Friday, December 30, 2011

Paying the Doctor

I've been working on getting the medical receipts in order in preparation for taxes.

The total of the insurance claims I've got – which should be most of the claims for the year – are a little over $100,000. The insurance company paid less than half the charges, writing off much of the hospital bill (nearly half the cost) and much of the diagnostic testing. My share was $2500 plus my copays for drugs and doctor visits. And the non-prescription items that I purchased to make like easier.

I realized, looking at the bills, just how lucky how I am to have insurance. If I did not have insurance my indebtedness would not be the $40,000 that the insurance company paid, but the larger $100,000 that the doctors billed. Insurance not only pays the bills, but also negotiates the prices. Those who don't have an insurance company on their side – and I'm looking at several of you my friends – aren't just forced to pay the bills themselves, they're forced to pay the higher bills.

Is that fair? If you don't have enough to pay insurance premiums, where are you going to find the money to pay the full Doctor bills? Your only choice is Medical Bankruptcy. And the individual's inability to pay means that we all have to pay.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Ok, I know this is a function of watching really bad TV, but right at this moment I am watching Manswers.

One of their features, coming in just a few minutes, is the search for large breasts. That obsession with women's mammaries isn't new, but it certainly is becoming more prominent in this era of artificial enhancement.

The British comic Terry Thomas did a routine about the American males' obsession with breasts. I don't remember his exact words, but it doesn't take a strict Freudian to locate the obsession in a kind of immaturity and a desire to continue infantile relationship with a mother.

I just don't get it. But I don't understand the obsession with a "chiseled and defined upper body" or "a six pack ab" either. That male body obsession seems to me have little to do with a concern for health, but is a kind of narcissism.

Oh, I guess there's lots of contemporary culture I don't get. Not judging, just don't understand it.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Another Stupid Commercial

A few posts ago I questioned the wisdom of the Best Buy commercials in which young women competed with Santa.

The other set of commercials I think unwise are the wireless commercials for the 4G network that turns everyone into a constantly smartphoning dick.

Maybe you've seen them – I've seen two variations on the commercial. In one the tailgaters are way ahead of everyone else and aren't afraid to tell them how behind they are: the holder of the 4G phone has already purchased the tickets, wrapped the running back's ankle, have the opposing team's mascot digging through the tailgate snacks, etc. To every “Did you know,” the duo with the 4G phones responds with condescension. The worst is the response to the technologically challenged middle-aged man who wants to post videos to facebook. They have, mockingly, already posted him asking about posting to facebook.

The other 4G commercial features two young women in the company lunchroom. They're focused on their phones and as people come to check out the latest rumors they proudly announce that they already knew all about it - “that's so twelve seconds ago.” The young women are very sweet and kind to the supervisor who just got a promotion and to the coworker who is leaving. But they're brutally condescending to their co-workers.

The message the phone company seems to want to send is that having 4G will keep you amusingly ahead of the curve. The message that it actually sends is that having 4G turns you into a dick.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Pop Shooting Stars

How quickly fads and fashions change.

Listening to Celtic Christmas, Volume 1 this morning. Yes, I am still listening to Christmas music. In fact, we just began listening to Christmas music at home. The twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas day – not end, retailers!

Anyway, I'm listening to Celtic Christmas and realize, “The All Things Celtic” phase of popular culture has faded. Yes PBS is still going to carry Celtic Women specials to raise funds. Yes, there will still be some things Celtic at Target. But we went thru a Celtic Mania just two years ago (or maybe it was three). Just a short time ago. If you were not Celtic you were trash!


It's over. Popular culture is fickle, always looking for the next big thing. The one hit wonders come and go. Popular artists rise and fall. It takes only the blink of an eye for an artist to go from “you oughta know” to judge on some singing contest or other (I'm looking at you Sara Bareilles.) One minute you're refusing to be brought down, looking hot in your retro '40s slip – the next you're a MILF coaching up and coming pop stars.

It's always been quick, this rise and fall of pop icons. But the pace seems to be picking up.

Two weeks ago ESPN was the all Tebow network. Chris Carter was the lone voice raised in protest against the “he's not orthodox, all he does is win” meme that dominated talk about Tebow and thus talk on the network for the six week run when the Broncos beat mediocre to bad teams. Then came the Patriots and the Tebow mystique could not hold. Now it's a second loss and Tebow barely rates a mention Sports Center. Tebow wasn't just a sports icon, he was a pop icon – pushing sports drink along with tractor tires. I wonder if his sports drink ad is going to be canceled this week.

Pop icons. They last six weeks? Two weeks? As long as a Republican Presidential Candidate not names Romney? At any rate not long at all. So what does this say for those of us who are interested in “timeless truth” and pop culture?

I guess it says we shouldn't look to pop culture for anything like truth. And maybe it says that “Progress devours its children,” (the title of a lecture I heard in seminary from the German theologian Helmut Thielicke) or better “Pop Culture devours its children.” Or maybe it says, “You're old, don't try to keep up, the pace will kill you.”

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Is there anything new to say?

As a preacher I've always found the big holidays big challenges.

What can the preacher say that hasn't been said a million times before? Or at least something that will awaken modern hearts and minds to the miracle of the event? This is pertinent today since I heard a noble attempt on Christmas morning. It was a noble attempt to give a new perspective on the event of the Nativity. It was noble, but didn't quite make it because it ultimately fell back on pious platitude.

You can try to do a first person narrative - a shepherd, or one of the donkeys, or one of the wise men. T. S. Eliot did that in his poem The Journey of the Magi. That poem has always moved me, though I admit that I don't half understand it, any more than I understand Yeats - who also moves me deeply. The problem with the first person narrative I heard this morning was that it was, finally, predictable. The character was Caesar Augustus - an interesting choice. But the outcome wasn't a new perspective on the relationship between Empire and Faith. The Emperor sees the triumph of the Crucified and regrets that he wasn't closer to the divine love revealed in the man from Nazareth.

Another approach is the approach by characters who've been affected by the Jesus story. For me there are three stories that move me at Christmas. First is a story from Tove Jansson, the Finnish Swedish author and poet. Her story "Gran" or Christmas Tree tells the story of Mumintroll's first Christmas. (The Mumin family hibernate through the winter.) At this first Christmas the Mumin family gather all the items you need for a Happy Christmas, but they gather them because they think that Christmas is a horrible monster who must be appeased. In the end they give away all the gifts, decorations and food to the lowliest of the little creatures of Mumin Valley.

The second story is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. At the end of that story one of the Herdmanns proclaims the Angelic message - "Hey You! Unto You A Child is Born!" as if it were the greatest news. Then the Herdmanns gave back the Christmas Ham and wandered off in tears, slightly dazed by what had happened.

The third story that moves me is Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory. The 1966 made for TV movie is on youtube for the time being. It's in 6 parts. This link takes you to part 1. The story is the story of a half crazy old lady and her little nephew, gathering the ingredients to make Christmas fruitcake. Capote captures the mystery of commitment to a cause that makes no sense.

Maybe for the ancient religious holidays to make new sense you have to see them as if you were one of the poor little ones who have nothing - or one of the bad kids who is suddenly thrust into unexpected and unwanted territory as an angel - or a crazy old lady and her simple assistant. Maybe that's what I miss when I try too hard to find something new to say about this antique belief.

Bread for Jesus

Two days ago I was buying bread at our local bread outlet. The men ahead greeted the clerk with a cheerful "Merry Christmas." The clerk responded with a likewise cheery "Happy Holidays."

The nosy woman standing next in line congratulated the previous customer on being politically correct. While she didn't say anything she implied that the "Merry Christmas" was a superior greeting and the man had, of course, been greeting as he had in order to combat that secularist war on Christmas. It was enough to make me want to step up and say, "I'm Jewish! Happy Channukah!" I didn't. I didn't say anything.

Then I went to Target and heard happy shoppers greet one another with "Merry Christmas." I realized that more important than the verbals - the words used - was the non-verbal, the tone with which the greeting was issued. A hearty and heartfelt greeting.

It starts with a smiling labial - Mmm in the merrry. A rising inflection, but only so slightly rising, not enuf to make it a question. Or a nice rounded Ha. Lots of breath behind it, like a ha-ha. Again a slight rising inflection in that first word.

Then the Kri (that should be a schwa, but I can't find it in the character sets), kind of flat, followed by a sharp, but not hissing st and ending with a nice open mas - but without stress on the mas. I won't even try to describe the "Holidays."


Thus, my campaign. I'm not going to wish Marry Christmas, not going to say "Happy Holidays." From here on out its "God jul och gott nytt år!" Bite me Bill O'Reilly

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Gingrich and Perry Fail

Just saw CNN's report on Gingrich and Perry not getting on the ballot.

The commentators speculate about amateurism as the reason they didn't make it, and arrogance as a possibility. It seems to me that amateurism may be the reason for Perry missing the boat, but Gingrich is another case.

I don't think that Newt expected to do well in the primary season. I don't think he got into the race to win the race, but to sell books and DVDs and speeches. After all, that's what made him a very rich man.

I think Gingrich was as surprised as anyone that he was the frontrunner. Then the arrogance kicked in. But the hard work - that's something Gingrich has failed to do ever since he was speaker. He just expects that his half baked and decidedly less than logical ideas should carry the day without his actually having to work at building coalitions or doing what the pundits call "retail politicing."

He's a blowhard who can't do actual work. I doubt he even outlines his books before he spews them out. He certainly can't be doing much in the way of serious research, given the ungodly number of texts he's produced. And this shows just how ill organized and poorly thought out the whole campaign is. He excuses it by alluding to Thatcher and Reagan and claiming that it's because he's an unconventional politician. No, it's because he's a jerk.


Of course, Newt is now contending the the problem is the system. It isn't that Newt is disorganized in Virginia and lacks the structure necessary to perform the requirements of the law - it's the law that is faulty. I love the way conservative Republicans want everyone except them to take responsibility for their actions or inactions.

Friday, December 23, 2011

What Has Happened to Me?

Here I am, watching another episode of PTI - Pardon the Interruption. A year ago I watched this show on an irregular basis, primarily because Kornheiser goes off like a good New Yorker should and Wilbon is a loyal Chicagoan - even if he lives in Arizona or where ever. The interaction of these two guys is good TV.

But I'm starting to care about sports. There are lots of good reasons to care about sports - it is probably the largest industry in America and the collegiate end of the sports - particularly football is seriously screwed up. Labor issues are kept alive by the players unions. Despite those issues, and the social issues involved in sport (I credit much of the improvement in race relations and the positive future I see coming from the integration of sport and the meritocracy that is true of amateur sport), I am surprised at my interest in sports and the outcome of sports.

I caught myself opining that Beltran would be a good replacement for Pujols - and agreeing with Wilbon that the Cards real loss is the loss of a Hall of Fame manager. Then I thought - what the heck do I actually know about this? I know more about sport than I do about contemporary music, which is a radical shift from where I was in my pop culture knowledge two years ago.

Why? Partly because of the recovery. ESPN is reliable all night long. No paid programming. Repeats of Sports Center do not require attention like a movie - say one of the Thin Man movies. I can have it on and fall asleep and wake up and more than likely I'll be right where I dozed off.

There is another reason to pay some attention My communication majors have connection to sports. Of the fifteen majors thirteen are members of a college team or have been members of a college team or are deeply committed to sport. Football, baseball, basketball, and soccer are all part of the department's life. I'm getting more deeply interested in sport because the majors are deeply committed to sport. They have changed me. And I am glad to note that.

Christmas Poetry

For some reason I felt a need to find some Christmas poetry last night. I thought that the Swedes might provide, so I worked my way through Nils Ferlin (not a terribly religious poet), Tomas Transströmer and Gustaf Fröding. All great poets and there were great poems. But no Christmas poems. There is the classic Rydberg: Glans över sjö och strand. Beautiful. But actually typical of 19th century orthodoxy.

I wanted something that wasn't the orthodox piety of the 19th century, nor the Pietism of Lina Sandell. I wanted a poem that both moved my heart and made me think.

The poem I found is actually a hymn: Richard Wilbur's "A Stable Lamp is Lighted." Looking thru Youtube I found - to my great surprise - that the text has been set to a number of tunes. This one is a folkie tune, so it's one I like.

I didn't find the tune that I first learned when I was in seminary. I like that version a great deal, probably because it is the first version I learned.

What I like about the Wilbur text is that it draws my mind to the simplicity of the event and its far reaching consequences. How simple and how unnoticed. Is that the way that the great changes of our lives and of our world actually take place? Not among the big and noble and noticed, but among the little and lowly?

I like to think that it is. I like to hope that it is. Because that means that it is possible, even probable, that somewhere out of sight the seeds of our salvation as a race has already been born. My role then is to watch and wait and hope and keep my cynicism in check. The first three are difficult. The fourth may be close to impossible.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

America's Team

Notice on Sports Center this morning that Dallas Cowboys are "no longer" "America's Team." Apparently they've been replaced by the Green Bay Packers.

I find this whole thing a little confusing. This change in our "national team" came because Public Policy Polling surveyed the country, offering nine choices for "America's Team." The Packers got a 22% positive rating. The Cowboys came in second at 11%. But the Cowboys are also America's most hated team at 22%.

This is ridiculous.

First, it's ridiculous to call anyone other than the lovable loser Cubs "America's Team." Second, 22% makes you most loved or most hated? And you don't even get to choose any of all the teams in a particular sport?

The whole idea of having a team that everyone in America prefers is non-sense. It's a waste of survey time. And declaring that 22% preference makes you "America's Team" makes the survey company a joke. That's the percentage that Romney is polling, and he's not even the Republican's choice, much less America's choice.

I never bought the idea that the Cowboys were "America's Team." I found them arrogant, artificially pious, sanctimonious and self-righteous back in the Tom Landry days. Since then I've just found them to be Texan and therefore abhorrent. Tebow Denver seems to be matching the Landry Cowboys for supercilious piety. So I don't have to change my preferences. I'm still ABD - but the D now covers two teams rather than one.

I'm pulling for Green Bay this year. The Vikings suck (as usual) and the Bears are iffy. I like the Lions being back on a playoff path. But Green Bay and Aaron Rogers are the winners in my division, the black and blue division, so I'm rooting for them even though they are going to dismantle the Bears this week. Next year I'll root for my hometeam and revile the Packers. But that's next year.

I don't need my favorite team to be "America's Team." From the actual survey results it looks like the majority of American's don't either.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Year End Gifting

It's the end of the year and we're being inundated with year end begs from all the charities to which I have ever given any money.

But it's been a rough year for us financially. We lost about 1/3 of Kris' income, in addition to my illness - which has cost us $2500 we hadn't planned on spending (and a bit more, that's just deductible and the part of payment I share with the insurance company. I also have the copays for the doctor visits and for the medication).

Thus, our charitable giving has had to shrink a bit. We've held off on a number of organizations to which we have belonged, even some we've belonged to for years. We keep up on Greenpeace, and sometime early next year we'll probably rejoin Habitat for Humanity. We are still members of the Swedish American Historical Society, but we've dropped the Swedish American Museum in Chicago.

It's just the way it goes.

Tonight I loaded Open Office's office suite on a PC, and I stopped for a moment when asked for a donation. The folks who've developed the Open office suite of tools aren't particularly pushy about the donations. If you don't give you still get. Everyone can use the software, and since it is an open platform everyone can contribute to the code (if you know how to do it - which I don't.) I stopped for a moment and then I gave.

It was a small donation, especially considering all the use I have for this software. I've loaded it on to every PC and every Mac under my control. So a small donation for six suites of software, that's not major sacrifice for me and it makes me feel good about myself. I've given back.

Before the end of the year I hope we can make additional donations to our church. As I said, I want to make sure we give to Habitat and Greenpeace. Maybe one or two more charities.

With money being tight, I wonder where my friends are going to give at this year end feel good charitable giving time of the year.

Let's Get Santa

Best Buy has been running a series of commercials (sorry I'm watching too much television while recuping) in which a young mother takes on Santa Claus.

Is this really a good idea?

First, it makes Christmas giving into a competitive event. Admittedly, it makes it a women against men competitive event, with the women winning. That part probably is good, given the third or fourth wave feminist attitudes I see in the young women I teach.

But these women don't just win, they win in ways that allow them to gloat. One relegates Santa to giving toys to the dog. A second Ims Santa to the phones on the tree – to which Santa, like a defeated bf responds, “Very mature.” The third meets Santa on the housetop and topples a plastic elf onto the lawn in a sort of “watch out fat-man or you're next” threat.

OK, so maybe this is empowering. I don't know. I'm not a young woman (in case you haven't noticed). But this is Santa Claus. For much of his life he's imaged without a woman. The whole Mrs. Claus thing is just a cover to give the elves some breathing room. This is Santa, the jolly fat celibate who sneaks into your house to bring toys and jollies and eat cookies. This is a beloved, if somewhat weird, elder statesman of the holiday season. Is it really a good idea to humiliate Santa? Does that really make you see powerful – or just petty?

My vote is for the latter choice. I don't like the Best Buy commercials. They certainly haven't made me want to shop at Best Buy. I don't have a thousand dollars to blow on Android Powered Smart Phones for the whole family. In fact, the only way my family is going to get that technology is if Santa delivers them. But then, I'm not – as I've already said – a young woman looking for empowering experiences by humiliating Saint Nick.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What's With All the Posts?

I've been posting regularly these days. What's up with that?

I think its because I'm well enough to think and I need to keep doing things before January when I get busy writing syllabuses and doing research for new classes and directing energy in school tracks. In the meantime I can explore and think and complain and write about whatever I want to write about. It's a blessing that has unlocked a whole lot of energy. I'm even rewriting my essay on Greta G. for publication (hopefully) with a Swedish American publication.

Broncos Lose to a Good Team

Stefan Fatsis has an amazing commentary on the Pat's destruction of the Broncos and Tim Tebow over on Slate. As several other commentators have pointed out, the Patriots were the first team with a winning record in quite some time - and the last team to have a winning record was the always unreliable Jets. Fatsis' peroration deserves a reprint:

Unlike other miked-up quarterbacks, we don’t see Tebow analyzing photos from the All 22 cameras or suggesting to a coach or teammate how to exploit a weakness he’s detected in the defense. With Tebow, it’s prayers and bromides, the NFL as produced by the Christian Broadcasting Network. That’s just edited video, of course, and none of us knows what’s happening in the Broncos’ locker room or quarterbacks' meetings, or on the sidelines. Still, the rational among us were reminded on Sunday that, regardless of what if any god you pray to, a very good NFL team with an exceptional veteran quarterback will usually beat a decent team with a quirky inexperienced one.

I didn't know that Tebow was ever all miked up – so I didn't hear those bromides and prayers. It is, I'm afraid what too many Christians have to offer too often: bromides and prayers. I wish I could hear sermons that weren't filled with bromides and platitudes. I wish the prayers of the people cold capture the hearts of the people. Unfortunately, in life these days, under the leadership of the fundagelical wing of Christianity all there is to offer is bromide, platitudes and “just make my heart just wait upon thee my Jesus” prayers.

Bad enough that it's all I hear in church. Sad to hear it on the football field as well.

Hoarders & Me

For some reason I've gotten hooked on Hoarders.

One episode I watched this morning featured a 28 year old hoarder whose hoard hadn't yet become life threatening. This 28 year old was extremely controlling, and yet extremely insightful. She recognized that her behavior was undermining her relationship with family and significant other. She made it impossible for the significant other to say anything about her behavior, to voice his opinion about anything, to make any requests for his own space or to satisfy his own needs. When he asked for something she responded emotionally in a way that most of us are fearful to confront.

A&E offers those who participate in the show aftercare funds to work with both therapists and organizer. This hoarder undermined that as well, making it impossible for the organizer to help her -- putting up obstacles until the organizer gave up and quit.

All of this can be ascribed to the illness, the compulsive hoarding. But I was also left wondering if this hoarder was aware of her disease and was using her disease as a way of manipulating others, an excuse for essentially bad behavior.

But it also made me wonder if I do/am doing the same thing. I think I am and I do.

I think I use my illness as an excuse for getting snappy at Kris. Yes I am drugged. Yes I am in some pain fairly constantly - though it isn't great pain but it is a pain that keeps me aware that I have recently had major surgery. I do use the illness as a way of excusing my not calling the people I need to call to get things done around the house. I do use the illness as an excuse for watching a lot of television and reading very little.

OK. I am using my illness as a way of avoiding actual responsibility. So, will I change that, call the plumber and get the home in the shape it should be. Will I at least turn off the television and open a book.

Sure, just as soon as this episode of Hoarders is over!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Evigheternas Evigheter

The Sunday following my long posts on time and eternity the lessons for the day are full of promises about everlasting kingship, unforgotten, timeless promises of the divine toward the chosen people, and "forever."

Just for fun I take the Swedish bible along and read the lessons in Swede while they're being read in English. The second lesson, Paul's doxology to the Romans reads - in Swedish - "den ende vise Guden tillhör äran genom Jesus Kristus i evigheternas evighet." I am not entirely sure of my translation, but I read this as saying "the only wise God through Jesus Christ to him belongs glory for the Eternal's eternity." The English reads "the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever."

What's got me confused is the phrase "Evigheternas evigheter." The Endless ones foreverness? Something like that.

To solve the problem I need to consult commentaries and the Greek text. I wonder if this is an odd phrase in Greek as well as Swedish. What this does for me though is to keep me pondering the relationship between time and eternity, feeling fairly certain that I haven't yet gotten to the last insight on how Now fits into Forever.

If I were a poor black kid

If I were a poor black kid . . . Gene Marks wrote this advice, presumably to influence poor black kids who read Forbes. It's been thoroughly attacked, rejected, abused and refused by a large segment of the public. Lots of not-poor not-black and not-kids have commented. Some formerly poor black kids have added their opinions. So why not me too.

If I were a poor black kid . . . I'd be very amazed and puzzled. How'd that happen? Unlike Navin P. Johnson, (Steve Martin's character in The Jerk) I was born a middle class white kid. My dad was the sole breadwinner in the family, and his paycheck was just enough to pay all the bills and put a little aside.

No matter how well my imagination works – and sometimes it works pretty well – it would take a monumental effort to imagine myself “a poor black kid.” I'd also need lots of solid data about the actual existence of actual poor black kids to inform that imagination.

It might also be useful to have a whole lot more information about brains and the differences among brains. It seems to me that there are profound differences among brains.

For example, some of us “get” literature and metaphor and allusion. Others of us don't get it, never will get it, no matter how much training we receive in reading metaphor. Those who don't get it can learn to see that there is something they don't get and even appreciate what it is that they don't get, but they'll never be great at reading metaphor and understanding and commenting on art – and therefore they shouldn't plan on making a living as a playwright or poet.

In the same way there are people for whom numbers have a reality, even a personality that they lack for me. I think of Mark Ahlseen, member of Bethany's faculty, who has an amazing facility with numbers. They clearly mean something to him that they don't mean to me. He understands numbers in a way I never will. I can barely keep my checkbook. Mark makes sense of where his money goes as if that paycheck were his good friend. I am convinced that it isn't just training – I can be better at understanding numbers, Mark likely can be better at understanding metaphor – but there is something inherent in each of us that is quite different. No matter how I try I could never be an accountant. No matter how hard Mark tries, I doubt that he'd ever be a poet.

So, if I were trying to imagine myself being something other than what I am I'd need to feed my imagination with lots of clear data about actual social conditions, about actual brains and their workings, about actual beings actually existing in a life that isn't mine.

Where Gene Marks goes off the rails is in his presumptions about the life of other people and how they would, could, and most importantly should behave in order to succeed in this world. Because his writing does not reflect his having invested himself in coming to understand how poor black kids actually live, the piece seems shallow and condescending.

It also seems like a call to behave, to willingly cooperate in being co-opted by “the system.” Behave, get good grades, learn technology – not so you can rule rather than be ruled – but so you can get a good job and be a good cog in the machine. Marks' call is not unlike Gingrich's desire to replace adult janitors with child janitors in training (which makes no sense, because you're going to be fired as soon as you become a competent adult janitor and earn a living wage).

For me, this raises the question of the purpose of education. Is education supposed to prepare us to be better workers or is education supposed to prepare us to think independently – independent of our job and the will of the state? In my view education should prepare us to resist the imposition of the will of the hegemon. But that's not my main point in this post.

My main point is that offering advice to others requires an empathic imagination. I need to see myself in others' circumstances.

What would I have been had my father not emigrated in the 1920's, lived through the depression by farming in Minnesota and the war by serving in the Army Air Corps? What would I have been had my father not left the family farm some twenty miles outside Haparanda, Sweden? I look at my cousins' lives in Sweden and realize that it is entirely possible that I would have become a child of the middle class. I might still have been a priest and a believer. I might have a darker, less optimistic view of the world if I had grown up in the “city in darkness” (that's the title of a prize winning novel about life in Haparanda).

I can sort of imagine what my life might have been like if I had grown up in the forests of the far north of Sweden. I can sort of imagine it because I've been there, seen the house, used the privy, walked the roads, slept in the summer night. But even then it is difficult to imagine.

How difficult is it then to cross the major lines of race, culture, religion and imagine ourselves members of another race, living in another culture believing in god in another set of thoughts with another revelation. Yes, I might imagine myself aspiring to a materially and even spiritually better life – but I don't think I could give advice to that alternative me, much less advise those who are actually living that life.

Time and Eternity II

Eternity seems to me to require an essential difference from time. As we sing in the old gospel hymn “Just a closer walk with thee:” “When my feeble days are o'er, Time for me shall be no more . . .” It seems to me that most evangelicals don't see eternity as a state of being when time is “no more.” Rather, evangelical eternity is time extended indefinitely.

Admittedly, talking about eternity as essentially different from time stretches our ability to say anything meaningful. Thus religious texts must talk about eternity – in so far as they talk about eternity – in terms of time. But if we take the metaphors of scriptures and attempt to treat them as concrete bits of data like “it's currently 8:30 pm and I am watching television” is to badly misunderstand and misuse the religious text.

Eternity, in order to be eternity must be different from extended time. But what then is it? It is qualitatively and quantitatively different. It has no quantity, and no duration. Time has duration. Eternity cannot have duration or it would simply be more time – which it cannot be. It has a quality different from the quality of being “in time.”

But what is it to be “in time” except to experience duration – more or less. Perhaps better said, being “in time” means that we are aware of duration and the passing of time. In eternity we are unaware of the passing of time because there is no time to pass.

Perhaps I've made a leap that is unjustified by tradition or scripture. Perhaps what the gospel writers meant by eternal life was simply a continuation of this earthly life on this earth and continuing it forever with a cognizance of the passing of time.

I'm working from memory, so I may get the details wrong and I don't claim that these are my final thoughts about the subject. But as I recall it, when the Christian scriptures talk about eternal life they do so in codes that are fairly obviously meant metaphorically. John's vision of the martyrs hidden under the altar is surely not meant to be taken literally. Martyrs keeping an unending vigil crouched or crammed or somehow confined under an altar and being forced to sing one line over and over and over again would seem to be not far from the kinds of punishment that good evangelicals reserve for the atheists and others who question their sadism.

John's vision of the heavenly city, one of my favorite passages from the Christian scriptures, likewise seems to me to force a metaphoric, synecdochal interpretation on the reader. If we take it literally, there isn't room in this puny city – this heavenly Jerusalem – for all the inhabitants that would have to be accommodated from Jesus' day to ours. It's rather like the dilemma of attempting to cram all the “living creatures” onto Noah's ark. They just wouldn't fit.

I don't want to drive myself batty by spending all my time trying to think thoughts that have been better thought by actual philosophers. Still, I've been pondering time and eternity for a long while, and never more seriously than these past six months.

It seems to me that the fundagelicals in particular have it all wrong. I don't think I have it all right, but I do think, no I'm certain, that the idea of a place of punishment where Christopher Hitchens is being fried over and over and over again – and is conscious of the continuation of his cooking is both a vile sadism and not eternity. Likewise, the notion of a place of bliss where we are with our unborn unformed unexperienced unchildren for an unending family reunion is pure sentimentality. I can understand why people find consolation in that idea, but I find it as much of a torture as the idea of hell. After all, what will the Duggers say to little Jubilee Shalom after the first “Hi, how are you, sorry you didn't get to live on earth?”

I love family reunions. But they have a end and I look forward to the end.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Time & Eternity I

Christopher Hitchens' death has occasioned all sorts of public reflection on the nature of death and life after death and faith and its opposite certitude. It feels like the moment I might finally get around to writing about an issue I've been thinking about for many months – the nature of eternity.

First though, my own opinion of Hitchens. I didn't like him. Not because of his atheism or his drinking. Drunk atheists aren't uncommon – just as drunk true believers aren't uncommon. What bugged me was his arrogance. He decided that the US was right in attacking Iraq and could not bring himself to show a little humility when he turned out to be wrong. Salon has a great article about Hitchens' errors and his inability to back down on the Iraq question.

Hitch wasn't the only death that awakened thoughts of eternity. The Duggers, of the TV show "19 and Counting" fame, “lost” their 20th child. Michelle Dugger was told at her December 9 doctor's appointment that the child she was carrying no longer had a heartbeat. She miscarried the baby two days later. UK's Daily Mail reported on December 15:
Amy Duggar, a cousin who frequently appears on their hit TLC reality show tweeted the picture, saying: 'RIP precious Jubilee Shalom Duggar! Can't wait to meet you someday, thank you Lord for giving our family peace.'

So what happened to Hitchens after his death? What happened to “Jubilee Shalom Duggar” before her life?

Some evangelical thought would, of course, put Hitchens in a gruesome sadistic place of torment – thrown there for endless torturing by the will of a vengeful and hatefilled absolute deity – a power lacking the moral sensibility that most humans are capable of. On the other hand, the Dugger cousin, and probably the Duggers too, seem to picture a world that is essentially like this one, but without a the finality of death.

Eternity then isn't qualitatively different from time. It is essentially the same as time, but longer and without death. That's the only difference.

But if that's the only difference, eternity isn't eternity. It's just overtime. Like the overtime at the end of a regular soccer game – if you've been interrupted or play has stopped in life you get to have an extra three minutes, only the extra three minutes just keeps going on and on and on.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Politics and Ideas

Newt Gingrich is being hailed as a man of big ideas. What a load.

Newt is a thinker who can't think. Something occurs to him and he has to spew it out. Then he doubles down. Let's turn back the clock and put children to work! Yeah, that's a good idea. Let's repeal the laws that protect children from being exploited and let the poorest of the poor children learn their place in our society. They're the toilet cleaners - the untouchable caste. But they sure do have a great work ethic!

Let's be frightened of the Electromagnetic pulse - an unproven danger that no one but Newt thinks is a danger.

Let's do again what we did before that didn't work. Less regulation. Fewer taxes for the rich. If those are such good ideas, how come they didn't work in the ten years they were in force? How come the Bush residency brought us low low taxes on the rich (which didn't have to be paid for) and no no jobs? Except the ones we shipped overseas (or to that 52nd state, the Mariana Islands).

Then there's Herman Cain. Praised by Newt and praised by CNN. Such great ideas - 999 - more like Nein, Nein, Nein. In the interview broadcast this AM on CNN the interviewer asked Cain what he meant calling the work of Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond "a sham." Cain responded "you can call it a sham or you can call it . . ." The point isn't what we might call it, it's what did you mean when you called it that!

At the end of his speech he again quoted Pokemon, the Movie. This time he acknowledged that he got the words from Pokemon, but that he didn't know who was the original author of the line. Sloppy thinking! I certainly wouldn't give high marks for credibility to any student who did that in a speech.

The quote itself is actually rather banal. The fact that it's from the tag tune to, as John Stewart said, get you the f*** out of the theatre so the staff can come sweep up the popcorn, makes it even less intellectually stimulating.

This is not thinking at any depth. This is thinking in the shallows of life and calling it thinking. To call Newt an idea man and credit Herman Cain with bringing big ideas to the campaign is to debase what can be thought about the political situation in which we find ourselves.

Newt is the perfect representative of the Hegemon. Cain the perfect illustration of Gramsci's theories concerning Cultural Hegemony.