiritual preparation could greatly reduce the wounds on the hearts of surviving warriors today.

I hope he is listened to and that the military takes his suggestions seriously.

This overdue book report was prodded by this observer's notes from a military Skype station overseas.

update Feb. 2012 - a great blog post by a Marine who had served in Afghanistan and responded to the video of Marines urinating on dead Taliban, Respecting the (Enemy) Dead by Tom Neven
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Thursday, October 13, 2011

a better house than an earthship

I think about many odd things on my bike ride. Yesterday, I was thinking about North Dakota. It's economy is smoking right now because of it's petroleum reserves. As a result, many people are moving there but are not finding enough housing. However, the climate is tough there. A good house there would be 1) quick to build, 2) easy to keep warm, 3) light filled in those long winters and 4) strong for tornadoes and blizzards and floods, (bonus points for no/low cost mortgage).

Earthbags could do all but 1, unless there was a big team of helpers.
A Corganix shipping container/earthbag hybrid also suffers from slowness except for the utilities which come pre-installed.
Earthships would also be slow. The earthships are low slung though which helps with high winds. They also are built with south facing green houses to capture passive solar heating and provide light.
But this modified version, called the high thermal mass (HTM) home is even faster to build and promises even more ease of heating because of dry stacked concrete blocks for the walls on the north, east and west sides, basically a south facing basement with a roof on it and a greenhouse on the front of it. But I think the concrete blocks will still slow the home builder down. Also, some people, in today's conservation climate, would like to reduce their concrete usage.

I thought maybe the geo-textile cage hybrid from Hesco might be feasible, see the R-house, but it won't have the thermal mass, unless it is filled with sand, and I don't know how to install a running bond beam on top for the roof. So the simplicity of the system would be very fast and might be initially inexpensive, but the modifications necessary might bring the cost back up. Maybe if the R-house panels were filled with stones, like a gabion, with plaster on the inside and foam on the outside. Forming a bond beam on top of a stone foundation wouldn't be that difficult. This house idea is basically living in an above ground foundation.

Another possibility is the EarthCo MegaBlock which provides high mass and a breathing wall, but still in need of outside insulation. These are made from soil on site in a machine that looks like a giant playdoh toy that squeezes out one ton blocks of soil.

A precast two wall concrete panel with 7" of EPS between 2" of concrete on each side would be real fast, but more expensive. I like this last idea though. The polystyrene acts as an insulator and vapor barrier. I wonder if these could be used on the floor as well without a basement beneath. These floor panels can be ordered with radiant tubing installed.

An earth berm on the north side might be weird in a neighborhood, so a low-slung ranch would do the trick as long as wall openings are minimized on the north side. I think the ideal is to be built into a south facing slope, cut into a hill. If one is on a hill, then the flooding issue goes away as well.

Pre-fab makes it fast. Concrete makes it strong. Insulated makes it warm. Insulated on the inside concrete makes it easy to hold a constant temperature. Cut into a south facing hill elevates it off the flood plain and provides plenty of passive solar heating. The only draw back is the pre-fab part gets pricey.

Passive solar heating illustration.Image via Wikipedia
Update: I forgot about this farmer in Vermont who did this very thing on the cheap, but well constructed see Sugar Mountain Farm and their Tiny Cottage project. They also use earth air tubes to assist in fresh air flow and passive heating.
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

If you don’t get married, it’s hard to get a divorce

This article If you don’t get married, it’s hard to get a divorce at The Washington Post highlights the very issues I've tried to raise in light of the concept of sacramental marriage recently practiced and promoted by emerging church ecclesiologist Dr. Tony Jones. As I argued before, and this article presents real life examples, that since he knows the fragility of the marriage relationship, the built in legalese of the marriage contract is a big help for the possible break up. Without the legal contract language of marriage, those in sacramental marriages could end up in awful situations like these after 20 years of unwedded bliss...

Luxenberg recalls one client who lived with her partner for 20 years. They’d had a child and built a home together. The woman’s income was about $50,000, Luxenberg says, and her boyfriend’s was “six or seven times that.” When the couple split, the woman hired Luxenberg to see what recourse she had. The answer: not much.

There would be child support, “but she didn’t get any of his pension benefits or any of his profit sharing. And she wasn’t going to get alimony,” Luxenberg says. “I don’t think people think about those kinds of issues.”

Who has the integrity to help someone after you dump them and give them half of your stuff when you don't love them anymore? No one, that's why the law is there to protect the weaker person in the marriage.

Hat tip to and further commentary at the Lutheran blog, Cyberbrethren.

Dr. Jones says his marriage is sacramental until gay marriage is legalized in his state. Hence he believes he is supporting gays while not supporting his "spouse." It's a classic disregard for the individual to support something bigger, which has been used for great evil in the church over it's history.

Monday, October 10, 2011

a day to remember the european destruction of native americans

I keep telling my kids that today is not a holiday but an Italian pride day. Italians are proud of their brave sailor, Columbus, who found the new world. But I can't join in the celebration of the destruction of entire nations. I came across this article today about the process of reconciliation between white Christians and tribal nations in British Columbia and was moved deeply by this pastor's confession. "It must be hard for you," I said to the First Nations people, "to believe that salvation has come to my house when I refuse to repent of behavior that's harmed you deeply. It must be hard to believe the Bible and its Good News when white people have had it for so long but don't seem any better for it." If your self-righteous patriotism gets in the way of this confession please read up on information from my book reports on the book Mayflower (Indian enslavement and casualties) or on The last days of the Incas (uprising), or this report on 1491, or this post on Spanish missionary priests in the New World. Kiernan's book on genocide, Blood and Soil, has several examples of European genocide against several tribes, Pequot 1 and Pequot 2, Cherokee, and Cheyenne. Other tribe specific examples can be found at this post on the book In the hands of the Great Spirit.

It's wrong that church goers who are patriots first and christians second ignore these stories and convince themselves that God would want his people to represent him this way. "This is what the Lord Almighty says: … These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to each other, and render true and sound judgment in your courts; do not plot evil against your neighbor, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,' declares the Lord" (Zech. 8:14-17). As the original article notes, God is pretty clear how he wants his people to represent him,
"God hates injustice. He hates deceit. Unless we deal fairly and honestly with one another, unless we have a bone-deep commitment to justice and truth, all the good God intends to do for us and through us gets undone by us."

So what will you do on this civic day of remembrance?

Sunday, October 09, 2011

book report: Moby Dick by Herman Melville

This summer I came across a blog post suggesting that Moby Dick is an allegory of Herman Melville's struggle with God. I read Moby Dick over twenty years ago in high school and hardly remembered it. But it did fit into a different tack I'm taking on book selection. I want to read the older books, the longer books, the harder books and abstain from the conversation of the newer books. I want to read great books. Moby Dick is certainly old, long and hard, but I'm not sure it's great. Maybe I need to be older to see it's greatness. But I was intrigued by Sproul's blog post.

Sproul writes,
If the whale embodies everything that is symbolized by whiteness — that which is terrifying; that which is pure; that which is excellent; that which is horrible and ghastly; that which is mysterious and incomprehensible — does he not embody those traits that are found in the fullness of the perfections in the being of God Himself?

Who can survive the pursuit of such a being if the pursuit is driven by hostility? Only those who have experienced the sweetness of reconciling grace can look at the overwhelming power, sovereignty, and immutability of a transcendent God and find there peace rather than a drive for vengeance.
I think Sproul's brief argument for understanding the whale as a symbol of the God who some (maybe Melville himself) feared and hated seems to agree with this Philosopedia article on Melville.
Stan Goldman’s Melville’s Protest Theism, The Hidden and Silent God in “Clarel” (1994) challenges past views that Melville was an agnostic. However, he was a member in New York City of the Church of All Souls (Unitarian), whose minister Walter Donald Kring in Herman Melville’s Religious Journey (1997) described Melville’s turning from Calvinism to Unitarianism. But Hershel Parker claims he did so to placate his wife, that actually Hawthorne liked neither Unitarianism nor its other "ism," Utilitarianism.

Of Melville's religion, Alfred Kazin, wrote that he and Abraham Lincoln were

two tortured souls who wanted to believe in God in the face of annihilation. Melville [retained a faith] even if he did not always know what and where and whom to believe. [Lincoln, however, remained "the rationalist who joined no church."]
Atheist James Wood writes of Melville, "Melville is tough. Using the word “theist” to mean a belief would say that Melville was a theist. But he was not a Christian theist. I think he was tormented by the impossibility of God, and equally tormented by a sense that he could not relinquish this idea of God."

All of this made me interested in Melville's White Whale. Was Melville writing himself in as Capt. Ahab, seeking assistance from the stowaway Parsee, the Native American, the African, and the idol-worshipping Polynesian harpoonists to finally destroy this terrible beast that haunts him? Is he also refusing the humble and wise counsel of the devout Christian Starbuck? Isn't Starbuck the true tragic hero of this story and Ahab the anti-hero? Isn't the narrator and sole survivor, Ishmael, the rejected child of Abraham rescued by the ship scorned by Ahab, the Rachel?

I started to see this story as an apology for a liberal and non-dogmatic Christianity of his wife, contrary to Parker. James Woods also notes,
In the chapter ‘The Tail,’ Ishmael admits that if he cannot really comprehend the whale’s rear, then he can hardly see his face: ‘Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen,’ an appropriate of the verse in Exodus in which God tells Moses that ‘thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.’ ”
Is there any clearer evidence that the white whale is Melville's presentation of God? Unlike Melville though, Woods chooses to disbelieve in the whale, rather than reckon with Him. Melville is more a friend to Woods than he realizes. Melville is agreeing with the Bible that it is foolish to oppose God for it will only lead to one's destruction. This leads me to think that Melville does not see himself in Ahab, but might be portraying atheists angry in a god they don't believe in.

Chapter 9 is titled "The Sermon" and it's a good one, reflecting on Jonah, another character famous for his encounter with a whale. The sermon concludes with the question, "for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?" and affirms "delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven." If Melville is a skeptic, he is not afraid of letting the believer's voice clearly and uncritically present otherwise. But Melville does have his criticisms. "And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place; leaping over it as silly sheep leap over a vacuum, because their leader originally leaped there when a stick was held. There's your law of precedents; there's your utility of traditions; there's the story of your obstinate survival of old beliefs never bottomed on the earth, and now not even hovering in the air! There's orthodoxy!" But these are criticisms I can agree with. He mocks the foolishness caused by a delusional sailor named Gabriel on another ship, the Jeroboam, who uses his self-proclaimed special connection with God to effectively take over the ship, with authority that even the captain will not challenge.

Ishmael, perhaps is Melville's voice, and not Ahab. He speaks of the mature man is the one who has more sorrow than joy and points to Jesus and Solomon,
The truest of all men was the Man of Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe. "All is vanity." ALL. This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon's wisdom yet.
Solomon does write in his book, The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. Ecclesiastes 12:11-12.

I'm not saying Melville is a believing Christian, but I don't think he can escape the theology he was raised in. Rather, he makes Ishmael sound like a true liberal Christian saying, "Now, as I before hinted, I have no objection to any person's religion, be it what it may, so long as that person does not kill or insult any other person, because that other person don't believe it also." He goes on to explain to his pagan friend Queequeq about the evolution of religion and asserts that the notion of hell is a leftover idea, born from "an undigested apple dumpling." For all the fret and hand wringing of today's conservative theologians who worry about our nation's religion of therapeutic deism, it's for naught as that notion has been around at least since Melville's time in American history and the church has continued to grow anyway.

I think Melville believes he is the kind of believer who will survive. The atheist, the devout Christians, the Muslim and the pagans all go down in their ship, but Ishmael, the one born to Abraham of natural means and not of promise, the one committed to a rational approach to life, humble before all religions and respectful to all believers and all gods, he is the one who will survive.

Melville reached the peak of his popularity before Moby Dick and ended working a regular day job for the twilight of his life. His family life was tragic. He survived, but his survival seemed more like that of Pip, traumatized and muted by the thrashing of a whale because of ambition that greatly exceeded capability in the face of depression, alcoholism, and family violence.

There is a character for all readers to identify with. I pick noble and devout Starbuck who finds peace in his prayers and scriptures and remains faithful to his friend Capt. Ahab throughout his descent into madness. He knows where he'll end up if the ship goes down.

If this were all there were to this novel, then it would be a great book, but it's so hard to see the trees in the midst of this forest. For every great chapter like the sermon, there are ten chapters on the intricacies of the whaling trade. It felt like a reference book at times with a narrative squeezed in every few chapters. Since the book is so long, there is enough narrative there to make one think deeply, but the price is an historical lesson in a trade no longer practiced with enough detail to resume it when the world's economies collapse and the nations on the sea have to resort to wind power to fetch blubber again.

For more on this sculpture, the Mobius Ship, see Boing Boing.
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Saturday, October 08, 2011

Geoff's photobooth

Geoff Gordon and I go way back, even many years before we were roommates in the infamous North campus dorm of UConn, aka the "Jungle" (queue up Axl Rose). He's done so many cool jobs since graduation and his current one is really cool. He owns 3 photobooths which he rents out for events like weddings. I was able to help him set up one of these beasts this summer. These are not camera and shower curtain gizmos. These are real steel. He, or one of his staff, stay at the booth making sure the equipment works well the entire time and helps guests glue their duplicate 3-photo strip into a memory book with their personal comments. I wish we had one of these at our wedding 17 years ago. Check out his business on facebook or at his blog, Photobooth Planet.
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Friday, October 07, 2011

song lyrics to live by

I have a friend in California who is a singer and song writer. He's been releasing new music lately and explaining the back story to his songs. All these stories touch me, and push the lyrics deeper into my soul. So this is a shout out to Justin McRoberts and his music. But you need to go to his blog to read these stories. The one that absolutely slayed me was the one about his father. I only know a tiny bit more about the back story, but even without my extra knowledge, this song, 33, is so strong. How can it not be strong when it's about his personal overcoming of the dark shadow of his own father's suicide? It gives me so much hope.
Thanks Justin.
I've included the song video below.

33 from Justin McRoberts on Vimeo.