Rooty toot toot!
We are the boys of the Institute!
We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew,
and we don’t go with girls who do!
This little ditty was attributed, probably apocryphally, to the students of Moody Bible Institute (see below) 40 or 45 years ago. It played off of one of the Evangelical taboos — the one with which the “secular elite” have now caught up:
- dancing (because it might lead to fornication — or was it the other way around?)
- playing cards
- attending movies
- membership in secret societies (fraternities and many lodges and fraternal associations)
I have said, truthfully, that I had quite a sane religious upbringing by my parents. One exception might be their observance of all those taboos (although unbeknownst to me, my father had not been able to give up smoking until I was in my teens). Most of the really zany ideas to which I was exposed began with my entry into a Christian boarding school — and even that was a net positive experience for me. I’d go again knowing what I know now (and all the other counterfactual yadda yadda that go into such a declaration).
But whether it’s from upbringing or otherwise, my morality has been for most of my life instinctively negative: morality consists more in not doing bad things than in doing good things. I don’t believe that, but my viscera believe it. The result has been Monday Morning Quarterbacking oftener than getting in the game.
There is some basis for this kind of behavior if your morality is negative. My choral conductor used to say “loud, accurate and high; pick two. (If you’ve tried any challenging vocal repertoire, you’ll know what he meant.) As I look at the world around me, it seems to me that there’s a moral analogy: “Do good. Don’t mess up. Pick one.”
We humans mess up chronically. Maybe the only way to avoid messing up is passivity, which (against the standard of positive morality) is its own way of messing up even if it doesn’t feel like it.
I have from time to time disclaimed qualifications as a theologian, and what I’m talking about has probably been expressed with much greater sophistication by those who are steeped in theology or philosophy. I’m speaking instead from my heart and from my own observation, lacking the vocabulary and terms of art of any rigorous academic discipline.
Some people I know (because they once attended the church that I then attended) are hurting again. Nearly a year after a shocking betrayal by their pastor, criminal charges were filed, and the arraignment was held Friday. I’m not sure the scabs had really begun to heal yet (and I think that there will be scars when they have healed), but the arraignment picked at them pretty effectively.
I cringe and send up a Kyrie eleison when TV cameras linger on crime victims or the families of crime victims who express wishes like “I hope he burns in hell forever.” Mercifully, the spokesman for my hurting friends spoke honestly both of the sense of betrayal, of how they have been “moving on” spiritually, and how they pray to be given the grace to forgive the pastor who betrayed them.
For this shockingly Christian behavior, a real “man bites dog story,” I am grateful. And I intend to let the spokesman know it.
But I think about the pastor, too, and what could have motivated him to this particular betrayal. I have never been deeper into the social sciences than I’ve been into theology or philosophy, but I’m skeptical about any explanation along the lines of “religion ruins everything.” Sexual perversions seem to be a guy thing, and a form of sexual perversion constituted this pastor’s betrayal. But there is no shortage of irreligious perverts.
I think, too, of (male) friends who have strayed from the right path and brought to their families the tragedy of divorce.
But from personal experience – the details of which I will not share except that I have stopped short of any outward misbehavior – I know that power differentials can go to a man’s head (and parts of the body – ahem! – less lofty than the head). This is one of the reasons why I try, usually without success, to avoid “piling on” when powerful men end up exploiting women (or occasionally other men). I will give our leaders and politicians and pastors and other more-or-less powerful men a presumption that they are trying to do good, and a presumption that having tried to do good, they both attracted women (and men) for whom power is the ultimate aphrodisiac and themselves succumbed to the aphrodisiac allure. (I probably should extend that courtesy more readily to athletes as well, but my disgust with the racket of professional and “amateur” sports taints everything.)
Do good. Don’t mess up. Pick one.
Priests molest boys. Big-time football coaches do the same. Another Priest “marries” a man, but gets reinstated after perfunctory repentance. Tennis legends try to top the adultery world record of aging basketball legends. Seminarians smirkingly carry on like they’re in a gay bordello. Stepdads molest stepdaugthers. “Pillars of the Church” turn out to have a little nookie on the side.
It’s not just sex. Pastors preach a Prosperity Gospel: “You can’t out-give God! Now show your faith as the offering baskets are passed!” Pyramid multi-level marketing scams and Ponzi schemes seem especially attractive to Church folks, who both perpetrate and suffer from them. By my count, it took all of about 7 hours before the reputation assassins drew their swords on Pope Francis. It remains to be seen definitively whether he or they have the better story, but one of the ways we mess up is knowing how to respond to political oppression and thuggery. My co-religionists in Russian saw that “up close and personal” from 1917-89 or so.
Is nobody trustworthy? Actually, no. They’re not. Or they are, but only relatively. Don’t bet anything you can’t afford to lose. Like your faith.
Other people I know are hurting, too. Disease and death, in the prime of life, hurt.
Orthodox Great Lent begins March 18. My practice has been to pray particularly for myself, my family, friends and church in the morning, my larger community and the world in the evening. For too long, my evening prayers have been the scraps from the table after surfing, blogging, tweeting, listening to podcasts and reading until – Omigosh! It’s time for bed! Lent is a good chance to try to fix that, if only for seven weeks.
Some Orthodox prayers ask for “the gift of tears” for one’s own sins and for the mess the world is in. I too rarely have experienced that, but thinking about all the hurt we inflict on each other, and on the constant specter of accidental or disease-born death, I came close Friday at my work desk. I should try to come closer without ginning up crocodile tears.
“Oh Lord our God be with us. We have no other help in time of trouble than Thee.” And every time is troubled.
If I am relatively absent from social media between now and May 4 (no pledge and no guarantees), it’s likely because I’m praying and listening more, mouthing off and Monday Morning Quarterbacking less.
Preaching to the deaf is a venerable prophetic vocation. Isaiah was told that his prophecies to the “dull of hearing” would only make them duller, and Jeremiah was warned that the “foolish and senseless” of Judah “have ears but do not hear.” Jesus quoted these passages to explain why he taught in parables, and so did Paul to explain resistance from Jews of Rome. The fact that one possesses what the philosophers call a “fully functioning sensory apparatus” doesn’t guarantee that one genuinely hears what’s said.
These passages have been on my mind in recent weeks as I’ve reflected on current debates about same-sex marriage …
The truth will out, of that I have no doubt. People do, mysteriously, get persuaded. Cultural revolutions happen. No one can defy creation forever. Beauty is the best persuasion, so Christians should above all aspire to form marriages and families that are living parables of the gospel. The Spirit wins. Between the present and that victory of the Spirit, we are in for what may be an extended period of dullness, when truth about sexuality and marriage will fall on deaf ears until the obvious is relearned. It’s not a hopeless place to be, or even a bad place. It puts us in the good company of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Jesus and Paul.
(Peter Leithart, emphasis added) I don’t know how many “living parables” we need (and surely it would have been more appropriate to say “living icons,” but heck, Leithart’s a Calvinist), but we apparently have not reached critical mass.
“Republican pollster Whit Ayers declared that ‘we are in an epic struggle against secular socialism.’” (Howard Kurtz at The Daily Beast, on CPAC 2013, 3/14/13)
Socialism has become almost 100% bogeyman in United States politics. (Even Obamacare is not overtly socialist, although its eventuality is “single-payer,” which comes pretty close to “socialized medicine”). I am considerably more worried about the bipartisan reality of hypocritical, secular crony capitalism than the specter of socialism.
“As a Christian, I believe marriage is between one man and one woman.” Barack Obama, 2008.
“The President’s position is evolving.” Presidential Spokesmen, 2009-2012
“I can’t imagine a circumstance in which a same-sex marriage ban would be constitutional.” (Barack Obama, 2013)
Question: How much better would the world be if a liar’s pants really did catch fire?
* * * * *
“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)