Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Month: May 2009

Star Trek: Short Review

The Original

The Original

Anna and I returned a little while ago from seeing the new Star Trek reboot.  My short take on it is that the film was great.  There was just enough hearkening back to the original series and films to satisfy long-time fans, but not enough to drag the film down for new ones.

The pace was fast and the special effects impressive but perhaps the most impressive feature of the film was the casting; it was great.  I felt like everyone did a good job of inhabiting the characters and portraying them familiarly–since these are characters that have become part of our cultural consciousness in many ways–yet also making them their own, and breathing in new life.  The casting of the big three: Kirk, Spock and McCoy, were all great, as was Scotty, though he didn’t get a lot of screen time.

One of the things that folks have commented upon is that this film isn’t perceived as “preachy” in the way that some previous Star Trek endeavors have been.  In some ways that’s true, but the core of the old Trek principles are still there.  One of the things that makes Star Trek enjoyable and enduring is the optimism it has about the human condition, or at least our ability to better it.  Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the series was a humanist, and this came out in the original series as well as its film and network descendants.  Whether it be the fact that Star Trek was the venue for the first inter-racial kiss on a network TV show, or the various plots that were clearly intended to draw attention to the absurdity of our own prejudices (I’m thinking especially of episodes such as “Let that be your last battlefield (scroll to bottom to see the clip))”, the series has always served to direct us to the better Angels of our nature.  While there have been times where it has done so in a sort of campy way, and other series such as the New Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5 etc… that are more open about the evils of human nature have been a relief from the shining hope of a human future depicted by Trek, on the whole the positivity of the future envisioned by Roddenberry has been a beacon.


The New

Indeed, it may be no mistake that the original Trek was birthed and at it’s height during the Cold War, while this successful reboot comes at a time when we are engaged in another long-term engagement with enemies who are seemingly opposed to the humanistic vision put forward by Star Trek and for whom we may be tempted to harbor animosity bordering on a denial of humanity.  For that, Star Trek may submit some response: while we are all human and flawed, there is something of intrinsic worth in us that enables us to reach for something better–it gives us the ability to work for peace and even equips us to reach for the stars.

All-in-all, I highly recommend that you go and see this film.  It’s worth it, and you’ll enjoy it.  A hand off has been made, I look forward to seeing where they go from here.

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Nothing to do with the faith: Torture and Paternalism

Crucifixion detail, Fra Angelico

Crucifixion detail, Fra Angelico

A while ago I found an article in my Google Reader with the following in the first paragraph:

“The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.”

The survey cited by this CNN article was conducted by Pew Research and indicates that regular church goers are 12% more likely to support the use of torture (in what circumstances is beside the point) than non-church goers.  The Creedal Christian thinks that “Perhaps this sheds some light on why many of the unchurched think Christians are hypocritical and that the Church is irrelevant and/or espouses unacceptable values.”  I think he may be correct.  It also demonstrates that that Church in the United States is not doing the job we’re called to…. unless you believe the job of the church is to inculcate an unhealthy nationalism and concurrent means of self-justification.  And there is a difference between nationalism and patriotism.  Unhealthy nationalism is the sort of thing that leads to the belief in the “my country right or wrong” principle while true patriotism leads to a commitment to serve your country in part by calling it back to its truest ideals.

There has been a lot of response to this survey, not the least of which has pointed out that the margin of error was nearly enough to account for the discrepancy between church goers and non-church goers.  Additionally, the sample was fairly small, with under 800 people surveyed.  But regardless of whether more church going Americans think torture is justifiable or not, shouldn’t our concern be centered on the fact that far fewer Christians, if any, should believe this way than the general public?

Since these findings were released, there has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere about it.  One of the better essays I’ve seen is from The Scriptorium, and is entitled “If Torture, then Evil,” a selection of which you can read below:

A government decided to execute a prisoner who threatened its control of a region. It did not just kill the man, but selected, as usual, a means calculated to do the most pain and prolong the suffering. His torturous death is recorded in the Gospels and should give every Christian pause in supporting any form of torture. Torturing any man, even the most base, may not elevate the victim, as it did with the Son of God, but it almost certainly debases the torturer to the level of the Romans who killed Him.

Torture of any human being is incompatible with the Christian faith.

This should have been obvious, but like many hard and inconvenient moral lessons it was not. Christianity grew in cultures that used torture frequently and so had cultural assumptions inconsistent with their faith. Like most evil things, torture is justified by the good that can come of it. Most bad things are tempting because of alleged goods, but Christian experience shows that any gains from torture are not worth the cost to the souls of men and cultures.

Because there are times when torture seems like a good idea, Christians followed the practice of most ancient cultures and sometimes used it when they gained power. However, it was always a difficult decision for Christian civilizations to make and always had critics amongst Christian theologians and philosophers. The practice was modified and prisoners were given greater rights. The longer Christians thought about the practice and experienced the results, the broader the disdain and condemnation for it.

Eventually, a consensus developed in the traditional Churches that torture was a temptation to do evil, a snare of devils to corrupt souls, and a delusion that promised good, but only certainly did evil.

The condemnation of torture is part of the culture of life so central to the Faith. It is sad to see some Christians use arguments and lines of reasoning to justify torture that are similar to those used to justify abortion.

Traditional Christians disdain those who mutilate the corpses of enemies, because it dishonors the Image of God. How much worse is it to mutilate the living body or the immortal soul of a man?

Most Christians are not pacifists. They will honor the choices of a man who declares himself their enemy by fighting him in fair combat. Once he is a prisoner, they will honor his God-given free will by allowing him to preserve his conscience. Christian nations developed rules regarding interrogation that allowed prisoners to preserve their dignity and God-given choices. A Christian can kill a man who is asking for it, but he will not warp and twist his body and soul when the fight is done.

Sadly, Christian history reveals that the “good reasons” for torture tempted many Christian leaders to torture in order to do some hoped for good. We don’t have to guess at the bad results or the later condemnation of history for our short-sighted pursuit of immediate gain over our deepest principles.

Men have always been tempted to torture to get information to “save the city.” However, experience showed that saving the physical city by destroying its values was never a good bargain. At the very least, a nation that ordered torture had to turn some of its own sons into torturers. There has proven no way to compartmentalize such men after the alleged good they did was done.

A nation that turns its bravest and best into torturers instead of warriors has dishonored itself. There are worse things than losing a war and that is one of them.

{Read it all}

Recently other Christian leaders have been commenting on the use of torture, notably Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention who recently stated that he believed waterboarding to be torture and that “There is no room for torture as part of the United States’ intelligence gathering process, in [his] view.”


The Water Torture

Last week, however, I heard a voice of American pop-evangelicalism speak in contradiction to Mr. Land.  As I listened to local radio pundits discuss the release of the torture memos by the administration, and debate the merits of prosecution, a listener called in and began his statement with the words “I’m a born again Christian, but that has nothing to do with my response to this question.  Yes, I would torture.”  I could only laugh and mentally thank the brother for being such a wonderful witness to the faith by prefacing his comment with that statement.  I’m sure our Lord, along with George Washington, is proud.

So, how can so many Americans who claim to be Christian be OK with torture?  The answer is simple: they are using a simple form of pragmatic or utilitarian moral reasoning to come to their conclusions and not ethical reasoning based in the Christian tradition or scriptures.  I’ve written about this issue before in reference to some comments made by Elizabeth Edwards about embryonic stem cell research.  In that post, I commended a comment made by theologian Stanley Hauerwas as a memorable tool to quickly determine whether something passes the smell test for Christian ethics.  Evidently Hauerwas was once asked to discuss the ethics of embryonic stem cell research, and to reply to the arguments of someone who spoke in favor of such research.  Inevitably, as is always the case in such discussions, the hoped-for goods that could possibly, maybe, someday come from such research where trotted out as justification and defense.  Hauerwas cut the gordian knot with the remark, “If it were discovered that foetal tissue were a delicacy, could you eat it?”  As well as being memorable, the remark highlighted the distinction between the sort of default utilitarian thinking that governs much of our ethical decision-making in this country, and traditional Christian morality which sees an evil perpetrated in the service of a good as nothing more than an evil which taints any good that might come from it.  In contrast, the sort of superficial utilitarianism that governs public discernment of such matters is usually predicated on a calculus of “if we do this then we will save X number of lives.”  The problem with such thinking is that it neglects two important aspects of life: sin and tragedy.  Utilitarianism often neglects the sense of the tragic because it refuses to see a necessary decision as a possitive evil.  Likewise, it often refuses to consider notions of sin because it sees anything done in the service of utility as necessarily a good.  These reactions are two sides of the same coin, the first of which I wrote about here.

Of course, none of this means that the United States is obliged to abide by a Christian ethic, but at least we should expect Christians to strive to do so.  It is, of course, a difficult thing to do, and can bring about disagreement (expected and welcomed), uninformed criticism (bearable) as well as giving rise to a sort of patronizing paternalism (very irritating) that sees Christians as the naive and eccentric relative who must be protected from their own fantasies.  Be that as it may, at least our response in such a situation might have something to do with the state of our immortal soul.  In other words, maybe being born again ought to have something to do with how we answer this question as Christians.

From New Geography: New Towns and New Lives in the Country

A retired landscape architect and Tennessean has some interesting ideas.  I know from friends and family that the necessity of the two pay-check home is balanced by the cost of living the life-style.  Often the gain is very little indeed, and just enough to keep everything afloat.  Lea lays out the problem pretty clearly, but it’s his suggested solution that’s interesting.  I don’t know whether it has much of a shot though:

Back in the 1950s when I was growing up, pundits worried a lot about automation and the problem of leisure in a post-industrial society. What were the American people going to do once machinery had relieved them of the daily burden of routine labor? Would they paint pictures and write poetry? Armchair intellectuals found it hard to imagine.

It was the age of Ozzie and Harriet, when ordinary working and middle-class families could aspire to a house in the suburbs and a full-time Mom who stays at home with the kids. Today, of course, that popular version of the American dream is a thing of the past, especially the part about a full-time Mom who stays at home with the kids.

Ironically it was washing machines and automatic dishwashers – automation – that brought this idyll to an end. These two labor saving devices made it possible for housewives to go out into the workforce and compete with their husbands. At first they did it because they were bored at home and wanted to earn extra money, if only to help pay for those new household appliances. Gradually, however, it became a matter of necessity as two-paycheck families bid down wages even as they jacked up the price of suburban real estate in areas where the schools were good and the neighborhoods safe. By the time you subtracted the costs of owning a second automobile and using professional child care services, the advantages of that extra paycheck had largely disappeared.

The biggest surprise – to me as well – was that labor-saving technologies do not automatically redound to the benefit of labor. Other things being equal they reduce the demand for labor and hence its price in the marketplace. We saw this happen in the 19th century when modern agricultural machinery forced three-quarters of the population off their farms and into the cities, where they had to compete with immigrants and each other in the new industrial economy. Not until the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1937, which outlawed child labor and established the 40 hour work week, did the world of Ozzie-and-Harriet become a democratic possibility.

But of course Modern Marvels never cease[…]

{Read it all}

A Word from William Porcher DuBose

William Porcher DuBose

William Porcher DuBose

I’m in the process of transcribing (slowly) several books from my collection that are out of print and copyright.  One of them is William Porcher DuBose’s High Priesthood and Sacrifice.  For those who aren’t aware, DuBose was one of the early founders and deans of the School of Theology at the University of the South.  He is often referred to as the greatest theologian the Episcopal Church has ever produced, though he has been more well known aborad than in the US, in part because of his role as a chaplain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

At any rate, I was struck this evening by how applicable much of what DuBose writes is–not only his writing about scripture, but the cultural struggles that his writing makes clear.  Truly there is nothing new under the sun:

All science of life is now a science of beginnings and growth, or of evolution.  The New Testament as absolutely transcends the Old as it fulfills it; but on the other hand, it is as actually the culmination and completion of the Old Testament as it transcends it.  The thought, the language, the life of Christianity are from the very beginning Hebrew, transformed and as far as possible universalized by transition through Greek thought and speech.  All this history has its meaning, and enters largely into the meaning and form of Christianity as we have it.  But it brings with it also its embarassments.  the most immediate consequence comes to us in the manifest face that we are attempting to address the world to-day, in the matter of its profoundest interest, in terms of the world two thousand years ago.  We have first to know what those terms meant then, and to prove that all they meant they mean now, and mean for all men in all time.  Are our Bible and our Creeds to be recognized by us as antiquated?  Are the Hebrew phrases and terms of priesthood and sacrifice, and the Greek or Gentile application of them to the Cross of Christ, waxed old, then we must take measures to preserve them, and the only way to preserve them is to make them as living to-day, as much a part of our thought and our speech and our life now, as they were two thousand years ago.

{Read it all–well, what there is of it}

Strangers in the Land

The Flight into Egypt

Illegal Immigration?

Pew Research has an interesting piece up entitled A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States.  There is a lot here to talk about–so much so that this blog post is going to focus only on the opening paragraph:

Unauthorized immigrants living in the United States are more geographically dispersed than in the past and are more likely than either U.S.-born residents or legal immigrants to live in a household with a spouse and children. In addition, a growing share of the children of unauthorized immigrant parents — 73% — were born in this country and are U.S. citizens.

Like I said: there’s a lot here.  I want to break this down into a few topics and look at each one in more detail.  First, I want to talk about the effects of greater geographic dispersal, followed by the ramifications of the fact that growing numbers of illegal immigrants are parents of US citizens.  Finally, I want to talk a bit about the fact that greater numbers of unauthorized immigrants live in intact homes in comparison to US-born residents or legal immigrants.
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