A very good kind of place

In Portland, Oregon, where I live, there is a section of North Portland called St. Johns.  St. Johns is a pleasant bike ride from my neighborhood and my brother, Mark, and I rode up there today with the idea of stopping at Anna Banana’s Café for a sandwich and a beer.

Screen Shot 2019-08-31 at 4.01.35 PM.pngThis short essay is in praise of the kind of place it is.   It is not an assessment of a restaurant.  I would like the kind of place Anna Banana’s is no matter what its business was.  This picture is from their website.

Downtown St. Johns is a little bit on the raggedy side, so it made sense to me that the restrooms at Anna’s required keys.  There were two restrooms: the slotted spoon restroom and the black spatula restroom.  I discovered those names for myself when I went back looking for a restroom and puzzled a little while over the names.

I puzzled first in how the names identified the  men’s and women’s restrooms.  My attempts to associate “spatula” with some known attribute of men or women failed as did my attempt to associate “slotted spoon” with either, although I did experience a brief flurry of possibility.  When everything failed, I noticed that each of them was, in any case, locked, so I went back up front for a key.  There they were, hanging on the wall: one key tied to a black spatula and the other to a slotted spoon.

So I took one and opened the restroom and confronted two signs on the wall.  It is partly the signs I have in mind when I say that Anna’s is “a kind of place.”  Another part is the the people who were doing the cooking and serving seemed like the kind of people who would have wanted signs like these in the restrooms.

Here’s the first sign.

Small art pieces wanted

Instead of graffiti I propose we
collaborate on a gallery of your art or 

cast off art.  I want the pieces to come 

from a place of love, viewable by all ages.

All art must be ok’d by the barista on 

duty.  Let’s make the bathrooms a more 

interesting place.

I like it that in this tacky little sign in a restaurant restroom, there is a goal statement.  “Let’s make the bathrooms as more interesting place.”  There are lots of bad things that can be said about bathroom graffiti, of course, but “not very interesting” seems to me one of the better ones.

There is to be “a gallery of your art,” which may very well be how the graffiti artists felt about what they had been doing, but now they are invited to do something better.  And they are to do so in collaboration with the management.  You see that in both “collaborate” and in “Let’s.”  Let us make…

The management can’t prevent it anyway.  They may own the restrooms, but they can’t control what is done there.  Ownership and control are just not the same things in a setting like this and an invitation to collaboration seems a good substitute.

Here’s the second sign, pinned to the wall just below the first.


Do not flush


Paper towels

Tissues and Wipes

Sanitary products

Kittens and Puppies

Hopes and Dreams


Thank you

This one doesn’t really work the way the first one does.  The first few items are standard and there is the temptation to think you know what the rest is going to say.  It is true that each line is in a different font and that might keep some part of your mind on the lookout for ambiguities.

Still, it is a big leap from “Sanitary products” to “Kittens and Puppies.”  And the background of “don’t flush sanitary products” is not at all like “don’t flush kittens and puppies.”  I wasn’t sure how my body had responded to that prospect.  But, well before the verdict came in on how I had responded to the demise of the kittens and puppies, I came to the last line. We don’t want you to flush your hopes and dreams here.

The people who posted the sign about making the restroom a more interesting place and who solicit your art are the kind of people who would think you have hopes and dreams and who hope that you treat them kindly.  Flushing them down the toilet in the black spatula restroom is not treating them kindly.

So I left Anna’s, having had my sandwich and beer at this table on the sidewalk on a beautiful day after the first half of a very good ride and as the context for an even better conversation with Mark.

I was still happy about it when I got home, so I wrote this.  I wish all the people at Anna Banana’s Café well.  It’s a very good kind of place and I am looking forward to going back.

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Why hating “religion” isn’t going to help anything

Timothy Egan posted a pointless rant in the New York Times today.  I don’t think it will do any damage because the only people who will get past the first several paragraphs are people who want to see a really talented demagogue blistering the hides of religious hypocrites.

And “religious people” are all hypocrites,  It is “people of faith” who are worthy of praise.  And that’s why hating religion is not going to help anything.

How did “faith” get to be such a good thing when “religion” is such a bad thing?  That seems to me a question worth asking.  Or, with Egan’s rant in mind, let me put it another way: what is the rhetorical advantage of valorizing “faith” and demonizing “religion?”

First, “faith” has no content at all.  “Faith” doesn’t believe anything; it doesn’t feel any way in particular.  It does intend outcomes—good ones—and it acts on behalf of those intentions.  Therefore, “faith” is not hypocritical.  It is not institutional.  It is not doctrinal.  Faith is completely coated with teflon.

Second “faith” is being active on behalf of good causes.  You would think that a faith withegan 1 no content would be problematic.  Theodore Kaczynski had a faith.  Osama bin Laden had a faith.  Hitler had a faith.  Once you jettison the commitments to which “faith” is attached, you have dealt yourself a very mixed hand and there is no way to play such a hand with integrity.  You just “proof-villain.”  Here is the “faithful” Ted Kaczynski in a really scary prison portrait.

Religion, on the other hand, is a sitting duck.  Because it actually is doctrinal and institutional, you can show that its institutions do not always do what its doctrines require.  Any reader of the New York Times would take that for granted, you would think.

Still, there are ways of making it look worse, and Egan is all about making “it”—the Roman Catholic church, in this instance—look worse.  Egan’s premise is that the Catholic church should feel the same way about divorce that it feels about homosexual marriages.  How can you say that without, you know, actually saying it?  

You can use a verb like “frown on” to encompass them both.  That way, you can argue that when the church reacts one way to one issue (gay marriage) and another way to another issue (divorce) that it is engaging in “selective moral policing.” That’s Egan’s phrase. I have already characterized Egan’s column as a “rant” so I don’t want to be too demanding, but Egan is the one who dumped divorce and gay marriage into the same box (the Catholics don’t) so he really isn’t the one to point the finger at “selective moral policing.”

The Roman Catholic church is not Egan’s only target, of course.  There are the white Evangelicals, who are, everyone agrees, the core of Trump’s support.  (Egan calls them “the rotting core,” which does no favors to the orchardists in my neck of the woods.)

Egan’s problem is that when he unleashes a rant like this, he needs to stay away from quoting other ranters and he doesn’t do that.  

“There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump,” said Ralph Reed at a meeting of professed Christian activists earlier this summer.

And Egan explains this be remarking  

Older white Christians rouse to Trump’s toxicity because he’s taking their side. It’s tribal, primal and vindictive.

egan 2The similarity between the kind of appeal Egan is using—tribal, primal, vindictive—and the kind he is condemning is very clear to me.  It is a different tribe, of course, but if Egan wants to be spared the tarbrush he is wielding so effectively against people with “religion,” he is going to need a way to distinguish the good kind of faith (his kind) from Ralph Reed’s kind and you can’t do that without talking about the content of the faith and Egan doesn’t want to do that.  So he is left with one tribe against another.  Here is Vice President Pence digesting the refusal of the Prime Minister of Iceland to meet with him.

No good person in Egan’s column believes anything in particular.  That seems a loss to the public discussion and a particular loss to Egan.

Then there is the question of “what the Bible says.”  Let’s just say that the Bible “says” things that are of comfort to social liberals and also to social conservatives.  It is a commonplace among apologists for whom the Bible is a relevant part of the debate, to cite the comfortable ones and to ignore the uncomfortable ones.  But if you aren’t careful, you make yourself look stupid and that can’t be a good thing.

Egan ridicules Archbishop Charles C. Thompson (Indiana) for saying that he tries to be “Christ-centered” in his decisions.  Egan says that  if Thompson is going to accept a standard like that, then he should cite any words Christ may have said that bear on homosexuality.  Egan is equating here “words Jesus said”—as if that is the only applicable standard—and “Christ-centered.”  The whole Christian tradition has, by this device, been shrunk into words that are recorded and attributed to Jesus.

And, of course, we don’t need to use all the words that are attributed to Jesus, when some of them point the wrong way and others are so very useful.  

Egan cites the well-known and widely abused passage where the king, in a final judgment, says that believers will be judged by the sole criterion of how well they treated the poor and vulnerable (Matthew 25).  It isn’t much of a criticism of  Egan, frankly, to say that he proof-texts, except that he is so mean spirited to his fellow proof-texters, like Vice President Pence and Archbishop Thompson.

egan 3In this piece, Egan contributes to the degradation of dialogue about crucial public issues.  If people are looking to Egan’s writing to help them understand the role of “religion” in the public secular debates of our time or even the role of “faith” in those debates, they will look to this column in vain.

Egan reminds me very much of Jack, the Irish writer in Emelio Estevez’s film, The Way. That’s the writer with the orange pack. “Where I come from,” he says, “the church has a lot to answer for.”

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I would like to begin by changing the form of this word. The reasons will become micro 1evident. I would like to summon up parallel terms, one for offense and one for defense. I am thinking of something like the pair of fouls that occurs so often in basketball when one player runs into another. Was it charging? Was it blocking? Was it a case of really good acting?

If I change the noun “microaggression” to “microaggressiveness”—one noun for another—I will not have changed the meaning at all and it will give me the chance to introduce a parallel form, “microdefensiveness.” So people who are watching the interplay of language could say, as basketball fans so often do, “That wasn’t microaggressiveness! (Charging) That was microdefensiveness! (Blocking)”

I had a friend once who persisted in attacking my motives, my behavior, and my honesty. I did not respond well to this, is you might imagine. “Why are you being so defensive?” my friend would ask, when this had gone on longer than I should have allowed it. “I can’t imagine” I would respond, “Why do you keep attacking me?”

It was not a response that did anything good for the relationship but it did introduce me to the symmetry of aggressive and defensive acts, and that has prepared me to consider microdefensiveness today. What does it mean?

Microaggressiveness means small acts of aggression. How are they small? It is aggressive in a small way to say something which another person might find offensive not because of who he is, but because of some category he belongs to. It is offensive—in a small way—because it crosses the line of what a person—more often a category of person— might find offensive. It is mico- because it might not be any part of the offenders intention to cross that line, or even any part of his consciousness.

A Precarious Example

Let’s try an example. I hope you will find this a silly example, but when you do, I would like you to try to say IN PRINCIPLE why it is silly.

So Jed says to Hiram, “Your son’s old enough to be going to school now. Maybe you ought to buy him an encyclopedia.” Hiram thinks about it for a minute and then says, “Absolutely not. He’ll have to walk, just like I did.”

Is that funny? Well I thought so when I first heard it….oh…70 years ago. It is a discrepancy taken playfully. The discrepancy is Hiram’s confusion of an encyclopedia as a mode of transportation, of course, but it isn’t just a random mistake. Hiram hears the cyclo- part of the word as “wheel” and very plausibly imagines that it is a way of getting around. The ped- part, if it means “foot” (it could mean “child”) might imply the same kind of thing either with or without the wheel.

micro 3So it is plausible but it is only plausible if you don’t know what an encyclopedia is, which Jed does and Hiram does not. So…why does Hiram not know what an encyclopedia is? Everybody knows what an encyclopedia is.

The names Jed and Hiram connote people who live in the country. They do not live in cities or suburbs. Further, Hiram walked to school—as one would where there was no transportation provided and where he did not have a bicycle—and he thinks what was good enough for him will be good enough for his son. There is no sense here that things ought to be better for the son than they were for the father. And that’s why Hiram is so stupid. He is a hick.

There are other ways of explaining Hiram’s response, of course, but jokes use stereotypes as a quick way to lay out a lot of background information so we can get on to the discrepancy. That is why I went so far, in the previous paragraph to use words like “stupid” and “hick,” even at the risk of offending someone.

Is the person who told this tired old joke, “microaggressive?” Does the routine disparagement of rural folks constitute a microaggression? Certainly the argument could be made. It would mean giving up on the idea that it is funny because the fact is that no discrepancies are funny if they are not taken playfully.


Now I get to the part of the essay when I can cash in on the change I proposed, turning “microaggression” into “microaggressivenss”—a change of form without a change of meaning. Now we can talk about “microdefensiveness.”

Microdefensiveness would mean the readiness to take offense at very small discrepancies, categorizing them as slights. These “slights” may be deliberate, in which case they are wrong, or they may be only “insensitive,” in which case they are still wrong, but not so serious. Think of the difference between felonies and misdemeanors.
micro 2These discrepancies may be left over from earlier patterns of use, as where occupational names ended in –man. They may be national stereotypes: Scotsmen (Scotswomen too, I suppose) are stingy, French are sexy, Irish are drunk and rowdy. If you take those not as statements of belief or fact, but as the presuppositions necessary for the “witty remark” to follow, there is no reason to take offense. If you are microdefensive, there is every reason to take offense.

I remember a story about a woman who was pretending to be microdefensive—just because she thought it was funny—and got a real and serious apology from the person who thought she had been accused of an insensitivity. The woman who turned out to be the patsy of this prank had put out two barrels for recycled paper, labelling one WHITE PAPER and the other COLORED PAPER. The jokester wrote a little note on the COLORED PAPER sign saying, “You mean PAPER OF COLOR.” I thought that was pretty funny until a tearful and overwrought apology came from the woman who thought she had been called “insensitive.”

Microdefensiveness takes “how I feel,” which is often distorted into “how that makes me feel,” as the gold standard for wrongdoing. Perhaps I am not the one to say this because my awareness of just how I am feeling is not very acute, but it is hard always to know how you feel. It isn’t like looking at some inner blackboard to see what is written there. One time you might feel one way about a remark and another time, another way.

It is especially difficult, I think, to know “how I really feel” when substantial advantages could flow from feeling one way or the other. If, as is often the case among the people I know best, being offended puts everyone else in the conversation at a disadvantage, it would be much harder to know just how you feel.

micro 5Upton Sinclair is associated with the saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” That is the kind of connection I have in mind. It is really hard to recognize that you are not offended when there are such advantages to discovering that you are offended. One simply cannot reward the feeling of offense and expect it not to show up more frequently.

Furthermore, it is not any longer necessary to be offended on your own behalf. You could very well take offense on someone else’s behalf. You could say that an ethnic group or a disabled person or someone who is unusually well educated or unusually poorly educated that they would surely be offended at an expression you had used.  “Egghead” comes to mind, or “the Hottentots of Yugoslavia” made famous by George C. Wallace in his presidential bid.

You might have called a group “gypsies” when they would rather be called Roma or Lapps when they would rather be called Sami. You might refer to a person in a wheel chair as “wheelchair-bound” rather than as a “wheelchair user.” You might refer someone with a profound physical handicap as disabled, only to learn that he prefers to be called “differently abled.”

The microdefensive person you are talking to doesn’t really need to be any of those himself to imagine that the group he is thinking of would be offended by the words you used to describe them. “Speaking on their behalf,” your conversation partner might say, “I object to the way you are characterizing them.”


This interplay of microdefensiveness and microaggressiveness make social conversation a chancy affair. I think it is a self-inflicted wound upon the body politic and I wish we could find a way past it.

I remember with fondness an exchange in the movie, Millennium, with Kris Kristofferson and Cheryl Ladd. She has come back to his time from the distant future and what she knows about his time she learned from some kind of very fast brain learning device. He remarks that there have been tensions between men and women lately (1989) and she, trying to be part of the conversation, rips off a set of historical markers including bra burning, Rosie the Riveter, and “the War Between the Sexes.” So…she says, genuinely curious, how did that turn out?

Well, he says, I think it’s still going on but we could declare a truce just for tonight.

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Journalism Rears Its Ugly Head

Nothing against journalists.

The “journalism” I have in mind is the perverse practice of reading the Bible as if you were reading a newspaper account. I think the Bible should be read as if it were a sermon with really terrific illustrations. [1] I want to introduce, for my own convenience, really, the Greek term kerygma (preaching) so I can use the adjective form kerygmatic as the alternative to “journalistic.”

I was taught and so was nearly everyone I know to read the Bible as if it were a newspaper. Thinking of the gospel accounts for instance, you can harmonize them so that they appear to be a single story. Then you can ask the journalistic questions even though you are asking them of authors who cared nothing about those questions at all. Or you can read each of the gospel accounts as if it were a newspaper account and say that there are contradictions between Matthew’s news story and John’s.

In every group where I have a chance to reflect on the meaning of biblical texts, I have been pushing the idea that the gospel accounts ought to be read like sermons (kerygmatically) not like newspapers (journalistically). Not infrequently, I forget to apply that teaching to myself and I find myself doing what I was taught to do. And teaching others to forego journalistic reading is a tough sell too because they were taught it, just as I was, and may have been using it all their lives.

A Kerygmatic Reading of the Birth Narratives

So it is a hard lesson to teach, but every now and then, I surprise myself by succeeding and I want to tell you about one such instance. This week, I was meeting with a group of friends and working on Matthew’s account of the Birth Narrative. This group has been running, in one form or another, for several years and everyone knows by now how I bristle at journalistic questions—questions that arise from reading the Bible as if it were a newspaper—and how firmly I rely on kerygmatic questions.

We were talking about Matthew’s use of “the wise men” and the magical star and the role judo 1played by Herod and his team of scholars. Why does Matthew have characters like this? How does he prefigure the gospel he is about to write by the stories about Jesus’ birth?  I love this picture because it shows the Wise Men following the star to Jerusalem (which they did not do) instead of from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (which they did do).

We started with Romans 1. I know there are lots of things wrong with a combination like that, but it had occurred to me the week before that Paul, in making the case that the righteousness provided by the Jesus event was necessary for everyone, needs to say that the Gentiles have their own access to the truth about God. What you really need to know about God can be readily observed in nature, he says. Here is Romans 1:19—20 in the New Jerusalem Bible.

19For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them, since God has made it plain to them: 20 ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things. And so these people have no excuse:

That ending establishes why Paul included a section on the Gentiles: they are without excuse. In Chapter 2, he makes the same argument, by a different route, about the Jews. They don’t have any excuse either.

What does all that have to do with Matthew’s Birth Narrative? Nothing, really, but I got to wondering whether Matthew introduces a bunch of Gentile magicians/astrologists/scholars [2] just so he can show that the knowledge of nature doesn’t get you all the way there. It got them to Jerusalem just fine, but it took more—it took the revelation of God’s intentions in the scriptures—to get them to Bethlehem. [3] There is a sermon to be had there, but I am on my way somewhere else.

Matthew is setting up a gospel that will encompass the Gentiles as well as the Jews. That is why he includes non-Israelite women in the genealogy. It is why the risen Jesus tells the apostles (28:19) to make disciples of all nations. That is what the “academics from the East” are for. All this makes sense from the standpoint of Matthew, collecting and displaying the stories he has about Jesus so that it will make the point he wants to make. Or, to say the same thing more briefly, it makes sense kerygmatically.

Kerygmatic Judo?

I know I am pushing this one point pretty hard, but I need to do that because the story I want to tell you is what happened when this group—one guy in particular—knocked the props out from under me. [4] I’m like the dog that keeps on chasing cars without the slightest notion of what he will do if he catches one. I am trying and trying to do away with journalistic reading and to establish kerygmatic (scholarly) reading and this week I experienced total victory and had no idea at all what to do.

One of the guys says, “You have established beyond a doubt (in this group at least) that “understanding these texts” means understanding them from the standpoint of the narrator. Where did these stories come from? Who assembled them? For whom? When? Why?” That’s really all I had been trying to do.

“Now,” he said, “Given that, I think it is worth our while to ask some subordinate questions, some supplementary questions. [4] Let’s pretend, for just a moment, that the Wise Men came into town and chatted with people on their way to the palace. They could have. They did need to find Herod, after all. If they did, that gives a little bite to Matthew’s account, where he says (2:3) that the whole of Jerusalem was perturbed when the Wise Men showed up asking for the new king. What new king? When? Where? What does that mean for us? Popular interest in the visitors and their message could have put Herod on the spot.

And Herod appears to have gone to some trouble not to let his own scholars, the scribes, get anywhere near the Wise Men. Herod goes to his own academics (2:4—6) and gets the scriptural account. Then he leaves the academics in the library and goes back to the throne room and sends the Wise Men off to Bethlehem.

Joseph's HouseMy approach, emphasizing the point of the story Matthew is putting together, has not raised at all the question of the spot Herod was in. That’s not what Matthew’s interest was. The journalistic account my strategic friend was using—in what looks to me in retrospect like a judo move— did raise those questions and I have to say, they are really interesting. Just how is it that “the whole of Jerusalem was perturbed?” I never wondered that. How is it that Herod never meets with his own academics and the academics from the East at the same time? Does the general upset of the city affect how he has to play his own cards?  This picture has been adapted by my son, Doug, to show how else the Wise Men could have found the house where Joseph and Mary lived.  It was the one with the Christmas lights.

All new questions to me and all questions worth wondering about. They are not, clearly, the questions Matthew was wondering about, but asking them sensitizes us to new ways of thinking through the story he does tell and that is all to the good. It is all to the good PROVIDED we don’t have to give up careful textual scholarship for casual journalistic musing.

But that is where my friend’s approach was so wonderful. He granted me everything I had been pushing so hard and so long to achieve. There is no longer a question of reading journalistically RATHER THAN kerygmatically. The scholarly reading is taken for granted. I won. So now, why not ask these other questions, given that the final rule of interpretation in our group is the scholarly one?

I don’t know. I had never won before. I have no idea how to proceed. So the group went on and indulged in a bunch of journalistic speculation and I enjoyed it as much as everyone else.

[1] There are limits. Christianity is a historical religion. It is based on the occurrence of actual events, some of which are established in the scriptural accounts. Not many.
[2] There are lots of handles you can use to pick up just what kind of people “the wise men” were. I call them “academics,” partly because they were thought to be learned and partly because they appear to have had no common sense at all.
[3] And then it took the star, again, to get them to the right house.
[4] And since I wrote that, he did it again. I wrote to him asking his permission to use his name in this essay. He gave his permission, but he also said, having read the essay, that he thought it worked better without the name than with. I agree.

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Truthiness and Godiness

There is, of course, no such word as “Godiness,” but you will recall that not very long ago, there was no such word as truthiness, and now it is hard to do without it.

Truthiness is the kind of thing that, in questions that can be solved by adducing evidence, might be called plausibility.  But how shall we assess the kinds of questions that cannot be answered by adducing evidence?  For people who persist in asking such questions, some standard needs to be found.  “Truthiness” is a way of supplying such a concept and making fun of it at the same time.

And it is by analogy to Stephen Colbert achievement that I would like to offer “Godiness” as a useful concept.  I don’t like it much, myself, but it is a way to resolve an issue that just won’t go away.

There are two ways to go at Godiness [1]  One is to imagine that we know something about God in an intuitive way.  I hear that behind some appeals for tolerance that are admirable so far as the tolerance is concerned, but that fail, as I see it, on the knowledge side.  Here are some.

“God is known by many names.”  We can all verify the “many names” part of that idea, but on what basis do we know that these used are referring to the same being?  We could know that if we share a sense of Godiness.  That would enable us to say that we know that the substance is the same even as the names vary.  Knowledgeable people can tell you that linguini and tagliatelle and rigatoni are all just names for pasta but that is because we have full access to “what pasta is” so we can say that these are just shapes that pasta might take.

But God isn’t like pasta.  The nature or character of God or of the gods is in principle inaccessible to us.  So saying that the different religious worship the same God by different names is not like saying that you can get pasta in different shapes.  Without asserting some belief in Godiness, this route will not take us far.

This strategy is taken up by people who are very wary of intellectual arrogance.  Anything that sounds like “We know the truth and you do not:” is something to renounce and escape from.  Further, since dividing the world into “Fidels” [2] and “Infidels”  can follow directly, so people who want an end to conflict fueled by religious differences will take care not to call anyone an Infidel.  But then, no one is a Fidel either.  That seems a large price to pay.

Is there a way out of the Godiness trap?  Of course.  It is called “revelation.” [3]  Although it is hard to see in in the English word, the important part of “revelation” is the “-vel” which points to “veil.”  The notion of revelation is that the truth is veiled to all but to some, the veil has been re-, that “drawn back.”  One the veil has been drawn back, we can see the truth clearly.  That’s how that word works.  You can guess what is going to be “revealed” as the curtain continues to rise, right?

And who can see the truth clearly?  Well…the people who accept that this event or this person or this text is revelatory, that it shows clearly what the fundamental truth is.  So I may take a text to be revelatory and you may not.  

This gets’s played for humor sometimes.  Take this line for instance:

Jurgen then went unhindered to where the God of Jurgen’s grandmother sat upon a throne, beside a sea of crystal. [4]

The idea that someone—Jurgen, in this case—could take seriously a character known only as the God of Jurgen’s Grandmother seems ridiculous and that is why Cabell can play it for laughs.

But in fact, there are all over the world, religious texts that I do not accept as revelatory because they do not accord with the religious texts that I accept as revelatory.  And if they are not the God of Jurgen’s Grandmother, they might just be the god of Wooloo-Wooloo the Prophet of Khan.  

And since religious are group affairs, I can say that “we” accept this text to reveal the fundamental truth about God and life and being and purpose and therefore, we do not accept that text as revelatory for us.  Please note the difference that “revelatory for us” makes in that sentence.  This is what makes the conservative right so twitchy about the prospect of Sharia Law coming to little villages in Iowa.  When one group says, “According to the Prophet…” the other group needs to be able to say, “Not according to our prophet…” without being punished for it.  That is the actual goal, as I read it, of the “God is known by many names” people.

There is no need for us to say that you do not accept the truth that is “re-vealed” i.e. “unveiled.”  We have not seen the truth you see.  We can say, and we should say, that it does not match the reality to which we have given our allegiance.  We don’t need to say it is wrong.  All we really have to say is that it isn’t ours.

And that is how revelation helps us escape the Godiness trap.  Furthermore, choosing revelation, rather than Godiness, does not lead to inevitable conflict because we are in no position to condemn the truth you say you see.  We have a view of Truth, to which our revelatory tradition binds us and we will do everything we can to live up to its demands and glory in its gifts.  We don’t need to say your is wrong; we need only say it is not ours.

Now within a revelatory community, of course, there can be many variations in just what is revealed and just what the implications for that revelation are for us.  In fact, Christians who have focused on the What of revelation rather than the Who is being revealed, have been willing to call each other infidels for having “the wrong view” of what the implications of a doctrine are.  This is a bunch of “fidels” calling some of their members “infidels.”  It seems a shame.

It seems to me that the notion of revelatory communities ought to lead to dialogue.  I know it doesn’t do that very often, but I think it should.  Godiness doesn’t lead anywhere, so far as I can see.

[1]  I have tried as best I can not to twist the question if one direction or another, but there really isn’t any way to do that.  You do have to choose between god and God and between god and gods.

[2]  It isn’t so much that every noun ought to have an opposite that looks like it.  It’s just that “infidel” is a word common to history, whereas there is no such general word—I am leaving out General Castro—as fidel.

[3]  This is one of those fire and frying pan problems.  I don’t mean to imply that using revelation as your source for what God is like is a solution with no further problems.  It does solve the Godiness problem, however.

[4]Jurgen: A comedy of justice by James Cabell

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Softball Questions

I attended a meeting this week at the senior center where I live. The goal of the meeting was for each of the principal administrators to give a report of work being carried out in her or her department. It wasn’t an impeachment hearing; just a routine report to the residents. There was a time for questions after each of the reports and there actually were questions after some of them. They were, in most instances, question intended to clarify some minor element of the report. [1]

While this was going on, a woman in the row behind me muttered, “These are softball questions.” In this essay, I would like to consider two questions.

  • The first is whether these were, in fact, “softball questions.”
  • The second is, should they be softball questions or, to ask the question in a more pointed way, should they have been hardball questions.

What is a softball question?

The direct meaning of the expression is that it was an easily answered question. Also, probably, an easily evaded question. The Director of Marketing, for instance, was asked how long the waiting list is for people who want to live at Holladay Park Plaza and she gave the answer.

I think that was a softball question in the direct sense of the term but the expression is softball 1generally used in disparagement. “It should have been a hardball (difficult) question, but instead, it was just a softball (easy) question.” As you can readily see, this gets us into much more difficult territory. In order to know whether it was a “softball question,” we need to know whether it should have been a hardball question.

And it gets worse. Clearly, it is the assessment made by the user of the word that matters here, so if I had had the chance, I could have asked, “Why do you think hardball questions are the most appropriate ones in this setting?” [2]

And it (probably) gets even worse than that. She probably meant not that this particular department head should have been asked hard questions, but that “they,” the administrative staff, should as a matter of practice be asked hard questions. If I am right about that, then the real scenario involved an alienated or angry resident and an administrative staff that is thought to be unresponsive or devious. And THAT would be why “softball questions” are such a waste of our time and “hardball questions” are always more appropriate.

Hardball questions

The metaphor calls for a little understanding. Baseballs (hardballs) are harder than softballs and they are thrown faster. Softball pitchers range from 70—85 miles per hour. Baseball pitchers get over 100 miles per hour. The point of the metaphor is that getting hit harder by a harder ball would hurt more.

And so it would. But now we have arrived at the point where we can ask why the hardness of the ball and the velocity of the pitch should be defining elements of a question. A question could be categorized in other ways, certainly. Was it founded on a realistic understanding of the situation, for instance.

As a legislative assistant in Oregon, I got a routine Friday afternoon call from a constituent [3] who persisted in asking why “the government” was spending so much money on military hardware. I told her that I thought it was a real shame that the U. S. was doing that, but that I worked for the state of Oregon, one of the least militarized states, and that we were definitely not spending money on military hardware. “That’s just like you guys,” she said, “always shifting the blame.” By “the government,” she meant “you guys,”—they say :”you lot” in British films—including me and she was not dissuaded. Her question was not, however, based on a realistic assessment of what the government of the State of Oregon did.

abate 1We might ask of a question, rather than asking about hardness and velocity, whether it had a useful notion of the causes of the event in question. Holladay Park Plaza is going to have to spend a substantial amount of money replacing its heating and cooling systems. If that was caused by sabotage, we need to know about that; if it was caused by the gradual deterioration of the present system over the last 50+ years, then we need to know that. It isn’t that the sabotage idea is harder and therefore more appropriate, it is that it misattributes the cause. The virtue of the explanation that the system is old and needs to be replaces is not that it is a softball question, and therefore inappropriate, but that it correctly attributes the cause of the problem and sets us up for appropriate action.

If this were a pitched battle—the beleaguered residents against the oppressive administrators—you could make some case for hardball questions. But if, as I suspect in this case, it is an alienated or angry resident who just wants “them” to get hit by a pitch, then I think asking of a question that it be potentially hurtful, is really not a good enough reason to ask it.

[1] I know mine was. Dining Services recently began to offer Open Table as a way of making reservations in the dining room. I like the new service very much, but it is irksome to fill in the same information time after time. “Is there any way,” I asked, “to have the basic information filled in automatically.” There is, it turns out, and I will do that.
[2] That would not have been well received, I am sure, and I am also reasonably sure that the woman who made the complaint did not know why she thought more difficult questions should be asked—in which case, she would very likely have told me to mind my own business. But I beat her to it; I minded my own business before she told me to.
[3] Legislative assistants don’t actually have constituents, but they work for elected representatives who do and the usage simply spreads through the office to that secretaries are said to have “constituents.”

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First dates and last dates

“Your subscription has been successfully adjusted.”

That’s the response I got when I “unsubscribed” from a site called Trip Trivia. [1] For some reason, it made me think of my early dating years. [2]

There were girls I wanted to “go with” who, after a brief experience with me decided they would rather not. That was when I got this kind of message. I dated some very nice girls, but none of them had the generosity or breadth of mind—to say nothing of the vocabulary—to tell me that my dating requests had been successfully adjusted.

It’s hard not to be happy about succeeding. I wanted to do something—stop some of the clutter in my inbox—and they told me I had been successful.

On the other hand, “successfully adjusted” doesn’t quite capture the flavor of “I really wish you would stop hanging around and asking me for a date.” It works the same way, I have to admit. Her relationship with me has been successfully adjusted in the sense that it has been decisively ended.

On the other hand, Bette successfully adjusted our early relationship when she found my first two emails to her—both of which were celebrations of our first date—in her junk email box. Her spam filter had looked at my authorship and found it unfamiliar. Bette successfully adjusted my subscription by changing the spam filter so that my emails to her got through. [3]

[1] The word “unsubscribe” is in quotation marks because I didn’t ever subscriber to it.
[2] For those of you who don’t know me, the early years were my late teens. I had to go back to it in my late 60s.
[3] I can’t help thinking of Ellis Lacey, the principal character in the film Brooklyn, who, when asked for a first date, said yes for two dates on the grounds that the first one might no go very well.

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