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The Contested Memory Of Billy Graham

Billy Graham, the late evangelist who died this week at the age of 99

When I read the news that evangelist Billy Graham had passed away this week, it saddened me more than a little. My experience of Graham (seeing one or two of his revivals on television as a child; hearing or reading his words as an adult) were generally positive; helped along knowing Graham had integrated his southern revivals in 1953, the year before Brown v. Board of Education and two years before the Montgomery Bus Boycott, events that ushered in the activist phase of the Civil Rights movement. I know that late in life he was very public in his changed perspective regarding the Kingdom of God; that is was something toward which we work here and now, not someplace we go when we die. I thought of the Christian musicians whose careers received a boost by being included on his revivals. Singing/songwriting couple Bill and Gloria Gaither are probably the most famous; a good friend of my mother-in-law’s, Huntley Brown, also toured a time or two with Graham as a pianist. Most of all, I thought of the tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people whose lives were changed because they heard the Gospel from Graham.

I also knew other things about Graham. I remember in the 1990’s when Bob Haldeman called him out as an anti-Semite, and he denied it. I remember the Nixon White House tapes made public in the early aughts that demonstrated pretty clearly he harbored  deeply abhorrent anti-Semitic beliefs, going so far as to tell Nixon that he, Graham, would never say such things in public, but it was what he believed. I remember the night back in 1991,  a couple days before Operation Desert Storm began, participating in a night-march on the White House; Pres. Bush, we were told, was holed up in the private residence meeting with Billy Graham. I even remember the one time, in the 1980’s, he pronounced HIV/AIDS punishment from God upon gay people; that he backtracked, insisting he had no idea where the words came from and that they didn’t reflect his beliefs was belied by the simple fact of the clarity and force of the words coming from him.

Some things I didn’t know, but learned this week, include a belligerent attitude during the Vietnam War years, including promoting war crimes both to LBJ and Nixon. He carefully cultivated his relationships with Presidents. He worked behind the scenes to deny John Kennedy the Democratic nomination for President solely because Kennedy was Catholic. He soured on both the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. when both became more militant in the mid- and late-1960’s. He even left some – perhaps many – like the author of the linked article: unable to deal with the overwhelming fear of hell in the face of human weakness and sin, it damaged their souls and lives in innumerable ways. Graham’s message was one of fear as much if nor more than one of grace.

I have been feeling conflicted about the man, his work, he effect upon society, since I learned of his death. The thing is, it isn’t helping that it seems people can only have a single opinion regarding Graham: either he was a saint blessed by the Spirit to bring good news to the people; or he was a hypocritical bigot whose overall cultural impact on America was destructive.

It occurred to me that both things are the case. It is such when dealing with larger than life public persons such as Graham. Martin Luther understood the deep and abiding love and grace of Jesus Christ even as he advocated violence toward Jews and supported the violent suppression of the Peasants during the Peasants Revolt. John Calvin was a brilliant scholar whose understanding of the grace-endowed community extended to the body politic, seeking a holy commonwealth. He also supported the execution of Servetus for heresy, and left so much confusion regarding his beliefs on double predestination that many find him monstrous. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly for the rights of black people in America; he also had an eye for the ladies, unable to control his desire for women not his wife. He also received his Ph.D. from Boston University under a cloud as it seems his advisor, L. Harold DeWolfe, let him get away with more than a little plagiarism.

People are rarely just this or just that. Emerging from the shadow of the 20th century, where true horrors were visited upon vast swaths of the human race, I think we forget that most people, even most public people, are rarely so clearly moral or immoral. It would be nice if they were, if our world was made up of heroes and villains easily discerned and identified. Most of the time, in big and small ways, all of us are pretty much equal parts saints and sinners, with the capacity both for great good and for monstrous evil. We should never lose sight of the fact that it is always human beings who commit acts of terror. Human beings just like us. The commandant of Auchwitz/Birkenau was a loving husband and doting father who oversaw the systematic slaughter of over 2 million people. There is no answer to the question, “How is this possible?” All we can do is marvel and tremble that it is so.

So I think it’s important to be honest. Billy Graham spread the Gospel of Salvation to millions of people around the world, changing lives, careers, and the path of public religion (especially in the United States) in the process. He also harbored deep loathing of Jews, of sexual minorities, and advocated for the mass killing of North Vietnamese civilians during a war that already saw far too much such death. He could offer hope to the hopeless, yet lie about his own anti-Semitism, not because he was secretly evil, but because he was a human being.

I think it’s fair to judge him harshly, perhaps even hold him in contempt, for much of the evil that followed in his wake. I also think it’s fair to be grateful that such a man as this existed who preached freedom to the captives around the world. There is no single summary for his life, as there is for any others. Billy Graham was, in the end, just a person, full of contradictions and hypocrisies, love and generosity of spirit.


On Antifa and Violent Protest

Antifa is composed of autonomous groups, and thus has no formal organization.[2][24] Antifa groups either form loose support networks, such as NYC Antifa, or operate independently.[25] Activists typically organize protests via social media and through websites and email lists.[2][24] According to Salon it is an organizing strategy, not a group of people.[26] While its membership numbers cannot be estimated accurately, the movement has grown since the election of Donald Trump; approximately 200 groups currently exist in the US, of varying sizes and levels of engagement. – Wikipedia

The revulsion to violence on the part of most people on the left, from liberal to radical, is not born of naïveté over the scale of the right-wing threat. It’s the expression of basic moral principle, as well as a pragmatic political understanding that random mob violence by masked vigilates on the left isn’t going to defeat the Alt Right. In the Bay Area this weekend, the Alt Right was already defeated. All Antifa did was transform that message of people-powered victory into a cascade of headlines bolstering Trump’s “both sides” talking point.

The revulsion to Antifa’s violence is also an indication of the paucity of trust Antifa has established with much of the wider, non-activist world. People want the white nationalist movement smashed into dust; that’s why they’re showing up by the thousands and the tens of thousands to protests against the Alt Right. That doesn’t mean they want to hand leadership over to a subcultural vanguardist movement that barks at them from behind masks and shields and threatens to beat those who disagree with them into submission. – Leighton Woodhouse, “The Ugly Side Of Antifa”,, August 28, 2017

Nazi Richard Spencer punched on the streets of Washington, DC during live TV interview on Inauguration Day.

I’d read the word “antifa” used, mostly by far right and white supremacist supporters, during the summer and fall of 2016. These tended to be whines by members of violent groups about “unfair” treatment by the media who seemed, they claimed, to report “antifa violence”. I looked near and far and just couldn’t see any evidence of such a thing. Truth is, the only time I have ever seen the word used is when the media shouts about anarchists smashing windows or walking around carrying sticks and clubs. While there was some violence at last weeks anti-fascist march instigated by black-shirted, ski-masked anarchists, this is hardly surprising. Anarchists have always reveled in violence, particularly against property (which they insist is not violence). While they were a defensive presence in Charlottesville, protecting a United Methodist Church working as a safe haven for counter-protesters as well as surrounding groups of clergy marching through the Nazi horde. Cornel West and many clergy insist their presence protected the clergy from violence.

All the same, ever since Charlottesville, all I read about is “violent antifa”, classified as a domestic terrorist group by the Obama Justice Department and FBI (see the above-linked Wikipedia article). It’s almost as if a white supremacist speeding his car through a crowd of peaceful protesters, killing one young woman, never happened. Instead, a small group of anarchist nincompoops have somehow become the face of anti-Trump and anti-Nazi protests. Not through anything they’ve done, because the truth is all they’ve done is smash a few windows, punch a few Nazis (including Richard Spencer at Trump’s inauguration), and make their presence known through their dress code. It’s come to the point that some left-wing commentators, including those for whom I have a great deal of respect, insist that liberals and leftists have to disavow what is, by all indications, small cells scattered across the country, most of whom do nothing but carry on online. I, for one, feel no need to speak out against antifa violence, largely because it isn’t anything coordinated (anarchists aren’t big into organizing on the large scale), has no long history like the white supremacists and Nazis, and unlike these latter groups, I’ve yet to see or hear a mainstream Democratic politician insist violent anarchists represent a part of the party, unlike Republicans who have been encouraging these very groups for years without consequence.

These morons don’t even represent anti-fascism. To be anti-fascist is to be a decent human being. Sometimes, alas, it becomes necessary to defend one’s self with the threat or practice of violence; particularly against individuals and groups whose very existence is a threat to civil peace and justice. I cried no tears for Richard Spencer when he was cold-cocked on January 20. On the contrary, I watch the video every once in a while just to smile. Not because I’m a violent person, or “support violence”. No, I smile because Richard Spencer is a vocal Nazi. He embraces a violent, degenerate political philosophy that seeks the physical destruction both of our Constitutional Republic as well as whole groups of human beings. His very existence is violence. Getting punched, it seems to me, is a bit of rough justice, particularly since Spencer has done nothing but whine about it ever since. So much for the master race . . .

Way back in my Seminary days in the spring of 1993 I was taking a seminary on Liberation Theology. A topic that came up early was violence. Our professor had us read The Wretched of the Earth, including the second half in which Fanon insists that violence, while justified in the abstract, is actually counter-productive, destroying the psyches and lives of those who practice violence. When discussing non-violence, however, with our eyes on the height of largely church-led Civil Rights Movement in the United States, I noted that while non-violence certainly sounds good in the abstract, in fact there cannot be “non-violent” protest against a system that is inherently violence. Precisely because white supremacist segregation in the American south was violent to its core, any resistance to it or action against it could only ever be considered itself violent, regardless of the words or actions of those speaking and protesting. I still believe that to be true, and applicable in particular circumstances. While non-violence works well, for example in Boston a few weeks back when the Nazis were simply outnumbered by the tens of thousands (and it’s no small irony the Black Lives Matter members acted as escorts for the fascists as they made their way through the anti-fascist crowd, protecting them), I have never accepted the idea that non-violent protest is the only real way political activists should protest. In the real world, even those actions called “non-violent” are considered violent by those who oppose them. When Nazis and white supremacists gather, as they did in Charlottesville, they arm themselves. To pretend that “non-violence” is morally superior in the face of the direct threat of violence, we forget forceful self-defense is an equally moral option. By their very existence, the Klan, Aryan Nations, other white supremacist organizations, the Nazi Party and its loose affiliates of supporters and hangers-on, represent, preach, and practice violence against our political order, public peace, and whole groups within the country. As far as I know, while a few folks might have been roughed up by Antifa in Boston and Berkeley, only the fascists have actually killed someone – someone protesting peacefully, no less. It’s foolishness to insist, prior to any actual situation, that only non-violence should be practiced. It is also ridiculous for anyone to claim that the anarchists at the inauguration, in Boston, or in Berkeley represent any part of the left; the article quoted above as an epigram appeared in a Marxist online journal. While I don’t doubt the veracity of the claims the author makes regarding what he witnessed, I also think it important to note that Communists and Anarchists detest one another, and have done so for decades. I’m not going to take my political cues from a member of a group institutionally committed to opposing anarchism.

It’s been clear that racist groups, white supremacists, and Nazis have been emboldened by the Trump Administration.  The mainstream media isn’t helping much by trying to insist on some moral equivalence between small groups breaking windows and throwing some punches and groups with decades-long histories of violence whose actions have resulted in the death of on counter-protester. The word “antifa”, tossed around so glibly by so many, should be considered a badge of honor. After all, there’s nothing wrong with being against fascism. And insisting a priori on a policy of non-violence does nothing but restrict possible counter-measures to those whose very existence stinks of the blood of millions. Remember, a Nazi is someone who understands full well the blood of millions is on their hands; white supremacists and Klan members embrace the history of violent intimidation, lynching, and social structures designed to oppress African-Americans. These are not people who should be treated with kid gloves.

Election Worries

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Sunday night's town-hall-style debate.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at Sunday night’s town-hall-style debate.

As the Trumptanic splits in two and sinks, the only question before us is how much of the Republican Party it drags to the bottom. It is extremely possible the Democrats could take control the United States Senate. While I doubt the Republicans will lose their House majority, I’m quite sure that majority will shrink. Precisely because Paul Ryan has played Hamlet just a bit too much with his political relationship with the party’s nominee, I figure his Speakership might well be in doubt. The institutional structure of the Republican Party will be in dire need of a major overhaul. Hazarding a guess, while the post-election season might well give us a respite from the worst excesses of the campaign, I am quite confident a new President Clinton’s (first?) term will be every bit as contentious as has been both of President Obama’s.

It is still kind of shocking to me there are so many young people eligible to vote whose memories of the events of September 11, 2001 are hazy at best. The brief time between President George W. Bush’s inauguration on January 20th and that horrible day is, I think, largely forgotten by most. I think because our younger daughter was born that summer, my memories from that time are pretty clear. One of my clearest memories is thinking, sometime in July as the corn was tall behind our house in LaMoille, President Bush was heading for the history books as a single-term President. Elected with a bare majority of Electoral College votes and fewer popular votes than his opponent, from his first day in office Bush seemed to be taking advice on his governing style from his primary political adviser, Karl Rove. Rove’s “genius” was creating a campaign that aimed less at stitching together a voting coalition large enough from which to govern than simply winning an election. Receiving 50%-plus-one of the vote was enough for a win; in the end, that’s what Rove desired.

That bare majority however – reflected most of all in the United States Senate, in which the Republicans had a one-seat majority – did not stop Rove from announcing to the world his advice to the new President: govern as if you won a landslide and governing mandate. While perhaps not the best advice, it certainly created a framework within which observers could understand some of the more egregiously stupid things the Bush Administration did. Early on, Vice President Cheney held a closed door meeting with leaders from energy companies. When reporters demanded to know who attended the meeting and what was discussed, Cheney essentially told the reporters to pound sand. Declaring Executive Privilege, a hazy enough legal doctrine at the best of times, the Bush Administration insisted it had to operate in secret in order to get the best possible advice. It was unprecedented; it was unAmerican; and yet we came to know that “arrogance” would be a part of the Bush Administration (along with a kind of heavy-handed manipulation both of the press and the Executive Branch bureaucracy, something for which Cheney was well-known).

That summer occurred two seminal events that, it seems to me, sounded the real death knell for a second Bush term. First was what became known as “The Hainan Island incident” . An American spy plane and a Chinese J-8 fighter collided mid-air, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the Aries to make an emergency landing on the Chinese Island Province of Hainan. The crew of 24 was released after 10 days, being under intense interrogation much of the time, when US Ambassador Joseph Prueher delivered a letter to the Chinese apologizing both for the death of their pilot as well as the violation of Chinese airspace. While the Bush Administration insisted it was an “apology” apology, part of the Bush campaign had included tough talk on China. While perhaps not “humiliating”, and certainly necessary both to bring home our service members in Chinese custody and prevent this incident from spiraling out of control, the end-game was interpreted by many as a sign of weakness.

In May of that year, Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont switched his party affiliation from Republican to Independent. Prior to that the Republicans had a one-seat majority; with VP Cheney providing any tie-breaking vote toward the Republicans, they had control of the upper house. After over a month of tense negotiations between Jeffords, then working on a bill regarding special education and insisting it have adequate funding in order to be effective, was not only treated poorly by his more conservative Senate colleagues; for all intents and purposes the White House treated Jeffords more as a back-bencher than a three-term Chair of the Health, Education, Welfare, and Pensions Committee. Again, Bush Administration arrogance resulted in an unneeded loss of power, with political ramifications that, again had 9/11 not occurred, would have neutered much of Pres. Bush’s legislative agenda.

That history is important to remember. My hunch is that next month’s Presidential election is going to be a sizable win for Hillary Clinton. The Democrats will most likely win back control of the Senate. The Republican leadership will be in such turmoil they will be unable to work effectively as a legislating Party. Should the Democrats come to believe that such a result flowed from the superiority of their candidate and that candidate’s legislative agenda, I believe they will be in for a rude awakening.

For all her strengths, Hillary Clinton has always been a poor campaigner. Had she faced another, real, candidate – I’m thinking right now of Ohio Gov. John Kasich – not only is it possible Secretary Clinton might have lost the Presidential race; it is possible such an event might well have prevented a Democratic win in the Senate. Certainly the turmoil we’re seeing in the Party’s inner workings would be absent. Certainly we wouldn’t be listening to people defending sexual assault on national news programs under the umbrella of Presidential campaign coverage.

My fear is that a Hillary Clinton Administration, seeing an overwhelming victory and a new Democratic US Senate, might well repeat the Bush Administration’s mistake: they may well try to govern as if they had a governing mandate. I have no desire for Mrs. Clinton to end up doing the same stupid things George W. Bush did prior to 9/11 (not to mention the extremely stupid thing he did after: invading Iraq). Power, however, is a narcotic. Narcotics reduce the ability to think clearly, resulting in impulsive actions that usually turn out very badly. It would be far better if, on Nov. 9, a President-elect Hillary Clinton acknowledged her debt to her opponent in this race for providing the margin of victory, promising to govern with respect to a plurality of Americans who will continue to be wary of her.

Thinking We Understand Without Thinking

I was trying to see if I understand what the commenter meant by “love relationship.” As you know, the English word “love” has three or four Greek equivalents. – FB comment, Sunday, June 28, 2015


This morning I commented on this Roland Martin post –

“It trips me out how mainstream media is stunned to see what a Black homegoing service is like. I’m listening to @JoeNBC talk about Friday.”

I simply said –

“And it’s this failure to understand Black culture at a level deeper than hearsay, stereotypes, bad movie representations, and sound bites, which is a significant part of the problem.”

Of course, it’s nice if a few people “like” your comment, but I must have struck a chord, because I’ve had 46 likes so far today. I also had one disagreeing reply –

“I disagree! ‘Mainstream’ media is well aware of our culture and who we are; that is the problem!! Don’t assume they don’t understand us!”

I didn’t respond. Didn’t think it would be productive and also didn’t think it’d be appropriate in Roland’s thread.

However, I think the main stream media doesn’t get us of the darker persuasion. They imagine us against the prevailing dominant narrative and try to reconcile us to that narrative, but they don’t get us. – FB, Darren Joseph Elzie (used with permission)


Into each life, it is said, some rain must fall. Some people have bad horoscopes, others take tips on the stock market. McNamara created the TFX and the Edel. Churches possess the real world. But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists. . . .

The massive volume of useless knowledge produced by anthropologists attempting to capture real Indians in a network od theories has contribute substantially to the invisibility of Indian people today. After all, who can conceive of a food-gathering, berry-picking, semi-nomadic, fire-worshiping, high-plains-and-mountain-dwelling, horse-riding, canoe-toting, bead-using, pottery-making, ribbon-coveting, wickiup-sheltered people who began flourishing when Alfred Frump mentioned them in 1803 in his great wor n Indians entitled Our Feathered Friends as real?

Not even Indians can relate themselves to this type of creature who, to anthropologists, is the “real” Indian. Indian people began to eel that they are merely shadows of a mythical super-Indian. Many anthros spare no expence to reinforce this sense of inadequacy in order to further suppor their influence over Indian people. – Vine Deloria, Custer Died For Your Sins, pp.78, 81-82


A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed "Linear A". It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed “Linear A”. It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

One of the great conceits of Western Civilization (such as it is) is that we understand. Since the ancient Greeks first started arguing whether the world was made up of fire or earth or water; since Heraclitus and Parmenides offered contrasts between the reality of constant change and the illusion of constant change; since Plato insisted ours is a world reflective of perfect, geometric forms while his pupil insisted that forms were real things that gave reality to indistinct matter; all of this, when rediscovered in the 10th and 11th centuries, offered the West a vision of itself as those who seek to understand.

The success of our varied attempts to understand the world, using a particular method that means knowledge has led to the sprouting of all sorts of ways to understand. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science all claim to observe “the scientific method” as their practitioners go about the grunt work of gathering data, testing hypotheses, creating theories, all with the goal of understanding how we live, how other societies live, how societies now dead and gone lived, and how the human “mind” – whatever that may or may not be – operates.

Biblical studies have been no less prone to the attractiveness of understanding. With the growth of philology, historical and linguistic tools were used to take fresh looks at the Biblical texts. As theologians and philosophers, following Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Dilthey and others, discovered the necessity first of acknowledging the gap between these ancient texts and current reality, which necessitated a second move they called “hermeneutics” – interpretation in which text and current reality meet and inform one another – as a tool for “correct understanding” of what scholars increasingly understood to be opaque, often poorly edited, ancient texts. The spread of varieties of Biblical criticism has created rival schools of thought as how best to read, understand, and (most important) apply this understanding to our lives. It is more than a little bewildering.


Science is a great tool for getting at how the world works. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that success led people to misunderstand what was going on. Folks like Immanuel Kant (for example) thought that science was so successful because it arrived at truth. For a philosopher, that didn’t leave much space for what he was up to, which is why he wrote three extremely opaque, dense, partially unreadable volumes on what was left to philosophy to do. Truth was the province of the sciences; things like how we know, what are the good and beautiful, these more or less rest upon ways the mind interprets and understands (see that word again?) the world. Precisely because reason leaves the mind with what Kant called “antinomies” – contradictions due to the unfalsifiability of their premises – the best thing for philosophy to do was figure out how science gets at what’s really true.

All those words, all that valuable brain-time, and Kant never got that science works so well only because it is limited both in the questions it can ask and how successfully it can answer those questions. There’s nothing magical, certainly nothing metaphysically special about science. It’s just a tool, an extension of what human beings have been doing for tens of thousands of years to survive. Our survival depends upon our understanding the world. Once upon a time that meant figuring out an animal’s habitual movements, when bet to hunt, etc. Now, it’s about whether we can know both what an elementary particle’s position and spin are simultaneously (the answer continues to be no, by the way). Understanding is great. It also has its limits. The temptation to truth continues unabated.


When I was in Seminary, a good friend of mine and I were talking about the on-going AIDS epidemic. This was at a time when the death toll and infection rate continued to be staggering. He mentioned that there were troubles within the deaf gay community, partly ones of understanding, partly of trust, due to an inability to communicate properly as well as deaf person’s wariness regarding the hearing population. I sat and pondered not so much the ways these people continued to face obstacles in getting information that would protect them; rather I pondered that there was such a thing as a community of deaf gay folks who faced their own unique struggles distinct both from other deaf folk and other gay folk. My ignorance didn’t render such a community unreal; it just made me ignorant.

Seminary was a time I came to understand just how limited my understanding of the world really was. Reading James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation was, the first time, a trial. I found him and his work to be unnecessarily hostile; I found his tone confrontational rather than inviting. After all, I thought, he was writing in the wake of the reality of Martin Luther King, Jr.! It was only when I realized, with something like revelation, that I was being offered the opportunity to see the world through a set of eyes that weren’t blue, from a skin that wasn’t white, within a history filled with dehumanization and death at the hands of a system bent on violence that I understood Cone. From that moment, I realized I had to set to one side what I thought I knew about the world. I know more knew stuff about the world than I could waltz. All I had was my own fairly limited, extremely limited perspective. The work of Cone, of Gustavo Gutierrez, of Mary Daly, of historians like Henry Louis Gates, of sociologists like my own sociology of religion professor James Shopshire while providing new understandings, were even more a precious gift: the gift to see the world from different angles, places the light refracted in strange ways and lives were lived that were fully human yet so different I could only consider with awe the simple ability to exist within a larger framework bent on diminishing these people (and others like them) and their accomplishments.


One of the conceits of Biblical theology is that understanding the original languages of Scripture offer a unique understanding of the authors and their worlds. Contemporary understandings of language as historical artifacts rooted in real, historical communities hold as one of their theses that understanding another language – living or dead – offers an understanding of the society and culture that speaks or spoke it. A corollary, of course, is that “translation” is never a one-for-one match up between words in one language and words in another. Something as simple as “chair” in English does not have a correspondent across other human languages. Our word “chair” is embedded within a history of designations of particular pieces of furniture and their development; of skilled wood craft work; of distinct types of chairs and the uses to which they’re put. Knowing “chair” is “silla” in Spanish, “stuhl” in German, and “karekla” in Greek doesn’t offer readers the history of the word, how it relates to other words and other historical and cultural and social developments within those language-users. Believing that it does is one of the great misconceptions of our time, leading to all sorts of problems.

One of the best known, and over-used, bits of knowledge regarding the koine Greek of the New Testament is that the Greeks had three different words that correspond to the English word “love”. These are usually understood as “philia”, the kind of love that friends share; “agape”, or the selfless, self-giving love often demonstrated between persons with far deeper bonds; and, finally, “eros” usually considered as physical or sexual love. All this is true as far as it goes. I am quite sure philologists and specialists in Biblical language understand that these simple – and simplistic – equations hide all sorts of nuance and variety, that the words reflect no only distinct understandings rooted both in Greek thought as well as social practice but subtleties that are, by and large, opaque. Translation, we are often reminded, is interpretation, leaving the depth, the shadows shooting this way and that, of the original largely unseen and ungrasped.

We in early 21st century America face the daunting reality that our majority society and culture just doesn’t understand the variety of sub-cultures; we don’t understand how they see us, how they see the larger society, or even that they exist at all. We in the majority take for granted that whiteness, maleness, and religious Protestantism (both secularized and sacred) are the norm to which others “naturally” conform. When we discover this is not the case, the usual reaction is confusion. Why don’t women or black folk, our Native populations or the fast growing Latino population see the world the way do, or at least begin to conform to that way of understanding and living? Mutual mistrust and misunderstanding, fear and anger, and social and cultural acceptance of violence as a reaction to difference continue as barriers to working through our social pathologies.

With this being the case for people who work together, live side by side, worship together, do business with one another, I continue to wonder at how it is possible we believe it possible to understand a society buried under 2000 and more years of dirt and dust. How, for example, can we insist we understand the practices and relationships bound by words like “philia”, “agape”, and “eros”? How does that claim make these words meaningful for us – by far the more important question when appropriating Biblical texts?

At what point do we acknowledge that our understanding of other human societies, both contemporaneous and long in the past, is limited; that as much as we can learn about them, there will always be an opaqueness about them? When will we acknowledge, when it comes to reading and understanding and appropriating Biblical texts as sources for our current living, we should honor our ignorance as much as our understanding, remember the very real human lives hidden behind words whose fullness we will never understand? I mean, we living here in Rockford, IL refuse to understand the lives of folks who live a few miles away from us across the river; why do we think we understand the world of the authors of the Bible?

The Power Of Ideas

Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastos von Honheim, better known as Paracelsus. And now I know why

Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastos von Honheim, better known as Paracelsus. And now I know why

I’m currently reading a book that asks the simplest question imaginable: Why did science as we understand the term develop in particular areas of northern Europe and not, say, in southern Europe or China? I remember reading Daniel Boorstin’s The Discoverer’s when I was in college and his argument was a variation on American Exceptionalism: Science developed in the west because We Are Great. The author of this book, however, has little to no interest in such nonsense. He wants sound historical reasons why a particular way of understanding the world developed over several centuries in particular places and not others. He wants to know why this is so despite rudiments and bits and pieces developed elsewhere.

I’m not quite half-way through, so I don’t know the answer this gentleman offers. I do know, however, that I am very grateful a historian insists on including the importance of alchemy in European Renaissance and Baroque thought. Unlike scientists and historians of science, particularly those wedded to a Whig history of science – that science as we know it emerged because it is Right and True – the real world is a messy place. Most folks prefer a History For Dummies guide, leaving out the subtleties, complexities, and contradictions that always exist within human communities. No country on earth supports basic scientific research the way the United States (despite nonsensical attacks from ignorant critics who don’t understand what basic research is); yet a large plurality of the American public is scientifically illiterate.

Another example I always find amusing is the way some of the most reactionary, restrictive, authoritarian churches use modern technology to the point of excess. Most mainstream churches are rushing to catch up, whether it’s with “praise teams”, the use of video, or the elimination of the pulpit at the seat for the proclamation of the Word of God. When preaching, clergy tend to wander down to the center of the chancel, sometimes using an iPad rather than note cards (something a pastor in my home church used while preaching from the pulpit). For some reason, because of the success the churches using all these bells and whistles experience – the chairs (not pews) are filled; the bank accounts are filled; the clergy become celebrities – we in the dowdy mainstream are ditching our liturgical practices as fast as we can in order to achieve the same goal of growth.

Which is a bit like putting on a Speedo or bikini and thinking one then has a hot body.

Not precisely Hugh Jackman at the beach, is it?

Not precisely Hugh Jackman at the beach, is it?

Unlike all those Whig historians of science, say, or all those mega-churches with Starbucks in their food courts, self-published books by the clergy, enormous screens and sound systems that would make the Grateful Dead’s Wall of Sound look small and quiet, we in the mainstream are told, over and over again, how old we are. We are dowdy. Our church buildings are old. Our congregations are old. Our music is old. Our liturgy is old. Our clergy are old. Old old old old OLDOLDOLD!!! In the United States no one wants to be old. So we’re off to the religious version of the sporting wear section of Macy’s and we buy the latest and best looking and most expensive “hottest thing”, advertise how cool and up-to-date we are, then throw open the doors and wait for the hoards to come running.

In the process we forget what really distinguishes us folks in the dowdy mainstream from all those flashy megachurches with their concert surround sound, mini-malls, and clergy with hair parted just so, gleaming teeth that reflect the light in the audience’s (not congregation’s) eyes, and kiosks with ATMs outside the worship-area’s doors so folks can use their ATMs and credit cards to give extra. We have something all those folks with their media consultants and “best sellers” don’t: We have the messiness of life. We don’t offer “answers”. We don’t insist that folks should all think like everyone else, look like everyone else, give as much as everyone else. We don’t claim that membership in our congregations are a mark of social status. We don’t make wild claims about the simplicity of the Scriptural testimony, or how “believing in the Bible” (how I hate that phrase with the heat of a thousand suns) will help make you rich, get your kids in the best schools, get you that job or promotion or raise, or keep your spouse from stepping out on you.

Sure, we’re old, we mainline Protestant churches. Not as old as either Roman Rite and Orthodox Churches, to be sure. By American standards, however, we’re decrepit. Our church buildings reflect a time we had social status, political power, and offered a vision of the Christian life that melded quite well both with the simplicity of much of working class/farm/petty bourgeois life. It also offered not so much a guide to better living as the hope there was more to being who we were than our socially and economically determined roles. The success of American capitalism, however, has left the message of faith, the promise in the message of hope, and the ties that bind in our message of love something that just doesn’t meet our needs for a simple, clear message that what God wants for us is success, upward mobility, and certainly no need to go through the hassle of making difficult moral choices. All that is packaged for us by folks who tell us what to believe and how. No need to deal with a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual America. No need to deal with an America filled with folks who look differently than we, who love differently than we, who have sex differently than we, and who don’t care about success the way we do. In the religious equivalent of gated communities for which people pay exorbitant prices to keep the riff-raff at bay, our security and separation are accomplished for us.

Which is why our mainstream Protestant churches are like that historian I noted above. We aren’t wedded to some idea of success, defined for us as good looks, good jobs, lots of money, well-behaved children who don’t experiment with sex and drugs, and marriages that work because the partners can check all those boxes on the checklists provided for them that determine what makes a successful marriage. No, we mainstream Protestants are old. The world is a messy place, filled with contradictory ideas. It’s a world filled with all kinds of people who think and live all sorts of ways. We know this is true because we are old and we remember our history, how who we are is rooted in who we were. The future isn’t something that belongs to the beautiful, successful folks. The future, like the past and present, is God’s. The organ might wheeze a bit. The congregation may have more gray hair than brown or black or red. We might be in need of all sorts of support to keep ourselves afloat in a world awash in megachurches that are the equivalent of all those Whig historians who believe that present success pre-determined past performance and defines who wins and loses, who’s in and who’s out. Still, I’d rather be old, getting older by the day, and look around the world and see all sorts of faces, hear all sorts of voices, notice all sorts of relationship, and struggling to keep up with our ever-changing world. To grow old is to be alive. To be able to see the world as it is in all its messiness, confusion, and contrariness is a gift. To refuse to offer answers but rather insist that the best any of us can hope for is Divine Presence in the midst of the confusion and travails of a life lived for others is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now that’s old. And I wonder how it went out of fashion.