Matthew pairs Jesus and Moses

Matthew spends a lot of time in his gospel presenting Jesus as the new Moses. It has not moses 1been lost on scholars, for instance, that in Matthew, Jesus’s first sustained teaching was on a mountain. Moses went up the the mountain (Sinai) the get “the Law” from God. Jesus went up a mountain to give a series of contrasts to that Law, each of which began, “You have heard how it was said to our ancestors…” and then continues, “But I say this to you…” [1]

This pattern of presenting Jesus as the New Israel can be seen all through Matthew’s gospel and is widely commented on. The structure of the gospel of Matthew is in five large “books”shapes his gospel—everything between the birth narrative at the beginning and the passion narrative at the end—into five large “books”—each containing a narrative of the ministry of Jesus and a discourse. Many scholars think that in structuring his gospel that way, he is suggesting that Jesus in not only the new Moses, but that the gospel is the new Pentateuch (five books).

moses 2This device of Matthew’s is, as I say, widely recognized in his gospel, but it is not widely recognized in his narrative about the birth of Jesus and it is noticeable there as well. You would think that a writer who thinks of himself as a teacher has a point to make, he would work it into every part of his writing, even the birth stories. And he does. Here are some examples.

 

The Birth Narrative

I argued in a previous essay on Matthew’s birth narrative (Was Joseph a Righteous Man?) that Matthew emphasizes the “righteousness” of Joseph as “scrupulous adherence to the Law of Moses” and that he could afford to do that because Joseph was just about to receive a “new commandment,” one that superseded the demands of the Law of Moses. It is the Old Law/New “Law” contrast that Matthew has in mind.

Today, I want to add to that pattern, the next dream Joseph gets. “Get up right away and collect your wife and your little boy and leave your comfy house in Bethlehem and go to Egypt. Now.” Why Egypt? Well, Egypt is close and safe. Today we would say that Egypt didn’t have a treaty of extradition with Judea, but for that time, we can just say that it is the kind of place people went to hide out. [2] So Egypt isn’t an implausible place for Joseph (et. al) to hide out.

But Matthew has more in mind. Matthew introduces that parallel by saying, “This was tomoses 3 fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt.” (Matt 2:13) So…what prophet is Matthew talking about? It is Hosea (11:1) where Hosea, in using the expression, “my son,” means Israel. And Matthew knows that Hosea meant Israel. So how does he manage to appropriate it so that it refers to Jesus?  I can argue all I want that in Matthew, Jesus would have been a little boy, but I can’t find any pictures in which he is not an infant.

The switch is perfectly clear. It could be put in language that is much too bald by attributing some sentiment of this sort to Matthew. “Hosea, in talking about “my son” meant the people, Israel, but to my mind, it is also true of His son, Jesus.” [3] But I think Matthew wants more than that. He wants us to see Jesus as “prefigured” in the scriptures and that is the way he brings it to us.

The mechanism that makes this change work is not “prophecy” in the predictive sense, as when I predict that it will rain tomorrow. It is more like what is called today “a cueing phenomenon.” One way to picture this is that the Egypt reference in Hosea draws a line on a blank page and then Matthew draws a parallel line referring to Jesus. This is not “fulfillment” in the sense of a prediction being fulfilled; rather, it our minds to an area where some new thing will be said. [4]

“Oh…right,” we say, “Israel, God’s son, came from Egypt at God’s call. I knew this thing moses 4about Jesus sounded familiar.” Placing Joseph’s family in Egypt allows Matthew to re-appropriate the scripture, “From Egypt, I have called my son.” For Matthew and/or for his readers, this is a sign of the providential working of God to bring us the Messiah just as he had promised.

The Slaughter of the Hebrew Children

Once in Egypt, the Israelites multiplied to the extent that the Pharoah was frightened at how many of them there were, so he ordered that the male babies be killed by the midwives. Moses was saved by prompt and providential intervention, but a lot of Hebrew babies were killed. This functions, again, as a prompt for the Jewish Christians in the church Matthew was writing to. The birth of Moses was accompanied by the death of many Hebrew babies.

moses 5This is the first line on the paper. Remember the “slaughter of the innocents by the Pharoah in Egypt?” And then the parallel line. Well, there was a slaughter of Israelites at the time of Jesus as well, this one engineered by Herod the Great. [5] And we say, “Oh, right. I knew that sounded familiar. This story of Jesus is so very much like the story of Moses.”[6]

 

Summary

In making these distinctions, I am following a different line of argument than Matthew is. It may well be that Matthew thought the events of Jesus’s life happened because they had been “predicted” in the sense that God had planned them. I don’t know how Matthew thought of them. It is quite clear, however, that Matthew, not just in the infancy stories but throughout his gospel, is drawing a parallel between the history of Israel and the life of Moses, on the one hand, and the story of Jesus on the other.

This parallel approach requires Matthew to use a lot of what are today called “scare quotes.” [7] So Matthew, in arranging these parallels says that “the Law” was brought from the mountain by Moses, but that Jesus gives a new “Law,” also on a mountain, which is about the renewing of God’s grace and favor.

[1] This particular phrasing is the New Jerusalem Bible.  The argument in general is based on Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah.
[2] In Stan Freberg’s History of the United States, Volume 1, he has Ben Franklin refusing to sign the Declaration of Independence because “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life ‘writing in Europe’.” The phrase “writing in Europe” was, at the time, a euphemism for banishment or even just a temporary escape from the Americas.
[3] Some say that Matthew believed that Hosea, filled with God’s Spirit, really meant to refer to “my Son, the Messiah” and didn’t realize it himself. That’s further than I can comfortably go. I would rather say that Matthew sees the powerful parallel and adapts Hosea’s text to his own message.
[4] This is a notion of “prophecy” I have never had before nor have I ever seen it before. So I’m really excited about it at the moment. Ordinarily, that means that tomorrow it will either be shown to be old hat among scholars or to have been decisively discarded years ago. Today, I really don’t care.
[5] The total of Israelite babies who would have been killed in Herod’s massacre is estimated by scholars to be somewhere around 20. That is based on the likely population of Bethlehem at or around 6 B.C. and the proportion of the population likely to be 2 years old or less
[6] And, in addition to that, there were apocryphal stories, which Matthew may very well have known, in which the Pharoah’s “wise men” understood that a deliverer of the Israelites was going to be born and that the prudent thing would be to kill all the male infants. This is an alternative rationale for the killing off of Hebrew boys in Israel and it is one much more like Herod’s killing off Jewish boys in Judea.
[7] The function of “scare quotes” is sometimes to indicate that the writer doesn’t believe the term is warranted. In this use, the quotes are the equivalent of the expression “so called.” But at other times, it is simply a marker that this word, which we are used to seeing one way, can, in fact, be used in another way.

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Do revolutions eat their children?

Usually, yes. They do. I don’t think it is unavoidable, though, and I’d like to think about it with you today. The “revolution” I have in mind today isn’t really a revolution in the strict sense; it is the women’s liberation movement. I do think there are some common elements, however, and those will the the subject of today’s essay.

How revolutions work

Here is a perfectly acceptable introduction to this expression. I found it on Yahoo Answers and in some other circumstances, there are things I would quibble with but it’s just fine for today. The question posed was, “What does the saying mean: ‘Revolutions eat their children’?”

In general, it refers to the fact that after the initial successful revolution, there comes a period of revolutionary justice. Initially, the revolutionary justice is applied to the members of the old regime. Then, as the revolutionaries begin to fight each other for power, the same techniques that were used to justify the necessity of killing and imprisoning the former rulers are now used to justify the killing of the members of the revolution that have fallen out with the powers that be.

However complicated the actual dynamics of a society might be, the need for revolutionary fervor requires that those dynamics be simplified. We are good—at the very least, our aims are good—and those people are bad. Now it is true that they oppose our legitimate aims, but that isn’t why they need to be cast into outer darkness. They need to be cast into outer darkness because they are evil. Did I mention that there is some simplification involved.

It isn’t that these people “do evil things;” it is that they “are” evil. And it isn’t that they domoderates 8 “some evil things” along with all the good things; all the things they do are evil because they, themselves, are evil. And their evil character is obvious. It doesn’t require group decision making or the preponderance of the evidence or anything like that. It is obvious to everyone.

Well…in practice, things are more complicated and the people running the revolution—not, as a rule, the people who started it, but the people who took it over from the ones who started it—do some morally ambiguous things. They also make mistakes. It would be hard not to.

In the next step, a well choreographed sequence, someone who has the long-term success of the revolution at heart, points out those actions endanger the success of the revolution. This phase of the revolution requires an infallible directorate of some kind. If, as this friendly partisan points out, they have gone too far, then they are not “infallible.” So either the claim of infallibility has to go or the person who raised the obstacle needs to go. Given the choice, they turn against their former comrade and he goes to the guillotine or to the Gulag or into exile, which resolves the problem in the short run. The very very short run.

moderates 6And there are more people, it turns out, who were true blue revolutionaries but who really hate to see this good-hearted friend of the revolution killed for “crimes of good judgment” and they object. At which point they follow him to the guillotine (or wherever) because the logic of infallibility still prevails.  And that is how the revolutions eat their children.

 

Revolutions produce dictators

But revolutions produce a great deal of disorder and in the long run, people really demand order. Not just an end to the killing, although that would be nice, but a return to the days when things worked. You could go to work or raise a family without being taken by the mob. At that point, some strongman domes along. Napoleon ended the revolutionary fervor in France, Hitler ended the period of national disgrace in Germany, Stalin protected “socialism in one country” in the Soviet Union. There’s always somebody, when it goes that far.

But what would it be like if it didn’t go that far?

So now let me come back to the current phase of the gender wars in the United States. There have been a lot of very famous men recently, who have seen their careers implode because of accusations of sexual harassment. In noting that, I am not saying that they should not. For some of these men, the career-imploding decisions happened a long time ago and justice has been tardy. But then, the logic of expansion takes over. It turns out that the sense of power that comes from successfully accusing a man of misbehavior is a very heady sense. Also, it’s the right thing to do. And also, if you don’t, you are letting down your sisters. And also, if enough women want to get in on that experience, they create a logic that drives downward the standard for the crimes you can be accused of.

In this phase, accusation is very nearly the same thing as conviction so the scale of those moderates 5convicted moves from hardened sexual predators to occasional predators to men who suffered instances of bad judgment to people who were insensitive to the response a woman might have had to what had appeared to be a consensual act at the time. So when I say that accusation feels so good—it is “empowering”—that it drives downward the standard for crimes committed, it is movement along this scale that I have in mind. [1]  I found this a fascinating collection of familiar faces and Cosby was well into his practice of predation by this time.

I suspect that there are quite a few women who would like to see the men whose offenses are at the “misunderstanding” end of the continuum spared the treatment that is so richly merited by the men at the “predator” end. In practice, this would amount to distinguishing sexual “felonies” from sexual “misdemeanors.” It would separate misunderstandings from intentional violations of women who make no secret of their opposition.

I am going to say in the next section that those women, the ones I imagined in the previous paragraph, should stand up and make their views known. That will mean “reasoning with the mob” in the revolutionary metaphor I have been using, but at the very least, it will involve trying to talk reason to your sisters who are angry at the moment.

If they don’t

But before I get that far, let’s imagine what will happen if they don’t. Following the revolutionary model, there will be two kinds of responses. The first is that people will distort their own lives and thoughts to avoid appearing of interest to the prosecutors who are running the movement by this time. In the time of the French Revolution, for instance, an alternative pack of playing cards was invented, one in which the face cards did not refer to royalty. By the logic of the movement, people who are caught playing with the “old cards,” the “royalty-affirming” cards, will be found guilty and punished.

The second response is that the anger of those who are punished and of those who resent the loss of any predictable social order at all, will provide a backlash. They will become hospitable to anyone who offers to set things right again—Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin all promised that. And after that, there will be some decisively new regime. A monarchy was restored in France; the party leadership became the new elites in the Soviet Union; a democratic government was forced upon Germany by the Allies after a humiliating military defeat. This is the backlash phase.

If they do

Both those phases are unfortunate and, taking the long view, unnecessary. What is needed is for the moderate center of the movement to stand up at the right time and say “enough is enough.” The joy of accusation, the thrill of empowerment, needs to be confined to those men who are operating on the left edge of the spectrum. The people on the right edge need to be defended by the women who, themselves, were a part of the misunderstanding and would like to see communication improved. As a rule, if you are going to improve communication, you will need someone who is willing to talk with you. The threat of the guillotine very seldom produces that kind of willingness.

There is a sense in which all this seems a reasonable thing to do and in one sense, it is. But something else is going on as well. There is a line that could be drawn between premeditated predation in the Bill Cosby style and the misunderstanding a man and a woman had at a party. But that line is not going to be successfully drawn by men for what seem to me to be obvious reasons. (More in a moment.) It is going to have to be drawn by women who see the value of drawing that line and who are willing to pay the price.

There is a logic here that has nothing to do with sexual relations. Adam Serwer, in a recent Atlantic article, makes the same point about President Obama and the wave of anti-immigrant hostility. James Zogby, of the Arab American Institute, is quoted in Serwer’s article. In opposition to the charge that Obama should have spoken out more forcefully against the anti-Muslim hostility, Zogby says:

“I would say that the people he needs to speak to see him as the problem. It was the responsibility of the Republicans to speak out and they didn’t.”

And why was it the responsibility of Republicans? Because it is their movement that is going somewhere they don’t want it to go and because they have the status (we are Republicans, too) to counsel their own partisans. They would be saying something like, “As people who have been with movement since the beginning, we ask you not to drive it into absurdity, not to ruin by your excess, what we all valued in the beginning.”

Women and drawing the line

moderates 7It is the job of the women who care about where the relations between the sexes are going who have the responsibility to speak up. Why not the men? Because they have a prominent interest in not being accused of things and therefore their testimony can be readily set aside. Why not the hard left edge of the feminist movement? Because they are concerned narrowly with “punishing all the bad guys.” They are the revolution in its accelerated form. It is not their job to stop pursuing evildoers. It is their job to care about the unity of the movement and that is why they should listen to their more moderate sisters about how much is too much.

Otherwise, the feminist radicals will destroy the feminist moderates and that is what they mean when they say that “the revolution eats its children.” I’ve always thought it would make a clearer metaphor to say that the revolution eats its parents, but that isn’t how the saying goes.

That means that a substantial body of women need to stand up and say that these acts are evil and should be punished and those are mistakes and should be remedied and these over here are failures to anticipate how women might respond. Those need a little loving care and a little gentle instruction.

The radical edge of the movement puts all those together because the the speed and the breadth of the avalanche require it. But women who would like to save the feminist movement from destroying itself need to speak up now.

There really isn’t anyone else who can.

[1] Eventually, you get to the position taken by Jessica Bennett in the Sunday New York Times of December 17 that “society” has so schooled women that even their saying Yes isn’t really saying yes. That comes very close to the infantilization of women, in my view, and I would hate to see any of the women I care about tarred with that brush.

 

 

 

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Recharge your battery!

There is a new ad by a product called 5 Hour Energy that I found really appealing—until I had a chance to think about it. [1] Then I found it appalling. Today I’d like to write about the appalling part.  I’m thinking along the lines of: “The understimulated life is not worth living.”  Something like that.

The idea is that over the course of the day, your “battery,” your sense that you have enough “power” to do all the things you have to do, runs down. In the picture below, you see people wandering around with just so much juice left in the battery.
The guy at the left with the tie and the beard has 46% left. The woman to his left, with the red blouse and the glasses, has 79%. I have stopped imagining that anything in these pictures is left to chance, so I pause to note that the blonde with long hair at the right of the picture has only 27%. The men in the middle have 19% and 12% respectively.

Screen Shot 2017-12-13 at 7.22.22 AM.png

There is no way to tell what time it is [2] but there is nothing in this picture or in the voiceover that goes with it to suggest that the alertness of any of these people would be improved by a good night’s sleep. Anyone with a good video management program could make this picture suggest that it is the end of the work day and everyone is, understandably, tired and hoping for some rest. That’s not what we have here. This is all times on all days and rest is not an option to be considered. Stimulants, now called “energy” are what is needed. Apparently.

5 hour 6This is a very large change is how we have understood what we need to have to do our work during our workday. There was once the very general sense that you needed to do what was necessary to get a good night’s sleep because that was the foundation of a good day’s work.  Consider Point 4 in this chart.  From a commercial standpoint, that is a terrible plan because it provides no chance at all to sell energy drinks. [3] Nothing in this picture cues the reflection, “I’m really dragging today. I need to be sure to get a good night’s sleep tonight so I am more alert tomorrow.”

One of the fundamental falsities of this metaphor is that it imagines that you “have” 5 hour 2and battery and that “it” needs to be charged up so that “you” will feel energetic. In fact, you ARE the battery and the recharger—both, simultaneously—and if you were really determined to stay with the metaphor, all you need to do is to make sure the battery charger part of you is still connected to the house current. The only way I know to do that is to sleep adequately and to eat well and to exercise wisely. You, the battery recharger, will work just fine if you do that and you, the battery, will have all the portable energy you need.

Unfortunately, that is a lifestyle fix. Nobody wants to change a favored lifestyle, particularly when the culture generally and the advertising world particularly are busy praising you for being stressed out. It’s a badge of honor that you wear yourself out and have no time for anything but work. Fortunately, we have a product for you. [4]

Destructive Metaphor

I have pointed to a few uses of this metaphor that seem to me to point in the wrong direction. But there are also some things in the metaphor itself that trouble me. One is that you might be feeling draggy for any number of reasons. Your blood pressure might be low. Your blood sugar might be low. An extended period of stress may have left you without any energy at all. All those causes are common and all have solutions that are appropriate to them. The battery metaphor lumps them all into one sensation and offers one solution. It tells you that “your battery is low” and precludes those other questions.

This is like having a doctor who is all about treatment and who has no interest at all in diagnosis. The battery metaphor simply obliterates the diagnostic phase and proceeds directly to treatment. And there is only one treatment.

I know this lament isn’t going to do any good. Ads mutate like viruses. The “low battery” gambit is just the latest one. If there are long term costs to using products like 5 Hour Energy (and that seems likely to me) [5] there will be a backlash of sorts against those products or those ways of selling products and then the ads will mutate to the next form, whatever that will be. I’m just glad to have had the chance to think my way through this one. I will be as surprised by the next one as everyone else.

On the other hand, if I could sleep like this [6] I don’t think I could possibly have an energy problem.

[1] I can’t find a way to hyperlink it, so I encourage you to do what I did. Go to YouTube and search for [5 hour energy ad] and from the list, choose “Get back to 100% with 5 Hour Energy.”
[2] Which is certainly a good idea if you are trying to link the need for a boost with a feeling you have, rather that with any more general matters, like what time of day it is.
[3] It does sell mattresses and sleeping pills, but that work is already done and there are still products to sell.
[4] You can hire people to do what you no longer have the time to do including changing your oil and preparing your family’s dinner, just as you can “get by” on too little sleep by abusing stimulants. Who needs a lifestyle change?
[5] It is currently of no interest to the Food and Drug Administration because it is 5 hour 3neither a food nor a drug. It is a “food supplement” and they don’t study the effects of those until they start making people sick.

[6]  Just an excuse, really, to put this great puppy picture in.

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Wise Men. Not too smart though.

I am going to write today about the geopolitical savvy of the Wise Men.[1] They were academics who studied the stars and when they saw one that portended a new king of the Jews, they knew immediately where to go. That’s in Matthew’s account. [2] That’s where the subject of this essay comes from. The title comes from The Matrix, where the Oracle knows all about how much Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) likes Neo (Keanu Reeves). [3] The scene goes like this:  Actually, all the stuff I care about happens in the first minute of this clip.

The Oracle says to Neo, “You’re cuter than I thought. I can see why she likes you…” Neo has no idea what she is talking about. “Who?” he says. And the Oracle continues as if she had not paused for his question “…not too bright though.”

It’s the flavor of that answer that I want you to hear in the title. They are wise, of course, but not that smart.

Wise

No one actually knows where the Wise Men were from. There was a lot of astrology being studied in Persia, so that wouldn’t be a bad guess. It’s a long way from Teheran, just to pick a city in Persia (present day Iran) to Jerusalem (just to pick a city in Israel.) [4] Herod, the king of the Jews, lived in the capital city of the Roman province of Judea, and the Wise Men, being well informed, knew that already.

That brings us to all the pictures and all the songs about the Wise Men “following the star.” OK, you tell me. Why, exactly, do you need a star to guide you to Jerusalem. We live here. Herod lives there. Let’s go and tell him the news.

And Matthew doesn’t say the Wise Men followed “a star” as an orienting device.wise men 1 They said “We saw his star as it rose…” To get what that means, you have to give up the regular rotation of heavenly bodies. They were not saying, “We saw Venus come up again and we were so excited.” They are sawing, “A new star—a never before seen star—appeared in the heavens.” And they are saying. “We know from where and when it appeared, just what it means. It means there is a new king, an heir apparent.”  Here is the traditional “following the star through the desert” picture.  What a waste.

So this appearance was a one-time event. We saw it. We understood it. We set up our caravan and headed out for Jerusalem. I call them wise because they saw the star and knew what it meant and also because they knew that the King of Judea would be in Jerusalem.

Not too smart though

Now we come to their arriving at the scene expecting Herod to be ecstatic that he is going to be replaced. Let’s imagine a modern corporate setting in which the boss brings in a young person and introduces him or her to the current occupant of the office as “your replacement.” How would we imagine the current occupant might respond?

And Herod had sons all lined up to take the kingship. [5] So these academics from the East might have done a little homework on their way to Jerusalem. Herod is a violent despot inclined to kill family members. What shall we tell him?

W. H. Auden has captured this very nicely in his poem, For the Time Being. Auden gives Herod a little speech in which he refers to the coming of the Wise Men:

Today, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”

One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realize that if this rumor is not stamped out now in a few years it is capable of diseasing .the whole Empire, and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.

The star and the dream

Joseph's House.pngNot to knock the Wise Men too much. The star did reappear to them in Jerusalem and it guided them the remaining five miles to Bethlehem. Not only that, the star “stopped” and it “stood over” the house where Joseph and Mary and their little toddler, Jesus, were living. [6] It’s difficult for us moderns to understand just what itmeans for a star to stand “over” a house. My son, Doug, has another idea. He thinks the Wise Men just went to the house with the Christmas lights on.  Right there on your left, on Main Street.

 

The Wise Men, in any case did follow the star as they should have and they did stop at the right house as they should have. Not only that, but they heeded the warning the received in a dream that they should not return to Herod as he has asked. We know why Herod wanted them to return to him; he wanted them to rat out the little boy that the star represented. On the other hand, there is no telling what a violent and despotic king like Herod might have done to the Wise Men. So on grounds of prudence as well as obedience to the warning in the dream, they avoided Jerusalem and went home by an alternative route.

So I’ve always like the Wise Men. I like it that they were academics. I like it that they were observant and smart. I don’t hold it against them because they were not also street smart. My wife’s favorite academic is observant and scholarly but, occasionally, not too smart.

1] I’ll keep the capital letters in Wise Men so that you will always know I am talking about the academics who saw the star and headed off to Jerusalem, which was the capital of Judea.
[2] I study Matthew’s story in the odd-numbered years.
[3] You don’t actually have to be an oracle to know that.
[4] About 1300 miles along Route 1. Of course, we don’t know what route the Wise Men (and the whole traveling group that went with them to serve their travel needs and to guard all that gold, frankincense, and myrrh) really took.
[5] It didn’t work. Caesar demoted them all to the position of Tetrarch and gave them only a part of their father’s kingdom each.
[6] So Jesus was born at their house in Bethlehem at the same time the Wise Men saw the star. I think that’s the way the astrology worked. The physical appearance of the heavenly body was a manifestation of the physical appearance of the person who was represented by the star. So, astrologically speaking, Jesus and the star were “born” at the same time and the Wise Men saw the star “at its rising,” i.e. just as it came onto the scene.  So he would have been as old as all that travel plus all the time the Wise Men spent in Jerusalem.  Probably two or three.

 

 

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My first victory lap

The first day of my first victory lap is December 17, 2017. That will be the day after I turn 80. I can hardly wait.

What is a “victory lap?”

It’s an old story, well known by my family. Not very well accepted as a metaphor, but I am hoping for progress along that front any day now. Once upon a time, the family lived on “new faculty circle” in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. This was inexpensive housing that Westminster College provided to new faculty for their first few years in town. It was roughly half a mile around the circle.

I was at a place in my running project in 1977 when I needed every extra mile or victory lap 1fraction thereof I could manage. I was supposed to run 1776 miles between the 4th of July in 1976 and the 4th of July in 1977. This was to be the kind of thing joggers did to commemorate 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed. I had fallen behind during the winter and I was taking long runs several times a week and no matter how long the run was, I added that little half mile around new faculty circle—just to get the extra milage. And so I wouldn’t be thinking of them as just more running, I called them “victory laps.”  This is Brittain Lake.  The western part of the victory lap passed just uphill from the edge of this picture.  And the picture below–that’s me in 1977 finishing the 1776th mile–is on the far side of the lake.

The victory lap as a metaphor

I got to thinking metaphorically about the victory lap because I noticed that the victory lap felt different, even though it really shouldn’t. I may very well have run the last five miles or so—one of my standard runs was 19 miles—in some discomfort. I had cramping problems at one time or another and blisters and dehydration and whole litany of runners’ complaints. But I noticed that when I was in the victory lap phase, those went away. Not worth paying attention to anymore? Distracted by reflections about how I had run that distance that day? Runners’ high? I never really knew, but I really did appreciate it that all those symptoms were muted once I passed the front door and started around the loop.

Then I got to thinking that with just a few liberties taken here and there, you could divide my life into four laps, like a mile race. Every lap was 20 years long. So I grew up in the first 20. In 1957, I was a sophomore in college and had no idea at all what I was doing. By the end of the second lap, in 1977, I had gained a Ph. D. and three wonderful kids and had lost my marriage to their mother. And I had remarried and gone back to teaching and acquired four stepdaughters. By the end of the third lap, in 1997, I had finished a career doing public policy for the State of Oregon. During this last lap, the one that ends next week, I have lost a wife (cancer) and remarried (again) and picked up two more stepchildren and had a post-career career as an adjunct professor and retired again and sold my house and moved with my new wife (almost 12 years now) into a very good retirement community. And that brings me to my 80th birthday on December 16 and the beginning of my first victory lap on December 17.

Now what?

I was really appreciative of the physical relief I got on the actual victory laps—the ones in the 1970s. I was intrigued by the autobiographical mapping I managed with the aid of the mile run (1500 meters if you really must). The four laps of the race could be seen as marking off the four prominent segments of my life. But now, I am actually going to BE 80 and the “race” is over and I am looking forward to the reflections on that day’s run and the easing of the physical side effects of that day’s run. All of which are perfectly clear to me—in retrospect.

But now we are talking about imagining them in prospect. On Sunday, December 17, I am going to have to start thinking experientially about my first victory lap. What will it be like? What do I want it to be like? Does it matter how many such “laps” I expect to finish?

Well…NO to the last question. I don’t care how many there are. There will be as many as there will be. It is the quality of the laps that has always mattered. What if, for instance, instead of not paying attention to my blister (until I get home and can put disinfectant and a bandage on it), I decided to not pay attention to some grievance or other that I have been carrying along with me. Not all the grievances. Maybe just one. Maybe one every lap. Would that work? By age 90—imagining for the moment that I get to age 90—I would have decommissioned ten grievances that I would otherwise have been carrying around. That sounds like a victory to me.

I remember running that last half mile and thinking over whether I had run the way I should have. It wasn’t inquisitorial. I was already done. It was just a pleasant reflection and maybe sealing in a lesson of so. Don’t push the hill going up to the Cheese Shop so hard; it costs you over the next highway mile and then you don’t cash in on the final downhill the way you could have. That kind of thing. I kind of like the idea of declaring an end to “the run” and calling the running I continue to do, “victory laps.” Maybe I could reflect on our first year here at Holladay Park Plaza, the way I reflected on that long uphill toward the Cheese House, and make some lazy speculative imaginary plans for the next year. Whatever.

Selling the Victory Laps

My kids have never been comfortable with the victory lap idea. Either they can’t believe that I really feel that way or they can’t imagine feeling that way themselves or they can’t imagine me doing anything at the finish line except dropping dead. I experienced the victory laps as wonderful in every way, which is why I have continued to pursue the metaphor. I am hoping that when they see me enjoying the victory laps, as I have every intention of doing, they will begin to relax into the concept and enjoy it along with me.

Let me begin by rejecting the sentiment in this picture.  I think this is what my kids think I really mean.  Maybe it is what they aspire to themselves and can’t imagine that I don’t.  I don’t really have a lot of fatherly responsibilities left and my life with my kids has been defined for many years now as more like dear old friendships than anything more clearly paternal. Still, this is an experience I will be having that they will be having (eventually) as well. So…there’s no point in denying that my experience of it is going to be a major factor in how they think of their own retirement. Might as well do it right.

My kids haven’t made running a part of their lives in the same way I have, so the mile race metaphor might not be the right one. But I think the discipline of using the resources you have during “the race,” whatever that is for them, so they can look back on it with satisfaction, is a really good idea. And living the years after finishing it in a celebrative and thoughtful way sounds like another good idea.

When they were little, I would teach them to do things by doing them myself, then turning it over to them to try. And I’d “coach” a little. “No, no, not so high up on the handle or take more of a backswing or ask yourself a bunch of questions you should know the answers to when you have finished the chapter.” Implicit in all the coaching was that if they would begin by doing it the way I did it, they could adapt it to their own style once they got the hang of it.

That still sounds like a good idea and I will imagine hearing the starting gun go off first thing Sunday morning, December 17, and I will try to lay down a really good victory lap for them in that first year. I won’t be doing it for them. It wouldn’t be a victory lap if I did. But if they can find value in the way I do it, it would make the victory a little sweeter.

 

 

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Assembling a Convidium

Nope. Not a word (yet) so far as I know. I hope to have the better known “colloquium” after all the members of the convidium see the movie clips.

So, for instance, there are two reflections on forgiveness that I value particularly. Inconvidium 4 Invictus, President Mandela (Morgan Freeman) instructs his head of security, Jason Tshabalala in the need for white people in the security detail. “Forgiveness starts here,” says Mandela. In the second one, Pay It Forward, Arlene McKinney (Helen Hunt) comes to the railroad yard where the homeless gather to offer forgiveness to her mother, who lives there. There are more than 40 seconds of wordless images, showing first the mother’s face, then the daughters, as both women realize what has been done.  Here is Angie Dickinson as the mother, talking to the reporter who broke the story.

I would like to show those two clips to my convidium and host a discussion afterwards around what that means to us. I don’t have any aspirations about controlling the colloquium (more about that shortly), but I am going to begin with Christian presuppositions, myself. It is what Christianity teaches about forgiveness that will form the background of the contributions I will make to the discussion.

How that will serve as a conversational initiative will depend on who else is there. That brings me to the question of who else might be there. Well…I live in a retirement community that is full of people who have different attitudes toward Christianity. [1] There are non-Christians here, as well as anti-Christians, and post-Christians. There are atheists and agnostics. There are members of other faiths who would be welcome, but I would imagine would not come. And most challenging of all, there are members of the “spiritual, but not religious” stripe. The Pacific Northwest is the “spiritual but not religious” capital of the U. S. and very likely of the world and they are richly represented here.

So those are the pools I will be drawing from. None of those, I imagine, will react against sitting down with neighbors and watching a video clip or two (the convidium part). But as we move to the discussion (the colloquium part), everyone will appropriately claim the freedom I claimed, to place the video clip in the context of his or her own faith or unfaith or anti-faith. [2]

There are two kinds of atheists. There are those who take the position that we know there is no God—also that there are no gods; and then there are those who hold that as a personal view. It is not something to be shown to be true for this second group. It is just a personal dead spot.

Similarly, there are two kinds of agnostics. There are those who say that the existence and character of God [3] cannot be known. Then there are those who say that they, themselves, do not know; they leave aside the question of whether anyone else knows.

convidium 2I have found very few people in the category I would call “non-Christian” who are not members of some other faith. But there are some–really, there are– who have had so little contact with Christianity than they have no feelings for or against it. They are the missionaries’ dream of primitives who have no religion at all.  Blank slates waiting to be written on.

There are a few people I would call pre-Christian. These are people who imagine that they will begin to take the Christian faith seriously when they get around to it. They imagine some status as a Christian to be in their future, so they have not rejected anything, really. They have just not accepted anything yet.  I couldn’t find a picture of old people watching a movie in any groups larger than two.

The three largest groups, I am guessing, will be the anti-Christians, the post-Christians, and the “spiritual, but not religious” (S minus R, or S—R) people. People representing these choices will come to the convidium in numbers proportionate to their populations here and they will have things they want to say. And, of course, I will have things I will want to say, too. How is that going to work out?

The S—Rs will say that forgiveness is a very good idea, that it is championed by spiritually enlightened people all over the world and that there is no reason to entangle it with religious dogma. [4] Nothing in the video clips they will just have seen will conflict with that because nothing in the clips will suggest anything at all about religion. One is about politics (Mandela) and one is about the restoration of a lapsed relationship by means of an ethical imperative.

The anti-Christians will say that Christianity teaches the need for forgiveness, but… What they follow the “but…” with will point to why they are anti-Christian. Hypocrisy is the common charge. Christianity preaches forgiveness, but doesn’t practice it. There is often some Sunday School teacher in their pasts who has prominently violated this standard.

The post-Christians will say that forgiveness, as it is preached and practiced in the churches, is only a crude and specific form of some much more sophisticated position. This position, which is, not coincidentally, the position they currently hold, has some historical roots in Christianity as it is preached and practiced, but any particular guidance [5] has been dropped out. The post-Christians wind up at the same place as S—R, but they push off of some established Christian practice—something to be “post-“ from, that needs to be transcended.

That leaves the Christians. You would think that would be the largest group, and I convidium 6think it will offer the largest challenge. A bunch of Christians with different backgrounds, different traditions of scriptural interpretation, different ways of making their faith make sense, will see these simple film fragments differently. And these differences may be fanned into disagreements. There is no way of telling, really.

My hopes for this colloquium—the discussion that follows the convidium—is to keep my own view clear in my mind, to say clearly what it is, and to allow it to be sharpened and focused by the other views. That’s what I want for myself.

My hopes for this colloquium more generally are that a place will be provided where the starting point of the film can be taken seriously—these film clips are our “text”—and the meaning of the clips for each of the views represented. Naturally, I want for my own view not to be dismissed out of hand. I want it to be considered in the same way the others are. On the other hand, I don’t want to win anyone over to the view I hold…at least, not exactly.

If there are people who would like to be where I am—to hold the views I am convidium 5describing—and have thought there was no way they could get there with integrity, I’d be happy to offer my own experience to them as an encouragement. [6] I can do that because I am aware, more than most people, of how I got where I am. I like being where I am even while I know it won’t do for everyone what it has done for me.  Robin the Brave, here, with Princess Melora.

So that’s my hope. A convidium followed by a colloquium. Everyone who is willing to be respectful of the view of the others is welcome. We will watch the clips that I have chosen as “texts” and follow the logic of the discussion wherever it leads us.

I have, for instance, a really good video of the “kenosis” poem in Phillipians Chapter 2 (The Muppets’ Frog Prince) and a good one of the “red pill or the blue pill” scene from The Matrix (Nicodemus in John Chapter 3). we’ll see how those go.

[1] I have different attitudes toward it myself. I feel sometimes that what I think and convidium 1what I feel and what I know and what I do are always in some kind of tenuous balance—very much like the BOSU ball shown here.
[2] The most common response of all will be that questions like this don’t really matter to “real life.” I will not be considering that point of view because those people will not return to the group once they find out what it is about.
[3] Just to simplify things for me, let’s take every reference to “God” to mean “or the gods, of whatever type they might be.”
[4] Not everyone knows what “dogma” means, but everyone knows that it is bad. So people who want to say something against “religion” can make a very appealing case by saying they are against “religious dogma” instead.
[5] Like “seventy time seven,” Jesus’s response to Peter’s question, or “don’t go to bed angry,” Paul’s very practical counsel about anger and getting over it.
[6] The thing about “positions” is that you can’t get there from just anywhere. I got there by starting where I had to start and by being willing to thrown certain things overboard along the way. If someone else in the group is starting somewhere else and/or is unwilling to throw the obstacles overboard, then he or she just can’t get to where I got to—where I am—even if they want to.

 

 

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Why the CHEB is so important

CHEB is a flimsy response to an important issue. CHEB is a discipline I am going to try to follow as a way of referring to President Trump. [1] It stands for Current Head of the Executive Branch.

I called it a flimsy response, and so it is. But it is a response to what I am coming to see as the issue that needs to be addressed and nothing in my previous way of considering the presidency prepared me for this, so I am prepared to be tolerant.

Cheb 1.jpgI began my trip toward this destination while watching an episode of The Mentalist. Patrick Jane, who has done his share of onstage magic, asks why it is that magicians are accompanied on the stage by beautiful young women in skimpy outfits. The reason he gave is that the more time the audience spends looking at the assistant, the more leeway the magician has for managing his feats of illusion without being caught at it. The presence of the young woman means that the “eyeballs,” in the current phrasing, are going to be over there while the things the magician cares about are over here.

And that is the way I see the outrageous behavior of CHEB. [2] He tells demeaning jokes and directly criticizes people with handicaps and calls for an evenhanded approach to proponents of white power and black power. It is really hard to ignore those things—they are the attractive assistant—and to look instead at the illusions the magician is perpetrating. The direction of the CHEB response, flimsy as it is, is to call for consistent and critical attention to the illusionist, leaving the attractive assistant alone.

This strategy is resisted for some very good reasons as well as some bad ones. One of the good reasons is that adopting a strategy of not noticing and not responding simply allows truly egregious behavior to succeed. And not only to succeed, but to be unopposed. I have the persistent feeling that I would be complicit in allowing that to happen. In my judgment, one of the worst of these is CHEB’s remark, “You had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” I think that is outrageous. I was, in fact, outraged.

But let’s look at it using the “attractive young assistant” model. CHEB changed the Cheb 2topic from the violence against blacks to whether Robert E. Lee should be revered as a patriot (Virginia, his highest loyalty) or decried as a racist and a traitor. Similarly, CHEB changed to topic from the rising militancy of the White Supremacy movement to “a clash of forces” in which both sides—remember that is the pro and anti Robert E. Lee “sides”—have honorable people. As horrible as those statements are, they are the assistant. What is the magician doing while I am gazing spellbound at the assistant?

Doesn’t it stand to reason that if I fall for that old trick—if I rise in indignation to each new deplorable remark—that I am complicit in all the things the magician does while I am attending to the assistant? The State Department is being hollowed out and I don’t notice; the Middle East is being inflamed and I don’t notice; the needed actions to slow global warming are being delayed and denied and I don’t notice. If it is really true that you can’t pay attention to the illusionist and the assistant at the same time and if it is true that the illusionist’s tricks will not be noticed if we are watching the assistant, then I am also complicit in acts of state that I deplore.

So…the CHEB strategy is thin, as I say, but if it reminds me from time to time to pay more attention to the actual tricks and not to be distracted by superficialities, then maybe it is worth doing. I am confident in my sense of what is going on. I am reasonably well satisfied with the illusionist/assistant metaphor. I have to say honestly that if I am going to be complicit in evildoing either way—different evil deeds, but equally complicit—then I would rather allow the boorish remarks than the destructive policies.

[1] I have been referring to him as “President Trump,” trying to preserve some of the dignity attached to the office just in case the next incumbent is a person who would deserve to be respected. I think that was a pretty good idea for that stage of the issue. I think we are into a new issue now and the old solution doesn’t fit any more.
[2] Not entirely. I already knew that he did outrageous things that his base would love because they would be disapproved of my the people his bases hates. That would be people like me.

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