Selective Reading

While I try very hard not to read or discuss (and certainly not to write about) the current political situation and about the many problems we face that I simply cannot remedy, the following headline and brief story jumped out at me because it has so many ramifications:

What would Jesus do about climate change? According to one self-described Christian, not much.

Conservative pundit Erick Erickson fired off a tweet Wednesday saying his savior called on him to be a good steward for the planet… but that concept doesn’t extend to global warming.

Erickson then sat back in his comfortable easy chair and read the comments that followed his tweet. He was mostly amused by those he felt misunderstood what “stewardship” means. In fact, of course, he is the one who misunderstands what the word means. Given that we are dependent on the earth, on the air and water and on protecting our home as much as we can, the word reflects the obligation this places upon us to care for the earth and seek to preserve it for future generations. This is what “stewardship” means. And if global warming threatens the earth, as it surely does, then it follows that stewardship involves an attempt to curb global warming if at all possible.

I cannot speak about the obligation that Christians, in particular, may or may not have to respect their planet as I can recall no passage in the New Testament that seems to address this topic. But the love we are directed to have for our fellow humans would seem to imply a concern for the planet on which we all live and upon which our lives depend. I suspect the version Mr. Erickson reads is not the one I used to read so carefully.

Once again, we have a “self-described Christian” making it clear that he has his own interpretation of what the Lord has told him to believe and how to act. This is the attitude that has turned so many against the Church even though, by the way, many of Erickson’s fellow-Christians objected strongly to what the man tweeted.  The notion that each of us is privy to the Word of God and can interpret the Bible for ourselves is at the root of many misunderstandings of just what that book says and, even more to the point, what it intends. But when Jesus says that there really are only two laws, that we love our neighbors and that we love God, two things become crystal clear: Love is the main directive of the New Testament and love implies a determination to sacrifice our own pleasures and desires in order to helping others.

There are many ways to interpret the Gospels — and even the four books do not agree with one another in every respect. But the main message is clear and it would appear that it imposes obligations upon us to love one another and this would seem to imply caring for the planet upon which we all depend. But this is not the end to the story because Christianity — in its many guises — is only one religion among many and the messages that are set forth in the many Holy Books of those religions frequently are at odds with one another. But the central message of all of them, it would appear, is that we are not alone on this earth and we must take others into account and do whatever we can to help them when we can and love them if we are able. The notions of hatred and prejudice that many find in such books as the Old Testament, for example, are not to be taken for the heart and soul of the doctrine that all Holy Books, including the Old Testament, preach: care about one another and do not put yourselves first.

Mr. Erickson is deluded and finds in the New Testament a doctrine that supports his desire to ignore global warming. He finds solace in the words he is convinced he reads there. But others are unable to find those words which seem to be in direct conflict with the words that most people do find there. We can only feel sorry for the man while at the same time we can understand how it is that an ordinary man can find support for his biases wherever he is determined to seek it. It is called “selective reading,” closely related to selective hearing. It’s sadly not uncommon.

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Genie Out Of The Bottle

You have doubtless heard about the sex scandal involving the basketball team at the University of Louisville. It is reported (again and again) that for a number of years a woman by the name of Katina Powell procured prostitutes and exotic dancers to attend to the needs and urges of basketball recruits in order to entice them into enrolling in the university. Reportedly this has cost the university “tens of thousands” of dollars and involved numerous high school recruits and their fathers or guardians over a number of years.

This is sensational and the media love sensational stories so it will become the hottest story around —  at least until interest wanes. But the real questions lie at the heart of this sort of thing, because we must suppose that Louisville is not the only school to be involved in doing whatever it takes to win. They are simply the ones that got caught, because Powell wrote a book about it and the police and the NCAA are investigating the reports, which appear to be well founded.  The real question is how this sort of thing can be stopped. And the answer, I fear, is that it cannot be stopped. There is simply too much money involved in Division I basketball and football to put an end to the sordid activities that coaches will resort to the get a “leg up” on the competition. And while  Rick Pitino. the coach at Louisville, has denied any knowledge of these going-on, it beggars belief that the man would not be fully aware of these activities. As a recent Yahoo News story notes:

Pitino has repeatedly denied any knowledge of strippers being paid to dance for or have sex with recruits, but in Powell’s first interview since her book was published, she reiterated to ESPN she finds that hard to believe.

Said Powell: “Four years, a boatload of recruits, a boatload of dancers, loud music, alcohol, security, cameras, basketball players who came in [to the dorm] at will … ”

What will be interesting now will be how Louisville responds. Will the school try to get ahead of potential NCAA sanctions and self-impose penalties or encourage Pitino to step down? Or will it do nothing besides continuing to insist it’s still investigating the veracity of Powell’s claims?

The standard response, of course, is that “everyone does it” and that is supposed to count as moral justification. But, even if true, it does not. I have written about the scandals involving athletes before (some would say endlessly) and this one really doesn’t differ in kind from the rest; it is simply more sensational because of the role played by prostitutes and the involvement of high school students — and their fathers or guardians. Louisville will almost certainly be found guilty as charged. The coach and perhaps the athletics director might be fired and there will be NCAA penalties. Whatever does occur, the whole thing will soon go the way of Ohio State, Penn State, Minnesota, and scores of other schools involved in scandals. It will be forgotten. What matters here is the success of the teams and, of course, the revenue they bring in.

I have suggested in the past that all athletes at Division I universities should be paid a decent salary and treated as professionals. If they then want to attend college they can pay tuition like everyone else. If not, they can spend it as they like and gamble on the remote possibility that they will be selected in the NFL or the NBA and become Professionals with a capital “P.” But this would not begin to solve the problems that surround college athletics because, they involve such huge amounts of money and, as in this case, they also involve young people who aren’t even enrolled at the school. There is simply no way to put a stop to this sort of transgression. The demand for sports on television — where the bulk of the money is generated — is insatiable and the networks couldn’t stop broadcasting the contests even if they wanted to. And, clearly, they don’t want to. They also make huge amounts of money.

Didn’t Jesus warn us all long ago that avarice is the root of all evil? These issues, along with many others too numerous to mention, seem to bear this out. In any event, moralizing aside, the genie is out of the bottle and there really doesn’t seem to be any way to put it back.

Remembering Quixote

In a day in which reading books is rapidly becoming a lost art, it is refreshing to read one great author praising another. I have referred from time to time to Don Quixote, but Joseph Conrad’s tribute is by far the most eloquent I have ever read. It appeared in Conrad’s “Personal Record” of his life.

“. . .Indulgence — as someone said — is the most intelligent of all virtues. I venture to think that it is one of the least common, if not the most uncommon of all. I would not imply by this that men are foolish — or even most men. Far from it. The barber and the priest, backed by the whole opinion of the village, condemned justly the conduct of the ingenuous hidalgo who, sallying forth from his native place, broke the head of the muleteer, put to death a flock of inoffensive sheep, and went through very doleful experiences at a certain stable. God forbid that an unworthy charl should escape merited censure by hanging on to the stirrup-leather of the sublime caballero. His was a very noble, a very unselfish fantasy, fit for nothing except to raise the envy of the baser mortals. But there is more than one aspect to the charm of that exalted and dangerous figure. He, too, had his frailties. After reading so many romances he desired naively to escape with his very body from the intolerable reality of things. He wished to meet eye to eye the valorous giant Brandabarbaran, Lord of Arabia, whose armor is made of the skin of a dragon, and whose shield, strapped to his arm, is the fate of a fortified city. Oh, amiable and natural weakness! Oh, blessed simplicity of a gentle heart without guile! Who would not succumb to such consoling temptation? Nevertheless, it was a form of self-indulgence, and the ingenious hidalgo of La Mancha was not a good citizen. The priest and the barber were not unreasonable in their strictures. Without going so far as the old King Louis Phillipe, who used to say in his exile, ‘The people are never at fault’ — one may admit that there must be some righteousness in the assent of the whole village. Mad! Mad! He who kept in pious meditation the ritual vigil-of-arms by the well of an inn and knelt reverently to be knighted at daybreak by the fat, sly rogue of a landlord, has come very near perfection. He rides forth, his head encircled by a halo — the patron saint of all lives spoiled or saved by the irresistible grace of imagination. But he was not a good citizen.”

Socrates once said a person cannot be a good citizen and a good person. Jesus said we cannot worship two masters, God and Mammon. I wonder. So, apparently, does Conrad. In J.D. Salinger’s tales of Franny and Zooey, Franny quits college because she hasn’t heard anyone talk about wisdom. She would have done well to have read Cervantes. Or George Eliot. Or the early Platonic dialogues. Or the New Testament. Franny must have been receiving very poor advice: she missed all the really important stuff!  It saddens me to think that fewer and fewer people will read the adventures of the mad, holy knight of La Mancha — as it does to think that fewer and fewer will read anything at all. Conrad’s tribute, written by a man using his second (or third) language, gives us a sense of what they are missing.

Taking Care of It

In reading and re-reading some of Steinbeck’s novels and stories, I came across a short novel I had never read before, entitled To A God Unknown. It is a strange novel, unlike any of his other works that I am familiar with. It fails as great literature in my view because his characters are thinly disguised symbols and the author seems to be intent on setting out his message rather than writing an imaginative work of literature. This is not to say that the work lacks imagination. On the contrary, it is highly imaginative. But also a bit strange.

The reader really doesn’t get to know the characters at all, and the central character seems a thinly disguised transcription of a Christ-like figure who sacrifices himself for the land — of which  he has become a part, almost literally. In any event, he is interesting and the novel has some important things to say to all of us here in the twenty-first century, because it is about the earth and about our responsibility to care for it.

The central character’s name is Joseph, and he leaves Vermont just before his father dies to homestead in California. As he takes possession of his piece of land he exclaims: “It’s mine and I must take care of it.” He feels a deep and pervasive responsibility to the land which he shares with his two brothers. Initially the land produces bountiful crops and he and his brothers prosper. But, almost inevitably, the skies cease to produce rain and the land dries up. His older brother takes what is left of their herd of cattle 100 miles to greener pastures while Joseph insists on staying behind. He abandons the ranch for a small oasis of green trees and a small spring which he regards as the heart of the land. But this, too, begins to dry up and because he is convinced that he has failed to care for the land, he sacrifices himself to the rains that he hopes will come. As the novels ends, the rains finally do come.

But the message within this tightly wound novel seems clear, despite the fact that it was written in the 1930’s when folks seem to have had a greater sense of their responsibilities to the earth which is their mother and to whom they will all return at some point. Today, we ignore this fact and many (most?) would regard it as a bit of romantic nonsense. We are too busy exploiting the earth for our own short-term interests, destroying the land and polluting the air and water as we check our bank accounts and ignore the signs around us that, like Joseph’s, is drying up, turning to powder. We need not sacrifice ourselves as Joseph does, cutting our wrists while lying spread-eagle on a huge rock covered with dying moss in the middle of the last remaining green spot for hundreds of miles around. But we could certainly inconvenience ourselves to the extent that we make small sacrifices in creature-comforts to conserve the land and protect the earth upon which we depend for our very lives. Joseph knew that well; we have forgotten it — if we even knew it.

This point was driven home to me recently after reading the World Wildlife magazine in which a feature story spells out the food shortages that will inevitably face the world we take for granted. In that article it was pointed out that, given the expanding world populations and the diminishing food supply, our only hope is to “double the amount of food available” on the earth and its oceans. The article goes on to say,

“By improving efficiency and productivity while reducing waste and shifting consumption patterns, we can produce enough food for all on roughly the same amount of land we use now.”

This, of course, ignores the fact of global warming and the very real possibility that our world, or large portions of it, will no longer be able to produce any food at all. It’s not simply a question of greater efficiency. It’s also a question of reducing the numbers of humans on earth and seeing to it that those who remain take responsibility for it — as Joseph did.

Putting the “You” In Church

One of the fascinating things to think about in this self-involved culture we love to call our own is the current situation in the churches. They live on the edge of a contradiction that is fascinating in its way.

As we all know, the traditional churches are losing parishioners at a rapid pace. After all, self-absorbed people don’t want to be told what to do and cajoled into making sacrifices when they are used to being stroked and entertained. Both Protestant and Catholic Churches have lost large numbers of members in recent years as many people raised in traditional churches either drop out of church altogether or transfer to other, more “friendly” churches that will give them what they want. What they want is to be entertained and this is what the mega-churches promise. And they deliver.

The Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas is the largest church in the United States. It is so big that they now hold their services in a renovated sports arena.Their services come complete with expensive coffee and doughnuts, lounge chairs, TVs, and a bookstore they can visit during or after the service as parishioners are welcomed in with messages designed to assure them that absolutely nothing will be asked of them (except for a small contribution); their need to be stroked as they were when young and in school will be continued and kneeling is optional; they may sit where they want and take in a service that is sure to thrill and delight them.

These devout people are assured that winning is a good thing and that God wants them to be wealthy. Three of the four largest churches in this country practice what is called “prosperity Christianity” which tells parishioners that God wants them to be rich.The self-esteem mantra is repeated steadily that assures them that they are special and that they will be successful if they really want to be successful — because God would never let them desire something they couldn’t achieve. As pastor Joel Osteen of the Lakewood Church says “God would not have put the dream in your heart if He had not already given you everything you need to fulfill it.”

The contradiction to all this comes once they are lured into the mega-church and they are then told that they really should love their fellow-man (except homosexuals, of course) — though they must love themselves first (repeating the false cliché that insists that self-adoration leads to healthy relationships with others). They are also told that God doesn’t want them to sin, even though He does want them to prosper. So under all the hype there is a trace of the traditional message of Christianity as Osteen and others of his ilk tell the gathered throng stories about St. Paul and Jesus that warm their hearts. He also admonishes his parishioners that they must “take time for people [most people]. . .learn to appreciate them. When you go to the grocery store, encourage the cashier. Be friendly.” There are also rules: no adultery, no idols, go to church, don’t lie, don’t steal, and don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff — faint echoes of the Ten Commandments. And this from a man who has been telling these people that first and foremost is their love of self and that God wants them to be successful and prosper.

The contradiction between self-adoration and the friendliness they are supposed to show toward [some of] their fellow humans (which frequently demands that they actually pay attention to others) is passed over lightly as people flock to the services and go home feeling good about themselves, assured that as long as they are pleasant to the cashier at the local grocery store they are living the good life and that while they must keep one eye on their weaknesses and make sure they don’t fall too deeply into sin, they are on the right track and doing just fine. And meanwhile the traditional churches where God comes first and parishioners are reminded to be humble and care about others see their pews slowly empty, their doors close, and the buildings turned into homes, apartments, or public houses.