Sunday, January 20, 2008

Crippled by choice

It has been written that choice is an enemy because it freezes us with indecision. I expect that we would all prefer a little choice over absolutely none at all; but too much can be a very bad thing. This is now the case with orange juice. Back in the day one just bought orange juice. One's decision came down to one among manufacturers. I was never fully persuaded that geographical origin was a factor; that Florida, California, Brazil, South Africa or Israel all pretty much produced the same kind of orange by the time it ended up in a bottle or box. There was perhaps the issue of "from concentrate" to consider, but that was nothing compared with the crippling array of options now confronting the consumer. From just one manufacturer one can now select from among No Pulp, Some Pulp, Lots of Pulp, Heart Friendly (Omega 3), Antioxidant, Vitamin C, Light and Healthy (whatever that means), Low Acid and Fiber. It was this last named that I was seeking, but could not find on the shelves of Jewel. A watery-eyed youth suggested that it was discontinued. I was stunned. Dulcie observed that showing up at the check-out with a couple of boxes of Fiber juice was the middle-aged equivalent of a teenager with a box of Trojans. I guess I hadn't thought of it in those terms.

On the topic of fiber, there are some muffins offered at TJ's that have the amusing name Moral Fiber and are the triple-imperial strength muffins when it comes to fiber. Dulcie recalls a conversation in the check-out with a woman on these muffins that were in her basket. "One of those and a glass of water and ten minutes later..." Tragically the conversation was interrupted by another and she what did transpire after those ten minutes elapsed is annoyingly left to one's imagination.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cost of Discipleship

Continuing my Bonhoeffer theme, prompted by a chance discovery at i-Tunes:

"When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." writes Bonhoeffer in Cost of Discipleship, a dense and challenging little tome. It is not the kind of rosy optimistic aphorism that you would expect to find in one of Joel Osteen's efforts, or the Purpose Driven Life, or any other of the populist Christian self-help books that populate the best-sellers lists. I am quite confident that, if Cost of Discipleship were published today, it would never breach the top ten, let alone dwell there for months at a time. Yet in fifty years, when Osteen is but a footnote in history, Bonhoeffer's work will endure.

In today's American church it is more a question of, when Christ calls a man he bids him come and give 15 %, or so a letter in Ask Amy (Dulcie points these references out to me lest you wonder what I spend all day reading) would suggest. A woman fallen on hard times, after having to separate from her affluent, though embezzling, husband, was no longer in a position to hand over the 15 % tithe expected (nay demanded) by the church. (That's inflation for you: it used to be 10 %). She was, she says, shunned by the body. She observed that the pastor drove a Mercedes and his wife an Audi. I wonder what transpo' a latter day Jesus would favour? A new Nano perhaps from India. Or Pace. I'm sure he would be green.

Should one begrudge a hard-working pastor a nice car or a nice house? Why not, though I was shocked when I learned that James MacDonald, of the very successful Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, plonked down nearly $4 million to buy the house once owned by a retiring wealthy senator. (That I have just learned that he is younger than me just makes it worse). How much of his flock's hard-won tithes ended up in the granite counter tops? Should our pastors instead be expected to shuffle around the neighbourhood on a bicycle in pumps wearing a cardigan from the last century? No, the modern pastor does not the rounds of the neighbourhood make any longer. He has an office and is the CEO of his church corporation. Underlings, or even unpaid lay people, are called upon to perform those pastoral services in the modern "one church many campus" franchise concept that seems to be proving enormously successful - if success is measured by attendance and turnover. In a sense, the appropriateness of using the word pastor at all any longer can be questioned.

The tithing thing has long been a problem for me. I once heard someone offering that the last thing to be converted was a man's checkbook, so perhaps I never completed the process. Judgment day will be the determining factor there I suppose. The 10 % thing is one of the few parts of the bible that modern churches like to be rigid about. In the attempt to be inclusive and out-reaching, there is a tendency towards fuzziness in some areas, which all of a sudden evaporates at then 10 % rule, no rationalizing in terms of metaphor or archaic tribal custom here. Some, it seems the church in the letter is one such, have introduced a sliding (upward) scale, where 10 % is the entry level point. No biblical basis for that. Here's the thing: the tithing, the honoring of God with the first fruits of one's labours, was ceremonial and involved burning stuff. So, forgive me if I am a little skeptical about how converting that ancient ceremony to God into supporting burgeoning church staffs is justified.

The church can also be remarkably lacking in compassion when told that someone cannot afford it. It is a test of faith, this giving of 10 %, they will say. Give it freely and see what reward you will get. The church will show little patience with the person who "can't afford it." "Ye of little faith." they will say. Or, worse perhaps, the backslider will be admonished to modify the budget to "Put God first." The argument that everyone believes they need more money no matter how much they have will be trotted out to defend this. Perhaps there is some truth in this, but at some point, 10 % of nothing is nothing.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Angel of Grace

The new term starts Monday, and is the first time that I recall that there was no kind of "inservice" day beforehand. The hard-working faculty always complain about these being a waste of their valuable time and how it could be much better spent preparing; and so the place was like a ghost town all week. This is also the first term that I won't be showing up breathless with anticipation about the new crop of students; I won't be teaching any classes. Instead I am taking a sabbatical. Everyone assumes that this involves going somewhere exotic and doing essentially nothing but having a good time on the college coin. Let me disabuse you of this fanciful, though pleasant (and perhaps I wish it was true), notion. This SSCP will be hard at it every day working on his book, perhaps going no further afield on a daily basis than Downers Grove.

I have spent the quiet days since Christmas getting trying to get into character. It is decidedly strange to not have to go anywhere, to not have to get dressed, to not have to worry about appearances, to not have to wonder what the heck I am going to say in class. Dulcie will occasionally phone and ask me skeptically what I am wearing. Guiltily I rush to wash the dishes before she arrives home - as if that is really any proof of anything. Let me assure you gentle reader, lest you think I am just sitting around doing nothing other than catch up on the latest adventures of "All My Children," that I have been working quite hard, if sometimes in my pyjamas with the Go Lean (but not lightly) still on the table. I am aiming for a chapter a week and so far this has been successful. Come the official beginning of my sabbatical Monday, I will have twelve chapters to go and five months to do them in.

The time also affords opportunity to catch up on Podcasts from all my favourite shows. I happened to visit i-TunesU and there on the front page was a piece on Dietrich Bonhoeffer - an interview with the fellow that made the documentary of that name. I met him when I saw the film a few years ago at the Siskel Film Center (a must visit for any film lover although trying to contact anywhere there is maddeningly difficult). The film is largely based on Bonhoeffer's book Letters and Papers from Prison, a compilation of his correspondence with his fellow intellectual and friend Eberhard Bethge while in jail for his part in the conspiracy (which unaccountably failed) to kill Hitler. It is the best non-fiction book I have read. You will learn more about what faith means from that book than from any other. At the time, Bonhoeffer was working on a masterwork about Christian ethics. He was also having to lie in order to protect himself and his friends from execution. That placed a subtle tension on his ethics. Of course he is a hero and a martyr; he was executed a few short weeks before the war ended. Interestingly, for his part in the assassination plot, he was regarded as a traitor in Germany for many decades thereafter and was grudgingly exhonerated for his "crimes." Anyway, I prattle too much. See the film, catch the podcast, read the book. You won't be disappointed. You will be moved beyond measure.

“Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell's confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Who am I? They mock me these questions of mine.”

Taken from Letters and Papers. Hardly the strident self-confidence and certainty that exudes from most of your modern-day preachers.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The more things change...

Monitoring election events from a safe distance, I discerned that the taller, thinner darker one beat out the shorter, rounder, paler, and I believe more feminine one, last week in the corn state. The latter managed to reverse the result last night on the east coast by apparently shedding a tear. New Englanders are an emotional group - must be their English heritage.

I don't talk to voters, but I do read the papers, and in searching for why the taller one, with at least five weeks experience as a state senator, is so popular, I learn that it is all about "hope." He has had the audacity to pen a book with "hope" in the title. Hope is a good thing; we would probably all be perpetually depressed without it; our faith is based largely on it. So, okay, why should people think the taller one can deliver on it?

Being in Chicago I perhaps have a different perspective from the rest of the nation. I know, for example, when given an opportunity to provide real change in Cook County by endorsing a genuine candidate, the taller one endorsed the spawn of Stroger, and the subsequent election of the Toddler, yea even yet wrapped in his swaddling clothes, the continued abuse of local government was assured. And what about the taller one's neighbor, or sometime neighbor, indicted fixer Tony Rezko, who just so happened to be able to deliver a nice property for the young senator? And just how tightly tied into that beacon of hope for change, Mayor Daley, is our audacious dreamer? Did he not back the champion of bicycles in the recent joke of a mayoral election? And just how did the taller one's missus land some "vice-presidential" post at over $300 K per with University of Chicago Hospital for doing what exactly? Okay, I read that she quit that job to become a full-time campaigner, nice to be able to make that kind of choice, but the question is still valid.

So, I'm not convinced that the taller one in fact represents any kind of change from the status quo and the system; he is part of the system. Anyone who goes around believing in this change thing is delusional.

Friday, January 4, 2008

A message to you Rudy

I am not a particularly political animal. I have a deep distrust of people that run for office; I believe that most of them have deeper agendas. That is perhaps unfair but there it is. It was a cold Saturday morning early last year when I blearily shuffled over to the Fitness Center to go about my constitutional, and on the TV screens that provide our soundless entertainment I saw the image of a tall, slender dark fellow striding about in the cold around some neoclassical structure; it was Barack announcing his candidacy (surprise). The banner on the TV announced "America Goes to the Polls 2008." I was gripped with a sudden fear: had I gone to sleep for a year? No I hadn't. It is just this noisome process drags out for so long.

So, one year on, they have started to vote - or at least have primaries or caucuses or whatever. Some chap was attempting to explain how a caucus worked yesterday. It all seems frightfully complicated - and unnecessary. Am I the only one that thinks the whole thing is anachronistic and hopelessly outdated? That a few dopes in Iowa who think that immigrants are going to ruin everything (but who of course go to church regularly) can have an impact on the election completely out of all proportion to everyone else?

I will say this: all of the Republican hopefuls scare me, some more than others. I was ambling through the radio dial a few weeks ago and interrupted one of those "debates." I heard someone talking about how oil revenues inevitably ended up in terrorists' pockets and how he was going to make America oil-independent. My immediate response: this fellow is crackers. It was Giuliani. The one who cannot utter a sentence without beginning with the word 9 and ending it in 11. The one who wants to make all foreigners (forners in the vernacular) readily identifiable. Identifying myself as a forner I take some offence at the idea: should there be a large F emblazoned on my forehead - the mark of the beast? And I'm thinking, hey buddy, a name like Giuliani sounds distinctly forn to me - like some Italian. Sweet Zinta Konrad prevailed upon us to use "international" to describe our students from overseas since forn has a negative connotation. Actually she is right in this case. Strictly speaking I am a Permanent Resident Alien, which is scarcely more positive sounding. Did I emerge from someone's stomach in a violent fashion?

But I digress. I am filled with nausea at the sound of this fellow, who made sure the light was strongly upon him during Yankee baseball games as others dug in the wreckage of the devastation, amping up the paranoia on the terrorist threat. This is the fear-mongering that reinforces the absurdly ridiculous pantomime of the airport security experience: the removal of the shoes, the belt, and one day my trousers when I lose my patience; the obsessive inspection of tiny tubes and lotions (and why the plastic bags?).

There was a piece on Giuliani in the New Yorker ( by Elizabeth Kolbert - the same person I took to task over her GW leanings - which further strengthened my feelings. In fact, it moved me from a position of mild hatred and contempt to one of the type of ferocious loathing usually reserved for those that disdain the unwritten codes of traffic merging. As well as crackers he is a fraud and a phony. Most telling is how none of the fireman or police in New York are supportive, quite the opposite in fact.

Do not vote for this man.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Alas poor Benazir, I knew her (not well)

In this case, the oft mistaken addition of "well" in the famous quote would be completely inappropriate because I did not know her at all really. I could say accurately that we went to Oxford together, in the sense we were there at the same time, but rarely in the same place. I do recall an occasion at the New College cricket ground, my preferred hangout of a summer afternoon - cucumber sandwiches and giant pots of tea ("Just add it to my bill old chap"), when she was there with various accolytes, slender, beautiful and charming. She was president of the Oxford Union; I never even attended.

Now dead, almost inevitably, after a foolhardy, but brave, return to her native country. One wonders what motivated her to take such a risk when she had everything and could have lived in perfect safety and considerable luxury? A sense of duty perhaps. Or egotism. The paper has had more column inches on her in death than it ever did in life, among them the usual tributes, but also some more pointed observations. For one who cherished democracy so much, what was this about the "chairwoman for life"? Scarcely democratic. And now in some kind of monarchial succession the party will be led by a nineteen year old boy. I wonder how he feels about that particular Christmas gift. Maybe she did really believe in democracy, but in her brief sojourns in power she also seemed to enjoy the fruits (luxuries) of power. Mister Ten Percent was not an appellation bestowed on her husband because of his tithing. Rather the reverse - as it is alleged. And don't you wonder sometimes how these politicos and statesmen seem to live so well without really having to do any work?

Pakistan is a shambles. It should be a warning sign of the danger of institutionalized fundamentalism. The universities have been largely wrecked by that influence. My many Pakistani students have been mostly well educated. And they play cricket well. One worries for the future.