Monday, April 30, 2007
I have this one chair that is really cool. It's all lime green, and aqua blue, blotched by squares of red, which are smothered with that orangey-yellow (I swear it's beautiful) and I'd photograph it except it is covered and has been in books and papers and zip jackets for, like, thirty years or at least since I started grad school. It seems like the perfect chair for reading, or so I've heard, but in my office, it serves as file drawers and book shelves, without all that annoying structure of files and shelves to hinder the sliding around of said books and papers.
I was at this non-profit gala the other night for an organization whose aim it is to eradicate a disease I can't pronounce that afflicts about 1000 people in the world. Yeah, I know - crazy rare disease with dire consequences! Half of the afflicted seemed to be in the room. Anyway, the woman who organized the organization is from Cincinnati. When her daughter was diagnosed with this incurable illness she did what any mother would do--she started a 10 million dollar foundation to do scientific medical research to identify the gene, discover the medicines that might treat it and to set up the first clinical trials of the treatments....
Yeah, right!! Who does that? No one. It takes a freak of nature to do something like that. Most people hear their daughter is going to die and there's nothing you can do and they then do nothing. Not this babe. She turned on her uber-mother gene and got to work. How did she do it? According to the speaker, Sue Byrnes (founder) has two essential qualities: She's a workaholic, and a perfectionist.
Well, of course she is! And so seem to be all the other people who do remarkable things. I mean, it's not that I'm lusting after dooce's OCD for example (or is it?), nor is it that I want to be Sue Byrnes.... but well, I blame my parents! They're ridiculously organized neatniks and I can't figure out why I didn't get the gene. Growing up, I can't remember ever seeing a stack of, well, anything as a kid. My mom cleaned out our closets once per year and if a game had even a cracked lid (never mind that all contents were within and accounted for), that game was out the door to Goodwill. I wasn't allowed to have an extra pencil in a drawer, let alone a junk drawer.. My father's "junk drawer" opened easily and slid shut with a happy click, containing sensible items like a hammer, pliers and a ball of rubber bands.
My junk drawer (okay, plural - junk drawers) don't open or close. They sort of ooze.
Today, I wish I knew how to tackle this desk. So I'm doing what I always do when I don't want to organize (see? I'm so not a perfectionist). I'm writing.
I saw a bumper sticker a couple of days ago that I thought tied in nicely too:
I love my country, but I think we should start seeing other people.
(Link now fixed.)
Saturday, April 28, 2007
In any case, the real shocker was Ted Ginn at 9 to the Dolphins. We'd heard Marvin sort of making the case for Ginn for the Bengals in a later round, but BAM! He went before Brady Quinn to a team that needs a QB for the future... Amazing.
It was painful to see BQ suffer through the rest of the first round. I was happy for him to wind up with the Browns (that seemed like such a good fit for him). And honestly, he is just such a great guy! I loved his reaction. He wiped his forehead in open relief and then pointed to the sky like he'd just thrown a TD pass to Samardja. Less money, but within a couple hours of his family. Not bad, not bad.
Bengals have Corner Back Leon Hall (much needed) and Running Back Kenny Irons (don't know him). We don't have a third round pick so tomorrow will be interesting again.
We needed that break from philosophical jargon, didn't we?
So back on that pomoxian loop, a guy named John pointed me to an article by generative anthropologist Raoul Eshleman (do you love that name or what?). He's a UCLA professor (go Bruins!) whose article appears in the online journal Anthopoetics. If you wade through the very academic language of the writing, you'll recognize some of the ideas I wrote about yesterday.
There are loads of articles on this topic in back issues of the journal and I discovered years ago in my googlizing that "performatism" as a term is originally taken from an architectural style found in Berlin. I spent a whole week once looking at performatist architecture on the Internet just to get a feel for what it looks like and feels like.
Summarizing with a hack saw, performatism moves us from parts to whole. Whereas postmodernism teaches us to stand back from the context, taking apart the pieces, examining them, exercising judgment or exposing the undersides, identifying ironies, missteps, power moves and error as though from a position outside/above/beyond the message (object), performance puts us in contact with a subject who is a complex whole, that is, a person whose meaning and message cannot be teased apart. "The medium is the messenger, and no longer the message: it is the extension of a paradoxical authorial subject pointing out his (or her) own materiality and fallibility."
Put another way, a performatist subject is aware of limitations yet acts anyway. A postmodernist may also be aware of limitations, but the approach to life is much more likely to be suspicious and ironic. The performatist is unhindered by those fallibilities (limits of knowledge, lack of appropriate skills or debilitating attributes) because he or she chooses to act because the act itself is identical in meaning with the person acting (the act is no longer a sign that creates or generates meaning - the meaning is in the act).
Let me unpack this further. When I was a "share my faith with anyone living and breathing" kind of evangelist, I was not acting in a performatist way. My evangelism was a sign of what I believed. It was an act based on my desire to coordinate my life with my beliefs. It was as much for the sake of my identity as an evangelist as it was driven by a real concern for the souls of the lost. I operated from a place of deliberate superiority as well.
When I met Jon, my aim was to be a missionary to Muslim Berbers because they were one of the most unreached people groups on earth. I was motivated by beliefs. I asked Jon why he wanted to be a missionary and he replied: "Because I love Morocco. I'd want to live there even if I wasn't a missionary. And Moroccans are some of the kindest people I know." That's might be a pretty good word picture of the difference between beliefism and performatism, from the way I see it.
Performatists are less self-conscious, more humble, sometimes even appear to be idiotic or simple-minded, yet surprisingly in control. They act on behalf of others, they decenter themselves, yet they find themselves in the vortex of real choices that require them to risk. The act and the person match. Beliefs are subordinated to the act.
Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison kept returning me to Eshelman's article. To me, DB's letters and papers reveal him as a kind of performatist. We see not a theologian's theology, but a man who happens to excel at theology, acting on what he believes while taking stock of the limitations of those beliefs and of himself. His deconstruction of the faith, himself, the German church and his countrymen does not stop him from acting. The message and messenger are identical - we cannot study his theology from a location outside the outcome of his life. In fact, his incomplete work Ethics could be seen as an attempt to rationalize the acts he knows he must perform!
Even those who might bristle at his conclusions about the faith can't dismiss him. They are left with a "binding impression of the man" not theology. We encounter Bonhoeffer, not Bonhoefferianism. Bonhoeffer is every bit as deliberate about risking his life on behalf of others as I was about sharing my faith, however, his acts require him to reconsider all that he says he believes because the act became more real, more important, than belief itself.
Another performatist in our midst (who makes my Hall of Fame) is Bono. What do we really know of his theology? We know he thinks the Bible talks a lot about the poor and that he credits Jesus with being the source of his activism. But it isn't how well he constructs or deconstructs the faith that has put him in the public spotlight. It's that his life speaks congruently with what he says he's about. Ever since his six weeks in Ethiopia, he has been haunted by the need to "save Africa." He admits the incongruity of a celebrity philanthropist... and acts anyway. We have this complex, irreducible whole in Bono: a rock star saint (the very antithesis to godliness by most definitions).
Another performatist: Mother Teresa. You do not have to be Catholic to grasp that her life became identical with her message. The underlying values that drove her are less important than how she lived. In fact, she resists deconstruction because we encounter this whole person whose meaning and message are so tied up together that we must admire her in spite of all the Protestant criticism we might level at her theology.
Yet another performatist: Dave Batstone (a friend of Jon's from college). He's a University of San Francisco professor of ethics. He began his life of ethics not writing about ethical dilemmas but "guarding Salvadoran pastors and literacy teachers from death squads." Jon told me that the strategy his team used against the death squads was to circle the potential victim with their own bodies. The circle would grow and the death squads could not shoot that many people and would have to relent. His work now deals with the international slave trade, based on responding to what he learned in an Indian restaurant he frequents.
The common denominator in these individuals may appear to be heroics. But I say not. What unites them is their willingness to act on what they know when they know it and then to draw on the resources of faith, culture, personality, financial well-being, celebrity, education, personal and political connections to follow through. It doesn't matter if their theology is "right." What matters is that the values that shaped them drive them to act (not in a beliefist way, but in a self-giving way). I've featured Christians because that's the world I run in. But certainly performatists come from every faith and non-faith tradition.
Eshelman notes that "In spite of very different religious sources... all performatistic authors share an identical cultural-theological perspective: namely that Godliness is everywhere where wholes are created by individual subjects.(9)
In other words, what draws us to performatists is both their mixed-bag personalities combined with the way they see "God" (I deliberately use that semantically loaded term, but take it to mean whatever it needs to mean to you) all around them in spite of all the screaming reasons not to! They invest the whole self into what they believe requires them to act and it moves us. But they do not act for us, for a belief system. They act because they must, then we spend time trying to figure out why.
My feeling at the end of grad school is this... that to get beyond the anxiety of not knowing enough, of potentially being trapped by a false theology or a mistaken notion of truth, it's more important to act on what I "know" when I know it (self-deprecatingly to be sure, aware of my limits and fallibility, the problems of my ego and fundamentalist tendencies, yet from an authentic place - not attempting heroics). I can even "know" today and "not know" tomorrow, and still act.
Perhaps the biggest change in my thinking has been the awareness that the subject acts subjectively, but does so self-consciously, and in spite of that knowledge. I came from a place where an objective standard of truth was intended to create my behaviors. Yet on this side of deconstruction and the endless search for meaning that eludes me, I see that the people whose lives I admire have less to do with what statement of faith they sign and more to do with how they live in spite of all those limits.
Friday, April 27, 2007
There it was again. I was a "fundamentalist postmodernist." Damn! I was trying to so hard to shed my fundamentalism, yet I had merely brought it along for the ride right into absolute relativity. How like me!
It was about that time that I started graduate school which (though not advertized) has turned out to be a four year fundie-detox program. I learned a few things that helped me see how I had merely exchanged my sets of beliefs, not my way of being.
One of the things I've discovered about questioning the faith is that each of us has a need to find some kind of authoritative answer to our questions. We postmoderns don't take "yes" for an answer and instead want to find out the "whys" before we commit. That means, the postmodern quest for identity is often a search for some kind of originary knowledge, some base from which to anchor one's identity. We don't trust anyone or thing without having come to a conclusion that that trust is warranted.
Therefore postmoderns take apart their beliefs like Lego sets. We call it "deconstruction." Often, we look first to Scripture for some kind of originary authority (a context beyond which we need not go). When the multiplicity of interpretations of even basic texts confronts us, we start down the backwards path to the early church. That search usually includes the patristic fathers, or the Apostolic era, or gnosticism, or mysticism, or some other earlier form of Christianity. Orthodoxy and Catholicism are very popular sources of originary knowledge for deconstructing evangelicals.
Each search is founded on the belief that some earlier incarnation of the faith will prove to be more authentic, closer to the original, more authoritative than what we have today. Still other Christians begin down that same trail and yet find themselves even more puzzled when they discover that every context of early church faith is also in a semantically loaded, politically charged, historically conditioned context that needs just as much deconstruction as the faith tenets that launched the original search for meaning and authority.
Science makes its move as do linguistics, culture, social politics, gender, geographical location, psychology, philosophy.... each of these adds layers of complexity to the attempt to nail down that answer, that absolute that is reliable, that leads to some resting place which will end the postmodern quest for meaning.
Some of us give up along the way. We say: okay, there is no answer. There is no spoon. We'll float long in the sea of charged contexts, aware of our limits, humble about our ability to evaluate them, willing to live without moorings.
But what happens then? A kind of postmodern fundamentalism can creep in - that absolute relativity I was talking about, a hesitation to ever take a stand, to make a wager, to risk being wrong or to risk security on behalf of anyone else. If culture and politics and religion can all be rethought to suit their contexts and "who am I to judge?" is the end result of study, how can we ever make moves for justice or morality or human rights?
I'll leave you hanging right here. We'll tackle what I think might be the way out of the postmodern vortex of reductio absurdum tomorrow.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
It may also be true that when you promote one aspect of a community (conservatism moralism) you will automatically call forth its shadow (liberal sleeziness).
Read on if you are curious at all. Honestly, in reading this article, I felt validated that I had successfully analyzed this city as an outsider. And, since I've been here 8 years, I can also say that for all her problems, I do love Cincinnati.
Here's hoping Marvin and the Bengals have a great draft. Excerpt:
Conservative and uncomfortable
When it was founded in the 1700s on the northern banks of the Ohio River, Cincinnati quickly grew into what has been called America's first inland boomtown. It rapidly became a gateway to the untamed West.
Today, nobody calls this a boomtown. The metro area population is around 2 million, placing it in the top 25 nationally, and there are many major corporations located here. But its residents admit that Cincinnati is as likely to think small as it is to think big: resistant to change, wary of the outside world and happy within its own cultural cocoon.
"From the day I got here [from New York], I was totally struck by how much better this place is than our own people give it credit for," says nine-year Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski.
For comparison's sake to other cities, Cincinnatians might need to get out more. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer says he has neighbors in his suburb whose idea of a vacation is to go downtown and stay in a hotel.
One of the pastors of my church in so. Cal (the only female pastor, btw, who oversaw the prayer ministry) held a meeting for her leadership team of about 75 people to "announce" (I'm still not sure what to call what she did...) that she had been molested as a four-year-old, but that she had repressed the memory. The perpetrator (her dad) denied having abused her.
And then there's the guy my mom dated who dug into his "previous lives" through an elaborate rebirthing process (which looks a lot like an attack of appendicitis) to get past whatever block was preventing him from earning money in this life. (I always thought a job would take care of that...)
Most Californians, though, are more temperate. They cycle through the usual co-dependencies, therapists, dysfunctional families of origin, adult children of divorce, self-help books, Myers-Briggs personality testing, ACA meetings, and sharing of feelings. To me, it's normal to ask questions about why I do what I do, how I came to be where I am and why.
So yeah, I'm pretty used to navel-gazing. Left coasters have turned it into an art-form.
When I moved to the mid-west, no one I met spent time sharing feelings or relational needs, or what I might call, "processing the process." Friendships were based on shared communities, not self-disclosure. I didn't like that at all. How would I ever survive without a friend to explore my psyche with me?
I have survived. I've even adopted a bit of the midwestern reserve. ::Cringe:: if you dive into sexual frustrations with your husband over coffee and bagels. Yes, I see the hazards of the "cut open your spleen" style friendships.
Yet one thing I have appreciated about the legacy of self-examination I inherited from the "I'm okay; You're okay" culture is that it is in my nature to wonder how I am responsible for my life as it is. Can we go too far? I never use words like that. I don't plan to examine lives or memories I can't remember (and didn't have). But somehow, this reexamination of beliefs is all a part of the postmodern condition. It's what we exhausted moderns do. We are taking a long, sober look at all that went before, not liking what we see, and sensing the urge to change.
To me, then, authenticity is not identical with being real (I agree that I have been as honest as I knew how to be, as real as I could be during my previous twenty-five years). To me, authenticity is not only insides and outsides matching. (I've known plenty of fundamentalists whose beliefs match their behavior who lead inauthentic lives.) Authenticity is the result of discovering who we are when we peel back the layers of culture, personal history, pain, controlling systems of belief, and self-deception, and then having the courage to live accordingly.
And since insight is unfolding (not a once for all proposition), it helps to have some idea of how to live and move and have our beings in the midst of all that processing. No need to stop living while processing. That's what I hope to write about tomorrow: how performance can take us beyond the regressive cycle of the postmodern deconstruction of self.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
What is authenticity really? How do I know when I'm being authentic? I've been a person who takes the time to think through what I believe (whether it has to do with faith, birth, schooling, parenting, politics, computers (Macs, of course)). But that doesn't always mean that I've come to an authentic place when I draw my conclusions. So many mitigating forces compete unbeknownst to me. I'm sure now that much of the appeal of Campus Crusade in college, for instance, is that it ensured me a pool of "moral males" from which to find a husband - hopefully a bunch of guys who would agree that you should marry once, for life, and not fool around. My parents' divorce had a powerful impact on me at that time in my life, and yet if you had asked me then, I would have said that I was making choices based on discovering the truth. And I believed that to be the case at the time.
Then there were those decisions like missions, not using birth control and letting God choose the size of our family, not circumsizing our boys (only to find out that my uncircumsized Dad in his 60s has had all kinds of problems that led to a circumcision at that late age! Ouch!), participation in Operation Rescue, joining the charismatic/prophetic movement, homeschooling, and more that felt so right at the time, yet on review, look like they were an expression of that need to commit to the hilt, to join with those who put "right" ahead of "feelings." What a potent frame that need to be right was. It was a kind of protection against the swirling chaos of choice, self-knowledge and the dangers of someone else undermining my aspirations with their flakiness. If I could conclude what was right, I didn't have to consult feelings, finances, fears or faith. I could just do what was right and I'd be right too.
I don't regret all these decisions, btw. For instance, I have never regretted homeschooling. It is a happy accident that has turned out to be something I still believe in even after all the other religious cant was deconstructed and looked at newly.
I felt I was being genuine in each place, though, and I thought I was taking in all the considerations when I made these choices. I believed I was being "authentic." Perhaps I was at the time, given the limits of my knowledge, the invisibility of my emotional crisis as an adult child of divorce, and my rigid Christian belief system. I can see at work these silent partners: drive for community, rejection of family of origin's values, the need to make a difference, putting my "convictions" ahead of my emotions or doubts, dichotomistic thinking...
I remember being in my first graduate course nearly four years ago. The professor gave a lecture that discussed the radical nature of the vision Paul casts in his letters, how it has often been misused as an endorsement of the status quo rather than an overhaul of it. He made mention of how Christianity was a challenge to empire, that it was meant to cut to the heart of the culture and style of governing. As he built his case, I raised my hand and told him what I thought he didn't know: that evangelicals and fundamentalists felt the same way today - that they were wanting to use their faith to change the culture, to overthrow a secular style of governing and turn it toward Christ.
My professor countered: "I would contend that today's Christians want to preserve the status quo at the deepest levels. They are not about challenging it, but about preserving it, protecting and warding off challengers. They are the essence of empire and not the essence of what Paul or Jesus were about."
I had no idea what he was talking about. I remember being so frustrated that he hadn't heard my point, didn't understand just how much my community believed itself to be radical, changing the course of the country and bringing faith to a godless nation, etc. Yet even as I thought it, I knew my own mind limited me. I couldn't quite see my thinking, I could only see the results of my thoughts.
As we left class, I caught up with Dr. Dewey and asked him with anxiety: "How do you learn to observe your own thinking, to see the way you form ideas and thoughts? I feel trapped by my own brain. I sense there is a way to see my thinking so that I recognize the traps I lay for myself, the ways I skew information to fit a pattern. But right now, I can't see it. I don't know how to get there. I know you are talking about things that mean something other than the meaning I am making from them. But I can't see what it is." I was a bit desperate.
He replied, "Julie, patience. You'll get there. It takes time and you are just beginning that process now."
That wasn't the answer I wanted, but it was the right answer. For four years, I've been learning more about the way I process information than anything else. I find myself stopping mid-read of an article aware of my knee-jerk reactions, conscious of how I might have interpreted something before, aware of the influences on my interpretations now. I ask different questions than I used to ask. I wonder new things.
But I still ask that central question: Am I being authentic? What is really true about me and my relationship to this idea right now? My ceaselessly questioning nature has sadly resulted in the closing off of important relationships when I dig deeper and change courses. These are the ones I've cultivated in the various communities that had similar values to mine. Every seven years or so, it seems to happen again—I change and we part. It distresses me. Somehow there is always a price for repeatedly evaluating one's place in the universe.
I wish it weren't so. But I don't know how else to live.
Monday, April 23, 2007
Sunday, April 22, 2007
Friday, April 20, 2007
And this morning I thought, "Dude, that's how I feel."
The putts won't drop, the fields are fast and I'm grinding it out. I'll be at the library all day dredging up the last remaining vestiges of verbiage for this thesis. Once finished, I hope I can post a few sections to discuss here. Bonhoeffer is radical and too often we've domesticated him.
Thanks for all the feedback this week and weeks prior. Namaste.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
On a lighter note, what's your favorite decadent dessert? We love Ghiradelli's brownie mix from Costco and I like to eat my brownies a little bit warm with vanilla ice cream, drizzled with chocolate syrup, covered in whipped cream and sprinkled with pecans.
Photo credit: Caitrin. I love the way she caught the sunshine and the candle in the same photo. Can't get too much naturally occurring light around these parts in April.
Yesterday on NPR, he was interviewed for his insights into how we, as a country, respond to events like this one. I thought his comments insightful and helpful.
For those who'd like to listen, here's the audio file.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
Comfort and strength come from shared suffering and hard work to rebuild what was destroyed, not from some ethereal source.
When we look to a supernaturally, divinely intervening God, we are creating a God that does not correspond with reality. Bonhoeffer, in reflecting on God's abscence during WWII, states that God expects us to "live as men who manage our lives without [God]... Before God and with God, we live without God."
We are a world come of age. It is time for us to take responsibility to shape our future, to take our share of responsibility for the historical moment. It's not a time for us to be drawing theological boundaries around the tenets of our faith. This is not a time to protect God's reputation.
Rather, we have to ask ourselves hard questions about how our way of life contributes to the escalating violence that is inherent in our culture. It is not enough to simply declare "sin is always with us." That is a decidedly unbiblical way to look at the tragedy we are facing. That attitude promotes apathy, not conviction, not a willingness to confront evil. It is not enough to declare that we must love each other or pray more. It is quite possible that this kind of evil is connected to how we conduct life in America. That question has to be asked and addressed.
As those seized by the vision Jesus casts, we must ask how we exist for others in this context. In what way does my life contribute to or oppose the structures that enable random acts of violence in our country? In what ways may I be a part of the healing or recovery from such acts?
The "God who is sovereign" is of no use here. That view renders people passive, leaves them declaring mystery as the solution to the problem of evil and God's relationship to it, rather than putting God at the center of life. What if Bonhoeffer had taken that attitude during WWII?
Bonhoeffer asks "What is God's will for me in this situation?" not "How does evil fit into God's plan?" The first question thrusts me into public life and expects me to take my share of responsibility in shaping out future. I am forced to ask hard questions about gun control, safety, national security, personal responsibility for self-defense and so on. The second thrusts me into theological rumination (and often, justification for a lack of participation in the sufferings of others), not meaningful engagement.
This morning, I keep thinking about what it means to share in the sufferings of others. I don't yet know what it is, but I do know that my conviction that we need some kind of gun control has grown.
Monday, April 16, 2007
Fox News record of past shootings
Lighting a candle for all who've lost those they love.
Today's news: One professor, a WWII vet, heard the shots in the hall, physically held the door to his classroom with his body while the shooter blasted shots through the door (killing the professor). He held the door yelling to students to escape through the windows, which they did and none of his class were shot. This professor was nearly 80 years old. Can you imagine? What a hero. Name: Liviu Lebrescu (Israeli born Romanian, world-reknowned for his aeronautical engineering research.)
I have a special grief for the professors. To me, it's like shooting a library or burning down an art museum. The amount of knowledge they've accumulated to pass on to students taken out in minutes... I can't take it in. Tears all morning here.
Let's just say that through my graduate program years and my hundreds of interactions on the web, I've come to see much more clearly just how much privilege I stand on unconsciouly every day.
So today's column is dedicated to all those white men "who get it" and to the rest of us who are just starting to.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
You might want to read it in advance to understand better the source that generated the passion of my column. :)
Saturday, April 14, 2007
I don't know German, but for the first time, wish I did. By reading these terms in their original sound and shape, I can see how much of my reading of Bonhoeffer is guided by my own language, my culture, my English-framed view of theology. I would love to hear how the words felt and sounded to Dietrich.
Green's work with the letters includes touching and holding them, examining them firsthand in their fragmented form, on old sheets of paper, weather and care-worn. Green writes that the book Ethics by Bonhoeffer was never actually a book. It was the last collection of writings intended to be a book written by Bonhoeffer before his imprisonment. The book was created based on a series of fragments gathered from hiding places posthumously. Some of Bonhoeffer's writings had been confiscated by the Gestapo so we know that the resulting "book" is actually the best scholars can do to gather up remaining fragments, arrange them in some kind of order and sell it to us, the public, in a book format. Not all of what Bonhoeffer wrote is even in the book. They admit that the dating of some of the pieces was dependent on things like comparing the kinds of paper Bonhoeffer used to each other. If one undated sheet was from the same stationary as a dated one, the scholars would make an assumption that the dates must have been similar.
Additionally, Bonhoeffer's handwriting is notoriously bad, so scholars have to make educated guesses about what he meant by various scribbles - what words might he have meant to include? He also uses his own abbreviations for ideas knowing he'd return to revise his own work... only he never did. So it's up to scholars to guess about what these stood for as well. (Many a scholarly career has been sustained through the defense of a position about what a scribble or abbreviation means in any historical text...) Scholars also analyze things like which books Bonhoeffer read during a period of his writing. They can reread those books and see where the ideas were absorbed into Bonhoeffer's thinking, even down to specific terminology. Makes a lot of sense to me as I look back at my own writing and can see how various writers' thoughts are more apparent during the seasons where I was reading them.
The letters and papers from prison, similarly, were not all together laid out in order for Bonhoeffer to review and build on. He was not writing a book. He was writing to a friend, mostly. His theological explorations were written in the dark, that is, blindly. He couldn't go back and compare his thinking in one letter to another. He was literally developing his thoughts as he wrote without the benefit of hindsight or revision.
There are many moments where Bonhoeffer says in a letter to Bethge that he will return to an idea later to flesh it out... and then never does. Bonhoeffer didn't have a "sent" file to check and so as he wrote and mailed off his letters, they were gone from him. His next letter may have built on the thinking, but the continuity can be difficult to establish conclusively. Additionally, it's clear in reading the letters that letter writing allowed him to make statements he might have nuanced more carefully had the audience been "the whole world" rather than a trusted friend and fellow theologian. It's clear he never imagined these letters would be published.
Even though I've worked with this material in various forms for four years, and while I have been reading and rereading the LPP for longer than that, it's interesting to me that it took a scholar laying out how fragmentary the last writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer were for me to imagine in my mind's eye the stack of old, wrinkled, sheafs of scribbly writing. I always forget it. I've got that book on my shelf that deceives me into thinking he wrote a book.
I got to thinking again about the importance of immersing oneself in the reality of the historical context of whatever we study, particularly the conditions under which the text developed. Dr. Dewey, My Favorite Professor, says that until you can smell the garlic, you haven't entered the historical imaginative space sufficiently to study the topic/theology/text in question.
Then I started to think about the power of binding letters into a book format. What does that do to how we see them? How is the reader's view of the content changed by the fact of their being hooked together in a binding and read all at once rather than over the two year period it took for them to be written? What happens when we examine and study the words and thinking in a linear way when Bonhoeffer was still asking questions, not even finishing the answers? I love how in his outline for the book he never got to write, some of his a), b), c) points are single words while others are full paragraphs. It's apparent he hadn't yet done the thinking necessary to flesh everything out. We are not left with a systematic theology, but rather, a glimpse into how someone thinks theologically when wrestling with new ideas. I love that!
And of course, I couldn't help but think about the Bible. What happens when that collection of writings is bound in leather or some gorgeous cover, and then the leaves are edged in gold? How does the "specialness of the text" grow when we add footnotes and commentary, when "historical someones" order the "books" in the identical way every time, leaving some writings aside and determining which are "canonical"? And then centuries later, what does it mean to us today to purchase (pay for) this collection in that book format, in the common version of English? What impact does it make to find the Bible on a shelf in a book store amid other versions, or to discover it in the drawer of a hotel? Do we see it as both special and mundane - as if this book has existed as it is today for centuries? What happens when we forget that communities crafted the Gospels (and instead assume they were written by individual men), that these Gospels were not concurrent - that is, not all the early Jesus communities had the same Gospels, that the letters from Paul were no longer in his possession when he wrote one after the other? How does it change what we think of Pauls' writings when we realize he didn't have a "Christian" Bible when he wrote his letters, didn't know he was writing "Holy Scripture"? Do we stop to consider that his thinking, too, evolved over time, under the constraints of prison or in the luxury of one of his benefactor's homes? How did his thought-world shape his writing? How did he nuance his meanings to suit the particular audiences? Did he write all of his letters? Or do we brush off the hitorical context (give it lip service) but instead put greater emphasis on the idea that these exact words are the very ones God wrote, thereby erasing the importance of the genuine historical, human conditions under which the writings were created?
It makes me think about the danger of remvoing the text from its original context because we tend to enshrine the written word as though it adequately reflects the whole intent of the thinker who generated the original text. Perhaps it is better to think of all writing as letters and papers... a snapshot in time of ideas to encounter—not the final statement, but certainly as provocative points of reference for us today.
I would love to take the Bible or the LPP and republish them in a box, on fragmentary paper, all out of order. I think we need to see a Bible like that, a Letters and Papers from Prison, like that.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Xavier University Library is featuring Tibetan monks today creating a mandala. I'm going down to see it with the kids today. But thanks to the wonders of the Internet, you can view it via live webcam here.
Wednesday, April 11, 2007
That will all end soon. :) Then I'll be here a lot more.
who ordered take out pizza at the movies?
"Excuse me, pardon, me, 'scuse me."
Pizza delivery boy shades eyes and calls out:
"Is there a party named Smith present?"
Shhhh say the annoyed movie goers.
"Ah there you are. I know you're watching Brad Pitt, but here's the large Pepperoni you ordered. That'll be sixteen bucks..."
(Yes, that is Jacob running to the car.)
A few more words about religionlessness. I expect you remember Bultmann's essay on the 'demythologizing' of the New Testament? My view of it today would be, not that he went 'too far', as most people thought, but that he didn't go far enough. It's not only the 'mythological' concepts, such as miracle, ascension, and so on (which are not in principle separable from the concepts of God, faith, etc.), but that 'religious' concepts generally, which are problematic. You can't, as Bultmann supposes, separate God and miracle, but you must be able to interpret and proclaim both in a 'non-religious' sense. Bultmann's approach is fundamentally still a liberal one (i.e. abridging the gospel), whereas I'm trying to think theologically.Let me pop in with a comment to this point, and then I will continue. I think the comment above is very instructive. Bonhoeffer here is explaining how people speak when they speak religiously. What is off-putting and somehow out of synch with modern (or postmodern, if you like) society is this metaphysical talk that is related specifically to individuals (what individuals must do and believe in order to be considered Christians). Now here's how he follows up his own comment:
What does it mean to 'interpret in a religious sense?' I think it means to speak on the one hand metaphysically, and on the other had individualistically.
Neither of these is relevant to the biblical message or to the man of today.That's a mouthful and worth digesting before we speed along. Even if this metaphysical, individualistic way of speaking is meaningful to the religious person, Bonhoeffer declares that it is neither biblical nor relevant to the "man of today."
Hasn't the individualistic question about personal salvation almost completely left us all? Aren't we really under the impression that there are more important things than that question (perhaps not more important than the matter itself, but more important than the question!)? I know it sounds pretty monstrous to say that; but, fundamentally, isn't this fact biblical? Does the question about saving one's soul appear in the Old Testament at all? Aren't righteousness and the Kingdom of God on earth the focus of everything, and isn't it true that Rom. 3.24ff. is not an individualistic doctrine of salvation, but the culmination of the view that God alone is righteous? It is not with the beyond we are concerned, but with this world as created and preserved, subjected to laws, reconciled, and restored. What is above this world is, in the gospel, intended to exist for this world; I mean that, not in the anthropocentric sense of the liberal, mystic pietist, ethical theology, but in the biblical sense of creation and of the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.Let me say here: my aim is not to agree with or disagree with Bonhoeffer, but to offer him as he expresses himself in his last writings. Jesus' life, death and resurrection are everything to Bonhoeffer. But they are not litmus tests of belief. Rather they are God's clarion call of love to us which ought to propel us to wholly invest ourselves (as Christ did) into this life, fully participating in the sufferings of God in the world.
Barth was the first theologian to begin the criticism of religion, and that remains his really great merit; but he put in its place a positivist doctrine of revelation which says, in effect, 'Like it or lump it': virgin birth, Trinity, or anything else; each is an equally significant and necessary part of the whole, which must simply be swallowed as a whole or not at all. That isn't biblical. There are degrees of knowledge and degrees of signficance; that means that a secret discipline must be restored whereby the mysteries of the Christian faith are protected against profanation. The positivism of revelation makes it too easy for itself, by setting up, as it does in the last analysis, a law of faith, and so mutilates what is - by Christ's incarnation - a gift to us!...
I'm thinking about how we can reinterpret in a 'worldly' sense - in the sense of the Old Testament and of John 1.14 - the concepts of repentance, faith, justification, rebirth, and sanctification. (286)
He subordinates specific mysteries to the supremacy of incarnation, life, cross and resurrection of Christ. In these we find the meaning of life and our purpose in it. That is what Bonheoffer asserts over and over again.
I've come to be doubtful of talking about any human boundaries (is even death, which people now hardly fear, and is sin, which they now hardly understand, still a genuine boundary today?). It always seems to me that we are trying anxiously in this way to reserve some space for God; I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man's life and goodness. As to the boundaries, it seems to me better to be silent and leave the insoluable unsolved. Belief in the resurrection is not the 'solution' of the problem of death. God's 'beyond' is not the beyond of our cognitive faculties. The transcendence of epistemological theory has nothing to do with the transcendence of God. God is the beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village... (282)
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
In fact, he critiques his most "venerated" of Christian classics: The Cost of Discipleship in the same letter:
I thought I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like it. I suppose I wrote The Cost of Discipleship as the end of that path. Today I can see the dangers of that book, though I still stand by what I wrote.Bonhoeffer realizes that we can't be more interested in how to live a holy life than in how to lead a relevant life, risking personal safety and reputation in order to share in God's sufferings in the world.
And of course, for evangelicals, they took his primary message to mean that he expected Christians to be bold in their witness. They assumed being others-centered meant to be missionaries to the ends of the earth. Bonhoeffer, however, at the time of writing, was speaking into the German Lutheran context. He was disturbed by the passivity of the German church because they had elevated the act of grace in salvation so high that they feared living lives that might "set them apart" from the rest of the world (perhaps unwittingly putting works ahead of grace in the equation of salvation). This way of thinking about grace led to Bonhoeffer's most famous distinction between "cheap and costly grace."
In chapter one of The Cost of Discipleship, he writes critically of his fellow German Christians, revealing the way they might think about grace and works:
He must let grace be grace indeed, otherwise he will destroy the world's faith in the free gift of grace. Let the Christian rest content with his worldliness and with this renunciation of any higher standard than the world. He is doing it for the sake of the world rather than for the sake of grace. Let him be comforted and rest assured in his possession of this grace — for grace alone does everything.While Luther's monumental insight that grace saved us, not works, catalyzed the Reformation and may have relieved centuries of Catholics from the unending pressure to perform at near perfection in order to merit salvation, the subsequent centuries led to a repudiation of the role of works, trusting soley in grace as evidenced by peaceful trust rather than active engagement with the demands of present life. Bonhoeffer found this kind of Christianity abhorrent.
In Letters and Papers from Prison, he expands this theme. Bonhoeffer asserts that the Christian will not try to avoid the world or to create some kind of religious sanctuary away from the cares and problems of this life, but will rather enter the world fully, leading a ‘secular’ life, that is, a life free from religious obligation. That strikes me as totally different than the common practice of editing the news or avoiding certain kinds of media or removing ourselves from the schools or staying out of politics or wishing to live in a place removed from the sins and shames of this world. I keep asking myself "just how secular" is the life he is advocating? The more I read, the more secular it becomes. Bonhoeffer levels a profound critique at the religious life, suggesting that is has become irrelevant to the vast majority of humans today and that the world gets along just fine without the working hypothesis of God.
So what is a Christian to do under these circumstances? Return to a council of despair, fearing the results of modern science, history, psychology, physics, biology, morality and the rest that keep pushing God beyond the boundaries of human experience and knowledge? Do we really need to convince people that they are sinners first before there can be a meaningful connection made between God and humanity, Jesus and our daily lives?
He asserts by way of example that Napolean Bonaparte wasn't more sinful because he was an adulterer. His private sins are irrelevant in the scheme of things. He doesn't need God because he was unfaithful to his wife. It's his sins of strength that ought to worry us. It's his sins against humanityto which Jesus calls us.
It is again brought home to me quite clearly how wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don't know; God wants us to realize his presence, not in unsolved problems but in those that are solved. That is true of the relationship between God and scientific knowledge, but it is also true of the wider human problems of death, suffering, and guilt. It is now possible to find, even for these questions, human answers that take no account whatever of God (it has always been so), and it is simply not true to say that only Christianity has the answers to them. As to the idea of 'solving' problems, it may be that the Christian answers are just as unconvincing - or convincing - as any others. Here again, God is no stop-gap; he must be recognized at the center of life, not when we are at the end of our resources; it is his will to be recognized in life, and not only when death comes; in health and vigor, and not only in suffering; in our activities, and not only in sin.For Bonhoeffer, unless the absence of God can be meaningfully bridged in the person of Christ, Christianity has ceased to be relevant in our day and age.
The ground for this lies in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. He is the center of life, and he certainly didn't 'come' to answer our unsolved problems. From the center of life, certain questions and their answers, are seen to be wholly irrelevant... (29 May 1944, 311)
I'll expand a bit more on how Jesus fits into this religionless vision of Christianity in the next installment.
Monday, April 09, 2007
Saturday, April 07, 2007
In any event, Bonhoeffer will have to wait. Until then, have a great Sunday morning wherever and however you spend it.
Friday, April 06, 2007
What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christianity really is, or indeed, who Christ really is, for us today. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience--and that means the time of religion in general. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religious any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as 'religious' do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumably mean something quite different by 'religious'.
Our whole nineteen-hundred-year-old Christian preaching and theology rest on the 'religious a priori' of mankind. 'Christianity' has always been a form--perhaps the true form--of 'religion'. But if one day it becomes clear that this a priori does not exist at all, but was a historically conditioned and transient form of human self-expression, and if therefore man becomes radically religionless--and I think that that is already more or less the case (else how is it, for example, that this war, in contrast to all previous ones, is not calling forth any 'religious' reaction?)-- what does that mean for 'Christianity'? It means that the foundation is taken away from the whole of what has up to now been our 'Christianity', and that there remain only a few 'last survivors of the age of chivalry', or a few intellectually dishonest people, on whom we can descend as 'religious'. Are they to be the chosen few? Is it on this dubious group of people that we are to pounce with fervor, pique, or indignation, in order to sell them our goods?
Are we to fall upon a few unfortunate people in their hour of need and exercise a sort of religious compulsion on them? If we don't want to do all that, if our final judgment must be that the western form of Christianity, too, was only a preliminary stage to a complete absence of religion, what kind of situation emerges for us, for the church? How can Christ be Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity--and even this garment has looked very different at different times--then what is religionless Christianity?
I will post his answers tomorrow... they are hardly answers at all. In fact, most of my paper is an attempt to restate his hints at religionless Christianity and how they might help us to ask ourselves the right questions in our attempt to be religionless Christians.
Wednesday, April 04, 2007
Tonight I drove Liam and his LAX (lacrosse) buddy to their game on my way to grad school. He got out of the car and I said, "Tonight, you've got to score. Dad and I won't be there, so you've got to do it!" He laughed. "O-kaaay Mom."
And he did! He not only scored, he got an assist. A really good assist. His coach went nuts and said, "Liam, where has this play been all year?" Made me laugh. This is only the fourth game. Liam had become a pretty proficient scorer on the elementary team last year, but moving up to junior high meant he was competing with much bigger, faster kids. It threw off his scoring. Well, tonight he stepped it up!
The good news: I was so happy for him I didn't feel unhappy for me having missed it. It struck me that sometimes it's probably great to perform on your own, for the sake of the game, without any other reason than the game.
Tuesday, April 03, 2007
I just never would have thought House would go the direction it went tonight. Incredible. I won't ruin it for you if you haven't seen it, but it's my favorite one ever. Honestly, the only thing that hasn't changed for me in the past seven years is how much I still believe the baby in the womb is a baby.
If you didn't get to see it, be sure to look for the repeat on USA. If you did see it, let's talk in the comments.
One of my current students earned a 1550 on the SAT. He's one of the best writers I've ever taught. He's earned A's in all his core subjects. His app was declined by Harvard and Georgetown. Instead, he's taking the full ride scholarship to University of Cincinnati where his academic achievements are not only noticed but honored!
Do you ever wonder how you got into college after you hear stuff like this? Back when I went to UCLA, I had a high GPA and low SAT. My roommate didn't even crack a 3.0 when she was accepted. Today, UCLA is one of the most demanding admissions of state schools in the country. 4.0's are a given.
We're thrilled for Johannah, of course. She's going to love OSU - the size, the collegiate feel, the spirit, the diversity in the student body, the variety of courses. I love that she's an honor's student there, not just barely admitted.
But I can't help but wonder if the current admissions climate and academic achievement requirements are just a bit out of control! Notre Dame revealed that its middle fifty percent of incoming freshmen in 2006 earned between 31-33 on the ACT. I know that there are many, many other colleges that don't require such high standards. Still, I'm pretty amazed at how competitive it's all become.
More, it seems that kids are being driven to perform at increasingly high levels and are forced to take many more AP courses and core classes with a deeper anxiety about how they mesaure up against the competition than we ever confronted. I can't imagine that's healthy.... What do you think?
Monday, April 02, 2007
to his future.
Two days ago, Noah and I chatted on the phone. It's worth noting as he used to call me several times a day and in the last ten weeks, he hasn't called at all. At first, I didn't notice--I mean, not right away because I was glad that he had moved into his own life, not needing me as his sounding board. But then it happened. I got lonely for his voice, his laugh, the way he methodically details a story about Exalted or an IM exchange or the lyrics of one of his favorite songs.
I let him alone though. I know it's important for this shift to happen. And he's got a girlfriend. She gets a good chunk of that debriefing time and should.
Winter quarter was important. He pared down his work schedule, took fewer classes, got some help from the learning center. Learning how to be in school after a life of learning at home where his particular style of self-education had been accommodated meant that it took him two quarters to sort out how to learn in college, not just one.
He called with the good news a week ago that he had passed both classes. Phew. What a relief!
So this past Sunday, when he called, it was not about school, girlfriend, money or work. We chatted at length like the old days of debriefing. I found out that he loves his classes this quarter. He's taking a linguistics course taught by the husband of one of my graduate student friends. The course focuses on the development of language over time, stuff Noah loves. He's also enrolled in "World Music Performance" which includes banging African drums and plunking on a Thumb Piano (yeah, I have no idea what that is). He sits in on Jon's lit class every MWF just for fun. He got one of his good friends to take his favorite class with him so they can chat about linguistics over Super Smash Mouth Bros.
He went on and on about all the people he knows at school now - like the guy whose lunch he bought using his student ID card at the Marketplace cafeteria. They bonded over what it's like to be a broke college student.
Spontaneously he erupted with pleasure over the entire college experience: "I love college. It's like the best life ever." The classes, the friends, the opportunity to live in an apartment. All of it.
Finally, after the enthusiastic report died down, he asked about the kids. I went over each one's activites and developments since he was last home. He got quiet and replied with comments like, "Aw. That's so sweet" and "I miss that."
And right then, that's when I missed him...
But not enough to wish him home. I'm so glad that the door to his future is now wide open. It's satisfying to look through it with him.
Subject: Your reflectionI have no idea what reflection on Easter she has in mind (I haven't written about Easter anywhere that I know about). However, I'm thrilled to think Sabrina imagines I have millions of readers!
I was just preparing for a gathering tonight and found your website. I am saddened that you think so little of all the tenets of faith that go into Easter. Everything you wrote about is at the heart of Easter. We are sinners who needed Christ to die and rise for us. Flowers and decorations are about celebrating this reality. We were created in the image and likeness of God, yet act like demons in disguise. God made sure that his love is always present in our world through the Easter mystery. Everyday should celebrate Easter. But we have one day where we commemorate it through profound celebration. Yes, we should feel shame for our sins. We act less than what we were made to be and thereby dishonor our God with our infidelity. It would be crude to say that we shouldn't feel shame for the infidelity to a spouse. How much more God should be respected than even a spouse! And the other shame is that you share your misguided dribble with millions on the internet. Hopefully a church will see you in the pews this Easter!
Sabrina (director of religious education)
Sunday, April 01, 2007
So today was one of those great days. I took Johannah prom dress shopping. I never did that with my mom so I loved doing it with her. When we got home, kids were mowing the lawn. This is Johannah's impression of how she feels about it. :) Then we cooked Hebrew Nationals and s'mores over our outdoor fireplace.
And finally, once inside, I finished (yes, that's right finished) my thesis. I just punched "send" on the little email icon and it whisked away to my professor advisor. So now all I have to worry about are revisions and preparing for the defense. What a relief!
Thanks to all of you who cheered me on. Starting next Monday, I'll be writing for UPI again. Can't wait.