Monday, September 24, 2007

Fixing the hole

Sorry I left a giant content hole on this cash machine of a website. It's nothing specific, unless it's this:

There's an entertaining 40th anniversary cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in its entirety over here. The guy cannot sing, but just overlook that.

I had a conversation with our friend Sarah about whether or not someone can be a Buddhist and yet be saved in some sense. This kind of thing was important in Utah; it altered my view of the Mormons. It would also be important if you were an evangelist; it would allow you to ask yourself who is lost and who needs saving in a way that has nothing to do with surface labels. We attended a church service that almost went there on Sunday. The text was Romans 2 and the passage that perked up my ears was this:

A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man's praise is not from men, but from God.

This is a remarkably forgiving view of "other" religions. To some extent, doctrines and rituals are just the trappings of religion. The outward person is deceptive and matters little. It says so right there in Romans (and elsewhere; the Sermon on the Mount goes there, as do the Proverbs and so on). Of course, if you continue on to the rest of Romans, the examination of the inward person does not fare very well either. In the rest of Romans, we are not in trouble because of what we appear to be, but what we are.

To what extent doctrines and rituals are the trappings of religion is the question I was trying to get at in the Heretics posts. I was getting ready for another post on this question. Is everything beyond the creeds garnish? To what extent is organized Christianity organized filigree? I have my own opinions, but we still return to the point that there is a limit to mere Christianity and to orthodoxy. Why we set it at the creeds and not elsewhere, where the creeds came from, why we trust ancient councils or at a minimum agree with them, are all interesting questions.

And how God may be working in and through non-Christians is another interesting question. The born-again Hindu; myth or reality?

I read "Trucks" for the first time in more than ten years. It was made into a movie called Maximum Overdrive, I think. It's about the evil day when all the semis become sentient and start killing everyone. Either the version I read in the seventh grade was heavily sanitized, or I forgot all kinds of violent things. I remembered a lot of it. It is a story that sticks with you, like "Lennington vs. the Ants", "The Most Dangerous Game", "The Lady and the Tiger". I'm reading Stephen King short stories, first collected in Night Shift. I think I've read "The Ledge" before too. It was also interesting to read forerunner stories of Salem's Lot, The Stand, and so on. A few of the stories are crap, but a lot of them are good. After this, I'll have read everything King wrote up to the first Dark Tower book, The Gunslinger, which I can thus dive into. As I understand Dark Tower, it runs in and out of the backstories and loose ends of King's fictional universe. Thus, I imagine it contains spoilers. King has already had some awesome novels, and I'm still barely up to 1982.

I've also got Neil Gaiman's latest short story collection too. The first story is worth the entire thing: "A Study In Emerald", a literary homage mashing up Sherlock Holmes with HP Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. It is hilarious. I am also looking forward to the novella follow-on to American Gods.

I tried sangria for the first time this weekend. I still taste the alcohol but am starting to consider it part of the experience (instead of overpowering my senses or making me crazy). I think that long ago, I must have trained my tongue to ignore spice in a similar way to ignoring alcohol. Alcohol is a once in a few months thing for me usually, but between the family visit and my birthday, we've ended up with more than normal. My parents are responsible for the sangria. They ordered it off and on at Mexican places throughout my childhood.

Speaking of my parents, those of you who know my mom as Mrs. Lewis, the French teacher, may be interested to know that my dad is now Mr. Lewis at Tyee HS in the Highline District. It's been a long life's journey for him, but he is a teacher now, working an 80% schedule with his foot in the door. Maybe it's just the sangria talking, but I am so proud I could cry. My dad followed his dream out of the book industry, into the teaching world, and I admire that immensely. I love you Dad.

I've been spinning more Radiohead and Beck from the library, along with Neil Young and John Prine, all well worth your music time. I don't know what it is about Greg Brown, but I find some of his songs kind of pretentious, so I can't recommend The Evening Call.

Work is going good. I am finding it very beneficial to go through a product delivery basically from start to finish. I am a little surprised that so much of the software engineering stuff I did in college is so applicable. I'm in an environment where we get audited regularly for conformance to the CMMI processes; we are a somewhat rapid-development/bleeding-edge environment, but the kinds of documents and goals we have are strongly in line with the project deliverables I learned about in class.

I picked up a free loop station called Mobius. It allows you to record yourself and layer on audio over and over, creating lush sonic palettes that never ever stop. (One of my favorite artists of the moment, Andrew Bird, makes killer music based on this concept, essentially playing his own continuo.) Look out world world world world...

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Quick notes

I had a very happy birthday, so thank you everyone who passed along well wishes. I hadn't heard from some of you in a while, so a special thanks to you. I will be writing soon, time permitting.

By now you may have seen a picture of a happy me clutching my Nintendo Wii box. I've been pretty impressed by it so far. But Sarah is still beating me at bowling, even though I'm learning how to curve the ball. She bowled a 173 the other day. We also rented Rayman Raving Rabbids last night. The first time you pick worms out of a screaming rabbit's teeth is not to be forgotten. You get a kind of existential crisis going, like, "Is this how I want to be spending the rest of my life?" Then, thirty seconds later, the mini-game ends. Last night I threw a cow (Sarah has the best throw by far at this point), raced on a warthog, closed outhouse doors as quickly as possible, drew food with a magic marker, and shot deranged bunnies with plungers. This is one of the more hilarious games I have ever played.

Sarah's brother Brian, father Vic, and stepmother Melissa are visiting from Utah. We are going to baseball tonight and the zoo tomorrow. We're keeping it action-packed.

I finished The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene this week. The word "masterpiece" gets thrown around a lot these days... It's set in early-20th-century Mexico. Anti-clerical laws were passed and finally enforced by Calles, "outlawing religious orders, depriving the Church of property rights and depriving the clergy of civil liberties, including their right to vote." Against that backdrop is the last priest in the state (province), who wanders around avoiding the police and holding religious services. Along the way, we learn that this priest is not a shining example of faith; rather, he's an alcoholic with other sins in his past, and he hasn't been able to confess because there are no other priests. He feels like a tarnished person, useless and pointless. Battered by events, he tries to figure out what God would have him do. It's a terrific novel, fascinating and entertaining, with questions of morality and religion at the core. It's not obvious about the backstory, but you get used to that after a while. Basically perfect. Adult content, maturity, challenge to faith warnings etc.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Unhappy anniversary

Well, it's here again. Just before my last perfect cube birthday before age 64, our nation is in mourning. The President, I gather, lit a candle for the victims of 9/11. I hear that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, so I suppose I appreciate the sentiment.

I searched my blog for posts about 9/11, and a surprising number of hits came up. Some are duplicates, I'm sure, but I guess it's an event I've had on my mind. Most of the posts are about Iraqi civilians, the latest victims of 9/11.

I consume entertainments, so here is a list of the best few about 9/11.
The best comic about 9/11: In the Shadow of No Towers, by Art Spiegelman.
The best book about 9/11: Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson.
The best show about 9/11: Heroes (see this essay on a 9/11-based reading of Heroes by Juan Cole). Honorable mention for the ladder-to-heaven South Park episode.
The best movie about 9/11: V for Vendetta. (Okay, it's tangentially related, but it's definitely useful to think about 9/11 as you watch this movie.)
The best song about 9/11: Fiery Crash, by Andrew Bird. (Also hear it here.)

I think I've talked about all these in the past, except for Fiery Crash. It's the first song on the latest Andrew Bird album, which I finally borrowed from the library. The song is, on the surface, about a little ritual Mr. Bird does when he gets on a plane:

you were hurling through space
g-forces twisting your face
breeding superstition
a fatal premonition
you know you got to envision
the fiery crash

Get in your seat and visualize the future: if you envision the plane crash ahead of time, it won't happen. Because what are the odds that you imagine something happening and then it actually happens? Plane crashes are unlikely enough to happen as it is.

It's a cute idea, if that's all there was to it, but it's impossible to think of planes crashing now without thinking about 9/11, and Bird goes there in verse two:
beige tiles and magazines
lou dobbs and the cnn team on every monitor screen
you were caught in the crossfire
where every human face has you
reaching for your mace, so it's
kind of an imposition
a fatal premonition

This is all very dense, but I interpret it to be a reference to Dobbs' nativism, and in general our xenophobia, especially toward Muslims, since 9/11. Our problem as a nation, since 9/11, has been to turn back from envisioning another 9/11. Our country has gone haywire and paranoid trying to prevent the next 9/11. We've started spying on civilians. We've started torturing and killing innocent people. We've started wars. One thing this means

and to save our lives
you've got to envision
to save all our lives
you've got to envision
the fiery crash

is that we have to accept what happened. 9/11 is the nightmare we are not waking up from. The way to end the nightmare is not to make it so no terrorist can ever threaten us again; that's impossible. And we've spent so much energy trying not to envision the fiery crash that we have, paradoxically, become fixated on it, replaying the scenes in our minds over and over again. (Pattern Recognition brings this out especially well, too.)

Instead, we have to stare death in the face and accept it, if it comes. We have to accept the price of our liberties and of our free society. The price is our vulnerability.

Friday, September 07, 2007

One of those poker situations

So, you have a king-ten suited and someone raises you all-in with Ace Ace King on the board. You fold, right? Well, this is what happens:

I'm the chicken on the bottom.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Heretics, part 2: The heretical continuum

I wanted to make sure everyone saw Vince's comment:

I am certain that the Baptist tradition would not raise sprinkling-baptism to the level of heresy. It would be a disagreement of biblical interpretation, but the baptists would not anathematize the infant baptizer!

Heresies are extreme 'wrong-thinking' positions that would put one outside the limited doctrines of orthodox Christianity. There are not many 'right-thinking' requirements for most Christian denominations. The Nicene Creed probably covers the doctrines. Thus, the Mormon doctrine of three separate gods of in Godhead could reasonably be put in the category of heresy. Orthodox Christianity is Monotheistic with a trinitarian footnote.

There are a lot of little things Christians could disagree upon and still be within the 'one catholic (universal), apostolic church' and not be called a heretic. Mode of baptism is probably one of those non-heretical differences. There were both modes in Catholic history. I don't think any of the creeds (until you get to Baptists) included a mode of baptism. But since nearly all Baptists consider baptism a symbolic act, they would not insist that God only accept immersion-baptized people.

I think that most denominations and most Christians have very few things that are heresies.

Having said all that ... I keep running into too many Christians in conservative evangelical circles that have a very well-defined concept of what right-thinking Christianity is. This is certainly what Dan it talking about. Many of my thoughts on the age of the earth, on God's grace towards non-Christians, Bible understanding ... etc etc etc, would bring anathemas from some. So it goes.

Vince is right to point out that heresy suggests a very specific meaning in the context of Christian orthodoxy: doctrine that is so far out of the norm that it must be officially rejected by the gathered church. In the historical sense, there are sharply defined boundaries between orthodoxy and heresy. Either you're orthodox or you're not, just like Vince said. There is basically a list of beliefs that are out-of-bounds enough that they don't deserve the label of Christianity, and there is a list of beliefs that constitute orthodox Christian belief.

These concepts are problematic because of what they don't say about the rest of Christian belief. There is a wide gulf between historical orthodoxy and historical heresy, but any issue that is even slightly more squishy meets silence. You might say, following Paul, that we should "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (Romans 14:1 ff.).

All well and good, but meanwhile, for instance, the issue of gay priesthood is tearing the Anglican church apart (the latest). The crux of the issue is whether or not a particular point of doctrine counts enough to pass judgment on, whether or not it is a disputable matter that gays should be candidates to be priests. Is this issue important enough to cause a schism in the church to preserve the belief? Does the centrality of this belief rise to the same level as the historical orthodoxies?

Suppose, as Vince basically says, orthodoxy is about basic, weighty issues of the nature of God, Jesus, and salvation, and its contents can be confined to the creeds. Or, suppose as the letter to the Hebrews, Chapter 6, put it, that orthodoxy involves the elementary beliefs of "repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment." Where does that leave issues like gay marriage, the gay priesthood, or the other "minor heresy" issues that were not covered in councils hundreds of years ago? Where I think it leaves them is somewhere between the center and the periphery of belief. Our friend Sarah mentioned that her husband had to do a homework at school where he placed a long list of beliefs on this continuum, stretching from "timeless, central" to "temporal, peripheral".

In the context of heresies, thus, all heresies are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Another aphorism is also coming to mind: "One person's heresy is another person's orthodoxy". I suppose over the course of this little series, I will be trying to ask whether we can get any deeper definitions of orthodoxy than "what the orthodox people say". I bring this up because the belief that is orthodox in the end did not necessarily outnumber the belief that was orthodox in the beginning. Is the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, denying the community standard in favor of the will of God, a heretic? Ponder Martin Luther. It may be helpful to remember that I am thinking about this. It also occurs to me that there may be better words for what I am trying to talk about than "orthodoxy" and "heresy". If you know them, please suggest them.

The other reason I tried to talk about my dunking baptism in the context of heresy is because of a commentary on Dante's Inferno: The Figure of Beatrice, by Charles Williams. Williams writes:
[By heresy Dante] meant an obduracy of the mind; a spiritual state which defied, consciously, a power 'to which trust and obedience are due'; an intellectual obstinacy. A heretic, strictly, was a man who knew what he was doing; he accepted the Church, but at the same time he preferred his own judgment to that of the Church.

From the day I read this passage, I've thought of heresy in the context of disobedience to the will of the church. I felt it was important enough to become a member of Maranatha to accept a belief I thought was wrong (or, at best, only weakly justifiable). The heretics are willing to insist, against the will of the church where they are a member, on their own ideas and the actions springing from those ideas. In a sense, they love their idea of the church more than they love the real church; their problem is a lack of humility. We often think of heresy as incorrect belief; I think another aspect of heresy is that it is a belief held against the community.

The gray area of orthodoxy only gives rise to more questions. For instance, where Vince says, "Heresies are extreme 'wrong-thinking' positions that would put one outside the limited doctrines of orthodox Christianity", the hidden assumption is about where those limits are. Are they only the conclusions of A, B, and C ancient councils? And if so, by what authority do they draw their conclusions? If you say on the authority of the Bible, how must you read the Bible? By what authority do you choose the right way to read the Bible? (The Catholics have interesting answers to these questions; friend of the Lewis family Mark Shea wrote an illuminating book on those answers, By What Authority?)

Again, what makes an orthodox belief orthodox? And we might add, what makes an orthodox belief central rather than peripheral?

I also skimmed lightly over a subject that really requires more attention, which is how we should treat the heretics, both in the historical sense and in the more squishy sense of people who hold beliefs we find offensive to our personal definition of orthodoxy. So, we have plenty to talk about.

On a personal note, we had to take our friend Sarah (originally from England, but our friend for many years from her time at USU, now taking up some missionary work overseas with her husband) to Denver International tonight. It was a bit of a strange parting, as we are dear friends, but we are unlikely to see each other for five years, and that at a minimum. When we got to ticketing, we were surprised to find Ina Williams and Kathy Eccles from Logan wearing enormous backpacks, waiting for a ride to begin a hiking trip. Our paths overlapped for about ten minutes, but it was great to see some more friends out here.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Heretics, part 1

Bored holes through our tongues
So sing a song about it
Held our breath for too long
Till we're half sick about it
Tell us what we did wrong
And you can blame us for it
Turn the clamp on our thumbs
We're so whipped out about it

Heretics -- Andrew Bird

Some of my friends already know the story of my second baptism. Or rather, my second water baptism. (There is stuff in the Bible about a believer's second baptism; after water, then the Holy Spirit. I guess this story is about my third baptism.) My parents did not baptize my brother, my sisters, and I when we were infants. Instead, we were supposed to make our own choice when we grew up. I held out the longest, I think; anyway, it was a long time, and I was baptized at age 20 in the Presbyterian church in Seattle I grew up going to (at 8th Ave S and S 200 St, across the street from where Mt. Rainier is right now; they moved it into Olympic Elementary, where I went to the first grade). There are pictures floating around of the whole thing, of Pastor Ben Lindstrom blessing me and marking the sign of the cross on my forehead. It was as good as I could imagine; I still look back on that event with a sense that it was very good indeed.

After I got to Utah, married Sarah, and settled in, Sarah and I decided that we wanted to declare our membership in Maranatha Baptist Church after some years of going there. This meant to us that we were affirming our relationships with the people there, kind of like saying that we were part of a family now.

There was just a little catch. One of the Baptist distinctives is full-immersion water baptism. What that means is that the ceremony that marked a passage into spiritual adulthood, that publicly stated my faith and commitment as a Christian, that symbolized my death and rebirth into a new life, just as Christ died and lived again, not to mention the spiritual ramifications... that wussy sprinkling of water on top of my head just wasn't making it for the Baptists. My membership of Maranatha would be inaugurated in a white robe, holding my nose, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, underwater.

Or not.

Pastor Emerson came to our apartment to talk membership over with Sarah and I. I brought up the fact that I had already been baptized, so this wouldn't, couldn't mean exactly the same thing to me, and he seemed to accept that. He also wanted me to know that nevertheless, this was the Baptist way, their interpretation of the relevant Biblical sources, so it was not optional. The question then was whether or not I would accept that.

Welcome to the world of heresy and orthodoxy. Heresy means the wrong way; orthodoxy means the right way that heresy is wrong about. Sometimes, claims that violate some discipline's received wisdom are called heretical, but you will most often hear about heresy in the context of religious doctrine, where heresy means wrong belief.

Heresies, like Patripassianism and Arianism and Pelagianism and Manichaeism, are named after people, not ideas, and if you know what these people were thinking or disagreeing with in the context of their times, you are a historian. In fact, some of the theological issues involved are so abstruse that from a distance, if you don't know your history, you might not remember which idea is orthodox and which is the heretic. If I say homoiousios, for example, and say that it's a word used to say that Jesus was like God the Father, it sounds pretty innocuous. Until I tell you, you may not recognize it as one of the distinctives of a heresy that nearly split the Christian church down the middle in the 4th century.

Who orthodoxes the orthodox? How can we tell the orthodox from the heretical?

Good news

A conversation with our visiting friend Sarah (lately of Birmingham, England, and Logan, UT, and destined for parts beyond) clarified some of my thoughts on heresy. This is providing fresh material. I am beginning to be surprised by how much of my religious experience is related to questions of orthodoxy and heresy...

I think I just have to start writing and split it up as much as I can. With that, history of the heresy part 1.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

One thought per post?

I thought once that if I put one thought per post, I'd get a lot more posts out here. But I don't know if I can adjust to that lifestyle. One of my friends once said I had long thoughts, like paragraphs.

I noticed today that my family is on Facebook even if I am not (or only nominally). Maybe I'm too old to see the point, your powers grow weak old man. One of the strange connections was seeing people I thought of as kids at Southminster all grown up and doing their thing. Other than Steven Martel, I really hadn't noticed.

I was going through my papers again (for more information, see With the benefit of hindsight). One that really stuck out to me was dated September 16-17, 1995. It is just a slice of life, where lots of little things happened all at once. That weekend, I went to see "Oklahoma!" a couple of times at the Highline Performing Arts Center. A lot of my friends were in it, or around it. Ian and Paul went with me to see them. I really wanted to remember, I was seized to write, thank goodness. When I annotated it last night, I said, "Some days are perfect, that's all."

That date is significant because it means I wrote this thing basically the day or two before the 19th, when Chris Tyni killed himself. You couldn't draw it up better in a Stephen King book: all is calm, all is bright, and then all is dark. It is like a time capsule, not only for the twelve years intervening, but also for my innocent childhood. It wasn't the beginning of my adulthood by any stretch, but the end of my childhood... yes. When I tell myself the stories of my life, that day sticks out in many of them.

The other interesting thing I found was a record of a dream I've never forgotten. It actually makes a lot of sense, for a dream:

I go into a large elevator and ride it to the top floor of a building, where there's a museum. After the doors open and lights come on, I must be distracted because the lights go out and I have a feeling of being too late, or waiting too long as the doors close and the elevator continues up. I'm crushed and I can't see anything, but I feel things breaking until finally my head goes too. Everything is silent. I hear a sigh, and I don't know if it's mine. Then I wait for the next thing. Then I wake up.

The most likely date on the dream is 1997. I was not a Christian then. It brings together two great fears: my ongoing fear of being killed by the automatic operations of senseless, ignorant machines (along with fear of my teeth falling out, it is the only thing I have remotely resembling a phobia), and my fear that somehow life has already passed me by, that the great decisions and moments occurred when I was too young to understand what to do with them, and that the life I have lived must be resigned to, must be borne and not enjoyed, that the story of my life is a story of failure.

I was paging through the moments of my life, which, thank God, I have saved in boxes because my head is too small for them, and thinking about my past a little bit. I saw names who should still be friends, words that should have been held and remembered for all this time. Instead, the story chops off insensibly, out of apathy, or a falling-out, or my ignorance or my ill behavior, or just the vagaries of chance. I thought about these things and I felt like a discontinuous person, a person lacking structural, spiritual integrity. It's not that I've forgotten, it's that little parts of my life that should be there are blacked out: I remember nothing of the life I should be having with these people down to today.

I don't just think about forgiveness, however relevant it is in several of my discontinuities. I do want to be forgiven for what I did, or failed to do, with these people. But even more, I want not the closure of forgiveness, but the aperture of connection, of renewed friendship. That other universe, that life where we are whole people, together again, we should be living there today.

[You can read some great stories about this, like The Girl I Left Behind and Deep River by Shusaku Endo.]