Monday, January 28, 2008

Ick Theology

Referencing my previous post, what I'm going to talk about is something I've talked about with others before.

On the way home from work today I stopped at an intersection behind someone who had one of those placards on their car that shows a "Truth Fish" eating a "Darwin Fish". I tried to take a picture of it with my cell phone but was unsuccessful because the car began moving just as I snapped the pic. The picture to the left is something that I found on a Google search for "Truth Fish".

Its interesting how symbols can change in meaning over time. Mind you, this can happen when the text book definition of the symbol remains the same. Added cultural baggage and a different context can radically change the connotation of the symbol, even if the verbal information it stands for doesn't change one iota.

The Ichthus fish is a symbol derived from the acrostic of the Greek phrase "Jesus Christ God's Son Saves." The first letters: Iota, Chi, Theta, Upsilon, Sigma, spell the word "ichthus", greek for fish. During the first and second centuries the fish symbol was used by the followers of Jesus to identify each other in a way that would not signal outsiders as to their true allegiances. Christians were seen as irreligious "atheistic" rebels that would not engage in the civil religion of the Roman Empire. It wasn't particularly wise to advertise your religious, and quite frankly political, affiliations openly in such a context. A way that Christians would identify themselves to each other was to scratch the outline of a fish in the dirt or on a wall and see how other people would react to it. Those in the know would recognize the one making the symbol as a brother or sister and know they could openly discuss their belief in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Those not in the know would think they were hungry for fish and chips that evening. :)

Now the fish is an open show of solidarity with one's coreligionists. It is an expression that "Yes, I'm a Christian and I'm proud of it." And, in the case of the "Truth Fish" above, it's and assertion that "we will overcome you", an assertion of dominance. My experience, which is admittedly not universal in scope, has been that such a fish belongs to someone that wants to see "Christian Morality" (often synonymous with a Far Right political agenda) made the imposed and enforced norm for American society. In a country that is, regardless of the decline of religion in general, and Christianity in particular, primarily "Christian" this can be kind of scary to the nonchristian, or even those Christians that are not Far Right in their views. (Ah, to be fair, the "Truth Fish" is a response to the "Darwin Fish", that is actually probably a product of the fear I just mentioned.)

The Ichthus fish has evolved from a clandestine form of communication between the members of a peaceful persecuted minority, to a declaration of cultural superiority and a promise that you will be eaten if you oppose us. Ok, maybe not eaten, maybe just nibbled upon. :)

"There is nothing new in my head", um I meant "under the sun."

A friend of mine recently pointed out that I'm not discussing anything new in my blog. Everything I've posted has been something I've discussed with him before. He's probably right. I'm a collector of ideas, most of them not terribly new. I can live with that.

Thinking about my intent in doing this, I imagine its mostly about learning how to make sense to other people. I've got a lot of stuff rolling around in my head that I need to learn how to put out there in an intelligible form. That's not about a presumption that what I'm thinking has any objective value to it, it's more that I need to converse with someone to move forward. In good old Nietzchian fashion, I need someone to war with me, to vanquish my ideas when they are weak.

Hehe.... like anyone is reading this. :)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Midday in the Garden of Good and Evil

A few years ago I went to a largish conservative evangelical church in a largish town in Northern California. One Sunday a group was stationed in the foyer registering voters and passing out voter guides. When I read the guide it advocated for traditional "Christian values" and provided suggested votes on various propositions up for consideration.

One issue discussed was a proposition that would put a 1% tax on any personal income above 1 million dollars and put that money towards providing services for the state's mentally ill population. It would be used to fund programs that I had seen work. Opportunities for them to obtain stable housing, supportive community services, or divert them to treatment rather that to jail when they encountered the criminal justice system.

I have come into regular contact with this population for years and have seen programs like this change people's lives. I've also seen programs like this dry up and blow away as they are written out of the budget on a state level, leaving the previous recipients of services to fend for themselves, sometimes leading to further negative involvement with the criminal justice system. Trust me, no one saves money by sending these people through the court system, paying for the time of the judge, attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, and probation officers, as well paying for housing in the jail (often times single celled due to behavioral issues, and requiring special medical attention), and maybe later prison. This is not to mention the moral concerns of criminalizing mental illness.

The voter guide advocated for voting against the proposition. It offered that we should not put a 1% tax on the rich for the sake of the mentally ill because they did not feel that the money already given was well used by the state mental health system.

What does that have to do with being a Christian? How does that position express the values of the Kingdom of God?

"Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." She kept this up for many days. Finally Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!" At that moment the spirit left her."
Acts 16:16-18 NIV

Put yourself in the situation. You've got a girl who is being exploited by someone else, is apparently demonized, and is engaged in fortune telling for the profit of her masters. If we set aside the controversy over whether there are actually personal evil spirits (I tend to think there might be) and whether fortune telling is wrong (I tend to think any attempt to gain insider info is egoistic) and grant them, simply for the sake of argument, the value that the writer seems to place upon them, there is something further to consider. The girl is telling bystanders to listen to what you are saying. What do you do? It's simple to look at the text and give the answer already provided, but that would be cheating. :) Remember, it took several days of Paul being troubled before he knew what to do.

Do you tell others not to listen to her, thus causing onlookers to wonder what to do with the fact that she is advocating for you? Does this mean they should or shouldn't listen to you? After all, look at what you do to those who advocate for you?

Do you do nothing and simply accept her acclamation? This might be perceived as a validation of her fortune telling, and a tacit acceptance of her demonization and status as an exploited slave.

Or do you do what Paul does and take the time to ferret out the evil from the good, explicitly reject what is wrong in the situation and redeem what is worth saving?

It's all too easy for us to be robbed of the truth when its made to walk along side a lie. When presented with stewardship of the environment coupled with a deification of the same we often fail to separate the two. We might either reject stewardship because we don't want to worship nature, or take care of the earth because "She is our Mother."

We can marry the immorality of drug or alcohol use to the addiction that is both the cause and effect of it and either absolve the addict of the responsibility for the consequences of his actions as a victim of circumstance or brand him an unredeemable criminal who should simply receive the the punishment due his crime.

We can mistake the religious rhetoric of the far political Right coupled with civil religion for the voice of God, or we can react to this melange of political ideology and religion and in our compassion reject any religious affiliations or thoughts and buy the party line of the political Left.

We can equate legitimate struggle with questions on the nature of a prepackaged (correct or not) view of God (or Scripture, or Church, etc.) with rejection of obvious "Truth", or assume that matters of faith are not worth consideration because of the mindless acceptance of oversimplified positions we can encounter.

We like simple answers so we gravitate to the poles on the scale. We want shortcuts to being right. We want someone to chew our food for us.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

You know, life used to be so simple....

"It is, unfortunately, one of the abiding temptations of pastors and scholars to reduce Jesus to words alone, to replace a lived life with a preached sermon or an interesting idea. To remove, however, that which is radically subversive, socially revolutionary, and politically dangerous from Jesus' actions is to leave his life meaningless and his death inexplicable. "

pg. 93
Jesus: a Revolutionary Biography

By John Dominic Crossan

Although I would never have articulated it as such, for fear of being branded a person of little faith, or more accurately, incorrect faith, I used to wonder why they killed a platitude spouting Jesus that just wanted us to be nice to each other and consider the lilies.

I'm trying to figure out what it is for *me* to follow Jesus in this day and age. What sacrifices am I called to make for the sake of seeing God's Kingdom, or Dream, come to pass in the world that I've been planted in. Will it require some form of civil disobedience? Will it lead me into opposition to people that I've come to respect and spent years cultivating relationships with?

I'm considering going back to school and getting a Master's in Social Work. I'm beginning to contemplate how much that process will likely change my life. I may have to switch jobs to employment that is more conducive to going to school, which will more than likely mean a decrease in pay. This will be coupled with trying to find a creative way to pay for school on top of my normal expenses. Most probably there will be no reading outside of my coursework for three years. And the stress.....

All I know for certain is that I'm tired of being where I am in my life. Its time for some sort of change.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Snow on the good and bad, the nice and nasty.

Today it snowed in Baghdad for the first time that anyone living there can remember, some say maybe a century.

People woke each other in the early morning hours to make sure the could share the experience, and as in the attached picture, parents took their children out to walk in the drifting snowflakes. One college student said
"I rushed quickly to the balcony to see a very beautiful scene... I tried to film it with my cell phone camera. This scene has really brought me joy. I called my other friends and the morning turned to be a very happy one in my life."

News reports related that some people wondered aloud if it was a sign from God. They additionally reported no known incidents of violence in the city.

The final paragraph of the Associate Press article read:
"For a couple of hours anyway, a city where mortar shells routinely zoom across to the Green Zone became united as one big White Zone. As of late afternoon, there were no reports of violence. The snow showed no favoritism as it fell faintly on neighborhoods Shiite and Sunni alike, and (with apologies to James Joyce) upon all the living and the dead."

It reminded me of something else I had read:
"You're familiar with the old written law, 'Love your friend,' and its unwritten companion, 'Hate your enemy.' I'm challenging that. I'm telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone give you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best-- the sun to warm and the rain to nourish-- to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal" Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that."

Matthew 5:43-47 (The Message)

The snow fell on everyone, insurgent and soldier, Iraqi civilian and American contractor, and for a short while there was peace. May God grant peace to the people of Iraq.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Biology, Psychopathy, and the Kingdom of God

I work with criminals. To be more specific I work with people negatively involved with the criminal justice system that have documented mental health issues. An interesting and frustrating group of people. The team I'm part of tries to tailor a specialized treatment plan to help them achieve a better quality of life and integrate into society in a way that isn't destructive to them or those around them.

Well, sometimes we run into someone that doesn't respond to treatment and they continue to move through the world violating the rights and persons of others.

I've got someone on my caseload who may be a psychopath. Now that's actually not quite as scary as it sounds. "Psychopath" as a category has gotten a bad rap due to it's misuse in modern media (TV and movies). The quick and dirty of it is someone that doesn't have a innate sense of morality like most of us. They understand the rules, but they don't find themselves invested in playing by them. The know the song, but they can't hear the music. That doesn't mean they are going to kill anyone. It does however mean you might not want afford them the same level of trust you would most people.

Now back to this fellow. We sent him away for evaluation and the report that was returned to us has all three evaluating parties recommending a prison sentence. Based on this report our team has to make a recommendation to a judge as to what should be done with him.

Is sending him to prison at all redemptive? Yes, I know he won't be victimizing regular citizens for the time he's behind bars. And I know that it will make some people feel better that he will be "paying for his sins" as it were. But is this working towards a solution to the issue?

It appears that his brain doesn't work in the same way as the rest of us, and quite possibly never will. Will a prison sentence profit him or anyone around him in the long run? Is this simply deferring a debt at a high interest rate? We send away a baby shark and in a couple of years the community gets a great white shark instead. Rather than helping anyone, victims or perpetrator, are we just continuing to aid in solidifying his character as a predator? If we're not going to gloss over issues like this and respond in an intelligent and redemptive way, what are we to do?

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity

My wife and I got our Christmas presents today in the mail. She got an I Love Lucy ornament and I got a mug and a pack of gum. Initially I considered opening the pack and chewing some, but then thought "What's the point anyway?"

It's even got a catchy slogan on the back. "We don't believe in flavor."

I've got one week to prepare a lesson on the book of Daniel, and I still don't have a clue on what I'm going to talk about. The section is entitled "Hope". I need to read the section of the book and then see what it stirs up. If it covers what I think it does I might try to pull in some of what John D. Caputo talks about in What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, with his discourses on the im/possible. If we conceive how to get there (the future) from where we are do we really even need God in the situation? The concept of the Kingdom of God seems predicated on the goal being impossible, and it is in that impossibility that the Kingdom becomes possible. That is hoping against hope. Heck, it seemed to make sense when Caputo wrote it. :)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

It's a new year.

Its a new year and everyone is making resolutions. I guess this is as good a time as any to turn over a new leaf and start blogging. I've grown tired of how much time I waste playing inane games and watching even more inane television and I've resolved to increase the portion of my life that I dedicate to things of value. Things that show a return on the investment of time one places in them. I don't know that this will pan out, but I'm gonna give it a go.

I've just gotten finished reading What Would Jesus Deconstruct? by John D. Caputo. Its been a while since I've read a book that resonated so much with what I see in the world around me, or maybe more accurately what I see myself seeing in the world around me. :) It was a curious process, reading the book. The old conservative evangelical that depends on propositional truth continues to live in the back of my head. As I read he continued to say that some of the more interesting parts were simply word salad (eg. the possible impossible, or the non/step). I didn't know the old codger (the conservative) was still so alive and well back there. I imagine some of the thoughts I entertain these days scare the living shit out of him. :)

I've just started Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan. The first portion of the book is a bit frustrating in that he takes generalizations about First Century Mediterranean society and assumes that they are an accurate portrayal of First Century Jewish culture. Not quite sure how painting with such a broad brush will ever lead to an accurate picture of a specific instance. That being said, I found his parallels between the gospel infancy accounts and contemporary Jewish literature very interesting.

Well, I think this is all I'm gonna get out of my brain for the evening. I hope I actually work on this and don't just let it fade into the nothingness.