The Apostle Paul as a Sweep

Let’s just grant “Chim chiminey, chim chiminey, chim chim cher-ee” and get past it. Dick Van Dyke is without question the most famous chimney sweep in the world, but it isn’t chimney sweeps I want to talk about. [1]

IBT Roles

The way International Bicycle Tours (IBT) sets up their trips, the “Sweep” is one of the riders who has a specific and clearly defined job. It is not the only job. There is a leader, after all, who knows where we are going and that we need to be there by 11:00 to meet a lecturer who is going to tell us all about the historic past of wherever we are. [2]

Then, in the IBT system, there is the Corner. A lot of different people get to be Corner during a day, because the Corner is whoever is riding behind the leader when the route takes a turn. The job of the corner is to stand there and tell the rest of our tour which way the leader went. When everyone but the Sweep has gone by, the Corner swings back into the line and someone else is the Corner at the next turn.

sweep 1As I implied in the last paragraph, the Sweep is the last in line. That is why he or she is called the Sweep. Because it is the Sweep’s job to be last, and there are implications to that to which I will return at the end. I have been a Sweep with IBT any number of times and have even written about how much I enjoyed the experience.

It is in that sense that I am imagining Paul as a Sweep. In every group of cyclists, there are those who want to go faster and those who want to go slower. The Sweep doesn’t care; his job is to be dead last no matter what. In these groups, there are people who want to stop and take pictures and people who want to ride up to the head of the line so they can be chosen as the next Corner. The Sweep doesn’t care. He can let the Corners go and he will have to wait, in any case, for the picture takers. His job is to come in last and make sure he doesn’t lose anybody.

Meat offered to idols

There is a good bit of material in Paul’s letters that easily be misused. If you think what he is trying to do is to line up with one faction or other in one of his churches, you will think that is his own “position.” And if you think what Paul told the Corinthians to do is what he would say to us as well, you have two problems instead of one. But if you think of Paul as doing what he needs to do to keep the whole group together and not lose anyone, it makes a great deal more sense.

Let’s take the “meat offered to idols” controversy in 1 Corinthians 8:4—9.

4On the subject of eating foods dedicated to false gods, we are well aware that none of the false gods exists in reality and that there is no God other than the One. 5Though there are so-called gods, in the heavens or on earth—and there are plenty of gods and plenty of lords— 6 yet for us there is only one God, the Father from whom all things come and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things come and through whom we exist.

These people are, following the bike tour metaphor, the fast riders. They know that there Sweep 2is only one God and that all the other “so-called gods” are mere illusions. That means that meat that has been offered as a sacrifice to one of these illusions is not contaminated for anyone who understands what an idol is. The fast riders are those who understand this. And before we look at the slow riders, let’s stop to note that if Paul were a rider on this trip and not the Sweep, he would be a fast rider. Notice the “we” in verse 4. “We (fast riders) are well aware…” Now we will look at the slow riders.

7However, not everybody has this knowledge. There are some in whose consciences false gods still play such a part that they take the food as though it had been dedicated to a god; then their conscience, being vulnerable, is defiled.

These slow riders are the people who just don’t get it. The false gods play such a part in their lives—are so real to them—that meat that has been offered to these gods is actually defiled. This is the slow rider condition: the gods are real, so the meat offered to them is spiritually contaminated, so I dare not eat it, lest I be contaminated myself. If Paul were a rider on this trip, these slow riders would be “them” to Paul; not “us.”

But now we hear from Paul the Sweep.

8But of course food cannot make us acceptable to God; we lose nothing by not eating it, we gain nothing by eating it. 9 Only be careful that this freedom of yours does not in any way turn into an obstacle to trip those who are vulnerable.

Here, Paul begins with a sentence affirming that what the knowledgeable people, the fast riders, know is true. “Meat” doesn’t, of itself, have any effect on our relationship to God. But then he says what Sweeps say: “don’t do anything that is going to lose us any of the members of the group. If you do what you do with only yourself in mind, you are going to cause trouble to others and if you are really “knowledgeable” people, that is one of the things you know. My job as Sweep is to keep the group together, and I want you to accept this artificial limitation on your behavior so that we can all ride together safely.

You need this group as much as I do, but the group is my responsibility as Sweep and I plead with you not to make my job harder. I’m not asking you to ride hard. I am asking you to ride smart.”

Modesty in Ephesus in Asia Minor

Examples could be multiplied in Paul’s other churches, but let’s consider only one more. Paul [3] is still is Sweep mode as he writes to Timothy. Or, more exactly, he is helping Timothy understand what being a Sweep really involves. Here is a well-known and violently disparaged passage from 1 Timothy, Chapter 1.

9 Similarly, women are to wear suitable clothes and to be dressed quietly and modestly, without braided hair or gold and jewelry or expensive clothes; 10 their adornment is to do the good works that are proper for women who claim to be religious. 11During instruction, a woman should be quiet and respectful.

We have two questions here. The first is extravagant dress, the second proper demeanor at the assemblies. [3] These assemblies are small gatherings in private homes. Some of the people who come are rich and some are poor. “Rich and poor” function, in the setting of 1 Timothy, the way “knowledgeable and over-scrupulous” function in Corinth. They are ways of referring to fast riders and slow riders.

Following the IBT metaphor again, Paul is telling Timothy what to do as Sweep. “There are some women who love to flaunt their wealth when the come to the assembly and they don’t care how it makes the poor women feel. Get them to see the damage they are doing and stop doing it.”

Similarly, the local (Ephesus, probably) gender norms specify a certain demeanor of women in the assembly. Every woman who challenges these gender norms in the assembly makes it harder for the traditionalists. Get them to see the damage they are doing and stop doing it.”

Dignity in Ephesus, Georgia

There is no question that the specification of gender norms for the women of Timothy’s church is offensive to many modern women. And without considering why they have every reason to be offended by this passage, let’s consider what Paul’s advice would be to a pastor in Ephesus, Georgia. If there are women who claim the full freedom and dignity that comes with the modern understanding of womanhood, what do you suppose Paul the Sweep would advise that pastor? The Sweep’s principal concerns, remember, are to keep the group together and not to lose anyone.

Sweep 4I think Paul the Sweep would advise that pastor to open the church fully to its women members. Pastors, Session, deacons, lectors…everything. These are the fast riders, remember, so Paul the Sweep might very well prevail on them to be gentle with the slow riders. We would say, using a modern idiom, not to rub their noses in it. He would be as opposed to a flamboyant feminism that demeans all men and drives them out of the church as he would be to a submissive role for women that hoped to keep the men by offering them an illusory (and unchristian) dominance.

If we can imagine Paul not as a taker of rigid positions or as a giver of binding commandments, but as a Sweep, committed to the safety and integrity of the group of people given to his care, then we can read him differently and appreciate his dilemma more fully.

In some groups where I served as Sweep, the role had been fully formalized. The leader and all the members of the group gathered at the barge where we met at the end of the day and applauded as the Sweep came in. It meant, after all, that everyone had finished that day’s work and everyone was safe. I think that if there is the kind of finish line Paul imagined there would be, his arrival there will be greeted by all the groups who recognize him as their Sweep and the applause will sound like thunder.

[1] If you know I live in Portland, Oregon, I should say that it isn’t Vaux’s Sweeps either.
[2] I should say that the lecture I refer to would have been arranged by Road Scholar, whose tour it is. IBT just handles the bicycle part of it.
[3] There is a good deal of controversy over whether Paul, himself, wrote the Pastoral Epistles. I am referring to “Paul” as a matter of convenience here because, for my purposes, it really doesn’t matter. I am taking a very Sweeply perspective on authorship.
[4] The reasons Paul gives for these instructions are even more troublesome than the instructions themselves. I would argue that Paul has said a good deal more that Timothy needs as the Sweep. If Timothy is also the leader, he needs a much richer understanding of just why this behavior is “good behavior” than he would need as a Sweep.

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“Jesus was brown”

This sign was sprayed onto the bike path going down to the east bank of the Willamette River and I pass it several times each week. Until this last week, there was only the brown sign sprayed on the path, but when some wit added the blue sign, I began to think more about it.

IMG_0009.jpgBrown like me

I think that is the most natural sentiment in the world. Every Christian would have a stake in feeling that Jesus looks like us. I think there is merit in that. If there is an emotional response that our theology points to, “Jesus is like us.” is it. It is the emotional meaning of the Incarnation. That is why Asian Christians have Asian Jesuses and black Christians have black Jesuses and even Hispanic Christians have a Jesus that “looks like me.”

brown 8But when we get away from how good it feels, we need to consider what he actually looked like. If you are a brown person living in a predominantly white society where all the white Christians are expressing their emotional affiliation to a Jesus who looks like them, I’d think it would get wearing after a while. All the emotional affiliations would add up to a factual claim and the claim would be this: Jesus was white. [1]  This is the face referred to in the quotation below.

And I think that is where the tagger was coming from who sprayed this little protest on my bike path. It was an emotional protest on his part, as I imagine it, but had he been a forensic anthropologist, he would have expressed the same sentiment.

“British scientists using forensic anthropology, similar to how police solve crimes, have stitched together what they say is probably most accurate image of Jesus Christ’s real face, and he’s not the light-skinned figure many of us are used to seeing.” [2]

I think one of the reasons the sign made me smile week after week is that it is a protest. The tagger feels pushed on. He wouldn’t have to be Christian to feel that the white majority is claiming things they have no right to claim. On the other hand, it isn’t just a protest: it has the appearance of a solid anthropological conclusion. Three little words doing such different kinds of work.

brown 7What Jesus looked like is completely immaterial from a theological standpoint, but people who have strong beliefs about Jesus and strong feelings about Jesus might be expected to want to specify what he looked like. That accounts for the sample “ethnic Jesuses”in this essay. When you get far enough away from the issue, it comes to seem odd that we call these other images of Jesus “ethnic” but do not call the one that looks like us “ethnic.” But our own ethnos is the one we take for granted; it is the standpoint from which we look at the others.

And I’m no better, myself. I grew up of Sallman’s Jesus, above. It was “the” picture of Jesus in the same sense that the King James Version was “the” Bible. When I first saw Richard Hook’s face of Jesus (the next one down), I was really struck. I was drawn to it years before I had any idea why. Now I think is mostly the expression on his face that caught me. He looks like he is saying, “Really? And then what happened.” He is also a lot darker than Sallman’s Jesus, and I did know by then that Jesus was a Middle Easterner.

Blue like nobody

After the sign had been there for a month or so, another kid with another color and brown 6another motive made his mark. “Jesus was blue,” he says. [3] My first reaction was negative because I had been enjoying the “Jesus was brown” sign. To the extent that the first tagger’s real meaning was “Jesus was not white,” the comment that he is really “blue” does the same work. [4]

On the other hand, I think the first tagger really was brown and I don’t think that the second tagger really was blue. I think the second tagger was just being whimsical. Or maybe he had higher aspirations; maybe he wanted to be irreverent. He is not, in any case, making a positive point the way the brown tagger was.

brown 5For myself, I like the idea that everyone should feel free to invent an image of Jesus that would be at home in their own ethnic group. It is a claim of affiliation and if the Incarnation means anything at all, it means that. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone but the experts should feel free to make up factual claim about what Jesus did look like. And, considering only the facts of the case, what Jesus looked like really doesn’t matter. When we picture him as tall and handsome and masculine, we are only projecting the values of our culture onto the story of Jesus. No one really thinks that God has definitively manifested Himself to be a Middle Easterner.

[1] I wrote what turned out to be a provocative post a few years ago asking whether Jesus was short. There is only one text that might bear on Jesus’ height (Luke 19) and it is normally read as if it had to do with the height of Zaccheus, a local tax collector. Actually, the verse can be read either way, so my post asked just who it was who was short and I ran into a bunch of people who were perfectly willing to have a Jesus that was ugly, but were not at all willing to think he was short.
[2] That’s what Sean Allocca, editor of a site called Forensic Anthropology, said just before Christmas in 2015. I have no idea what he means by “accurate image.” I think “plausible image” would have been plenty.
[3] A week later, someone came by with white paint and sprayed “white” over the “blue.” It might have been whimsy. Then again, brown and white are shades we associate with race and “blue” is not.
[4] And surely he was blue sometimes. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief?


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“Did something happen to you?”

I intend this as a general celebration of the Netflix series, Shetland, so I will present just a little information about the series generally.  Here’s the blurb from

Created from the novels by award winning crime writer Ann Cleeves, Shetland follows DI Jimmy Perez and his team as they investigate crime within the close knit island community. In this isolated and sometimes inhospitable environment, the team have to rely on a uniquely resourceful style of policing. Set against a hauntingly beautiful landscape, Shetland is based on the best selling books by Ann Cleves.

Bette and I have watched everything in this series that is available to watch and enjoyed it—some of it, we enjoyed very much.  But I wouldn’t write about a TV show I enjoyed and dismissed and, in fact, there is one crucial transformation that has caught me and I find my mind going back to it over and over. And that is, actually, the kind of thing I want to tell you about.

shetland 1It concerns, Alison Macintosh, called “Tosh” on the show, and played by Alison O’Donnell. [1]  The third season comprises six episodes making a single story.  I mention that because unlike the previous seasons, there is a long time between the beginning of the story and the end.

Early in the first episode, they introduce Lowrie, (Jamie Michie)  a weird guy, an artist whose art is about death and darkness.  He is very off-putting.  He is withdrawn as well, so when he shows up at headquarters in the next episode, inviting Tosh to have a drink with him, she is horrified and turns him down flat.  We con’t condemn her for that.  We don’t know this early in the story that he isn’t a psychopathic murderer and we share Tosh’s revulsion for him as a person and for the prospect of his wanting a date with Tosh.

Early in the fifth episode—this is at least six hours of TV watching later—he shows up again at the station, but everything has changed by now.  Jimmy Perez, Tosh’s boss, (Douglas Henshall) has begun to tangle with a very scary man on “the mainland,” as they say, meaning the contiguous parts of Scotland, and this man has had Tosh abducted and raped and I’ll give you the reason for that as Tosh gave it to Jimmy.  “He said it was a message you couldn’t ignore.”

Some of the best acting in the show happens in this part of the story.  Tosh is simultaneously angry and humiliated by what was done to her.  As a Detective Sergeant, a trained professional, she is ashamed of how badly she misread the situation.  Jimmy confronts her with a very personal truth instead, that she has done nothing to be ashamed of and that the guilt is all on the bad guys.  Oddly, that didn’t go down very well with Tosh, and when I finish the story of Tosh’s recovery, I want to come back to this and ask why that might be.

Tosh comes directly back to the office after undergoing all the testing the case might eventually need and she is working productively on the case.  She is barely holding it together and all her colleagues know that.  She is right on the edge.

At that point, Lowrie sends a present to her at the office.  It is a very nicely drawn picture shetland 2of her and a bottle of wine is a fancy-looking bag.  She is outraged.  To be fair, Lowrie gets more than his share of the outrage because he is the first one to offer himself.  She goes to his house full of anger.  She yells at him.  He offers her a seat.  She yells a little more and then just sinks into the chair, staring vacantly into space.  Lowrie gets her a cup of tea, puts it on the table beside the chair and says he will be in the next room.

And then a really wonderful thing happens.  Tosh goes to sleep.  Sound asleep.  We are reminded that she cannot have been sleeping well since the assault.  They don’t show us that, but when we see her collapse into sleep in the safest place she has been since the assault, we understand.

In the next scene that matters, Tosh goes back out to Lowrie’s house.  He gestures to the bad she is holding and calls through the window, “Fancy a drink?”

Something wonderful has happened to Tosh.  We are not told just what it is.  As a person who attracted to an understanding of the mechanisms by which things like this happen, I am disappointed, but as a someone who appreciates a well-told story, I know the way they did it is better.

Whatever it is that has happened, she is able to sit down at Lowrie’s table and drink with him the beer she brought and make a perceptive observation.  “It must be great,” she says, “to be able to express yourself the way you do.”  She is not addressing him as an odd-looking man or as a completely inappropriate suitor, but as an artist, which is how he thinks of himself.  She knows that she does not have any such avenue for her own self-expression and now she knows that she really needs one.

But it is still true that the things Lowrie paints are dark and difficult, so the next question is, “Did something happen to you, Lowrie?  Is that why you paint the things you paint?”  Tosh can ask these questions because she, too, is someone that “things have happened to” and Lowrie knows it.  Everyone knows it.

Tosh wants to hear Lowrie’s story because she has a story, too.  It isn’t a story she needs to tell Lowrie—not, in any case, more than he already knows—but she is coming from a hurt place and she wonders about his hurt place.  And he tells her.  Simply.  Movingly.

She sits quietly for awhile.  Then she says, “I’m so sorry.”  And he responds, “And me for you.”

It is a very quiet and satisfying resolution of Tosh’s experience—to the extent that such an event ever gets completely resolved—but it also points back to Jimmy’s attempts to help her get her balance.

At the time Tosh was kidnapped, she was both a police officer and a woman.  The heart of Jimmy’s concern for Tosh is that she was violated as a woman and will feel the guilt and shame that women often feel in that circumstance.  I don’t have any objection to what he is trying to do, but it is notably ineffective, [2] and furthermore, it runs against the emphasis that Tosh is insisting on.  And we, as viewers, are not given much to go on as we try to understand what is taking place in the conversation.

Jimmy says that none of this is her fault.  She is a woman who has been wronged andshetland 3 bears no guilt.  Tosh says it is her fault.  She missed all the signs.  She is a trained police agent.  She made it easy for them.  All of those are fault-claiming, but they are fault-claiming in her role as a police officer, not in her role as a woman.  It almost seems, as I think back on these episodes, that if Jimmy had said, “You’re right.  You really should have seen that coming,” she would have been relieved.  That doesn’t happen so we don’t find out, but Jimmy continues to play the conversation as if the crucial question is who is guilty.  They are guilty and Tosh is not.  But Tosh responds by insisting that the crucial question is who is competent.  They were and she was not.

Clearly, Jimmy wants the conversation to be about Tosh the woman abused.  Tosh wants it to be about DS Macintosh, who was superbly trained and who, at the crucial moment, forgot some of the most important lessons.  Frankly, I’m not sure which way I feel about it as a viewer and increasingly as a fan.  The writers of the story show no interest in it at all.  Jimmy is all heart and he is a wonderful warm man and a great boss for Tosh.  On the other hand, warmth might not be what is needed right at that point, and I think I would like to follow her lead on how to play it.

She wants to be a professionally trained detective who forgot her lessons and paid the price.  And that might be the very best thing for her. [3]

[1]  I know.  It seemed odd to me, too, to use the actress’s name as the character’s name, but it helps that everyone calls her Tosh.  Except for the ones who call her DS (Detective Sergeant) Macintosh.

[2]  Maybe it was just too early.  Maybe Lowrie’s success in comforting her is mostly because it happens later.

[3]  They do signal troubles yet to come.  Billy runs the office where Jimmy and Tosh work.  He is a big teddy bear of a man and asks, as the case is winding down, whether he can give her a hug.  It’s an honest question from a really good guy.  Tosh says no and Billy accepts it without embarrassment.

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The Apostles Cred

In just a little while, I am honestly going to think about the Apostles Creed.  But I just want to savor first, the juxtaposition of “cred” as in “street cred” and “creed,” a word that could hardly be more different in our use of it.

Both are, obviously, derived from the Latin verb, whose principal forms are Credo, Credere, Credidi, Creditus.  “Cred” as in “street cred” is only a shortening of credibility.  It’s a good thing, too.  Ask yourself how the expression “street credibility” sounds to you.  Just what the apostles cred was, using that same sense of the word, is a really interesting question on which very little scripture bears.  The “creed” in the Apostles Creed is simply derivative from the first word, “Credo,” which means “I believe.” [1]

The other push in the direction of this essay came from my stepdaughter, Kathy Humphries, who have me a heat-sensitive coffee mug.  When it is cool, the entire text of the Bill of Rights appears on it.  When you put a hot liquid into the mug, whole sections disappear.  The question, of course, for anyone interested in the Bill of Rights would be, “Which sections disappear and which are left visible?” [2]

cred 4And then yesterday, a little poking around on the internet produced a company that says it will construct a mug to your specifications. [3]  I took that to mean that you give them the text you want on the mug and tell them which ones you want to disappear when the hot liquid is poured in.  I hope that’s what they mean, because I am very likely to use their services if it is.

Before we go on to engage the Apostles Creed seriously, let’s look at two instances of the apostles’s cred.  Only one of them is from a movie.  That’s pretty good for me.  I have separated them by significantly different titles.

How did you do that?

 After the disciples were empowered at Pentecost, they picked up the career of Jesus, healing and teaching.  Here is a sample from Acts 3, after Peter and John had cured a lame beggar at the gate of the temple.

Men of Israel, why are you surprised at this? Why are you staring at us as though we had made this man walk by our own power or holiness? 13 It is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our ancestors, who has glorified his servant * Jesus…16 and it is the name of Jesus which…has brought back the strength of this man whom you see here and who is well known to you.

There is no problem with cred there.  There were some more realistic looking pictures, but I picked this one because I love the looks on all three faces. (See further down the page.)

How do you know that?

Frank Quinlan and Hughie Driscoll just finished up an extraordinary journey in the company of the Archangel, Michael  They saw the mighty works.  They heard the all but incredible story.  Then Michael “died” and they went back to their own tawdry lives.  Here, they meet in a bar afterwards.

Quinlan: As far as I’m concerned, it never happened.

Driscoll: But we saw it.  We were there.

Quinlan: It never happened.

Driscoll: If it never happened, where’s your raincoat. [They both know Quinlan gave it to Michael, who was wearing it when he disappeared from their view.]

Quinlan: What is this?  If it happened, then you know what?  Then I’ve got to believe that some day [some wonderful and unexpected thing is going to happen to me]….No.  It never happened.

Quinlan’s skepticism is his own particular brand, but Hughie’s claim on their joint experience is exactly what I am talking about.  It is the apostles cred, part two.

The Apostles Creed

So here it is.

1. I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:

2. And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord:

3. Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary:

4. Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried: He descended into hell:

5. The third day he rose again from the dead:

6. He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty:

7. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead:

8. I believe in the Holy Ghost:

9. I believe in the holy catholic church: the communion of saints:

10. The forgiveness of sins:

1l. The resurrection of the body:

12. And the life everlasting. Amen.

The jump from cred to creed is a substantial jump.  The Apostles Creed is a very early formulation of the belief of the early church.  You can divide it up is different ways. [4]  It is trinitarian, for instance.  Beginning at clause 1, at clause 2, and at clause 8 (in red) gives you the three persons of the trinity.  Clauses 9—12 are a an addendum.

It can also be divided into phrases that are easier to understand and/or believe and thosecred 3 where you really have to choose.  You can understand them or you can believe them, but not both.  I can say I believe that “he descended into hell” but I have no idea what it means.  It doesn’t meant “Hell” the way Dante pictured it.  And because it is a formulation meant to be said, it has to skip over some things, such as, for instance, why he would have done that.  The only similar citation is from Ephesians (4.9) which seems to be based on Ps. 68.  Maybe.[5]

Not to belabor this point, but several teachings of the Apostles Creed can be made credible by defining them in ways that are more in line with our times and much less in line with that of the disciples.  For instance, with reference to the Virgin Mary, we might say that we believe that Mary was a virgin in the sense that Isaiah meant it, without believing that she was a virgin in the sense that Matthew meant it.

The beliefs that require the ancient cosmological referents are another example.  “Heaven” is up as if it were painted on the dome of the sky like the Sistine Chapel.  “Hell” is down as if it were somewhere above or below the tectonic plates.  If those expressions could be given theologically meaningful meanings, rather than cosmologically explicit ones, they could be understood as well as believed. 

Or you could divide the clauses into the ones that seem supernatural to you and the ones that you think a good stringent historian would accommodate.  You could argue, for instance, that nearly all of lines 2—7 could be accommodated to a modern, theology-oriented form, except for the verbs “descended, come, ascended,” and “rose.”  Of those, the first three require cosmological structures we no longer have.  The fourth requires a completely new form of life that is not resuscitation and not “virtual” life.

And now for the mug

So, although, the ways of dividing the 12 clauses could be developed further, I think wecred 1 are ready to design a mug.  Start with a mug that has the whole Apostles Creed on it.  You can give this as a gift or as an invitation or as an accusation.  It depends largely on how it is taken.  So the hot liquid goes in and some parts of the Creed disappear.  Which parts?  Just the statement of the trinity?  Just the historically supportable parts?  Just the parts that don’t require a 1st Century cosmology?

All those would work.  But if you were designing one for yourself—which, I have to admit, I have begun to consider—there wouldn’t have to be a single rationale to what was omitted.  You could eliminate Clause 5 or parts of it because you associate them with an obnoxious professor and Clause 7 because you just can’t bring yourself to take “the quick and the dead” seriously.  You have always thought of those as categories of pedestrians in Chicago and nothing will make it sound theological to you.

You can, of course, affirm it all without understanding it all.  And there are ways of understanding the verb “believe” that allow you believe something that you don’t understand.

And if you will allow me to close with a completely irreverent recollection. I have to say I have always loved the recurring joke in the TV show Get Smart.  The agent, Max, was pretty flamboyant so far as truth was concerned and at a certain point, his boss would say, “Max, I just can’t believe that.”  Max would respond, “Well…what would you believe, Chief?  Let’s start there and work back.”

[1]  It is worth speculating what we would be saying if the first word of the Creed in Latin were credimus, “we believe.”  This could be said by any member of the church, whether he, himself, held those beliefs himself.  The verb credunt, “they believe” could have been said by a visiting anthropologist.

[2]  I was so taken with the idea that I bought a mug to give to the chair of the political science division at Portland State.  The idea I pitched, not very seriously, was that he have several ideologically significant versions made and hand them out to students as a final exam in their course on the Constitution.  The instructions would go like this. “ Pour a hot liquid into the mug on your desk.  Notice what parts of the Bill of Rights survive that treatment.  Write an essay on the philosophy represented by the mug on your desk, understanding that the mugs on the desks of your neighbors have different deletions than yours.”

[3]  It looks to me as if does that kind of thing I am going to want.

[4]  I learned today, for instance, that it was once thought to be a collective composition, such that each of the twelve phrases was contributed by one of the twelve disciples.  The only documents I have ever seen that were produced like that came from brainstorming sessions in committees and this is not the kind of document such sessions produce.

[5]  Ps. 68, 17:18 seems to be about the conquest of the holy mountain by David so that he could build a city (Jerusalem) and a temple there. “17 The chariots of God are thousand upon thousand; God has come from Sinai to the sanctuary. 18You have climbed the heights, taken captives, you have taken men as tribute, even rebels that Yahweh God might have a dwelling-place.”

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Moral outrage and moral rigor

Lee Siegel begins his examination of “moral rigor” by choosing an exemplar; it is James Baldwin. Siegel knows that “moral rigor” is going to be a tough sell and he is working for as much specific and acceptable material as he can get. So…an exemplar.

Baldwin was as committed as any writer has ever been. But the stuff of his commitment was a moral clarity steeped in intellectual difficulties and ethical complications — a labyrinthine clarity that he refused to sacrifice to prescribed attitudes.

Baldwin’s moral clarity was steeped, notice, in intellectual difficulties and ethical complications. Those sound hard. The clarity Baldwin has to offer is “labyrinthine,” which is also hard. Right away, I begin to wonder why anyone would aspire to such a standard.And…we don’t, according to Siegel. We choose, instead, “ringing moral indictments;”the hallmarks of which are:

  • absolute certainty,
  • predetermined ideas and
  • conformity to collective sentiments.

Those are what we do, in fact, choose, according to Siegel. Why would we do that? Well,218425_v9_ba to tell the truth, they don’t sound so hard when you start with the third one. “Collective sentiments” and fundamental to being human in times of conflict. We circle the wagons, we amp up our message, we jam other messages. I don’t really have any objection to Siegel’s choice of the word “conformity,” but that’s not what it feels like to belong to a team in times of conflict. The supposed one-ness of all our feelings and expressions gives us great comfort. I think I would have said, with less pejoration, “participation in the collective sentiments.”

And given that there were sentiments before you got there, the sting is also taken out of Siegel’s “predetermined.” The words of the songs we sing as Americans are predetermined. I sing “the land of the free and the home of the brave” even knowing that my country leads the world in incarcerations per thousand of population. If I were to join a group that used a secret handshake, I would ask what it is. The fact that it is “predetermined” from the standpoint of the new person, is part of why it is so attractive. You don’t catch that side of the meaning in Siegel’s “predetermined ideas.”

I think Siegel has gone too far in “absolute certainty,” but not very much too far. The lack of variation or nuance in a group’s expression is not an indicator that the certainty is absolute: it means only that adherence to “what we all know” is rewarded and deviation from it is punished.

Ringing Moral Indictments

These three indicators, Siegel’s “hallmarks,” identify the “ringing moral indictments” so common in our time and while I quibble—you might have noticed—about how those work and how they are enforced, I certainly agree with him that these traits characterize much of public discourse in our time.

And it gets worse quickly. The great strength of Siegel’s essay, it seems to me is his analysis of just how it gets worse so quickly.

In the process of abandoning the type of complex moral clarity that Baldwin practiced, we have made behavior that is unacceptable the equivalent of behavior that is criminal. An equal amount of fury is directed toward actions as morally — and legally — distinct from each other as rape, harassment, rudeness, boorishness and incivility. The outrage over a police shooting of an unarmed black teen unfolds at the same level of intensity as the outrage over what might or might not be a case of racial profiling by a salesperson in a small Brooklyn boutique.

Follow the line he traces in this paragraph from “unacceptable” to “criminal.” I think he is right about that, but consider for a minute where else that might go. We might say that we have the obligation to protest expressions or actions that we find unacceptable. We might declare them evil, rather than illegal. We might put our efforts toward protecting or compensating the victims of such actions. But Siegel is right: we go to legal.

When we go so quickly to legal remedies, I am always reminded of some very useful language that Frank Hearn provides in his book, Moral Order and Social Disorder. Hearn is a communitarian, so many of the social problems we experience really should be dealt with, as he sees it, in the community. Wholehearted commitment to institutional norms will give us both structure and freedom and they are, after all, our norms.

The word Hearn uses to describe the transfer of these issues from their natural and appropriate home in the community and into the the legal system is “juridification.” It is not a familiar word, the the meaning is clear anyway. It is the taking of an issue and placing it into the legal system, ultimately into the courts. These issues have been “juridified.” There is no way to treat these issues adequately in the courts.

And when I say “these issues,” I mean to refer to the sequence of offenses which Siegel says have become morally equivalent. It is this line that lit up the whole essay for me. It made me want to stand up and applaud. “Rape, harassment rudeness, boorishness, and incivility,” he says, have been made “morally equivalent.”

Stop for a moment and think what that means. It means that the essential character of an act as vile as rape is morally equivalent to being “uncivil.” Rape is sometimes a miscommunication, but more often it is just the brutality of a man enacted on a woman. Harassment is a good deal more subtle sometimes. Sometimes not. Rudeness depends entirely on local norms. What violates the standards of courtesy here is only the informal affirmation of belonging there. Boorishness sinks deeper in the the character. There are people who just don’t get it or, having got it, decide to offend anyway. Incivility is wholly a matter of intention and setting.

These are “morally equivalent?” Really?

And Siegel is right again, in my view, when he says that this equivalency “flattens and obfuscates,” rather than clarifying the issues we must deal with. It flattens these offenses by squeezing them into the same box and by demanding that each and every kind be protested in full voice as a moral outrage.  Consider the two pictures below.  Do they differ, do you think, in the variety of “collective sentiment?”  It doesn’t look like it to me.

Men's Basketball vs. UNLV, John Kelly PhotoThat doesn’t work. We can’t manage that much outrage and, of course, we don’t. We begin simply to disattend and deny. We excuse actions, too, if they were committed by members of our tribe. So it is only the officially sanctioned outrages, the ones that “conform to the collective sentiments” that we really have to gear up for.

There is another way of dealing with this surplus outrage and that is the way Siegel has chosen. Siegel speaks on behalf of the system as a whole when he says it just doesn’t work. Not only does squeezing all these kinds of offenses together fail to approach “moral rigor,” as illustrated by James Baldwin, but it also just doesn’t work. So he argues that we should begin to do the hard work of saying that boorish behavior is bad but it isn’t the moral equivalent of harassment.

Anyone who says that boorishness is bad, but not “that bad” is going to be attacked. Trustbaldwin 4 me on that. He is going to be said to be morally insensitive. He is going to be said to be complicit. He is going to have Edmund Burke’s most famous saying [1] hung around his neck and he will be made to wear it in public to show his status as an outcast.

Treating boorishness and incivility as “bad, but not that bad” denies the real feelings, they say,  of the butt of that behavior. And how would you know, anyway, because you have never been a black trans-sexual refugee from the sex trade and if you don’t know how such a person might feel then who are you to say that it is not “that bad? Huh?!!” And that is how people are set aside who want to make the claim that we simply cannot run for long on the levels of outrage that are being generated today.

I don’t hold out much hope, to tell you the truth, for a standard as remote as “a moral clarity steeped in intellectual difficulties and ethical complication.” That sounds like something a few people might aspire to and even fewer achieve. And I am not at all sure I am one of those people.  But I also know that the juridification of minor misdeeds and the uniform levels of outrage simply cannot be sustained for long.

We will find shortcuts. And they will be ugly.

[1] “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

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Attraction and Engagement

There is a criticism implicit in this picture that I think is largely unfair.  It could be a lot worse.  She could be dressed like a showgirl and her hope could be placed as stupid rather than, as here, as wistful.

On the other hand the person who put this together and posted it—I am going to refer to him as the Snark [1]—sees physical attractiveness (my boobs) and attractiveness of character (my personality) as mutually exclusive and that makes me think that he doesn’t really understand the situation. 

The Snark

First, I think that the Snark has a grievance.  He thinks of the upper and lower parts of the statement as in conflict with each other and he is blaming the woman in the picture for embodying that contradiction.  There is no way of knowing for sure which side of this contradiction he himself would prefer to encounter.  I’d guess, based on word choice and syntax, that it would be the physical part.  Here is why.

The word choice is “boobs.”  Synechdoche, we call it, using the part to stand for the whole.  I’m pretty sure he has physical attractiveness in general in mind, although we are a strikingly breast-conscious culture.  There are other anatomical terms that are even cruder and which are used to stand for the woman as a whole and he didn’t choose those.

The syntax part is the if/then construction.  “If I do this, maybe I’ll achieve that.”  The goal is clear; she wants to meet a man who will value her for her personality.  The means chosen is clear; she wants to dress in a way that attracts men to her physical appearance.

But “If/then” is pretty severe.  It links one condition (only) to one outcome (only).  But the circumstance where anyone chooses clothes for one and only one purpose is quite rare.  It is much more common for people to match the clothing to the occasion.  We say, “This is the kind of outfit people ordinarily wear to….” and when we are going there, we wear that kind of outfit.

It would be fair to ask the creator of this poster how he thinks a woman should dress for the purpose of attracting a man who will value her personality.  It needs to be something you can see from across the bar.

A few specifications

I’m going to get a little critical myself in just a little bit, so let’s just specify a few things to help me stay on track.  Let’s imagine that he is thinking about  “meeting a nice guy” in a bar.  There’s no reason it couldn’t be a church or a PTA meeting or a bookstore coffee shop.

And let imagine further that the women are in this bar to meet men and that they dress “appropriately.”  They want, in this scenario, to “attract” men.  What happens after that is entirely up to them because they get to say yes or no to whoever is attracted, but if no one is attracted, there is nothing to say.

And finally, let’s imagine that whatever it is that “attracts” from across the room, is not some nuance of personality.  God may indeed look upon the heart, as God told Samuel, but a man looketh upon the outward appearance pretty reliably.

The Contradiction

So…what kind of outfit is going to attract a man who will find your personality fascinating?  If the physical attractiveness isn’t enough to attract a man, nothing works.  If it is clearly an invitation to an erotic relationship, that won’t work either. (Usually.  I will close with a story in which it works anyway).  So what will work—from across the room?

I’d vote for confidence and competence.  How does this look to you?  It looks to me as if she knows what she’s doing and has every confidence that she is doing it right.  In the whole middle range between too little and too much, I think looking like you know what you are doing, what you want to happen, is going to work.


I called this essay attraction and engagement, because I see those as step one and step two.  The Snark sees them as simultaneous and also as contradictory, but I don’t.  To me, it seems perfectly natural that a woman would dress in a way that would attract a man who would want to sit down and talk.  And if he wants to buy her a drink—presuming he hasn’t drugged it—that’s fine, too.  And if, as they talk, he gets more and more engaged by her personality, more attracted to the cognitive and emotional parts of who she is (and not just the physical part), then I would say that the “contradiction” the Snark has given us has been dealt with.

Jeff and Laurie

So here’s the story I said I was going to close with. I told this story in a post on July 17, 2014.  I have hyperlinked the essay in case you want to see the context, but here is the story I wanted to tell.

I want to finish with a story about two students of mine at the University of Oregon.  Jeff is one of my heroes.  The story goes that his friends and her friends decided that Jeff and Laurie would be a really good couple, so they started pushing them together.  One night, Jeff went over to the house to pick up Laurie.  In the meantime, Laurie’s friends were upstairs helping her “get ready” for her date with Jeff.  Her friends pushed her repeatedly in the direction of clothes that were—borrowing Kristine Cranley’s categories—too loose, too tight, too low, or too high.  Laurie was feeling really uncomfortable when she went down to meet Jeff for the first time.

They sat down and talked for a little while.  Finally, Jeff said, “My friends thought it would be really good for us to get to know each other.  I’d like that, but I don’t think I can get to know you while you’re wearing that.  Would you mind changing?”  By that time, Laurie had begun to resent her friends for pushing her so far toward immodesty and to regret her own timidity in refusing to tell them no.  For these reasons and several others, she was delighted that Jeff had named her problem as his problem too.  He wanted to know her so much that he gladly passed up an evening spent with a dazzling woman wearing way too little.  It was her he wanted; not “that.”

I don’t think we can count on responses like Jeff’s, which are oriented clearly toward the personality side and refuse to be diverted by the boobs.  No reason not to be attracted by them, of course, but if finding out what this woman is like is your goal, then you need to keep moving on toward the goal.

So, let’s un-Snark the situation and just celebrate the people who are attracted, and then engaged.


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Left-leaning media

Where is the plumb line when you really need one?  A plumb line defines straight up and down, deviating neither to the left nor to the right.[1]  Everybody agrees on the absolute verticality of the plumb line because it a useful assumption to make and nobody really cares.

For media, nearly everybody cares.  And there isn’t a plumb line.

I have seen quite a few quantitative studies of “bias in the media.”  Nearly always, theyleft 2 find that the “left-leaning media” charge is inaccurate.  The goal of these scholars is to dummy up a plumb line.  They want to show, on the basis of unchallengeable scientific methodology, that the line is straight up and down.  Or that it “leans” a little to the left or to the right.  They really don’t care. [2]  What they care about is that some standard is established that everyone can agree on.  The charge needs to be shown to be true or false. [3]

If that could be done, then everyone could agree that “left” means left of the line and “right” means to the right of the line in the same way that west Portland is west of the river and east Portland is east of the river.  That’s what they want.  That’s not going to happen and in this essay, I am going to feel around a little for why that is so.

I am the plumb line

It is very hard to get over the idea that your own views and your own values are the way things really are.  All little kids are like that until the age of 5 (by some measures) or 10 (by other measures).  Eventually, they learn to understand that the person standing outside the door can see the knocker that is not visible from the inside of the house.  I think that must be a very difficult day.  Or maybe it is exciting.

Before you learn this, what you see and what is true are the same thing.  Afterwards, you have to admit that whatever the truth is, these people will see it one way and those people another.  It is still possible to say that those people are wrong, of course, or willful or hardhearted or whatever.  But all of those charges begin with the idea that different people see things differently.

And that is true even if we treat “things” just as physical objects, like inside the house or outside the house.  What if we expand “things” to mean beliefs?  When we get to beliefs, it gets difficult very quickly.  There are three reasons for that.

Why it isn’t going to happen

The first is that beliefs are a team sport.  “We,” we say, “believe this that THEY believe that.”  The great power of this formulation is that is asks whether you are really one of us or one of THEM.  If you are one of us, then a lot of good things follow.  “We” help each other, we include each other, we take pride in each other, and should a dispute come we “have each other’s back.”  For treasures like that, most people would swear that black is white and up is down.  It would be hard not to.

So a liberal who holds in his hand a well-researched report showing that there is no left 3genetic element at all in homosexuality and that, consequently, it is completely the choice of the individual—has a problem.  A conservative holding in her hands a report showing that explicit instruction in sexuality dramatically reduces the rate of pregnancies among unmarried youth—has a problem.   You would really like to follow the evidence, but you would also like to have friends and neighbors and the tribal nature of beliefs suggests that you may have to choose.

The second is that a belief system is indicated and supported by what topics are chosen for consideration.  This is the issue of “salience.” [4]  In politics, we talk about these things and THEY talk about those things.  And that is true also of news sources.  Entirely apart from any bias in evaluation—which is the next point—there is a bias in salience.  

Liberal news sources blame President Trump for everything imaginable and credit him with no achievements at all.  Conservative news sources exonerate President Trump from any blame whatever and call the slightest hint of hope, an “achievement.”  Liberal news sources talk about civil rights and the equal protections clause.  Conservative new sources talk about religious liberty and the inviolability of conscience.

Third, a belief system says that these things are good and those things are bad.  Or, less combatively, that these things are better than those things.  Or that these things are better than those things…right now.  It is too late, for instance, to restore the integrity of the American family, now that it has been torn asunder by generations of liberal permissiveness.  It is too late to stop the pollution which is rapidly heating the atmosphere, but it is too early to start planning expensive protective efforts for those communities about to be inundated by rising oceans.

Left-leaning media

If, as noted earlier, I am the plumb line, then all I have to do to form an opinion about the fairness of the media, is to see where they fall with reference to my own—that means to “our” own—views.  To be “left-leaning,” a news source would have to do two things.  They would have to focus on issues that we don’t like to talk about and they would have to say things that contradict our values and our loyalties.

left 5A common conservative belief, for instance, is that the nations of the world are persistently taking advantage of America.  We are the global policemen and the global lending agency and the global social workers and the global food bank and so on.  And in return, we get hostility, refusal to cooperate, and binding agreements with our enemies.  Now take a minute and think of what stories—we are considering only the salience question here—would violate that belief.  Countries that actively refuse our “police services” are a story that would not be covered.  Stories showing that what Americans call “gratitude” would require that a country do things directly opposed to their self-interest, would not be covered. Instances of opposition, which would be called “ingratitude” would be covered in detail.

A left-leaning news source would feature topics that we don’t really talk about in my (conservative) news “neighborhood.”  And they would take positions on those topics that we conservatives find weak or relativistic or unpatriotic unrealistic on questions of the global environment.

“Left-leaning” has nothing at all to do with whether these sources are “fair and unbiased;” it has nothing to do with equal numbers of liberal and conservative commentators; it has nothing to do with a careful grounding of the conclusions in the facts of the matter.  And how could anyone—political scientists among them—have thought it could?

It means leaning away from me.  And the further to the right I am, the more powerfully true it is that “many sources” or “most sources” of news are “left-leaning.”

I’m saying it’s a conspiracy.

[1]  The terms left and right could be said to be arbitrary.  They derive from the 18th Century French politics that put the aristocrats on the right side of the assembly and the commoners on the left, but there was no rationale for the seating and it is just a taken for granted term now.

[2]  It is easier, of course, to sell your results to your left-leaning student body or your left-leaning community of scholars, but lots of scholars would be really happy to defy their students and/or their colleagues if their data would hold up to unfriendly scrutiny.

[3]  Or…you know…adequately or inadequately supported by the data so far.

[4]  Literally, the issue of what “jumps out” for you.

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