Thursday, May 29, 2008

George of the Jungle

Damn it George, you're just not helping yourself!

(Taken at yesterday's Air Force Academy graduation)


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

An Immanent Fiction

[** There are several 'spoilers' here for those who care **]

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath offers what I would call an immanent fiction. The guiding narrative exists entirely within the sphere of a 'natural order'. The Joad family is forced off there farm during the Great Depression and head west to California in search work. They are accompanied by an ex-preacher named Casey. For much of the story Casey constructs this immanent reality. He is insistent that he is no longer a preacher and throughout their journey gives insight into the world as he now understands it. When first asked if we was going to continue to preach and baptize he responds,

I ain't gonna preach. . . . I ain't gonna baptize. I'm gonna work in the fiel's, in the green fiel's, an' I'm gonna be near folks. I ain't gonna try to teach 'em nothin'. I'm gonna try to learn. Gonna learn why the folks walks in the grass, gonna hear 'em talk, gonna hear 'em sing. Gonna listen to kids eatin' mush. Gonna hear husban' an' wife a-poudnin' the mattress in the night. Gonna eat with 'em an' learn. . . . Gonna cuss an' swear an' hear the poetry of folks talkin'. All that's holy, all that's what I didn' understand'. All them things is good."

The journey of the Joad's across the southwestern U.S. is largely a litany of woe and disappoint as they begin to experience the severity of conditions both for themselves and for so many around them as food become scarce and jobs more so. In Casey' new posture new revelation is received. Casey reflects on this with Tom Joad,

[I] listen all the time. That's why I been thinkin'. Listen to people a-talkin', an purty soon I hear the way folks are feelin'. Goin' on all the time. I hear 'em and feel 'em; an' they're beating their wings like a bird in a attic. Gonna bust their wings on a dusty winda tryin' to get out. . . . They's an army without a harness. . . . All along I seen it. . . . Ever' place we stopped I seen it. Folks hungry for side-mear, an' when they get it, they ain't fed. An' when they'd get do hungry they couldn't stan' it no more, why, they'd ast me to pray for 'em, an sometimes I done it. . . . I used to think that'd cut 'er, used to rip off a prayer an' all the troubles stick to that prayer like like flies on flypaper, an' that prayer'd go a-sailin' off, a-takin' them troubles along. But it don' work no more.

At this point Tom chimes in adding, "Prayer never brought in no side-meat. Takes a shoat to bring in pork." Casey also comes to recognize sin deriving from want, "It's need that makes all the trouble."
It is actually quite early in the book that Casey lays out the framework in which his developing worldview emerges. Tom Joad just got out of prison as was walking back to his family's farm when he encounters Casey under the shade of a tree. They begin to talk and Tom realizes that Casey is no longer the preacher he remembers from his youth. Casey begins to talk about the Holy Spirit as love and says that he honestly can't say that he loves Jesus because he doesn't know anyone names Jesus. He does, however, love people so much that at times he is "fit to bust." Then he admits that he can no longer be a preacher because of "one more thing" that he thought out. And he says, "I can't be a preacher no more because I thought it an' believe it."

"I figgered about the Holy Sperit and the Jesus road. I figgered,'Why do we got to hang it on God or Jesus? Maybe,' I figgered, 'maybe it's all men an' all women we love; maybe that's the Holy Sperit- the human sperit- the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul ever'body's a part of.' Now I sat there thinkin' it, an' all of a suddent- I knew it. I knew it so deep down that it was true, and I still know it. . . . You can't hold no church with idears like that."

This is quite an unnerving passage . . . as preacher (pastor). There are many ways to 'poke holes' in Casey's theoretical framework. His view of sin as deriving from lack is itself certainly lacking. However, what convicts me is his honesty and fidelity to the reality of his experience. If faith, hope and love are to emerge or exist I suspect they must emerge in intimate relationship with the lived world around us. Steinbeck's work continues to push on my thinking of the relationship between transcendence and immanence and I suspect within my tradition also the notion of the miraculous. In contemporary culture it is Hollywood that has the market on the miraculous. They depend on it to resolve crisis and bring order to conflict. This functions in contrast to Jesus' use of the miraculous. The miraculous was not the resolving of conflict in the human condition. In Hollywood miracles function as an 'invisible hand' that will always stabilize the desired economic balance. In the Gospels the miraculous encouraged the marginalized to know that there is another economy that is not grounded in the injustices of their current situation . . . they did not affirm and stabilize they priorities of health and acquisition of their present context as the Hollywood miracles do.
And so in The Grapes of Wrath there are no miracles. As this narrative began to take shape in my mind I was wondering how this book would end. As the pages in my right hand thinned there fewer and fewer opportunities for a 'happy' ending. The Joads were not finding work or rest in their travels. Towards the end Casey is killed for attempting to organize workers into a type of union. Another plot line is Tom's sister Rose of Sharon who is pregnant during their travels and births a stillborn child near the end. It was after her birth that their shelter in train car is beginning to be flooded out by the rains that finally came. What they waited for back home is now proving to be the final threat to their family's survival. One final act of desperation the remaining family sets out in the rain on foot to find shelter. They eventually come across a barn where the find a boy and his father who is almost dead. They recognize that only something warm and nourishing will possibly sustain him. As the closing the lines of the book unfold Rose of Sharon's mother speaks to her and then ushers everyone out from Rose of Sharon and the dying man. Then the book concludes,

For a minute Rose of Sharon sat still in the whispering barn. Then she hoisted her tired body up and drew the comfort about her. She moved slowly to the corner and stood looking down at the wasted face, into the wide, frightened eyes. Then slowly she lay down beside him. He shook his head slowly from side to side. Rose of Sharon loosened one side of the blanket and bared her breast. "You got to," she said. She squirmed closer and pulled his head close. "There!" she said. "There." Her hand moved behind his head and supported it. Her fingers moved gently in his hair. She looked up and across the barn, and her lips came together and smiled mysteriously.

The possibility of hope and healing lie within the plane of the human body. There is no guarantee of health or happiness but the possibility of those things cannot come from a vending machine in the sky, to do so would be to utterly disrespect the reality of life and humanity as God created them. These final words also unnerve me and I am not entirely sure how to appropriate them . . . or whether I can or should. I do feel like I should respect them and that in them there may be a beauty and truth and I have not fully acknowledged.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

Wilde on Fashion

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to change it every six months."
- Oscar Wilde


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Why to Build a Better War Machine (Update)

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a 20 year 30 billion dollar military spending plan. He is calling it "Canada First defence strategy." What I find so disturbing is the rationale cited for this plan.

"If a country wants to be taken seriously in the world, it must have the capacity to act. It's that simple," Harper said Monday at the Halifax Armoury, joined by Defence Minister Peter MacKay. "Otherwise, you forfeit your right to be a player. You're the one chattering on the sideline that everyone smiles at, but no one listens to."

Now of course the stated rationale is the ability to assert sovereignty at home and abroad. And tagged on the end is the promise of economic benefit. "This unprecedented commitment of stable, long-term funding will provide good jobs and new opportunities for thousands, for tens of thousands of Canadians who work in defence industries and communities with military bases." This language comes on the heels of massive job losses in the manufacturing sector in Ontario (particularly, but not exclusively, automotive). It is so disheartening to know that our country's economic foundation is based on either building cars or tanks. Hmmm no great critique here or alternative just a bit of a sigh.

Speaking of the political see Inhabitatio Dei's post on Jesus for President and I Cite's post on Zizek and democracy.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Come Violent Wind, Come Breath of Life, Come Small Ax

In honour of Pentecost I have embedded Bob Marley's Small Ax in IndieVision. Here is my sermon referencing it.


Friday, May 09, 2008

A Mennonite Response to the Claim that We Evolved from Abes Apes


Badiou's Saint Paul; Chapter 9

After exploring the relationship between faith and love Badiou looks at Paul's concept of hope. He first frames a classic notion as hope in the Final Judgment and then says,

Against this classic judicial eschatology, Paul seems instead to characterize hope as a simple imperative of continuation, a principle if tenacity of obstinacy. In Thessalonians I, faith is compared to a striving, and love to grueling work, to the laborious, the troublesome. Hope, for its part, pertains to endurance, to perseverance, to patience; it is the subjectivity proper to the continuation of the subjective process.

And so Badiou claims for hope a subjective victory that cannot accept an objective doctrine of judgment and division of the 'evildoers' for this would dislodge the universal affirmation of love. "The One is inaccessible without the 'for all'." Hope is that which sustains the present work within this universality and so is no longer future orientated but is a present reality which "does not disappoint." (Rom 5:2)


Thursday, May 08, 2008

I Bid You Badiou - Chapter 8; All You Need is Love

Badiou's Saint Paul Chapter 1
Badiou's Saint Paul Chapter 2
Badiou's Saint Paul - Chapters 3-4
Badiou's Saint Paul - Chapter 5
Badiou's Saint Paul - Chapter 6
Badiou's Saint Paul - Chapter 7

For Paul obedience to the law cannot justify the exist of the subject and yet overthrows the possible dialectic between law and grace by saying that the law is holy and that the law is spiritual.

For Badiou this points to 'transliteral law'. This is what emerges from the grace of the event. It is a universal law that is all for all people, it is love. This love exists in declaration, it is militant. It is worth quoting Badiou here in full,

The real of faith is an effective declaration, which, with the word 'resurrection,' utters that life and death are not ineluctably distributed as they are in the 'old man.' Faith publicly acknowledges that the subjective apparatus commanded by the law is not the only possible one. But it become apparent that faith, confessing resurrection in one man, merely declares a possibility for everyone. That a new assemblage of life and death is possible is borne out by resurrection, and this is what must first be declared. But this conviction leaves the universalization of the 'new man' in suspense and says nothing as to the content of the reconciliation between living thought and action. Faith says: We can escape powerlessness and rediscover that from which the law separated us. Faith prescribes a new possibility, one that, although real in Christ, is not, as yet, in effect for everyone.
It is incumbent on love to become law so that the truth's postevental universality can continuously inscribe itself in the world, rally subjects to the path of life. Faith is the declared thought of a possible power of thought. It is not yet this power as such. As Paul forcefully puts it, "faith works only through love."

Love is no prohibition but pure affirmation. And truth is faith working through love.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Wholly Awkward

Most Sunday mornings at church we have a children's time where the children come to the front of the sanctuary and drop their change in box for a special offering and then stay up front for a story. Our congregation loves to remember all the cute and wacky things that the kids say in response to the story being told. The favorite in recent memory was Easter Sunday where I was going to talk to them about winning and losing. To get their attention I told them to try and figure out what I was doing. So I acted out a scene of me beating someone in a video game after which I got up and did a ridiculous victory dance (where I 'shot the duck', 'rode the horse' and 'twirled the lasso') rubbing it into my imaginary opponent. I sat down and asked the kids what they thought just happened. One kid, in apparent shock, said, "That was the weirdest thing I've ever seen!" At which time the church burst into laughter.
Fast forward a couple of months to this past Sunday morning. I told a brief story about how the Mennonite church was growing in Ethiopia despite government persecution (in the 1980s). I was about half way through the story when the same kid raised his hand. For some reason I did not stop to ask what he wanted. I finished the story and his hand was still raised so asked what he had to say. He said something about the church being destroyed and then about him helping. I think I actually knew what he said but I asked in response, "So if someone was trying to destroy the church you would help to rebuild it?" And he said, "No, if someone was trying to destroy the church I would help them. I always have to get up and go to something that is so boring." Now this could have been viewed as something cute with a response of a mild chuckle. But there was silence and to be honest I felt awkward. I said something about talking to him more about that later and then closed in prayer.
This event was of course not a big deal. However, in church we do not hear people use the language of 'tearing down' in any real in visceral sense. We coat this in figurative and spiritual language. Jesus too spoke of destroying the Temple. The Temple was an amazing achievement of liturgical imagination. It grounded a people. But foundations in Jesus building were not made of stone (of reason; of law). They were relational and dynamic. So Jesus said, "Not one stone will be left on another, every one will be thrown down."
There is a type of socialization that occurs when we invite our children to the front of the sanctuary. They are under a steady gaze with myself conducting mild experiments probing to find out to what extant they are conforming to the norms and expectations of the share-holders behind . . . to see if their investment will remain safe.
This Sunday is Pentecost with the pouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples in the book of Acts. We associate this event dramatic personal experiences and actions that are confused with drunkenness. The picture though is quite different when we look to Jesus' early relationship to the Spirit. Just prior to Jesus' baptism John the Baptist, in the midst of tirade against the religious leaders, says this,

The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

I wonder how John would have behaved in children's time? I suspect we would hear phrases about destroying the church. I am not sure he would be welcomed to contribute after awhile. In fact at some point he may find himself in the wilderness with nothing to wear but camel's hair and nothing to eat but locus and wild honey.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

Political Theology

Another great book posted at Revelation.


Saturday, May 03, 2008

Politics and Faith

The AP has drawn attention to a document called "The Evangelical Manifesto" that was signed in Washington by over 80 prominent evangelicals. The document will be released on Wednesday.


Thursday, May 01, 2008

They Purchase it in Order to Improve the Economy

Last night I received a phone call from Ipsos Reid. For some reason I had it in my mind that this was a government or public survey company. I forget the woman's opening line as to the importance of this survey, I am sure the word 'improvement' was in there somewhere.

The first question seemed important enough.
(her) Q - What would you say is the most important issue that the Canadian government should be addressing.
(I immediately thought of the war in Afghanistan, but that seemed to be somehow a programed response. After thinking for a moment . . . )
(me) A - The need to create sustainable jobs and address the increasing income inequality.

There were perhaps one or two more questions on politics and then suddenly there was a dramatic shift.

(her) Q - What would you say is the most frustrating aspect of shopping?
Is it
a) Fumbling in your pocket for change?
b) Having to swipe your debit card?
c) Waiting for someone else to be through ahead of you?

(wheels slowly started to turn in my head)
(me) A - Ummm I'm not too concerned about any of those things.
(her) Q - How much time would you say you spend shopping in a given week?
Is it
a) 10 minutes
b) 30 minutes
c) 1 hour
d) 2 hours or more
(me) A - Ahhh . . .
(me) Q - what did you say this research was for?
(her) A - Oh don't worry all of this information will be confidential
(me)Q - (in my head - so no one reads it)
(me) Q - So you have companies purchasing this information?
(her) A - Yes they purchase it in order to improve the economy (or seriously something like that)
(her) Q - Do you want to continue this survey?
(me) A - No.

It was interesting that this morning I just began reading an article by William Cavanaugh called The Unfreedom of the Market. Part of what he addresses in the inequality of information between producer and consumer. This information empowers companies to play on our desires and frustrations while keeping their realities highly veiled. Geez I almost gave my goodies away for free!

It is of course true that advertising does not work on each individual like a lobotomy does. Tracing cause and effect is difficult. The individual does not react like a programmed zombie upon being exposed to effective advertising. As Michael Budde puts it, being subjected to advertising is more akin to playing poker against an opponent who, unbeknownst to you, has already seen the hand you are holding, in a slightly blurred mirror. You still exercise free will, but the dynamics of power have shifted because the situation is set up to advance the interests of others. This imbalance of power happens in two related ways. First, surveillance ensures that the balance of information is decidedly in favor of the marketer. Not only do marketers withhold information about a product from consumers, or divert their attention to evocative images unrelated to the product itself. Marketers also gather extensive information about individual consumers and target their efforts based on this disequilibrium of knowledge. Erik Larson details this phenomenon in his book The Naked Consumer: How our Private Lives Become Public Commodities. Larson began research for the book when, a few days after the birth of his second daughter, a sample of Luvs diapers showed up on his doorstep, courtesy of the Procter & Gamble Corporation. His eldest daughter had already received birthday greetings, just days before turning one, from a marketer on behalf of several corporations such as Revlon and Kimberly-Clark who were selling toddler-related merchandise. Larson describes how information on our purchasing patterns, births, deaths, political views, educational levels, credit histories, pet ownership, hobbies, illnesses, and so on is harvested from credit card records, bank statements, hospital records, websites visited, answers to surveys, frequent buyer cards, even filmed records of our shopping habits in stores. Such surveillance has become incredibly sophisticated: a flyer for "OmniVision," a system developed by the consumer intelligence service of Equifax, boasts "We think we know more about your own neighborhood than you do, and we’d like to prove it!"