Sunday, February 27, 2005

The View from Below

Both Bonhoeffer and Cone talk about seeing the world from below, a Christology from below. They argue in their own ways that the Jesus we follow (or worship) is the one who was pushed out of society and onto the cross, who was despised and marginalized, who ended his life in powerlessness.

We, of the Christian west, are not used to thinking in powerless terms. We live daily with certain expectations. If the electricity fails, we expect that it will come back on. If we run out of food, we know that there will be more food on the shelves of the local supermarket. We can even run out of money and find more—loans, friends, family. We believe that justice will be done if we are wrongly accused. We trust our government to work properly, to defend our rights, to protect us from harm.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder what on earth religious faith is for in America! Certainly we all have personal pain and needs. Prayer and spiritual practices do help us to cope with those parts of ourselves. And perhaps that is its chief function—it offers a touchstone for the anxiety of postmodern life, in spite of the fact that our physical well-being is assured.

But if we think about Jesus as being identified with the politically and socially marginalized, it is now like a thunder clap of insight for me to think, "Who are the marginalized in my midst?" If I am not one of them, then shouldn't I be looking for who they are? I suppose evangelicalism would have classified the marginalized as those without Christ. Everyone (rich or poor) qualify as "poor in spirit."

Yet in reading Cone, I'm challenged to ask if there isn't some insidious misuse of religious faith at work that actually smothers the impulse for advocacy for the ones who suffer at the hands of all the institutions we take for granted as righteous, good and supportive. Is it possible that by focusing on the eternal condition of souls, we give people a way to ignore the troubling conditions of life as it is lived, here, on earth if you don't happen to be in the privileged set?

I read an article last semester by Sister Diana Ortiz. She was a victim of torture that was supervised by the CIA in Guatemala in November of 1989. She found it impossible to understand why Americans weren't outraged by the discovery of what she had gone through. I'm at a loss to understand it myself. Yet the truth is that she suffered in a way unthinkable for many of us and we are not moved to action or critique.

The most common responses to my comments about possible social injustices on the places I post are: defending the conditions of that era, the minimizing of the participation of the groups we come from, the suggestion that the future success of that group depends on their initiative.

Is Cone on track or is he over-reaching? Have the twisted "Christian" values that enabled western Christians to practice centuries of racism (against blacks and Jews and Muslims) left us a legacy of faith that is detached from suffering because it has been in the habit of dominance?

I wonder now if the evangelical emphasis on heaven and personal morality (rather than social justice) is a direct descendant of a deeply damaged and sinful faith, the kind that could be married to oppressive power without batting an eye. Today's Christians are so used to not seeing the hypocrisy of power-laden Christianity that they defend the current version of the faith as the orthodox and true version. Cone says, "No, this can't be." He demands that white Christians look again at the ways in which they have twisted the Gospel to suit their advantages.

That's why he can say that those who owned slaves could not possibly be Christians.

What do you think?

Thursday, February 24, 2005

So that's the Gospel!

"So Dr. Clark, I think I'm getting it. James Cone (black theologian) is not just writing a theology for blacks. He is actually writing a substantial, sustained critique of white Christian theology (the kind that stretches all the way back to Constantine), with particular emphasis on what's wrong with the white "Christian" church of America in the last 350 years. Is that right?"


His decisive "yes" cleared the air in the room.

I saw.

I saw it all. The white church in America has not been Christian. Keeping your soul cleansed from sin in a vertical, and, oh let's just admit it, virtual piety while holding slaves, endorsing racism, exploiting the poor is not Christianity. It is worse than "misguided." It is evil. Some might go so far as to say that is is demonic. And they'd be right. What else could the verse "Satan comes as an angel of light" mean?

Depravity, a theological term Dr. Cone uses to describe the evil committed by human beings, is not some existential pride-based attitude that can be forgiven through a commitment to the reformed doctrines (sometimes called a commitment to Christ). For Dr. Cone, we are depraved because we have committed atrocities so heinous there is no other way to understand those actions.

We've been lied to. Christianity is not about my personal condition/state before God. It is about the totality of my life and actions, my expressed beliefs (not my private thoughts and attitudes).

When I look back at my disillusionment with Christian faith, I can see now the fissures that led me to a loss of everything I believed. While science and logic pounded on the doors of my shallow fundamentalism, virtual spirituality evaporated into nothingness. Learned behaviors, seeking answers for tiny needs that matter to no one but me, a selfish and self-absorbed piety that focuses on my mental health and personal well-being, reliance on God to protect my immediate family and friends, an outward focus on those outside the faith that ignored their real time needs and instead promised a later date salvation in a heaven where all the injustices experienced here would be forgotten and redeemed with very little inconvenience to me... I couldn't keep it up. My world had grown and my faith had shrunk to a size too small to contain life.

I saw last night that my frustrations with God have come about because of teaching that offered me a very little God. Middle class life had become the scope of God's interest in the world. How pathetic. This kind of God portrait was bound to be knocked flat when I got out of my own world and into the larger one where real people suffer and die and are abandoned during their times of genuine crisis and suffering. How can we continue to think about God as the personal need-meeter of the suburbs when we are faced with the magnitude of life?

There has to be more at work here.

Yet I can see how the dominant culture, so out of touch with need, with being oppressed, with suffering injustice, had to radically adjust the Gospel to redeeming a virtual need. We support our position of power by crediting what is actually our condition of privilege with God's direct involvement in our lives. We endorse our new homes and safe travels with God's seal of approval because we believe God cares for us that personally.

We are out of touch with the reality that leaves others without those "blessings" even though they cry to the Lord and pray, even though they wait on God and believe in God's faithfulness.

We have been led to believe that the personal God of the dominant culture secures our position of privilege and therefore we look no further than our beliefs about God to suggest whether or not we have understood the meaning of the Gospel.

Cone says "That is not Christianity."

Today, I agree.

I don't know what the future holds in the faith for me. But I do know that I am open to another way of seeing and knowing God than the one I inherited from evangelicalism.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Living in the belly of empire

Have you ever awakened to the feeling that you somehow missed what matters?

I've spent most of my life (literally from the time I was five years old) trying to figure out what mattered most. I took stands right and left (from defending the girl who everyone called "skunk" because she wet her pants in fifth grade to standing for the right to hold Bible studies in our sorority house).

I have always wanted to know what good my life was, what it was for, why I was here, how I could make a difference.

And so I turned out to be easy pickings for Campus Crusade for Christ. Eternal significance! Making a difference that lasts more than a lifetime! What more could my "meaning-starved" soul desire?

Recently, though, I've discovered just how hollow that ambition really was. It may have been sincere, but it was conveniently hygenic. I never had to hand out food, live like the poor, bandage wounds, give up my physical comforts (ex-pats in the third world manage to live pretty nicely), suffer humiliation, go to prison, get diseases or dodge flying bullets.

Evangelicals get to serve without sacrifice! Such a deal.

But now I'm confronted with this whole other reality—the kingdom of God is about this life. We are called to serve and make a difference here.

Well shit!

Why didn't "they" tell me that when I had lots of energy and no children?

I feel paralyzed by the idea that we are meant to care for the poor in our midst and on a global scale... how can I do anything to make a dent in the inner city problems of Cincinnati, in the racial tensions that I can't see but know are there, in the inequitable standards of public education between my very white suburbs and the black poor neighborhoods?

How can I stop AIDS in Africa, child prostitution in Thailand, and exploitative working conditions in South America?

I am a fish in the waters of empire. I can't see the air I breathe. I only know how to be a beneficiary of Target's low prices, good health care and reliable electricity.

I finally finished Neil McCormick's Killing Bono which charts the course of his repeated failures in the music industry, leading up to his eventual career in journalism (music critic). I feel a bit like that. Failure in the "making a difference" career and resigned to a life of writing about it.

Maybe the Hindus have it right and I'll get another chance next life. Namaste.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Don't shoot me, I'm only the mother

I have a mantra I stole from the movie "Almost Famous" that I repeat each time my teenager leaves the house: Don't do drugs!

Lucky for me, he has chosen to be a straightxedge kid (yes, that "x" is intentional... it has to do with a kind of music and lifestyle choice). Straightxedge kids love hard core music so much that they don't do drugs, drink alcohol, have sex or smoke cigarettes (no weed either) to prove their loyalty to the music scene.

I'm relieved, really. I know I have no control over his choices at 17. So it's nice to think something of my values trickled down into his soul.

But now I'm wondering if I shouldn't have chosen a different mantra for my middle son: "Don't shoot guns!"

I grew up in a home where gun control was a hot topic. My dad, esteemed trial lawyer (yes, he made his fortune off of malpractice cases, but his were all the righteous ones, honest!), hates guns. He's seen too many "accidental deaths" from handguns. He's seen brothers blow holes in the heads of sisters while "playing around," he's seen angry husbands shoot desperate wives. I have too, come to think of it.

I remember living in a fairly scary condominium complex in Orange County, California, where we watched a husband chase his wife with a baseball bat, swinging wildly at her, narrowly missing her head. Wisely, she left him and moved in with her mother. One morning a few weeks later, we picked up the Orange County Register to discover that the SOB had hunted her down. He shot her in the head, killing her... dead. Just like that. Made me ill.

Not too many years before that, a 21 year old member of our church's worship team was kidnapped at gunpoint in the Pasadena mall, raped and shot execution style outside the Rose Bowl. How in the hell do kids get guns to do such evil, life-destroying deeds?

I don't like guns. I don't like the ol' "Guns don't kill people, people do" mantra of the NRA. Spare me. It's a lot more work to kill someone with a potato peeler than a pistol.

So when my 13 year old son nearly lifted off the ground when he heard there was a rifle range in the town nearby and that a homeschooling dad was teaching how to shoot guns, could he go Mom, please?.... I nearly had a coronary.

I flashed back to my dad shunning the use of Duplos in the shape of guns when my boys were little and would play at his house. I remember his shocked expression when those same boys put the Duplos down and then turned their fingers into guns to continue to play. But I assumed they'd outgrow this tendency and become respectable citizens.

How could I have known then that we'd move to "conceal and carry" country, the land of Guns and God?

So each week Jon takes Jacob to the firing range (I can't watch) and each week I admire the neat way the bullets have ripped through the target, nearer and nearer to the bull's eye. ::shudder::

Don't shoot guns! That has a nice ring to it, don't you think?

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Let's all go!

Jerry Springer, thanks for the direction for my prayer life.

(His comments this morning on the radio talking to a Christian caller who declared that "the gate is narrow" and "very few" will make it to the celestial abode...)

Jerry: "You ought to pray that I go to heaven, because if I go, then everybody goes."

You've got my prayers, Mr. Springer. Selah.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Grammys: U2 Three for Three

While I wasn't even rooting for U2 in their categories (I know—shock), I was delighted by their wins anyway. Who can resist the lads?

(I really like Green Day and The Killers and hoped they'd get a foot in the Grammy door... Green Day did.)

The Edge dedicated the Best Performance by a Rock Group or Duo award to his daughter, Sian, who is suffering from leukemia right now (hence the almost cancelled tour).

Bono looked genuinely surprised by the honor of three wins for Vertigo, expressed that he thought this was the best set of Grammy performances ever (I agree!), and then went speechless (most notable speechlessness of the night).

Then Larry stepped forward to speak directly to the fans who felt jilted by the ticket presale fiasco. It was touching that U2 would use that public occasion to directly apologize (again) to the fans when the vast majority of the audience for the Grammys must not have had a clue what he was talking about. The general hub bub on is that they are forgiven.

A few pics and then on to other topics:

Bono with Green Day's Bille Joe Armstrong

Bono singing to his dad

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Killing Bono (by Neil McCormick)

Shout out to BethD for sharing her book with me.

When I was 4' 7" tall and fourteen years old (that is not a typo—I really was cruelly short), I used to stand on the top of my dad's stereo console (it was one of those monstrous pieces of furniture that housed speakers and record player and a small illegal alien family). I stood on the hinged lid that covered the turntable underneath. Opposite the stereo was a massive mirror, ornately framed in gold, above our fireplace. Standing on the stereo gave me a perfect full length view of myself, a view I loved to behold.

But, you ask, why on earth would I want to see a full length view of myself while testing the strength of the lid hinges? Destiny: I wanted to sing like Barbra Streisand or rock out like Elton John or belt out musicals like Shirley Jones. I sang and swooned and "shook what my mama gave me" to an audience of one—the hairbrush and I never looked so good.

I always thought I'd be famous. I imagined being a great actress or pop star or both! By fourteen, my dreams were in trouble. When rehearsing as Dorothy for the "Wizard of Oz," I discovered that although I had a "nice voice" it was not a strong voice. California's desert like conditions attacked my vocal chords for the next twenty-five years. I lost my voice so regularly that by the time I hit my late thirties, I couldn't sing. I would mouth the words to songs, but if I sang, it was three octaves lower than the four tenors. When we moved to Ohio, my voice returned within two months and I've not lost it since. Blessed be the gods of humidity! Sweat never meant more to me.

Perhaps if Hollywood had been in Cincinnati, I might have fulfilled that destiny, would have skipped missionary work and gone straight for stardom. But it wasn't and I didn't and I'm not.

Which leads me to Bono.

My fascination with Bono is in part that he is an Irish male alter ego (what I sometimes wish I could have been, right down to the bitchin' sunglasses and world philanthropy in Africa, of all places that I LOVE!)

Neil McCormick in his novel about being Bono's Doppelganger (or alter ego) explores the pain of watching his friend soar to superstardom while he goes nowhere yet believes he is more deserving. Neil does a great job of showing how his dreams crashed and burned while Bono's child-like faith in God, his band and himself led to the top of the world status of both the band and the man. If you have any interest in the music industry (that you missed out on), this book will cure you of ever feeling badly about not getting into it!

I wanted to share a few quotes.

On early use of multi-media in U2 concerts (1979)
There was a white screen set up at the side of the stage with lights projecting on it from behind. During "Stories for Boys," a snappy song about male-fanstasy role models, Bono dragged Alison on stage and they disappeared behind the screen, where their silhouettes groped and snogged one another (97).

On the hard work of being good
"I saw Bono at a bus stop in town sometime afterward. There was another mental adjustment to be made. I thought that record deals were synonymous with limousines, the beginning of the easy life. "You know, you spend all this time and energy trying to get a record deal," said Bono. "Then you get to the end of this whole struggle and find out it's only the beginning. The real work starts now." (110)

On dreaming big (Neil and his brother Ivan)
Ivan and I were born in the sixties, children of a class revolution, the spawn of TV and pop culture. We were part of what was probably the first generation to take fame for granted. Everybody is at it now, of course. Something previously represented as available only to the highest achievers in mankind is now seen as a career option. We wanted to be famous. Therefore we would be. It was obvious, wasn't it? (115)

Bono's songwriting skills
I listened to War with admiration, not envy. I was honestly amazed that they were progressing in such creative leaps and bounds, producing songs of the transcendent quality of "Sunday Bloody Sunday." "You don't write songs," I had once admonished Bono. "You make these fantastic records but if you took away all the layers of sound what's underneath? There's nothing you could just sing in the shower."

"I don't have a shower," he jokingly replied. "I have a bath. Maybe that's the problem!"

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Tsunami Death Toll: over 300,000

Earth and metal...                             
although my breathing ceases           
time and tide go on.                            

Japanese Death Poem

James Cone

"No white theologian has ever taken the oppression of blacks as a point of departure for analyzing God's activity in contemporary America." (A Black Theology of Liberation 9)

Is it just me? This assertion knocked my socks off. In twenty-five years of attending church, I can't think of one instance where the pastor addresses the racism of American white Christianity.

In fact, whenever I try to discuss the "issue of racism," I am met with an immediate affirmation of "colorlessness" in Christianity and whites go on to compare the disadvantages of being black to those experienced as an overweight person, or someone with economic disadvantage or even being rejected on the basis of Christian faith. There is no willingness to yield to the possibility that we have been (may still be) a part of a system that was fundamentally evil—that our current social location as white middle class Americans was bought for us on the backs of 350 years of slavery and oppression of enslaved Africans.

Worse, those years of slavery were often justified within the confines of white Christian theology. And if slavery was not justified in northern white churches, Cone rightly asks, "Why was there no passion to overturn the injustice being endorsed and supported in the white southern churches?" He declares that there is no such thing as a "Christian church" that supported racism, slavery or segregation.

That we 21st century white Christians are so quick to identify ourselves with the miniscule number of white Quakers who supported the Underground Railroad, or the white liberals who followed Dr. King during the sixties, when we are in churches and communities that were deeply racist in those eras, continues to astound me. It would be interesting to look at the roots of our particular denominations in America and deal squarely with the implications of the denomination's stand on race during the years of oppression. How has the church "repented in sackcloth and ashes"? Or has it quietly adjusted and gone on?

"Because white theology has consistently preserved the integrity of the community of oppressors, I conclude that it is not Christian theology at all." (9)

And this is the crux of the black theological challenge to whites. We whites don't want to be wrong, we don't want to face our complicity, we don't want to invalidate our denominational heritage. We ask, "Can't we all get along? Doesn't God forgive sins? Even bad sins?" Yet have we even probed the depths of a theology that would endorse and support the evil of slavery? To what are we blind today that is endorsed by a theology we consider pure? How do we continue to perpetuate our superiority as a race without even knowing it?

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Teen Logic 101

Teen in Fine Arts class: Dang it! The teacher destroyed my clay pot.

Johannah: No way! Why would he do that?

Teen: He said it looked too much like a bong.

Johannah: But it was a bong, wasn't it?

Teen: Yeah, but he didn't know that.


Johannah: Um, apparently, he did.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Writer, know thyself

In my other online life (where I teach writing and help moms teach writing here), I am experiencing a tidal wave of input about the process of writing and teaching that helps me to stay connected to what writing is like for most mortals.

I remember when I began writing for the outside world (not just school papers, but for magazines and newsletters, as a ghost writer and editor, in my attempts to publish a children's book that I wrote with all of my heart), I called on my mother's robust talent and optimism. As a published author (of some 50+ books now) and writing instructor for more than thirty years, I trusted her and knew she'd have writing resources for me to use as I honed my raw skills. She was my first writing teacher, after all, and remains my best.

The first two books she suggested:
    Writing with Power by Peter Elbow
    Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

I had a similar reaction to both—hey, they write the way I write! I had no idea that writers might have similar experiences of the writing process. It was not only a relief (don't we all want validation that how we do things is "normal"?) but it was also empowering. I felt like I had joined a vast current of written self-expression and that I belonged. I didn't need to "get published" as much as I needed to keep writing.

Just this week, one of my student moms wrote that her college writing class had used Writing with Power as their primary college writing text. She shared how freewriting, positive feedback and no grading had given her the courage to explore writing on another level—the level of writer's voice.

Then she wrote the following sentence that knocked my socks off:
When this teacher helped me find my voice, he helped me find me.

Only a grim administrator would roll her eyes worried that the "objectives for a writing class had not been met."

What is it about the educational environment that causes us to distrust our voices, that urges us to shed ourselves in favor of "objectivity" and "rules based writing" that are as unattainable as being made prom queen at forty? Wouldn't it be glorious to find out that through writing, we could know ourselves, we might awaken to who we are at a more profound level? That's education worth paying for!

I couldn't help but think about the relationship between writing, knowing self and religion. Insofar as faith leads people to a deeper, more honest self-knowledge, I applaud it. But so often, it mimicks bad writing classes—filled with rules, impossible-to-achieve results, criticism by "experts" and a denial of the self that the religious community invited to join to begin with.

I wonder if we can find our "spiritual" voices through free-faith, positive feedback and no grading of our sins? What if we were encouraged to shed our beliefs for awhile and focus on what's true? What if our very lives became freewrites wherein we helped each other find our voices, and thus find our selves?

Friday, February 04, 2005

To blogger or not to blogger?

My current question

I'm having some trouble with my other blog which is hosted on my business site, while being powered by Blogger. Seems that the publishing feature is irritatingly fickle. The archiving feature has acted up, my comments have vanished and at least once every other day, I can't publish to the site. I get an error associated with the SFTP socket. I have had no problems with this blog which is hosted on blogger.

Needless to say, for my business, I can't have this kind of recurring problem. So, I am now researching Movable Type, Type Pad and Word Press. Anyone have experience with any of these?

I have the good fortune of a hunky IT guy who shares my computer and my bed so I don't have to use a completely "dummy style" system.

What I find frustrating is that I'd really like someone to just list the features for laybloggers like me:

Archiving in categories
17 templates to choose from
On/off comments

yada yada.

I like blogger because it has been so easy to get started. I noticed that on PCs, the posting window has a rich text editor! Wow. Not on the iBook. But I've been forced to learn a bit of html so that was good for me anyway.

Still, I'm a bit daunted by the templates in CSS and Php. That might push me past my comfort zone.

At this point, just trying to determine what will be the easiest to use while the most reliable for publishing and archiving. I have a pretty high volume of posts so I need a system that keeps track of everything without getting buggy on me.

I'm thinking I'll try WordPress (it's free) and see how it goes.

Any advice?

Ay Caramba! Have we learned nothing?

See this article: The Salvador Option

NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers. Eventually the insurgency was quelled, and many U.S. conservatives consider the policy to have been a success—despite the deaths of innocent civilians and the subsequent Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

Thursday, February 03, 2005


Our family of seven has managed to squirrel away enough Lire (or Euro, to be more up to date) to travel to Italy this summer. We purchased tickets yesterday and will travel to see my aunt and uncle and their two kids in Viareggio first (by way of Pisa):

Can you stand it? LOOK AT THAT BEACH! I will be passed out, blissfully unaware that the Internet even exists.... Ahhhh.....

Then we'll travel to Florence:

Yes, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it!

We'll have to visit the wonderful San Gimignano that E.M. Forster can't stop talking about in A Room with a View (my favorite book of all time).

And finally, we plan to spend five days in Roma:

Bravissima for us!

For inquiring minds, this does mean that I actually got our passport applications off without a hitch. Six! A flylady feat to behold!

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Operation "Corrupt Homeschooled Youth"

Frozen lemonade from Jacob's birthday party where conservative Christian homeschooled kids were exposed to imaginary adult beverages and poker... with devastating results.

Cheap teenage intoxication recipe:

1 can of frozen lemonade concentrate
1 pitcher full of ice

Whip, frappe, puree on low then switch to atom-splitting speed in a blender until motor smokes.

Pour into clearance rack champagne glasses post New Year's Eve. Gently open umbrellas so that they don't "freak out" and snap.

Toast the birthday boy.

Watch kids walk into walls, slur their words, tickle each other (touching, touching, touching) and giggle so hard frozen lemonade squirts out their noses... all while saying (each one had to say this at least once): "Man what did you put in this stuff? Tequila? I'm so drunk."

Hours of entertainment without an ounce of Southern Comfort! Such a deal.