"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nothing at all new under the sun

“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 1965*

*If you are thinking this post is primarily an excuse to post these two gifs; you're right.  The movie comes out the weekend of my daughter's birthday, and she wants to go see it.  That's my excuse, and I'm stickin' to it!

"No one likes us, I don't know why...."

I don't usually do this, but I don't usually come across this kind of data:*

This, for example, is what Richard Reid said in court while he was being allowed to live.

I further admit my allegiance to Osama bin Laden, to Islam, and to the religion of Allah. With regards to what you said about killing innocent people, I will say one thing. Your government has killed 2 million children in Iraq. If you want to think about something, against 2 million, I don't see no comparison.Your government has sponsored the rape and torture of Muslims in the prisons of Egypt and Turkey and Syria and Jordan with their money and with their weapons. I don't know, see what I done as being equal to rape and to torture, or to the deaths of the two million children in Iraq. So, for this reason, I think I ought not apologize for my actions. I am at war with your country. I'm at war with them not for personal reasons but because they have murdered more than, so many children and they have oppressed my religion and they have oppressed people for no reason except that they say we believe in Allah.

And this is what Ramzi Yousef said in court while he was being allowed to live.

"Yes, I am a terrorist and proud of it as long as it is against the U.S. government."

And this is what Zacarias Moussaoui said in court while he was being allowed to live.

"God save Osama bin Laden — you will never get him...You have branded me as a terrorist or a criminal or whatever," he said. "Look at yourselves. I fight for my belief."
It was just easier to leave Mr. Pierce's comments in there, to identify the speakers.  What struck me was not the reasoning on display here; violence is no excuse for violence, I don't condone an eye for an eye.  What struck me is how reasonable these speeches are, especially in the light of 9/11 and the reasons we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  "Reasonable," it turns out, isn't all that relative.

I'm also struck by the fact that while there is mention of Muslims and Islam, there's no mention of the Koran.  I'm constantly being told the Koran is the reason all Muslims are crazed terrorists bent on death to the infidel.  But in the longest speech, no reference to the Koran, no mention of fundamental tenets of Islam; just a catalogue of death and a severe statement of resentment.  No mention of infidels, either.

Mostly there seems to be anger; the kind of anger I recognize as the most lingering after-effect of 9/11.

Who knew we had so much in common?

*As a footnote I would add I recently saw this documentary on Frontline, about the current battle for Yemen.  It's not about Islam v. infidels; it's about power.  Pretty much the same reason ISIS is at large in largely powerless Iraq, and spilling over into Syria, where the government is losing control of its territory.

"...and I'm not so sure about thee...."

I'm moved by this, but I want to offer a nudge in another direction, too.

I remember, reading around the blogs on the evening of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, being shocked at the mean, nasty things being said about people whose lives had been shattered within the hour, many people dying, many people injured, many people losing members of their families, their friends, their homes, their neighborhoods and their communities. The derision, the lack of respect and the judgdementalism on display that night, among alleged liberals, most with a higher education, was a kind of great divide opening up between us, the chasm that I noticed for the first time, the exact difference between liberalism and its opposite.

Not as surprising as it should be.  I've spoken to very decent, good-hearted people who insisted the panhandlers under the overpasses on I-10 here in Houston take in "$30,000.00 a year" (that my conversation partner thought this a princely sum indicates his age more than anything.).  He had no proof of this, but the outrage this number reflected, one he assured me he had from someone who had the experience to have the authority to verify this fiction, was an outrage which calmed his conscience at the fact that our society could produce so many destitute people they were reduced to begging with hand-printed signs.

If they were "rich," then he didn't have to feel concern for them.  I didn't damn him for that; I understood it.  If he respected them, if he regarded them as human beings, as souls made by God undeserving of poverty and such suffering, he would despair because there was so little he could do for them.  He wasn't right to despise them, to discard them as liars living comfortably off the money they begged (rather than doing "legitimate" work, begging somehow being "easier" than holding down a job with an employer); but he was doing it to salve his conscience.  He was doing it so despair wouldn't overwhelm him.

If I condemn him for that, I have to condemn myself, too.  Too often we condemn others so as to avoid condemning ourselves.  If we open the springs of our heart, I often think, we don't know how we'd close them again.  We don't know who we'd be if we didn't draw boundaries around ourselves, declaring some in and some out.  We don't know who we'd be if we didn't insist on others defining us, by defining them as beyond our pale, beyond our reach, beyond our concern.

"It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts." If there was ever a worth while sentence summing up the absolute prerequisite for any kind of liberalism, for any kind of democracy, that would be it. It is worth everything that I've ever read from the hands of Jefferson or Madison and fully as essential as any of the best that came from Abraham Lincoln. America lost that in the past century and more. It's the reason we have devolved into a corporate oligarchy in which Barack Obama is far more the servant of the oil industry than he is of The People, the reason that The People tolerated having George W. Bush and Dick Cheney imposed on us by a corrupt Supreme Court and an even more corrupt press.
No, it isn't possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect; which is the whole point of refusing to extend our respect to them.  But this is not new; 'twas ever thus.  Mother Jones famously lead the "Children's Crusade" to Teddy Roosevelt's summer home in New York state, when TR was President.  She wanted the President to see the children who were forced to labor in dangerous factories, often on the graveyard shift with little adult supervision, poor wages, and in great danger to their lives and bodies.  TR turned them away.  His cousin FDR would finally pass legislation regarding child labor only as a means to clear the way for unemployed adults to take those jobs.  Today we are appalled when Newt Gingrich says elementary school children should work as janitors to pay for their schooling or their "free" lunch.  No one was appalled when TR told Mother Jones to get lost.  No one stains TR's reputation with that event, even today.

As recent legal scholars have pointed out, the Supreme Court has always been a blockage in the national pipeline of progressivism (such as that pipeline ever was).  The Warren Court was the aberration, not the norm.  I've rather lost interest in the "wisdom" of Thomas Jefferson, simply because he never did anything out of charity, never proposed any law or scheme of thought or even eloquent 18th century sound-bite to relieve by one matchstick's worth, the burden on the poor, the outcast, the marginalized.  I try not to judge Jefferson for this, so much as put him in perspective.  His opinions on religion, his "Bible," are not even a curiosity to me anymore.  They are obstacles; I step around them.  Praise him?  For what?  For perpetuating stereotypes about the natives here ("He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.")  For being an unrepentant owner of other human beings?  For the Louisiana Purchase ?  (well, that got us Louisiana and New Orleans, I can't really fault him for that.)  He had his intellectual points, but I'm not terribly impressed with what he did for his fellow human beings.

Our country is broken because the The People are broken and discouraged. It won't be fixed by cynicism, fashion and the pursuit of status at the expense of other people, not in the country, not in international competition. It certainly won't be fixed by becoming more the serfs of the international oligarchs.
It is broken, but it has always been broken.  As I had occasion to say at a funeral awhile back, quoting Leonard Cohen, "There are cracks, cracks in everything; that's how the light gets in."  We surround ourselves with walls, in order to protect us; and then we wonder at how deep the darkness is.

More and more I am convinced that the heart of Christianity is not doctrine, but compassion; compassion expressed first and foremost through hospitality.  Paul didn't convert people to Christianity via the letter to the Romans; he did it establishing house churches. "House" in this case doesn't mean the single-family residence we think of today.  A residence was also a place of business and consisted of a very extended family connected to a benefactor upon whom others depended.  Social lines were stratified, and children, in the Victorian phrase, were "seen and not heard."  As the British upper class did later, the Roman model was not to dine en famille, but segregated by age and social class.   Servants didn't dine with masters, children didn't dine with parents. Imagine the table at "Downton Abbey" surrounded by all the staff, the family, and even the toddlers.  That was the eukaristo that Paul's house church celebrated:  slaves and masters, parents and children, bosses and employees, all dining as equals.  Small wonder, as TC pointed out in comments below, that Crossan notes how important food was, is, in the gospels; and why a common meal, which eventually became a very ritualized meal, is still central to Christian worship.

If the People are broken and discouraged, surely this is the antidote.  In the movie I mentioned sometime back, Kevin Costner's character finally connects with his athletes when he's invited into the home of one of them, and he shares a meal with the family.  They welcome him, and he in turn becomes equal to them.  In the rest of the movie, every festive and important occasion or point in the story, involves sharing a meal with a wider and wider community of athletes and their families.

That, too, is how the light gets in.

If we stand in judgment, as Crossan also pointed out, then we get placed under judgment, too.  The only way out of that cycle is to refuse to judge.  And the simplest way to refuse to judge is to sit at the table together, eating the meal in common, with everyone welcome and no one refused.

Let me put that quote above back in context:

When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests. The cultural disaster called “dumbing down,” which swept through every significant American institution and grossly impoverished civic and religious life, was and is the result of the obsessive devaluing of the lives that happen to pass on this swath of continent. On average, in the main, we are Christian people, if the polls are to be believed. How is Christianity consistent with this generalized contempt that seems to lie behind so much so-called public discourse? Why the judgmentalism, among people who are supposed to believe we are, and we live among, souls precious to God—300 million of them on this plot of ground, a population large and various enough to hint broadly at the folly of generalization? It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.

Part of the problem is the "generalized contempt" we have for others, because we think of them in generalities.  My family includes blue-collar workers:  policemen, maintenance workers, the like.  I was reminded how "simple" they were when I visited them recently, meeting in a small church many would consider "conservative" and even "ignorant."  They are good people, kind people, and the people they know are the same.  Not saints, not exemplary by worldly standards, but good nonetheless.  I don't want to elevate them with praise, but they are people worth knowing.  But you have to know them individually.  As a group they fit all manner of categories that other groups would consider inappropriate, in some way.  It would be easy to dismiss them, or people like them, with a generalized contempt; and when I say that, I'm looking in the mirror.

The contempt is, I think, in part the problem of "public discourse."  Such discourse of necessity creates categories.  When Jefferson wrote of the "savages" bedeviling the colonies, he was writing for a European audience who would precisely consider them so.  That contempt made it easier, in later years, to exterminate the natives.  "It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect."  And, equally, it is impossible to respect people one puts in a category for dismissal.  As I've said too often, that's precisely where so many "New Atheists" want to put Christians.  In the extreme, it becomes bigotry.   Bigotry is the ugliest way of withdrawing from one another.

Christianity is simply not consistent with judgment.  "Do not judge, and you will not be judged."  But if we do not judge, how do we know who to respect, who to care for?

Well, yes.  That's the point, isn't it?  Lucy, in Peanuts, once challenged Linus that he didn't love everything in the world, because he couldn't love gila monsters.  Linus replied that if he knew what a gila monster was, he'd love it.  You can't love a gila monster if you don't know what it is.  You cannot love the world; you don't know what it is.  You can only love those you know.  Or, as Voltaire wisely put it:  we must each cultivate our own garden.  You can't love the world; but you can love those you know in the world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

No. 5 is not that easily avoided

Take, eat.  It's not gluten free, but a little nibble couldn't hurt!

Diabetics have to control their diets very carefully.  Those afflicted with celiacs disease have to avoid gluten.  There are other perfectly sensible reasons to avoid certain foods, control your diet, etc.

But do 100 million people in America really have to watch their gluten intake?

Probably not.  This, of course, is a matter of personal choice.  But what's the purpose, except to avoid death?  And what is this fear of death that creates an almost religious faith (i.e., trust) in food?  Is it merely human?

Virtually ever religious tradition has had food taboos and sacred diets. I think part of the reason is that food is something that we have direct control over. It crosses the boundary in a very personal way: we take something outside of our body and put it into our body. Eating is very personal, and it’s easy to invest those kinds of things with religious and ritual significance.
That is certainly why Christianity, alone of all world religions I know of, puts food at the center of its worship.  The Eucharist has been a point of contention since Paul and Peter argued over what to eat and Paul argued with his house churches over how to eat it; but it is still central to worship because "eating is very personal."

What's interesting is that everybody gets upset because some politician somewhere says we have to allow people to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation when it comes to serving wedding guests (which hasn't yet been upheld as legal or denied as unconstitutional) or we have to teach creationism in schools (which hasn't been upheld) or...well, I'm hard pressed to think of a true "victory" that the religious have one (the examples like Hobby Lobby v. Burwell are more like egregious errors by the Court that it will have to rein in, if only because of the bubbling arguments over state RFRA's that are its progeny).  Things are, in other words, in a state of flux.

But nobody is complaining because 100 million people think they can cheat death by cutting out the white bread.  If anything, that's a greater display of superstition and fear of death than any random group of Christians (or Muslims, observant Jews, Hindus, what have you) that I've ever encountered.

It's all about the narrative; the framing.  An expression of faith in reason as the ne plus ultra and only arbiter of human experience is no less a religious expression than putting your money literally where you mouth is by adopting a gluten-free diet because you think you will live longer; or than reciting the Apostle's or Nicene Creed, for that matter.

If you want to mention in comments that you are watching your gluten, or even maintaining a gluten-free diet, I will not argue with you.  I make no judgment, except on those who judge.  There are very small minded people out there who consider the internet their proper domain, and they insist that whatever they damn should be damned in heaven, and whatever they loose should be loosed in heaven.

But don't put it to them that way; they'll get very upset.  No one likes having their faith challenged, you see.

Dazed and Confused

I saw what I did there....

I was reflecting on the veracity, even the "proof", of polls (reading "atheists" constantly insisting on "proof" of God, and batting about "burden of proof" as if they knew what the phrase meant, has put my mind on odd tracks) in response to this post.  That led to the thought that daily life seldom reflects the divisions and acrimony of either politics or polls (two conditions that often appear alike), nor is it all that driven by what the pollsters say is important to us.

Like the latest nonsense from Alternet (via Salon).  It starts, appropriately enough, with a poll about what group Americans dislike the most.  Atheists have lost their No. 1 standing, according to this poll.  How you ever verify that is an interesting question, especially to people who screech "Burden of proof!" whenever you poke them; but leave that aside.  What interests me are the "myths", some of which are so hoary and lame they need life support from, well, Amanda Marcotte, apparently.

Take No. 1:  "There are no atheists in foxholes."  I'm guessing the definition of "myth" here is not the usual rump definition of a folktale that explains natural phenomenon.  I'm beginning to suspect that definition is itself mythological, an invention of the Enlightenment must as the old canard about medieval theologians debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was invented during the Renaissance.  How all those stories of Zeus impregnating fair maidens in various physical forms, from a bull to gold coins, explains anything more than the story of Oedipus explains his responsibility for a fate set before his birth, has always been a mystery to me.  But the idea that there are no atheists is foxholes is about as sound a proper observation as the watch found in the field is evidence of God as Creator.

I mean, if that's your idea of myth still being used against atheists, you really need to give up on that idea that atheism is not a religion (myth no. 5), because this one sounds as fictional as the parting of the Red Sea (something no atheist ever brings up, though I learned in seminary that there is no "Red Sea" in Egypt.  There's the Nile, and there's the desert.  Didn't anyone ever wonder where the Red Sea went after the Israelites left?) and as important to your identity as suffering for your, well....beliefs.

There's also the "myth" that atheists are aggressive and rude.  Aside from every atheist you can name as a public figure (including the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair), I can't imagine where this pernicious idea comes from.  (I know I actually read some comments by professed atheists despairing of the tone set for them by Dawkins, but I can't find the link at the moment.  Not all atheists posts on Salon or adhere to the standards set by the New Atheists.)  Ditto myth no. 6, that atheism is dominated by angry white men.  Yes, you can identify the women who wish to be prominent atheists (Ms. Marcotte does), but can anyone name them?  I'm sure this is the fault of the Christian patriarchy; or perhaps President Obama.

Do atheists have a bleak, loveless, and amoral existence (myths 6-9)?  I dunno.  The noisiest ones certainly seem to be profoundly unhappy people;  or at least, among the most cited (Maher; Dawkins; Gillette; Hitchens; Carlin) the most smug and insufferable.  Then again, so are a lot of publicly religious politicians and Christians, so we'll have to call that a draw.

So the last is that atheists are engaged in a war on Christmas.  Honestly, this war on Christmas thing existed (I think it officially ended last winter) on FoxNews.  I never saw evidence of it beyond FoxNews in the real world that wasn't clearly driven by FoxNews.

Which returns me to my original point:  there's the world we all live in; and then there's the world as represented on the intertoobs and cable television (the world represented on broadcast television is another mythology altogether).   One is a very interesting place, full of people of all kinds and demeanors working hard to get on with their lives; and the other is a flaming Nazi gasbag.

Well, I wanted somehow to work that joke and Godwin's law into it, and it was the best I could do.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cui Bono?

What's really interesting here is the number of people in comments saying this is a situation of rape, pure and simple, because the wife, suffering from Alzheimer's, couldn't possibly consent to sexual intercourse.

And they all know that because.....?  Well, from what Mr. Pierce quotes, from this:

Michelle Dornbier, a social worker at the center, and Dr. John Boedeker, Mrs. Rayhons's family doctor, testified on Friday about her scores on a test to assess memory and orientation. In May 2014, she scored zero, unable to recall the words "sock," "bed" and "blue." But Ms. Dornbier acknowledged that Mrs. Rayhons "was always pleased to see Henry." And Dr. Boedeker acknowledged that "intimacy is beneficial for dementia patients." Ms. Dornbier testified that the Concord Care Center allows consensual sex between residents. But she said that on May 15, 2014, family members including Mr. Rayhons were given a "care plan" establishing simple routines for Mrs. Rayhons, including limiting outings with Mr. Rayhons mostly to church on Sunday.

Which comes, in Mr. Pierce's telling, after this:

It is rare, possibly unprecedented, for such circumstances to prompt criminal charges. Mr. Rayhons, a nine-term Republican state legislator, decided not to seek another term after his arrest. There is no allegation that Mrs. Rayhons resisted or showed signs of abuse. And it is widely agreed that the Rayhonses had a loving, affectionate relationship, having married in 2007 after each had been widowed. They met while singing in a church choir.
Emphasis added.

So this entire case is going to court because Mrs. Rayhon has advanced Alzheimer's, and because (according, again, to comments) the daughters are mad at their step-father, and perhaps a prosecuting attorney took his duties a bit too zealously (which happens in the area of family law and relationships far more often than it should, apparently).

There are considerations in the justice system other than punishment and the rigid adherence to the law no matter what (in this case, no matter the facts, for example; which we don't know, yet).  Justice is not just punishment meted out by the law to all and sundry and not every case of sexual intercourse where consent is a clouded question is a case of rape.  Does it matter if the Rayhons were married, or just if they were in a "loving, affectionate relationship"?  Because the people determined to prosecute (if not convict) Mr. Rayhon for rape seem to have decided sex is always desire and impulse and mindless animal behavior and has very little to do with love and the expressions of love.

Which is the first sad point here.  The second is the legal point I started to address:  is this the best use of the legal resources of the state of Iowa?  Is it the best use of the prosecutor's energies, the court's time, the jury's time, and the legal system in general?  Or is a prosecutor, like some kind of legal machine, required to try any case which might be criminal, to the fullest extent of the law?

Who benefits?  What, in short, is the point?

Steve Allen wrote a story about people gathering in a football stadium to direct their hatred at a prisoner on the stage on the field, much as a microwave oven would direct microwaves into a piece of meat.  The point of the story was the parable of how willingly people would hate the stranger, would punish whom they were told to despise, would bring to bear on the unknown person all the animosity they could muster, and use his suffering and agony (he's described as dancing around the stage like a bug on a hot griddle, until he finally falls over, barely twitching) to fuel their hatred directed at him.

More and more on the internet do I see examples in real life of the parable Allen was trying to tell.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Things that make you say "Hmmmmmm....."

This is interesting:

The “unaffiliated” group is rising much faster in North America than in Europe. Europe is projected to move from 19% to 23% of its population unaffiliated while North America would move from 17% to 26% (16% growth for Europe and 89% growth for US). Only in the Asia Pacific area is there expected to be a decline in the unaffiliated at 2% (82).

But it’s also not clear if being “unaffiliated” really means the same thing in the United States as elsewhere. Take that earlier number of 68% of the “unaffiliated” believing in God or a higher power in the United States.

That drops to 30% in France (233). According to that previous Pew research, one reason more people identify as “unaffiliated” now is that people who used to skip church and not really believe anything in particular simply felt a social pressure to identify with a religion anyway. Now, more people feel comfortable simply naming what they were already doing before.

Not because it gives a good definition of "unafflliated" (too often defined as "atheist" on the intertoobs), but because the difference in affiliation between Europe (supposedly all "atheist" and "post-Christian" according, again, to the intertoobs) and the US just now is only 2%.  Yes, Pew predicts it will rise and the percentage in the US will exceed Europe's, but that hasn't happened yet; and 2% is pretty much the margin of error with any poll.

So while religious expression is very different in America than in Europe, the level of religious affiliation is pretty much the same on both continents.  But Europe is full of atheists, and America is overrun with superstitious crackpots.

Isn't that right?

Besides, read down the article; the fastest growing religious population in North America is not "None," it is:  "Other."  Which pretty much ties in with the polls showing a steady rise in religious affiliation since the early 20th century.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Whose Season is it, anyway?

Because, sure, that's what happens:

“I believe that if the Supreme Court, as expected, enshrines gay marriage as a constitutional right, I believe it’s truly going to be, to use your phrase, ‘open season’ on Christians and those who believe in traditional marriage,” Jeffress said. “Once you make gay marriage a civil right then anyone who opposes it is guilty of a civil rights violation.”

Bob Jones University outlawed interracial dating among its students; well, until they lost their federal funding and student loans, grants, etc.  They finally gave up and changed their policy, thus giving them renewed access to federal monies.  But nobody associated with the university was arrested for a "civil rights violation."

Maybe this is just the difference between being a pastor and being a lawyer.

I remember the story of a church, too, which forced out a lay couple (just members, not clergy or anything) because they were an interracial couple.  If I recall correctly, they refused to allow the marriage to take place in their church.  Despite Loving v. Virginia, no one arrested the church members or the pastor; the church was just shamed.  Whether or not they relented on their racist policy, I don't recall.  But again:  no one was jailed.

So the "open season" has never come.  Which will be good for the rabbits and the ducks.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The future of Christianity is not hipsters

It's David. No, seriously:

There's something very traditional here, with the idea that reason comes from God (see, e.g., Aquinas) and so leads to faith (obviously the pre-Pietist era of Christianity). But the idea that robots will be smarter, and therefore more Christian?  Well, you know, if you can process all information on earth simultaneously, imagine the sermon you could write!


Really, it's just too funny.

Update:  I was going to leave this in comments, but when I finished it I realized it needed to be up here:

There is huge pressure on Protestant pastors to identify and get out ahead of the "Next Big Thing." At one time Joel Osteen was identified as the "Best Preacher in America," so everyone needed to follow his example; or we needed to be a "Purpose Driven Church," a la Rick Warren; or we needed to be the next Mars Hill, or now the "hipster" pastor.

So the leap to robot pastors is not really a surprise; not to me. It's just the logic of the relentless pressure to be "relevant." Every one of those "successes" I mentioned is actually no more absurd or dehumanizing or reductionist about the Gospel than the idea of robot preachers.

It's all a matter of looking for the "silver bullet," the "One" that will save us all. Which is the real irony.....

*I have to be pedantic enough to point out this is classic Reformed theology, with the sermon (the "Word") at the center of worship, as opposed to the Eucharist, the sacrament.  Too Catholic, ya know. And the beat goes on, with a robo-drummer......

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hail to thee, our Alma Mater....

Hillary Clinton is visiting a community college today.  I wonder if if this topic will come up:

Over the past several decades, colleges and universities have come to rely on adjuncts in order to keep down education costs and tuition. According to the American Association of University Professors, "more than half of all faculty hold part-time appointments."

That simple fact usually leads to some kind of discussion about tuition costs and what students are actually paying for.  TPM cited the same statistic and made much the same argument about the poverty of adjunct teachers.   Interestingly the comments at both Slate and TPM overlooked this little fact, focussing instead on TA's (full disclosure, I was a TA for a year in graduate school, and completely in charge of the class; not just a guy handing out papers to an auditorium and grading them in some basement for the professor.  I had an office and office hours.  As an adjunct I'm still in charge of the class, get paid little better than I was as a TA, and don't have an office or office hours.  Most of my students call me "professor," not realizing I am not one and never will be.).

It's the comments where things get really interesting.  The top comment at Slate bemoans the fact any sympathy is being extended to impoverished adjuncts because "they don't have to do that job."  Because, you know, no one really needs to teach.  I mean, who needs teachers, right?

If I have to respond further to that kind of "reasoning," I can only assume you stumbled into this blog by mistake.

The comments at TPM focus on TA's and how this is just a pushing aside, if anything, of that kind of teaching.  It's the "more than half of all faculty hold part-time appointments" that disturbs me, for reasons no one addresses (well, why should they?  What do we need teachers for, amirite?).

If we are replacing more than half of our college faculty (which is well beyond the usual assumption that this is an English major's problem, English majors being emblematic of the degrees we don't really need, because we should just scrap the liberal arts anyway.  I mean, it's so medieval!) with adjuncts, we are gaining teachers who have stopped doing research when they got their degrees, and whose knowledge of the field is frozen in the year they graduated.  Not frozen in stone, but pretty well trapped in the past, which recedes more and more every year.  Adjuncts don't get paid to research or to keep up with knowledge in their field.  They get paid to stand in front of a class and to grade papers (grades being the most important part of a student's life, apparently.  I never hear from my department chair about my teaching unless it's a student complaining about the final grade in the course.).  They get paid to teach from a textbook and use a curriculum assigned to them.  They don't get paid to hold office hours (I still have memories of talking, in offices, with deans and professors; I did this from college through graduate school and into seminary.  It was, so I thought, one of the primary purposes of "higher education."  Not so anymore.), so they don't get paid to talk to students.

This is an interestingly awkward problem, because you cannot offer help to a student by discussing their academic work in a hallway (it's practically a violation of FERPA to do so anyway).  FERPA won't allow me to discuss their work via e-mail, and I don't want them having my private phone number.  I have no office, no office hours, and I'm paid by the course.  The less work I do, the better, because the number of courses I can teach is limited, I eat into my hourly rate when I do more than teach and grade papers; and I'm not going to arrange for a corner table at the local Starbucks 3 hours a week.

I never had a class in my major that was taught by a TA.  This was intentional on my part.  I went to college to learn from professors, not from recent graduates.  Now that is becoming harder and harder to do, and the result is we are eating our seed corn.  You cannot teach what you do not know, and slowly but surely we are turning colleges into high school classes.  Actually, high school teachers are, by and large, required to do continuing education to teach in public schools.  Adjuncts just need to have a graduate degree in their field; anything else they do is on their dime, and does nothing to improve their chances of getting full-time, much less tenure track, work.  Nor does it increase the per-class payment they receive by one dime.

So we are telling the adjuncts the field they work in is less and less important to academia; that their teaching skills are less and less valuable to society; and that what needs to be taught can be narrowed more and more.  We are shrinking the knowledge base, in other words; adjuncts who know only what they remember from graduate school (staying current in the field is for people who get paid for such information; adjuncts get paid to be warm bodies) are passing on diminished knowledge to people who eventually will be going to graduate school themselves and, at some point, teaching in those schools; many of them as adjuncts.

It's a noose; and we're tightening it.  In the name of what, exactly?