Narnia and Christian myth

As someone who writes about religion and culture, am I obligated to talk about Narnia? I haven’t read the C.S. Lewis books and have no idea if I’ll ever feel inspired to pick them up. I am familiar with the plot of the books, and it sounds like children’s stuff to me. By all accounts, Lewis is no Tolkien. I’ll see the movie with low expectations and will be satisfied if I enjoy it half as much as the last Harry Potter movie.

Here’s an articleby Paula Toynbee that got lots of play on the religious right weblogs last week. They obviously hate what she has to say. One prominent Catholic blogger repeatedly called her “evil.”

Here’s the most-quoted line from Toynbee’s piece:

Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls. Did we ask him to?

Reminds me of the line of a Unitarian Universalist minister I dated many years ago. He told me that the story of the Father sacrificing the Son on a cross was a horrific tale of “divine child abuse.” There are many perspectives on the crucifixion story, not just the orthodox view celebrated for so long by so many that the orthodox forget that there are other, marginalized, perfectly valid ways of looking at the same stories.

Personally, I don’t find the notion of Christ as Redeemer repugnant, at least not as the story is usually told. But to the shock of the religious right, many people hear the tale of Christ’s redemption and think about divine child abuse… or the worst attributes of every Christian moral failure in the past 2,000 years. To the religious right, Christ’s redemption is a tale of Divine Love and the value of self-sacrifice; to many others, it is a tale of scapegoating that locks Christians into a “victim” mentality in which they are perpetually looking outside themselves for salvation.

The lesson to be gained by the fierce attack on Toynbee is clear. To the religious right, anyone who fails to view Christ as they do is questionable; but if they view the orthodox Christ as something negative, then they are evil. (An example: “…the “most hateful” thing about religion, say Polly Toynbee is Jesus’ self-sacrifice on the Cross for sinners. It’s stuff like that which persuades me of the reality of a spiritual bondage so deep and so impervious to rational explanation that only the existence of Satan can account for it…”) And of course we know from the history of religion that calling your opponents evil is very often the first step in their dehumanization and ultimate destruction.

What Toynbee and the defenders of Narnia on the religious right both have in common is a sort of literalism about the Christian myths and certainty that their moralistic view of those myths is the only correct one. Neither have transcended that literalism into a more complex, multi-perspectival view that recognizes the value of having multiple interpretations of a mythic story. Truth is not locked into one fixed interpretation of a myth, as both the religious right and Toynbee insist; openness and flexibility of interpretation are virtues, prerequisites even to the discovery of Truth.

Is “community” a winning message for Democrats?

Here’s an interesting article that traces the early efforts by Democratic presidential hopefuls to articulate a winning message for 2006 and 2008:

“Americans don’t want to believe that they are out there on an island all alone,” [John Edwards,] the former North Carolina senator said.This is not a new theme. As first lady, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York wrote, “It Takes a Village,” a book arguing that a community is an important part of a child’s development. Her husband, President Clinton, tried to create a sense of national purpose when he asked Americans to help “build a bridge to the 21st century.”

The difference now is that six of every 10 people tell pollsters that the country is headed on the wrong track. Democrats believe they can put Republicans on the defensive by articulating the public’s sense of malaise and offering hope to erase it.

Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean has commissioned confidential polling and analysis that suggest candidates in 2006 and 2008 should frame their policies — and attacks on Republicans — around the context of community.

It seems to be the emerging message from a party that has been bereft of one.

Community. Sacrifice. Safety. These are important themes that could be woven into a powerful political message. On the other hand, they could also fall flat. In the abstract, they don’t really get me excited. I’d like to see how they are used to frame some key issues, otherwise it just sounds like so much empty fluff.

The one Democratic theme that begins to raise my temperature in a good way is the theme of “sacrifice.” I just don’t know that this is a theme that can really win elections. Americans seem much more ready to vote for politicians that say they can have big government programs, tax cuts, and charge everything on deficit spending for future generations to figure out. Becoming known as the party that says, “the party’s over,” isn’t a surefire recipie for electoral victory.

Two wacky interesting reviews of Brokeback Mountain

A movie I’ve been eagerly waiting for for a very long time is finally released, and as soon as it arrives in Seattle I’ll be there. Reviews are appearing, and a couple of the early reviews strike me as particularly interesting. This one from a reviewer on the wacky right with a perfectly normal, traditional outlook and set of values at a certain developmental level:

“If you read what Hollywood is saying about it, they’re calling it ‘an achingly beautiful love story,’ ” Price said.

“But I don’t see it that way at all. You see two characters obsessed with a type of bondage that they don’t know what to do with. They don’t know where it came from, and they don’t know how to resolve it. And they both end up experiencing tragic consequences in their lives.”

Youth could easily be led astray, he said, into thinking that gay sexuality is perfectly normal — a message that homosexual activist groups have been harping about for years…

“If you’re not looking at this through the eyes of someone caught up in the ‘love affair’ between these two men,” Baehr said, “then the movie appears to be twisted, laughable, frustrating and boring Neo-Marxist homosexual propaganda.”

And this one from a reviewer on the wacky left with a postmodern, pluralistic sensibility that would be right at home on an Ivy League campus and strikes lots of folks as nutty:

Finally, does it matter where you spend your money, and who profits from it? It’s necessary to ask because Focus Features is a subsidiary of the media conglomerate NBC Universal, which is owned in turn by General Electric. Having already recouped its cost through international pre-sales, “Brokeback” profits further enrich what is in fact the world’s largest corporation measured by market share, while the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion and other laurels burnish a public veneer that obscures a record of malevolence as long as the mountain is high.

Beholding “Brokeback”’s lyrical images of the pristine natural environment, for example, you’d never guess that its corporate parent has worked tirelessly to sabotage the federal Superfund law requiring egregious polluters to clean up their toxic wastes. GE’s attempts to evade an Environmental Protection Agency-ordered dredging of some 1.3 million pounds of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) it dumped into the Hudson River would also have the broader effect of undermining the enforceability of future Superfund cleanups.

Perhaps best known for its nuclear commitments, GE’s power is such that, despite the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s knowledge of their faulty engineering—in the event of a meltdown, GE-designed nuclear reactors are 90 percent likely to disgorge radiation directly into the atmosphere—it continues to issue licenses…

In this context, “Brokeback” is perfectly of its moment. The film’s mass embrace by gay audiences offers no less an instance of people acting against their self-interest than poor and working-class red-state voters shoring up Bush’s fraudulent majority last November, hastening their own ruin…

Good Lord in heaven! It’s time for the integralist’s prayer that begins like so: Lord, save me from the arrogant sense of superiority I feel inside when I see the partiality of that which people at a lesser stage of development view as the whole…

Is bigotry a mental illness?

Here’s an interesting article on whether bigotry should be classified as a mental illness. My opinion, such as it is at this time, is that there seems to be good evidence that there are extreme forms of bigotry that are distinct from “ordinary prejudice” and therefore may warrant a special mental health classification. I support further study of this topic, and would especially like to see efforts made to keep such study as free from political agendas and biases as possible.

John Avarosis has the view on this from his window on the political left. Here’s a quote:

I always thought the fundies were sick.

Okay, this is a long-term campaign for all minority communities to get together on. We should set a long-term goal to get the psychological and psychiatric associations to officially make bigotry a mental disorder. The religious right would flip, fun in and of itself, but this would set the tone for an entire change in the culture, where prejudice of any kind of is considered the work of sick people. That would influence every debate the religious right tries to weigh in to.

I’m really quite serious. One of the large gay groups need to pick this up and run with it. It will take years to achieve, but it’s the kind of long-term goal the religious right loves to embrace. A goal that ends up changing the underlying culture and helps them on EVERY issue.

This doesn’t make much sense to me. If “pathological bias” is pathologized, I can see no reason why this should only apply against bias by conservatives. People on all sides of the political spectrum could suffer from the disorder, if it exists. Woe to anyone so naive as to think that they can score political points by casting all their enemies as mentally ill, at least not without paying a severe penalty. Read the foul, hate-filled rants in the comment boxes on Avarosis’s weblog and tell me that a sizeable portion of his own readership doesn’t suffer from something that could potentially be called “pathological bias.”

William Harryman has a well-considered integral take on the dilemma. William argues that it’s wrong to pathologize bigotry because it would make it impossible to prosecute hate crimes. Also, there’s this:

As human beings develop, one of the stages everyone must pass through has “fear of the other” as one of its components. If adults also hold this viewpoint, then the “other,” in all its forms, is to be shunned, feared, hated, or killed. This is the foundation for tribal warfare, nation-states, gangs, racial identity groups, and all other forms of us-versus-them thinking. Most nations on the planet are still largely homogeneous, so nationality can still be a form of ethnic identity.

Read the whole post. Here’s my comment on William’s blog:

You make some excellent points, particularly the importance of not pathologizing a perfectly ordinary aspect of a stage of development that we all go through. And yet I think you miss the most interesting point of the article: that there seem to be diagnostically quantifiable distinctions between “ordinary prejudice” and “pathological bias.” I don’t know if this is true or not, but there seems to be significant evidence worthy of further research. If so, then I think such evidence needs to be pursued. Would you say that you shouldn’t classify depression as a mental illness because sadness is a universal human emotion? Of course not. And I’m really not worried about the legal consequences if “pathological bias” is eventually recognized as a mental illness. As the article points out, pedophilia is both a mental illness and also punishable by law. When you say that bigots should not be pathologized, but given the opportunity to grow beyond their limited worldview, this seems not to make sense. Pathologizing bigotry by classifying an extreme form of it as a mental illness (that is, if evidence eventually supports that conclusion) is a healthy way of actually giving such persons the opportunity to grow. They can “reach out and get help” for the problem that they are experiencing.

Is virtue boring?

In case there was ever any doubt, Reuters reports:

Pope Benedict told Roman Catholics on Thursday that being good was not boring and urged people to reject the idea that they were missing out if they did not sin.

Repeat after me: Obeying the pope’s moral law is not boring… Obeying the pope’s moral law is not boring… Obeying the pope’s moral law is not boring…

Christian conservatives surprisingly mum

The Revealer recently offered an excellent observation with this piece, “Mum’s the Word.”Writer Nick Street notices that the conservative Christian media have been strangely silent on the topic of the recent roundup of gays at a wedding in the United Arab Emirates. The gay men may be subjected by the government to forced hormone treatments or other measures in an effort to “cure” them.

Here’s Street’s analysis of the silence:

The basic assumption underlying the UAE’s treatment of gays — that homosexuality is a dangerous psychological disorder — also informs the social and political agendas of the biggest players in the Christian conservative press. This pathologizing of homosexuality runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of the American Psychiatric Association, which removed homosexuality from its list of psychiatric disorders in 1973. Editorial opinion at CBN, Focus on the Family and Breakpoint consistently challenges the psychiatric association’s decision.

Thus, the arrests in the UAE put Christian conservative media activists in an awkward position. Speaking out against the UAE’s theocratic government would force them to qualify or even contradict unequivocal statements they’ve made in the past. But condoning brutalities like forced medical procedures and lashings would surely squander the political capital Christian conservatives have won in recent years.

I noticed something similar, by the way, when I wrote a “Challenge to Christian Conservatives” recently on the Gay Spirituality & Culture blog. Always willing to play devil’s advocate, I said I was willing to assume that the Bible condemns homosexuality. And then I observed that the Bible not only condemns homosexuality, it seems on the face of it to actually call for the death penalty for homosexuals. Finally, I asked for a conservative Christian to explain why he or she uses the same Biblical texts to condemn homosexuality, but then won’t go to the extra special step and say, “off with their heads.” Perhaps I’ll need to repeat this challenge in a Christian forum, because there were no takers. (Though, predictably, several religious liberals wrote in who were simply appalled that I was “proof-texting” the Bible which so clearly doesn’t contain a word of anything so awful as homophobia if, you know, is a fine progressive manifesto if you just look at the proper historico-cultural-social-psychological-hermeneutical context.)

So what are we to make of the conservative Christian quietude in these contexts? I think Street’s on the right track, but he doesn’t go down it far enough. He suggests that religious conservatives don’t want to get caught in inconsistencies or squander political capital by advocating harsh, punitive measures against gays that would be consistent with their views. There’s truth to that, but I suspect that it’s irrelevant that the UAE measures are consistent with the views of American religious conservatives; these American conservatives mostly don’t really believe that gays should be so harshly punished. Does the average religious traditionalist really want the Leviticus codes revived in the twentieth century, but only for gays? No, of course note. Do they want to see gays hauled off to concentration camps? No, they don’t. And yet their own Biblical and long-standing Christian tradition (do we have to trot out the medieval days once again and remind everyone that the Catholic Church used to routinely burn thousands of “sodomites” at the stake and torture them as heretics?) is not a suitable guide for action.

In order to reject the stonings, burnings, and torturings of yore, conservative religionists need to set out a principle that challenges the authority of their own sacred texts and traditions. That’s something they are willing to do about many ethical issues (slavery, for example), but to challenge the authority of tradition when it comes to homosexuality is far too risky. If the stonings, burnings, and torturing of the past was wrong… and such deeds were based on the same texts and traditions that the conservative Christians insist so vehemently must be upheld as a literal truth, a fixed cornerstone of God’s revelation, a bulwark against modernity and postmodernity… then Christians are in mighty deep shit. If they start speaking up about the UAE or probing too closely around the Bible’s homophobia, then they might have to admit they could be wrong about homosexuality… and wrong about God.

You’re different and that’s super!

Now there’s a happy, pluralistic little title for a children’s book by Carson Kressley of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy fame.

It’s a story of a sassy little unicorn pony who is raised by horses… searching for his value and identity.

I can picture an rationalist version of this title: Exploit Your Individuality for Personal Success!

And then there’s the traditionalist version of this title: Get Super by Fitting In!

How about a hedonistic version? I Want What I Want, I Want it Now, and That’s Super!

There’s a tribalistic version, too. We’re Super… Whack Them, Because They’re Not Us, and They’re Not Super!

What would a integral version of this book title be? Hmmm… how about… You’re Different and That’s BOTH Super AND Wonderfully Ordinary At the Same Time! or We’re All Different AND We’re All Super!

It is SUPER to be a unicorn among ponies, isn’t it, y’all? 🙂

Very cute!