Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Marilynne Robinson and our lost traditions

A friend sent this. It's from an essay by Marilynne Robinson (author of Gilead). Exact quotations from her are in quotation marks.

Speaking of her understanding of personal holiness, which she describes as "no less traditional or Scriptural" than current prevailing views, she says of the tradition out of which she writes, "it has gone into eclipse with the rise in this country of a culture of Christianity that does not encourage thought. I do not intend this as a criticism of the so-called fundamentalists only, but more particularly of the mainline churches, which has assiduously culled out all traces of the depth and learnedness that were for so long among their greatest contributions to American life. Emily Dickinson wrote, 'The abdication of Belief/ Makes the Behavior small.' There is a powerful tendency also to make belief itself small, whether narrow and bitter or feckless and bland, with what effects on behavior we may perhaps infer from the present state of the Republic."

My friend (a UCC pastor) adds that the charge of "feckless and bland," is aimed, I believe, at the mainline Protestants, and comments, "Apt, I'd say."

Monday, October 27, 2008

Alan Greenspan and the Seven Deadly Sins

The Globe & Mail (Canada's National Newspaper) for October 24 had a banner headline (all the way across the front page), "Canada Teeters on the Brink of Recession." Just underneath is a huge four-column photo of Alan Greenspan. The former god of finance said, "I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms...Something which looked to be a very solid edifice and, indeed, a critical pillar to market competition and free markets did break down. And...that shocked me. I still do not fully understand why it happened."

Greenspan is shocked, shocked that even guardians of the public trust like bankers could perhaps be subject to--greed.

A Globe & Mail columnist wrote that "Alan Greenspan is having a crisis of faith." Maybe Ayn Rand is not Holy Writ after all.

Of course this is an overly simplistic take on the complexities at work in the financial meltdown, but from a Christian perspective it is certainly accurate to say that banks and the Federal Reserve are among the principalities and powers and should be regarded as such, with a healthy dose of suspicion.

Greenspan admits 'mistake' on bank regulation
by Barrie McKenna
The Globe & Mail
October 24, 2008

The View From Canada

Margaret Wente, columnist for The Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper, writes these rather startling words on October 18:

Who can blame Canadians for being bored numb by our election? We didn't need it. The stakes were low. The main contenders were unappealing. And after it was over, nothing really changed.

The real show is still two weeks away. My nails are bitten down to my elbow, because what happens in the U.S. will shape our fortunes far more profoundly than anything that happens in Canada. If the U.S. doesn't prosper, we won't, either. If America isn't safe, neither are we. If Americans can't figure out how to do more good than harm in places such as Afghanistan, then all our fine intentions and our soldiers' blood won't be worth a cup of spit. We desperately need an America that can find its way ahead again.

America is weaker today than it's been since the 1930s. Its moral authority in the world is shattered. Its proudly capitalist financial system has collapsed. The U.S. has created the first true crisis of globalization - and only the U.S. can fix it.

Read the column:
Now comes the 'real' election by Margaret Wente
The Globe and Mail
October 18, 2008

Friday, October 24, 2008

God on the move in Zambabwe: church women on the front lines

During the past two or three years I have posted several messages (in Tips and Ruminations) about Zimbabwe. The image of the women praying in the rain stays with me. The Lord has not been deaf to their prayers. The October 18 New York Times has an article about the nonviolent uprising of the church women of Zimbabwe under the unlikely leadership of a brave, bawdy high-school dropout, Jenni Williams. She is the granddaughter of an IRA man, who came to prospect for gold in what was then Rhodesia, and his African common-law wife. Jenni's nonviolent movement is called Woza (Women of Zimbabwe, Arise!) and it was nurtured in Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and Apostolic churches. "If we force Mugabe out, it will be the women who are his undoing," said a male leader of the farmer's resistance movement.

Jenni looks very white, but the Woza women call her Ma Moyo and look to her for courage. Don't miss this article! Here is the link:
From Underground, Leading a March for Democracy
Published: October 17, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Myth of American Innocence

A new friend here in Toronto, a visiting faculty member like myself, writes a regular column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. This recent column contains some important reflections for preachers and congregations as well as those who report on them. There are some good Advent resources here about the human condition (even if you don't focus on the politics).

Articles of Faith: The myth of American innocence
By Anthony B. Robinson, Guest Columnist

ONE OF THE OLDEST strands of American thought is the myth of American innocence. The first settlers from Europe left the "Old World," thought to be corrupt and exhausted, for the "New World," a kind of American Eden. American movies, from John Wayne Westerns to "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," regularly invoked the theme of a unique American innocence and virtue.

The myth of American innocence portrays America and Americans as fresh and untainted by the ancient wiles and deceptions of others. It imagines that Americans have a combination of virtue, tenacity and practical knowledge that will allow them to prevail where others have failed.

One way to understand both John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin and the Palin phenomenon is in the context of this myth of American innocence.

Now Washington (the other Washington) is the corrupt Old World. McCain depicts himself as an outsider and maverick to the Washington establishment. But it is Palin that completes the evocation of the myth of American innocence.

Alaska is as far as you can get from corrupt Washington. The 49th state translates into frontier virtue. Moreover, Palin's inexperience, in the context of the myth of American innocence, is not a weakness but a strength. It means that she is untainted. Her youth and family complete the picture of innocence and virtue, and of an American original who will go to Washington and clean house.

George W. Bush drew on similar themes to cast himself as an outsider and turn his own limited resume into an asset.

The greatest recent examination of the myth has been Graham Greene's 1955 novel "The Quiet American." In it Greene exposes the havoc set in motion by one U.S. innocent, Alden Pyle, in Vietnam.

As it turned out, Greene's novel was prophetic, anticipating America's tragic engagement in a conflict it never really understood. When "The Quiet American" was released as a movie in 2002, a year before the invasion of Iraq, it again sounded an alarm and anticipated what happens when power and innocence are wed.

The problem with the myth of American innocence, as Greene showed, is that it renders its victims blind. Claiming to see clearly, the innocents are blind to the complexities of the world, but more important, blind to their own limitations and capacity for evil. The myth locates all sin and evil elsewhere and in others. This is part of the reason that Christian fundamentalism strives so steadily to convert or, if that fails, cast out gays. They represent the foreign body, the corruption of innocence.

Barack Obama might also be thought to be appealing to the myth of American innocence, given his idealism and invocation of hope. Yet if you listen to Obama, you hear something different. It is not innocence but idealism that is at the core of his message. Obama has also frequently spoken of himself and his campaign as "imperfect," which further separates him from the theme of American innocence.

Obama's acknowledgments of imperfection owe something to his reading of the American Christian theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Obama described as his "favorite philosopher." Niebuhr was a great critic of the myth of American innocence, and ceaselessly pointed to its dangers. Niebuhr rejected all utopias, whether of the "back-to-Eden" or the futuristic variety, arguing that the best we could hope for in this life was proximate justice and incremental improvement.

While some versions of Christianity, particularly fundamentalist ones, have linked themselves to the myth of American innocence, this is not orthodox Christian thought. A better summation of that may be found in the aphorism of the French essayist and Christian, Pascal, who wrote, "The world is divided between sinners who believe themselves to be saints, and saints who know themselves to be sinners." The sinners who believe themselves saints are altogether too sure of their own innocence and virtue.

From where I sit, this election looks increasingly like a referendum on the myth of American innocence. With their improbable campaign theme, "Change Is Coming" (improbable, as they represent the party that has been in power for eight years), McCain and Palin seek to convey the idea of a freshness, innocence and unsullied virtue. Obama, while speaking of doing away with old-style politics, appeals less to innocence than to idealism.

Only too late did Greene's character Pyle realize that his innocence did more than render him blind -- worse, it made him dangerous.

Anthony Robinson, a pastor of the United Church of Christ, is a speaker and teacher. He can be reached at
Read it online:
Articles of Faith: The myth of American innocence
By Anthony B. Robinson, Guest Columnist

What not to say to an Iraq War veteran

The October 6 New York Times carried a story about a group of Iraq war vets who went off together to a Vets4Vets retreat to open up about their painful memories. "It was clear," wrote the reporter (who was allowed to attend) "that this was a wounded group." The story is really sad. Here's a portion of it (note the "don't"s addressed to us civilians back home).

[Kevin Cajas, one of the vets, said,] “We were exposed to trauma so much we became addicted to it. We became trauma junkies. It doesn’t go away, so you’ve just got to learn how to manage it. I liked it; I’m not going to lie.”

Everyone had a transition story. Shifting from “hunter-killer mode” to husband-student mode is so sudden, it’s insane. One day you’re in Baghdad, the next you’re in Atlanta, passing rows of cheering civilians at Hartsfield airport. Then you get on with your life. The price is steep, in sleepless nights, troubled consciences and buried anger.

People have no idea, the veterans said. Ryan Knudson, from Phoenix, told me what a lifeguard at a pool had asked him: “Is it, like, all warry over there?”

Yes it is. Do you want to hear about it? No, said Mr. Knudson, you probably don’t.

Mr. Cajas: “We were the go-to platoon. When you’re on the go, you’re in a manic rage of violence, nonstop. My body’s just accustomed to that. I picked up my friends’ body parts. My roommate got his face blown off.”

Mr. Cajas was in a quick-reaction force, the guys who knock down doors. “We did a good job,” he said. “The irony of service is, we did a good job, and came back different. This is what it does to humans. The analogy we used was prison. We were locked in the base, and every time we were released, we had to go kill people. We acted like animals because that’s what we were.”

It was hard to watch them beat up on themselves, although their intense expressions of guilt seemed like signs of intact souls. One veteran told me he was haunted by the realization that any trauma he suffered was multiplied a hundredfold for the Iraqis he shot at.

Some gave me tips to pass on to the civilian world: Don’t ask The Question (Did you kill anybody?). “Support the Troops” magnets mean nothing to them. And military culture is not big on touching: the main things civilians want to do to soldiers — hug them and get them drunk — are generally not welcome.

Read the entire article:
"Veterans, Alone Together, Share Stories They Can’t Tell You"
Published: October 5, 2008

Encouragement for the long-married

Up here in Toronto the Globe & Mail has just run an article that is not only encouraging for those of us who have been married nearly fifty years but also for those who are perhaps wondering, at the 25-year mark, if they are going to be able to go the distance. Here's the link:

"The science of a long marriage"
In the long run, marriage is a state of being that suits, even enhances, human biology