Archive - November, 2009

Are the Jewish People an Invention?

Is the narrative that defines the Jewish people an invention, or does it have a factual basis? It’s an invention according to a book by a professor at Tel Aviv University. In a review in the NY Times Patricia Cohen discusses the method author Shlomo Sand utilizes to build his case. Central to his thesis is that Jews were not expelled from Palestine in AD 70. This undercuts the claim to a Jewish homeland and the right to return.

Sands also challenges the lineage of Jews by making a case for European ancestry. This would further buttress the proposition that Jews have no ancestral claim to Palestine.These contentions are obviously controversial and spark debate and I don’t advocate for them. In fact, the conflicted situation in Palestine is so multi-layered that I wouldn’t hazard to claim enough knowledge to speak about the right to return in this historical framework.

What interests me is an underlying, equally compelling thought. We are shaped by our story and our story shapes us. This process includes facts, but it is beyond fact.

Cohen quotes historians who acknowledge that historical narrative is written from within a context and some historians shape the narrative to meet the needs of the situation in which they write. The narrative is a "mingling of myth, memory, truth and aspiration," she says.

Out of this mix, self-definition develops and truth emerges. As Cohen writes, even if the AD 70 Diaspora didn’t occur the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple shaped the self-understanding of Jews as an exiled and persecuted people.

The mingling of diverse pieces of fact, fiction, aspiration and experience coupled with religious tenets become the story of a people. We are the products of our environment as well as our genes, of our hopes as well as our memories. Reality itself is multilayered and contextual.

In this sense, and it’s probably not the sense about which Professor Sand is writing, the history of all groups is an invention. It can be nothing less. We shape our story and we are shaped by our story.

Colonizing Ethiopia?

Agro-imperialism. Andrew Rice asks if there is such a thing. And the answer is, of course there is. It goes by another name–colonialism. As when the French appropriated lands and extracted peanut oil from Senegal. Or the Belgians rubber, cocoa, and all manner of other natural products from Congo. Or the U.S. latex from Liberia. The history is clear.

Local people are exploited for low wages, face periodic food shortages, pay taxes for unprovided services and are politically marginalized. Nothing new here.

Rice reports the latest version being planned by Saudis, Indians and Chinese. Rich but resource-deprived countries are looking to Africa for its land and cheap labor to develop food for their own populations, he says.

If I sound skeptical, I am. I also admit to impatience. I even risk ranting here. But this is an old story and it’s aggravating that we’re looking at a new chapter. Besides, the older I get the more passionate I become.

A key to ending poverty, as Muhammad Yunus has illustrated is economic self-development. It’s not merely charity, nor compassionate relief. These are useful under certain circumstances. But in the long-term, the most effective means to close the gap between the rich and the poor is to resource and train the poor to do for themselves.

Granted, many non-profit groups are doing economic development and doing it well. And they attempt to influence agricultural and food policy albeit somewhat less successfully because they don’t have the clout of government policymakers or well-heeled multinational corporations.

I suppose what aggravates me is this lack of voice around the tables that matter. One corrective might be for mainline seminaries to partner with other grad schools to devise degree paths that incorporate economic and social policy with theological studies. I’m talking about more than classes in social ethics.  Currently, if it exists at all this approach to practical theology is informal. As a result, critical ethical connections between policy and faith values are not made. Faith is compartmentalized and individualized.

This is important because global faith communities such as mine have contacts, infrastructure and resources that are critical to development. And development is a moral issue as important, in my opinion, as other forms of religious expression. Missional theology is too often defined in terms of evangelistic outreach or by  individual or small-scale acts of charity. The faith communities should be around the tables where global food policy is discussed because they have a direct interest in the outcomes. It’s our own brothers and sisters who will benefit or be deprived when these policies are implemented.

Further, the abysmal lack of global awareness in the U.S. is tantamount to unfaithfulness. It leaves the content of faith hostage to national cultural contexts which are limiting and dangerously chauvinistic. Look only so far as the evangelical right to see what can happen when religion is wedded to narrow political interests.

Nearly every purchase we make today has a consequence for someone in another part of the world. We are inextricably interconnected. When we buy clothing made offshore, a tank of gasoline that transfers wealth to the oil-producing states that are using that wealth to buy up African land, or a cellphone that uses precious metals mined in Congo under dangerous conditions and corrupt business practices, we’re implicated. As people of faith seeking to live ethical, moral lives we should be aware and concerned. But our global education has been neglected.

I don’t think most people want to be implicated. But I don’t think they’re going to hear these connections drawn by global corporations, governments and, unfortunately, educational systems. Faith communities have a direct interest in addition to a value system that motivates them to speak out. But their speaking cannot amount to the appearance of moralizing. It should demonstrate clear theological and policy analysis. It should draw connections between our values and the way we live our lives.

If the religious communities absent themselves from policy conversations and continue to  view mission as small-scale projects apart from large-scale policies, then it’s quite likely that agro imperialism will advance. And with it will come disenfranchisement, corruption and hunger. We’ve seen this before.

Does Exercise Make You Less Anxious?

The Well blog on the NY Times reports studies that show exercise makes you less anxious. One study of laboratory rats showed that exercise creates new brain cells that are functionally different from existing cells in anxiety-induced rats. The new cells created from running did not have the characteristics of existing cells that had anxiety genes. Thus, the conclusion tentatively reached is that exercise produced a calming effect.

It’s not clear how this might translate to human brains but some studies show anxious humans benefit from exercise, according to the Well. Runners on the site report an elevated mood after running even as they experience physical fatigue.

The studies leave many questions unanswered. To my way of thinking this is one: If God had wanted us to run to feel good, why did he give us motorcycles?

(Update : A viewer on YouTube pointed out the configuration of the headlights on my new, used BMW make it a different model number than I attribute. The correct model is R1150GS. After checking the documents I realize the bike is an 1150. It’s still a great ride by any other number.)

(This morning I posted a short video of my first ride on a new-to-me BMW R 1100 GS down the Natchez Trace Parkway. I’ve been riding since I was 12. I was also a runner. Riding is a lot more fun.)

The Church of Oprah

As Oprah prepares to wind down her broadcast talk show Elizabeth Tenety asks in the Washington Post if her followers will lose their spiritual guide. Some evangelical Christians have condemned her for not adhering to Christian orthodoxy as they teach it, as if daytime television were indeed the church of Oprah. She’s also been criticized for her new age-like spiritual proclivities.

In this, as Tenety says, Oprah may be more like her audience than their spiritual guide. The growing edge of religious thought in the U.S. has been a claim to be spiritual but not religious. The vagueness of the phrase marks the state of belief in the culture; light on content, heavy on experience; highly personal and  internally focused.

What Oprah has created is a sense of belonging, a community of sorts. By identifying with her audience and becoming vulnerable herself, she has tapped into the needs of her audience for growth, self-understanding and a desire for connection.

Her cultural influence is indisputable. When asked if her support of Eckhart Tolle was in conflict with her Christian faith, she explained she has reconciled her Baptist upbringing with her wider interest in spirituality, particularly Tolle’s melding of psychology, philosophy and spiritualism. This is likely the form of spirituality in the foreseeable future: relationship-based, undifferentiated content, self-development oriented and informal, as contrasted to institutional. With or without Oprah, these dynamics are already unleashed. She has channeled them, and may still. But her audience was already there.

Broadcast Model Creaking, What’s Next?

As with general circulation print, broadcast television faces  economic challenges it’s never faced before. But the interesting change that is submerged in the conversation about the future is the changing role media plays in shaping awareness and perception.

Broadcast media were primary culture shapers in the past. Radio changed how families interacted. Morning radio programs such as Don McNeill’s Breakfast Hour changed the way people started their day. Then television came along and brought even more change. Not only daytime, but nighttime as well. It altered the cultural landscape.

From Pinky Lee, Howdy Doody and Davey Crockett, children born into the first television generation were shaped by a mass marketing machine that was unlike any other. Then came riveting national and global experiences that we all joined in together, watching them unfold. The first astronauts to walk on the moon, for example.

Now that the economic model seems to be unsustainable, the cultural behaviors that it fosters are also changing. It will be very interesting to see how we adapt to this and whether social cohesion as we experienced in the broadcast era is necessary, or even possible, in the new media age  we are living into.

Does God Evolve?

A few years ago I heard Bishop John Shelby Spong say the Bible is the story of pre-scientific, tribal people who lived before it was known that germs cause disease. He wasn’t denigrating the Bible. He was emphasizing that context should be considered when we read scripture. Obviously, context affected how people viewed the supernatural and ultimately how they understood and defined God, and much more.

Simple as it is, it’s a significant challenge. It raises the question: How does context influence understanding of the sacred, of God? And, of course, the writing of sacred text? Is religion merely a projection of human hopes and fears? What is the basis for our beliefs?

The question is being discussed today in interesting and relatively new ways in popular media outside the classroom. Robert Wright offers a masterful, comprehensive case for the evolution of belief about God. His thesis is mechanistic. "Scripture is obedient to facts on the ground," he writes in his book The Evolution of God .

As societies evolve, they define the deity from within a complicated mix of culture, politics, commerce and intellectual reflection according to Wright. He reminds us that Aristotle said, "Men create gods after their own image, not only with regard to their form but with regard to their mode of life."

I suppose some will consider Wright’s thesis a threat to faith. I don’t. While there is a significant difference between apprehending the mystery of the divine and believing the divine is created out of human apprehension, the rabbinic tradition of on-going conversation about religious perception and teaching provides for a fluid understanding of belief. The conversation occurs over centuries. Rabbis probe teachings, add to, suggest nuance and substantiate or clarify. This makes faith a living stream nurturing thought and practice. And through it teaching about the divine changes.

In the Christian tradition another stream of thought says on-going revelation alters our perception of the divine mystery. It’s about our ability to apprehend the divine. One starting place is textual analysis but it is complemented by philosophical and theological dialogue. And contextual analysis.

These neither refute nor support Wright’s thesis. Nor do they address the persistence of humankind’s search to explain and believe. Wright acknowledges that religious thought is resilient and universal but it is unlikely the result of a "God gene." He rejects an anatomy of belief for the terrain of belief.

Viewing scripture through this lens and considering how the original context shaped what was written or conveyed through oral tradition does not negate faith but it challenges the basis upon which we believe. That’s not a bad thing. It opens us to examine the contours of belief and to ask how our context contributes to, or leads us away from, belief and to what result. In an era of rapid change, globalization, narrow nationalism and fear it’s necessary to think deeply about faith and to disconnect it from partisan ideology.

At a personal level, it presents a challenge to discern how our own biases, perceptions, cultural context and daily experiences illuminate or distort an understanding of the great mystery we call God.

Wright says when commerce makes it more amenable for us to cooperate than fight we are are also more respectful of the beliefs of others and religion contributes to social cohesion. That’s a twist on the common criticism that religion is divisive and harmful to the social fabric.

In an interesting survey of the evolutionary perspective this Sunday, Nicholas Wade asks if this approach could result in detente between religion and science. And he points out that it might not be religion per se that results in good or bad ends, but the way it is used by leaders and others in the society.

Given the fact that we are now coming to the awareness that we are interdependent and our destinies are bound together on this small planet, social cohesion is a great step forward. If Wright leads us to think reflectively about the role of religion in this context, he will have given us a great gift.

(Revised for clarity Nov. 21, 5:33 pm)

Is Faith Relevant?

I needed to break free two frozen screws to remove a solenoid from a starter motor. Lacking an impact driver, I went to the local Pep Boys auto store. I waited as a salesperson explained a tire sale to a customer. The customer weighed the prices and decided all were too expensive. He was a worker dressed in a company uniform.

As I explained my need to the person at the counter, the tire shopper said he might have a tool in his truck that would do the job and the counter person said a mechanic in back might also be able to break the screws free.

It occurred to me that I had walked into the underneath side of the recession, the one that hasn’t been bailed out like Wall Street. The two thought I was saving money by doing this job myself, and both wanted to help. If the government won’t bail out working people, they, at least, will help out each other.

It’s always been like this.

Except I wasn’t looking for a freebie. I expected to pay. The mechanic took the part, and returned minutes later. The screws were loosened. I asked, "how much?" He said, "I don’t know, it’s not on my rate sheet."

It was his way of saying, "No charge." I protested but no one listened. The counter person became busy with a phone call. I stood there a bit embarrassed, and eventually I slunk out.

But the event still bugs me. I’ve just sat through several days of meetings in which I heard lots of talk about the effects of the economic downturn on giving to the church for which I work. A little bit of talk about the effects of the economy on the very poor, but no talk of how the recession is hitting working people. And that bothers me–a lot.

If faith is to be seen as relevant it seems to me it must address the real life concerns that give us meaning and purpose, or stand in the way of us living the fruitful lives that we say we are created for. If, as we are taught, this is what the Creator intends, that we live abundant lives in service to one another, then faith must provide us the guidance to do just that. And people of faith must live by these teachings.

Analyzing how much giving has declined doesn’t lead me to that end. It leads me to wonder if we have lost our way, asking how people are serving institutional needs but not asking how we are serving the needs of those who are struggling and losing in this economy.

If religious faith is to be meaningful today it must address the social settings in which life is shaped, or misshaped. And anyone who doesn’t understand that this relates to Jesus’ teachings doesn’t understand why Jesus was put to death by the Romans. He was a menace to the social order of empire.

If faith is to be relevant, it must address our quality of life individually and collectively. It must assist us to live fruitfully. This isn’t limited to economics, but surely it includes economic policy. And it includes change in individual lives, and surely the economic abuses that have put us in the ditch are crushing many individual lives.

Have the mainline denominations become enclaves of upper middle class wealth? It looks that way, and after listening to the conversations I’ve heard, it sounds that way.  Some members, to be sure, are hurt by this economy. But many are not, and among these are many of the leaders of these denominations.

Bob Herbert writes this morning: "The financial elites have flourished in recent decades to a great extent because they have had government on their side, with the politicians working diligently to ensure that rules, regulations and tax policies established an environment in which the elites could thrive. For ordinary Americans, it has been a different story, with jobs shipped overseas by the millions and wages remaining stagnant, with labor unions under constant assault and labor standards weakened, with the safety net shredded and the message sent out to workers everywhere: You’re on your own."

This is where relevant faith will be lived out today because this is where people are facing the struggle for meaning and purpose. I must make it clear this isn’t about good people or bad people among the leadership. It’s about economic polices and a theological understanding of them and their effects on the lives of ordinary people. It’s about the biblical teachings of justice and respect for human dignity. It’s about Jesus teaching us to serve those who are least among us for when we see them we see him.

It’s about faithfulness and relevant faith.

And if we in the mainline don’t find the voice to discuss these issues along with concern for declining revenues we will be neither relevant nor faithful.

"We are the ones who are sharing the story of Jesus through our denomination."

I had the opportunity to speak to 75 colleagues at the fall meeting of the United Methodist Association of Communicators, held in Nashville, TN, Oct. 20-23, 2009. Here’s an audio presentation of my remarks, in which I share my views on the changing landscape of communications.

Click here to listen to the audio: