Monday, July 30, 2007

Just when I thought the web was getting boring...

...along comes Postsecret.

"My family can only love the mask they give me to wear..."

I've blogged often on gay Christian issues. I believe that the Church has the power, by ending its declared war on the gays in its midst, to spread peace, reconciliation and blessing into the lives of gays and their families. Instead it sows misery, self-hatred, doubt and fear.

Friend of this blog Eric from Two World Collision was recently interviewed for an article in the OC Weekly about ex-gay movements and the growing communities of survivors of those experiences.
Exodus International is no stranger to protest, but this year, Soulforce, a group of volunteers who have made it their mission to teach the principles of nonviolence on behalf of gender minorities, and Beyond Ex-Gay, a relatively new online community for ex-gay survivors, would swap bullhorns and hand-carried signs for a different form of retaliation.

Here, for three days, the survivors would gather at the university and tell the stories many at Exodus do not want to hear: yarns of rejection, failure and brokenness. And all from the lips of former ex-gay ministry members and leaders who once subscribed to the same mindset as the mammoth ministry:

“I failed God.”

“I’ve come to hate religion.”

“My family can only love the mask they give me to wear.”

The wall fills with color and pain as the clock ticks, the silent crowd growing restless and tearful, some seemingly amazed they’d met their personal demons here in this simple activity. A few “good” memories are scrawled—“Made great friends,” “God became a very real father to me”—but they are almost lost in the sorrowful missives.

The crowd falls back as the activity concludes—an icebreaking session for the Survivor Conference.

Then the man who blames himself in part for the birth of the ex-gay movement in Anaheim more than three decades ago comes forward and picks up a pen.

“The truth will set you free,” Michael Bussee writes in red, “but first it will make you miserable.”

Putin Youth

There's a disturbing trend towards authoritarianism afoot worldwide. Here at home, it's mostly a mishmash of corporatism, ham-handed Homeland Security hassles and an increasing proliferation of cameras, wire-tapping and other intrusions into personal space and communication.

But in Russia, it's as dark as it gets.

Putin has been busying himself with consolidating control over a resurgently nationalistic Russia in a number of different ways--some absolutely thuggish, even murderous--but even I was taken aback when I read an article in the London Daily Mail (HT: Drudge Report) about a Russian youth group called Nashi (meaning "Us"):

Nashi's annual camp, 200 miles outside Moscow, is attended by 10,000 uniformed youngsters and involves two weeks of lectures and physical fitness.

Attendance is monitored via compulsory electronic badges and anyone who misses three events is expelled. So are drinkers; alcohol is banned. But sex is encouraged, and condoms are nowhere on sale.

Bizarrely, young women are encouraged to hand in thongs and other skimpy underwear - supposedly a cause of sterility - and given more wholesome and substantial undergarments.

Twenty-five couples marry at the start of the camp's first week and ten more at the start of the second. These mass weddings, the ultimate expression of devotion to the motherland, are legal and conducted by a civil official.

Attempting to raise Russia's dismally low birthrate even by eccentric-seeming means might be understandable. Certainly, the country's demographic outlook is dire. The hard-drinking, hardsmoking and disease-ridden population is set to plunge by a million a year in the next decade.

But the real aim of the youth camp - and the 100,000-strong movement behind it - is not to improve Russia's demographic profile, but to attack democracy.

Under Mr Putin, Russia is sliding into fascism, with state control of the economy, media, politics and society becoming increasingly heavy-handed. And Nashi, along with other similar youth movements, such as 'Young Guard', and 'Young Russia', is in the forefront of the charge.

Scary stuff.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Zeke @ Moe's

Courtesy of The Simpson's Movie site. Hat tip: SBE/Ping.

The moral problem of orthodoxy

It's been my experience that adherence to orthodox beliefs--be they Christian or otherwise--leads to profound moral challenges in daily living that orthodox teachings themselves rarely satisfactorily address.

Take the example of Noah Feldman (HT: Andrew Sullivan), orthodox Jew who found, after taking a group photo at the 10th reunion of his orthodox yeshiva, that he and his non-Jewish girlfriend were Photoshopped out of the picture before it was published in the yeshiva newsletter. This spawned a reflective essay in the New York Times whereby he recounted some of the dilemmas and complexities inherent in orthodox living. This one stuck out for me:

One time at [my yeshiva] a local physician — a well-known figure in the community who later died tragically young — addressed a school assembly on the topic of the challenges that a modern Orthodox professional may face. The doctor addressed the Talmudic dictum that the saving of a life trumps the Sabbath. He explained that in its purest form, this principle applies only to the life of a Jew. The rabbis of the Talmud, however, were unprepared to allow the life of a non-Jew to be extinguished because of the no-work commandment, and so they ruled that the Sabbath could be violated to save the life of a non-Jew out of concern for maintaining peaceful relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

Depending on how you look at it, this ruling is either an example of outrageously particularist religious thinking, because in principle it values Jewish life more than non-Jewish life, or an instance of laudable universalism, because in practice it treats all lives equally. The physician quite reasonably opted for the latter explanation. And he added that he himself would never distinguish Jewish from non-Jewish patients: a human being was a human being.

This appealing sentiment did not go unchallenged. One of my teachers rose to suggest that the doctor’s attitude was putting him in danger of violating the Torah. The teacher reported that he had himself heard from his own rabbi, a leading modern-Orthodox Talmudist associated with Yeshiva University, that in violating the Sabbath to treat a non-Jew, intention was absolutely crucial. If you intended to save the patient’s life so as to facilitate good relations between Jews and non-Jews, your actions were permissible. But if, to the contrary, you intended to save the patient out of universal morality, then you were in fact guilty of violating the Sabbath, because the motive for acting was not the motive on the basis of which the rabbis allowed the Sabbath violation to occur.

Later, in class, the teacher apologized to us students for what he said to the doctor. His comments, he said, were inappropriate — not because they were wrongheaded, but because non-Jews were present in the audience when he made them. The double standard of Jews and non-Jews, in other words, was for him truly irreducible: it was not just about noting that only Jewish lives merited violation of the Sabbath, but also about keeping the secret of why non-Jewish lives might be saved. To accept this version of the tradition would be to accept that the modern Orthodox project of engagement with the world could not proceed in good faith.

This is exactly the kind of headspinning challenge that orthodoxy presents to those who want to both adhere to orthodox teachings and live normal, moral lives in peace and harmony with their non-orthodox neighbors. And it's hardly peculiar to Jews. I saw plenty of examples in the evangelical churches I attended over the years.

Take, for instance, the new Christian who wondered if being "unequally yoked" meant that he had to not spend time with his "unsaved" family members. Or the teenager who burned the tapes under his bed because a Bible teacher told him that they were "unclean."

I podcasted some time ago about those who determine that they are admonished to be "not of this world" and end up imposing upon themselves a kind of cultural Christian kashrut--this movie is Christian, that one is not. This friend is Christian, that one is of the world. World, bad! No wonder orthodox Christians can be so insufferable.

Orthodoxy leads to ghettos and ghetto thinking. It also leads to washing the outside of the bowl while neglecting the inside. And that, to me, is the fundamental moral weakness of orthodoxy: it just makes it too damned hard to love your neighbor while you're busy trying to please God through obedience.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Mrs. Zeke, I love you. Don't read this post.

I've been doing a lot of business in Colorado in the last year, and must've passed by the "Next Exit: Focus on the Family Visitor Center" sign maybe a dozen times. This last trip, I had time to burn before my flight so I took the plunge.

After making a silent vow not to be a cynical jerk inside, I signed in at the visitors center and slapped on my name tag (scratching my head here--have I ever gone to a visitors center and needed a name tag?) I made my way around the modestly sized but cleanly designed exhibits. This one said it all for me:

(Full disclosure #1: I do not believe that everything Dr. Dobson does is bad.)

If I have a beef with Dr. Dobson it's with the degree to which he has contributed to the politicization of the church in America. Well, I have two beefs with him: with that, and with his over the top fixation with homosexuality. Does American culture present moral challenges to parents and families? Sure. Are families "under fire" by some unholy alliance of leftists, cultural elites, and postmodern amoral relativists under the secret banner of Satan? That seems to be Dr. Dobson's diagnosis, and his prescription is angry politics. I guess it's not really a surprise; if I believed that Satan was using left-wing and perverted minions to undermine Christian America (the world's last hope!), I might be scared and angry too. But I'm not with him on this one. I might know somebody who is:

Is Bush a sincere Christian? I have no reason to believe otherwise, but I also think this man and his administration have serious integrity issues that men like Dobson should be weighing in against. Instead, they provide political cover for an administration that I increasingly see to be insincere, power abusing and cronyist. Depressingly so.

(Full disclosure #2: I voted for him twice.)

I also was not impressed with Dr. Dobson's performance during the fall of Ted Haggard. At first, Dobson angrily defended his "good friend" against the initial allegations, saying that "the situation has grave implications for the Cause of Christ." I'm sure he was as serious when he wrote that as he seems to be about so many other moral crises threatening America and the work of the Gospel. Then when Haggard admitted his gay affair (as in having sex with a male prostitute, not hosting a lovely garden party) Dr. Dobson committed himself publicly to serving on a "recovery team" with other notable Christian leaders--only to blow off his obligation because of his busy schedule. Apparently, some other dark crisis loomed in opposition to the Cause of Christ. Bigger name on the other line. Sorry, Ted.

(Full disclosure #3: I admit it: I'm a cynical jerk about James Dobson.)

A final personal word: Dr. Dobson, my cynicism doesn't extend to the lovely and touching memorial you built to your father inside the visitors' center.

A son's love and respect for his father was plain to see in this exhibit, and I was genuinely touched as I walked the space.

Dr. Dobson, I believe that you are a sincere man and are passionate about your beliefs. But that doesn't mean that you aren't hurting this country, so I won't let you off the hook--as I'm sure you wouldn't give me a pass about believing that gays should be left in peace to love and live their lives, or that politics should be left at the doors of the church.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Worthy of Anger and Tears

William Lobdell felt called by God to report on religion for the Los Angeles Times. That was the beginning of the end of his faith, which could not survive seeing how the sausage of church is made. Catholic sex abuse scandals, the callousness of Mormons to those who question the faith, and outlandish evangelical financial abuses--along with apologism from the members of each faith for their leaders' abuses--wrung Lobdell dry of his belief:
The questions that I thought I had come to peace with started to bubble up again. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God get credit for answered prayers but no blame for unanswered ones? Why do we believe in the miraculous healing power of God when he's never been able to regenerate a limb or heal a severed spinal chord?

In one e-mail, I asked [a former pastor], who had lost a daughter to cancer, why an atheist businessman prospers and the child of devout Christian parents dies. Why would a loving God make this impossible for us to understand?

He sent back a long reply that concluded:

"My ultimate affirmation is let God be God and acknowledge that He is in charge. He knows what I don't know. And frankly, if I'm totally honest with you, a life of gratitude is one that bows before the Sovereign God arguing with Him on those things that trouble me, lamenting the losses of life, but ultimately saying, 'You, God, are infinite; I'm human and finite.' "

John is an excellent pastor, but he couldn't reach me. For some time, I had tried to push away doubts and reconcile an all-powerful and infinitely loving God with what I saw, but I was losing ground. I wondered if my born-again experience at the mountain retreat was more about fatigue, spiritual longing and emotional vulnerability than being touched by Jesus.
Sounds a lot like a recent SCP post.

The article is here.