a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew


Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th April 2005

“WE’RE THE POPE!” That was the idiotic German tabloid “Bild” headline just over a week ago when Ratzinger was installed as pope. In the online edition, it was right over a picture of an attractive lady in front of a car suggestively headlined “I’ll show you my airbags” — a keepsake for the ages.

Anyway, German blogger Malcolm Bunge (“eye said it before”) was so overcome with joy that he started a movement of WIR SIND PAPST! pictures and photoshops:

Shave the words “WIR SIND PAPST!” on your cat, decorate Grandma, paint the house walls, show Ratze how happy we are!

The response was overwhelming. If you’ve read this far, you know 99% of the German you’ll need.

Favorites nevertheless requiring some translation: 30 (top of linked page)–“I’m pope. And my wife is pope, too!”; 56 –“Your eminence is looking dazzling again today!” (attached to bathroom mirror); various: “Ich bin sowas vom Papst” — “I am so very the Pope”. Favorite requiring no translation: 94–The Incredible Papst from Outer Space. Very creative use of aluminum foil, I think.

The story has made it to the newsweekly SPIEGEL now — and “Bild” is making lemonade with a new headline: “A headline becomes a cult!” (Via Jens Scholz)

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Ratzinger’s words

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th April 2005

The new pope is not one to mince words, it seems. Among other things, he has described homosexuality as an intrinsic moral evil.” Spoken like a true and loving shepherd of souls — but as a non-Catholic, that can’t be my concern.

What can be my concern is Ratzinger/Benedikt’s status as a world leader with pretensions to moral authority. In his musings on homosexuality, he allows that it’s a shame when homosexuals are violently persecuted, but adds

But the proper reaction to crimes committed against homosexual persons should not be to claim that the homosexual condition is not disordered.

When such a claim is made and when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behavior to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.

In a recent sermon, Ratzinger specifically challenged the world to turn away from the dictatorship of relativism … that recognizes nothing definite and leaves only one’s own ego and one’s own desires as the final measure.”

Well, I’ll try to rise to that challenge. I’m tempted to excuse Ratzinger’s willingness to brand thousands and millions of human beings as evil because of their sexual orientation. He has long-held beliefs and doctrines that he, in his weakness and pride, has confused with the will of God. He may be a nice man other than that. He may even be kind to dogs.

But I’ll pay Mr. Ratzinger the respect of avoiding that kind of relativism. Instead, I’ll say unequivocally: this is a man whose cruel outlook on homosexuality calls into question the very moral judgment he is presumed to embody. Such views do not deserve respect or emulation by the civilized world. Nor does their author.

Of course, that may change. Maybe Mr. Ratzinger’s new job will inspire him to surprise Catholics and the rest of us with fresh, sane views on homosexuality, or priestly celibacy, or birth control, or the ordination of women, or social justice, or the spread of AIDS. In that spirit:

Gott schenke dir Weisheit, Liebe, und Barmherzigkeit, Benedikt XVI!
Sie haben es noetig. Wie wir alle.

EDIT, 4/22: Second Ratzinger quote expanded (“But…claim is made and” added, “consequently” replaces “…”) for completeness, blockquoted for emphasis.

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Those rule-bound suckas

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 20th April 2005

Publius (he thought he was out, but they pulled him back in) preaches the Word, and the Word is Good:

If I’m recalling my Sunday School classes correctly, Jesus’s whole point was to emphasize love and tolerance, and to show the ridiculousness and spiritual bankruptcy of blind adherence to a rigid set of moral codes long since divorced from the more basic values of love, forgiveness, and tolerance. The hapless Pharisees – those rule-bound suckas – were always the butt of Jesus’s jokes.

Whether you’re a Christian, atheist, or anything in between, if you actually sit down and read the four Gospels, I suspect you’ll see that Dobson fits the role of “Pharisee” pretty well. He’s everything that Jesus opposed. That’s why it’s so utterly ridiculous for him to claim the mantle of the values of love and tolerance espoused in the Gospels – values that do not, by the way, require a belief in the divinity of Jesus or even in God at all.

Publius seems to be starting “PhariseeWatch.” Good for him. If you’re like me, you’ll need a refresher on the relevant New Testament passage: Luke 18: 9-14.

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Brass Crescent Awards

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 7th January 2005

Aziz Poonawalla is hosting a “Brass Crescent Awards” contest, with categories for best Muslim blogs, best Iraqi blogs, non-Muslim blogs (criterion: “most respectful of Islam and seeks genuine dialog with muslims“), best posts, and the like. Drop by! I’ll nominate “ideofact” for non-Muslim blogger, and look forward to learning who — besides Aziz — people think are the cream of the Muslim blogging crop.

nominations thread

UPDATE, 1/10: And the nominees are…
UPDATE, 1/17: And the winners are…avari/nameh (best blog, best writing, and best post: Explaining the Mideast to the Midwest) and many others.

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Jesus didn’t turn people away

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 4th December 2004

Neither does the United Church of Christ: “No matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey, you’re welcome here.” There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? I finally saw the ad tonight — Josh Marshall has been writing about the controversy it’s sparked all week.

It’s really a beautiful ad, a tremendously good thing, especially now somehow. I almost wanted to join them myself. I’ve gotten a little too used to thinking very poorly indeed of American Christianity lately. May God bless them, they have certainly restored a little of my faith.

And may the rest of us question and heap scorn on the shriveled executives of Viacom* and NBC for refusing to air this decent statement of acceptance for such transparent, pathetic, cowardly reasons as these:

Because this commercial touches on the exclusion of gay couples and other minority groups by other individuals and organizations,” reads an explanation from CBS, “and the fact the Executive Branch has recently proposed a Constitutional Amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, this spot is unacceptable for broadcast on the [CBS and UPN] networks.”

A dead center response by Reverend Robert Chase, the UCC director of communication ministry:

We find it disturbing that the networks in question seem to have no problem exploiting gay persons through mindless comedies or titillating dramas, but when it comes to a church’s loving welcome of committed gay couples, that’s where they draw the line.

Yep, can’t have that. The banner phrase of the United Church of Christ campaign is interesting in its own right: “God is still speaking,” punctuated with a comma, not a period — i.e., “God has yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word,” in the earnest church version, or the more down-to-earth “Never place a period where God has placed a comma,” by comedienne Gracie Allen. A welcome antidote to preening, hateful “moral values” elsewhere.

* Viacom owns the CBS and UPN networks.
UPDATE, 6/19/09: UCC links corrected or changed, where possible, to ones currently illustrating the theme.

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Department of Anything Goes

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th September 2004

From Republicans Admit Mailing Campaign Literature Saying Liberals Will Ban the Bible, by David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times:

In an e-mail message, Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, confirmed that the party had sent the mailings. “When the Massachusetts Supreme Court sanctioned same-sex marriage and people in other states realized they could be compelled to recognize those laws, same-sex marriage became an issue,” Ms. Iverson said. “These same activist judges also want to remove the words ‘under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance.”

(via Mark Kleimann) Here’s a look at the mailing, provided by Steve Clemons’ “The Washington Note” site. Remember: anything goes! At least if it’s for the Lord or the Republican Party — after all, what’s the difference? While applauding the G.O.P. lie for its possible future truthfulness, one deeply religious fellow did express some reservations. Again, the Times report:

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, argued, “We have the First Amendment in this country which should protect churches, but there is no question that this is where some people want to go, that reading from the Bible could be hate speech.”

Still, Mr. Land questioned the assertion that Democrats might ban the whole Bible. “I wouldn’t say it,” he said. “I would think that is probably stretching it a bit far.”

Meanwhile, NBC’s Tom Brokaw compounded the problem by reporting the mailing — and then solemnly parroting the justification for the lie with a straight face. Brokaw’s summary, via Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting:

The Republican National Committee now has acknowledged sending mass mailings to two states that say liberals want to ban the Bible. Republican Party officials say the mailings in Arkansas and West Virginia are aimed at mobilizing Christian voters for President Bush. Some Christian commentators say liberal support for same-sex marriage could lead to laws that punish sermons denouncing homosexuality as sinful.

Oh. Well, then I guess it’s OK. No, wait, how about an extra sentence: Everybody else agrees it’s typical Christian right/GOP crap. Now that would have been fair and balanced!

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A good conversation

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd May 2004

In mid-March I wrote about Philip Pullman’s thought-provoking, skeptical fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials — and a thought-provoking review of Pullman’s work by none other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Pullman and Williams are both such literate, engaging people that I was pleased to learn they were scheduled to have a conversation about the topics raised by the books, the resulting play, and the bishop’s review.

Via Interfaith Nunnery, I was finally able to read the transcript of that March 17 conversation, and it was quite as interesting and enjoyable as I’d anticipated. Naturally, much of it revolved around questions of faith and spirituality (for lack of a better word), but in a remarkably friendly way for two people as different as Pullman and Williams. Yet there was some interesting common ground. As “Sister Andrea” writes:

What Pullman and Williams seem to be doing here — despite their varying theological positions — is rewriting the Fall as a non-negative (and, for Pullman, at least, positive) construct in order to match religion to the world as they understand it.

Another interesting line of discussion was about the paranoid/conspiratorial, “debunking” elements of today’s culture:

[Pullman]: …The word that covers some of these early creation narratives is gnostic – the Gnostic heresy, as it became once Christianity was sort of defined. The idea that the world we live in, the physical universe is actually a false thing, made by a false God, and the true God, our true home, our true spiritual home is infinitely distant, far off, a long, long way away from that. This sense is something we find a lot of in popular culture, don’t you think? The X-Files, you know – “the truth is out there”. The Matrix.

Everything we see is the false creation of some wicked power that, as you say, is trying to pull the wool over our eyes, and there are many others. Can I just ask you a question for a minute? What do you put this down to? The great salience of gnostic feelings, gnostic sentiments and ways of thinking in our present world? What’s the source of that, do you think?

[Williams]: Well, let me try two thoughts on that. One is that the human sense that things are not in harmony, not on track, can very easily lead you into a kind of dramatic or even melodramatic picture of the universe in which somebody’s got to be blamed for that.

So, “we was robbed”, you know, “we have been deceived”. It should have been different, it could have been different, so salvation, or whatever you want to call it, then becomes very much a matter of getting out from underneath the falsehood, pulling away the masks, and that’s tremendously powerful I think, as a myth of liberation.

The description Pullman gives of Gnosticism seems to fit Catharism pretty well, too, I think (a mediaeval — and brutally repressed — Christian creed I mentioned in my March piece). Other parts of the conversation were interesting to me as well; this segment reminded me of the Gatto “Against School” article I wrote about last fall:

[Audience question]: Question from a fellow atheist who is appalled by the materialism of this society – how would [Pullman] recommend children develop spiritual life?

[Pullman]: I don’t use the word spiritual myself, because I don’t have a clear sense of what it means. But I think it depends on your view of education: whether you think that the true end and purpose of education is to help children grow up, compete and face the economic challenges of a global environment that we’re going to face in the 21st century, or whether you think it’s to do with helping them see that they are the true heirs and inheritors of the riches – the philosophical, the artistic, the scientific, the literary riches – of the whole world. If you believe in setting children’s minds alive and ablaze with excitement and passion or whether it’s a matter of filling them with facts and testing on them. It depends on your vision of education – and I know which one I’d go for.

[Williams]: I think we’re entirely at one on that, I must say.

And others were just funny:

[Pullman]: Which leads us to Mel Gibson. Have you seen that film?

[Williams]: I haven’t seen it.

[Pullman]: Nor have I, so we can talk about it! That’s all right.

[Williams]: We’re allowed opinions without the constraints of reality!

Anyhow, if you’re up for a break from ugliness, spin, dishonesty, and shouting matches, have a look at this conversation.

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Preemptive absolution, Al Qaeda style

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 18th April 2004

A month ago, I mentioned Philip Pullman’s great fantasy trilogy “His Dark Materials.” In the final book, the “Church,” fearing that the heroine will commit heresy, sends out a priest to assassinate her. The priest has undergone “preemptive penance” as part of his training:

Preemptive penance and absolutions were doctrines researched and developed by the Consistorial Court*, but not known to the wider Church. They involved doing penance for a sin not yet committed … so as to build up, as it were, a store of credit.

From Thursday’s New York Times: Spain Says Bombers Drank Water From Mecca and Sold Drugs

“The leaders of [the] operation, evidently concerned about the effects of their plot on their souls, ‘swallowed holy water from Mecca,’ [Spanish Interior Minister Acebes] said, adding, ‘They met periodically to carry out purification acts that would legitimize the committing of acts that could offend Islam.'”**

Of course, this kind of thing guts any pretense to moral authority of the “beliefs” such criminals hold: to say that yes, something is bad, but some variety of ritualistic hocus-pocus absolves you of blame in advance is to simply say “I can do whatever I want whenever I want to.” That they don’t see that themselves is part of the end stages of the psychological, or if you will the spiritual disease, that afflicts them, whether they are nominally Muslim, Christian, or something else.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, as Pullman can seem to suggest, that religion itself is simply a lie dressed up as a priest, or that churches or religious orders inevitably prefer self-preservation to moral idealism. But as the Archbishop of Canterbury implied in a (surprisingly favorable) review of Pullman’s work, the story is on to something else: people who seriously fear the death of their own religion or God are capable of the greatest crimes to avert that fate — however illogical the prospect may seem. Both the stakes and the rewards seem infinite, while the boring demands of everyday morality seem petty by comparison.

I think much more should be made of of the profoundly unIslamic and faithless elements of Al Qaedists’ own beliefs and actions. Al Qaeda can, should, and ultimately must be discredited in the Islamic world, on Islamic grounds. People who drink Mecca water to make their crimes go away in advance shouldn’t just face prison or death on the battlefield (although that’s a good start). They should also become objects of derision and contempt among the true and moral followers of the creed they’ve forsaken.

* In Roman Catholic usage, the word “consistory” itself turns out to mean “an assembly of cardinals presided over by the pope for the solemn promulgation of papal acts, such as the canonization of a saint.” The Catholic Encyclopedia provides a detailed account of the term, showing that these assemblies were once an integral part of the Catholic Church in helping manage ecclesiastical affairs, but now seem to be more or less ad hoc congresses of the principal cardinals of the church. In his use of the term, Pullman imagines an organization that resembles the Dominican order and its Inquisition. The term has also been used elsewhere; for example, “Consistorial Courts” in the Church of Ireland were charged with administering wills and the like, and may thus have also achieved a degree of worldly power.

** The wikipedia entry for Mecca says that “The water of [the Meccan well] Zamzam is believed to have special properties. Few pilgrims return from the Hajj without a large plastic bottle of Zamzam water.” An Islamic web site, “Soundvision,” says that Zamzam water is believed to have medicinal and even nutritional value, but makes no mention of conferring absolution from future sins.

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Missions from God

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 19th March 2004

KnopfVia the ever-interesting Interfaith Nunnery, I was fascinated to read that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has written a quite remarkable review of His Dark Materials, a play based on the book series by Philip Pullman.* The play is apparently quite the rage in London. If it’s half as good as the books, I can imagine why: reading them was a genuinely exciting, provocative, and fun reading experience for me, I can’t recommend them enough.

His Dark Materials is a fantasy trilogy** set in an alternate but in some respects recognizable world where a “Church” with otherwise unspecified theological leanings is cast as a ruthless, near-Orwellian ruler of England and Europe. From an early aside in the first book (The Golden Compass):

Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church’s power over every aspect of life had been absolute. (chapter 2)

That’s by no means the only or even the most interesting aspect of Pullman’s world — my vote there would go to the daemons and the daemonless panserbjorne. But it’s an integral part of Pullman’s polemic about religion, which is skeptical to put it mildly, and hostile not to put too fine a point on it.

Williams’ review, though, is such a neat reply to Pullman that … I may re-read the series. From his conclusion:

A modern French Christian writer spoke about “purification by atheism” – meaning faith needed to be reminded regularly of the gods in which it should not believe. I think Pullman and Wright [who adapted the books to the stage –ed.] do this very effectively for the believer. I hope too that for the non-believing spectator, the question may somehow be raised of what exactly the God is in whom they don’t believe.***

It was in the course of developing this response that Williams said something that really interested me:

But what kind of a church is it that lives in perpetual and murderous anxiety about the fate of its God?

What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. […]

What would the Church look like, what would it inevitably be, if it believed only in a God who could be rendered powerless and killed, and needed unceasing protection? It would be a desperate, repressive tyranny. For Pullman, the Church evidently looks like this most of the time; it isn’t surprising that the only God in view is the Authority.

An especially threadbare, embattled, vicious one might look like Al Qaeda. Williams’ question reminded me of Paul Berman’s discussion, in Terror and Liberalism, of Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual forefather of Al Qaeda. Berman describes Qutb’s reaction to the ‘catastrophe’ that the Islamic Caliphate — the rule on earth by the Prophet’s successors — had been ended by the secular Turkish state. Qutb believed that this portended the worst,

“a final offensive which is actually taking place now in all the Muslim countries… It is an effort to exterminate this religion as even a basic creed, and to replace it with secular conceptions having their own implications, values, institutions, and organizations.” (Berman, ch. 4)

Cobbling together Islamic and European reactionary thought, Qutb called for a “vanguard” of the faithful, charged with waging jihad against false Muslims and outside corruption alike. And, in time, the calling to desperately defend an almighty god twisted itself into a worship of death for its own sake. Qutb, on martyrdom and jihad:

“But the death of those who are killed for the cause of God gives more impetus to the cause, which continues to thrive on their blood. Thus after their death they remain an active force in shaping the life of their community and giving it direction. It is in this sense that such people, having sacrificed their lives for the sake of God, retain their active existence in everyday life…

There is no real sense of loss in their death, since they continue to live.” (Berman, ch. 4)

A philosophy like this would be tailor-made for self-appointed prophets with a taste for blood and divinely based power. Enter, years later, Bin Laden and Zawahiri, and their authority via ever-greater acts of terror as jihad.

Christianity could of course be equally murderous when it considered itself threatened. Consider, for instance, the fate of the Cathars, a Christian sect in Southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Catharism was brutally repressed by Pope Innocent III’s Albigensian Crusade and the beginnings of the Inquisition. At Beziers alone, at least 20,000 were massacred, Cathars and Catholics alike. (When the fate of the non-Cathar inhabitants was protested, the attending papal legate famously said, “Kill them all. God will know his own.”)

These kinds of examples might serve as the nucleus of a counterpoint for Mr. Pullman: one may wish religion were about Faith and Morality, but in practice it often turns out to be about Authority instead — and Authority “on a mission from God” to boot.

Pullman’s books are about more than that: protecting childhood, the (desirability of an) afterlife, and what might be called the virtues of materialism are all themes. The trilogy’s title comes from Book II of Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Chaos Umpire sits,
And by decision more imbroiles the fray
By which he Reigns: next him high Arbiter

Chance governs all. Into this wilde Abyss,
The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave,
Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire,
But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt
Confus’dly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless th’ Almighty Maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more Worlds,
Into this wild Abyss the warie fiend
Stood on the brink of Hell and look’d a while,
Pondering his Voyage …

Mr. Pullman and the Archbishop had a public discussion of His Dark Materials on Monday. I’m with Sister Andrea: that’s a discussion I’d have loved to attend.

* As “Sister Andrea” writes, there are spoilers in the review — all but inevitable, given the reviewer — so handle with care.
** The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass
*** Judging by his speech of a week earlier, Williams means Olivier Clement, a French Eastern Orthodox theologian. The idea of “atheism as purification” can also be traced to Simone Weil (via Naked Writing). According to some, Weil’s beliefs and death echo those of the Cathars.
**** (Whoa, heavy! Couldn’t resist. — ed.) Via “His Dark Materials [an unofficial fansite]”

PS: I’d be remiss in not pointing out Michael Chabon’s review of “His Dark Materials” in the New York Review of Books, and Gary Farber’s interesting discussion of same. Gary also mentions the Archbishop’s review, and was also impressed with Williams. I also should say that for detailed, knowledgeable discussion of Sayyid Qutb, you should visit Bill Allison’s Ideofact blog.

UPDATE, 5/2: More, based on the transcript of the Pullman-Williams conversation.

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Den of thieves

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 27th February 2004

  • Each 10 oz. mug comes in a matching gift box and makes a perfect gift to share your passion for Christ. Dishwasher safe. Microwavable.
  • leather/pewter
  • no scourges or whips currently in stock.

    (via Tyler Cowen)

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