Friday, January 29, 2010

The More Things Change ...

Presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin was Jon Stewart's guest on the Daily Show last night, and they were talking about the State of the Union address. Goodwin mentioned a classic gaffe committed by President Nixon when he delivered his last State of the Union in January 1974, about eight months before he resigned.
Nixon ignored Watergate almost entirely in the speech and, instead, laid out accomplishments of his administration (including, notably, passing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts), and setting forth his agenda for the coming year. It was whistling past the graveyard, to be sure.
Among the things he asked Congress to do was reform welfare. He intended to ask lawmakers to end the present discredited program but instead asked them to end the "discredited president." Perhaps he was simply expressing an unconscious desire to be put out of his misery!
Having heard the story I just had to find the speech and hear it for myself. I could not find a clip of just that amusing error so I wound up listening to about half of the speech.
It was an interesting memory jog. Nixon truly was a remarkably poor public speaker and just plain bad on TV. It is amazing that he managed to get elected in the first place. It was a hoot to see all the early 70s fashions sported by members of Congress, and to note that it was a much paler and maler gathering then. The technology was amusingly ancient -- no teleprompter for one thing, and certainly no camera shot from the ceiling.
The most sobering aspect of the speech was the litany of challenges Nixon laid before the Congress. A contemporary president could recite the same list today -- and be thought ahead of his time! Health care, energy, transportation, jobs. The perennial challenges remain.
Sadly, a contemporary president who introduced programs such as those that Nixon called for in 1974 would be called a socialist by his Grand Old Party. He dared to mention gas rationing, and though he opposed it it was clear that he considered it a live option. He celebrated his administration's environmental record which included creating the EPA and signing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. And he called for a health care reform program that was more far reaching than the one today's Republican Party dismisses as Socialist designs for death panels.
Who would have ever imagined that any liberals would look back fondly on anything associated with Richard Nixon?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Drive-By Atheism

I was walking out of the church building with a group of friends last evening when some guy driving past rolled his window down and shouted, “Jesus isn’t real.”
We’ve all been tempted to yell rudely out the window at other people from time to time. The guy who cuts you off in traffic might merit a “yahoo!”; the woman who walks cluelessly across the street while yakking on the cell phone deserves a “hang up and walk!” But I’ve never been tempted to verbally assault someone else’s faith convictions.
I wonder what motivates that. More to the point, I wonder why atheists these days are so boring.
Come on. Jesus is not real? How silly is that. That the man, Jesus, lived is all but self-evident unless one wants to believe that within a generation of his life a series of letters and other writings attesting to his life began to spring up in various small communities throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. Oh, to be sure, nothing like contemporary history existed at the time so none survives. Moreover, the writings that do attest to him describe a poor man from a marginal background who led a ragtag group of outcasts on a somewhat Quixotic religious quest that led to a shameful execution – not the type of personage about whom history is ever written.
It beggars belief to suggest that writings describing such a life would emerge within 20 years of his death, and that small gatherings of people dedicated to living in the way of Jesus would similarly emerge. Who, if trying to found a religious movement – much less an institution – would make up a story about such a socially insignificant founding leader? Yet there is plenty of contemporaneous evidence of such writings and such communities.
So, I’m sorry Mr. Drive-by atheist, but Jesus was real.
As to the Christ of faith? Well that is, of course, a different kind of question altogether, and a much more interesting, nuanced and compelling one at that.
I find contemporary atheist dull and bombastic. They continue to slay a God who died a long time ago, and seem incapable of imagining any different image of God than the capricious, puppet master, omnipotent albeit slightly crazy old-man-in-the-beard-sitting-on-high being who rules the universe in a manner that is demonstrably unjust.
To unpack that just a bit by way of recent news, the God who protected some from the earthquake in Haiti but was somehow mindless of the 200,000 others buried under tons of rubble, is the strawman of contemporary atheism. To be sure, that God is also on the other end of the God-phone of many faithful people who often lose that faith when, in cruel blindness, this God happens to miss out saving a loved one from tragedy or disease. That God shows up all too often in the sermons at funerals of those who die tragically young and whose pastors attempt to comfort the survivors with some variation on “God just needed another angel so He called Billy home.”
Lousy theology and even worse pastoral care! But that theology describes a God at whom contemporary atheists take regular and loud aim – even out the windows of passing cars. That God is long dead, and well buried. It is a sad fact of contemporary faith that His funeral continues in houses of worship on many Sunday mornings (and on the Holy Days of other faiths as well).
The God toward whom Jesus points is a far more interesting power who works through human life in all its joys and its suffering to bring about redemption and resurrection. Where is that God amidst the rubble of Haiti? First, in the midst of it with those who suffer, but also empowering and sustaining all of those brave souls who are working tirelessly to dig out, to rescue and to restore – all those working for resurrection, for the rising up of new life from the very real deaths.
Christ lives in the midst of that suffering.
That God is known, as the Johanine literature of one of those ancient gatherings of people of way knew well, simply as love. And that is enough theology for today.