Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Quote: Tolkien on Jonah

I was unaware of this, but J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, worked on a translation of the book of Jonah for the Roman Catholic Jerusalem Bible. Here is a quote from a letter to his grandson Michael, in 1957:

Incidentally, if you look at Jonah you'll find that the 'whale' - it is not really said to be a whale, but a big fish - is quite unimportant. The real point is that God is much more merciful than 'prophets', is easily moved by penitence, and won't be dictated to even by high ecclesiastics whom he has himself appointed.

Monday, May 24, 2010

On the LOST finale

LOST ended last night, and we had a viewing party at our place (and us without a kitchen!) with friends new and old to celebrate/mourn the passing of a great show. I personally thought it was great.

I’m not going to start gushing theories about what the Island really is or what the deal with Walt was or how the smoke monster worked. I just thought I’d reflect a bit on the overarching themes and meaning of the show.

If you'd asked me before the finale what LOST, ultimately, was about, I'd have answered with an oft-repeated quote from the show: Live together, die alone. After last night, I'd amend it to (and this is vague but might be slightly SPOILER-y, so fair warning): Find meaning in life together, die together.

Lost is about many conflicts: science vs. faith, good vs. evil, self vs. community, free will vs. destiny, but mostly it's about finding connection with others in the chaos of life, and pursuing purpose together with them, even when the mysteries remain mysteries, or simply lead to more questions.

So far the internet consensus on the finale is mixed, and a lot of people seem genuinely not to understand it (no, it was not all a dream, nor were they all dead the whole time). But while I have some disappointments (I wanted more closure for Sawyer) , I thought it was overall pretty great, and a fitting end to a sure-to-be classic show.

Friday, May 14, 2010


From this Christianity Today interview with James Davison Hunter:

There are four characteristics to the social power that Jesus exercised. First, his power was derivative—originating from intimacy and submission to his Father. Second, his power was humble—rejecting the privileges of status and reputation, suffering indignities with joy. Third, his power was compassionate—serving the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. And fourth, his power was noncoercive—blessing rather than cursing "the other," as we can see from his encounters with Samaritans and Romans.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

France's burqa ban

Note: I also posted this at The Center Way.

In this article in Slate, Christopher Hitchens wastes his considerable wit arguing stupidly in favor of France’s burqa ban, which is supported by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. He compares burqas to the masks of the KKK and posits that in a democracy, we all have the right (!?) to see each other’s faces.

So it’s really quite simple. My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine. Next but not least comes the right of women to show their faces, which easily trumps the right of their male relatives or their male imams to decide otherwise. The law must be decisively on the side of transparency. The French are striking a blow not just for liberty and equality and fraternity, but for sorority too.

He also contends that “pseudoliberals who take a soft line on the veil and the burqa” only make this allowance for one religion, Islam. No. It is the backers of this proposed law who single out Muslims. I have yet to hear of a French ban on prescribed coverings for, say, nuns. The law is paternalistic and the implications are xenophobic. Hitchens gives the game away with this line: “The burqa and the veil, surely, are the most aggressive sign of a refusal to integrate or accommodate.” Ah, yes. We must strip away all differences. You have to dress as the French dress, speak as they speak, (worship as they worship?), or you have no place in France. Hitchens exposes his devotion to the secular state, where any separation from Enlightened Society (TM) must be eliminated.

The irony is that by trying to aggressively force this kind of cultural assimilation, France sets itself up as antagonistic toward Muslims, and is probably driving greater wedges between the segments of its society. I would never claim that the U.S. has no history of shame in the area of ethnic and cultural differences, but I know this kind of law would never fly here.

Now, I understand the concern of French legislators for women in patriarchal family groups who are forced to wear the burqa and endure other restrictive and abusive practices. I personally find the burqa oppressive. But I’m not the boss of how other people dress. And you aren’t going to overcome centuries of tradition with a law like this. Those women who do not choose to wear the veil (there are many who do choose it, including many converts to Islam), but are forced to, will be just as oppressed. Only now they won’t be allowed to go outside.

So here’s my view, which I think is pretty common sense: nobody should have to wear anything they don’t want to wear, and also nobody should have to not wear anything they do want to wear. Where there is an unavoidable conflict between religious law/ethnic custom and some legitimate safety need of the government (like taking photographs of one’s face to get a driver’s license) then public safety comes first and some folks might not be able to participate. But that should be a last resort, and the law should bend over backward to allow people to express their faith as they see fit. And if you are bothered by women in hijabs, Sikh men in turbans, or Jewish men with payot, that probably says something about you.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The end of the world

The better way to talk about the end of the world is to lean on another meaning of the word “end.” What’s the world for? What’s its ultimate purpose and destiny? For those of us in Christ that destiny is one of hope: creation restored, sin erased, all creatures able to live into the future God wishes for them, all of it glorified and in communion with the God who created us in love. It’s especially good news for those who have it roughest now, and perhaps not such good news for those at the top now. The most basic of biblical prayers, like Miriam’s song and Mary’s Magnificat, witness to that basic Christian truth.

Jason Byassee, at Duke's Call & Response blog

The Christian Mystery of Physical Resurrection - Newsweek.com

The Christian Mystery of Physical Resurrection - Newsweek.com

Even in biblical times, resurrection deniers who hoped for an afterlife took an alternative route. This is what scholars call "the immortality of the soul." Embraced by Plato and popular today especially among progressive believers (Reform Jews and liberal Protestants, for example) and people who call themselves "spiritual but not religious," the immortality of the soul is easier to swallow than resurrection. After death, the soul—unique and indestructible—ascends to heaven to be with God while the corpse, the locus of our senses and all our low human desires, stays behind to rot. This more reasonable view, perhaps, has a serious defect: a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. Consolation was not the goal of Plato's afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the "green, green pastures" of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante's cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.

Another popular way out of the Easter conundrum—"I want to believe in heaven but can't get my head around the revivification of human flesh"—is to imagine "resurrection" as a metaphor for something else: an inexplicable event, a new kind of life, the birth of the Christian community on earth, the renewal of a people, an individual's spiritual rebirth, a bodiless ascension to God. Progressives frequently fall back on resurrection-as-metaphor, for it allows them to celebrate Easter while also expressing a reasonable agnosticism. They quote that great theological cop-out: "We cannot know what God has in store for us."

The intellectual flabbiness of this approach causes agonies for such orthodox Christians as N. T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, England. "People have been told so often that resurrection is just a metaphor," he once told my editor Jon Meacham and me in an interview for this magazine. "In other words, [Jesus] went to heaven, whatever that means. And they've never realized that the word 'resurrection' simply didn't mean that. If people [in the first century] had wanted to say that he died and went to heaven, they had perfectly good ways of saying that." The whole point of the Christian story is that the Resurrection really happened, Wright insists. The disciples rolled back the rock on the third day, and Jesus' body was gone. This insistence on the veracity of resurrection is no less sure in Judaism, where the Orthodox pray thrice a day to a God "who causes the dead to come to life," or in Islam. "I swear by the day of resurrection!" proclaims the Quran. "Yes, Indeed!"

And so, the paradox. Resurrection may be unbelievable, but belief in a traditional heaven requires it. I think often of Jon D. Levenson, a Jewish scholar at Harvard Divinity School who hopes to bring the idea of resurrection back to mainstream Judaism, where it has been lost in practice for generations. I visited him one cold November afternoon because, as a literal-minded skeptic, I wanted him to explain to me how it works. How does God put bodies—burned in fire or pulverized in war—back together again? Levenson looked at me, eyes twinkling, and said, "It's no use to ask, 'If I had a lab at MIT, how would I try to resurrect a body?' The belief in resurrection is more radical. It's a supernatural event. It's a special act of grace or of kindness on God's part."