Monday, June 21, 2010

Some Pedantry about Language (updated)

I will try hard not to make this a regular feature.

As a practicing English major I will confess to being a fussbudget over certain things. I refuse to allow the use of "impact" as a verb. I follow the Strunk & White dictum about the placement of "however" in a sentence, based on its usage. I insist that "enormity" must be used to refer not merely to the bigness of something, but the bigness and bad-ness of that thing. So Muffy wouldn't come back from Bloomington, MN, extolling "the enormity" of The Mall of America, but her anarchist ex-boyfriend would use just that word to explain why it should be blown up.

And when I hear the word "orientated" I absolutely cringe. It's oriented, damn it! "Orientated" is merely a bastard back-locution derived from "orientation."

(Yet I have seen references to the English preferring "orientated." I don't consider them [the references, not the English] authoritative, so the jury is out on that as far as I'm concerned.)

But until recently I haven't thought about the parallel "obliged" and "obligated." Lately, though, considering the "oriented/orientated" dichotomy, I have begun to think that "obligated" may result from the same sort of word inflation as "orientated." I've seen some comments to support that point of view, but again, nothing definitive.



Well, I did indeed check out the site Joel refers to (not references, thank you!) in the comments [], and here is what they say about oriented vs. orientated. (You'll have to scroll down the page to see it in context.):

In times like these we turn to the excellent H.W. Fowler's The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (third edition, edited by R. W. Burchfield) for a decision. He examines the words' etymologies (they both derive from the French desorienter, as Will Wagner points out). They both followed the same path to their present-day meanings, which are identical. In the end, Fowler says that the two words are equally interchangeable. One may find that orient is more common in the U.S., while orientate appears more frequently in the U.K., but they are still equal in meaning and correctness.

Perhaps so, but in my opinion "orientated" is still an Abomination Unto The Lord.

Nothing on Obliged vs. Obligated, however.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Evangelical Christianity and Me (Part 2)

I've touched on the role that the Friends (Quakers) played in my mother's religious life. Before we joined the Episcopal church when I was about 5 or 6, my mother was attending a Quaker meeting, and I was going to First Day school (RE) there. I remember that only vaguely. At some point we must have been going back and forth between that and the Episcopal church, because my mother is very fond of telling a story when, coming home from the Friends meeting one Sunday (where I had apparently been very bored), I said to her: "I want to be babatized and go to the Episcopal church!"

I don't have a clear memory of this. Sometimes it seems familiar to me, but I'm not entirely confident that it's indigenous to my memory as opposed to residing there from repetition of the story.

Even after we did join the Episcopal church, my family remained very close to a number of Quaker friends, some of whom taught on the college campus where my father (and later my mother) taught, others whom they'd known from Philadelphia, where my mother had worked as a teacher at a Quaker school.

Then, starting in 8th grade, I attended a Quaker school as well, further cementing my ties with that faith. I think I got three particularly strong messages from my experience with the Friends: Their strong commitment to social justice, the concept of the light of God in everyone, and a respect for pluralism (which I know may not be universal among Friends). Meanwhile I continued to attend the Episcopal church, was confirmed therein when I was 12 or 13, and remained quite happily engaged with it through high school. I also was active in an ecumenical Christian youth group in the community, which had representation from Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists. Our own priest had been a driving force in putting that group together. I am not sure, in retrospect, whether the Baptist church involved was American (Mainline) or Southern (Evangelical), but I rather suspect the latter.

And it was during this time that I continued to encounter strongly fundamentalist peers. Most of them were through the Boy Scout troop to which I belonged, but one of them was a classmate at the Quaker school -- an African American -- who had had a born-again experience in about 11th grade or so and in my senior year tried mightily to convert me. We had many earnest -- and mostly good-natured -- arguments/discussions, but he never did succeed in converting me.

Yet the impact of his persistence was ironic. He had come to believe certain things in the Bible literally, and as I reflected on my very clear understanding that the Bible was not to be taken that way, I found myself examining the creed that we recited every Sunday in my own church. "Born of the Virgin Mary." "On the Third Day He rose again." It was one thing to read the Bible symbolically, but here we were, reciting those phrases and stating unequivocally, "I believe..."

Could I really believe these things? I asked myself. And if I couldn't, wasn't it as absurd to be stating them as articles of faith as it was to believe in the literal creation story, the literal forecasts of Revelation, or the literal notion that only by asserting personal belief in salvation through Jesus Christ could I be spared from eternal damnation?

Although I had only a superficial awareness of other religions (besides Judaism -- my sister had married a Jew when I was a high school freshman), it was at this time in my life that I became very clear on one principle that has stayed with me ever since: With so many religious faiths in the world, I just could not believe that Christianity was the only "right" one and all the rest were "wrong." I concluded that in some way all must have a piece of the greater cosmic truth, whatever that was.**

In my first semester of college, I went once to the Episcopal church near the campus. It was the fall. A guest priest was there that day. I remember nothing of the sermon except one line. Well into his delivery, the priest acknowledged that there were some who sought a "Copernican revolution" in religion, placing Christianity alongside other faiths and taking away its primacy. I found myself nodding in agreement -- and then he followed up: Well, he said, that was absolutely the wrong idea.

I stayed for the end of the service, but when I left the church, I didn't go back. I attended the Episcopal church a few times after that, back home (once because I went to Christmas Eve services with a girl I briefly dated); I attended Quaker meeting once or twice over the next several years, but was bored, missing the liturgy of the Episcopal church if not the wrestling with dogma, however gently couched. I took a Religious Studies 101 class in Interpreting the Bible in my senior year of college -- a class I liked very much. But I felt little interest in returning to the church of my childhood, or to any Christian church in those days. Eventually I found my way, some seven years after I graduated from high school, into a UU church (as I've written about here.)

But over the years, I've continued to harbor a bit of a grudge toward fundamentalism and Evangelical/"Jesus Saves" Christianity.

Why is that?

I've come up with three answers--none of them mutually exclusive, all of them probably a piece of the answer.

1) I felt it both anti-intellectual (especially the rejection of science) and monstrously unjust. (It was only fairly recently -- within the last decade I think -- that I connected the fundamentalist insistence on the literal Adam and Eve story with the Jesus Saves Christology: Without the literal fall, the atonement theory has no meaning. I mention that in passing here.)

2) Somewhere deep down, I may have harbored an irrational fear -- what if the fundamentalists are right? And resented them for sparking that fear.

3) And I resented them for tainting even Mainline Christianity for me, contributing to my loss of faith in a source of real comfort, guidance and meaning during my growing up.

There may, indeed, be yet other reasons I have not managed to articulate for myself. Some days, I think 1) is the most powerful source of my resentment. Others, I find it is 3). Sometimes -- not much any more if at all -- even 2) has raised its head.

The last two years, however, have seen me on a journey back to Christianity. Certainly not the Christianity in which I never believed, and to be sure, not exactly the Christianity of my own childhood and teen years. But Christianity -- in a form that I can claim and embrace wholeheartedly -- nonetheless.

I will write more about that another time.


** Indeed, when I first read Forrest Church's metaphor of The Cathedral of the World (first presented in the book he co-wrote with John Buehrens, A Chosen Faith) some 15 or more years later -- and long after I had become a UU -- the image in that metaphor brought me back to the insight I'd had in high school. I don't have any kind of diary from when I had reached that earlier conclusion, so I have no way of knowing for sure whether I had arrived at it through the same or at least a similar metaphor. But it felt very at home with me.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Evangelical Christianity and Me

I've said this before. I was never a fundamentalist, or an Evangelical. But for most of my young adult and adult life, I've harbored a special wariness of the fundamentalist and even the Evangelical approach to Christianity.

I grew up attending an Episcopal church, and also with close association to the Quakers, in Southeastern PA. My mother's father was an Episcopal clergyman whose primary vocation was teaching and writing. He was an associate of some kind of John Dewey (by interesting coincidence, I've been a consultant for the last 10 years to an education scholar who is very much a latter-day Dewey disciple). And his principal written work (besides some letters to the New York Times around the time of WW 1 that I happened to stumble across) was a two-volume history of Christianity. I have a re-bound copy of it in my bookshelves, and I actually managed to read about the first 4 or 5 chapters a few years ago.

My mother (a/k/a EmpireStateMom for those of you who are coming in late) says his basic outlook was that of the Gnostics. I've not gotten a clear understanding of why that is or what about his outlook she equates with the Gnostics.

I open with this digression because my spiritual biography really starts with hers. My mother went to a Quaker college and for years afterward found herself alternately worshiping with the Quakers, the Congregationalists, and ultimately the Episcopalians. I was about 5 or 6 when I was baptized in the Episcopal church and I felt quite comfortable there as I grew up.

My father was an anthropologist who taught at the college level after a few years of doing research in Western Africa. He had grown up attending an Episcopal church, I believe, although I vaguely recall his family might have identified as Presbyterian. They lived in Texas.

From a very early age my father made sure I knew about and understood evolution. He was not hostile to Christianity, but pretty much by the time I had reached an age in which I could understand and appreciate Myth, I understood the earliest Biblical books to be Mythical.

I was in about 7th grade when I began to realize that some classmates in my heavily fundamentalist/Evangelical pocket of the world were not of the same point of view -- that they were absolutely certain that Adam and Eve were real, historical figures. (I even recall some of them quizzing a science teacher on the subject -- and I also recall her saying to them that she was more inclined to believe the biblical version, or something like that. It was a conversation I didn't get involved in at the time.)

Later, and separately from that realization, I came to understood the essential principle of fundamentalist/Evangelical Christianity: That the sole, or at least primary, reason for Jesus's coming to earth was to be crucified and resurrected in order to in some way absolve humanity of sin, and that that "salvation" could only be achieved by "accepting Jesus as personal Lord and savior."

As I've noted previously, that was not the message I got from the church I grew up in. The message that I did get was much more indirect -- in retrospect, and not at all certain that I'm getting it right now -- I would say that we were taught that Jesus was God come to earth to help us understand God better. But it was nowhere near as explicit and cut-and-dried as that.

I never bought into the personal savior theory as articulated by the fundamentalists, and I never bought into the closely aligned view that the book of Revelation was a reliable forecast of the future of the world. In high school I first discovered the work of Jack Chick, the fundamentalist cartoonist, specifically from an anti-evolution tract called "Big Daddy." (My father pointed out the many inaccuracies in its reading of the scientific data, and also pointed out the likely intentional way in which the pro-evolution professor is depicted in line with Jewish stereotypes.) I fantasized instead trying to write a tract that would rebut fundamentalist dogma with a liberal Christian social gospel, but couldn't get very far because I really couldn't articulate the message in such simple terms.

But something about my encounter with this strain of Christianity marked me for the rest of my life. I was always on the lookout for it; in my late 30s and early 40s I even subscribed for a time to an anti-fundamentalist newsletter. That dogma is a trigger for me, in fact -- provoking a visceral reaction that I don't fully understand.

This didn't set out to be a multi-part post, but I will leave off for now and continue anon.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Beyond Purity Codes

Just tonight I stumbled across an essay that is several months old. I found it from a link on Brian McLaren's blog. I've just finished reading McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus, and I've been poking around the Web to learn more about him. So far, I like what I see.

This item is not by McLaren, but it is by a Christian, and one who challenges Christians who take an esclusivist approach. Money quote:

Speaking as a Christian, you can find plenty of ammunition in the Bible and in the tradition to insist that the point behind faith in Jesus is to be “pure” for God, with Jesus’ blood being that special reagent that will purify us in the ways that we are incapable of purifying ourselves. Okay, that’s one way of looking at it. But it is just as possible, just as logical, just as spiritually coherent to see in the Christian tradition an arc of wisdom that calls us to move beyond the purity codes that defined our ancestral religious practices, instead embracing hospitality, which includes everything from welcoming the stranger, to opening our hearts to those who are “different” from ourselves, to embracing non-oppositional or non-dualistic consciousness, consciousness that celebrates the action of the Holy Spirit in the most unlikely of places, rather than seeking to judge and divide all things into that which is “good enough for God” and that which is not.

Friday, June 11, 2010

No iPad for Me

At a lunch a few weeks ago, someone brought an iPad. I have to admit, it was a very cool thing to look at and to page through.

But just when I thought I might be waivering and cancel my one-person boycott of the iPad, Apple comes to my rescue.

Grow up, Steve Jobs.

Update: I feel compelled to credit Will for the specific way I articulate my sentiments...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Why of Jesus

smijer has a long and interesting post today on the topic of Penal Substitution (which I tend to refer to as Substitutionary Atonement). It's a topic that's been on my "to-blog" list for almost as long as I've had this blog. What I'm writing now isn't that idealized/imagined blog post, but a start.

Growing up an Episcopalian, the notion that "Jesus died for our sins and paid the price to ransom us from hell" was not really the dominant interpretation I got from my church community as a child or as a teen. That's despite the lines in the Nicene and Apostle's creeds that suggest as much, although not as baldly.

But that same message was all around me. I grew up in a rural pocket of Southeastern PA that was culturally akin to the Bible Belt, with a strong fundamentalist and Evangelical presence. So starting in about 6th or 7th grade and through my teen-age years I started coming across tracts setting forth this message and friends for whom it was their central understanding of who Jesus was and what his mission was.

It never made sense to me. In a way that I could not even articulate, it struck me as irrational and even monstrous. Just the requirement that all you had to do -- and the only thing you could do -- to avoid eternal punishment was to make a statement that you believed that Jesus died for your sins seemed absurd on its face and more absurd the more I tried to contemplate and understand it.

The priest who was probably most influential in my religious upbringing -- a wonderful man who arrived at our church when I was about 11 and retired when I was about 16 or 17 -- also didn't think much of it. Not long after he arrived in our town, he asked me about the prevalence of "Jesus Saves" messages all over; while I cannot recall his exact words, it was very clear from the way he asked that he was quite dismissive of that approach. And this was not any kind of closeted atheist, either; he was deeply devout, even for a priest, and it was natural and authentic for him to refer to Jesus, whether in the context of his life on earth or in the context of the eternal, as "Our Lord."

At the same time, however, the fundamental idea of Substitutionary Atonement (although not the term -- in truth, that label is less than a year old in my consciousness) has had a near-obsessive hold on my imagination for all my life -- a consequence of how completely monstrous a concept I felt (and feel) that it was and is. Every once in a while I find myself in the religious section of the bookstore and gazing at new (Evangelical) titles in the subject of basic Christian theology, and I often pick up one or another and quickly comb through for evidence (which I almost always find) that it's serving the same old Substitutionary Atonement wine in a new bottle. When I poke around on the web for church websites (something I do occasionally just as a matter of curiosity, or perhaps because I'm following a link from somewhere else), I'll almost always look first at the "What We Believe" section (if there is one) and then assess how much it does or doesn't follow the SA model. And when I read The First Paul, by Crossan & Borg, last year, it was a revelation to me to learn that the whole notion of Substitutionary Atonement could largely be traced to Anselm, nearly a millennium after the Crucifixion.

Perhaps that's why reading Brian McLaren's The Secret Message of Jesus -- the book I'm currently on -- has been such an absolute delight. It's the first work I've seen by an Evangelical that offers a real alternative to that model. (And from some Amazon reviews I've been reading lately, it appears his newest book, A New Kind of Christianity, may actually reject the Subtitutionary Atonement model outright, although I can't yet say that with any first-hand knowledge.)

Some years ago I heard (second-hand) that Garrison Keillor, in an amusing discourse about the New York subway system, explained why the only preachers on the trains were fundamentalists: You just don't have time for a complex message, so the simple one -- "Jesus died for your sins! Give thanks to God!" or something like that -- wins out.

As I've been reintroducing myself to Christianity through its Progressive strains in the Mainline church, I've thought back to my childhood. I'm glad that my Episcopal upbringing offered an alternative to the fundamentalism in the community around me. I just wish, sometimes, that it had offered an equally succinct and clear statement of that alternative.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thinking Out Loud: Noodling a Story Idea

This is something I've never done before on this blog.

The last few days especially, and for much longer than that generally, I've been following discussions about the anti-racism movement, and disputes over its inclination to ignore or dismiss the subject of class, over on Will's blog. (Here's the most recent such discussion.)

It's a topic that intrigues me journalistically. A big reason for that is my own personal biography. On the surface I'm a suburban white man, and that's mostly how I live my life. But I grew up on the college campus (literally -- we lived in campus housing) of a historically black college that was adjacent to a rural, black village. I have immediate relatives of African descent.

A decade of covering labor and workplace issues for a metropolitan newspaper (and, more sporadically, since that time as a freelancer) has given me insights as well into issues of class and the economy's impact at the street level.

Add to that my sometimes annoying tendency to be pathologically even-handed, a holdover from my newspaper reporting "get both sides of the story" days. I said, I find myself interested in writing something on this topic, but of course, first, I have to know just a whole lot more than I do right now. And then the question is, for whom? I've got two primarily regional publications I write for, and there's one in particular, based in my state's capital city, for which I think something could be fashioned. And then, what? what's the hook? What's the lede? What's the angle? Especially, the local angle?

Feel free to chime in in the comments. The usual commenting rules apply...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Quote for the Day: Fanatics

"...the classical definition of a fanatic is someone who:
1) runs around in circles while
2) gesticulating wildly and
4) shouting nonsense and then
4) falls down and hurts himself."

William Colsher
See the context here.

I don't know if the two no. 4s was a typo or not. But I hope it was intentional, because it's perfect that way.