Friday, April 30, 2004

Religious Diversity Friday: omnibus meditation

I took a course while at Catholic U. called "Issues in Interreligious Encounter." Our prof explained he chose the word "encounter" because it's more representative of how various religions meet and mix. Dialogue is a subset of encounter. Dialogue is more formalized and self-conscious; it usually involves arrangements and programs and agendas, hidden or exposed. Interreligious encounter, on the other hand, happens everywhere. It's more than just dialogue: it's when people of different faiths meet and marry, for example. It's when the Methodist church up the street joins a synagogue in a volleyball fundraiser for the poor. It's when a mixed group of Christians shows up on Chongno Street to watch the huge Buddha's Birthday parade, then goes and sits ch'am-seon at Chogye-sa (a major Buddhist temple) out of respect for a different religion (I was with two Korean Catholics last year, and we did this).

Recently, I placed a few long comments in a thread over at Joel's site. Joel had written a thoughtful reaction to his viewing of "The Passion of the Christ," and I'd added some thoughts about the theology of Satan's dominion over the earth, something that many (but not all) Christians subscribe to. As the thread progressed, I mentioned I was a modern mainline Protestant (Presbyterian) whose church doesn't engage in the archaic talk of sin, evil, devil, etc., and this is how one unidentified commenter reacted:

Hmm sounds like Kevin just really believe [sic] in whatever he feels like each day. You have a bright future in American Politics.

Does your church believe in the Bible? If so, does the "modern day" change what God has said?

I decided not to respond to this because it was plainly obvious the question was framed emotionally and was fishing for an emotional response. I also refrained because I've done enough troll-bashing on other blogs (sorry, Brian), and I feel guilty about wasting all that space, even though I'm completely unashamed about getting small-minded and mixing it up with pious assholes.

My previous conviction, years ago, was that people like this commenter could be found only among the religious conservatives. The arrogant, bigoted thinking, the blinkered mentality, the mental inflexibility, the unawareness of the irony of "holy assholery"-- surely it's only the religious fundies who act this way! As it turns out, though, fundamentalism, because it's an attitude/orientation more than a set of beliefs, can be found everywhere. Religious (or political, etc.) liberals can be just as stubborn, dogmatic, and self-righteous in the way they approach discussions. They can be just as easy to offend, just as insecure, and just as liable to switch to attack mode. This means we're looking at an overall human problem, not a problem specific to religious belief.

The desire to argue one's convictions is a complicated thing. Most of the arguments we make or accept are not universally accepted, I think, and since major religious systems rest on arguments and beliefs that aren't universally and unquestioningly accepted, then there's room in all religious traditions for a great deal of doubt and insecurity. When someone comes along and questions your core beliefs (or even your not-so-core beliefs), it can shock you into defensiveness. We see this in politics all the time. For me to have expressed my opinion that Satan is a "big old myth" was enough to motivate this commenter to insult me, as if I'd attacked him/her personally.

The truest measure of faith is often whether one feels the need to get defensive about one's beliefs. Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wisely noted that we don't see mass demonstrations where people insist that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Why? Because we already know this in our bones, deeper than breathing. It's such an assumed reality that it doesn't need to be argued for. No one owns this truth; everyone simply accepts it.

But what about the idea that Jesus died for all our sins? This isn't universally accepted, which is problematic if you're a certain kind of Christian. You might feel that a large section of the world is laboring under a delusion. You might feel it's your duty to correct this situation.

What about the idea that the universe was created by a personal God? This, too, was an assumed reality in many cultures, but as various traditions came into contact, the realization dawned on humanity that certain beliefs simply aren't universal. A great deal of Enlightenment skepticism arose as a result of travel and colonialism: close (often uncomfortably close) contact with various cultures made Europeans aware that one triune God was not a given in all parts of the world (and of course, European Christian contact with Islam was providing the same realization).

We often argue because we're insecure. It's a way of dealing with our doubt: shouting it down by shouting at the people who expose what's doubtful about our beliefs. Very few of us soldier on in life with absolute confidence about our rightness; for most of us, our rightness needs occasional defending.

At events like the 1893 and 1993 Parliaments of World Religions, many (if not most) of the attendees, especially in 1993, were liberal-minded. These people were already temperamentally open to meeting people of other traditions and exchanging ideas with them. But is a convention of the religiously liberal the only possible way to dialogue? Should interreligious dialogue exclude those backward, bigoted conservatives, those doctrinaire fundies? I'm tempted to say yes, but no, it shouldn't. I'm a religious liberal, and I'm also a religious pluralist.* While I find many aspects of religious conservatism unpalatable, I'd be a very inconsistent pluralist if I closed off the possibility of dialogue with religious conservatives.

[*NB: Don't equate religious pluralism with religious liberalism, or religious conservatism with religious exclusivism! It's possible to be both pluralist and conservative, for example: S. Mark Heim is living proof of that. At the same time, however, it's undeniable that there's a great deal of overlap between conservatives and exclusivists, and between pluralists and liberals. Heim might be a conservative pluralist-- he's an evangelical Protestant-- but many of his fellow evangelicals aren't happy with his pluralism. I'd like to think of myself more as a nondualistic pluralist than as a liberal pluralist, but I'll accept the label "religious liberal" because my religious views differ-- often radically-- from traditional Presbyterian theology.]

One of the funnier aspects of interreligious dialogue is that religious exclusivists and pluralists accuse each other of squelching human diversity while proclaiming themselves defenders of that diversity. Many religious exclusivists, arguing for the purity, rightness, and superiority of their own tradition, see pluralists as attempting to mush the various religions together into some sort of watered-down whole (in reality, there are so many different forms of religious pluralism that this accusation holds little water). Religious pluralists see exclusivists as steamrollering diversity by claiming their particular faith to be the only true and correct one. The exclusivist call to "mission," for example, implies the eventual destruction of other competing faiths: "...every knee shall bend and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."

Both of these views are ridiculous when you think about it. The subtext of both views is the fear of monoculture: all humans marching in lockstep, fundamentally oppressed, stultifyingly dull. But as my prof pointed out in that interreligious encounter course, monoculture simply isn't possible (are you listening, you antiglobalization idiots?). If we assume that, say, Christianity were to take over the whole world... what then? You can bet your ass that Christanity would fracture into thousands of sects, each acquiring local characteristics, each evolving over time in unexpected ways. Diversity would appear once again because the impulses to freedom, flourishing, and difference already reside in the human heart. Monoculture isn't sustainable. Fear of it is fear of a straw man.

But while speaking strongly in defense of one's views can be a sign of fear and insecurity, this isn't always true. Many apologists craft their apologias out of a sense of urgency, or because they feel that silence on an important matter would be morally wrong. Many people feel the need to dialogue not because they are arguing for the rightness of their own faith, but because they see the lack of mutual understanding as extremely dangerous. Arguments and apologias can also provide ways to test the boundaries of one's beliefs, seeing how they succeed or fail in a wider setting than that of one's in-group.

To dialogue well is to be, as Thich Nhat Hanh contends, both well-rooted in one's own faith and open to being changed by the Other. I submitted in previous essays that it also means accepting the risk of being reinterpreted by the Other, such as when Kenneth Leong comes along and calls Jesus a true Zen master, or when certain Hindus declare Jesus to be an avatar of Krsna-- claims that won't be taken well by all Christians, just as many Buddhists and Hindus might not appreciate the inclusivistic idea that it's really the Christ who's working in and through their religions. I think that dialogue has to start with compassionate listening, but this isn't the same as spineless head-nodding and unheeding agreement. I don't think dialogue should always have prescribed goals, nor should it always be about "working toward" anything or aiming for agreement. At the same time, it's a big world, and there's nothing wrong with goal-oriented dialogue now and then, to the extent that goals can provide purpose and structure. While we might not be able to forge agreements regarding deep differences in dogma and metaphysics, it's still possible to find thematic commonalities, to look across the table of dialogue and realize that we-- all of us-- share a basic humanity, as well as a fundamental connection to the rest of the cosmos.


Thursday, April 29, 2004

Buddhism/Zen Thursday: some Hua Yen

Five words: total, simultaneous, absolute, mutual interpenetration.

That, friends, is Hua-yen metaphysics in a nutshell. Hua-yen Buddhism (it's Hwa-eom, or Hwaeom, here in Korea) had a major influence on the course of Chan (Zen) thought in China. For a great little article on it, see here. The school seems to have been established sometime in the early 600s CE, which makes it roughly contemporaneous with the birth of Islam.

There are two famous images for understanding Hua-yen metaphysics propounded by Fa-tsang. One is the Jewel Net of Indra; the other is the Golden Lion (cf. the essay written around 704 CE).

Indra's Net is a favorite Buddhist image. Originally, Indra was a major Hindu god of the sky (among other things). His net has jewels instead of knots, and these jewels' facets all reflect the other jewels, with reflections reflecting reflections, ad infinitum. Fa-tsang makes reference to Indra's Net as a way to reinforce the larger metaphysical point he's trying to make in the Essay on the Golden Lion.

The golden lion is Fa-tsang's primary metaphor for explaining the nature of reality. A lion made entirely of gold has distinct parts, but all the parts, because they are made of gold, share the same nature, are the same thing. In this way we see there is an absolute unity of the noumenal and the phenomenal. The lion's parts all contain the entirety of the lion-- there is, as Fa-tsang writes in his essay, an infinity of golden lions, just as Indra's Net is an infinity of cross-referenced reflections.

Mahayana Buddhism took the Buddha, a person, and radically cosmicized him, making the Buddha (and the dharmas) into something reminiscent of fractal patterns, where a large pattern is composed of smaller versions of itself, and those smaller versions are themselves composed of even smaller versions, etc. I find that Stephen Kaplan's holographic model of pluralism actually works well as a modern version of the golden lion metaphor (even if I don't think it works well as a metaphysical model for religious pluralism): a hologram, when broken into parts, doesn't display fragments of the original image. Instead, each part projects the entire original image. The idea Kaplan is striving to express is that the whole is found in the parts.

The simultaneity of absolute interpenetration is something taken over by Zen. You can see a modern version of this in Masao Abe's refutation of process theologian John Cobb's contention that Zen and process theology see interdependence the same way. Abe rejected the idea that Zennists view universal interdependence as processual in the more "thermodynamic" sense intended by Cobb-- i.e., that universal process is sequential, events happening "before" and "after" other events. For Abe, the interdependence has the character of absolute simultaneity-- it's not a matter of rolling forward through space-time (in an unending chain of novelty and creativity) so much as it's a matter of everything already being as it is.

In Hua-yen thought, there are four dharma realms (dharmadatu, a Hua-yen term that also signifies the fundamental universal principle) and all phenomena possess, like the various parts of the golden lion, six distinct characteristics.

The four dharma realms:

1. reality/phenomena
2. principle/absolute/noumenon
3. the realm where (1) and (2) interpenetrate
4. the realm of ultimate harmony/non-obstruction

The six characteristics of all phenomena (in pairs):

Pair 1: universality/specificity
Pair 2: similarity/distinctness
Pair 3: integration/differentiation

This very much ties in to the Heart Sutra's contention that "form is emptiness, and emptiness is form." Those two phrases aren't to be seen as somehow sequential: they're both true simultaneously.

Enough Hua-yen for the evening. I'm still reading up on it. If you want to go blow your mind further, take a gander at Andi's recent post that continues her discussions on Buddhist notions of impermanence and no-self.


Chan, Wing-tsit. A Source Book on Chinese Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963.

Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Schuhmacher, Stephan, and Gert Woerner. The Encyclopedia of Eastern Philosophy and Religion. Boston: Shambhala, 1994. [surprisingly good source]


Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Mixed Colostomy Bag Wednesday: Poultrytudinous

it'll come to you


I was all set to present you with your first-ever view of chicken porn. I had the scenario all laid out: you'd see a series of cartoons depicting a chicken striking various nasty poses, claws spread, wings wide, tongue lolling and eyes half-closed. I couldn't get the pics done, though; the muse left me, that bitch. So instead, I now present you with half the package-- captions without pics-- and you'll have to use your imagination, just like so many spouses do after ten years of marriage.

[Pic 1: Head shot of Betty Lou the hen, sort of a wide-eyed innocent look that belies the carnal delights to come.]

CAPTION: This is Betty Lou. For her, it's all about the cock.

[Pic 2: Betty Lou fellating a ram with obvious gusto.]

CAPTION: Any cock will do.

[Pic 3: Betty Lou in "split beaver" pose, on her back, claws spread wide, sexy smile on her face.]

CAPTION: If you like your chicken honey-roasted, Betty Lou's got what you want.

[Pic 4: Betty Lou prostrated, on her front and in relaxed doggy-style pose, looking back at us over her shoulder, ready to take it in the eggs.]

CAPTION: You like chicken fingers? Ever fingered a chicken?

[Pic 5: Betty Lou with some animal's spoo all over her face.]

CAPTION: Whoa! At a guess, Betty Lou's not covered in sweet and sour sauce!

[Pic 6: Betty Lou on top, riding a squirrel like there's no tomorrow. Squirrel's face suggests he's about to come.]

CAPTION: Betty Lou tells us that all animals should live in harmony. Every life is precious.

[Pic 7: Betty Lou getting orally serviced by a farm dog.]

CAPTION: And lookee here! Who says dogs don't like some chicken salad now and then?


Damn, it's really a shame I couldn't bring this to you the way I wanted to.


Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Tuesday Worldfarts

I had to update the Monday Koreafarts (it's below the Air Marshal's guest post on NK-- scroll down) to include two links from Cathartidae and Incestuous Amplification.

The Maximum Leader's blog starts us off with some liberal and conservative and nondualist repartee. Permalinks aren't in order yet, so just keep on reading.

Richard of Peking Duck, now back in the States, I think (?), posts on the China Daily's rants against the "wicked, wicked West."

Cosmic Buddha: food criticism and geopolitics.

Neat diving pics at Higo Blog.

Conrad stirs things up by dissing Shanghai.

BRD on hafnium and mercenaries.

If you haven't visited Anna's Primal Purge yet, do yourself a favor and get your sorry ass over there. Her prose reminds me of Mark Leyner's brilliantly over-the-top work, and that's the highest compliment I can give her. See especially her post on Stephen Hawking. Props to the Maximum Leader, who blogrolled her first and told me how awesome Anna was.

Absolutely hilarious exchange going on between Ryan and some Buddhists over the issue of Buddha images on bikinis and other scanty-wear. Start here, read the comments; then go here and read those comments.

Dan Darling: a Liebermanian bipartisan council of war?

KBJ will vote for Nader, and he gloats over the effect Nader is producing in the Democrats. KBJ also posts on Pat Tillman, the Ranger and former NFL player who was recently killed in action in Afghanistan.

Lorianne gets all Zen on us, here and here.

Kilgore fisks some really bad Talmudic exegesis.


Monday, April 26, 2004

North Korean Train Wreck

While that title could pertain to just about anything related to society north of the DMZ, of course I'm talking about last weeks disaster.

One thing keeps comming back to me. How could a train collision have caused such a large scale calamity? Some reports say both trains were carrying explosives. Still, to dammage everything in a 4 km radius, which is what CNN was reporting this weekend, seems way outside the realm of explosives being shipped.

So I'm pondering what the hell happened. We'll probably never know. I'm also wondering if the US has offered any assistance? I hope we have. Who knows, though. Despite his Xian posturing, Dubya seems like the last person to offer help to an "enemy" in the midst of a humanitarian crisis.

P.S. In the post below, BH's guest blogger mentions Admiral Boorda, who committed suicide in the early 90s because of a controversy arrising from a medal he wore, but was not awarded. I worked as a gopher in the pentagon the summers of '89 and '90 while home from college. I worked for the Navy in 1990, and had the pleasure of meeting Admiral Boorda on two occasions, who was Chief of Naval Peronnel at the time. My understanding was that the award in question was one he was qualified to wear, but had not officially been awarded. As a lifelong civilian, I don't fully understand the distinction. However, two individuals I worked with in 1990 viewed his suicide as a tragedy, and the loss of a great man. The first was a Master Chief who worked in our office, himself a Vietnam Veteran. The second was the O6 who ran our office, and worked under Admiral Boorda.

Monday Koreafarts: the blog that blogged itself

CORRECTION, 4/29: The captioned Kim Jong Il photo I attributed to Allahpundit is actually here, at Gweilo Diaries. Remind me to fact-check myself from now on.

Good thing I've got plenty of material from other sources today.

Jeff in Pusan sends me a gorgeous picture of one of South Korea's indigenous flowers, the ramyeon-ggot, or "ramen flower."

taste the rainbow

ANNOUNCEMENT: The Party Pooper has moved off Blog Shitty. Here's where you can find him now, living to poop another day.

Monday Koreafarts is normally about things Korean, but today we're stretching that a bit to include a short essay about the John Kerry flap-- the one over his service record. This essay was written at my request by the illustrious KimcheeGI of Budae Chigae. Some background: Charlie'd invited me on base for lunch on Sunday, and as we were talking over blogging and the blogosphere I mentioned that I didn't see what the big deal was about Kerry's service record. Charlie, who's unfailingly polite, had an "I beg to differ" expression on his face, and he set about explaining the contrary point of view. I asked him to lay it out in essay form because he convinced me that the point was important enough to bear repeating, especially to us civilians who might not understand how people in the military (most of them, anyway) think about such matters. Read and be enlightened.

I've been asked by the Big Hominid to give my opinion on the service record issue. I've been associated with the military all my life (I'm a Navy Brat) and having joined when I was 20, continued my service in the Army for 15 years now, both in an Active duty and reserve capacity, I'd like to say upfront this is my opinion and mine alone unless otherwise cited.

There is an underlying warrant with the service record issue and the military and veterans. Military professionals hate a charlatan. They abhor them, and will "out a PX-Ranger (person who buys their medals or ribbons in the post exchange) in a heartbeat," to use the lingo. Two inter-related examples come to mind. Admiral Boorda was considered by many to be the "Sailor's Sailor." He was a staunch advocate for the junior officers, enlisted, and women in the military when the drawdown of the early '90s began. He also falsified his wartime record by claiming that he received a Navy Commendation Medal for Valor by attaching the "V" device to the ribbon on his decorations, or "fruit salad," as it's called. Once found out he committed suicide due to the shame he'd have to face in front of the Navy and especially the Navy Aviation community. A Navy vet sums it up better than I can here:

Having served my country in uniform for the past 22 years, I can unequivocally state that to be displayed in front of my colleagues and shipmates as a fraud, or even worse, a "pretend hero," would be almost more than I could bear. Not to mention the humiliation of my family. I could never again face my father, or my grandfather, who both had to fight those nasty Germans (albeit 25 years apart), and were rewarded with a just a few paltry campaign ribbons for their years of sacrifice and the blood they shed.

The other example is the person who found out about the story, David Hackworth. He was a colorful character in the Army and now also claims to be an advocate for the soldier and professional warrior. He is also the highest decorated living combat vet, a veteran of post-World War II Communist insurgencies in Macedonia, the Korean War, and Vietnam. His personal career reads like a combat novel. After exposing the Boorda scandal, and-- to some-- hounding the man to suicide, he had his own ordeal due to a few awards and the highly coveted "Ranger Tab" that folks like PFC Pat Tillman, and many others, epitomize as the unit's motto states: "Rangers Lead the Way." Hackworth's rebuttal is here. He says an Army personnel record review clears him of any mis-doings.

The world is full of people who want to be something they aren't or want to inflate what they actually did. But there's a line between Uncle Charlie's maybe-embellished Gulf War I and Bosnia stories over a few beers at the family reunion, and defiling the memories and contributions of true heroes, many who go unrecognized, by mis-using a service record for career advancement, or worse, a campaign for public office.

I was dying to blog about the train crash in North Korea, but the Marmot's been all over this one. Start with this post and work your way upward.

Kevin at IA manages to top Allahpundit's Photoshopped captioning of Kim's meeting with China's Hu (I can't seem to find Allah's original anymore... anyone got a link? Maybe he realized he'd been beaten at his own game).

The Infidel digs around the sludge inside Kim Jong Il's skull.

KimcheeGI posts on the terrorism threat South Korea received at its embassy in Thailand-- maybe it's not a real threat.

The Yangban posts on what can happen in the confusing aftermath of something like the NK train disaster: photos can get mixed up.

Owen expresses amusement at NK's angry reaction to America's planned pullback from the JSA and DMZ.

Andi posts on "The Passion" and her kido, with which she is almost halfway done. She's also moving to a new apartment this coming weekend.

The Pythi Master offers a hilarious rat episode. Not recommended if you think rats shouldn't be killed in a creative manner. Episode II is pending.

Joel in Gunsan has some great temple pics up. Scroll upward and you'll see he's also written on "The Passion," which has come to his town.

While I was shopping for a lightbulb in Chongno on Sunday (my bathroom's lightbulb gave up the ghost earlier in the week), I saw a Korean dude wearing a white shirt that said:


I'll let you think about that one. Maybe they should make a shirt that says Ceci n'est pas une chemise.

UPDATE: Check out Brian's and Kevin's posts (in that order, please) on the irony of the South Korean response to NK's current disaster.


Sunday, April 25, 2004

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Saturday Swag II: MY Swag, Baby-- MY Swag

I decided that this week's mug design would be empowering. And since I liked the Alien's expression from last week's Zen cartoon, I thought I'd incorporate that into the design.

Juju and mojo mean roughly the same thing.

Don't forget all the other lovely, loathsome designs-- it's practically a little art gallery now. Visit my online store. Help feed a religion student (not that I need much feeding... OK, help buy me a treadmill, Pilates work station, and Everlast 70-lb punching/kicking bag).

haw haw

Shop around for other greeting cards!

Don't forget all the mugs:

Choices, choices...

Fart in an elevator and someone might just kick you in the balls.







Buy my filthy, gross, disgusting book of poetry, cartoons, and short stories from Amazon!

Or visit my swag blog, Only the Chewiest Tumors, and order several copies of my book directly from me at a discount!

If you don't see anything you like at my stores, visit the Maximum Leader's CafePress store and take a gander at the fast-burgeoning designs of the very talented Digital Pixi!


Saturday Swag I: Not My Swag, but Thine

Allah finally finds a site I've known about for several years: Divine Interventions!

This link will also go somewhere on my sidebar. I laughed like a maniac the first time I saw the products. Allah brings back sweet mammaries.

Don't visit this site if you're easily offended by creative use of religious icons. Seriously, folks. This ain't for kids.


Friday, April 23, 2004

Belief-O-Matic results

Normally I think these on-line tests are crap. They are fun, however, so I usually take them when someone sends them to me. This one was fun as well.

My results (of interest probably only to BH and Max Leader)

1. Unitarian Universalism (100%)
2. Secular Humanism (98%)
3. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (94%)
4. Liberal Quakers (89%)
5. Nontheist (75%)
6. Theravada Buddhism (75%)
7. Neo-Pagan (69%)
8. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (67%)
9. Reform Judaism (65%)
10. Bahai­ Faith (64%)

So when presented with data, the engineer in me thinks "ANALYZE!" so here I go.

No big whoop with 1 and 2. Being ethnically Jewish and very sympathetic to Judaism, I'm surprised that Mainline Protestantism comes in so high, and Judaism is so low. FYI Roman Catholicism, my religion-in-law, is down near the bottom. No surprise there. But Islam above Roman Catholicism? Hmmm.

On second thought, I probably shouldn't analyze. I find a "what's wrong with Catholicism" rant bubbling up. I think I'll keep my mind shut on that one.

Religious Diversity Friday: Kilgore on Holy Ground

While my political leanings don't always dovetail with the Maximum Leader's, I like his blogrolling taste. Earlier this week, I stole two blogs off his blogroll, Anna's hilarious Primal Purge (thanks again for the shout-out, Anna), and Kilgore Trout's Chaotic Not Random. Kilgore's a professed atheist, and he's given me permission to put him on display for Religious Diversity Friday.

You see, Kilgore's joined a church.

Ahhh, I notice the bumpkins among you gasping in shock, dropping your armful of baguettes, and running over to the nearest sheep for some quick comfort sex. An atheist joined a church? The hell you say! Now take it in the ass, Sheepie! Baaaa to your master!

There's nothing particularly shocking about atheists in churches, especially if you're in the field of religious studies: you see them all the time. One of the very first anthropological observations you make is that atheists don't burst into flames when they step across a church's threshold. A good buddy of mine, engineer and agnostic, hasn't combusted yet despite having a Catholic wife and having sat through a number of priestly homilies. He's been repulsed by some of those homilies, to be sure, but this hasn't prevented him from fulfilling his ceremonial duties by stepping onto holy ground when the occasion calls for it.

Kilgore didn't join his church for ceremonial reasons. He's on a mission. Here he is in his own words:

I went to church this morning.

"Now, wait just a minute," you are saying. "You are an atheist, Kilgore Trout. You should be spending your Sunday mornings engaging in self-abuse or giggling at the Daystar network over a bowl of Cinnamon Life cereal. What in the name of Bertrand Russell were you doing in church?"

Well, I went to a service at the First Unitarian Church of Denver, a Unitarian Universalist congregation that welcomes people from all religious traditions, including nonbelievers like me.

"You're skirting the question," you are saying. "Why would an atheist want to go to church at all?"

My lack of belief in God does not preclude my spirituality. Five times I've climbed mountain peaks over 14,000 feet high, and the incredible views filled me with awe. I've completed nine marathons and one ultramarathon, and my life has changed each time I've crossed a finish line. I've marveled at the human capacity to love and to learn and to heal and to achieve. As an atheist I appreciate spiritual ideas as deeply as anyone. I just don't believe that an invisible man runs the whole show.

Being an atheist can be lonely and frustrating. Some atheists -- including this one -- spend too much time arguing against theism. I went to church to find a community of people who had rejected religious dogma but sought deeper communion with themselves, with other human beings, and with the wondrous universe we inhabit.

I hope I've found this community at the First Unitarian Church. I attended an introductory class on Saturday morning with twelve other people from diverse religious backgrounds: Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, humanist, Christian Science, fundamentalist Christian, and Eastern religions. We described our spiritual journeys, and I noticed that everyone's story contained the common elements of a past struggle against religious authority, a current search for meaning, and a desire to share the quest with like-minded people. I felt that rare sensation that comes when you belong somewhere.

Kilgore's not in denial about something that many in the "spiritual not religious" category have either rejected or failed to grasp: when enough people are in that "spiritual not religious" category, you've got the makings of a new community. Kilgore's motivation was explicitly to seek out such a community and experience a sense of belonging.

I've taken Beliefnet's Belief-O-Matic test a couple times, and I always score 100% compatible with Unitarian Universalism. I suspect a lot of people do, and this is more a function of UU's openness than of the diverse nature of individual beliefs. But a lot of people make the mistake of discussing UU purely in terms of its general lack of traditionalist dogma. From a sociological standpoint, joining a UU church means you're joining a church. You become part of a community. You meet at a special time, and at a special place-- not just anytime, anywhere. We Protestants have for centuries been proud of how "simplified" our Christianity is compared to what you find among those incense-reeking, over-ritualized Catlicks, but the fact is that Protestant traditions aren't young anymore; they're well-established, with complex liturgies. My own church, PCUSA, has a two-part constitution (The Book of Confessions and The Book of Order) that's as thick as a Webster's collegiate dictionary. So much for the notion of a stripped-down, streamlined Protestantism. As UU continues to grow and evolve, it too will begin the same process of accretion: rules, rituals, maybe even dogma (antidogmatism can itself become a kind of dogma). None of this is particularly important to Kilgore, I'm sure; he's there for community and maybe for a little pussy:

(Full disclosure: Yes, there was an attractive, single woman my age at the meeting. I would have enjoyed the class even if she had not attended.)

Riiiiight. Sure, I believe you, Kilgore. You were probably thinking of what it would be like to lick chocolate syrup off her nipples.

There are plenty of Christians, Christians in mainstream denominations, no less, who don't believe "an invisible man runs the whole show," as Kilgore puts it. I'm one of those. Theologians like Paul Tillich, John Hick, and John Shelby Spong are also in that camp. I suspect that Jesus Seminar folks like Marcus Borg (and maybe John Dominic Crossan) are part of this crowd, too. The spectrum of belief inside large denominations is bound to show great diversity; that's only natural. Intrareligious difference can be as important as interreligious difference. Sometimes, for us Protestants, it's surprising to discover that the people next to us in the pews have a totally different understanding of what's happening when we worship.

But ritual, liturgy, practice-- these external things bind us together even when our internal realities are all over the map. They constitute the "together-action" you find in Zen circles; they provide for and constantly fuel that crucial sense of community and belonging. Religious life is composed of the same elements as regular life. Among these elements are habit (which often gets a bad rap, but is essential for good practice), discipline, and imagination. Kilgore, if he's serious about his church, will make it a habit to attend. As he notes in his entry, UU has a set of principles and purposes. This isn't the same as religious dogma, but it does mean the church has its share of propositional beliefs. By joining this church, Kilgore makes some degree of commitment to those principles in a slightly more formalized manner than before: he may have believed in those principles all along, but now he acts on them by being part of a church.

Well, Kilgore, I wish you luck, man. Here's hoping you find (or that you've found) what you're looking for. Please report back to us on how the lady's nipples taste, and keep up the fantastic blogging. Folks, if you haven't visited Kilgore's blog yet, you're missing out. The man's a fucking nut. His blog is witty and very well-written. Check out one of his theological posts for starters, then scan up and down for movie reviews, language rants, and more.

Ave Kilgore!


Thursday, April 22, 2004

Buddhism/Zen Thursday: Go Wash Your Balls

[NB: Go here to see this past Sunday's comic strip, which is germane to this post. I decided I'd do a little Zen exegesis of that comic fo' yo' big behind.]

It's a famous kong-an:

A monk once asked Zen Master Joju (the Korean name for Chn. Chao Chou or Jpn. Joshu), "I have just entered the monastery. Please teach me, Master."

Joju said, "Have you had breakfast?"

"Yes, I have," replied the monk.

"Then," said Joju, "go wash your bowls."

The monk was enlightened.

[from Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen, p. 363]

Back when I was in elementary school and our family used to attend a fire-and-brimstone Baptist church, my mind would always wander during the Sunday service. I'd try to concentrate on the hymns, but they'd morph into parodies of themselves. At Christmastime, the little Lord Jesus didn't "lay down his sweet head," as the song "Away in a Manger" claims. No: in my mind, Jesus lay down his sour head. I had no idea what a "sour head" was, but I imagined a Jesus who looked a lot like Johnny Lemonhead in the Red Meat comic strip. As a little kid, it was hard not to giggle at the image of my lemon-headed lord and savior. Christus Cephalocitrus.

Things haven't changed much. Whenever I hear love-themed pop songs, I routinely replace "heaven" with "Kevin" (knock-knock-knockin' on Kevin's door) and "love" with "slugs": Now that we've got slugs, what're we gonna do with them? [NB: Cobb does this one better, and replaces "heart" with "dick." Try it. Don't go breakin' my dick.] Beautiful poetry curdles in my brain: My mistress' ass is nothing like the sun. So when I first encountered Joju's kong-an almost ten years ago, the advice I saw him giving the adept was, naturally, to go wash his balls.

Many kong-an follow a pretty standard format. Many end with some form of the phrase, "...and the monk was enlightened." Very often, the enlightenment seems to happen after what we take to be the crucial moment in the dialogue-- for example, the young boy whose finger is cut off by Gutei doesn't get enlightenment until after Gutei shouts at him to turn around, and raises his own finger one last time.

The Alien's dialogue with the monk is simply a rehash of kong-an that follow this basic template. Like those kong-an, the Alien's exchange is about ordinariness: washing your bowls after you've eaten (or washing your balls after you've gotten all sweaty) is a natural, commonsense thing to do-- nothing special. Zen is "just this," and very often a kong-an is a way of pointing back to the just-this by laughingly reminding us that reality doesn't need us to overthink it. It's the human condition to want to make more of reality than we should, which is why, in Zen, the notion of mirror-mind is important. Mirrors have symbolic value in Asian culture and are often associated with nobility, but in Zen, the mirror serves as a practical metaphor for nonattachment: the mirror doesn't "make" or "keep" anything. When a deer passes in front of a mirror, the mirror shows the deer. When the deer leaves, there's no deer in the mirror. The mirror doesn't keep the deer. Neither should your mind.

The Alien's "hmmmm" is the "hmmmm... let me see" of every Zen student who's too busy concocting a pithy answer to realize that the answer's right there and requires no concoction. The Zen master hits the Alien, and the Alien (who also stands in for the reader) first gets the wrong idea about what the master is doing: he was only killing a dangerous bug! It was about to bite the Alien-- there wasn't time for hemming and hawing; action had to arise naturally in that moment. The Alien's "hmmmm" is very dangerous because his mind has already started down the wrong path. All the master did was act with ordinary mind. Ordinary mind is Tao. The Alien's "AH-HAAAAAAAA!" was the realization that the master was doing nothing special. At that moment, the Alien got enlightenment.

Seung Sahn:

When Bodhidharma came to China, the future second patriarch came to visit him. Bodhidharma would not talk to him. To show that he was sincere in his quest, the second patriarch cut off his arm and presented it to Bodhidharma. Seeing this, Bodhidharma asked him, "What do you want?"

The second patriarch said, "My mind is not rested. Please pacify it for me."

Bodhidharma said, "Bring me your mind and I will pacify it."

The second patriarch was nonplussed: "I cannot find my mind when I look for it."

"There," said Bodhidharma, "I have pacified it for you."

Seung Sahn's The Compass of Zen contains a great commentary on the "wash your bowls" kong-an. It goes deeper than my above commentary and points out that, if the adept is sitting before the master for an interview, then the adept must already have washed his bowls. What is Joju playing at, then, by telling the adept to wash his bowls when they both know the bowls have already been washed? Something for you to think about. Or not.

[By the way, were you replacing "bowls" with "balls" as you read through the above paragraph? Hee hee.]

UPDATE: My buddy the Air Marshal reads the kong-an as "Go wash your bowels." I love it.

UPDATE 2: Like the gray-robed monk in my Sunday strip, Zen Mama Lorianne also asks, "What are you doing now?" But she couches the question in a much nicer, much deeper blog post. Go thou and read.

UPDATE 3: Luisa (she of digitalpixi fame, cf. my sidebar) writes:

I spent 11 years singing "Jesus Slugs Me" and "Jesus Slugs the Little Children" before I realized what the lyrics really were. Probably had something to do with growing up in Southern Virginia and listening to blurred speech. Y'all know whatuh mean?


Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Anything Goes II: Thoughts on Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ"

Check out my remarks in a February post called "Pre-Passion Musings." This post also contains links to some other very good reviews of the film.

I realize I'm late in the game with this, especially now that both Easter and "Low Sunday" have come and gone (Low Sunday is the joking term coined by pastors to describe the dismally low church attendance the Sunday following Easter), but since I managed to see Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" this past Sunday, I thought I'd kick some "Passion"-related issues around a bit. I want to divide this essay into several sections:

1. Is "The Passion" Antisemitic?
2. Some Other Political & Cultural Considerations
3. Catholic Elements
4. Cinematic Elements
5. Dramatic Elements
6. My Own Thoughts and Feelings During the Film


This has been a hot-button issue since at least last year, and people who hadn't even seen the film were already convinced they knew the answer to the question posed above. I can't say I blame them: if you assume that Gibson is trying to offer his vision of the gospel account of Jesus' suffering and death, then you realize right away that the gospels themselves don't paint the most flattering picture of the Jews of Jesus' time.

Keep in mind a crucial point of New Testament hermeneutics, though: people do not "do theology" based on the gospels, as if the gospels were nothing more than raw, neutral data. No-- the gospels are themselves theology. This means that, as you read the gospel accounts, you would do well to make yourself aware of the various agendas of the gospel writers, each of whom seems to have a different angle on who this man Jesus, also called Christ, was.

The gospel accounts are not the first writings of the New Testament (NT). Chronologically speaking, that honor goes to the writings of Paul, probably from the late 40s to the early or mid-50s of the first century. The gospels were written and redacted several decades after Jesus' death; it's questionable (though not impossible) that any of the gospel writers would have been present to witness any of the events they describe. And since Jesus himself left no physical evidence of his existence-- we have none of his hair, clothing, or bones-- there has arisen a school of thought that aggressively questions whether Jesus even existed. At present, this school is only a minority in academe, but its argument against Jesus' existence is based on the simple lack of data outside the NT accounts (and a few textual hints from Josephus and Tacitus). All of this means we need to approach the scriptures with what scholars term "a hermeneutic of suspicion."

Jesus is often portrayed in the gospels as debating with legalistic Jews, generally the Pharisees. The phrase "the Jews"-- hoi ioudaioi in Greek-- appears most notably in the gospel of John, where it's often used pejoratively and in a polemical manner. Certainly passages like these have been used to forward an antisemitic, anti-Jewish agenda throughout Christianity's history. I think that's hard to deny.

At the same time, however, modern scholarship reveals that many of these scriptures have been taken very much out of context. Hoi ioudaioi, for example, might not be a brute, general reference to all Jews. It may, in fact, have been a polemical reference to a specific set of Jews in competition with the Johannine Circle. Or it might have signified something else. Based on what we now know, the phrase's meaning isn't as clear as was once thought.

But antisemitism is, arguably, wired into a theologically supersessionist viewpoint. Supersessionism, as the word is used in academic circles, is the idea that a later revelation trumps an earlier revelation. There are plenty of Christian scriptures that support a supersessionist stance, and it's hard to deny that a supersessionist looks upon the members of the old-school faith with a certain measure of pity or concern or condescension: old-school adherents are, after all, mistaken to remain in the old school!

Islam has come along and given Christianity a taste of its own medicine by declaring Muhammad to be the Seal of the Prophets, i.e., that prophet beyond whom no other prophet can come. The Koran is therefore God's final and definitive revelation. This is just as supersessionistic as the Christian revelation, and causes just as many interreligious problems.

Which brings us to the sociocultural issues associated with the charge of antisemitism. The not-unreasonable fear of many Jews has been that Gibson's film will stir up anti-Jewish feeling. My own reaction to this fear is complex. On the one hand, I think it's a justified fear. Jews have been, throughout their history, a persecuted minority, and in historical terms it's only recently that Jews have enjoyed a great measure of comfort and prosperity in America, without concomitant massive oppression (as was-- and is-- the case in Europe, for example). A buddy of mine reports that, in the States, there was indeed a rise in anti-Jewish activity after Gibson's film was released. This is unfortunate, and it confirms that Jews have reason to be nervous when a film like "The Passion" makes an appearance.

On the other hand, I think it's highly unlikely that we'll be seeing mass lynchings of Jews in the States as a result of this one film. Nor will we be seeing monthly reports of synagogues being firebombed, as seems to happen in France every so often, especially recently. The problem Mel Gibson's film poses is more significant when you step outside the United States and observe Muslim reactions in predominantly Muslim countries.

It's doubtful that Gibson's film will cause antisemitism. It's more likely, as these Muslim countries are proving, that the film will awaken or intensify antisemitic feelings.

Apparently, Muslims are gobbling Gibson's film up. They're watching it in droves, often through bootlegged copies on DVD, tape, or video CD. The movie also offers them a taboo thrill: the visual portrayal of the greatest Christian prophet, something that Muslims are generally not allowed to do with Muhammad (there are exceptions: I've seen some old Muslim artwork that does depict Muhammad, including his face). The Muslim excitement that has greeted Gibson's film is, to me, deeply unsettling for what it bodes for Muslim-Jewish relations. Muslims don't see Jesus as the greatest prophet, but Jesus (called Isa in the Koran) is mentioned with greater frequency than Muhammad in their holy scripture, and also figures prominently in Muslim cosmology: Muslims, believe it or not, subscribe to a version of the Second Coming.

Another antisemitism critique stems from the portrayal of the Jews in Gibson's film. I think there's some evidence for this: the Jews shown in crowds aren't flatteringly portrayed, and given the scriptural accounts on which "The Passion" is partially based, the Temple priests from Caiaphas on down simply can't be portrayed sympathetically. Because Gibson's art is rooted in a biblical story, it's difficult to separate the issues of Gibson's and the scriptures' antisemitism. You're on your own with this. If you're a Christian, you might feel inclined to argue that the movie isn't antisemitic at all. From the Jewish standpoint, that argument is unsurprising: of course a Christian will feel that way!

[NB: The Christians of a few centuries ago probably would have yawned at charges of antisemitism. "Yeah, so what?" Some Christians today would likely react that way to such a charge.]

My own view on the antisemitism question, then, is that the movie, in part because of the scriptures that inspired it, contains elements that are antisemitic. But the question is complicated by the fact that, as a reviewer at noted, the antisemitism almost certainly wasn't Gibson's primary focus-- it's more a function of the biblical narrative than anything else. To accuse the film of antisemitism is to bring the discussion back to the scriptural account (and the mystic AC Emmerich's journal, which I haven't read, upon which Gibson is said to have based his version of the Passion narrative).

When scripture itself is filled with prejudices and exclusivistic truth claims, what do you do? I doubt there can be any settlement of such deep issues as the fundamental rightness or wrongness of scripture and scriptural claims. The best we can do is stay engaged, stay in dialogue, and try to work these things out together, even when no clear end or goal is in sight.


So the movie is doing decent business, even after Easter, and is secretly beloved of many Muslims, who probably see it as further evidence against perfidious Jewry. One of the more interesting consequences of Gibson's film is Hollywood's realization that, yes, religious conservative sensibilities are a potential gold mine. Gibson says he's thinking of making more religious films (again with physical violence as a running motif... give the man credit for knowing-- and not flinching from-- what the people want). Quite a few items from the making of "The Passion" have acquired a chintzy sacredness of their own as people fight over, for example, the nails to "Jesus' cross." Gibson and his Icon Productions are making money from "Passion" baseball caps and other merchandising. "Passion" is plugged firmly into the Hollywood machine. It's proof once again that God and mammon have always walked hand-in-hand in the human consciousness, no matter how hard the saints have preached against such a union.

I'm not necessarily looking forward to a new wave of biblical movies, but at the same time, I don't think that unabashedly religious films are inherently evil. South Korea, for example, has produced some amazing Buddhist films: the most notable two being 1989's "Why Did Bodhidharma Go East?" (English title may vary) and the recent "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring." Why shouldn't films whose theme is monotheism be produced with the same alacrity?

Even in films that aren't explicitly religious, religious tropes inform the plot and the visuals. The most obvious examples come from science fiction-- films like the Matrix and Star Wars trilogies. The American people are, on the whole, very religious in outlook. When you couple the American religious temperament with Hollywood's new desire for more fiscal-religious-filmic fusion, you've got the recipe for more God films in our near future. At a guess, I'd say the Left Behind series will be made into a TV miniseries.

Some questions revolve around Mel Gibson and his motivations in making "Passion." Having seen the film, I have no doubt that Gibson felt himself divinely inspired. A lot of care and sincerity went into this project; it's a well-made movie, and Gibson wants you to take it (i.e., the story the movie brings you) seriously. But Gibson's angels have had to make room for his money-imps. Gibson is as much an acolyte of Hollywood as he is of his splinter-group Catholicism. He put his career and reputation on the line in making this film (it probably didn't help him for people to discover what a nutcase his father Hutton is), but the controversy certainly padded his pocket, and I'm sure he knew it would.


I thought about leaving this section for last, since I relish discussions about movie symbolism, but to hell with it. "The Passion of the Christ" is a very, very Catholic movie. It helps to be Catholic to understand what you're seeing, especially as relates to Gibson's so-called obsession with gore and violence. Here's what I wrote in an earlier post (with very slight editing):

My understanding of Catholic sacramentality is that it is very much the opposite of what you find in Christian Science or Jehovah's Witnesses: for Catholics, sacramental reality implies the nonduality of the divine and the material. This is what makes such phenomena as transubstantiation plausible. There is no dichotomy. There's no clear distinction between spirit and flesh; earthly agony isn't merely an analogue for spiritual agony: it is spiritual agony! Gibson's focus on gore will be understood by Catholics in this sense. Non-Christians might look at it and see only an "obsession with violence."

I'm not in total disagreement with the Catholic idea (which, BTW, does have some scriptural justification), if for no other reason than that it seems odd to posit "supernature." Catholic sacramentality is ancient and earthy and, in a real way, brutal: to participate in the eucharist is to participate in more than a merely "symbolic" feast: that is the blood of Christ; that is the body. Sacramental reality affects the Catholic notion of "symbol" as a result: a symbol, for Catholics, participates fully in the event; it's not merely a sign pointing elsewhere or standing in for something. To take part in the liturgy is to enter an organic, divine/material/unitary reality.

I don't know whether any of that makes sense; I hope it does, because it makes a lot of things clearer: for example, the whole deal about carrying around rotten "holy relics"-- body parts of saints, usually things like bone or hair. Even for Protestants, it's a bit weird to think of the spiritual as tangible, but for devout Catholics, that's not the case. Those relics have meaning because the divine and material realms are unified within them.

So when you look at gore & suffering & all the rest, and you realize it's a Catholic filmmaker's vision of what happened to Jesus, it becomes clear that Gibson's vision does make sense from a certain point of view-- that of Catholic sacramentality.

Symbol and sacrament are vitally important concepts in Catholicism. Whereas we mainstream Protestants (I'm a Presbyterian of the PCUSA) might get away with considering symbols and sacraments to be merely representational-- and I'm not saying all mainstream Protestants do think this way-- that's not possible for Catholics. Christ's Passion isn't merely some fusion of divine and human: a fusion implies two formerly separate elements! In the Catholic view, the sacramental reality is a fundamental unity, so there's nothing to fuse. How would a Catholic view the biblical moment (also depicted in the film) where Jesus' side is lanced, and blood and water come pouring out? It's a powerful affirmation of the blood of sacrifice and redemption, and the life-giving water of baptism (itself a ritual traceable to proto-Hebraic times).

But the film's Catholicity rests on more than the symbol/sacrament tropes. Do you know your Stations of the Cross? This is a series of scenes depicting the Easter event. For centuries, there were only fourteen Stations; as of a couple years ago, a fifteenth Station, Resurrection, was added (do a Google search on "fifteenth Station of the Cross").

Here are the Stations:

1. Christ condemned to death;
2. the cross is laid upon him;
3. His first fall;
4. He meets His Blessed Mother;
5. Simon of Cyrene is made to bear the cross;
6. Christ's face is wiped by Veronica;
7. His second fall;
8. He meets the women of Jerusalem;
9. His third fall;
10. He is stripped of His garments;
11. His crucifixion;
12. His death on the cross;
13. His body is taken down from the cross; and
14. laid in the tomb.
[15. Resurrection. --recently added]

You can see that a good part of the above sequence is devoted to Jesus falling. The Stations depict him falling three times. In the movie, I think Jesus fell six times, and I wasn't sure what Gibson was up to. Six is a multiple of three; it's quite possible Gibson was trying to say something by staging exactly twice the traditional number of falls (there were originally fourteen Stations, 2 x 7). But whether or not Gibson was having problems with numerology, he, like the above Stations, made sure to highlight the moments when Jesus fell. Each fall in "Passion" is prolonged in slo-mo.

The movie follows the Stations faithfully. Everything you see listed above happens, step by painful step, in the film. The film itself can be seen as Gibson's way of "doing" the Stations of the Cross, his cinematic act of Catholic devotion.

Finally, I'll note that the movie's Catholicity is also evident in its Mariology (or, as some less charitable Protestants say, Mariolatry). In my opinion, some of the movie's most touching scenes were those between Jesus and his mother, because any grown child can recognize the complex emotions that pass between them. Various scenes portray this very clearly:

1. When Jesus is initially led away and chained in a dungeon, we see Mary walking on the stone floor above him until she somehow finds the exact spot where Jesus is, directly below her. She drops into a prone position and puts her ear to the stone floor, listening for signs of her son suffering below.

2. A flashback shows Jesus, still a carpenter and not yet charged with his holy mission to spread the news of the Kingdom of God, finishing a table. Mary proclaims the table too tall; Jesus jokes that he'll just build tall chairs to go with the table. Mary asks Jesus if he's hungry; he says yes, and she orders him to wash his hands. As she pours out the water, Jesus playfully splashes her with it, then runs inside for dinner.

3. During one of Jesus' falling moments while bearing his cross to Golgotha, there's a flashback to when Jesus was a little child, running and falling. Mary runs over to dust him off and console him.

4. Perhaps the most significant moment of all is Mary's forlorn gaze at us, the viewers, when Jesus lies dead in her arms. It's a Pieta in which the "fourth wall" of the theater is broken: Mary steps outside the bounds of the movie to judge us, all of us, for our complicity in Jesus' death. We sat and watched, and did nothing. Only Saint Mary, the Blessed Virgin, could possibly sit in judgement of the world like that.

I have to apologize to all you non-Catholic viewers out there, but unless you're somewhat familiar with Catholic theology (and I can't say I have more than a superficial grasp of it), you're probably not going to understand Gibson's movie. This movie is heavily, heavily Catholic. Protestants might come away feeling somehow enriched or cleansed by the experience, but my bet is that most will miss the Catholic tropes that give this film its heart and brain and soul.


As I did in my long-ass review of "The Matrix Revolutions," I want to devote some space to a discussion of the cinematic elements of "Passion."

There was a lot that was baroque about Gibson's film. The music struck me as wildly over-the-top at times. Much of it sounded like a bad rehash of the amazing soundtrack Peter Gabriel provided for Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Gabriel's CD was titled "Passion"). I wasn't happy with this aspect of the film.

Other sound effects were just as heavy-handed as the music, and in many cases seemed to be aimed at startling the viewers. An early example is the loud sound of Jesus crushing the head of a satanic serpent in the garden of Gethsemane (more on this later; the movie begins with the Gethsemane scene, and Jesus is in prayer). We all jumped in our seats, even though most of us probably knew what was coming. Later in that same scene, after Judas has betrayed Jesus and is hiding under a bridge, Judas is visited by a feral demon that leaps out of the bridge's stone and zips off into the darkness. This too, is accompanied by sound effects whose purpose is mainly to make us jump. I didn't appreciate these attempts at turning certain scenes into miniature horror movies.

CGI was another issue. The problem with CGI is that, once you know where to look for it, you see it everywhere and find it hard to suspend disbelief. Jesus' pupils dilate at death; I remember seeing the same effect while watching another Gibson flick, "We Were Soldiers." Yes, this post-mortem dilation is anatomically correct, but it's weirdly distracting. Jesus' wounds as he's being flayed are another CGI moment, albeit a painful one. The first raindrop of the storm that visits Golgotha when Jesus dies is another such moment. The subterranean Hell in which Satan writhes and thrashes is a bit too reminiscent of what we see in movies like "Spawn" or the caverns in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." (Strangely, Gibson's vision of Hell contained no flames, from what I saw of it.)

Gibson also has a childish affinity for slo-mo camera work, something I've never appreciated because (1) I think he overuses it, and (2) he uses it at inappropriate moments. This was true in "Braveheart," which featured far too many Mel Gibson beauty shots for my taste (I imagine you ladies would beg to differ). While I understand why Gibson chose to focus so intimately on Jesus' suffering, I don't think Gibson needed slo-mo to make his point. Slo-mo can be cool and even subtle when used the right way, but slo-mo in a didactic context is about as subtle as a cudgel.

Hats off to Gibson for trying to evoke the period, though: the sets, the costumes, the cinematography-- they all form a magnificent whole. The same goes for the actors, who speak their lines in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin. Many scholars believe Jesus would have known several languages given the amount of trade that probably passed through and around the Galilee region. In Jesus' case, Latin is a toss-up, but he's likely to have known koine Greek, the Greek spoken by traders, along with vernacular Aramaic and the liturgical Hebrew that would have been his birthright. Not all the actors appeared comfortable with foreign languages, but I thought Jim Caviezel did a great job with one of the most difficult dramatic roles for anyone, that of Jesus. His Jesus is gentle, compassionate, and evokes sympathy. Caviezel's Jesus is also a strong rebuttal against the charge of filmic antisemitism because Gibson, whatever his flaws, is careful to remind us that Jesus was Jewish-- a point often overlooked by Christians through the ages.

It was a nice-- if strange-- touch to have Jesus speak in Latin with Pilate when they were alone. I didn't catch it from the Korean subtitles, but I heard Pilate ask Jesus, "Quid est veritas?" What is truth? And I think I understood the Latin when Jesus said his reign wasn't earthly.


What about that Satan figure, eh? And how about that lovely, hairy Satan-baby? Satan-baby makes an appearance during Jesus' scourging; the same midget who plays the baby is seen earlier in the movie as a demon-child tormenting Judas. In that scene, I was strongly reminded of Peter Jackson's vision of Smeagol.

Satan's presence at this point in the gospel narrative is completely unscriptural; I have to assume Satan was added in either for dramatic effect, or because Satan figured in the visions of the mystic AC Emmerich. In the gospels, Satan's big moment is when he visits Jesus in the wilderness to tempt him.

But Satan makes dramatic sense in this film, whatever the theological reasons might be for his/her presence. Gibson's Satan is quiet, menacing, and androgynous. This Satan is usually depicted standing in the background, which is reminiscent of where you'd find spiritual powers placed in some medieval morality plays. Did anyone see the "Battlestar Galactica" miniseries on the Sci-Fi Channel? Remember the blonde Cylon in the tight/evil/sexy red dress who keeps appearing to Baltar? It's the same effect.

You realize early on that this figure is Satan and not someone else: s/he appears at the very beginning of the film, a sneering witness to Jesus' agonized moments of prayer. A maggot crawls out of one of the Devil's nostrils, then back in. Satan's evil is associated with death, physical and spiritual; with decay, corruption, and filth. As Jesus is brought to his knees by the force of his dilemma, Satan smells victory and releases a snake from his/her robes, which crawls toward Jesus. But Jesus finds himself, and with firm resolve, smashes the snake with his heel.

Quick theological aside: Jesus, like the Buddha, has many names and titles given to him by scripture and tradition. The one most relevant here-- and this is why Satan's presence makes dramatic sense for the movie-- is Second Adam. Jesus is undoing the primordial damage done by Adam in the Fall when he accepted Eve's apple. Here, in Mel Gibson's Gethsemane, we see traditional theology unconventionally realized: Jesus is in a garden just as Adam was; Jesus encounters a serpent just as Eve did-- but, unlike Adam, who succumbs to temptation, Jesus emerges from the encounter victorious. Adam and Jesus represent open and closed parentheses bracketing humanity's low state as unredeemed creatures.

Satan plus Satan-baby are an obvious counterpoint to Mary and Child (even though the movie never shows us the Christ-child). There's a moment when Jesus, bearing his cross, is being tracked by Mary, who's following his progress along the Via Dolorosa. Mary looks across the crowd and sees Satan. A staring contest between two mothers begins. Gibson leaves no doubt that the cosmos is at stake.

Gibson's Judas is a downright pitiful figure, an image suggested by the scriptures. The movie symbolizes this by portraying him as hounded by demons in various forms: the frightening CGI demon which we see for a split second under the stone bridge, then the demon-children who pursue Judas to the tree from which he hangs himself.

The scriptures contain apparently contradictory accounts of what happened to Judas. Most people are familiar with the gospel narrative, in which a remorseful Judas hangs himself (Matt. 27:5). But did you know that, in the first chapter of the book of Acts (written by the same person/people who wrote Luke), Judas is said to have fallen headlong into a field, "and... he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out" (Acts 1:15-20)?

So: did Judas hang himself or did he explode?

Donald Sensing stitches the passages together to suggest that Judas hanged himself, but that the tree branch snapped and Judas "fell headlong" into the field and splattered. I think Sensing's interpretation is supported by other theologians, but the scriptural evidence is by no means conclusive. Personally, I veer toward the "contradiction/inconsistency" school of thought on this.

Explosion or not, Judas is one of those characters in the gospel drama who gets my sympathy and makes me think about questions of fate and freedom. God's plan, if you believe in such a thing, seems to have included evil. Jesus can't go to the cross without other people helping him to set events in motion.

As for Sensing and his stitching together of biblical passages... this is a tried-and-true narrative technique, and Gibson does it as well. Many religious dramas conflate scriptural events. If you've ever watched a church Christmas pageant, in which both wise men and shepherds appear and surround the manger of the baby Jesus, you've seen a fusion of the birth narrative from Luke (shepherds) with the birth narrative from Matthew (wise men). Gibson's handling of the moment of Jesus' death tosses the gospel of Mark completely aside in favor of a combination of Luke and John.

Luke 23:44-46--

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun's light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Having said this, he breathed his last.

John 19:28-30--

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished." Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Gibson does the John moment first: Jesus says "It is finished," and bows his head. Then Jesus lifts his head up and says to the skies, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit." Jesus dies with his head unbowed, his eyes open (pupils dilating, as noted before).

Anyone who wants to portray the crucifixion dramatically is stuck with l'embarras du choix: Each gospel has a different take on Jesus' final moments. Mark's account is the most wrenching: Jesus' final utterance is a scream.

Mark 15:33-38

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o'clock Jesus cried, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah." And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down." Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

[Matthew offers an account similar to Mark's, but with the addition of the graves being opened, and the dead ("saints") coming to life and preaching.]

I think Gibson made decent dramatic choices, here, in how to portray Jesus' final moments. I suppose some might argue that picking and choosing creates a distortion of the various gospel accounts. There's truth in that claim, but remember that we all interpret while we read. No one is exempt from the charge of picking and choosing: some simply choose to recognize that they do it, while others refuse to be so honest.

I already covered the Catholic reasons underlying Gibson's choice to portray Jesus' suffering as graphically as he did. If you're not a Catholic, those reasons will probably be meaningless to you (I encourage Catholic readers to write in with corrections or elaborations; I'm no expert in sacramental theology). I don't agree with Andrew Sullivan's repulsed reaction to Jesus' torture. To me, it wasn't "pornographic" as Sullivan uses the word. Much of the Korean audience I was with was in tears, men and women alike. They weren't morbidly fascinated by every gouge and stripe on Jesus' tortured body. For myself, maybe I wasn't as repulsed as Sullivan because I'm a gross dude with a high tolerance for cinematic gore. Who knows?

Nevertheless, one dramatic element was simply too much: the eye-pecking scene, in which a crow lands on the cross of the unrepentant criminal after he's spouted his invective against Jesus, and pecks one of his his eyes out. The scene involved more of those heavy-duty sound effects and a good deal of blood spatter. I had to wonder whether Korean censors cut out a quick glimpse of the eye actually being removed; as it stood, the scene showed a lot of pecking and blood-spurting action, but no actual eyeball. Can any "Passion" viewers in the States confirm whether or not an eyeball made an appearance on American screens? Hey, don't look at me like I'm weird. I'm just curious, is all.

Gibson made the choice to focus on Christ's Passion. The internal logic of the Passion narrative doesn't allow us any time to focus on Jesus' earlier ministry, which is why Gibson provides us with no more than a few glimpses of it. So I reject the complaints of the critics who felt they were left at sea: there really wasn't any way around this problem. Either you're familiar with the Passion story and can relate to it, or you aren't and you can't. Gibson wasn't about to waste time doing expository narrative to establish situation and character. The images leap out at you or they don't.

Gibson provides us with barely 60 seconds devoted to Christ's resurrection. We see the tombstone rolled away (by whom? we don't know); the camera pans around the inside of the tomb; we see an empty shroud deflating, as if a body had just magically disappeared from within it; we see a clean, unflayed, resuscitated Jesus stand and walk out; as his right hand passes the camera, we see a huge nail hole in it-- the Stigmata. Fade. Ending credits. If Gibson's a pre-Vatican II Catholic, then he'd have no reason to pay much attention to a fifteenth Station of the Cross. The resurrection is just icing on the cake, baby.


Was this a good film? Yes, it was. I came away... entertained, if not exactly enlightened. Was this a great film? No, I'm sorry, but it wasn't. I attribute most of the problems to Gibson's directorial style. I don't blame the actors, props people, cinematographers, or even AC Emmerich and her bizarre visions. No; whatever artistic flaws the film has are entirely Gibson's responsibility. Beyond that, you're dealing with scriptural questions and Catholic theology, not Gibson.

Was the violence numbing? Yes, it was, but I had to wonder whether that kind of torture-- the beatings, the flayings, the crown of thorns, the castigation, the nailings, and the crucifixion-- might not in some way be numbing in reality. I have no desire to find out, of course, so I'll leave this in the hypothetical, where it belongs, and be thankful that I can type these words from the convenience of my humble Seoul abode, fat and happy and quite uncrucified.

I was impressed by a moment during the crucifixion when Mary, on her knees in misery, grabs handfuls of earth. It was a moment of cinematic inter-referentiality for me: I was reminded of Willem Dafoe's Jesus in "The Last Temptation of Christ," down on the ground at Gethsemane, grabbing handfuls of earth and giving us the Gnostic-sounding utterance, "This is my body, too."

Another touching performance was from Jarreth Merz, the actor who played Simon of Cyrene, the man who is made to bear Jesus' cross with him. Simon goes from wanting nothing to do with Jesus to looking into the man's eyes and seeing the suffering of a fellow human being. Simon helps Jesus bear his cross, reassures him that "we're almost there" as they approach Golgotha, and screams in anger at the Romans who taunt Jesus.

Pontius Pilate was something of a puzzle for me. His encounter with Jesus, their conversation about "What is truth," wasn't really scriptural. Pilate was portrayed a bit too compassionately for my tastes. Scholars tell us the man was probably foul-tempered and quick to send people off to execution, not the pensive philosopher we see in Gibson's retelling.

A lot of people seem to approach this film as if it were a religious experience. The line between art and religion has never been clear, so maybe that's appropriate for some people. For me, Gibson was too Gibson-ish, and this kept me conscious of the fact that I was watching a movie. That's a shame, because Jim Caviezel, as Jesus, puts his heart into this performance.

Was this movie showing us high or low christology*? There's evidence for both, I think: Jesus utters the high-christological "it is accomplished" and doesn't scream (Jesus' final utterance in Mark is a scream), but the brute fact of Jesus' mortal suffering is the entire point of Gibson's movie, which skews more toward low christology. The union of the two is very Catholic. For Gibson, and for Catholics in general, there's no dualism to be found in Jesus' suffering, death, and resurrection.

When I compare this film to other Jesus-related films, like "The Last Temptation of Christ" (a movie that's grown better with age for me), I find it wanting, but Gibson's "Passion" also has its good moments. As I mentioned before, the bond between Jesus and his mother is poignant. Mother and child offer us some of the best moments of the film: Jesus was somebody's son; a mother suffered with him. Simon of Cyrene is also touching, and while the Satan character is a jarring presence, s/he makes dramatic sense. I think that, if you're undecided about Gibson's movie, "The Passion of the Christ" is worth a single viewing. For myself, I don't think it merits a second viewing. One time was plenty.

Now go and sin no more!

[*These are terms referring to different conceptions of Jesus, with low christology focusing on Jesus' humanity, and high christology focusing more on Jesus' cosmic, christic nature. In John, when Jesus says "It is finished" right before dying, this is a high-christological moment: this is a Jesus who planned everything, knew everything. Compare this to Mark's death scene, in which Jesus screams and then dies. It's a low-christological moment: the Jesus on the cross here is very human. Another high-christological moment is the beginning of John's gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us full of grace and truth."]

UPDATE: Just to post a correction: Mel Gibson's Hell does include flames, but they're well-behaved and don't dominate the scene.


Anything Goes Wednesday I: The Prolapsed Rectum Story

QUICK REMINDER TO THE UNOBSERVANT: Check the bylines of the posts. Recently, two of my guest posters, Smallholder and the Air Marshal, have been slapping up some entries on this blog. The Air Marshal just posted two entries below this one; give them a read. Meantime, please don't get us all confused. Look at those bylines if you're not sure why post X doesn't sound like the normal style.

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I wish I'd written the following story, but I'm not a medical professional. I might be able to write such a story after doing a bit of research on why assholes pop out, but my story still wouldn't have the ring of truth, and would probably feature a lot of projectile diarrhea and people humping sheep.

Julie's a cyberfriend from my early years as a dickhead on AOL, back when I was writing humor essays. I've never met her in person, but she's been nice enough to send pics of her family. She's a very talented writer, and by all rights she should be blogging. If she ever did a blog devoted to the woes of medical professionals, it would kick serious ass. And speaking of ass, Julie sent me this story, a comic rendition of an actual experience, just yesterday (it's Wednesday in Korea now, you see). Enjoy.

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[NB: Julie, like Annika, doesn't capitalize the personal pronoun "I." I was tempted to "clean this up," but have decided to let it stand. I think that, for both Annika and Julie, this I-reduction is being done for humility's sake, a bit like how Koreans use the humble pronoun jeo to lower themselves (as opposed to the not-so-humble pronoun na), but I've never totally agreed with the practice: because it's out of the ordinary, it seems to call attention to oneself, not deflect attention. But then I'm a raving egomaniac, so what the fuck do I know, right?]

True story.

One night at the Methodist House of Old Dying People Who Tithed Enough Not to Get Into Heaven, But to Get Into the Methodist Retirement Home, i was working a long-term contract agency gig (like, two years, but that's another story) when Seth and Barry, my Backseat Boys, came to my desk. Seth is my lifelong bodyguard - 24, 6'4, 250, black hair, blue eyes, cute as a bug and affianced to a very tolerant young lady. Barry is 6'1", 26, blonde, scruffy guitarist, eternally red-eyed, and a bit slow on the "whatevers," but adores me. Anyway.

"Julie, we have a thing in Louise and Bob's room."

I have seen many things in my day, but as it was two in the morning, I said "Well, fix it," and went back to my Playgirl Centerfolds: Nursing Home Aides 2002 issue.

"No, Julie, dude, man, I am totally serious, we have, like, a total situation in there," said Barry in his "Mark from Empire Records" voice. Seth just smirked, so i figured Seth knew something Barry didn't. That's why Seth is a Senior Nurse Tech and Barry is just Barry.

"Seth, what do you know that Barry doesn't?" i asked boredly, looking up from Mr. July, a hot hunk with an, er, catheter at least ten inches long in hand.

Seth grinned.

"Louise's ass fell out again."

"Well, put it back in."

"No, dammit. You're the charge nurse, you put it back in. I get paid, like, eight bucks an hour to kiss your pansy ass all night so you can look at Mr. July? No way, babydoll. You get your hot redheaded little butt in there and put Louise's asshole back where it belongs!" Seth was obviously feeling snotty.

"Or what?" I exhaled, boredly.

"Or I'm not going to go to the kitchen and fix your goddamn watercress sandwich and drive to Hillbilly's on my break to get that guy to make you French toast for breakfast, and you'll have to smoke your own damn weed because I won't give you half my stash."

Barry got all wise and chimed in: "Yeah. I won't fill up your car or buy your Perrier, either."

Well, hell. That settled it. Marionville, Missouri, has water that tastes like sulfur. I have to have my Perrier. The Hillbillies guy had to stock it for me, over by the gas tanks that spell "H-O-W-D-Y" as you turn into the cemetery. They work it that way so you go through the cemetery and past the Methodist church to get to the Methodist Manor, where good Methodists go to die. I am a bad Methodist, but they contracted me anyway because i am a kick-ass dominatrix, i mean charge nurse. Anyway.

I huffed and hmphed and flounced, but the boys had me. I couldn't just leave poor Miz Louise, the wife of a kinky-as-fuck retired minister, with her rectum hanging out. I wandered down the hall.

"Gloves," I said. Seth handed me my size sixes, special order itty bitty, double layer.

"Lube," I said. Barry made like he was gonna spit, nearly got slapped, and squirted a fair amount of k-y onto my gloved fingers.

"Covers," I said. The boys together approached Louise's bed.

"Louise, honey, " I said, quietly, "what happened? Are you all right?"

"Goddamn Bob fucked me in the ass again and the whole thing fell out," Louise muttered.

"Does it hurt much?"

"Not with that little peckerwood," Louise spat at Bob's side of the bed, "But it's damn inconvenient when you've got to get up and take a piss to have your asshole in the way."

"Well," I smiled, "I'm here to fix that for you. You sure you're not in any pain?"

"I'm fine, just go on and put it back in," Louise griped, as well she should have.

I pulled the covers back to find about eight inches of rectum and lower colon emerging from her pallid eightyish buttocks, hemorrhoids a grape-bunched crown of glory for the wifely duties she'd endured for sixty years. The inside-out organ was slick with what i could only assume to be Bob's marital fluids, although a small amount of inherent bowel matter was visible.

Seth brought me a small basin and some saline, which I had Barry warm, and I rinsed the inside-out rectum, then lubed it gently with something a bit more sterile (or not.. Bob prolly hadn't had any swimmers for years) before asking her to take a deep breath and literally using my fingers to manipulate the sausage-casing bowel back up into her body, where it belonged.

I doffed my gloves, tossing them into the trash bin Barry was holding, his eyes averted.

"You okay there, Louise?" I grinned, knowing she'd be fine, now, her duty done and her rectum all properly placed.

She snored contentedly in reply, and another night of my work was done.

I went to the sink to scrub, and sent the Backseat Boys on their way. "Finish that bedcheck, and then go get me my damn Perrier and sandwich," I flounced.

They hopped to it. I love those boys.

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Later today, I'll have my "Passion" review up. Stay tuned.


Tuesday, April 20, 2004

To me, Richard Cohen is the Tony Kornheiser of political columnists... though I don't always agree with him, he's frequently insightful, and often just plain funny.

He has a good article on Bob Woodward, the new book, and President Bush's motivation for war.

Best Friends

Check out our Allies now!

Any time I think we're getting truly principled on foreign relations, I think of Saudi Arabia. Any time I see Bush talking spewing forth about doing the right thing even if it's hard, I remind myself that this administration, like Clinton and Bush Sr., and RR etc. are buddies with the Saudis.

The war on terror is a farce if we don't deal in some way with the Saudis. Remember, this is a nation that makes girls burn alive because it's the moral thing to do. More about the above story here. Here is Testimony before Congress on the incident, and in the interests of full disclosure, here's what the Saudis have to say.

As the father of a little girl, I can't get past this culture's view on women. To me, the misogynistic nature of Saudi culture, and it's medieval treatment of human rights make Saudi Arabia an abomination. Throw in it's two faced support of radical terrorists, and you have one of the most dangerous regimes on the planet.

I know Max Leader has two wonderful little girls... BH's God-Daughter and my God Daugher. I'm curious to know his take on the Saudis.

Tuesday Worldfarts

Can Dr. Burgess-Jackson have gone soft!? He writes a post titled "Let's Get Out," in which he argues:

This may not sit well with my conservative friends, but I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that the United States should pull its troops from Iraq. This in no way undermines my belief that the war was justified. I believe toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and punishing him for his horrific crimes was more than adequate as a justification. I’m a retributivist. Criminals must be punished.

But nation-building? That’s another matter. We shouldn’t be building nations. Deep in his bones, President Bush knows this. Indeed, he said as much during the 2000 presidential campaign. Let the Iraqis take over. If they botch it, they botch it. They will prove that they don’t deserve liberty. I’ve heard estimates that the United States will be in Iraq for five to twenty-five years. That’s too long. We should get out by the end of 2004, if not sooner.

I don't know. I don't think we can afford to pull out. My main objection when I hear liberal cries for a pullout is that Iraq will collapse and become worse than it was. I see no reason to trust that Iraq will do well on its own, right now, with matters as they are. I think that people like Steven Den Beste, who have thought the matter through and concluded we need to have a presence in the Middle East for the next couple decades, are right.* We gave ourselves this project; we were mostly behind the war when it happened (readers of this blog know I was against the war, but not for pacifistic reasons), and we have to see it through. Whatever the debates may have been regarding the existence or nonexistence of links between Iraq and terrorism before the war, those debates are now as academic as the more general pro-war/anti-war debates. Starting with the observable facts, then: we're there. Iraq is unstable. Iraq is now a haven for terrorists and other parties who fancy themselves resistance fighters. Future action should be predicated on present facts.

[*NB: I also think SDB and other conservative/pro-war apologists have out-thought the President on this. I think those conservatives are in for a big disappointment if/when Bush proves his doctrine isn't nearly as insightful as they've made it out to be. For the record, I think most of the conservative defenders have been right about where we need to go from here and how Iraq relates to the bigger picture. But I think their attempts at second-guessing Bush have been in vain, which is why so many conservatives are expressing varying degrees of disappointment in how the Iraq war/crisis is currently being handled.]

KBJ writes:

Ah, you say, what if another Saddam Hussein rises to power? That could happen. We’ll have to deal with it if and when it does. But it might not happen, and we needn’t assume that it will.

Surely you jest, sir. Iraq is, if nothing else, a great example of that metaphysical bugbear, Murphy's Law. I have implicit trust in this law as it pertains to Iraq. All the people who've used some form of the "hydra's head" analogy have a point: we're dealing with a multipronged, multidimensional threat. I foresee a new Saddam. That, or chaos in Iraq, with Saddam-like puppet masters in countries like Iran and Syria pulling the strings. Either way, there will be larger guiding forces, inimical to our interests, at work in the Middle East, and by extension, elsewhere. If nature abhors a vacuum, then trust that the power vacuum in Iraq will be filled. Better for it to be partially filled by us and by engaged, hopeful, industrious Iraqis than by the darker forces.

KBJ says further:

Our toppling of Saddam should have a deterrent effect on other tyrants, in and out of the Middle East.

Libya seems to be a happy example of this. But is Iran? No: Iran might collapse because of a citizen's revolution as angry pro-democracy students and intellectuals get fed up with their lot. But the current Iranian government doesn't seem to be tilting toward anything like Qaddafi's capitulation. If anything, it's acting entrenched and obstreperous. Maybe a pro-democracy revolt in Iran is effectively the same thing as a governmental capitulation (I wouldn't seriously argue that, though), but my point is that, as far as we can tell, there's been no real "deterrent effect" on the Iranian government, which can look over at the kid-glove treatment we give North Korea and be reassured. Iran is also made safer by the fact that, should we mull an attack against it, a war-weary American public will cry out against such an attack. As bin Laden and his cohorts know, American indecision is their best friend.

One thing that confuses and disturbs me about KBJ's attitude is the apparently sudden abandonment of the Iraqi people, whose misery provided the moral ammunition for those who argued that the war against Saddam was justified. This is a topic unto itself, this question of the moral justification for the war. I was never convinced by it. As I've repeatedly contended on this blog, the moral argument isn't sufficient by itself: it needs to be propped up with other, more relevant arguments, like national self-interest. I'm not implying that national self-interest can't be moral; to be clear, my feeling has been that national self-interest has always been the more honest argument for war in Iraq. But what I think I'm hearing from KBJ is:

a. War was justified because the Iraqi people were in misery. That in itself is enough to justify our war (and I think a trip through KBJ's archives will provide evidence for this argument).

Followed by:

b. War was justified, but if the Iraqi people prove unable to govern themselves, fuck 'em.


I can understand, to a certain extent, how compassion has limits. I'm not a believer in boundless compassion because I don't think it's humanly possible, even if it's ethically/morally desirable. But KBJ's reversal strikes me as coming way too soon in the game. It's also a reversal that seems based on dubious reasons, more about feeling than thinking.

What is KBJ advocating when he says, "...should have a deterrent effect"? Grant KBJ's contention that we're not good at nation-building, or grant the further (American conservative) argument that we're not good at empire. So in the case of Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries, we should do... what? Invade them and wreak havoc every time they show hints of becoming threatening, then leave with no plans for rebuilding? Why not make it simpler and reconfigure the targeting of our nuclear missiles and hold all these places hostage? To wit:

"Not another peep out of you, or all your major cities get turned into a sheet of glass."

This would be consistent with the undertone of KBJ's post. Such a threat would leave it up to Middle Easterners to govern their own behavior-- to "play nice with others," as one of my friends with a young daughter puts it. A clear list of "trigger issues," i.e., things that could get a country nuked, could be distributed throughout the Middle East, with the final item being "the United States is the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a trigger issue," thereby leaving Muslim countries no room to interpret those issues in their own favor. If the people of those countries chose to defy the United States at that point, why, we'd just nuke the fuck out of them because they obviously don't deserve to live lives in freedom. Maybe that would quiet the other nations and make them think twice about misbehaving!

This, too, would be consistent with the implied Texas "fuck 'em" of KBJ's post. His post and my analogy beg the question of the nature of our care and compassion for the people of the Middle East. In what are they rooted, this care and compassion? I'd say that KBJ's post shows pretty clearly that they're rooted in national self-interest, conservative ideology, or something along those lines, not in some conditionless humanitarian (or some sort of deontological) standard. That's fine by me; I can live with national self-interest as a reason for war and can respect ideological arguments, but it makes the original moral argument dishonest, in my opinion, because the original argument was framed by so many people with such subtlety-free righteous anger. The truth? It was never as simple as "the Iraqi people are suffering, and that's reason enough-- period." I submit that that argument has been BS from the beginning. If the Iraqi people's suffering is that important, no one should be willing to re-condemn them to slow death under new oppressors, or slow death through national chaos. No one. Keep in mind that such condemnation guarantees the deaths of the innocent along with the guilty-- which is pretty much what the pre-war situation was.

Well, I thought I was going to give you a roundup of other bloggers, but I've got to finish my "Passion" essay for tomorrow.