Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

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The Venus Transit, Rational Christianity, and Fornicating Gods

5 June 2012
The solar transit of Venus – when the planet gets between the earth and the sun, doing so only twice a century – isn’t eliciting much attention in the news today.  That wasn’t the case in 1769, however, when inspired Europeans invested enormous sums of money and energy sending scientists to the edges of the earth.  Those scientists were to write down the exact times Venus entered and left the sun’s field.  By taking one measurement and comparing it to a measurement taken in, say, Tahiti, a mathematician could use parallax to determine the distance of the earth to the sun.  As it turns out, explorers Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks were there in Tahiti at the time to take those planetary measurements.
 
Knowing the distance between the earth and the sun was a big deal in 1769.  Having that kind of knowledge meant humankind could peer into the heart of God’s created order.  Scientists and philosophers became something like gods in the process.  Discoveries like the distance from the sun to the earth (93 million miles, if you must know) did much to spur on the Enlightenment – an explosion of rational thought that, when taken as a religion, mutated Christian orthodoxy into deism and pantheism.  Anglicans like Cook and Banks would venture far from their doctrinal roots.
 
Not that everyone was busy rationalizing Christianity.  For Joseph Banks, basking in the Tahitian sun, there were things more interesting than planetary transits and metaphysics.  His journal says remarkably little about the astronomical observations but plenty about island culture.  He writes that after the transit he partied with a a local chieftain, and shortly thereafter came across some particularly easy women who were effortlessly coaxed into his tent.
 
So much for godhood.
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Edward Hitchcock on Rocks, the Feminine and Immortality

26 April 2011

Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), noted geologist, theologian and president of Amherst College, has become, like so many of the lesser polymaths of the nineteenth century, mostly forgotten.  When his name does come up, the lingering Darwinian debates are usually the occasion.  But Hitchcock himself was a fascinating figure – not to mention surprisingly accurate as a scientist – as Nancy Pick uncovers in her delightful book, Curious Footprints: Professor Hitchcock’s Dinosaur Tracks and Other Natural History Treasures at Amherst College (Amherst, MA: Amherst College Press, 2006). 

I too wish to  investigate a new dimension of Hitchcock here: that he was very much a man of his age with regard to his evaluation of femininity.  The dedication to his wife in The Religion of Geology and Its Connected Sciences (1854), read in context of the entire book, identifies femininity as a positive, spiritual force able to lift one beyond the vicissitudes of the natural, physical realm.  Through his wife, Orra, Hitchcock finds romantic resources to understand death as good, and to reassert the value of geology for theological argumentation.

(For those of you wondering, no, I am not related to this particular Prof. Hitchcock.  And yes, I know it smacks of vanity to study authors with the same last name.  Sue me.)

Hitchcock’s bears his heart in The Religion of Geology, not least in its dedication wherein he hymns the virtues of his wife:

Both gratitude and affection prompt me to dedicate these lectures to you. To your kindness and self-denying labors I have been mainly indebted for the ability and leisure to give any successful attention to scientific pursuits. Early should I have sunk under the pressure of feeble health, nervous despondency, poverty, and blighted hopes, had not your sympathies and cheering counsels sustained me. And during the last thirty years of professional labors, how little could I have done in the cause of science, had you not, in a great measure, relieved me of the cares of a numerous family! Furthermore, while I have described scientific facts with the pen only, how much more vividly have they been portrayed by your pencil! And it is peculiarly appropriate that your name should be associated with mine in any literary effort where the theme is geology; since your artistic skill has done more than my voice to render that science attractive to the young men whom I have instructed. I love especially to connect your name with an effort to defend and illustrate that religion which I am sure is dearer to you than every thing else. I know that you would forbid this public allusion to your labors and sacrifices, did I not send it forth to the world before it meets your eye. But I am unwilling to lose this opportunity of bearing a testimony which both justice and affection urge me to give. In a world where much is said of female deception and inconstancy, I desire to testify that one man at least has placed implicit confidence in woman, and has not been disappointed. Through many checkered scenes have we passed together, both on the land and the sea, at home and in foreign countries; and now the voyage of life is almost ended. The ties of earthly affection, which have so long united us in uninterrupted harmony and happiness, will soon be sundered. But there are ties which death cannot break; and we indulge the hope that by them we shall be linked together and to the throne of God through eternal ages (iii-iv).

Hitchcock finds in his wife virtues much in line with anyone concerned with doing the science of geology: she “portrays” and “renders” nature through her artwork, which came with great “labors and sacrifices.”  She has no similitude with “female deception and inconstancy.”  Instead, just like the natural order itself, she has divulged her secrets and been reliable, even as reliable as the clockwork of the geological record itself. 

More outstanding, in my analysis, is Mrs. Hitchcock’s super-natural virtues: that she provides cheering counsel, that she relieves her husband of cares, that she makes geology “attractive to the young men,” drawing them to the beauty of the earth by graphical portrayals.  Her devoted love has been so trustworthy that Prof. Hitchcock finds in his wife a basis for immortality.  Just as he looks through the geological record to find God, so he looks through his wife to discover the “ties which death cannot break.”  In her and with her and beyond her lies the truth of the spiritual realm, the eternal frontier of the kingdom of God.

Trepidation in the face of death could very easily be understood as the real theme of The Religion of Geology.  Hitherto Hitchcock’s literature was more plainly apologetical, following William Paley’s program of natural theology to defend Christian doctrines like the existence of God, the veracity of Genesis as pure historical fact, and the reliability of the scriptures in general.  His apologetic continues in The Religion of Geology, but something has changed.  He writes the book in his advanced age; medical problems have forced him to look not at, but beyond fossils and sedimentary layers in order to find assurance of eternal life.  The secrets of geology, when divulged, should reveal the goodness of God.  But for Hitchcock one brute fact manifests itself contrarywise: the history of the world has been a history of death.  That our own physical deaths will have been preceded by billions of prior deaths suggests the great counterfactual to the goodness of God and His creation.  The harmonization of the perfect benevolence of God with the existence of evil on earth “is the grand problem of theology” (248).  Where is God’s purpose in the repeated extermination of every life form on earth?  More to the point, Where is God’s purpose in the dissolution of the Hitchcock family?  Death appears to vaunt itself as the great Dis-order in the midst of divine Order.

Hitchcock cannot draw a line between death and God’s goodness.  So with regular intervals in The Religion of Geology, he appeals to a sort of transcendent reasoning, claiming that humans in their fallen condition would not be perfectly happy in a perfect, deathless world.  That kind of world would be the greatest torment.  Instead, God brought evil upon the creation in its natural state, giving humans “a world as is adapted for a condition of trial and preparation for a higher state, when both mind and body would be delivered from the fetters that now cramp their exercise” (110).  Geology can only suggest this; faith must claim it.  In this case the physical realm points beyond itself, indeed, against itself, to yield the spiritual reality.  “Death shows us that we shall ere long be introduced into a second act, and affords a presumption that other acts-it may be in an endless series-will succeed, before the whole plot shall have passed before us,” claims Hitchcock.  “And if thus early we can catch glimpses of great benefit to result from these evils, what full conviction, that infinite benevolence has planned and consummated the whole, will be forced upon the mind, when the vast panorama of God’s dispensations shall lie spread out in the memory!” (111).  Who will deliver Hitchcock from his body of death?  Oddly enough, death itself must rescue him from him from death.  Only the physical enemy itself is the savior, the “essential means of delivering this immortal being from his ruin and misery” (248).  In this way Hitchcock adopts the common but perverse logic of Christians of the Victorian period. 

But to the point: Returning to the dedication to his wife, Hitchcock’s words about the “female deception and inconstancy” having been turned to “cheering counsels” in his wife make more sense.  Femaleness as such does not reflect the spiritual.  Rather, her inner, spiritual, feminine resources have made her into a glorious creature.  United to her in love, knit to her feminine consolations, it is impossible for Hitchcock to imagine anything but immortality.  His wife is nature’s secret: that beyond death, beyond deception, beyond the womanly body, there is eternal life.  “Early should I have sunk under the pressure of feeble health, nervous despondency, poverty, and blighted hopes, had not your sympathies and cheering counsels sustained me,” says he.  She has delivered him thus far, and she will guide and accompany him to his heavenly home.   She patches the death-gap between creation and revelation.  Verily, through her feminine talents she illustrates for him the secrets of the created order. 

At first glance it seems strange that so passionate a dedication to his wife would accompany Hitchcock’s commentary on geology.  I suggest that the book hardly makes sense without the dedication.  In his wife the aged professor finds a feminine spirit through whom he can acknowledge the goodness of God in the face of death.  He finds a woman in whom nature’s corruption is revealed to be nature’s means to immortality.  Indeed, Mrs. Hitchcock frees her husband to again laud the religious value of earth science:

Misunderstood or misinterpreted though this science has been, [geology] now offers her aid to fortify some of the weakest outposts of religion. And thus shall it ever be with all true science. Twin sister of natural and revealed religion, and of heavenly birth, she will never belie her celestial origin, nor cease to sympathize with all that emanates from the same pure home. Human ignorance and prejudice may for a time seem to have divorced what God has joined together. But human ignorance and prejudice shall at length pass away, and then science and religion shall be seen blending their parti-colored rays into one beautiful bow of light, linking heaven to earth and earth to heaven (177-8).

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Athanasius: A History of the Black Dwarf

7 July 2010

As if it were not enough that Athanasius of Alexandria was exiled time and again, an evolution of insults has followed the beleaguered fourth-century bishop.  What is pretty certain is that Julian called him “not even a man, but a common little fellow.”   Since then historians have extrapolated on his diminutive size, and speculated about his race.  The Gentle Exit, a blog, documents the odd, fairly recent historical developments which led to Athanasius being misremembered, scorned and valorized as “the black dwarf.”

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Praying to the Virgin… in a Manly Way

3 April 2010

Even as a practicing Roman Catholic, David Calvillo had felt for years that praying the rosary was for old women.  But for men?  Manly men? 

Then, at a retreat, he went through the 59 beads (53 “Hail Marys” and six “Our Fathers”) with a large group of men.  It changed his attitude, and now he is trying to change other men’s minds about the vital importance of praying to the Virgin Mother. 

Calvillo, himself an accountant (and champion of his fantasy football league, he is quick to mention), encourages men to take up their rosary as part of the solid platform for being a godly man.  Praying to Mary, rather than being a capitulation to feminine power, is actually “a weapon of spiritual warfare” to help men overcome their temptations (Wall Street Journal, 2 Apr 2010, A5). 

Catholic men are taking notice, sometimes trading in their unused, feminine beads for newer, manlier ones.  One man has made a rosary out of ball bearings.  One manufacturer has come up with novelty designs for boys, including a rosary with football-shaped beads.  Calvillo, who himself has been known to use an iPhone rosary application, sells products and encourages this masculine subculture on his web site, RealMenPraytheRosary.org

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Coming to Die Like a Man

30 November 2009

Yesterday, November 29, marked the season of Advent, the Christian holiday in which one anticipates the coming of the Messiah.  Because it looks forward to Jesus Christ’s final coming to deliver the world and raise the dead, Advent calls for a time of lament, grief, prophecy, and hope.  Because Advent is able to remember the time leading up to the first appearance of the Messiah, it is also a season of memory, promise, and joy. 

For Christian tradition, the Christmas season does not begin until December 25.  Accordingly, my absolute favorite album for December is Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson.  Most of the songs on the album are Advent songs, recalling the (broken) covenants of the Old Testament, and how they converge in two insignificant Jews named Mary and Joseph, and ultimately in an impoverished little boy named Jesus.  The whole album is bookended with a wonderful chorus based out of Philippians 2:

Sing out with joy for the brave little boy
Who was God, but He made Himself nothing
Well, He gave up His pride and He came here to die like a man

God is brave! – when men are cowards.  God is humble! – when men have spurned the covenant with their pride.  The mystery of God’s incarnation in this man Jesus Christ blows apart every category, including what it means to act “like a man.”

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Karl Barth: The Alpha Male Years (1886-1911)

20 August 2009

In tandem with this year’s Karl Barth Online Conference, I have provided an attenuated, early “masculine biography” for those interested in this man, who was clearly the greatest theological mind of the last century.  Why a masculine biography?  Because, frankly, the guy wrote so little about men and masculinity.  It’s more relevant to my blog this way – and yes, folks, it’s all true.

red pastor

Karl Barth was born in 1886 in Switzerland, descending from a long line of pastors and tobacconists.  His siblings describe him as a completely dominant older brother, using anything they did as grist for his mill.  A troublesome child, “Karli” came to head a local street gang of boys, and wreaked havoc at school and in the neighborhood. 

Though raised and catechized in the Swiss Reformed church, the closest thing Karl experienced as a conversion was in the pages of Immanuel Kant, the renowned philosopher.  He was remarkably like his father in his theological outlook.  Nevertheless, Karl rebelled against the more conservative, “positive” elements, and so studied under the master of biblical criticism, Adolf Harnack, and the pious systematician, Wilhelm Herrmann. 

Known as “Skinny” to his peers, young Karl took up heavy drinking and smoking as some of his chief activities while in college.  A member (and ultimately president) of the group Zofingia, he can be found in the club picture next to the beer keg.  He didn’t have much of a stomach for dealing directly with abject poverty, yet championed progressive socialist causes, for which he earned grudging respect from his mates.

Finally came ordination, which was not without a little tension, considering his un-liberal father was leading the ordination service.  Karl ruled the roost at his first church, at least after the senior minister left for greener pastures.  For the first and only time in his life, there at Geneva he was unrivaled in his male dominance, if only because there was hardly a man to be found in the pews.  Attempts at controversies – denying the bodily resurrection of Christ, preaching socialist causes, etc. – hardly phased the congregation or the regional parish.  He did, however, snag a 17 year-old hottie out of his catechism class as a fiancee.

Then, in 1911, he moved to his new post, an electricity-less village called Safenwil.  While the militaristic rubberstamping by his theology professors of the Kaiser’s war effort would rupture Barth’s religious hubris, his manly pride was buckling before that: there he was as a sophomore preacher in the middle of nowhere, daily confronted by the holy scriptures, and living with Fräulein Hanna and her host of cats.

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“Jesus Is the Big Guy”: Power Force Night

17 August 2009

Sometime back in the early nineties I remember seeing pictures about an organization called Power Team, a traveling group of hypertrophied Christians smashing bricks, lifting absurdly heavy things, and ripping phone books in half. Even at that time I felt conflicted. Isn’t the kingdom of God a matter of power? Yes. But isn’t the 1:1 parallel between physical strength and spiritual strength a little, well, crude? Add to the skepticism my growing awareness about religious forms of male posturing.

John JacobsSo when I saw a sign advertising their arrival in my hometown, I attended their recent performance more out of interest in identifying men’s issues than for the possibility of spiritual edification. But as it turned out, I got a serious helping of both. My family and I arrived at Church at the Gate (Sioux Falls, SD) a good fifteen minutes late, by which time the church had been packed out. Parking had been extended onto their lawn. Inside the church mayhem had broken out, volunteers shuffling children to the appropriate nursery area, church members trying to set up seats in the foyer as quickly as possible. It was our good fortune that an usher took hold of us and placed us in the last two seats available in the sanctuary – which happened to be the front row. A band had just finished leading a few raucous worship songs, and a leader had stepped up to rile the crowd with a raffle drawing for insignificant gift cards. The crowd, nearly half of them minors, had little interest in the prizes, but were amped by the packed audience. Notably, the one good prize the church gave away, a Nintendo Wii, was given back by the girl who won it; she explained that she already had one and wanted someone else to have it. That alone should have convinced me that the Spirit of God was brooding over the place.

HickeyFinally, Steve Hickey, the pastor of Church at the Gate, stood up to introduce the main act. Pastor Steve’s pasty white visage was a marked contrast to the behemoths about to take the stage, something he highlighted by ripping his button-down shirt open to reveal another shirt, air brushed with bodybuilder’s muscles. The self-deprecating humor was disarming – “My wife told me maybe I should cut a few strings first…” – but I recognized in him a trend in many charismatic churches, the way pastors and teachers are conscious of masculine standards, and often seek to meet them by incorporating manly language and themes into their ministries. Such leaders teach the art of spiritual warfare. They claim and exercise authority over the earthly and heavenly realms alike. They instruct men on how to be good husbands and fathers. While women are often given “stronger” roles and religious expressions too, the categories of power are especially gendered towards men. Where so many Protestant churches are just now beginning to organize attempts at re-masculinization, charismatic and Pentecostal pastors have been charting these waters all along. More on that later.

The pastor introduced the act. Formerly called Power Team, they now have the more cumbersome name, John Jacobs’ Next Generation Power Force. Jacobs came out, an imposing figure of 270 pounds of muscle that overshadowed his agedness. With him was John Eskridge, a former linebacker with the New England Patriots, and – shocker here – a woman by the name of Kathy Bertram.

Crap. There goes the men’s studies element.

Or maybe not. John Jacobs began explaining what they would be doing that night and also why they put on these performances. He assured us that we would be impressed. But we were not to marvel at these things too much. “I’m not the big guy,” Jacobs asserted with all soberness. “Jesus is the big guy.”

Bending SteelThe spectacle that ensued was impressive. Bertram broke a baseball bat on her knee, bent a bar of steel around her body. Eskridge lowered pick axes down to his eyeballs multiple times. There was the tearing of a phone book, ripping of license plates in half, rolling up a frying pan Power Force Esklike a tortilla. Keep in mind that these guys are the small ones on the Power Force squad. The kind of affection and support within the group was also impressive. Events a member couldn’t complete would be taken over by another: “That’s what Christians do; we help each other.” I thought there was great respect shown between the men and Bertram, who treated each other as genuine peers without pretending that one’s sex was invisible.

Towards the end Jacobs roped pastor Steve Hickey back into things. He was to have an unopened can of soda smashed on his forehead. It’s one thing to talk like a man – show us you’re a man, pastor! After much build up, a team member drove a can of Sprite onto the his forehead, blowing the can in half and spraying all of us in the front row. The right reverend seemed alright, if a little dazed.

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If only ordination ceremonies could integrate such hazing.

Interspersed throughout the night were the team members’ testimonies. Bertram shared how her devastatingly low self-esteem from her unpleasable father landed her in a psych ward as a suicide victim. She experienced a radical, life-altering encounter with Jesus Christ there. Eskridge shared how ministering in Christ’s name has been truly fulfilling, and in total contrast to the selfish, idolatrous culture into which he found himself sinking in the NFL. (Those two testimonies, my wife and I agreed afterward, were enough to cut to the heart of any teenager.) John Jacobs finished the night with one of the most arresting messages I’ve ever heard. He spoke about his conversion as a child, the miraculous physical healing he experienced, the thousands of people he has seen saved from utter hopelessness through the Power Force ministry, exorcisms he himself has witnessed.

PF6The amazing thing was that for all the spectacle of that evening, all the physical stunts and rhetorical displays, the Power Force stayed the course. Everything led back to Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected. As someone who has spent some time in the midst of numerous revivals, crusades and rallies, I want to assure you that this is no common or easy thing. Speakers usually devolve into emotional manipulation. Stunts and charismata become the object of attention. But this group had an unmistakable gravitational core in the gospel.

The night finished out as all evangelistic crusades do. During the closing prayer an invitation to receive Christ as one’s Lord and Savior was issued. With all eyes closed, Jacobs asked people to raise their hands if they were making a decision of faith. Then, the prayer concluded, Jacobs turned it into an altar call, asking people to demonstrate the decision they just made by coming forward. Everyone on stage had shown courage and risked themselves. Now it was the new converts’ turn. “I’m going to say it South Dakota style,” Jacobs quipped. “This is where the men are separated from the boys.” Muscles don’t make the man. Instead, the courage to confess Jesus publicly becomes the touchstone of Christian masculinity.

The music sounded, and a mass, perhaps over a hundred people, flooded forward. As with every crusade, there were plenty of souls who were clearly converted years earlier (e.g. the boy in the t-shirt that said “Jesus has reserved MySpace in heaven”). It’s hard to pass up getting saved all over again. Even so, if only one of five were making first time commitments, it was a considerable harvest.

The new converts were led out to the foyer, and everyone was dismissed. My wife and I, a little winded and a little sticky from the soda, were finally able to weave our way out, past the splintered wood and ripped phonebooks and bent steel. Could it be that people met the strong arm of Jesus Christ here? Did God show up in this whirlwind?