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Sunday, May 08, 2016

Tubers vs. grains

This article argues that societies that ate roots/tubers (potatoes, manioc, yams, etc.) got as many nutrients as societies that ate grains, but had fewer reasons to develop complex societies (because grains can be stored in large quantities and are easily stolen). Hence, potatoes and other tubers were a "curse" to societies like the Caribbean Taino that relied on them for food.

I question this language of "blessing" and "curse." The assumption seems to be (if the theory is right) that developing a complex, hierarchical society is a good thing. Certainly it has led to many good things--and to many evil things.

It might be more accurate to say that the curse of tuber-eating societies is contact with grain-eating societies. The Taino weren't cursed by their manioc. They were cursed by the Spaniards.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp--in which I take the opposite view from Winston Churchill

According to Roger Ebert's review of the 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Winston Churchill once demanded of Anton Walbrook, the Austrian refugee who plays a German officer in the movie, "'What's this film supposed to mean? I suppose you regard it as good propaganda for Britain." Walbrook supposedly responded, "No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell the people such unvarnished truth."

I'm not quite sure what to make of this story, given my own reaction to the film. Perhaps it means that I'm a hardened anti-war cynic driven to folly by my fear of being naive, and that the reaction I want to have (which is basically Ebert's reaction) is the right one. Or perhaps it's testimony to the depravity of moral sensibility on questions of war, violence and nationalism prevalent in the 1940s.

The fact is that after watching the film (one I've wanted to see for years), I would be inclined to answer Churchill's ironic question with an unironic, "yes, of course I do--it's excellent propaganda for Britain, and I only wish it were true."

Colonel Blimp portrays its central character (who confusingly is not called Blimp but Miles Candy, eventually becomes a general, and does not die in the course of the movie) as an affectionate caricature of a British military officer. In the opening frame sequence he is an elderly, mustachioed general mocked by a young Home Guard officer for his attachment to a gentlemanly way of warfare whose time is  long past. The bulk of the movie describes Miles Candy's life over a period of forty years, beginning in 1902 when he goes impulsively to Berlin to squelch rumors about British atrocities in the Boer War, in which he has just earned the Victoria Cross. The film takes for granted that the stories are false, and plays on the irony of the Germans of all people being outraged by stories of atrocities. One of the more interesting and subtle suggestions in the movie (stated baldly and in a naive way by Candy's wife as a suggestion that there's "something wrong" with the Germans, but hinted in more sophisticated ways elsewhere) is that German militarism and ruthlessness were in part the product of inexperience. German idealism and high culture leave the Germans ill-equipped to deal with actual warfare (in the 1902 sequence a German officer tells Candy that he envies the British because they have military experience, while the Germans know war only in books), and they quickly become savage. The British, on the other hand, have steeped themselves in a code of military behavior that protects them from slipping into savagery, but at the same time disadvantages them over against the enthusiastic ferocity of the Germans.

In the film, Candy draws entirely the wrong lesson from the First World War, concluding that it had been won by British fair play and honor over against German ruthlessness and leading a whole table of well-placed British gentlemen in generously assuring a former prisoner of war (his friend and successful romantic rival Theo Kretzschmar-Schuldorff) that Britain will help Germany "get on its feat again." Theo shakes his head over this naivete, reflecting to himself that it will give Germany a chance for revenge. When we next see Theo, in the 1930s, he is seeking asylum from the Nazis and ruefully remarking that he understands Nazi militarism as a recovering addict understands drugs. Theo, and many other characters, berate Candy for his naivete and warn that if Britain refuses to use the same methods as the Germans, then the Germans will win and there will be nothing but "German methods."

Candy, then, can be seen as a romantic hero who represents an older British way of warfare, hopelessly inadequate to modern conditions but at the same time deeply lovable and admirable. But the film is more complex than that, as its portrait of Candy's private life shows. His first love, Edith, marries Theo (because Candy's not in touch enough with his feelings to figure out that he's in love with her until it's too late) and years later he marries a much younger woman who reminds him of her. She dies fairly soon (after about seven years of marriage if I have the film's chronology right), and at the end of the movie he is employing a young female driver who again resembles his lost love strikingly (it should be made clear that there is no hint of a sexual relationship in this last case). All three characters are played by Deborah Kerr, a move that reminds me of Meg Ryan's similar turn in the underrated Joe Vs. the Volcano and, more relevantly and disturbingly, of Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo. Candy's obsession with finding a lookalike for Edith, like the "makeover" scene in Vertigo, seems to indicate that his "romanticism" has something deeply unhealthy about it. The film sums up large stretches of Candy's life, before his marriage and after his wife's death, by montage sequences in which the heads of wild animals appear one after the other on blank space in his "den." In a particularly creepy moment, he shows off a picture of his dead wife to Theo in order to demonstrate how much she looked like Edith--and the picture is enshrined in the midst of the animal heads, as if it were another trophy.

So taken as a character sketch, the film is an ambivalent and deeply engaging work of art, giving us a figure whom we can't help loving even as we recognize that he has a strained relationship with reality.

But from a political and moral point of view, the more ambivalent the portrait of Candy the more disturbing the film's underlying message becomes, because the alternative to Candy is pragmatic ruthlessness, a determination to do whatever it takes to win and to beat the Germans by their own methods.

Most nations like to tell about themselves a story something like this: "We are good, honorable people who are always being beaten by other people because the other people are more ruthless than we are. This is our greatest fault and we need to correct it by becoming just as ruthless as our enemies. That's too bad--it will mean that we lose something very quaint and sweet and precious--but it's necessary to preserve what really matters in our way of life, and since we are such nice people who don't want to be mean we really don't need to worry that we will go too far." This film, it seems to me, tells a story very much like that. Walbrook's "unvarnished truth," which offended Churchill, turns out to be, "We British are unfailingly honorable except when we reluctantly see the light of common sense and do what has to be done."

Apart from its moral problems, the story isn't historically accurate. The British did, in fact, commit atrocities in the Boer War. They herded women, children, and Africans into concentration camps where thousands of them died of starvation. The Germans were indeed, as the film hints, learning from the British. But the British were their models not only in soldiering but in war crimes. The film also skates over the Treaty of Versailles, giving the entirely inaccurate impression that the nice Allies helped the Germans on their feet after the war only to be stabbed in the back.

If the film were nothing more than war propaganda, this playing fast and loose with history would be unremarkable. But precisely because the film is so complex and compelling, one is left wondering just what Powell is doing here. Is he perhaps giving us a deliberately unreliable perspective, reflecting Candy's subjective view of himself? (Cinematically, some important sequences, including Theo's meditation on British naivete and kind-heartedness, are presented when Candy is offscreen, so it's hard to argue that the whole movie is from his POV.) Is the film saying, "actually the British are not as innocent as they think," and is this lack of national self-knowledge mirrored in Candy's personal life? Maybe. Maybe my first reaction that the film is very sophisticated war propaganda doesn't do it justice. Or maybe it's just a film that, like other great films, takes on a life of its own and thus transcends any "message" the directors may have intended.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is similar in its effect on me to Zhang Yimou's Hero, another film which I found ideologically disturbing but artistically compelling. (No, before you ask, I don't put Birth of a Nation remotely in the same category. It's just racism with great spectacle.) Like Hero, this movie will be with me for a long time.

Since I've focused on the film's ideas and characterization, I should add that it's darn entertaining. Anyone who likes British film and television should love this movie, and anyone who doesn't (if there is such a barbaric person to be found among my readers) should give it a try anyway. If you have made it through watching the characters of Downton Abbey sipping tea significantly at each other for hours on end, Colonel Blimp should be a refreshing change.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The most basic argument against Protestantism

Dave Armstrong at Patheos Catholic has pointed out that early Protestants "detested divisions" and were very concerned to maintain unity.

He's right. The most basic argument against Protestantism, which does not require any particular theological premises about authority, is

1. The Protestants expected and claimed that all Christians of good will ("endowed with the Spirit" as my dissertation subject Martin Bucer would put it) would be able to see that their interpretation of Scripture was correct, and that by unleashing Scripture a renewed and reunified Church would emerge. (It's important to bear in mind that early sixteenth-century Christians saw the Church as divided and fractious, and were looking for _greater_ unity, not less).


2. This didn't happen.


3. Therefore, by the standards of the early Reformers themselves, Protestantism is a failure.


Instead of admitting this, Protestants have spent 500 years arguing either that [visible] unity really doesn't matter or that it will happen if we only get one more bit of light out of Scripture or throw off one more unbiblical tradition.

Of course this is painting with a huge brush. Many Protestants do recognize this. But as a whole, Protestantism tends to take the Reformers as a model either substantively (by trying to follow their doctrines) or methodologically ("ecclesia semper reformanda"/"God hath yet more light to break forth out of His Holy Word") or both. And both of these approaches have proven disastrous.


Guarding our neighbor's pride--yet another response to Morgan Guyton

If I'm not careful this blog will become nothing but a parasite on Morgan's. He raises such good questions in both his blog and his FB comments, and I find myself responding on Facebook at such length as to warrant a blog post of my own. I'll try to blog about other things as well. . . .

Most recently, Morgan has raised the question of how his sense of the need to affirm "queer pride" relates to his theological belief that we need to be willing to "renounce everything about who we are in order to become a Christian disciple."

I think there are two issues here:
1. The question of whether "pride" has the same negative connotation for people (especially but not exclusively people who belong to disadvantaged social groups) whose temptation is to self-contempt as it does for people whose social location and/or psychology make them more likely to be tempted to arrogance.

2. Granted the traditional premise that pride is bad, the paradox arises that humility for me means, in some sense, respecting the "pride" of the other.

I think 1 is resolvable by recovering the fully orthodox Christian doctrine of human nature--i.e., rejecting the Calvinist and to some extent also the Augustinian (though there's a lot of value in Augustine) claim of total depravity. I can distinguish, for myself (though of course it's not easy), the line between affirming my value as a good creation of God (over against the voices in my own head or coming from other people that tell me I'm no good) and a sinful arrogance that lords it over others. I think (and there's plenty of support for this in Augustine and even in Calvin) that a mark of pride in the sinful sense is that it leads us to be abusive toward others. Pride is the chief characteristic of tyrants--which is why, in case anyone reading this should have any doubts, it's always a bad idea to vote for a person who says he has never needed to ask God for forgiveness. Psychologically, I think it's sound to say that pride in the sinful sense is always the result of a lack of confidence in one's inherent dignity as God's good creation. (The promise of the serpent, "you will be like gods," implies that the dignity Adam and Eve already have as God's creatures and stewards of the earth isn't enough--that they are really inferior beings who need something more that the serpent can offer in order to have real dignity.) If you have inherited vast wealth and feel the need to prove to yourself and the world that you are more than just the spoiled scion of privilege, you will be tempted to become the kind of person who is always bragging about being a "winner."

The trickier problem, as I see it, is no. 2. Humility, for me, means in part that I submit myself to the wisdom of the Christian tradition, on sexuality and on other matters. But at times this may involve me in complicity with the abuse of others. I find the Christian (and specifically Catholic) picture of what human sexuality is supposed to look like profoundly compelling, and I find that it speaks effectively to my own potential to abuse others. But I hear the point that Morgan and many others are making that when I, as a heterosexual male, affirm the eternal validity and authority of this ethic, I am contributing to a way of thinking that causes gay people to fall into despair, lose any sense of their dignity as children of God, and in some cases kill themselves.

An issue that touches me more closely is women's ordination. I find it arrogant of me to assert, over against the Catholic Church, that the practice of ordaining only men is theologically flawed (even though my own theological reasoning would lead me to conclude this). But it is more poisonously arrogant of me to affirm, over against my wife and other women who feel called to ordination, that their calling is invalid because a theological system that I find personally compelling says so. The conclusion I've come to with regard to Catholicism is that I can submit my own "intellect and will" to the Church, but not that of my brothers and sisters in Christ (particularly, in this case, my sisters in Christ). 

I don't think there's an easy answer here. I come down on a different place with regard to how this applies to gay people than Morgan does, but I'm deeply conflicted about it precisely because I fear that I'm actually exercising a form of arrogance in trying to be humble vis-a-vis the historic Christian tradition. One of the reasons I find Morgan's presentation of the "pro-gay" case much more compelling than that of many other progressives is that Morgan clearly recognizes the conflict from the other side. 

Friday, May 06, 2016

Romans 1, original sin, and identity

One of the key passages in theological debates over homosexuality is Romans 1, in which Paul appears to label same-sex sexual behavior as an example of the depravity that results from idolatry and human sinfulness generally. Morgan Guyton argues in this recent post that, in fact, the teaching of Romans 1 leads in the opposite direction. One way to make this point, found in this address by the Catholic theologian James Allison, is to argue that Paul is using examples of sexual depravity that Jews would have found horrifying in order to set up the rhetorical "punch-line" of Romans 2. Allison points out that it's pretty ironic to use Romans 1 as an excuse for pointing at some "other" group of people and demonizing them as hopelessly depraved, when that's exactly what Paul is criticizing his Jewish readers for doing in Romans 2. (Morgan makes very similar points in his book How Jesus Saves the World From Us and, implicitly, in this piece as well.) So I'm broadly in agreement with the point Morgan makes in the conclusion to his post:
. . . .since I’ve met too many LGBT people who are plainly not filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice, I have concluded that Paul is not condemning LGBT identity itself in Romans 1. When I was filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice, it was an LGBT church that nurtured me back to health. 
However, agreeing with people is boring. Here's the part I disagree with. Morgan argues in the first section of his post that original sin should be understood as social, not biological. He repeats the common claim that Augustine basically invented this idea based on a mistranslation. (I don't think that's true--Augustine used a questionable translation of Romans 5:12 to support his theology, but I don't think that one verse was the reason he came up with the theology in the first place. I also question whether the weaker pre-Augustinian language of an "inherited stain" should be understood as purely social.) He finds the idea that "people are born wicked" to be "one of the most nihilistic, toxic teachings of pop Christianity."

I wouldn't, myself, say "born wicked." But I would say "born/conceived as sinful beings." I don't think we can reduce original sin to the effects of socialization on us and rule out a "biological" component. I believe that the Biblical and traditional picture of the Fall (human and/or angelic) is that it affects every aspect of the universe as we know and experience it. (See my seven-part blog series on Greg Boyd's "warfare theology," especially this post on Boyd's doctrine of creation. While I focus in that post on problems I have with aspects of Boyd's position--as I said, agreeing with people is boring--I think he makes an excellent claim for the need to invoke the fall of created beings as part of our explanation even of "natural evil.")

Morgan argues that Paul's appeal to a natural knowledge of God in Romans 1 refutes the idea that "we were born with a 'fallen nature' that makes us unable to see and worship God." I agree. This is why I think the Calvinist view of human sinfulness is untenable. Calvin, for instance, argues that people are culpable for not recognizing God even though the knowledge of God in creation is never going to be enough to bring them to salvation, and I find his argument completely unconvincing. Similarly, Morgan argues in the second part of the post that criticizing same-sex behavior but not orientation is a "compromise" reached by evangelical Christians who realize that they can't "pray the gay away." From a Catholic perspective, at least, this isn't true at all. (Gagnon, whom Morgan cites as saying that orientation is sinful, is, again, a Calvinist.) Orientation, while it may be "disordered," is not in itself sinful. In both of these cases, Morgan is setting up a false dichotomy.

The Fall may affect our biology without making us incapable of seeing and worshiping God. It may consist in part of disordered desires which are shaped by culture so as to become part of our identity. We are all affected by this. We all have identities that are, in part, idolatrous. I understand how glib it seems for a heterosexual to say "we're all sinners." And of course the claim that we are all sinners, that all of our desires are disordered to some degree, and that all of our identities are idolatrous to some degree, doesn't necessarily mean that same-sex desire is "intrinsically disordered" (i.e., that a sexual desire for a person of the same sex is disordered by virtue of the sex it is oriented to). But it provides conceptual space in which this is a possibility. I applaud Morgan's reluctance to tell someone else that their sense of identity is wrong. But when I am asked to reject and tear down the historic Christian understanding of sexuality and marriage (and yes, I know many progressives deny that there is any such thing as a coherent "historic Christian position," but I can't address that here) on the basis of someone's sense of identity, my belief that all of our identities are shaped by idolatry is going to make me slow to join in the crusade.

Morgan describes the position of "sexual traditionalists" as being "that LGBT identity is just a fad created by the market, an unnatural desire formed by our skewed frame of reference." I certainly would not trivialize LGBT identity in this way. I do say--and said in a comment on Morgan's FB post a few days ago--that I think the broad cultural framework in which we debate these issues is shaped by what Zygmunt Bauman would call "liquid capitalism." And possibly Morgan had that remark of mine in mind. I was not clear enough in that discussion that I think this shapes all of us--I am not for a minute suggesting that gays are somehow more the puppets of late capitalism than the rest of us. We are all shaped by a culture that bombards us constantly (through advertising, for instance) with the message that we are defined by our unique, unquestionably valid desires, and that these desires (which drive the engine of capitalism) cannot be denied without harming us. 

So yes, it's clearly true that Paul's condemnations do not apply primarily or in their full force to people who are in faithful same-sex sexual relationships. But Paul's portrait of a world mired in idolatry applies to our world of late capitalism as it applied to the world of Greco-Roman paganism. And so when there is a call to change an important part of Christian doctrine and practice, I have to ask myself whether that change will really (as Morgan thinks) move us toward greater freedom from idolatry, or whether it's a move toward a different kind of idolatry. From my perspective, this is exactly why we have the Christian tradition to guide us--not that we accept it blindly or uncritically, but that we allow it to raise questions about the idolatries to which we may be blinded by the mores of our place and time.

But of course, most people who champion "sexual traditionalism" not only do so in a way that is cruel and unjust to gay people (which I may well be guilty of as well, though I try not to be), but abstract it from these larger cultural issues. Conservative Christians seriously seem to think that gay marriage is a horrific threat to society while drone warfare, pervasive gun violence, social inequality, torture, and environmental devastation are all, at most, political issues which Christians should carefully think about while avoiding taking "self-righteous" absolute positions. (That's leaving out the large number of conservative Christians who think that right-wing solutions to these issues are the only "Biblical" ones!). That's one reason why I find Catholic social and moral teaching so compelling--it addresses the whole range of moral issues in a way that cuts across left-right dichotomies. I think that the Catholic Church is wrong about women's ordination, and they may be wrong on sexuality too (or they may turn out to be right about women's ordination as well). I don't think we have certainty about any of this, and I think we should be charitable to each other as we try to work it out.