Thursday, August 31, 2017

Two different inspirations

Because I could do with the reminder, and maybe you can, too:

"Victory is won not in miles, but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later, win a little more." -- Louis L'Amour

Greatness in Texas after Hurricane Harvey

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The magic number

I noticed while watching the old Sylvester Stallone action movie "Cliffhanger" on TV that St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals both ask specifically for donations of $19 per month. The same sum can "save a child" or "save an abused animal." There's a reason for that.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

An open letter to Rabbi Marc Gellman

(this "unity of stripes" has metaphorical possibilities)

Dear Rabbi Gellman,

I'm a lay Catholic writing to you on the advice of my friend Chuck, who says you read and respond to "God Squad" email from readers.  

Chuck forwarded your column of August 17 to me, because he thought your summary of Christian history in response to a question from a reader in Long Island, NY was informative and interesting.  

I agree with Chuck, but think you veered off the rails in this paragraph of your otherwise-cogent response:

"The split between Judaism and Christianity occurred after Jesus' death with the Apostle Paul in the first century," you wrote. "Paul found that Jewish laws concerning circumcision and not eating pork had severely limited his work in converting gentiles to Christianity, and he began to preach that keeping such ritual provisions of Jewish law [was] no longer necessary for new Christians. This violation of Jewish law plus of course the claim that Jesus was the Messiah caused a final split between Paul and the Jerusalem church led by James, and with it a final split between Judaism and Christianity."

Assertions in that paragraph are wrong for several reasons (please bear in mind that I am not a professional theologian, but I do know my Catholic catechism):

First and most importantly, Jesus himself said that He came "not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it." (Matthew 5:17). One who fulfills the law has not violated it.

Second, you've tried to pin the Christian split with Judaism on Saint Paul. That's wrong-headed. It is true that Paul preached that converts to Christ did not need to adhere to ritual Mosaic restrictions, but Paul was not alone in saying that. In chapter 10 of the Acts of the Apostles, it's Peter (not Paul) who has a vision of all kinds of food from all kinds of animals, and a voice from heaven telling him (three times!) that "what God has made clean, you are not to call profane."

With that in mind, you are also wrong to claim that there was a split between Paul and "the Jerusalem church led by James." There was no split or schism. There was, instead, a council -- the Council of Jerusalem -- to resolve apostolic differences over how Jewish a gentile had to be before he or she could become a Christian. By the end of that council meeting, Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James were all of one accord.  

Christian scriptures note that meeting attendees in Jerusalem sent representatives to the church in Antioch with instructions to that effect, and clarification for the "brothers" (meaning other followers of Jesus) there. The next chapter of Acts even notes that followers of Jesus were first called "Christians" in Antioch. Ergo, Saint Paul was not leading his own faction. He famously rebuked Saint Peter when Peter was behaving like a hypocrite by being too scrupulous in whom he chose to eat with, but Peter accepted that fraternal correction, and the two of them resolved their differences.

I'm sure you are better informed than many other people on these matters, but may I gently suggest that your summary made the mistake that Saint Peter warned about in 2 Peter 3:15, when he said of the letters from "our beloved brother Paul" that "there are some things in them hard to understand, that the ignorant and unstable distort to their own destruction."? 

You seem to have fallen for the misguided idea that Christianity owes more to Paul than to anyone else. Although he was critical to the spread of the new faith, Paul himself would dispute that (see, for example 1 Corinthians 15:8). Saint Peter was the one on whom Jesus said he would build a church -- and (incidentally) wouldn't that action implicitly refute your quip about how if being Jewish was "good enough for Jesus," then it's good enough for you?

Peter was also the one apostle for whom Jesus paid the temple tax (Matthew 17:24-27). And if it's anecdotal evidence of unity between Peter and Paul (indeed, all of the apostles) that you want (apart from scriptural texts like Galatians 2:9), please note that the Catholic liturgical calendar celebrates Peter and Paul together (annually on June 29). 

I know I've stood on the proverbial soap box too long.Thank you for letting me bend your ear about all this, and for treating theological questions with the respect they deserve in your "God Squad" columns.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Penalty box?

Careful observers of politics and culture usually learn how to spot the dominant narrative, which is a set of presumptions influencing how most of the top-tier actors in the "infotainment" complex see the world (not coincidentally, professional influencers expect the rest of us to share their presumptions, because they sleep better when they think they work for us, rather than for each other).

Anything that influences Google doodles, underscores Yahoo News headline choices, wins Academy Awards, or makes regular appearances in the monologues of late-night comedians with TV shows is part of the dominant narrative. In the first hour of his August 1 radio broadcast, Rush Limbaugh described the dominant narrative as an "east coast parochial" mindset that can be found "in media and in life." (His point was that he hadn't recognized the reach of that mindset -- meaning the influence of the prevailing narrative-- when he started his career almost 30 years ago).

The dominant narrative, for example, maintains the fiction of "unbiased" journalism. It also refers to acts of terrorism as "tragedies," thereby removing moral culpability for murder and mayhem from terrorists (just in case they're simply over-zealous people with legitimate grievances). Those of us who care about the meanings of words know that a hurricane demolishing a seaside town is a tragedy, but when a bomber blows up a crowded mall or a school in that same town, it's not just "tragic," it's wrong.

Scrolling through the web sites that aggregate news stories can be both a time sink and an invitation to cynicism, which is why I don't do it much. But every once in awhile, a confluence of stories gets my attention because it seems to subvert the dominant narrative. That happened this morning.

Regardless of your personal views on the matter, the only correct answer to the question, "Which major political party in the United States officially supports a woman's 'right to choose,' when that phrase is understood to mean deciding to abort her unborn child at any time during her pregnancy?" is "the Democrat party." Imagine, then, the consternation among defenders of the status quo when some Democrats themselves take exception to that policy.

Conventional wisdom also has it that President Obama restored America's reputation in the world, and that our national reputation needed what polish he could give it because President George W. Bush before him had been a "cowboy" with insufficient appreciation for -- to pick one obvious example -- the complexities of Muslim life in the Middle East. But suppose conventional wisdom is wrong? Suppose further that Nikki Haley, America's ambassador to the United Nations, is winning plaudits not because she continues to toe the line established by her recent predecessors, but because she (and the president for whom she works) have deliberately departed from that line?

People who subvert the dominant narrative are chided (penalty box!) or ignored if they seem to be properly credentialed, and dismissed as outliers if they move in the "wrong" circles to begin with (hence snarky comments from progressives about Michele Bachmann's "scary eyes" when she was a conservative member of Congress, and Senator John McCain's longstanding but recently voiced contempt for people who disagree with him).

In short, while peacefulness and perspective can still be found in this polarized world, it's a fascinating and unsettling time to follow news, provided you keep a wary eye on the pet assumptions of the establishment, which never likes its own faults exposed.

(This is cross-posted from WoW magazine, which has a slightly more polished version)