Wednesday, August 31, 2011

René Girard; Scapegoats and Sacrifice

Here's an excerpt from a good article on Girard in the Stanford University News:

People are social creatures, and their behavior is based on imitation to a much greater degree than generally supposed. How else to explain why a generation decides at once to pierce their tongues, or why stocks rise and fall? How to explain how a child learns language? Even our desires are not our own; we learn them from others.

"We don't even know what our desire is. We ask other people to tell us our desires," Girard said during a lecture at Stanford's Old Union in February. "We would like our desires to come from our deepest selves, our personal depths—but if it did, it would not be desire. Desire is always for something we feel we lack."

Envy and resentment are the inevitable consequences of this drive toward mimesis. These emotions, in turn, fuel conflict; it occurs whenever two or more "mimetic rivals" want the same thing, which can go to only one. It might be a woman, a presidency or a research grant. Many religious prohibitions are meant to regulate and control such conflict.

"When we describe human relations, we lie," Girard said. "We describe them as normally good, peaceful and so forth, whereas in reality they are competitive, in a war-like fashion."

In literature, such mimetic desire can create comic masterpieces: A Midsummer Night's Dream is a classic he frequently cites. Or it can inspire the novels of Balzac, in which the characters strive to outdo each other in snobbery and imitative social values. Such imitation can even be totally imaginary. Don Quixote wishes to be a knight errant, because he is imitating the heroes in the books he has read.

On a societal level, such conflict seeks a release, and the outlet is a scapegoat. A third party—often an outsider, a foreigner, a woman, someone who is disabled, the king or president—is blamed and demonized for having caused the conflict. Scapegoats are not seen as innocent victims; they are seen as the guilty cause of the disorder. The calls mount for the sacrificial victim, and the mob itself creates a sense of harmony.

See also: René Girard at Microsoft

Monday, August 29, 2011

Is there Justice in the World?

"If the death penalty can be given to a man for buying two ordinary 9 volt battery cells, if 20 years of his youth can be robbed, I sincerely doubt there is justice in the world."
-- the plea from death row – A.G. PERARIVALAN

As conveyed by the following report by an Indian friend, a country in protest now can't find justice in the world:
This is the sentence of truth by the person Perarivalan who got death hanging punishment for getting a 9 volt battery for the Rajiv's assassination. Many truths and realities were hidden in this case. Not only in this case in many things our country is going very down in politics. The person who is richer rules in the govt, and also supports only more like this.

The forgoing perspective from rural India contrasts with the news as reported by The Times of India.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Contrasting Jesus and St. Paul on the Work Ethic

The Protestant Work Ethic is not in the Bible.  Max Weber may have understood Calvinists of a certain era, who in their anxiety about being among the elect, led lives of drudgery like that apparent in the faces of the Puritans in Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic. The self-denial and thrift evident in those faces did have the effect of increasing the worldly goods of many Calvinists.  At a certain stage, the wealth they didn't spend may have been capital for the industrial revolution, but technology and capitalism were well underway, long before there were Protestants, in Italian city states of the medieval period.  Wealth accumulated by deferred gratification may have given some Calvinists assurance of God's favor.  John D. Rockefeller comes to mind.

But assurance of God's favor is not necessarily God's favor.  It is interesting to contemplate the difference between the sayings and parables of Jesus and the work ethic of St. Paul.  Jesus is noted for a disturbing parable about workers, some of whom worked all day, only to find out at quitting time that guys who came online at four in the afternoon would get the same wages as early risers. So much for early to rise... .  Of course, most working people find out sooner or later that life isn't fair, but why did Jesus have to rub it in?  Perhaps it was in accord with his other hard sayings about "the ruler of this world."  Jesus seems to have had a different perspective on how power and authority are allocated in the world than did St. Paul who says all authority is given by God, and therefore by resisting authority one might be resisting the will of God. Now we're getting into matters of perspective that could account for St. Paul's relatively long life under Roman authority as contrasted with the horrific demise of Jesus.

In an era when slavery was common, St. Paul recommended serving wholeheartedly regardless weather one served a benevolent tyrant or an evil and oppressive one.  St. Paul's injunctions were historically invoked to justify the Divine Right of Kings.  Fortunately or unfortunately many Christians eventually reasoned that revolt against unjust oppression was justifiable, especially where oppression made it impossible for them to practice their faith as they understood it. In this, as in so many areas, the light that shines in the darkness can seem like sunrise in American or the twilight of the Gods.  Is Satan the ruler of this world who gives success to whomever he finds to collaborate in his nefarious business?  Or is all authority given by God? The choice of perspective between that of Jesus and St. Paul, on problems one encounters working for the man, seems to hinge on whether one prefers a swift, heroic martyrdom or a long conflicted career.  Either way it does help to maintain the perspective that Jesus recommended for troubled times. Be wise as serpents, harmless as doves.

Another way is grudge writing.  Turn the other cheek long enough and you'll have some excellent material with which to lampoon oppressive authority.  Jesus seems to have been pretty good at this too.  Another paraphrase is in order:

"As it was before Noah went into the ark, so it will be before the revelation of the Son of Man. In the days before the flood there were drunk drivers and sexy matinee idols as well as ambitious managers and preachers of the prosperty gospel. They were all swept away. So it will be with God's revolution. Two women will be vying for top positions in their professions. One will be saved, the other left to go on with the mindless competition. Two men will be grinding away at their desks, and one will be rescued, the other left.   Be vigilant. You don't know the day or the hour. If the homeowner had known what time of night the thief was coming, he wouldn't have allowed his place to be broken into. Be ready. The Son of Man will come at an hour you do not expect.

 "Who then is the manager who minds well his own business? The one God finds doing something that is worth doing, who feeds the soul as well as the body. I tell you, God will give him more to manage in a similarly responsible fashion. But the manager who spends his time in drunkenness and excess at the expense of others will be fired.  He will grind his teeth with transients and hookers out in the street."

Musing on how Jesus and Paul dealt with with authority, I searched the indexes of Gary North's commentaries. North is an economist and businessman who formerly worked as a research assistant for Ron Paul. By a little research I gained new perspective on attempts at risk-free living, which is in North's commentary on the stories of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. Satan says, "Throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple" or "Turn stones into bread" in ploys that would make Jesus dependent on magical intervention beyond the limits he had accepted by emptying himself to live as a man in this world. Next, Satan says, "I can give you power greater than Caesar", and again Jesus refuses. This is power of a different kind that also abrogates risk.

On the matter of Paul's injunction to obey human authority, I found North's idea of competing authorities: God ordained that some should have authority, but he didn't ordain that any human authority should not have competition. There are governmental authorities and business entities and the various jurisdictions within government and business. There are also voluntary organizations. The Catholic principle of subsidiarity is important in this regard: people's lives and communities should be ordered on the lowest level by which an area of interest can be managed.

I think that it is true that there is no way to live without risk. And this is as good an answer to my question as is possible: whether one should criticize management practices that are counter-productive and unjust. In this, one risks offending powers that can damage or destroy one's career. Or rather to serve as Paul advises slaves to work for their masters, regardless whether the master is a benevolent tyrant or evil. In a sense we're back to where we started: one can criticize management, and take the risks involved, or let things ride and make the best of the status quo. Progress--and I agree with North that kingdom jurisdiction applies to every area of life, not to some continually receding horizon of the eschaton--comes about both through heroic challenges to unjust authority and through self-effacing endurance under authority, unenlightened and oppressive as it may be.

But, Jesus did work wonders, and, in his resurrection, he overcame oppression more horrific than most men suffer. In this, one can find hope, both literal and metaphorical. I've seen metaphorical resurrections after defeat that provide some impetus toward taking new risks to oppose counterproductive authority.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Protestant Work Ethic

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about earning your living, not even for the shirt on your back. Isn't life more than the chore of sustaining it? Look at the birds. Do they have careers? Yet they are fed. Don't we belong in the world as much as they do? And who can add years to his life by being driven?

As for clothing, think of the wild flowers on the plains. They weren't manufactured in a sweat shop in the garment district.  Jack Welch doesn't dress as well. If God so clothes the prairie grasses which flourish for a single spring then burn, will you not fare as well, oh ye of little faith?

What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? Grinding out your days to secure these things is known as the Protestant work ethic. They didn't get it from me!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Faust and the Devil

The opera Faust had its premier at the Paris Opera in 1859. In a coincidence that now seems a hellish juxtaposition, 1859 is also the year Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species. The opera made Charles Gounod the most famous musician in Paris. Since then Charles Darwin has been on the ascendant. The demonology of Faust’s bargain with the devil clangs uproariously against modern materialism, and where scientific reductionism waxes philosophical, The Origin of Species has the status of dogma. Evidence for a cosmology richer than we find in Darwin includes grand opera. Can the theory of evolution account for the moral conflict, human nobility, and ignobility found in the plots of musical drama of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? The character Faust in the title role of Gounod’s opera is presumed to be a man well versed in natural philosophy—science of the era of the Faust legend—as well as medicine and jurisprudence. After a lifetime of study in these fields Faust despairs of finding satisfaction in the Western cultural legacy. Satan offers to disencumber him of his rational and metaphysical inhibitions, and Faust consummates a transaction.

Faust’s search, simply put, is for the satisfaction of a moment that he would wish to sustain. An abbreviated treatment of Goethe’s version of the Faust legend, the opera centers on Faust’s seduction of Marguerite, a peasant girl who soon finds her life in ruins. Faust’s conquest can be seen as an upshot of the materialistic world view. There are many versions of the legend, and several operas based on it. In some versions of the odyssey the philosopher’s quest becomes the life of a sensual athlete, including romps with courtesans of legendary reputations—Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Thäis. In the opera by Gounod Satan serves Faust’s inclinations while amusing himself baiting the bourgeoisie. Using the power Satan puts at his disposal, Faust enraptures Marguerite with jewelry and his transitory affections and then deserts her. But this story resolves on Marguerite’s redemption. Her apotheosis and translation to heaven is musically exultant, ascending chromatically and aimed at an experience of transcendence. (audio-7) It concludes with a chorus of angels singing, “Christ has triumphed over sin and death; there is now no condemnation for those who put their trust in him.”

This traditional Christian cosmology evidently played very well in Paris in 1859. The opera was an immediate success, revitalized French opera, and remains a standard of the repertoire. It is remarkable that the French responded in droves a hundred years before their existentialists and atheists—Sartre, Derrida, Foucaut et al.—took center stage. The hell of it—as if Satan is collecting on Faust’s agreement and taking his due—is that Darwin’s materialism supplants metaphysics for ensuing generations. Dialectical materialism, that presumed-inevitable liberation of the underclass, becomes an obsession among the intelligentsia. Marxists, and the nihilists who follow them, are a thousand times more predacious than the bourgeoisie they depose. Blind to atrocities by regimes claiming to redistribute material resources—for what other resources are there?—they abet or incite revolts against every civilized institution. Western Civilization is, of course, an obstacle to those who would take back territory lost by oligarchies of earlier eras. If it can be deconstructed, deconstructionists or their minions will march in to fill the void.

Excerpted from Civilization and the Sublime

Audio-7. Faust; Gounod; excerpted from EMI recording 79-750462; 1979; Domingo/Freni/ Ghiaurov/Pretre.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Immortal, Invisible God only Wise; A Hymn Corrupted

Immortal, Impossible, God only knows
How tenors and basses, sopranos, altos
At Service on Sunday are rarely the same
As those who on Thursday to choir practice came.

Unready, unable to sight-read the notes,
nor counting, nor blending, they tighten their throats,
The descant so piercing is soaring above
The melody only a mother could love.

They have a director, but no one knows why,
No one in the choir deigns turn him an eye.
It's clear by his waving, he wants them to look,
But each of them stands with his nose in the book.

Despite the offenses, the music rings out.
The folks in the pews are enraptured, no doubt.
Their faces are blissful, their thoughts are so deep,
It's after the sermon, and they're still asleep.

Conrad Hoffsommer - Music Technician, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa 52101-1045

The Career Track and other Hazards

Men and women on their way up are probably out of control.  Somebody should have warned them about upward mobility.  Those who are most likely to succeed comprise a group of people who from another perspective are recognizable as the earliest deceived. Maybe you already have the sports car, and the fuel injection is still working. You're in the fast lane on the career track. Before you pass that Corvette, think about who laid out this course, and why they think it's such great sport. Where the hell are we going?

Motivation is an elusive quality. This is going to take us back--unfortunately--to Skinner's Harvard-educated rats. When corporate executives interview prospective employees, what do you think they're looking for? Is it your grade point average and degrees that will impress them? Your new shoes and pin-striped suit? Do they care if you are an engineering wizard? Just think about it from the company's perspective. Talent is no good to them if you aren't going to use it. That chemical engineering master's degree is no good to them if you don't want to use it to come up with a better car polish. Research types can get interested in all kinds of useless things.

They want to know what motivates you. If they can find a rat who is hungry enough for what they have to offer, they can train him to do anything and neglect his family to work weekends at it. Skinnerian psychology fails in predictive value when the rat starts taking philosophy courses at Harvard instead of the usual courses in prestige orientation and management. What these guys really want to know about you is whether the advertising has been working on you.

My overly-generous analysis of avertising may have lulled you into assuming I meant that the advertisers' main objective is to get you to buy something. Naivete! The truth is comparable to the logic of smoking advertising. The dozens of different brands are all made by the same two or three companies. As in the trucking industry, there is no competition. If you sell a man a package of cigarettes, you get his money for a day. Get him hooked on smoking, and you've got his money for a lifetime--albeit a short one. The monstrous proportions of advertising psychology should now start to dawn on you.

If the advertising is working, you walk into the employment interview so greedy for success on the track they've laid out for you, that your engine is cranking high RPM just talking about it. If you want the job, put your motive motor in overdrive. So, you're a chemical engineer. Show them you want the house in Hartford so bad you'll ride the subway home at eleven oclock at night. Tell them about your expensive foreign sports car. They're interested in these things. If you have a family, don't talk about the girl's soccer league or the boy's music lessons. Mention the tuition at the prep school that promises to turn them into superior being types by age twelve. Let them see you fondling the pigskin briefcase you paid two hundred dollars for. If the heaviest thing your wife reads is the Victoria's Secret catalogue, let them know she doesn't plan to do anything for the next ten or fifteen years except spend money. They will be paying you. They don't care how much, if it will keep you out of the bars. They aren't in business to make money (what they care about is another matter), but you should be working with that simple minded objective. All they want out of the deal is the sense of altruistic pride in knowing that the image that gets projected on several hundred million minds through the mass media they dominate will lead to decisive action on the owner/operators of those minds to comply with their every  whim. Here at Proctor and Grumble we just love young upwardly mobile race car drivers to pieces. For breakfast.

From all this are you beginning to suspect that the fast track to real success is one on which not too many people are driving? Are you still eager to pick up your mail everyday to feast on the glossy paper and look for a letter that tells you how your interview went? A lot of rubber seems to get burned onto the pavement in places that shape the contours of success. Drive cautiously, but go fast. Never forget that this is a race.

But wait a minute. A lot of things made by Proctor and Grumble are really necessary. Even if we could get along without the sports car, we would still need polish for something. What would all those guys do on Sunday afternoons when the sun shines? I mean, they can't just stand out there and listen to the radio while they even up their suntans. That's quality time, when they should be enjoying the sweet fruits of their success.

Where there's a will, there's a way to keep it in the safe deposit box. We might be able to find a method by which a job won't be able to run you into an early grave--or pit stop, if you still believe in reincarnation. You might get a job. It's hard not to be interested in having a house of some kind, somewhere. Everything costs money. No doubt everybody demonstrates the basic human need for things like dacron pillowcases and hardwood floors. Even counterculture decor is expensive nowadays.

Don't start getting discouraged. Even with my flakey resume and bad attitude I was able to get on at 7-11. I've even been promoted to the day shift. My hard bartering with the crooks wasn't necessarily costing the company too much money. They just wanted to keep an eye on me. If they think they see management potential, I've got news for them. It's the kiss of death as far as I'm concerned. They tried that on me at McDonald's. If they once get the little cap on you that says assistant manager, your opera subscription might as well go out the hand-out window with an order of Big Macs.

The assistant manager they were grooming me to replace was a Mormon. Those people have high ideals about family and getting together at church for pot lucks. How do you think he felt coming in late at the social hall with day-old hamburgers and cherry pies? The stuff was old when they scraped it out from under the bun-warmers. By the time he got off work and to the festivities, the food table was as barren as the Utah salt flats. I remember, because he took me along. 
He said the program that night included selections from two operas. Fine. I can't always afford the Met, even on television. There was a duet from Trovatore, that the baritone hadn't bothered to memorize. He looked at the book through his big moment with Leonora. The Dance of the Priestesses of Dagon from Samson and Delilah left something to be desired. Well, a lot to be desired. This ballet is supposed to start seducing you during the interlude before Delilah coaxes the secret of Samson's strength out of him. At the LDS church it was interpreted smilingly by women who might have been seven of Brigham Young's original wives. But, I enjoyed it. I didn't have to be to work at eight in the morning. The poor manager was sacrificing everything. And for what? Chocolatey chip cookies! Ice creamish cones. Simulated-meat-product burgers. I'd sooner eat the glossy paper the advertising is printed on than that "food."
I suppose I'm raving again. I can't help it if I have strong feelings about food. Mr. Skinner could have explained it, in his hayday. When life gets reduced to basics, as mine has been, the difference between real chocolate and a "chocolatey chip" cookie is important.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Turkish Delight

At work she is a stickler for detail
sometimes her messages seem blunt
as if there is something she knows
people are stunned
what does she know?

She told me that I am a Christian
that she is a Muslim for similar reasons
she said it shows
I was stunned
what does she know?

She is in my office
weeping "I'm going to quit"
a project manager told her what she doesn't know
she was stunned
what doesn't she know?

She doesn't quit
our boss says she'll be fine, when she gets going
as her resume shows
she's been going for years
what does he know?

She comes to chat
our boss's boss has her perplexed
he comes in early, where does he go?
every day he gets in his truck and leaves by ten
Doesn't she know?

She has two children
we attended a shower for her second with wonderful friends
her husband volunteers for Rotary service events
these Muslims are better Christians than we are
what do they know?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jesus of History and of Faith

      In order to discuss who Jesus was in history, scholars try to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of Christian theology and the church.  This is something of a speculative project since the only substantive historical records were written by church theologians.  Jesus' ontological status as Son of God and savior of the world have been implicit or explicit in their proclamation of the gospel since the morning of the empty tomb. 

These theological assertions are not the material of historical analysis, and they may be true, even if Jesus had no such conception of himself.  An orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation must preserve the humanity of Jesus, and a man with awareness of his status as the Son of God and reconciler of the world to God is not a human being subject to the contingencies of human life as we know it.  At some point even the faithful--or especially the faithful--should try to determine the contours of Jesus' life by historical analysis.  Which acts attributed to him are most characteristic of him?  What did he teach?  What was his sense of mission?  What did he say about himself?  Who did he think he was?  If the kingdom of God is the focus of his proclamation and the rationale for much of what he did, how did he understand the kingdom?  What is it?

      Matthew's Sermon on the Mount--or Luke's Sermon on the Plain--contains material that echoes rabbinic Judaism.  Baba Metzia (1) includes discussions meant to probe the depth of the law.  With regard to lost property, he illustrates: "Once, some aged rabbis bought a heap of corn from some soldiers, and they found in it a bundle of denarii, but they returned it to the soldiers, who said, "Blessed be the God of the Jews."  This example is clearly beyond the literal meaning of the law.  Jesus' interpretations were not unique. 

      It is now assumed that Jesus did not say everything attributed to him in the Sermon on the Mount.  Literary license allowed ancient writers to paraphrase in order to convey a portrait of the speaker, but it is reasonable that some semblance of his attitude toward the law and its interpreters is reflected in the teachings found in these discourses.  Jesus' itinerant preaching, his association with John the Baptist, and his life of nonattachment to material goods are consistent with teachings that bestow blessings on the poor and describe God as providentially feeding the birds and clothing the lilies of the field.  Toiling away one's days to secure material necessities and a resultant stature in the community as one of God's elect is incongruent with what we know of Jesus.  He might quip upon reading about the Protestant work ethic in Max Weber, "They didn't get it from me!" 

      Has any other teacher ever directed his message to the alienated and depressed, or to the poor?  Though it would be disputed now, this high valuation of common people seems to be the rationale for inalienable human rights and democratic institutions that have become the cornerstone of social order in Western societies.  In Matthew's gospel, this special concern for the poor might be considered a function of the conflict the Jerusalem church was having with an established, not to say entrenched, religious order.  The conflict had apparently impoverished the community for whom Matthew wrote his gospel.  We get this impression from Paul's monetary collection among the Gentiles for the poor in Judea.  Matthew's gospel also evidences more antipathy toward the Pharisees than Mark.  The Gospel of Matthew seems throughout to be composed to target and expose sanctimonious piety and religious moralism.  The Sermon on the Mount can be read as a rejection of the holiness orientation, although it is debateable how accurate this caricature is with regard to rabbinic Judaism. 

      The sayings in Matthew of the form, "You have heard it said, but I say... ." are more extensive framing of some of Jesus' teaching than is found in the other synoptics.  Matthew accentuates a basic divergence in Jesus' interpretation of the Law with that of the religious rulers.  These kinds of disputes must have occurred for Jesus to find so little support among his compatriots when his movement grew to proportions considered dangerous to the Romans.  Marcus Borg (2) is probably correct in his assertion that Jesus was executed because he was a prominent leader with a large, potentially dangerous following.  He might have destabilized the peace established by the Romans in which the religious elite collaborated to some degree.  There seems to have been no general outcry or formal objection by Jewish authorities at the treatment Jesus received.  He had somehow alienated himself from his countrymen.  If the high priests abetted his demise at the hands of the Romans, it may have been because they feared reprisals should his followers incite rioting or insurrection.  Or, he may have, in fact, been as scandalous to the religious leaders as he appears in Matthew's gospel.

      What did Jesus teach?  Sayings of the form, "You have heard it said, but I say," are often cited to indicate Jesus' concern for higher righteousness.  Higher than what? we wonder.  Higher than a form of religious moralizing that is odiously familiar.  Puritanical holiness seems to qualify as a kind of pseudo-orthodoxy among the fervently religious, if we follow an old definition of orthodoxy as that which is always and everywhere prevalent.  The Pharisees, Augustine's self-congratulatory Confessions, Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Moral Majority, and the Oregon Citizens' Alliance all evidence this disposition.  We can readily find the modern equivalent of the leaven of the Pharisees that characterizes the kind of religious moralism to which Jesus, or at least Matthew, seems to have objected.  A paraphrase of Jesus' call to higher righteousness might go something like this: 

      You have heard it said by pro-lifers and anti-war activists that you shall not kill, but I say, the stereotyping and hate mongering in your fund-raising campaigns is tantamount to murder! 

      You have heard it said that pornography, fornication, and sexual revels are evil, but I say, you are just as guilty.  You preach and publish sanctification.  Do you really want to be holy?  The next time you find yourself watching a pair of long legs, gouge out your eye and throw it on the sidewalk.  If you masturbate with your right hand, cut it off and send it down the garbage disposal.  You've noticed a lot of flamboyant homosexuals parading around lately.  Have you forgotten that half the people in church are divorced and remarried or living together? 

      You wouldn't think of using the kind of language heard in any office lunchroom these days, but do you have the courage to let what you say express the truth?  Is your word, even among your closest friends, anything more than carefully calculated public relations?  Do you tell the truth about biblical inerrancy? 

      You who marched in the antiwar demonstrations of the Vietnam era, who vilify the defense industry.  You have heard it said that you should love your enemies.  Do you love your enemies so much that you will not acknowledge what happened in Vietnam and Cambodia after American forces pulled out?  Lovers of peace and justice, do you humiliate your students with the dogma of deconstructionism?  You demonstrate against evil, real or imagined, with ten thousand others in the street; what credit is that to you?  Where is your resolution when you have to stand alone?  Have you moralists of the left any backbone?  Treat others as God appears to treat you when He gave the gifts of freedom and opportunity to the children of the men who fought for them.

      Do I have to go on with this?  There are hypocrites who love demonstrative worship and praying in restaurants.  Environmentalists who think their dubious scientific pronouncements are worth what their research grants cost.  Don't be like these deadbeats!  Money and politics will not solve the human dilemma.  Have faith that God is working.  Take your life one day at a time and try to do good. 

      Am I putting words in Jesus' mouth?  Was Matthew?  Luke's rendering of the sayings referred to here is abbreviated.  Mark's treatment is more austere.  In Mark there seems to be no Sermon on the Mount or on the Plain, just a few cryptic remarks suggesting self abandonment for the kingdom of God.  In all the synoptics, Jesus sometimes sounds like a hard-core world hater, perhaps a religious fanatic.  His teachings are, at times, very unlike the sayings about the lilies of the field. 

     I get a number of reactions when I give my interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount.  Some people laugh.  There is something humorous about a characterization of Jesus that, in a sense, bites the hand that feeds it.  The church is supposed to be the bride of Christ; how dare I suggest that the Christian Coalition of political activists or armies of family advocates are acting like Pharisees?  But, the bride of Christ, in our time, seems to have become an extremely dowdy housewife. 

Another response I get is the angry assertion that I am doing the very thing I identify as Pharisaical moralism.  Since I have gored sacred cows all over the ideological pasture, it should be no surprise when people come out with pitchforks.  I have begun to insist that I am merely trying to explicate the text.  Of course I have made judgments.  My only defense is that Jesus, whatever else can be said of him, must have been frequently offensive, even scandalous.  He seems not to have consistently practised what he is supposed to have preached, at least not about passing judgment.  I think we can argue Jesus was moral, but not moralistic.  He was against injustice, but aware of how difficult it is to root it out, and he meant to expose hypocrisy in favor of deeper self criticism and awareness of the mechanisms of power at work in all areas of human corporate action.

      From some of the same texts, and others, it can be maintained that Jesus was spiritual, but not sanctimonious.  When Borg says Jesus was a very spiritual man, my alarm bell starts ringing.  Spiritual in what sense?  Did he spend hours each day in contemplation?  Was he a trancendentalist, detached from the world and its atrocities?  An ascetic who despised the world and the preoccupations in which ordinary people spend their lives?  Were his miracles meant to demonstrate the superiority of the spirit over matter?  The accusations of his opponents would suggest otherwise.  Apart from a few sayings, it is hard to maintain that Jesus was otherworldly.  He is purported to have said, "Lay up treasure in heaven, not on earth."  And there is a remark about those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.  There are some severe teachings about self denial and renunciation of family ties.  Serving God rather than mammon is a basic requirement of his regimen.  But these things can be distinguished from a world-hating renunciation of life and the passion obsessions that became characteristic of later Christian asceticism.  There would be little motive from the perspective of the early church to include the accusations leveled at him that he was a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.  Jesus must have been able to enjoy life even in dubious company.  And it seems unlikly that any tax collector would be found conversing with the likes of St. Anthony the hermit.

      I persist in believing we can know things about Jesus from the outline of his conflicts with other partisans in first century Judea.  We have to consider the source of the accusations about eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners.  These were the same religious authorities who quibbled about the Sabbath while taking advantage of widows for their own profit, a practice with which many contemporary ministers, political activists, and fundraisers are familiar.  My guess is he liked to eat and drink with people who were less psychologically aggressive than many religious leaders.  His eating and drinking is to the everlasting chagrin of vegetarian spiritualists of every stripe.  Did he like a rare piece of meat washed down with quantities of wine?  It should not be concluded that he went in for antinominian revels of the sort some gnostics justified, claiming the insignificance of life in the body.  His answer to the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" is in essence, "Keep the law!"  But he does appear in the Gospels as a man who enjoys life and robust companions, even those who had strayed onto the fringes of what was acceptable in his time, and some who were outcasts or frauds.  He might have gotten along better with modern televangelists than we suspect, probably as well as with respectable, if duplicitous, clergymen.  At the very least he could have tolerated aluminum siding salesmen, card-room types, and attorneys.

      Jesus' miracles are a bone of contention in a world of scientific rationalism.  It is not necessary to argue the possibility of healings of the sort attributed to Jesus.  Medically unexplained remissions do happen.  Doctors are sometimes mystified, even amazed.  There are documented cases of healings at Lourdes and in the files of numerous faith healers.  Jesus can be assumed to be at least as good as the Lady of Lourdes at effecting cures.  Debating how much the miracle stories of the gospels are exaggerated or embellished is tangential.  Even farther from the mark is the sophistry which relates Heisenberg's uncertainty principle or relativistic physics to the miracles of the bible.  Proponents of this approach should be required to take a physics course.
      Jesus performed wonders, but what is their meaning?  The Pharisees said his healings and his exorcisms only proved he was in league with Satan.  His power raises many different issues.  For us the whole implicit world view is problematic.  He casts out demons instead of treating epilepsy or mental illness.  Forgiveness of sins is related to healing.

      The stand-off with the Pharisees is interesting.  Again it can be illustrated by reference to the dispositions of many modern religious enthusiasts.  Jesus' response to the Pharisees' charge is that a house divided against itself cannot stand.  His healings were of such obvious physical benefit that calling them sorcery intended to deceive people was the equivalent of blasphemy.  Unfortunatly this tendency among intolerant believers is still easy to find.  You hear the argument fairly often that trancendental meditation, or whatever, may have helped somebody get off drugs, but it was the devil's power that accomplished the transformation, and it was being used to deceive the unsuspecting former addict.  Jesus would not accept this line of reasoning.  Health and psychological integrity are characteristic of Godly influences, not Satanic.

      Jesus often related his healings to the kingdom of God.  If the miracles were manifestations of God's mercy, as they were purported to be, the kingdom of God had indeed come upon those who witnessed them, and they were harbingers of a restoration of health and dignity on a much wider scale, perhaps even the redemption of the world as envisioned in the eschatological discourses of Isaiah.  The kingdom of God is central to Jesus' teaching.  Though he discusses it only obliquely, its nearness or impending expansion in the world must be considered the motivation of his work.  The urgency he communicated to his followers grew out of an expectancy associated with God's activity in human affairs.  Among an occupied people with an imperial history and the still fervent memory of the Maccabean revolt, any discussion of God's impending judgment and the establishment of his kingdom called up visions of a restoration of the Davidic dynasty, or failing that, another Judas Maccabaeas to liberate Judea from Roman domination.  Undoubtably, in the throng who followed Jesus, there were many who wanted a war lord possessed of a divine mandate.

      Among the sayings of Jesus there is nothing to encourage this militancy.  Instead we have Jesus' interest in the poor and despised.  He says, "Blessed are the poor," or the "poor in spirit."  He heals lepers.  If it was the church that transformed him from a militant into a theologian as he appears in John's gospel, why is all this evidence of compassion for the alienated and depressed so prevalent in the synoptics?  Furthermore, if he was an apocalyptic visionary who saw in the signs of the times an impending lightning storm of God's intervention, the climax of history, why does the preponderance of evidence describe a man who is so responsive to basic human needs?  A Man who heals old women and lepers?  A man who shares meals with frauds and sabbath-breakers, people who never pay their tithes?  In our time it has proven difficult for believers to sustain both a dedication to serve basic human needs and an interest in the equivalent of apocalyptic literature.  There is little overlap in the clientele of prophecy interpretation seminars and social service volunteers.

      Besides Jesus' solidarity with the common people and his responsiveness to their suffering, there is something festive about the kingdom of God as suggested by the table fellowship in which Jesus engages, which he seems to enjoy.  Wedding celebrations turn up in his parables and allusions.  John the Baptist lived the life of an atavist, but the Son of Man came eating and drinking.  The wedding guests could not fast while the bridegroom was with them.  The Last Supper is something of a prelude to the table fellowship of the kingdom of God, but its atmosphere of foreboding is an exception to the rule.  It pains me to admit it, but popular-music worship services may be more in the spirit of the gospels than much of our lugubrious piety.  Even worse, Jesus may feel at ease on the brothel-like sets of the television church.

      In the words of the institution of the Sacrament, "This is my body," can be found the germ of the church's conception of Jesus as the lamb of God sacrificed for human guilt.  Mark's gospel has been called a passion narrative with an extended introduction.  If the climactic words of the Last Supper are not an invention of the early church, Jesus had a rationale for his martyrdom beyond Schweitzer's interpretation that he threw himself on the wheel of history in order to force God to act.  For Christians who have found God's acceptance through Jesus' solidarity with them in suffering, the next turn of the wheel, which crushed him, was not all.  A community of the redeemed was established.  C.H. Dodd has emphasized the necessity of explaining the church in his study, Founder of Christianity.3  Visionary fanatics are not unknown in the modern world, but their movements die out after a brief epiphany.  David Koresh was apparently a brilliant man.  A graduate of Harvard Law School, he was very capable as a linguist and literary interpreter.  His appearance as a con-man prophet created a spectacle.  But his death was the end of his movement.

      The endurance of the spiritual kingdom that began with Jesus is historical fact.  As to its coming in a literal sense with power, the gospels univocally attest Jesus' resurrection to be the climax of his worldly mission.  Of course, the contradictions between the accounts regarding his post-resurrection appearances are disturbing.  They lead to the conclusion, which is probably already established on other grounds, that the gospels were not written by witnesses to the astonishing events described in them.  But they do seem to be pretty much what one would expect of a movement growing rapidly in size and influence in several geographical areas simultaneously.  The resurrection not only explains the establishment and endurance of Jesus' spiritual kingdom, but promises more than any spiritualist can promise concerning the redemption of the real world.  If Jesus did rise from the dead, a logical congruence between his body and the world can be affirmed as more than a theological formulation.  Christians can rationally hope for the redemption, not only of their bodies and souls, but of this awe-inspiring, if mortally flawed, world.  We might affirm with Paul the apostle that all of creation waits with eager longing for the appearance of the sons and daughters of the kingdom, and that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.


1.  Barrett, C.K.;  The New Testament Background; Selected Documents; Harper Torchbooks; 1961. (Y. Baba Metzia ii. 5. 8c 1)

2.  Borg, Marcus;  Jesus; A New Vision; Harper Collins; 1991.

3.  Dodd, C.H.;  Founder of Christianity;

4.  Schweitzer, Albert; The Quest of the Historical Jesus; Macmillan; 1964; Von Reimarus zu Wrede; 1906.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Girls Swimming under the Railroad Bridge, circa 1970

The big diesels rumbled, three, dirty yellow SP&S thirty six hundreds on the point, as the trainmen say--six hundred horsepower per pair of flanged-steel wheels, rolling with over a hundred cars behind them down the long grade above Bend, Oregon. It was five A.M. We had just passed Lava, a siding named for the landscape outside--like the surface of the moon. Burnished steel rails stretched out ahead of us. To lay this track, the section workers must have blasted for years through the burnt, twisted-looking stuff outside. The lava spread out for miles toward snow covered summits, the Three Sisters, Mt. Bachelor, and Broken Top.

It was a pristine July morning, but the heat and smoke from the engines gave a brownish tinge to the blue of the sky and the snow covered peaks. It was still cold enough that we needed the cab heaters. Their buzzing added to the din of the engines and made dust circulate in the air. Before daylight it had taken all my attention to keep from dozing. With the sunrise, I was alert. The rest of the crew had perked up too.

Pat Kilty, the engineer, was admonishing me on family planning. "You're making good money now, kid, you think, but wait till you have a bunch of parasites running around on your carpet! Look at me. I thought I'd paid long enough, but now I'm putting another daughter through college." He spit out the words between glances at the track ahead of us. Sitting there gripping the air-pressure handle, he looked a little crazy, sparse hair poking out from under his canvas engineer's cap, his face white and powdered looking. Almost ready to retire, he was still one of the hottest engineers on this line. "Physical Education!" He barked disgustedly over the roar. "Why the hell couldn't she have studied accounting? Spoiled her, I did. She didn't know the difference. The only physical education she needed was a good screwing."

"Ha!" The fireman yelped.

Pat's upper lip trembled a bit as if he was shocked himself by what he'd said. If he wanted to amend it, he couldn't seem to find the words.

Clumps of Junipers and sage brush growing in the flats on the fringe of Bend gradually gave way to civilization, such as it was: Rock shops baiting the tourists along Highway 97; gas stations; motels; an automobile salvage yard; and the Johns-Mannville Lumber Mill that whined day and night. Boxcars waited with gaping doors for wood-products cargo. Smoke drifted up from the Wig-Wam Burners where milling slash burned. On stacks of Ponderosa Pine logs, sprinkler heads turned, dousing them before the heat of the day set in.

The inertia of the weight and length of train behind us pushed us into town. A freight train rolls without friction if the engineer knows what he's doing. Hundreds of thousands of pounds glide on steel, the slack between cars surging and ebbing. Engineer Kilty drew off twenty more pounds of air to stretch everything out. If he had miscalculated the slack would have come smashing, one car at a time, all the way from the caboose. That kind of force is bad news if a brakeman happens to be hanging on the ladder of a boxcar.

In the yard, tracks branched into infinity, straight and parallel on the cinder roadbed. The radio sputtered something unintelligible, and Kilty slowed us down to a nearly imperceptible roll. The rear-end brakeman and the conductor were getting off the caboose. They'd have to take a cab and meet us at the depot.

Car men were moving about on the ground. Called "car toads" by the trainmen, these gnome-like figures wore greasy coveralls and gloves up to their elbows. One of them carried a shovel.

A few of the tracks branched into the mammoth doors of the engine barns where other diesels idled heavily. Huge vents hung down from the high ceilings to fan out fumes. These diesels are never turned off while in service because the engine blocks contract too much in cooling.

I shoved the fireman's travel bag across the floor of the cab. It was heavy. "What are you smuggling in this thing?"

"It's glass," he answered. "Food supplements."

Mel Starr was a body builder. On the road his bag was full of bottles of vitamin pills and protein tablets.

Time to get off. Mel picked up his travel bag and mine. I had to uncouple these "hogs." We went out the door onto the catwalk. Mel's weight lifting and pill popping seemed to be working. His back was broad under the vest back of his coveralls.

A robust day was beginning, but I was spent. After a few formalities in the depot, I went over to the Pioneer Hotel and flopped for five or six hours.

It was hot in the sparsely finished room when I awoke. I shaved and showered and put on clothes that didn't smell of diesel. When I let up the shade, traffic was moving below my window in the afternoon sunlight.

Down the street at the Coffee Corral, I had lunch, avoiding the gravy. The old rails warnings weren't wasted on me. These greasy-spoon restaurants let the gravy stew on the steam table for days on end. Then some unsuspecting cowboy, or railroader, comes in and gets food poisoning from his hot-beef sandwich.

Walking through downtown Bend, I looked at Indian jewelry and polished agates through display windows. Erotic scenes behind glass on movie billboards left me cold. Never have had much interest in other people's sex lives. I went out Century Drive, the route to Mt. Bachelor ski area. Skiing was the earliest of my passions for the mountains. Cold air, blue sky, glaciers, and rocky summits on the horizons never fail to lift me out of apathy.

Out that way there is a park along the Des Chutes River. I sat down on a bench to watch the ducks and the home-town girls walking along a path under the trees. My oh my! The sex drive may have been under control, but it wasn't dead. By that time I had dated several very pleasant women, but the economy of my feelings had slipped into recession. Was I lonely? It's hard to say, really. Why did Mary and I have to break each others’ hearts?

That evening I called a guy I knew who lived about twenty miles north, on a ranch near Redmond. Harold was a strapping guy about six feet, four inches tall, with powerful forearms. He had played football until a shoulder injury sidelined him. Nice quiet sort of guy, but he looked at anybody who gave him a hard time with eyes you didn’t' mess with when they showed aggravation. He wasn't as urbane and smooth as some of the pre-law types we knew from Portland, but he could certainly hold his ground. He had had a somewhat unsatisfactory relationship with a woman, I gathered.

He met me at the Pioneer Hotel in his late model Buick, and went to a night club. Neither of us were good talkers, but we tried to make conversation over the noise of the band, an over-amplified bunch of guitar bangers. In the smoky, low-ceilinged room we eyed the available women at other tables. It just wasn't worth the effort. I drank enough that I slept pretty hard back at the hotel. The bourbon in that low-ball joint had suppressed even my dreams.

I started using more of my time on railroad layovers in the hotel room with the Bible--more interesting than the night clubs. Only after I'd had enough of Nehemiah or Obadiah, would I come downstairs for air.

In the lobby of the Pioneer Hotel I learned a few things as well--vital information about the famous, black-stud football player who made it in Hollywood and tried to penetrate what’s-her-name, Tarzana, the movie queen, while they were doing a love scene on camera. Mel Starr the body-builder fireman estimated with both hands, "He's probably got a wanger about that long on him."

Now a story like that would be enough to make a lot of Christians go back upstairs to the stuffy room and lock themselves inside. But a lot of what I'd been reading the "Good Book" was just as lurid, though slanted differently than the magazine Mel had been reading. Mrs. Kline, the proprietress, tried to keep that kind of literature off the tables the trainmen found at their elbow when there was time to kill.

There was a color television set in the lobby. I remember watching Tom Jones in a tuxedo against a background of lavender. He sang with a wide vibrato while women shrieked and threw motel-room keys on the stage. John, another young brakeman, a Vietnam veteran, started telling me about the whore in Thailand whose terry-cloth brief he had brought home with him. I remembered him as a state-champion wrestler in high school. In the army, he was laughed at when he asked about trying out for the wrestling team. "You're going to Vietnam," they said. Another former, high school athlete we both knew was now working at the Elks club in Klamath Falls as a bar tender--too crippled to do anything else.

Engineer Kilty was talking with the proprietress at the front desk. She and her daughters ran the Pioneer. It was clear that Mom was the brains of the operation. The girls were well endowed physically, but about a quart low intellectually. It showed in the way they applied their make-up. One of them spoke with a lisp. When I asked what kind of wooly little dog that was that followed her around while she made up the rooms, we took several runs at it before I could understand her answer. "Pekapoo," she was saying through the lisp. "Pekinese and Poodle."

The girls were watching television in the apartment behind the front desk that night when I approached to ask Kilty how late we might expect to be called to work. He said it would be after midnight. He was going to church with the proprietress. She spoke up and invited me, too. It was this religious side of Mrs. Kline that eased your mind about the possibility that she might be running the kind of operation John had been describing in Thailand. Just about then, one of the girls in back blew a pink bubble-gum bubble.

The two girls, Kilty, and I squeezed into Mrs. Kline's Rambler. She drove us out a red cinder-ash road. It was about sunset. A lava butte jutted up behind the Junipers along the road, where the lip and high arch of a ski jump were visible above the pines. I felt a little like a sportsman climbing the stairway to the top. I hoped the church service wasn't going to get too wild.

Kilty was getting pats on the back from Mrs. Kline. Embarrassed, but proud at the same time, he told me, "I quit drinkin', Kid. Didn't have much help, either."

I, for one, was glad he had. Trainmen sometimes get called before they can sober up. Half a million pounds of train going seventy miles and hour with a drunk on the engine is no joke.

The church service at the Assembly of God that night made me glad we were beyond the edge of town. It was fervent and loud. Energetic gospel hymns were accompanied by piano and the preacher's electric guitar. Reverend Hootin made quite an issue of the cigarette burns on that guitar. I gathered he, like Kilty, had been quite a "rounder." He had worked for years in a band on the country-music circuit. He'd played in half the taverns in Eastern Oregon.

The first time he finished preaching, a young woman got up to sing. Kilty elbowed me and said, "That's Hootin's daughter." He assumed I'd be interested. I imagine I could have gotten interested. She was fresh as the Juniper-scented air drifting in the windows. The intense lighting in the room made her skin seem angelic. She could sing, too. "She's gettin' married," Kilty added, noticing how closely I paid attention. Rev. Hootin could well have been proud.

Hootin got up again. It was the time of night that truck drivers would be going home with the women in the places this minister used to work. Now, his appeal brought a lot of people forward. Most of them looked like church members in good standing, but they knelt on the red carpet. Some of them wept. We sang another hymn, then the piano player improvised, and we were left to contemplate eternity.

I guess I was looking at the carpet when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked up into Hootin's benevolent face. "Do you know the Lord, Son?" He asked.

I think I surprised him by saying yes. He looked at me earnestly.

"That's real good," he said, and he patted my shoulder.

Kilty was watching me carefully for signs of cynicism. He was sheepish about his religion with the other railroaders, though he would allow it helped him stop drinking. If I was a believer, it was all right with him.

It must have been about three A.M. later that night when our crew was called to work, an ungodly hour to be awakened in a dark hotel room. "All right," I answered the voice outside the door, one of the other crewmen. I turned a switch, and brassy light filled the room.

Outside it was better. Cool air flooded the silent streets. Like a sailor in a foreign port, I walked along, swinging my travel bag. Switch engines were working in the yard. The occasional slam of boxcars coming together reverberated in the darkness.

Light dimly penetrated the windows in the stone-walled depot. In front of the mail room, baggage carts on large, spoked, steel wheels rested on the walks under awnings that ran the length of the building. Teletype machines clattered inside. Kilty handed me the train orders.

Ralph Brainard, the conductor off an incoming train, was talking with one of his crewmen. I listened without looking in his direction. They said he could be mean as hell. He had made it rough for one fireman, a long-haired nephew of some official in Seattle. Brainard wore a straw hat with a belt-like leather band. He owned forty or fifty acres in Klamath County, and he was talking about one of his bulls. The animal had injured his sex organ trying to mount an uncooperative cow. "That poor son of a bitch groaned like a wounded elephant," he said.

As Kilty and I climbed the ladder up to the cab of the engine, air overflow was spurting out from between enormous wheels. We went inside and stowed our bags in the nose of this old Western Pacific "Flyer." Some of these Iron Horses should have been put out to pasture years ago. It was going to be a long pull up to Chemult.

We waited in the dark for the air pressure to build. Green gauges throbbed on the panel. Kilty wasn't happy about the "power." The engines were woefully inadequate for the length of the train. When he got it all rolling, the stretched-out tonnage behind us made the diesels lug down. Our oscillating headlight cut a slow swath ahead of us through the trees. Juniper again, you could smell it.

At the crossings our horns blared. Electric whistles on the new engines could knock a man off the catwalk if he was out front. These tired air horns just moaned.

It was a hard night, twenty miles an hour up the grade, engines conking out all the time. I had to crawl through the nose cowlings of engines coupled head to head to get to the rear units that needed to be restarted. Even at the speed we were moving, dust and creosote fumed up from the tracks in the light from my lantern.

We waited on nearly every siding for the Southern Pacific freights to crash through on the main line. Before we got up any momentum, it was daylight. The sun came up on the rim rocks along Sprague River Canyon. Jaybirds flitted in the pines. Rattlesnakes on the dusty outcroppings must have been looking for breakfast.

We blew through Chiloquin making bells ring as the crossing gates came down. Indians who had traded their land rights and timber for Pontiac GTOs and Corvettes waited for us to pass. Sporting long black braids and wearing blankets and moccasins the squaws on Main Street stood in patient symmetry in front of J.C. Penney and Woolworths.

The rails gleamed as we rounded a long curve leaving town and went back into the trees. In forest clearings cattle grazed behind barbed wire fences. Grain was ripening toward Klamath Lake and the timber covered mountains on the distant shore. A few Pelicans dotted the sky.

We had been following the Sprague River for thirty miles now. From the rocking engine I saw a bridge coming up. The water rippled and spun into green coils in the backlash from rapids. We had this tired out equipment rolling in a blast of wind and wheels. Kilty made some crack about how the dispatcher would probably give us the pickle, but he sat up suddenly out of his stew, and I'll never forget the stab of joy I felt when our wheels hit the bridge and Kilty laid on the horn for the farm girls who were swimming and waving at us from the clear green water of the Sprague.