Thursday, July 31, 2014

Ray Rice’s Apology

NBC is carrying the raw video of Ray Rice's apology for beating up his wife.

In the apology Rice says two contradictory things:

"That's not me." "That's not who I am as a man."


"I will have to live with this, with what I've done for the rest of my life."

He seems to want to learn from this, and to make amends for his action. But at the same time he seems to want to distance himself from the beating. If that is "not me" doing the beating, then who is it? And how will he learn and grow unless he confronts whatever part of the "me" it was that did the beating?

The problem with Rice's apology is that he doesn't want to admit that it was him, he is totally capable of administering a beat down to his wife. If you aren't willing to face your demons you aren't going to overcome them. Rice will be forever stuck as a domestic violence "dry drunk," a phenomenon similar to the drunk who is able to stave off drunken incidents for a very long time – but who, when it comes, indulges deeply in their passion for alcohol.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

I’ve Been Banned

It's never happened to me before. I've been banned from commenting on a blog.

I have to admit it stings a little, particularly when I think I was quite polite in my comments. The web site is a science based web site "Why Evolution is True." It's run by Jerry Coyne, who, I think teaches evolution at the University of Chicago. He must see himself as the master of all domains, and for some reason he sees me as a very rude person. Here's what I wrote in response to post of his in which he called the Genesis creation stories "allegories."

You are very good with your science, but you're lacking a bit on your understanding of literature. An allegory is a very specific type of figure of speech, much beloved by the monks of the Middle ages. Genesis 1:1 to 2:2 (I think that's where story 1 ends) doesn't qualify as allegory, though it is clearly metaphorical. The second creation account presents a different kind of poetry than the first. Accounts in Psalms and Job present yet another kind of metaphor - the storehouse of the snow is one of my favorite pieces of the Job cosmology. These are metaphors, but not allegories. In the allegory there would be some spiritual equivalent of each element of creation.

I appreciate your desire to take to task those who fail to agree with you, but sometimes you get carried away and attempt to demonstrate expertise you do not possess.

I thought I was being quite polite. Coyne thought it incredibly rude of me to point out that he gets carried away and tries to claim literary expertise he does not possess. Yet he's quite willing to point to religionists who claim biological expertise and laugh at them for misunderstanding science. It seems to me that Dr. Coyne doesn't think there are other disciplines as rigorous as his own, and that he might get some things wrong when venturing into unfamiliar disciplines.

As his defense of using allegory to describe Genesis 1 he appeals to the OED, in which he discovers that an allegory is an extended metaphor. Yes, that's correct. But it is a very specific kind of extended metaphor. Not every mythic story is an allegory. Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is an allegory. The medieval theologians, beginning with Augustine, were quite fond of interpreting scripture allegorically. But in itself the Genesis text does not function as an allegory. It is a mythic text, a metaphoric text: one could call it an extended metaphor. But it isn't an allegory. That was my point. No one in modern interpretation treats it as an allegory.

It also seems to me that he has a very thin skin if he considers this post as "incredibly rude."

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Franklin owned slaves, Dr. Weigl cured Nazis

Thinking further about the issue of theologians (and philosophers) with less than savory pasts led me to be super sensitive to hypocritical sounding insights into the famous and thoughtful and whether or not their less than savory moments disqualify the whole of their thinking.

Watching an episode of "10 Things You Don't Know about . . . Benjamin Franklin" I discovered that Franklin owned slaves. He did see the contradiction between his ideas about freedom and liberty and the owning of slaves, which ultimately led him to be an abolitionist – but the fact is that he owned slaves. Should we then discard the Declaration of Independence – which was written by one slave owner and edited by another?

Listening to Weekend Edition of Fresh Air I heard the story of the amazing Dr. Rudolph Weigl, a Polish doctor who discovered how to create a vaccine to prevent typhus. According to the Fresh Air web site:

As World War II raged, typhus reappeared in war-torn areas and in Jewish ghettos, where cramped, harsh conditions were a perfect breeding ground for lice.

So the Nazis employed Dr. Rudolf Weigl to produce a typhus vaccine. Weigl created a technique that involved raising millions of infected lice in a laboratory and harvesting their guts to get the materials for a vaccine.

The fact that Weigl also supplied the vaccine for the ghetto doesn't matter. He collaborated with the Nazis. Some in his lab, apparently, attempted to sabotage the vaccine sent to the Nazis, but the good doctor would have none of it.

Would we, under any circumstances, dismiss Weigl's vaccine? Or the work of any scientist working for the Nazis who happened to discover something true and useful for humans (or animals or the environment). Of course not.

Why then do we have qualms about the theology conveyed by the human and frail vessels that are Luther, Yoder, Tillich? If they have any truth to tell us, it is true regardless of their negative associations.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

What Do You Do with a Drunken Sailor?

Fred Clark, who blogs at has raised the interesting question of how we should approach theology of those whose lives seem to betray their thought. In his post A Whiskey Priest is Not the Same as a Nazi, Clark discusses the moral failings of Paul Tillich and John Howard Yoder, referencing a post by Roger Olson, also on Does it matter to their ideas that Tillich was a womanizer and Yoder an abuser? Does it matter that Luther advocated the slaughter of the peasants in the peasant's rebellion – suborned the bigamy of Philip of Hesse – wrote some nasty anti-Semitic tracts late in his life? What seems to be Clark's conclusion is:

Did Luther's anti-Semitism "affect" his theology, or did his theology foster his anti-Semitism? Yes, both. Did George Whitefield's slave-owning shape his otherworldly revivalism or did his otherworldly revivalism rationalize his slave-owning? Yes, both.

The assertion that the three nasty events highlighted in Luther's biography either "affected" or were "fostered" by his theology of the radical grace of God needs more than just the bare assertion to make it a convincing argument. Each of the events that are normally thought of as negatives in the Luther canon are, in fact, understandable in historical context. The anti-Semitism, for example, is more a product of Luther's old age, creeping senility and disappointment that the Jews did not wish to convert to his Evangelical view of God. The bigamy of Philip of Hesse needs to be seen in the context of Luther's political situation in 1539, probably more so than the context of the Reformation discovery.

The Peasant's Revolt is probably the incident that most closely derives from Luther's theology. Luther was not, despite the way we want to paint him, a radical modernist. He was a relatively conservative social thinker. Even while he acknowledged the justice of some of the complaints of the peasants, he found that he could not justify open rebellion against the princes – that the scripture did not allow for violent uprisings against secular authority. It was after touring the areas effected by the peasant revolts –and I think after meeting M√ľntzer – that Luther came to encourage the princes to treat the rebels as dogs and beasts and to kill them without mercy. Not a nice position, but not one we can't understand.

Nor is it a position we must adopt if we call ourselves Lutheran and admire, even find ourselves guided by Luther's theology.

First, as Lutherans we owe nothing in the way of fealty to Luther per-se. We are a confessional church and confess that a number of documents of the 16th century are foundational for our understanding of the Gospel. Only three of them are Luther's works – the Smalcald Articles, and the Small and Large Catechism. The rest of Luther's works are influential on contemporary Lutheran teaching more or less. Many clergy have Luther's works on their library shelves. Some have even read them. Luther's biography and theology are still part of seminary curriculum in both ELCA and Mo Synod seminaries. But how Luther is treated and how his theology is treated in relation to the theology of the church will, I'm sure, vary from seminary to seminary.

My seminary experience was that Luther was treated as a genius, as a speaker of the Word of God, and as deeply flawed human being. We read Roland Bainton's biography and Erickson's Young Man Luther. We did not gloss over the three major "flaws" in his career as a reformer, but came to see them as part of who Luther was. Because we are a confessional church, we didn't feel the need to swallow Luther's works "feathers and all." We looked for the insights that continued to ring true.

I think that's what we ought to do with Yoder, with Whitefield, with Tillich – as well as the Neibuhrs, Barth, Braaten, and all the rest.

My confirmation Pastor was a massive influence in my life. A Germanic "Herr Pastor" of great dignity of purpose, he demanded of the congregation and we – mostly – did what our Pastor thought best. But he was a horrible bigot. And he had a hunger for pornography. I'm sure he excused these flaws and reconciled them with his Christian faith (or more likely just ignored the porn and didn't see his bigotry). But he taught me the catechism in a way I've never forgotten, a way that has been sustaining. He instilled in me a love for liturgics without the fussiness that so often accompanies liturgical pomp. He also instilled a genuine desire to be a lifelong learner – and gave me a strong figure to rebel against. I'm grateful for all that, even while I know his bigotry is not of the Kingdom.

Last Sunday we read the parable of the Wheat in the Weeds. There Jesus admonishes the disciples to let the wheat and weeds grow together and let God sort out what's good and what's worthless in our lives and in the life of the church. For the subject of what we do about theologians with checkered biographies and inspiring theologies, it seems to me that we must let the wheat and the weeds grow together – discerning as best we can the weeds in their thoughts and their lives.