Sunday, September 25, 2011

My first book -- due out later this year!

My first book, The Crazy Side of Orthodoxy: How Traditionalist Ideology and “Changeless” Canons Hurt the Orthodox Church is tentatively schedules for publication by the end of 2011. The book is a satirical expose on ancient Christian laws which you've probably never heard of – like how having a Jewish doctor could get you excommunicated! It is also an intra-Orthodox refutation of what is known as the “Orthodox Traditionalist movement.” What's that you ask? Well it is basically the Eastern Orthodox version of Protestant Fundamentalism and “back to the Bible” ideology, but instead of getting “back to the Bible” we're told we must “get back to the ancient Canons.” Those of us in the Orthodox world are told the Church must do this because these ancient Canons were actually “inspired” by the Holy Spirit are are eternally binding.

The problem of course is that the Traditionalist movement believes these Canons are simply Liturgical in nature, like telling priests to grow long beards, or how many candles should be set upon an altar. They don't realize Canon law also declares that suffering a miscarriage, being raped, and having a Jewish doctor are “crimes” worthy of excommunication. Yes, the Christian Church really was (is?) that stupid. While most of Christendom has grown up and realized such laws are crazy and therefore have written them off the books, they actually remain on the books in Eastern Orthodoxy. That's right, technically speaking, Orthodox Christians in the 21st century could get excommunicated for the “crime” of having a Jewish doctor – but not for the immoral act of owning slaves.

As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and a former Orthodox (as well as Protestant) Fundamentalist myself, I believe that these laws are crazy. Yet I also believe that such Fundamentalism can be refuted by illustrating the ridiculous implications involved with excommunicating people who eat Matzo bread, dance at weddings, or become “whoremasters” – okay that last one isn’t so ridiculous, but the rest are quite insane.

My basic argument is that the Christian Church, with all its varieties, both ancient and modern, is simply an imperfect human institution, and that Christians must move beyond blind Fundamentalist appeals to ancient authorities (which unwittingly calls for the excommunication of Jesus, the Matzo bread eating Jew!) and into a new kind of faith, which focuses more on God and neighbor, rather than sacred texts, traditions, and beliefs. I don't think Christians should be afraid to ask questions, question authority, and yes even your own Church. By the way, non-Orthodox Christians shouldn't feel too cocky because for the first 1000 years of Church history these laws were universal within Christendom. So just be thankful you weren't born during a time when it was illegal for a Christian to attend a Bar Mitvah – or you could just be thankful you're not part of a denomination where it is still illegal! And if you're not a Christian or not a believer at all I think you'll get a kick out of this book too – after all, some aspects of religion really are crazy – and Canon law is certainly one of them.

The book is being published by Regina Orthodox Press (Salisbury MA), though it's not up on their website yet, but I will continue to keep you posted. When I know more, so will you.

Middle ground: The way for the middle class

Check out my newly published article Middle ground: The way for the middle class in The Superior Telegram, or you can read the article online: 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Target website crashes, bigger news that 100,000 acre forest fire

What kind of world do we live in when the "news" of the Target website crashing makes the national morning news broadcasts, but the second largest fire in Minnesota history (soon to be largest) doesn't? If that's not enough of a shock, the 100,000 acre forest fire also happens to be burning on the largest designated non-Motorized Wilderness Area in the entire nation: the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). Target selling some new fad product makes one of the top 3 news stories, but the Governor of MN calling out the national guard to fight the forest fire doesn't? What is going on?

The news organizations I speak of are supposed to be the "liberal/tree-hugging" media, why weren't they reporting that one of the most pristine Wildernesses on earth is awash in flames? Northeastern Minnesota is suffering from a severe drought and the fire is so large that the only thing that is likely to control it is the onset of Winter.

I've been to the BWCAW countless times. My family has owned property in Cook County Minnesota since the 60's (just a plot of wild acreage, 12 miles from power lines, and a mile from the nearest road), I even lived in both Ely and Grand Marais for a time. Though I don't live there anymore, but live in beautiful Solon Springs Wisconsin, in so many ways I still call the BWCAW area "home". And no one, except the local media (and the weather channel) seems to care.

Please send your thoughts, wishes, prayers (or whatever way you hope for a good outcome) towards the firefighters, the locals in the BWCAW area, and the land itself. I know fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, however I personally believe that the current drought in the area is far from "natural" and is at least partially enhanced by global climate change. Even if it's not, it's still going to be sad to know that so much of the Superior National Forest will never look the same in my lifetime -- a pain which would be easier to embrace if someone beyond the borders of Minnesota and Wisconsin seemed to care.

Where has the middle gone?

   On last Wednesday night's MSNBC Republican debate, a “get the government out of my hair” sentiment seemed to be one of the major themes of the evening. Should the government force people to give their children life saving vaccines? No! Should the government force industries to adhere to safety standards? No! Should we have a government at all? Well, if the candidates themselves weren't all running to be the head of an entire branch of government, I would almost believe that their answer to that would be no as well.
    Most Americans, even us “evil” progressives and moderates, really do know that government is not the answer to all, or even many of this country's problems. In fact, government can be, and often is a cause of our problems; however, the way in which government has been demonized by the political pundits as of late, is nothing more than a cynical play on the American people's emotions. When the American people hear about General Electric not paying taxes last year, or read about the obscene amounts of money which will be funneled through the political campaigns over the next 14 months, they are reviled by such facts and really do wish government could be put on a leash. Yes government can be bad, we get it – but it can also good, as the President pointed out on in is speech to Congress, and the Nation, on Thursday night.
    The GI Bill, Medicare, Social Security, and job safety regulations are also a part of government. I would also throw in a few others examples, like public libraries and schools, police departments, financial aid and feeding and clothing people flooded out of their homes are all ways in which government succeeds and contributes to our society. Why not also throw in the moon landings while we're at it since that too was the “evil” government at work.
   Of course even the most anti-government politicians don't really dislike “all” government. They only dislike the parts which are politically expedient for them to dislike at the moment. For example, Governor Perry doesn't like government run Social Security, but apparently has no problem with the government enforcing life saving vaccinations. Senator Bachmann doesn't like government when it tells energy companies and “big oil” to not do things like pollute the environment, or poison our water supplies, but she really seems to like the military – which of course is also a wing of the government.
   Ron Paul is really the only Republican who is truly consistent. In fact he is so consistent as to unwittingly illustrate what the the country might look like if we took the anti-government approach to it's extreme conclusion. Safety standards for the auto industry? Who needs that! The American people are smart enough to not buy a dangerous vehicle. Of course without government enforced safety standards, all cars would be equally dangerous, seeing as how they wouldn't even have seat belts.
    The President's speech, was a direct attack on this extreme anti-government ideology. It will undoubtedly draw much anger and opposition by the Republicans, Tea Party members, and radio and TV pundits. He called the anti-government crowd's bluff. Now we'll have to wait and see if they really think it politically beneficial to continue to argue that we should have a government which cannot tell a huge corporation not to dump toxic waste in our back yards and rivers, cannot pass safety laws in the work place, or one which cannot send returning veterans to college.
    Do most Americans really want a government which can do nothing – bad or good? Or do they simply want government to be restrained? Ultimately it will be up to the American people to decide; however, the political battle lines have been drawn, and for the first time in his Presidency, Barack Obama seems to have finally realized that for him to have any chance of accomplishing anything of consequence, he has to be the one who actually draws the proverbial line in the sand, rather than continue to allow his opposition to do so. Will it make any difference to Americans? Only time will tell.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Politicians and double speak

This past weekend, Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann “answered” a question about her stance on homosexuality by declaring: “I’m running for the Presidency!” Then on Wednesday’s August 17th edition of CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, Tea Party favorite Christine O’Donnell, when asked about her position on homosexual marriage, claimed that the question was “rude,” and then (at the urging of some mysterious shadowy figure off camera) took off her microphone and walked off the show. I mean the nerve of some journalists, asking a politician a political question. Just who does he think he is anyway?

Lately, there seems to be a growing trend among politicians to not only “double talk” their way around answering questions (as they’ve always done), but to flat out ignore the actual question, and instead answer a completely different question. “What do you think about homosexuality? – I’m running for President.” Uh, Mrs. Bachmann, that wasn’t the question. We already know you’re running for President. We want to know whether or not you still believe homosexuals are satanic. Apparently Mrs. Bachmann was suffering from some sort of hearing problem that Sunday morning.

In those moments just before a politician attempts to “answer” a hard question – when they’re frozen like a deer in the headlights – what do you suppose is actually going through their minds? Are they thinking, “I hope I don’t look as freaked out as I feel?”, or maybe, “If I answer an unrelated question, will it appear as though I am prescient of a question which the journalist is going to ask me two minutes from now?” In fact, one wonders if they’re thinking of anything other that how to get themselves out of a jam.

As for Ms. O’Donnell’s actions, I think we should actually give her some credit. At least she didn’t pretend she was hard of hearing and answer an unrelated question. She simply claimed that a journalist shouldn’t ask a politician politically relevant questions, because it’s rude, and then walked off the set. Some people might feel as though Ms. O’Donnell’s actions were a bit cowardly, but I think they were quite brave. She simply had the “courage” to do what Mrs. Bachmann didn’t, but probably wanted to: tell all of those mean journalists that she didn’t want to answer hard questions, because hard questions just aren’t fair!

Journalists for a number of years have increasingly allowed politicians to get away with this sort of question dodging. With the recent behavior of some politicians, one begins to wonder whether or not most politicians today simply assume that they shouldn’t be asked difficult questions at all. Thanks to Ms. O’Donnell, we don’t even have to wonder because she publically professed to Piers Morgan, that as an invited guest she should only be asked questions which she wants to answer.

We shouldn’t blame Ms. O’Donnell though. In fact, we should thank her for exposing what are the likely expectations and desires of most politicians today. Ms. O’Donnell’s only fault is that she wears her heart on her sleeve. She is at least genuine in her opinions and was honest to say she believed hard questions were unfair. Ms. O’Donnell has done us all a favor by unwittingly exposing the politician’s mindset, which is the direct result of the vast majority of American journalists allowing politicians to get away with not answering questions for at least the last decade. Most journalists no longer push politicians to get the tough answers because they want people to like them.

If journalists continue to allow politicians to believe that an interview is merely a platform, for them to give book recommendations or to espouse their religious beliefs free from criticism, someday Americans won’t be electing Presidents based on a candidate’s policy stances, ability to work with others, and other relevant qualifications (since they won’t be talking about those things), but we’ll be deciding whom to vote for based on more trivial matters, like who has the nicest smile, the best hair, the coolest accent, or what religion they’re affiliated with – oh wait – that kind of sounds like how we’re doing things today, doesn’t it? Oh well, at least we can thank Miss O’Donnell for pointing out that the future is already here. - (Written August 18, 2011)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Michelle Bachmann is "running for the presidency."

When Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann was recently asked to explain her past statements on homosexuality, she insisted that she is “running for the presidency of the United States!” Well, that certainly clears up her position on homosexuality, doesn’t it? Is there anyone out there, who is actually paying attention to the world around them, that didn’t know that Mrs. Bachmann was running for President? I didn’t think so.   

It’s quite amazing how politicians can so readily be asked such clear, straight forward questions, and then so blatantly refuse to answer them. Even more amazing is how journalists these days actually allow politicians to get away with such question dodging, as if they were thinking to themselves “Oh you don’t want to answer that question? That’s fine by me, it’s not as though I’m supposed to be asking tough questions or anything.” 
Bachmann’s answer that she is “only” running for President, and not some sort of moral judge, seems to have satisfied a great many people. As long as she doesn’t “judge them” what’s the big deal, right?

After all, even if she really does believe that homosexuals are in “personal bondage, personal despair and personal enslavement” (as she told the EdWatch National Education Conference in 2004), these are her own “personal” religious beliefs which have nothing to do with her ability to do the job which she is applying for.
This argument seems pretty sound – if you’re applying for a job at Wal-Mart! Mrs. Bachmann however is not applying for a job at Wal-Mart, where her personal religious beliefs wouldn’t affect her ability to stock shelves, ring the register, or sell flat screen TVs; she is applying for a job which would make her the most powerful human being on earth.

It’s true that America has no religious test for public office. This is one of the great founding principles of our nation; however, this doesn’t mean that within the realm of public opinion there isn’t an “unofficial” religious test. Don’t believe me? Just ask President Barack Obama, who was written off by many people as being “unqualified” because he was a “secret Muslim.” Of course no one ever produced any evidence for this claim, but since when do Americans need evidence to make outrageous claims? The 9/11 “Truthers” certainly don’t.

Anyone, regardless of their beliefs and religious or non-religious affiliations, should be able to run for president. That’s just a given. However, this doesn’t mean that we, the American public, have to buy into those beliefs or let politicians off the hook when we find out that what they profess is seemingly absurd. If you want to run for President, but worship the Klingon Messiah Kahless, that’s just fine; it is your right to worship a fictional, non-existent, galactic savior. However, if as a believer in Kahless, you also believe that several thousand years ago he personally handed down a collection of “infallible” holy texts to some ancient desert dwelling nomads, and that these texts instruct his followers to burn all homosexuals at the stake – by default, your personal beliefs have just become a part of public discourse.

If that’s not a “realistic” enough scenario for you, try and imagine a white Southerner running for President, who for decades claimed that the institution of slavery should be brought back because, like St. Augustine of Hippo, he believes that slavery is a part of God’s punishment for “the Fall” of Adam and Eve. Would you really buy into his “new” explanation that he is merely “running for President,” and that such beliefs would have no bearing on his job performance as the most powerful man on earth? Or try and imagine a guy running for President who had on multiple occasions claimed that women could only be “saved” by remaining barefoot and pregnant, as the New Testament epistle of 1st Timothy (2:12-15) declares. Would people brush off these statements as quickly as they have done with Bachmann’s position on homosexuality?

A Presidential candidate’s personal religious beliefs can be as rational or as outrageous as they wish, but when those religious beliefs cross the line from merely being personal beliefs, into beliefs that might affect other human beings in the form of public policy, then those beliefs become fair game for any criticism that the news media, journalists, skeptics, believers, and the voting public can throw at them.

Mrs. Bachmann is free to believe anything she wants. She can believe that the Klingon Messiah Kahless will return one day and set the galaxy free from tyranny. She can believe that Jesus is her own personal savior, and she can even believe that being gay is satanic; she just shouldn’t expect the voting public to believe that her “personal” beliefs don’t play a role in her ability to govern a nation of 300,000 million Americans. (Written on August 16, 2011.)