Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Hoc Signo Winky

Constantine's vision of the cross was supposed to be an even bet and an intervention. Constantine was, supposedly, bribed by... his subconscious? God? the pagan gods? a cloud?... to convert to Christianity purely to achieve a military victory. If he marched to war under the banner of his own nation's method of executing criminals, he would win. He would triumph under the sign of capture, ignominy, defeat, and desecration. It's a radical thing, alright.

The oddity of Constantine's vision is deeper merely than the symbology, deeper than the curiosity of God offering a goody to a pagan. For those of you who do not know history, Constantine was fighting the other emperors of Rome for sole rule. Who would be Caesar? Well, the sign at Milivan Bridge said, "You will be Caesar under the sign of the cross." He converted to Christianity, and he won.

The additional oddity is that the Christian God would have to have behaved exactly like a Roman god to be the one behind the vision. In Jewish and Christian scriptures, this is not how God works. God does not go up to strangers and say, "Build me a temple, and I'll give you riches." Look at David in 1 Samuel 19 or thereabouts, you find that David asks God first whether he should do battle or not, just as Saul had. Later, you see prophets coming to tell David that he must do X or Y, by God's decree. In the Pentecost, and in the vision that comes to Peter concerning kosher food, the vision simply appears and gives revelation without any offers, without any enticements. It is a truth and a law and a command, not an either/or. There is no indication that they have to show or boast or wear something, that they have to signify, but more that they must do or believe.

The New Testament's signs seem to reveal spiritual states within the recipient.

On the other hand, one of my favorite pieces of Epic is the end of Odyssey, when Odysseus has to make amends to Poseidon by walking inland with an oar on his shoulders until someone says, "Hey, what's that thing?" At that point, he has to plant the oar, make a sacrifice, and create a temple to the wronged god. Now that is a pagan god. The logic is the logic of the agora: "You ruined my temple, and so I ruined your life. To get me to stop it, you need to give me a new temple where the people would never worship an ocean god: far, far inland!" Poseidon is bargaining for cult. It's quid pro quo.

For years and years, I've been bothered by the idea of signifying the invisible, of "testifying" in public without being asked. Let's be extremely clear, here, lest someone accuse me of even more heterodoxy than I already have. "Testifying" (I'm not fond of the term, as it has a pretty heavy gender bias in it, if we're frank and aware, and a woman's testimony would be untrustworthy) is something I have no problem with.

Look, I don't want to take any chance of maligning the Holy Spirit. Again: I have enough weight cast on thin ice of fire as it is. Constantine's vision may have come from the Holy Spirit as an act of Grace. That, unlike a vision of revelation, makes perfect sense. That the Spirit would use the man's own innate voice to get him to the point of making a decision, that it would get him to the brink, is possible, but it just doesn't seem like God to go around looking to add converts. Let's be manifest for once: Why does Jesus command his disciples to spread the word? Is it to swell the congregation? Is it to get more money? Since Jesus didn't have any money, rode a borrowed donkey, stayed in homes people loaned him, slept in public fields, and dressed in common homespun, it's not very likely that the Lord wanted a new Reverend Ike Cadillac. Jesus tells his disciples to "preach the good news of Kingdom of God," not to preach the good news of a new church with four new video screens and a dynamite youth leader and three services a day and a radio outreach and several books of fascinating sayings that are guaranteed to save your marriage.

Well, never mind that. I may be wrong about Constantine.

I feel a bit more secure, though, in my disquiet with Constantine's descendants. "By this sign, I will drive." The ichthus symbol, which was used by early Christians as a furtive form of identification during an era of persecution, has become an ubiquity on American roads. One website promises, of the symbols, that, when you see them, "You will smile (in bumper to bumper traffic), because Jesus loves you." That these symbols are affixed the the rear bumpers exclusively is telling, as the symbol is intended to inform the person symbolically and literally powerless and inferior that the vehicle ahead, superior, and advanced is driven by the forgiven. I have seen the symbol combined with other placards of controversy, such as, "Not perfect, just forgiven" and the evergreen "If it ain't King James it ain't Bible." However, the symbol has occurred most often solo. People who would never plaster their cars with bumperstickers will put the ichthus on, and always on the bumper.

I will leave aside the fact that it finds a home on the vehicles often decried by the pastors who organized What Would Jesus Drive?, because there is no class or race or sex that owns the symbol. It's everywhere. It's a visual assumption these days. In fact, it has become so automatic a device and herald that it has generated a wide variety of parody symbols, and those, too, have become so common as to have lost their meaning.

The folks at have the only answer I have seen for the purposefulness of the sticker. They suggest that, unlike every other bumper sticker in America, the ichthus is not there to tell the other drivers about the car owner, not there to identify, but rather to spread a message of healing to other Christians. I have to give them credit for their creativity, but I cannot quite believe that they are accurate. The ichthus sticker is an emblem of one's faith, a way of telling the poor schmo behind you, "I'm a Christian." From a way to identify and establish community in secret, it has gone to a method of boasting or taunting. It is a form of pride or antagonism. Is the agnostic or atheist behind you supposed to honk her horn, pull up, and ask to hear your conversion narrative? Is he supposed to see the sticker and be nicer to you, as a driver? Is he supposed to realize that there is an army of Christians, and his kind are outnumbered?

Further, what are you actually saying with the sticker? Are you saying that you are a Christian, or that you are devout? You tell me that you practice your faith in a way that I probably cannot share very easily. You tell me that you see faith as a matter of public action and political identity. I see my political identity as an outgrowth of my faith. Finally, is your soul something as fixed and clumsily two dimensional as a cartoon or cartouche? Does your soul flow from days of faith to doubt, piety to dullness, fire to chill? Is your faith alive, or is it a static accomplishment to be chalked up and then marked in chalk lines on the bumper?

Speaking of making the ineffable indelible, how different is the impulse behind the ichthus bumper sticker from the "Purity Ring?"

I went looking for an illustration for you. I found this: Generations of Virtue Purity Rings.

about that.

Generations of VIRTUE (see esp. #4 & #7). Yep... as Shamela would say, "He comes abed now, Mama. O Lud, my vartu! My vartu!" A generation of vartu would result.

Anyway, there are purity rings aplenty, and we need to maintain our Purity of Essence.

Now, of course, this "purity" and "virtue" are both references, not coded at all, to virginity. While the abstinence movement has a motto that is semantically and philosophically suspect ("True love waits"), as well as theologically null, they have learned exactly one lesson from previous attempts at genetic clamp down: they have chastity control for both male and female alike. Both boys and girls are encouraged to spend money on special rings that they can wear that will prove that they are virgins. Girls at school calling you a slut? Slip one of these on your finger, preferably from a fine jeweler, and you can show off your taste in jewelry, your class, and put those rumors to bed (but nothing else). Your son is hording stacks of Hustler, and his "history" tab on Internet Exploder shows Red Tube and other nasty sites? Weld this thing on the offending hand.

Let's assume, just for the sake of argument, that the children want these items. I have not been convinced of it, but let's make the assumption. If they do, their motives will come from the sort of true purity that the adult world has forgotten and cannot access.

However, whether the desire for the rings comes from the children or the adults, let's step back and think about what they are for just a second. They are visible emblems of hymeneal state! These are the most primitive, pre-industrial, bride-price, gauche, commodifying, reductions of the value of the person to a single experience that we could come up with. They turn a single event into the meaning of the girl. The boy can be "pure" again. He can wait some more. She, though, is testifying. She is advertising her virginity.

I find this vile. I find it a horrific thing to do to one's daughter, to see in someone else's daughter, to accept in social behavior. It is advertising.

"By this sign, you may conquer," it says. It reduces our young women to flaps of skin, to incidents, to accidents, to crimes, and then it slaps a sign on them, a seal.

I pray we return to carrying our signs in our hearts and living our faiths rather than advertising them.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Irrelevance of Evolution

"If a minister believes and teaches evolution, he is a stinking skunk, a hypocrite, and a liar." -- Billy Sunday, 1925Well, there are few stupid arguments as stupid and stupidly hot as "evolution," with the very name of the debate telling lies and the participants occupying increasingly weird positions in order to have absolutely nothing to do with the other. Instead of extending an open ear or mind to one another, they begin from the assumption that the other is either an agent of evil or intolerance and then proceed to revile and ostracize.

I, of course, have no real problem with the idea of the Origin of Species in adaptation to environmental pressure and the morphological and genetic changes necessary to create greatest fitness for an environment. I don't have a problem with the earth being quite old. I don't have a problem with God working over a very long time. I don't worry about it much, either.

I don't worry about the "theory" part, either, because there have been multiple adaptations to environment in my lifetime that have generated new organisms, if not new species (speciation is slow, even for bacteria, because we talk about species in terms of sexual reproduction and viability of young, and I don't think bacteria get it on). The moths adapting to soot.... Meh. I'm not a bird. If someone "proves" evolution tomorrow, my beliefs in the Advent won't change, and my belief in the resurrection won't change, and my belief in a single God won't change. If someone "proves" creation tomorrow, my beliefs will be similarly unchanged.

Does this mean that "the Bible is wrong?" Well, my illustration, above, is of Noah's Ark, and you can read Augustine's Civitas Dei for his allegorical reading of the Ark. To him, the Ark was the human body, and it would be saved by the dove, as Christ would save us in the sea of sin and death. If that argument by analogy bothers you, you can look at it another way entirely and ask whether or not God made a Covenant with the human race that, although they had sinned in Eden and shown that they were going to go for the sinful path every time and build every city on the master plan of Sodom, He would agree to tolerate the wickedness of the world if His people held true to Him? Does that seem like a valid understanding? Is it fit cosmology? In fact, if you put a time line out, where the events are spiritual rather than chronological, you have generation, choice, degradation, choice, degradation, choice, salvation, choice....

I was talking to a group the other day about sex and gender. The group had within it some people who don't believe in Evolution. They will not tolerate anyone who mentions evolution from the podium, either. That does not hem me in as much as you might think, I find. Why would I need to talk about it? What on earth do pre-humans have to do with any topic I'm going to discuss?

Do these students believe in genetics? That is all they need. They only need to have been to a farm, or had dogs, or seen children. They only need to know about primitive animal husbandry. If parents have an innate trait, or even an epigenetic trait from their environments, there is a strong chance that the same epigenetics (through gender) will be at play in their same sexed offspring and genetics will be at work as well.

The point I was getting to was the debatable science about masculine and feminine brains. According to this research, exposure to testosterone in vitro causes the brain to go off towards war toys and logic (and rape, of course, because men are all rapists). Lacanian "research" agrees that women's "polymorphous perversity" means that their egos are amorphous and marshmallow-like and therefore non-linear. The masculine is arrows and sticks and guns and spears... especially spears. On the brain side, the masculine is plot that moves strictly and rigidly from 1 to 10, while the feminine wanders and floats. Lyric poetry is feminine, and epic poetry is masculine. Masculine is Stephen King, and feminine is ... well, no one agrees.

When I've had these sessions with these skeptical students, I have pointed out, over and over again, that it is always possible that these people make correct observations and have silly explanations for them. I.e. it is possible that Freud's description of the "anal retentive" personality is spot on, that there are loads of folks who fit it precisely, but it's really unlikely that all of them are secretly clenching their sphincters and enjoying it.

Anyway, it occurred to me that I could go at sex and gender and brains and bolster this stuff, overcoming their reluctance, with evolution-ish explanations. I said, "Just think back to all of us living in tribes. We don't know anything about germ theory, and we don't know anything about machine guns. We don't know about viruses, and we don't know about advanced flight. Now, it makes sense that the men who go out to kill the bear without worrying about how the bear feels are going to be the best men in the village, doesn't it? It also makes sense that women who worry constantly about how clean their tents are are going to have the healthiest food, the healthiest children, the healthiest husbands, and the healthiest homes, and if they worry always about the health and emotions of the children that their mates are ignoring, they're going to be better mothers. We don't need evolution for that to get passed on, do we?"

I just thought I would share this. Everyone shrieks in horror, but "evolution" has to do with the derivation of species and genera. Genetics and inheritance is something I don't think even the most radical literalist would deny.