N.B.: This was originally posted at What’s Left In The Church? on April 21, 2012
It was bittersweet to see the photos of the Space Shuttle, piggybacking on a 747, making its final landing at Dulles International Airport this week. As conflicted as I feel about the whole shuttle program, there is little doubt that this final resting place for this piece of Americana may well be more than a museum for what has passed. It could very well become the graveyard of the America we once knew.
For all its many faults, ours has not been a country that dreamed small. Even individuals and small communities saw themselves as part of a far larger, more grand movement. This continent could be made American; the land could be tilled; roads and canals and railroads would knit together its most disparate, isolated places and spaces, bringing the country together. Victorious in a war against the greatest threat western civilization ever faced, we had both the technical know-how and desire to look up and see, in the vast emptiness of the night sky, possibility. Even promise.
Having reached the Moon, our eyes and ears roaming even further, going in to orbit became routine, part of the workaday practice of being America. An extension of our best sense of ourselves, the exploration of space was testimony to our willingness as a people to risk much in order to gain much. From the first, faltering colonies on the banks of the James River, this willingness to place our collective selves in the hands of Divine Providence in search of greater gain – sometimes commercial, to be sure, but also seeking a place to live out a sacred calling that differed from those around them, or just to break ground in hopes of building something one’s children and grandchildren could continue to build upon – was best expressed by those earliest astronauts going out in to orbit and beyond in craft that, to our eyes, look flimsy indeed. Like the sailing ships that brought our ancestors to these shores, willingly or not, these early spacecraft are a marvel of will over ability, much as the land they founded would become.
That will has withered, however. Rather that risk, we insist that even the maintenance of the most basic parts of the links that bind us, our roads and bridges and rail lines and airports, are just too expensive to manage. Not only do we no longer look up and imagine a future, we barely look out from our homes anymore. Rather than see what we can achieve together, we elect leaders who reflect a fundamental fear that, our greatest achievements behind us, we cannot even hope to hold on to those things that bind us together.
Our politics, like so much else, has become a life in small. We seem a people no longer capable even of knowing our past, let alone learning from both the best and worst of who we have been. Arguments flare up over even the most basic realities of who we have been. These fights, proxy struggles for our identity, show us that we no longer even know who we are anymore. Struggles over race and religion, labor and ideology, demonstrate a fundamental fear among so many of us that our identity is disappearing. Even as our country grows more culturally diverse, taking in to itself more and more of the larger world, ever redefining “America” in wondrous ways, there are far too many of us who rage against any thought that who we are becoming should differ from who we once were. In the process, so much else is lost, the once proud idea that “America” is always a work in progress offering opportunity and, perhaps, real hope, dreaming big and achieving even bigger no longer even a recognizable husk.
We view one another not as fellow Americans who may well see different means toward a common end as a source for positive struggle together. Instead, those things that separate us have become unbridgeable gaps between those who are and are not true to whatever vision of America we see resulting from common work and life. No longer a helpmeet along the way to greater triumph, far too many Americans insist our public life is little more than an obstacle to achieving what we would be far better attempting on our own. This despite the many lessons from the past of the role the state can play, both for good and ill, in helping us along the way to meeting the challenges that face us.
So, even as our common life dries up and our physical infrastructure becomes increasingly abandoned to those who insist we can no longer afford to be a great nation, perhaps the greatest loss we face is the desiccation of the imagination. For all that it is true much of our current greatness was achieved over the trampled bodies of the poor and our African-American and Native American and Asian American fellows, I have long wondered why it became some kind of axiom that bringing these (and so many others) in to our common life, acknowledging the evil we have done as we invite them along as fellow Americans, is some kind of hindrance to a future where we can still dream big, and work toward a common vision of America that brings all of us along.
Why do we even have voices that insist that it is no longer possible to have or do things together as one people? Why do we not join in laughing at people who claim we can no longer afford those things that were built as a common inheritance? Why do we no longer even think it possible to look out from our cities and towns, our prairies and mountains, and see work we need to do together?
More than anything, these are the thoughts that trouble me at the moment. Led for far too long by interests that see private profit over public welfare as the only real end of our common life, we have forgotten that securing the public welfare first is the only way to ensure private profit. Along with this dream-drought, we have harbored far too many who would lie about our history, tell us we were not who we thought we were in order to insure we do not interfere with their gain at our collective expense. Our politics has become shadow play, meaningless ritual without any sense that it serves a larger purpose even as the voices within it have become more strident.
Am I, perhaps, bewailing something that never was? Is it possible that I romanticize too much over a past that never existed, ignoring the millions of victims for whom the dream of America was little more than a device insuring their destruction? Without ever once denying the point, I would insist that the sight of the space shuttle Discovery, not even landing under its own power, heading on to a future as a museum piece in a nation that insists that museums are a luxury we can no longer afford (never mind roads or schools or networks for the free flow of information) is the only evidence I need to demonstrate that, unless we demand an end to it, the voices that continue to call for an end to our common life will drive away the last of any attempt even to dream of something better for all of us tomorrow.
N.B.: This post originally appeared at What Left In The Church?, June 13, 2012
We come on a ship we call the Mayflower,
We come on a ship that sailed the moon
We come at the age’s most uncertain hour
And sing the American tune
But it’s all right, it’s all right
You can’t be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow’s gonna be another working day
And I’m trying to get some rest,
That’s all, I’m trying to get some rest.
Paul Simon, “American Tune”
If there is a single platitude that transcends the political differences of our short age of ideological discord, it is this: America’s Best Days Our Ahead!
Whether it’s Pres. Obama:
The bravery, resolve, expertise and commitment of U.S. servicemembers proves that America’s best days lie ahead, President Barack Obama said at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Dec. 3, .
“Through your service, you demonstrate the content of the American character,” he said. “Some people ask whether America’s best days lie ahead or whether our greatness stretches back behind us in the stories of those who’ve gone before.
“When I look out at all of you, I know the answer to that,” he continued. “You give me hope. You give me inspiration. Your resolve shows that Americans will never succumb to fear. Your selfless service shows who we are, who we always will be, united as one people and united as one nation, for you embody and stand up for the values that make us what we are as a people.”
Or Mitt Romney:
There was a time — not so long ago — when each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter because we had a gift that no one else in the world shared. We were Americans. That meant something different to each of us but it meant something special to all of us. We knew it without question. And so did the world.
Those days are coming back. That’s our destiny.
We believe in America. We believe in ourselves. Our greatest days are still ahead. We are, after all, Americans!
It might be the co-founder of Home Depot:
Despite rampant government spending and heavy-handed regulations, the country’s best days do lie ahead, as the U.S. has shown a history of doing away with policies — and politicians — that don’t foster an entrepreneurial spirit, says investor and Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone.
“Talking about America, let me tell you something right now — I am 100 percent invested,” Langone tells CNBC’s Squawk Box.
“Our best days as a nation are ahead of us. I’m talking about great days. We are a great nation. Every once in a while we get a little foolish and we do things and we get through it. We’ll get through this.”
Or our only Muslim member of Congress, MN Rep. Keith Ellison:
America remains the greatest country in the world and we inspire millions struggling for freedom around the world. When the people of Libya stood up against brutal repression this summer, they waved American flags in celebration and gratitude. As the people of Egypt shape their new government, they are rightly turning to the American Constitution as a model.So before anyone mourns the decline of America, they should look at our history. We’re Americans–in times of crisis, we step up.
This particular theme was sounded most eloquently by that most American of writers,Walt Whitman:
America, filling the present with greatest deeds and problems, cheerfully accepting the past, including feudalism, (as, indeed, the present is but the legitimate birth of the past, including feudalism,) counts, as I reckon, for her justification and success, (for who, as yet, dare claim success?) almost entirely on the future. Nor is that hope unwarranted. To-day, ahead, though dimly yet, we see, in vistas, a copious, sane, gigantic offspring. For our New World I consider far less important for what it has done, or what it is, than for results to come. Sole among nationalities, these States have assumed the task to put in forms of lasting power and practicality, on areas of amplitude rivaling the operations of the physical kosmos, the moral political speculations of ages, long, long deferr’d, the democratic republican principle, and the theory of development and perfection by voluntary standards, and self-reliance. Who else, indeed, except the United States, in history, so far, have accepted in unwitting faith, and, as we now see, stand, act upon, and go security for, these things?
At a moment in time when we all feel unsure, it may well be comforting to hear that this moment not only will not, but perhaps cannot last precisely because we Americans have demonstrated our ability to overcome whatever obstacles barred, for the moment, our climb toward greatness. Few things are more reassuring than the promise that the future will be brighter than the present.
Yet, I wonder. For all that these platitudes and promises play upon a deep strain within the American cultural self-consciousness, what, precisely, practically, effectively, is anyone doing to bring about these better days? What is the substance of these things hoped for, the evidence of these things not seen? A couple days ago, I wrote the following:
We have become more than cowardly. We, as a people, have become blind. We have lost the ability even to celebrate that which is best about all of us as a people. We stagger through our days, hoping only that the collapse will come tomorrow, grateful at the end of each day that we have reached it safely.
I am planning, over the next few days, to explore this contraction of our sense of our abilities, this nagging fear to which we dare not even give voice that in fact our best days do not lie ahead. This is not a state of affairs I celebrate. On the contrary, I am terrified that this fear may yet make itself out to be a prophecy fulfilled. I do think it is possible to rescue ourselves from this state of affairs; the outcome, however, is never certain. Something Whitman, in words immediately following the paragraph quoted above, states quite baldly:
But preluding no longer, let me strike the key-note of the following strain. First premising that, though the passages of it have been written at widely different times, (it is, in fact, a collection of memoranda, perhaps for future designers, comprehenders,) and though it may be open to the charge of one part contradicting another — for there are opposite sides to the great question of democracy, as to every great question — I feel the parts harmoniously blended in my own realization and convictions, and present them to be read only in such oneness, each page and each claim and assertion modified and temper’d by the others. Bear in mind, too, that they are not the result of studying up in political economy, but of the ordinary sense, observing, wandering among men, these States, these stirring years of war and peace. I will not gloss over the appaling dangers of universal suffrage in the United States. In fact, it is to admit and face these dangers I am writing. To him or her within whose thought rages the battle, advancing, retreating, between democracy’s convictions, aspirations, and the people’s crudeness, vice, caprices, I mainly write this essay. I shall use the words America and democracy as convertible terms. Not an ordinary one is the issue. The United States are destined either to surmount the gorgeous history of feudalism, or else prove the most tremendous failure of time.
The challenges we face today are neither unique in our history, nor without solutions that are readily implemented. As we look around us, however, we see the promised horizon retreat and we wonder: Are more than our institutions broken beyond repair? Are we, perhaps, as a people incapable of doing what is necessary to right ourselves and continue moving forward? I shall be employing Whitman as a guide through the tangle in the hopes that his vision may yet offer a way past our moment of doubt.
As a simple, yet terrible, example of the many failures with which we live yet find impossible even to deal: The many ways we have failed those who have sacrificed so much in our wars the past decade. Just last week came news that our active duty service personnel are killing themselves at a higher rate than the enemy.
According to new Pentagon figures, 154 military service members committed suicide during the first 155 days of this year. During the same period, ending June 3, 136 U.S. troops died in combat in Afghanistan, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks combat casualties.
In a decade that has seen so many reports of our failures to support our troops and veterans, whether it was proper body armor or vehicles that could withstand enemy IEDs to the scandals at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital and other VA hospitals, the current failure even to have a general discussion on what it might mean demonstrates, I think, the kind of nagging fear that plagues us. How can we drag ourselves out of a years-long economic slump if we cannot even provide help for those who are serving to protect and defend us? How can we face our problems if we cannot even acknowledge together the problem exists?
For all the rhetoric and even demagoguery that surrounds the support of American military personnel, the reality keeps coming back to haunt us: We have failed them, repeatedly. Before we can begin to work through possible solutions, we need to admit this.
And there lies the beating heart of the dark beast whose presence we fear. We have become so fearful we dare not even mention a failure so basic and profound because to do so might well expose the beast in all its ferocity. That beast is our own cowardice, our fear that we might well not be up to the challenge to make good on Whitman’s vision, a vision cheapened by repetition by politicians and business executives.
This American tune has been played in a minor key for far too long. I am not interested in partisan games. I do not hold any individual or group at fault for our current malaise. We all bear a measure of responsibility for the current state of affairs. As such, we all also carry the burden of admitting our fears, and living together out of our hopes. That is my wish, at least, in the next several posts: To give voice to those things we refuse to say, in order to move through them and perhaps, just perhaps, see a way we all together can make good on the American promise.
N.B.: This was originally published on What’s Left In The Church?, November 26, 2013. It has been edited for content because, well, I’ve changed my mind about some things.
No one knows the rules of jazz like Gary Giddins. No critic has written so voluminously about jazz. No critic since Nat Hentoff in the post-bop 1950’s has been as big a booster of our national art form, working diligently to put before the public this style he loves, believing despite evidence to the contrary that we as a people will fall in love with it with the same fervor if we would only give ourselves to it the way he has. The long-time jazz critic for The Village Voice, Visions of Jazz:The First Hundred Years, publish by Oxford University Press in 1998, is Giddins magnum opus, the attempt not so much to tellthe story of jazz but to give, as the title suggests, his “vision” of jazz, defending his positions with the accumulated knowledge of decades combined with a musical acumen one finds in abundance among jazz critics.
The story of jazz, like all music, is complicated, rooted in social, political, economic, and our peculiarly American racial matters. Born in clubs in the most dangerous part of America’s most multicultural city, New Orleans, most chroniclers, Giddins included, date the music to a single performer, the trumpeter Buddy Bolden. In many ways, Bolden’s story – one of legendary prowess on an instrument; of uniqueness of style; of the excesses of a life spent too long in quarters harboring vice – is the story we know not just from the long history of jazz, but popular music in general. It has been repeated ad nauseum, become a cliche so scripted we have our current crop of public figures – Lindsay Lohan being the best example – ready to play their designated roles if only they would allow themselves.
Giddins is both wise and thoughtful, along with knowledgeable of this particular music’s provenance. He doesn’t start with Bolden. In fact, he starts with the longest-lived form of popular entertainment, one wiped from our collective consciousness precisely because of its association with our racist national id. I am speaking, of course, of minstrelsy. The very first essay – and this book is little more than the collection of 79 essays – pairs two seemingly unlikely gentlemen: Bert Williams and Al Jolson. Bert Williams was one of the first popular African-American recording artists, putting songs on record while the First World War was breaking out in Europe. He was also one of the last great and popular minstrel performers. What makes this latter so troubling for so many, however, was the fact that Williams was black. He just wasn’t black enough, forced in all his public appearances to darken his skin with burned cork, a humiliation he accepted with increasing rage over the years.
Jolson became famous both as “The Jazz Singer”, which he never was, and as part of the last gasp of minstresly, which he never was. The first performer to sing in what had been a silent medium, Jolson did so in black face, becoming at once the focus of much attention and the icon of a half-century of American popular performance. The thing is, Jolson’s appropriation both of the skin color and the music of his more talented and original partner in this essay adds yet another layer to the story of jazz – the uneasy, sometimes hostile, always freighted with America’s sad history, dance between black and white performers. Like the best musicians in jazz, Giddins doesn’t so much come out and pound the theme in to our heads as he does show us, giving to the listener the work of figuring out what’s going on based upon the evidence.
Giddins’s book won the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award, the Bell Atlantic Jazz Award for Book of the Year, and it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1998). One can be forgiven, then, if as a reader you come to it expecting greatness. Like a jazz fan listening to a new piece of music from a favorite performer, a reader who scans the following among the blurbs on the back jacket, would be excused for believing Giddins has written something masterful: “A remarkably nonideological critic, Giddins has long demonstrated a passion for jazz in all its guises. . . . His writing, like the music he loves, is joyously polyphonic, with history, legend, musicology, biography, and performance all rising out of the mix.” This was from an uncredited review in The New Yorker. My problem with this description, however, is it gets pretty much everything wrong.
Giddins is profoundly ideological, if by ideological one means taking sides in the many debates and discussions that surround jazz. On the other hand, if by “ideological”, one means “racial” – taking sides in the debate that has been around since the music was first recorded and disseminated to the broad public that jazz is primarily an African-American art form, one few whites can penetrate well – then being “nonideological” is not necessarily a good thing. This is not an inconsequential matter, and discussions, debates, arguments, even the occasional knife-fight that break out over it are rooted precisely in that very first essay described above: white folk stealing and making their own this beautiful, sad, joyous, raucous art form is yet another indignity African-Americans have had to bear. It is one thing to “play around” the melody of race, as Giddins does several times although not as beautifully as in the first essay; it is another thing, however, not to state that melody clearly.
Another thing that made this book a far more difficult read than it might otherwise have been is Giddins style. If one spends one’s life as a critic, being limited by editorial insistence to 800-1,000 words, it might demonstrate one’s acquiescence to this habit that creating a longer work benefits from writing a series of critical-style essays. Yet, at times Giddins attempt to write either cogently or clearly about his subject matter fails so utterly, one wonders if he will find it again. The best example comes from what seems to me to be a too-long attempt to give Coleman Hawkins’s 1940 recording of “Body and Soul” its due. Giddins sets the scene like any master story-teller would, noting that, like so many great moments, it was born of the humdrum of a musician’s life, i.e., yet another recording date, and one song among several scheduled for that day’s studio time. The following is from p. 127, one of four or five paragraphs in which Giddins attempts to talk about what can only be heard listening to the song, after having acknowledged both the originality of Hawkins’s accomplishment and the fact that, despite its popularity (the record sold quite well), it changed little to nothing in jazz.
If Hawkins’s “Body and Soul” isn’t the single most acclaimed improvisation in jazz’s first hundred years, it is unquestionably a leading contender. Nothing was changed by it. Hawkins’s station had long since been established, and Lester Young’s time was at hand no matter what. At least one critic professed not to understand the hoopla – Hawkins played like that all the time, he made fifty records as good, didn’t he? Not quite. What elevated “Body and Soul” was its purity, its perfection; here, in one spellbinding improvisation, was the apogee of everything Hawkins achieved thus far, an uncompromising example of his gift, a work of art. In his own way, he demonstrated what Lester Young was also in the process of demonstrating: a scheme to penetrate the presumed boundaries of conventional harmony. And he did it with his patented arpeggios, compensating for the absence of identifiable melody with his drive, warmth, and coherence. The public approbation was significant, if puzzling. The record was a sophisticated abstraction of a popular song, yet Hawkins’s variations were embrace to the degree that he had to memorize them to satisfy clubgoers, who insisted he play the famous solo, not a fresh improvisation.
Here we have everything that makes this work so difficult to work through, distilled to one paragraph. How can arpeggios be “patented”? In what way is “Body and Soul” “pure” or “perfect”, beyond a description of the recording – an abstract meditation on a popular song? If nothing was changed by it, is it well known just because of its beauty, its simplicity, its “perfection”? If nothing was changed by it, why does it stand out so much? None of the questions raised by this particular paragraph receive any answers in Giddins’s text. And this is just one of a couple dozen examples where Giddins’s prose fails not so much himself as the reader.
Which leads me to the title of this post: One of the things about jazz, at least in its past half-century or so, is the cliqueishness that seems to surround the music. Its most ardent publicists and fans insist at one and the same time its accessibility and its complexity; its familiarity (if one is “American” enough) and its strangeness. Giddins is no less given to betraying this particular vice (if it is one), in particular demonstrating a willingness to toss out terms from musicology that, it appears, he assumes his readers will understand. This tendency becomes blatant in two esssays, the one on Charlie Parker and the one on Dizzy Gillespie. Giddins includes transcriptions of music from each man, and attempts to use them to demonstrate . . . what, precisely? Musical scores should illuminate, giving the reader a sense of what the performer is playing, even if the casual reader can’t read a note of music. One problem, however, is that notating a jazz solo illuminates nothing. One in particular is more confusing the more one looks at it, or listens to the solo so notated while trying to follow along: Parker’s solo from “Koko”, one of the gauntlets bebop threw down before more traditional jazz in the year or two after the Second World War. The notation lacks both the underlying chords Parker was soloing over as well as an explanation of the rhythmic subtlety that made Parker singular in his approach to the music. Giddins does little to dispel the sense that, to “get” jazz, one needs access both to a vocabulary and a personal style that elevates one above the normal run of music listeners. The picture of a bunch of white hipsters, berets at jaunty angles, sitting in a smoky club snapping their fingers carries throughout the book.
Yet, these frustrations hide many virtues, not the least of which is Giddins’s utter lack of sentimentality. Scanning the late decades of his story, Giddins finds much to recommend to the reader. While dismissing fusion as an attempt at broad popularity this particular style failed to achieve, he nevertheless grants to some musicians who included electric instruments in their ensembles pride of place as he places before the unknowing reader performers as diverse as Henry Threadgill, Gary Bartz, Dave Murray, and the great Cecil Taylor, whose virtues require attentiveness to appreciate. While far too many writers and fans yearn for the “Great Men” who have passed and whose like we won’t see again, Giddins is insistent that jazz still lives, thriving in a variety of musicians who continue the music’s individualistic ethic while navigating the waters between a stale traditionalism and the outer reaches of the avant garde that left too many listeners wondering if such things as harmony or rhythm would remain.
Despite its faults, I would recommend Giddins’s book, with some provisos. Listen to jazz first. Familiarize yourself with the standards, the men and women who shaped the music in the past, their idiosyncrasies and personal touches that make it easy to tell the difference among so many performers using the same instruments. To get used to Giddins’s style, get a hold of Weatherbird, a collection of Giddins’s review essays from the late 1980’s, 1990’s, and early 2000’s (also published by Oxford University Press). Finally, open yourself to the possibilities that exist within and through the music – the possibility not just of freedom and joy, pain and tears; but the possibility that you, dear reader, might become one among the initiates, a hip gnostic who understands that, in the words of British drummer Bill Bruford, “America is jazz and jazz is America.”
The gospel of modern white evangelicalism does not rest on the authority of Jesus’ cross, but on the threat of eternal violence. Instead of submitting ourselves to the slain lamb of God, white evangelicals enthusiastically line ourselves up behind our hero bad-ass God-cop whose most defining characteristic is his love of violent punishment. Instead of being convicted through the authority of Jesus’ blood of all the ways that we continue to crucify him through our injustice, we crucify others with authority as deputies of our bad-ass God-cop.
It is our theology that makes violent authority figures like Darren Wilson, Brian Encinia, and Ben Fields feel completely justified in their savage behavior. Jesus’ cross cannot save us if it is only the receptacle of the violence of a bad-ass God-cop we’ve invented to justify ourselves. Jesus’ cross only saves us to the degree that we recognize it as the place where we have violated God. The blood of Abel continues to cry out from the ground in the blood of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and so many others. But if there are any true Christians in this land, then there’s power in that blood and the authority of the cross will ultimately triumph over the authority of the badge.
If there’s a hero in the story from Columbia, SC, it would have to be Niya Kenny, the classmate of the assaulted girl who got arrested for speaking out in protest of what happened. If you want to talk about obedience, Niya is the one who saw Jesus crucified and was obedient to the authority of his cross. Let us take up our crosses like Niya and do likewise. – Rev. Morgan Guyton, “The Authority Of The Badge Vs. The Authority Of The Cross”, United Methodist Insight, October 29, 2015
Homicide rates in 2010 among non-Hispanic, African-American males 10-24 years of age (51.5 per 100,000) exceeded those of Hispanic males (13.5 per 100,000) and non-Hispanic, White males in the same age group (2.9 per 100,000). – Centers For Disease Control And Prevention, Youth Violence Facts At A Glance 2012
This is addressed to you if you have spent even a moment thinking that former Randall County Sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields was somehow justified in attacking a 16 year old girl. This is addressed to you if you have said or written that kids these days are some unique threat requiring violence to suppress their tendency toward criminality. This is for you if you wrote, “If this were my kid . . .” because – can we be honest here? – if this had been your kid, you’re the parent who’d be on the phone so fast it would hurt the company to connect your call; you’d have lawyers and calling press conferences and suing as many people as you could name. This is addressed to you if you said or wrote, “Well, maybe she didn’t deserve that but . . .” because that “but” shouldn’t be there. This post is addressed to you if you believe in “buts”.
Here are some facts. If you look at that chart – it comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in co-operation with the Department of Education and Department of Justice – youth crime is kinda sorta way down. In fact, it’s kinda sorta so far down that we should be wondering what the hell was wrong with us, those kids back then in the 1980’s and 1990’s when the rates were so high. Kids these days . . . we should be applauding them. Instead, if I’ve read one person write about how “kids these days” are somehow worse, more disrespectful, some spoiled and entitled, I’ve read a hundred. Kids these days are the teachers – they’re teaching us how to live in a society that open and diverse, doing so with far less violence and far more acceptance of difference than has been true in the past. Kids these days are far better than we were. Perhaps we should be grateful for that, rather than pretend kids these days are somehow worse than we were.
Here are some facts. A 16-year-old-girl had just recently lost her only parent. Hurting in ways most of us cannot imagine, her cell phone was her lifeline to her legal guardian, perhaps the only adult to whom she could cling for comfort. When her teacher told – not asked but told – her to relinquish her phone, she apologized and put the phone in her backpack. The teacher insisted she turn it over. She demurred, for obvious reasons. She was then ordered to the principal’s office. She refused to go, which makes sense. The reality is she had done nothing wrong. When the principal arrived, he, too ordered her to the principal’s office. Now, I’m hazarding a guess the principal knew her personal situation; perhaps he could have shown her some understanding and compassion? Instead, he called the school “resource officer”, a cop known around the school as “Officer Slam”. In his infinite wisdom, he slammed her to the floor while still in her seat, tossed her across the floor, then handcuffed her. He then arrested another student who protested his actions and the girl’s treatment.
I’m wondering who was really disruptive?
If you believe schools are violent places where our precious children are in immediate threats to their life, that’s true only if you’re African-American. There’s an epidemic of violent death among our youth: It’s the second leading cause of death overall for people aged 10-24. For African-Americans in that same age-cohort, it’s the leading cause of death. Compared even to Hispanics, African-American youth are being murdered far more frequently. Rather than view African-American youth as some mass threat to our social peace, perhaps we should view them as uniquely victimized, in need of all sorts of assistance and support both public and private to prevent the ongoing slaughter of their children.
Finally, if you call yourself a Christian and you’re still defending Ben Fields’s actions, you should feel shame. Real shame, as in “Wow I really messed up, didn’t I. I feel horrible.” I’m guessing, however, that shame just isn’t part of your make-up. Which is really too bad.
PS: “It’s just my opinion” means you’re willing to ignore any and all facts that get in the way of your pat answer and judgement.
In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: I,Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, ‘Arise, devour many bodies!’After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly. – Daniel 7:1-8
Last night while I was getting dinner ready, my younger daughter, Miriam, sat down in the kitchen and asked me a question. Now, Miriam attends a private, fairly conservative unaffiliated Evangelical high school. As she had told me last week about watching MLK’s entire speech during the 1963 March On Washington, I knew that her English teacher was using religious speech as examples in a section they’re doing on persuasive speech. Like I said, I wasn’t surprised either that Miriam had a question or that she’d ask me a question. What did surprise me was what followed.
“So, Dad, what’s Daniel chapter 7 all about?”
I do pretty well most of the time with Biblical references like this, but it’s honestly been a few years since I’ve perused Daniel, so I asked her to remind me what was in the chapter. When she said, “The beast with . . .”, I nodded and said, “OK.”
Before I said anything, I wanted to know why she was asking. In her English class that day, her teacher had shown the class a sermon – I have no idea who preached it but it sounds eerily like John Hagee – in which, as an example of “persuasive speech” the preacher used Daniel 7 to warn the congregation of the coming horrors. “I love how some people just take stuff out of the Bible and think they can just paste it into our reality,” she said. A wise 14-year-old.
So I told her about Alexander the Great. I told her about Antiochus IV. I told her about Antiochus’s bust being placed in the Holy of Holies. I told her about the Maccabean Revolt and the reason for Hannukah. I’m sure I told her way too much, but sometimes I can’t help myself. Anyway, I circled back and said that the Book of Daniel was about the Maccabean revolt. I didn’t tell her it was written in code because I don’t believe any part of the Bible is written in “code”. If it was written in code, we today would have zero idea what the heck any of it was about unless we had a decryption key. Of course, there are some folks out there who believe it is written in code and believe they have the key. These folks are called Gnostics and should be avoided. Anyone claiming to have secret, real knowledge and understanding of the Bible should be avoided. Anyway, I told her that the folks who read Daniel when it circulated as . . . well, as a kind of war propaganda . . . understood it clearly. The reason it seems so odd to us, and why some people think they need a key to understand it and are therefore exploited by those who claim to have the key is simple: We aren’t Jews living in second century BCE Palestine under Greek rule. Rather than a “key” to unlock the “code”, we need things like common sense, a bit of understanding about similar books written in similar styles, and either Biblical Hebrew or someone who understands Biblical Hebrew. As these aren’t “secret” things, but publicly available to anyone, it isn’t about cracking a code but reading and thinking about what we are reading.
Anyway, back to our conversation. She told me that the preacher was saying that the prophecies of Daniel were coming true right now, and we had to pay attention to the signs, and blah-di-blahdy-blah (that’s technical stuff right there). I asked her what she thought. “The whole time I was watching it, I kept thinking that all that bad stuff happens all the time. So what makes this time special?”
I love how smart my kids are.
Then Miriam told me a story:
Back when we lived in Poplar Grove I went to Mom and told her the world was going to end in 2012. Because everyone at school was talking about 2012 and stuff. So I told Mom the world was going to end and Mom said, “So . . . if the world ends, who do you belong to?” And I said, “Jesus.” Then Mom was like, “And if the world doesn’t end who do you belong to?” And I said, “Jesus”. So I realized no matter what happens, I’m good. I’m covered.
So I guess whoever preached that sermon on Daniel wasn’t very persuasive. At least not to Miriam. I just wish other folks would use the tools she did – her faith informed both by her experience and a little common sense – in order to work through things that trouble them. You see, I don’t think Miriam wanted me to give her information. Miriam wanted me to confirm her 14-year-old hunch that preacher was trying to sell listeners a bill of goods they didn’t need.
Just remember: And a little child shall lead them
Too many people think this is what “theology” is: Big old books that are unreadable.
Laments about the status of theology in the Church are as old as the Church. Remember in St. Peter’s Epistle, that reminder to be ready to give a defense of the faith? What else is that but a plea for people to get straight how they talk about what they believe. We in the United Methodist Church, unclear on the distinction between “theology” and “doctrine” carry on as if the words are interchangeable. Then of course there are people like this guy who warn of Zombie Theologians, as if ignorant lay people are going to eat our brains if we don’t teach them theology! Aside from the lousy and misused metaphor, all this Sturm und Drang and clothes-rending is ridiculous. Our churches do theology all the time. Sometimes they do it quite well; sometimes they do it poorly. That is to be expected. Even the best theologians of whom we know got all sorts of stuff wrong. Rather than bewail our communal failures teaching “the Christian faith” and “theology” – not at all the same thing; I would have thought a Seminary professor would know the very big difference – perhaps we should celebrate all the ways our clergy, lay people, church staffs, congregations, and hierarchy are out there doing theology all the time.
First of all, theology is not just a specialized academic discipline, producing books and articles read by fewer and fewer people, couched in a specialized vocabulary that even the initiated struggle with. Theology is also what people do when teaching children the Bible. It’s what Disciple Bible Study is all about. Church committees, right up to those most important ones like Finance, Trustees, and Administrative Council are theological to the core. If a church or Conference or even General Church budget isn’t a theological document, what else could it be?
We too often confuse “using a specialized academic vocabulary” with doing theology. That vocabulary is important. Its precision is necessary for reasons of clarity of expression and exposition. That is not what makes a particular discourse “theological”. The faithfulness of those engaged in such discourse; the way faith in Christ is the center around which such discourse takes place; the refusal to allow pat answers or shiny objects distract from the necessity of being faithful; these are some of the marks of theological discourse. If the folks so engaged aren’t using a particular specialized vocabulary, yet are arriving at the same place by a different route, what is the problem?
Now, if the issue isn’t a matter of the vocabulary and discourse, but rather expressed ignorance about basics of the faith, then I think all of us share equal blame for that. Clergy and laity all need to work together to ensure people are engaged in our faith seeking understanding. It is not enough to declare oneself a Christian, to point to a moment or series of moments that one’s life shifted because of an experience of God. If there is a basic inability to articulate the content of one’s faith – to say more than “It is this God in whom I believe” – that is a failure all of us share. We don’t need to be busy teaching people to read St. Thomas or Peter Abelard or Calvin or Langdon Gilkey, although if you want to more power to you. At the very least, however, we do need to engage people in thinking about and being willing to answer the question, “Who is this God in whom you believe?” That is the beginning and end of theology, right there.
The standard question in Seminaries when courses in Systematics roll around is, “What does this have to do with being a pastor?” Interesting question. Since being a pastor is more than marrying and burying; since it’s more than administration and paper-pushing; since it’s more than devising a worship outline and a sermon each week; it would seem that anyone charged with serving a congregation would at least be curious about what it’s all about. Of course like so much else in education from elementary school through post-doctoral work, how we go about getting people to understand why acquiring even the rudiments of a theological vocabulary are important run up against the simple fact that our schools are not designed to educate people, i.e., to teach them to think for themselves. Our whole education system is designed to turn out workers, to separate those who succeed in our service-based economy such as bankers, attorneys, financial traders, and doctors from those who will not succeed. Theological education, at least at its formal level, is no more immune from these socio-economic pressures than it is from other social and cultural ailments. All the efforts at reforming theological education that don’t admit this is the reality within which it operates will always fail.
If people aren’t hearing real theology being done in our churches, perhaps we’re listening for the wrong thing. If people aren’t recognizing the faithful wrestling in which our congregations engage, perhaps the matter isn’t a lack of theological understanding on the part of lay people (and why for God’s sake is it always the lay people?). Perhaps the people so desperate for “real” theology in our churches are really talking about something else, and using the long-running assumption of congregational theological ignorance as a way of talking about something else.
It’s too easy and convenient . . . oh, hell, it’s just downright lazy to carry on about theological ignorance. If you think the problem is so bad and pervasive, devise a curriculum to address it! Oh, wait . . . that’s all ready been done. If the matter is so pervasive because you believe there are clergy who claim they are too busy to teach the faith, perhaps you should offer an example or two. Teaching the faith, after all, is about more than leading a class. It would seem that would include sermons with no theology in them. It would mean weddings and funerals without the Good News being declared. It would mean meetings that don’t begin with an prayer for God’s presence. It would mean Bible Studies that somehow evade the meaning of the texts being considered. I’m sure such things happen. I just have not seen, in almost fifty years in the United Methodist Church, any evidence our congregations are not theological. They are, often deeply so. There isn’t an understanding of the technicalities of academic theological discourse; there often is ignorance of particular doctrines – again, not the same thing as not knowing or being able to articulate theology – but that is easily remedied. I just don’t see any evidence either of theological ignorance or an unwillingness to engage in doing theology in our churches.
Our churches do theology. Our people are able to articulate that in which they believe. More importantly as congregations, they live out their theology in so many ways that touch both their local communities and the whole world.
Theology? We’re soaking in it.