Monday, September 29, 2008

what's wrong with America

In an earlier post I suggested that we increase elected officials' pay if they pledge not to actually do anything that affects our lives. This week (and it's only Monday!) the semi-permanent residents of the District of Columbia have offered hints that they're willing to do this for free. The current fear-mongering regarding the $700B bailout boggles the mind; I wouldn't be surprised to read in tomorrow's paper that the incidence of miscarriage among pregnant women (the demographic most in danger of suffering miscarriages, by the way) has skyrocketed in light of the House's failure to pass the Bailout Bill. I, of course, have no idea (and no way of having an idea) how serious the problem will be in the absence of massive government action, but I can't help but feel manipulated in light of the all the . . . well, fear-mongering (to repeat a phrase).

What is even more depressing is the way the Democrats have blamed the Republican leadership (I can barely type the phrase) for failing to strong-arm the twelve votes by which today's bill failed, while the Republicans have bravely laid the blame on a partisan speech (a speech!) by HM Pelosi. McCain and Obama, for fear of being pushed off the front pages, have likewise blamed each other and each other's party for today's non-events and the DOW's response. Apparently, we've had eight years (not ten, not six, but eight; 2000 was, if we remember it correctly, the zenith of American — nay, of human, culture) of a right-wing government screwing the ordinary person. Either that, or we have a slender majority of Legislative politicians only interested in partisan bickering. It depends on who you believe. (NB, it does not depend on any demonstrable and rational argumentation.)

Every politician, whether of the Rs or the Ds, has failed to recognize, however, that they are the problem. Not the D behind their name; neither the R. It is they. All of them. The problem isn't "the failed policies of the last eight years" (that cliché needs to be retired!); neither is it do-nothing Congress that, paradoxically, is both less popular than W and simultaneously poised to become more of what it already is come November. Rather, the problem is the utter and complete lack of leadership within the I-495 Beltway. There simply is no leadership in Washington, and by definition that leadership lacks both a D and an R.

That, I think, goes some way toward explaining the Palin phenomenon. I've watched with interest as April DeConick has vented her frustration (rage?) at both Palin and those who are energized by her presence in the race. DeConick, of course, has a number of legitimate concerns about Palin, and her expression of those concerns is in no way unique or unusual. But I'm not convinced that Palin is as popular as she is simply because men find her physically appealing or because conservative Republicans are stupid. Of course, neither am I convinced when she says Republicans
have nothing except their own self-interests at heart. They are using Palin to present themselves as a party for Every(wo)man, when in fact, they are a party dominated by a white male elites who are more concerned about making quick money (and getting bailed out) at our expense and our children's expense and their children's expense.

This is the same kind of partisan rhetorical excess of which both parties are guilty and which has no value except for being excessively partisan and rhetorical.

Rather, I think Palin has energized the Republican base because she taps into the general ethos throughout the country that beltway insiders — and not whether they have an R or a D after their names — are themselves the problem. Neither Obama nor Biden, and not even McCain, tap into this ethos as convincingly as the governor from almost-Russia. Palin is as far away from "inside Washington politics" as you can get, whether geographically or ideologically (which is to accede the point that she doesn't know what every other presidential and vice-presidential candidate knows). Of course, being from Alaska, she does have a unique vantage point vis-à-vis the energy debate we need to have. But I think she could accidentally call the British PM "Gordon Blair" and a significant portion of the country wouldn't care. She's not an insider. That might make her look uninformed, but it also makes her uninvested in the status quo. Obama's original appeal, by no means disappeared but certainly diminished (at least from last spring), was the appeal of an outsider, but his tit-for-tat campaigning against McCain, and especially his choice of insider-extraordinaire Joe Biden, has left Palin the sole candidate campaigning for office space at 1600 Pennsylvania with substantial NKOTB appeal.

Palin clearly isn't ready to be POTUS, and I can understand why many people worry about her being a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. But it seems to me that Obama is just like Palin, only without the heartbeat's breadth of insulation. The primary difference between Obama and Palin (apart from policy perspectives, of course)? Both have been enrolled in intensive tutorials on domestic and international politics since the summer, but Obama is a Sophomore, while Palin is still a Freshman. Oh . . . and Obama is at the top of the D-ticket. In the meantime neither Obama[-Biden] nor [McCain-]Palin are "what's wrong with America." Rather, it's the irrepressible partisan rankling that has distracted politicians of both parties that they serve the people of the USofA rather than their party membership.

UPDATE: Chris Brady makes available this voicemail from Obama's campaign. This is exactly the sort of thing I was talking about, above. Of course, McCain's campaign hasn't eschewed flinging mud of its own, though to be honest this voicemail surpasses anything I've seen that comes directly from either campaign.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

gone Greek (and I ate too much!)

Last night my family and I went to GreekFest 2008 at Knoxville's St. George Greek Orthodox Church. I have always enjoyed my experiences with the Greek Orthodox church; the sense of culture and history surpasses anything I ever experience in my own faith tradition. It's not just the food and the dancing; I also appreciate the challenges of perpetuating a native culture from inside American culture. In the Orthodox Church Christianity also has a heavy sense of history, of connection with something older than the Information Age. I'm uncomfortable with all the icons and general decor of the sanctuary (and its supporting theology), but there is something to be said about keeping in mind brothers and sisters in Christ from previous generations as we struggle to discern and be faithful to authentic Christianity in our own day.

On another note, a guy with a microphone making announcements and emceeing the entertainment made a comment that snagged in my brain. As he was encouraging visitors to take a tour of the church and hear the history and explanation of the Greek Orthodox faith, he called the Orthodox church "the original Christian faith." After that comment I began to wonder if the combination of emphatically Greek culture and Christian Church was, for the Orthodox, more than just an expression of Christianity but rather the expression of Christianity. In other words, the icons weren't merely images of Jesus and the saints as Christian heroes; they were images of Jesus and the saints as Greek heroes! In that ideological milieu, just as in my own faith tradition, it is all the more important that we remember that Christianity isn't a Western religion but an Asian one. Christianity is the expression of the Jewish faith that has dramatically and definitively impacted the Western world.

RBL Newsletter (26 Sept 08)

The latest Review of Biblical Literature is out. Here's what caught my eye:

Joseph H. Hellerman
Jesus and the People of God: Reconfiguring Ethnic Identity
Reviewed by Vernon Robbins

Joseph B. Soloveitchik; David Shatz, Joel B. Wolowelsky, and Reuven Ziegler, eds.
Abraham's Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch
Reviewed by Dan W. Clanton Jr.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

more abuse?

Even if Tony Alamo is innocent (something on which I cannot comment either way), the guy is creepy and clearly has an over-inflated sense of self.

UPDATE: reports that six girls taken from Tony Alamo's compound remain in state custody. My wife and I were once a part of the foster system, and we only hope that these girls' current environment is more conducive toward healthy physical and psychological development than was their alleged previous environment.

Monday, September 22, 2008

just an observation

Last week Joe Biden, on ABC's Good Morning America said, "It's time to be patriotic," in response to Kate Snow's question that anybody making over $250K a year will pay more taxes in an Obama administration.

Of course the reaction to this comment has been fierce, among both conservatives and McCain supporters (who are not necessarily the same people). Biden defended his remarks in Akron, Ohio, as reported on ABC's blog Political Radar:
"Catholic social doctrine as I was taught it is, you take care of people who need the help the most," Biden said in Akron. "Now it'd be different if you could make the case to me that by giving this tax cut to the very wealthy, everybody else was going to be better off. We saw what happened the last eight years when we gave that tax cut. Tell me how everybody is better off. And the point I want to make to you is, and I mean this sincerely — wealthy people are just as patriotic, patriotic as poor people. We just have not asked anything of them.”

The problem, I think, with Biden's comments isn't the notion that paying taxes is somehow "patriotic," which is actually a very silly idea given that paying taxes is neither voluntary nor connected in any way to one's feelings for or against one's country. (Does anyone really think Biden could have said anything like this outside the current discursive efforts to claim "patriotism" as a value of the left or of the right?!) Rather, the problem is the effort by both sides (especially by pro-government partisans of either party) to socialize philanthropy.

When I first entered vocational ministry I had to make a decision regarding whether or not I would opt out of Social Security. The minister under whom I worked explained that the only way I could opt out of SS was to sign a paper saying, essentially, that I didn't think we should help people in need. As a Christian minister, of course, I didn't think that, and I wondered how any Christian minister could sign that honestly. Since then, however, I have come to question the assumption underlying that assertion; I think the point, rather, is (or at least ought to be) whether or not you think the government is the best avenue for helping others.

For Joe Biden, apparently, the best and most direct avenue for social responsibility runs straight through the executive and legislative centers of America's federal and state governements. I say this honestly, in part because, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Bidens have averaged $369 per year in charitable giving for the past ten years. [I couldn't find similar info for McCain; though the same website reports that John McCain gave 26% of his income in charitable giving in 2007, it would be unfair to Biden to suggest these are comparable statistics.] I assume the Bidens's contributions to the IRS have been significantly more substantial, though I also assume that the Bidens also take advantage of the tax deductions for which they are eligible in order to keep as much of their money as they can. For the Bidens, then, paying taxes does indeed appear to be their way of being philanthopic and humanitarian (n.b. not patriotic).

But for many of us, including people like me who are neither liberally minded nor necessarily conservative, the government has proven itself inept and inefficient as a means for helping people whose lives are in desperate need of improvement. One needs only consider the response to Katrina, the current malaise of Galvestonians and Houstonians in Ike's wake, the state of those who depend upon Social Security, and any other governmental effort to improve the quality of life for the hard-pressed to see that suspicion of government programs is at the very least reasonable.

In the light of the acrimonious state of the American political scene, which seems to have become even more partisan since at least November 2000, I would plead with the American public, the media, and the Democratic and Republican political machines to reframe the debate. The question isn't about patriotism; it isn't even about whether or not those of us who "have" should identify with and assist those of us who "have not." The question, rather, is: What is the best, most effective, and most efficient avenue for us to help "the least of these."

Saturday, September 20, 2008


I apologize for the long silence; blogging has had to take a backseat for the last month or so. Besides the beginning of classes, my wife and I moved house (the garage is still packed with boxes four weeks later!), my college changed network systems (two weeks before the start of classes; that wasn't a popular move, to say the very least . . .), I had a handful of speaking engagements, and my wife had a significant birthday (I can't say how old she is; suffice it to say she is officially the age at which it is now impolite to ask a lady her age).

We've had a good month, and I hope to start commenting about it a bit more regularly here. So stay tuned . . . or not, it's up to you.

RBL Newsletter (13 Sept 08)

The latest Review of Biblical Literature is out. Here's what caught my eye:

James H. Charlesworth, ed.
The Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls: The Second Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins
Reviewed by Matthew Goff

Zeba A. Crook and Philip A. Harland, eds.
Identity and Interaction in the Ancient Mediterranean: Jews, Christians and Others: Essays in Honour of Stephen G. Wilson
Reviewed by Thomas W. Gillespie

Rodney J. Decker
Koine Greek Reader: Selections from the New Testament, Septuagint, and Early Christian Writers
Reviewed by Pierre Johan Jordaan

Simcha Fishbane
Deviancy in Early Rabbinic Literature: A Collection of Socio-Anthropological Essays
Reviewed by Mayer I. Gruber

Mark W. Hamilton, Thomas H. Olbricht, and Jeffrey Peterson, eds.
Renewing Tradition: Studies in Texts and Contexts in Honor of James W. Thompson
Reviewed by Nathan Guy

B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort
The Greek New Testament with Dictionary
Reviewed by Allan J. McNicol

Friday, September 05, 2008

RBL Newsletter (5 Sept 08)

The latest Review of Biblical Literature is out. Here's what caught my eye:

Stephen C. Barton, ed.
Idolatry: False Worship in the Bible, Early Judaism and Christianity
Reviewed by Thomas J. Kraus

Kent E. Brower and Andy Johnson, eds.
Holiness and Ecclesiology in the New Testament
Reviewed by James M. Howard

David B. Capes, Rodney Reeves, and E. Randolph Richards
Rediscovering Paul: An Introduction to His World, Letters, and Theology
Reviewed by Rodrigo J. Morales

Paul M. Fullmer
Resurrection in Mark's Literary-Historical Perspective
Reviewed by Pheme Perkins

Edith M. Humphrey, ed.
And I Turned to See the Voice: The Rhetoric of Vision in the New Testament
Reviewed by Bart J. Koet

Steve Moyise and Maarten J. J. Menken, eds.
Deuteronomy in the New Testament: The New Testament and the Scriptures of Israel
Reviewed by Michael A. Lyons
Reviewed by David Lincicum

Stanley E. Porter, ed.
Paul and His Opponents
Reviewed by Justin K. Hardin

Magnus Riska
The House of the Lord: A Study of the Temple Scroll Columns 29:3b-47:18
Reviewed by George J. Brooke

Norman Solomon, Richard Harries, and Tim Winter, eds.
Abraham's Children: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Conversation
Reviewed by Joel N. Lohr

My Visual Bookshelf