11 January 2018

Unvarnished Quakerism (comments needed)

This is the second Thursday in a row when I've felt completely floored by something coming out of the U.S. White House. I'll save my few comments for the link section below.

Our Quaker church, Eugene Friends Church, has been remodeling its Web site. We'd like to add a section of basic information about Friends, and I was asked to draft something for discussion for that purpose.

Several other Friends meetings and churches have put together Web-based resources for similar purposes, but I thought I'd try to start from scratch. If you know of a site that you particularly like, please let me know in the comments -- at the very least we might link to it.

I especially welcome comments on the draft I've pasted in below. Just to set some context, here are the principles I tried to observe:
  • minimum of Quakerese
  • undefensive about diversity while reflecting the strong Christian commitment of our church
  • low-key tone
  • not assuming the reader is an intellectual; friendly to diverse temperaments
  • not repeating points already well made on the site
  • not pretending to be encyclopedic (but what crucial elements have I left out?)
  • reasonably up-front about our ideals without pretending we're perfect
In addition to missing topics, how could this presentation be improved? Don't worry, it won't be published without local testing as well! I'd really love to hear from people who are not Friends already, who don't have an emotional investment in our typical ways of describing ourselves.

Here's the draft so far:

Exploring the world of Friends

Are "Friends" and "Quakers" the same thing?

Yes. The term "Quakers" started out 350 years ago as a nickname for Friends -- at first it was a sarcastic tag, then Friends adopted it and have used it ever since. Historical background (scroll down to section VIII).

Are Friends Christian?

Yes. Friends began as a reform movement among British Protestants in the mid-1600's. We rejected the established churches' ceremonialism, enmeshment with government, and reliance on priests as intermediaries, and proclaimed that "Christ has come to teach his people himself." Historical background.

OK, but are all Friends Christian?

There's nobody at the top of the Friends movement to enforce theological conformity. As with all non-authoritarian religious movements, we have our liberals and our fundamentalists, and everything in between. Eugene Friends come from the evangelical Christian community of Quakers; we're decidedly Christian, enjoy exploring what that means for ourselves and our community, and are not manic about imposing exact definitions. More context.

What roles do Quaker women have in leadership?

Leadership is based on spiritual gifts, not social categories. From the very beginning of the Quaker movement, women have participated in leadership, including the role of minister. In past times, this principle of total equality was not honored as diligently as we'd like, but today it's our intention to maintain and practice this central teaching of Friends. Historical/biblical background.

You say "there's nobody at the top" -- so who provides leadership for a Quaker congregation?

We envision the Friends church as people who have gathered together with Jesus at the center. We are learning what it means as individuals, families, and church to live with Jesus at the center, and helping each other to learn how to live this way. Pastors help us by coordinating our work, teaching and preaching, and providing ways for the church to be open to the wider community. Elders keep a watch on the emerging gifts of the people, work with the pastor to see what pastoral care and encouragement the people need, and help set priorities for the growth of the church. The presiding and recording clerks serve the church by chairing the meetings for business (where the church as an organization is governed) and recording the decisions. More context.

Among Friends, what's the difference between a "minister" and a "pastor"?

We Friends are not much for rigid distinctions! In general, we don't distinguish between "laity" and "clergy," so in a sense, we are all ministers. Most Friends churches have one or more pastors, who have particular responsibilities to coordinate worship services, arrange for pastoral care, and represent the church in the wider community. (Specific responsibilities are determined by individual Friends churches.) Friends whose spiritual gifts are reflected in various forms of public ministry may become recognized by their churches as "recorded ministers." More context. Even more context.

Where does the Bible fit in?

The Bible has a central role in our discipleship and discernment. Most Friends agree with early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay that the Bible is "the only fit outward judge of controversies among Christians; and that whatsoever doctrine is contrary unto their testimony may therefore justly be rejected as false." In general, Friends cherish and study the Bible but do not indulge in hot controversies over literal interpretation. Historical background.

Do I have to be a pacifist to be a Friend?

Through the centuries, almost every official body of Friends has taught that we are to reject war and has encouraged conscientious objection to military service. However, we can't claim that all Friends have always observed this teaching. As with all Friends teachings, it would be important for you to study the Friends doctrine of nonviolence and its biblical context before you decide whether or not you can agree 100%. You don't have to consider this alone; pastors and elders stand ready to help you think through whether this or any other feature of Friends faith and practice is a real impediment to your wholehearted participation with Friends. Historical expression.

What are the "testimonies"?

"Testimonies" is Quaker language for the ethical principles and practices of Christian discipleship that we hold dear. It's an important part of what we've learned about living with Jesus at the center. 
  • We choose leaders based on their spiritual gifts, not social status or other irrelevant criteria
  • we make decisions together as a praying community; each member has a voice, and decisions require substantial unity
  • we live simply, avoiding waste, luxury, and vanity
  • we uphold nonviolence in our personal lives and as citizens
  • all people are made in the image and likeness of God; we oppose discrimination of any kind.
These principles are listed in various ways by different Friends churches, but almost all such lists include features very similar to this summary. Example.

Where can I find out more about Friends?

Eugene residents and visitors: please come visit us in our natural habitat (Sunday worship) or contact us to meet our pastor or an elder or to borrow from our library.
There are many online resources to learn more about the Friends movement. The QuakerSpeak videos are one such resource. For example:
Each QuakerSpeak video has discussion questions and a transcript. Not every member of Eugene Friends Church would agree with every nuance of these videos. As you have probably already noticed, we Friends don't put much effort into pretending we're all alike.

Friends World Committee for Consultation is an organization that keeps Friends all over the world in touch with each other. Browse the links for the regional sections of FWCC in Europe and the Middle East, the Americas, Africa, and Asia and the West Pacific.

Ready to plunge into some foundational Quaker writings? Here are some links to get you started:

Robert Barclay, Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678)
Margaret Fell, Six Epistles; Women's Speaking Justified
George Fox, Selected Epistles; Journal, vol. 1; Journal, vol. 2

How Norwegians seem to feel about Donald
Trump's comparison of immigrants' homelands.
Around midafternoon I opened my browser to Twitter, and was surprised to see Norway on the very top of the "trending" list, having reached 115,000 mentions. Naturally, being Norwegian-born, I was curious, but my curiosity soon turned to shock. I was soon directed to this explanation:

Trump derides protection for immigrants from 'shithole' countries

Since there are more Norwegian-Americans than there are Norwegians, having come here from the old country by the boatload back when Norway was an impoverished country, I could not find any possible way to interpret this bizarre commentary other than toxic ignorance and racism.

Equally distressing was another much-tweeted analysis that said White House staffers were not concerned about the backlash from Trump's comment -- it will play well with his base.

This, dear evangelicals, is our "dream President."

Among the many sarcastic and vitriolic responses to Trump's idiocy (often pointing out why Norwegians might not now be flocking to the USA), there was a breath of sanity from James Martin, SJ, editor at large with America. He said,
"Why are we having all these people from sh#*hole countries come here?"
1) They are our brothers and sisters in need.
2) They are often fleeing war, violence or famine.
3) There are children among them.
4) It's the right thing to do.
5) That's who we are.
Shortly afterwards, he added:

The other evangelicals. ("There are more of them than you think.")

Martin Marty begins a new year of commentary.

My denominational-bureaucrat nerves were creatively jangled by Christy Thomas, writing on why the United Methodist Church might need a barbarian like Donald Trump.

Restoring perspective: Scientists are rethinking the very nature of space and time. (Thanks to 3QuarksDaily for the link.)

Just in time to help me recover a bit from s#*holes, a newer version of Buddy Guy's autobiographical song, "Skin Deep."

05 January 2018

The opium of the people

. . . a challenge to American Christians.

Peace I leave with you, my friends
Peace the world cannot give
Peace I leave with you, my friends
So that your joy be ever full.

-- John 14:27, as sung by Gregory Norbet and the Monks of Weston Priory.

In context, Karl Marx's critique of religion seems right; religion can be a fantasy happiness, diverting us from the struggle for a more genuine and just happiness. Whether we're transported to fantasyland by blood-stirring sermons, gentle folk masses or the bass-driven hypnosis of contemporary stadium worship music, or the transactional relief of knowing that, we, at least, will end up in the Good Place, maybe we present less of a threat to the principalities and powers whose own priorities don't include us.

Religion can discourage us from seeking peace in the world, because we're resigned to its absence here; we'll only get it in heaven, right? But Jesus is not "religion" -- he is our Prince of Peace. His principality begins in our hearts, but doesn't end there! With him at the center, we are fully authorized to ask why the world can't give us peace. Who is in the way? Whose interests are served by perpetuating hostility and violence? What made them think they had the right to define our enemies for us?

I personally might not be asking the awkward questions, or chaining myself to the White House fence until I get an answer, or refusing to pay war taxes. I might be the person inviting you to make a heart-commitment to our Prince of Peace; or leading the prayer meeting at which the piano and guitar draw us into deeper devotion. But if, together, we are not feeding our prophets, on our knees praying for them, and collecting their bail money, our faith is little better than a narcotic.

What other opiates are out there, drugging people into abandoning their God-given critical faculties? 

These days, populist nationalism is high on my list. The USA's populist-in-chief preaches "make America great again," but greatness, like peace, is hard to define, unless by "greatness" he means great wealth for his friends and the Wall Street community he once opposed.

As public Christians, we have a stewardship role. Our identity as followers of Jesus, our relationships with each other in our diverse gifts, and the resources we gather -- our organizations, tithes, property -- all make the hope we proclaim more accessible to those who need it. Our liberals push the limits of our generosity, our conservatives keep us in touch with prior commitments, and our love for each other makes our conflicts worthwhile. Above all, we keep it real, not letting pious feelings, however sweet and helpful in building community, divert us from serving the Gospel.

As Americans, we are also stewards. Like it or not, the last hundred years have given the U.S. a central role in the global drama. Our national leaders' post-WWII idealism helped build much of the planet's political and economic infrastructure, despite being frequently undermined by the clashing demons of imperialism and isolationism. The U.S. president has every right to test whether this or that policy choice, or even the fashions and pretensions of global elites, actually serve that stewardship role. Nobody has ruled that there is one single standard of presidential dignity and decorum. But totally aside from his unprecedented level of sheer swagger, the incumbent, Donald Trump, has no discernible clue to the complex nature of America's global role, and is blatantly unwilling to learn, even for the purpose of intelligently questioning and reshaping that role.

U.S.-China relations, the subject of a remarkable New Yorker article by Evan Osnos ("Making China Great Again") are a case study of Donald Trump's disastrous failure of stewardship of the USA's relationships, identity, and resources. Theoretically, it may be quite right to ask whether the USA ought now to abdicate its central global role in favor of another country -- after all, China accounts for about 20% of the whole world's population. But who has decided this? By what process? At what cost to ourselves and others? Where do human rights and environmental protection fit in? Are there creative alternatives to the Cold War and Pax Americana models of the past?

Trump's treatment of Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan, the Palestinians, Iranians, Muslims, refugees, North Korea, the United Nations, the environment, the media, and anyone who challenges him politically, reveals a dangerous capriciousness and superficiality, motivated or amplified by blatant appeals to populism. How do we now propose to break the hypnotic power of that daily drumbeat of boastfulness, and expose the reality that, far from making America great again, it's on the verge of making us unrecognizably brittle?

It's a worthy challenge for followers of the Prince of Peace. We are not politicians, but we are stewards. We have an identity, we have relationships -- worldwide relationships -- and we have resources. We are not drugged, but are wide awake.

Aren't we?

I'd give almost anything to write about some other topic. I had planned to go in an entirely different direction this evening, but couldn't. Please help me think about our responsibility as believers to accompany our world through the current rapid deterioration of Donald Trump's regime. It is a dangerous time.

On the other hand, what would be worse: a period of instability, as we seem to see now, or the possibility of a heavy stability anchored in apathy and a cold, permanent polarization?

The Guardian, 2018-01-04
Sign of the times: two adjoining headlines in today's Guardian. (1) Trump administration plans to allow oil and gas drilling off nearly all U.S. coast. (2) Oceans suffocating as huge dead zones quadruple since 1950, scientists warn.

Timothy Gloege: Being evangelical means never having to say you're sorry. (Does it?)

Adria Gulizia: The cross of fellowship.

On husbands' responsibility for getting their wives ready for Jesus: Scot McKnight provides a link to the original article and Sarah Lindsay's response.

For those of you in Chicago, this is Buddy Guy's residential month at his club. (As if you didn't know!) Since I'm a long way from Chicago, I'm comforting myself with something a little closer: Mark Hummel's Blues Harmonica Blowout, Shedd Institute edition.

Bob Ross fans now have full access to 31 seasons of The Joy of Painting. Our family remembers visiting Muncie, Indiana, 20 or more years ago, so that our kids could meet him in person. It's great to be able to enjoy his calm, confident personality again.

"Help Me." Shedd Institute, four years ago. Watch Little Charlie Baty laying down his guitar for the harp!

28 December 2017

Digesting 2017

January: Grace and mercy

"There's NO happiness in life!" "There IS!" "There IS!"
"There IS, there IS!" Aleksei Merinov, Moskovskii
Komsomolets, via vk.com.
[Writing about our visit to the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir, Russia...] In those moments ("That's what we mean by 'church'") and in that specific part of the cathedral, I felt I was experiencing the warm heart of the Orthodox heritage. It was a complex joy, because I felt surrounded by evidence of the spiritual paradox that is Russia: an ancient Christian faith that preaches mercy and grace, simplicity and avoidance of judgment, contrasting with centuries of relentless violence, conspiracy, invasion, aggression, suspicion, and mass-scale cruelty. Furthermore, that impulse to cruelty sometimes even tries to cover itself with the terms and symbols of Christian faith.

[Yes, I understand that Russia is not the only place where that last bit happens.]

February: Faultlines, part two

[Commenting on the upcoming division of our Northwest Quaker family....] I specifically mean that we were unwilling as a yearly meeting to examine what biblical authority means to us, and why it means different things to different Friends. In my more jaundiced moments, I felt that it was more important to some influential Friends to maintain a stance as heroes of biblical authority than to grant grace to those who cherish the Bible equally but come to different conclusions on controversial issues. I cannot find any other reason to rush the process along other than the threats of such Friends to pull their churches out of the Yearly Meeting if the day of reckoning were to be postponed any longer. So: to avoid losing those angry churches, dissenters were seen as expendable.

March: Do we realize how we sound?

One of the opening frames of Lord, Save Us from Your Followers.
When we Christians are at our most obnoxious in public, could we stop a minute and think honestly about what audience we're addressing? Are we actually speaking to the people we want to bless? Are we actually in direct contact with those who need the Good News, and can we make it our first priority to provide access to the community formed by that Good News? ...

Maybe, if we're honest, our audience really isn't "unreached" people at all. Maybe we're actually trying to impress our own communities. Maybe we're afraid of crossing our group's own thought police, a feature of far too many evangelical subcultures. Maybe we're actually addressing our individual selves, using conspicuous righteousness to compensate for our own unresolved addictions. These sorts of proxy audiences would explain a lot of the anti-evangelistic public messages that come from supposed evangelicals.

April: "On the vocal ministry"

I'm speaking with my Ottawa Quaker mentor Deborah
Haight around the time of this story.
. . . It was the closest thing to a baptism I'd ever experienced among Quakers, and it happened about forty years ago. ... During the worship, a local Friend stood up and gave ministry that included a reference to the oil crisis that had started a year or so earlier. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the power of God -- and was given a phrase or two that I knew I had to say out loud. Nothing more than a dozen or so words came to me, and I was given no time to rehearse or elaborate in the safety of silence. Up I stood, as if pulled up by my armpits. One corner of my consciousness was observing myself with surprise as I began speaking about a Power that wasn't subject to shortages, that could not be embargoed or rationed, unless we ourselves blocked or rationed it.

May: At the head of the table

Both George [Fox] and Margaret [Fell] had been condemned to be "out of the King's protection" for refusing oaths of allegiance and religious supremacy to the king. In one legal appeal mentioned by Margaret, even habeas corpus was ruled as unavailing in the face of this condemnation, known as praemunire. But, according to Margaret's testimony, her original crime was not refusing the oaths, but allowing her home to be used as a meeting place for dissenters and dissenting congregations, namely Quakers.

So, the founding generation of Friends collided directly with the collusion between church authorities and government authorities (in other words, the people who were then "at the head of the table") to repress free expression of Christian faith. The texts, vocabulary, rites, and structures of those claiming to represent the Gospel had been scandalously re-purposed for bondage.

June: It's hard to believe in Jesus

My crucial encounter with Jesus in the pages of the Bible, 43 years ago, led to my decision that I could trust the One who said, "Love your enemies." As I sat on my bed reading the Sermon on the Mount, trying to process the effect that those few words were having on my whole mind and body at that moment, I realized that it really must be God. Only God could speak this command into my life with such heart-stopping authority. After seeing violence destroy my family and poison my nation, I had thought that my capacity to trust had been robbed from me, but that day it was restored.

What was strange to my 21-year-old self was how few others seemed to understand my excitement. As a student at the Institute of Soviet and East European Studies at Carleton University, I was immersed in the world of the Cold War, and I was aware of the empires and neocolonial structures on either side of that big divide. I was also aware of how my own family had been formed in the postwar chaos following World War II. On the one hand, war seemed like the ultimate absurdity; on the other hand, the world seemed to consider the ideals of nonviolence equally absurd, and its advocates (at their best) sweet but marginal eccentrics.

July: A good Quaker is hard to find

Nowadays, among some Friends, "that of God in everyone" is sometimes used as a self-contained summary and explanation of what we Friends believe. For that purpose, it's cultish and inadequate. It avoids saying anything about the Friends movement that is awkward in today's skeptical culture: the Bible, Jesus, the cross.

But as the heart of Friends evangelism and missiology, "that of God" is crucial. Rather than presenting seekers with a set of propositions, we encourage them to turn to that witness of God's love and truth already within them. It's a message that is made credible [or not!] by how our own community lives in light of that witness.

August: That "evangelical" label

"Evangelical" is a link to my own conversion to a personal faith in Jesus, my resistance to cerebral and relativistic substitutes. But that personal dimension might not be obvious to anyone else, especially those burned by authoritarian counterfeits. The irony is that genuine evangelicalism exalts evangelism, but the authoritarian counterfeits are generally repulsive to a skeptical world ... except when they hook those who are vulnerable to promises of total confidence.

Maybe the key point is not to invest myself emotionally in the label as a flag to be flaunted, or as the proud badge of a righteous gadfly. Instead, it's up to me to build a relationship with you or any other audience, a relationship that's able to carry -- in both directions -- the substance of what we want to say about faith.

September: Your obedient servant

My skepticism about obedience only increased when I read the collection of articles in War: The Anthropology of Armed Conflict and Aggression, (see brief excerpt here). This book revealed the zoological realities behind our behaviors and our pretensions. All of the elaborate social and political mechanisms we've build up to organize, conduct, and pay for warfare, recruit soldiers, and justify their actions and outcomes, are just extensions of animal behavior.

It seemed to me, a brand new Christian at age 21, that the obvious response was to demolish all this pretension by directing people's attention to the Biblical vision of peace and the Savior who mobilizes us into the Lamb's war. No longer do we need to fear and mobilize against each other. Instead of obeying, we should be evangelizing.

October: Boredom for dummies

Trackside at Shelby, Montana.
In a moment of unguarded boastfulness, I once said that I was never bored. That claim didn't stop me from preparing for the transatlantic flight and the train trip by loading my Amazon Fire with episodes of Doctor Who and the Vietnam War series, along with two novels, two books of theology, a history of Protestant missions, and two autobiographies -- by Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland and American astronaut Scott Kelly. But much of the time, day and night, I just watched the country scroll past the window. I felt no pressure to savor or memorize or store up -- I just let the planet be the planet and me be me.

November: Becoming the church we dreamed of, part one

Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends approves its name.
My fondest wish -- that Northwest Yearly Meeting would remain united -- did not come true. It was tempting to grieve that rupture indefinitely ... and, to be honest, the grief is not going away soon. However, it is a wonderful comfort to realize that nothing so far is blocking my existing friendships and actual collaborations with Friends in Northwest Yearly Meeting, and I plan to hold on to every relationship I possibly can. In the meantime, I look at developments in Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends with the attitude that Shane Claiborne expressed in his book, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
... [W]e decided to stop complaining about the church we saw, and we set our hearts on becoming the church we dreamed of.
Part two.

December: Seeing Red, part two: On the other hand, ...

We should constantly defend and promote our values, whether we're demanding accountability for domestic surveillance or for the way we treat other countries. Asking for accountability from our own agencies and politicians doesn't contradict being utterly realistic about threats from elsewhere, and analyzing those threats for both method and motive.

I don't argue that we're no better than other countries who spy and hack, but I really hate the imperial mentality that says that, when we Americans do something, it's automatically ok because God bless America etc.

Russian commentators who are essentially sympathetic with democratic ideals sometimes caution us with yet another nuance: Don't credit Putin and his team with more sagacity or strategic vision than they actually have. To do so just plays into their hands, amplifying their own efforts and fitting right into the "Make Russia Great Again" agenda.

Thanks for putting up with this annual exercise. Next week, the usual format with the usual serving of righteous links. New Year's blessings!

Favorite blues video of the year -- a self-serving designation, since this is the only music video I made this year. Performers: a rockabilly group we ran across in St. Petersburg, Russia, in June. We still don't know their name. If you recognize these musicians, please update us!

21 December 2017

On not selling our silence

Christmas blessings!

When my sisters and I were young, and we had been caught in some misdeed, the punishment we feared the most was a caning, administered by our father with a hardwood railing taken from an old crib. The minimum number of blows was ten. I kept a running total of these beatings by penciling tally marks on the inside of my bedroom closet door. We did not suffer in silence like the Spartan boy with his stolen fox; we cried loudly for mercy, dragging the awful proceedings out as long as we could, and then screamed bloody murder during the actual beatings.

On one occasion, both Ellen and I were sentenced to a caning. I can't remember our crime; surely it wasn't as serious as the time we secretly repaired our television with stolen parts (shameful details here), for which we were somehow never punished. Anyway, on this occasion, we raised the usual racket. The next morning, as I walked down the stairs from our apartment, a neighbor met me and asked what all that screaming was about last night. I instantly came up with some innocent explanation, although I don't now remember the cover story. In short, I lied to protect family secrets.

I've thought about that whole episode now and again through the years, but never particularly considered the role of the neighbor. She did not keep silent. In fact, throughout my life, I can think of several times in my growing-up years when a neighbor or relative saved our bacon by not shrugging off some evidence that things within our family were decidedly not ok. The whole drama of my younger sister being taken out of that home under threat of police action was actually based on a neighbor not keeping quiet.

All this came back to me today when I read Robin Mohr's tweet about the hashtag #SilenceIsNotSpiritual. Silence is spiritual oxygen to me, so it's hard to read those four bald words without wincing. But it's also clear what the hashtag is referring to. It's in the same family as Emmanuel Charles McCarthy's constant theme, "Apathy in the face of human suffering is radical evil." ("Behold the Lamb," pdf.)

The silence of the disciple and the non-silence of the truth-telling witness have this in common: both require attentiveness. Both have the same yearning: to know truth, whatever the cost. We train our senses to "regard" our neighbors, our whole world, through the eyes of faith, just as we're learning to regard Jesus.

Attentiveness is important but not sufficient. We remain attentively silent as long as it takes for the truth to begin reaching us, but then we communicate. We do not hide in the silence. The blessings of worship are not private; they're to be made accessible to all who need them, so we learn to provide access to these gospel-order communities of ours, based on a radical commitment to truth. That same radical commitment has to hold when the truth is ugly, when the truth is violence, isolation, bondage.

I heard a startling quotation in this week's Slate podcast about the Watergate scandal. In the bonus segment, Mary McCarthy's book The Mask of State provided this description of John Mitchell in the Senate's Watergate hearing room: "He sat before them stonily, the very picture of a man who had sold his silence."

I have personally not been paid or threatened for my silence, at least not since childhood, but countless people have -- people at the receiving end of violence, assault, harassment. My years as a Quaker denominational worker made me aware of too many cases -- such as the pastor who described how he tried to intervene in a domestic violence situation, but the abusive husband was a friend of the local sheriff. Those cases are precisely when the community needs to support them, not isolate and betray them. If your church doesn't know how, here's one place that has experience educating churches to overcome the wrong kind of silence. Dare we hope that the tide is turning?

Here's a query specifically for us Quakers who cherish silence. Is our culture as conflict-averse as it sometimes seems to me? Does that syndrome interfere with our ability to break silence when necessary?

Also on Slate: evangelical women are speaking out.

Jasmin Morrell on the darkness of the womb: #MeToo and the Black Madonna.
We are not meant, of course, to continually dwell in silence and darkness. But integrating them into the center of our being is one of the ways to access the full breadth of our humanity and our divinity. So often in my own life, silence precedes my ability to give voice to some aspect of my story, and darkness precedes a morning where I am able to begin again because I’ve been renewed.
Steven Davison on the evolution of "inward" and "inner" light. Where does that divine spark or seed come from, and when?

This week's links on presidential accountability and impeachment: If Trump fires Mueller. Top U.S. Democrat warns White House. Impeachment and the case of presidential obstruction.

"When things go wrong, so wrong with you, it hurts me, too."

14 December 2017

Love me, love my music

Smokey Robinson's song in gapfill form.

The video I showed in class after the gapfill exercise.

Another gapfill exercise. Audio (YouTube) here.
I don't like you but I love you
Seems that I'm always thinking of you
Oh, you treat me badly
I love you madly

You really got a hold on me
You really got a hold on me, baby

I don't want you but I need you
Don't want to kiss you but I need to
Oh, you do me wrong now
My love is strong now

You really got a hold on me
You really got a hold on me, baby...

(from "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," by William "Smokey" Robinson.)

For many of my classes, I ended the class period with something lighter than the main agenda for the day. On the chalkboard, I had lyrics for a song, but with words missing that the students would fill in as they listened to the track. Naturally, blues and soul were one of my sources, along with interesting songs I found on allmusic.com and other sources. Gospel and peace songs, and old standards from Eva Cassidy, also made it on the list. You can sample them here. (Some of the audio links only work in Russia.)

On the day I played "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," one of my favorite tracks from the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, it finally struck me how the lyrics didn't really stand up to close examination -- at least not as advice for a healthy relationship. I hadn't allowed time for any discussion during that first period, but I had planned to use the song for two more classes. In those later periods I timed it so we had a chance to talk about what the singer's relationship was like, and how the students would feel and act if they found themselves in such a relationship.

You can probably think of some other songs that have similar messages -- "Chain of Fools," just off the top of my head, and "A Fool in Love." I didn't necessarily avoid such songs, but now I was better prepared to go deeper.

There's a corner of the blues and soul world that can get pretty grim. In class, however, I was never tempted to use some of the songs of domestic abuse and murder in my collection. (Robert Nighthawk performing Joe Clayton: "I went down to Ely / to get my pistol out of bond. / When I got back home / My woman had gone. / Gonna murder my baby ....") We did occasionally use songs that got close to that edge, like "Joliet Bound" and "5-O Blues," because they shone a spotlight on particular times and places.

Many of these songs hardly seem to qualify as "entertainment" -- they seem more like raw data about evil and cruelty. I was not tempted to sentimentalize this music, especially after  hearing some of the nightmarish stories collected by my sister Ellen, after her time in the Audy Home, the juvenile jail in Chicago, and later in protective custody at the state's Medical Center Complex. (As you may already know, she escaped from that facility and a few days later was kidnapped and murdered.)

The dilemma for the blues audience, especially for someone like me for whom the musical qualities alone reach to a very deep place of pain and ecstasy, is to differentiate between that raw data and the danger of its normalizing influence. For example, when are we hearing honest testimony and when are we hearing masculine swagger? These days, when we're starting to count the cost of that swagger publicly, it's worth thinking about.

It's only fair to point out that the blues and its derivative genres have as much emotional range as any lyrical genre of music, from plaintive ("Eisenhower Blues") to utterly sweet ("Sweet Little Angel," obviously), and much more. After fifty years of listening to this music, I understand Willie Dixon's words, "The blues is the truth. If it's not the truth, it's not the blues." Or as Russian blues singer Olga Ponomaryova said, "I did not choose the blues, the blues chose me. That's the way it is.... I compare it to when I go to church for confession. The situation is exactly the same: you can't lie."

Odessa blues. This is not music for those who can buy their way out of any pickle.

Jonas Cox on the spirituality of Eric Clapton's music. (Part one.)

GetReligion on Jerusalem, American evangelicals, and a renewed plea for journalistic precision.

What's behind Russia's long-haul truckers' protests?

David Dark on Nashville's Will Campbell legacy.

David Frum explains how to build an autocracy.

Olga Ponomaryova.

07 December 2017

Seeing red, part two: On the other hand

Phishing e-mail of the type I received. You too? (Source.)  
The podcast host's question: "What do you make of all of these conspiracy theories that Trump, our president, is in bed with the ... is in cahoots with the Russians?" (The Warzone episode 23, "From Russia with ... love?" - 03:10)

Podcast guest Natalia Antonova's reply, in part:
I think you have to take all that stuff with a grain of salt ... I think it is very obvious that Putin did support Trump's candidacy in our election, and I think he did it with the mindset that Hillary would win anyway, and I feel like, when Trump won, I guess they've been recalibrating, and we see the effects of that.

... I don't want to be one of those people who says, like, "It's all true," but I also don't want to say that none of it is true. I feel that it's a complicated issue and we have to be very careful and allow for nuance. And nobody's a fan of nuance in the States or in Russia, so, like, I am the least popular commentator by the way on this subject, because I've always asked for nuance.
In my original "Seeing red" post, I tried to be nuanced -- yes, Russian agents of one kind or another were almost certainly attempting to influence the election, but on the other hand, don't let those Russian efforts distract us from studying the specifically American factors that led to the presidential election's disastrous outcome. Based on the arguments I've been having since I wrote that post, it might be useful to list some of the nuances and "other hands":

Yikes! The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming! Just kidding! I couldn't resist a link to an article about one of my favorite films from my teen years. Nobody is really that panicked about Russia now, right?

... On the other hand, I think some of Trump's opponents really are tempted to revive Cold War fears of Russia as a rhetorical crowbar in their attempts to pry Trump out of power. I want to remind people that, as trite as it might sound, the Russian people are thoroughly decent, kind, and insanely funny people, with the same small minorities of idiots, xenophobes, and kleptomaniacs that any society has to deal with.

... On the other hand, Russia (among other nations) suffers from a long and very specific historical pattern of dysfunctional relationships between the ruling classes and the general population. The essential decency of ordinary Russian people might not be reflected when the people at the top decide to safeguard their wealth and power on the national and international stage.

Russian hackers working for military intelligence tried to compromise our politicians' e-mail and even the Internet infrastructure of our voting systems.

There are at least two "other hands" here. First of all, I think this charge may very well be true. On the other hand ...

(1) The evidence is circumstantial. The experts who have studied the evidence don't generally assert that Russia's involvement is proven, and lazy assumptions shouldn't cause us to miss this point.

Even given this presumption of fairness, it is hard for me to imagine any global actor other than the Russian leadership who would stand to benefit from the particular selection of targets attributed to these hackers. That selection emphasizes political and military figures of interest in the Russian authoritarian political context; they're generally not financial, industrial, or intellectual-property targets.

(2) The USA's intelligence agencies do the same thing. Is there anyone's e-mail or mobile phone safe from NSA hacking? In fact, don't Russian and American taxpayers alike assume that their taxes are paying for competent spies and covert influence campaigns? What are we Americans getting for our estimated annual intelligence budget of $73 billion?

Nuance alert! This second point is not an argument for equivalence or against vigilance. In the case of our own government, we should not assume passively that our government is always playing on the side of the angels. We should constantly defend and promote our values, whether we're demanding accountability for domestic surveillance or for the way we treat other countries. Asking for accountability from our own agencies and politicians doesn't contradict being utterly realistic about threats from elsewhere, and analyzing those threats for both method and motive.

I don't argue that we're no better than other countries who spy and hack, but I really hate the imperial mentality that says that, when we Americans do something, it's automatically ok because God bless America etc.

Russian commentators who are essentially sympathetic with democratic ideals sometimes caution us with yet another nuance: Don't credit Putin and his team with more sagacity or strategic vision than they actually have. To do so just plays into their hands, amplifying their own efforts and fitting right into the "Make Russia Great Again" agenda.

The Russians threw the election to Donald Trump! As I said in my first post, and as Natalia Antonova said on the podcast, Trump almost certainly had Putin's support.

On the one hand, the question "What exact forms did this support take?" is a subject that is totally worthy of investigation.

On the other hand, an investigation fueled by anti-Trump and Red-baiting animus is the last thing we need. We should distinguish between two very different targets of any careful and non-hysterical process:

(1) The hacking and cyber-attacks mentioned above. Those campaigns started long before Trump and are likely to continue long after him. They take place in many parts of the world. Even if Trump himself turns out to be as innocent as a proverbial lamb, the technical investigation is worth doing, and our capacity to detect future incursions is worth building.

(2) The alleged complicity of Trump, his campaign, and his staff. By law and by custom, American politicians should be allergic to the blandishments of foreign powers. Let's establish the facts of this (unique, we hope) episode of apparent flagrant corruption, and wherever those facts lead us, let's restore and reinforce the norms that used to prevail.

On the related subject of cable and Internet propaganda such as Facebook and Twitter campaigns, and news and opinion channels such as RT and Sputnik, there are lots of nuances to consider.

On the one hand, social networks are under pressure, and quite rightly so, to improve their screening and transparency, so that fake news, political campaigning, and bullying can be exposed, labeled appropriately, or even blocked altogether if needed.

On the other hand, "foreign agents" such as RT and Sputnik, are a slightly different matter. They are not masquerading as private citizens or civic organizations, and they are a mix of propaganda and actual competent journalism -- and our commentaries about them should help us train audiences to distinguish the two. After all, do we think that our own American outlets are entirely free of pro-USA bias?

The requirement imposed on RT to register as a foreign agent in the USA was, predictably, countered with a similar requirement on American-sponsored outlets aimed at Russian audiences. Having appeared four times on one of those outlets, I happen to admire them, but I can't pretend not to know that their purpose is to give an alternate viewpoint to their audiences.

In their own words, "RFE/RL journalists report the news in 23 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established. We provide what many people cannot get locally: uncensored news, responsible discussion, and open debate." Excellent mission -- and let's be sure that they live up to it, so that the primary propagandistic content of such outlets is in fact their fairness.

A missiological "on the other hand" ... Why people still speak Guaraní.

Mark Kellner wonders why reporters aren't more curious about Kate Steinle's family's faith and lack of vindictiveness, and about the funeral in a winery.

Shaun Walker describes Navalny's presidential campaign and its motivational power.

Who's left to fight for Russian academia?

Kaitlyn Schiess writes one of the best articles I've seen on the church's response to (or responsibility for) sexual assault. Also: Rachel Waltner Goossen on historical justice and the legacy of John Howard Yoder.

Nostalgia warning!! Hamilton, Ontario, 1983 ...