Cooped Up

August 27, 2011


“America has a blessing,” said Frank Schaeffer, ” it’s filled with people who take the Bible seriously.”

Schaffer is the son of Francis Schaeffer, who was an American Evangelical Christian theologian. Some scholars credit Francis Schaeffer with helping to spark the rise of the Christian right in the United States. Frank Schaeffer was not only the son, but a student and follower of his father. He now has a different take on the things he and his father preached.

“America has a problem: it’s filled with people who take the Bible seriously.”

In the same breath Frank Schaeffer also said this. How and why could both be true? Ah, therein lies the nuttiness of early 21st Century America  —it’s a matter of interpretation says Schaeffer.

Roshi Bob observed that,“The ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in the skull at once and accept both, which George Orwell called ‘doublethink‘, is the genius of politics and religion.“

Contradiction is just not a problem for some.

For instance, a modern Bible fundamentalist will bad-mouth science on one hand while enjoying its fruits on the other. This is why, by Biblical standards, to be an American in 2011 is to be partly schizophrenic. And to be a Republican is to have more personalities than Dr. Jekyll —at least it seems so as the GOP  sloughs reason to become a party of yes-men for its fundamentalist base.

The question of how a collection of books such as the Bible, conceived and written in the Near East 4000 years ago, could be taken literally by some is perplexing.

The Epic of Gilgamesh was created about the same time in the same area, but few people today believe that Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, was two-thirds god and one-third man; or that “Gilgamesh then traveled to the edge of the world and learned about the days before the deluge and other secrets of the gods and recorded them on stone tablets.” Yet many modern folks have no problem believing Moses parted the Red Sea and came back from a mountaintop encounter with god bringing stone tablets too  —the Ten Commandments to be exact.

The trick of religious dominion is that Bible believers, like believers of the Koran, or of any religious scriptures, stamp their book “written by God”. That’s when the trouble begins. And when such books become the basis of political thought or the benchmark of policy the trouble mounts by leaps and verses, especially in difficult times.

To emphasize this here’s Roshi Bob again in a short poem on the matter:

Besides the Bible
there are other books
besides the Koran

It’s not good
to be cooped-up
in any one book
during the winter
of our discontent:

cabin fever.

But being cooped up in one book is just the ticket for some (while some find it stifling, some find it cozy). In fact, there’s been some talk in the media lately about an idea and movement called “Christian Dominionism”. It was ignited by a recent article authored by journalist Michelle Goldberg which ties Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry to this movement.

Dominionist thought, according to Goldberg, is just what the word implies. Christian Dominionists believe Christianity must be the dominating force of American life; of its politics, its laws, it’s education, it’s entertainment, its religion —of all aspects of American culture and society. They think American life must be Bible based.  Call it “Christian Sharia Law” after the Muslim version of dominionism feared by many on the right.

But some suggest Goldberg may be a little hysterical about this. Lisa Miller, religious columnist of the Washington Post, pushed back at Goldberg, writing, “Here we go again. The Republican primaries are six months away, and already news stories are raising fears on the left about ‘crazy Christians’.”

Still, whether we believe Goldberg or agree with critics such as Lisa Miller, as thoughtful people we should at least be wary of candidates who talk as if they have a special relationship with god or believe they know what god wants. The world has suffered the actions of too many people who thought they knew what god wanted. Acts-of-god political movements have been more devastating than acts-of-god typhoons and tsunamis.

So I hope that we will really pay attention to what a candidate says and assume that what he or she says is an indication of what drives them; then, based on their utterances, we might envision the policy lines they will pursue as president. Assume that if a candidate speechifies (as Michelle Bachman did), “There are hundreds and hundreds of scientists, who believe in Intelligent Design,” that she will not be inclined to support solid science in schools, but might rely on four-millennia-old legends to educate our children.

John Haldeman, Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff, commenting on the unraveling of their Watergate story told his boss that it was hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube once the truth had oozed out. In this one thing, at least, Holdeman was correct. We have to get it into our heads that it might be even harder to reverse the direction of an oozing theocracy once a fundamentalist president accedes to power.

Founding father James Madison, in an 1803 letter objecting to the use of government land for churches, warned, “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries,” which is a wise and rational declaration to counter the irrationality presently troubling us.

by Jim Culleny
for The Shelburne Falls Independent


Huns of Sumac

August 9, 2011

A week or so ago I wrote a poem I called Does Philosophy Matter?  I thought it had only to do with my tomatoes until I read it a few times, then thought it might be talking about more. Here it is with a few comments:

—it’s high summer
wild green thrusts itself
against the bounds
of clipped lawns

…like sumac looming at the edges of my garden sending underground shoots to infiltrate my tomatoes, the barbarians are at the gates. The more-more super-rich are battering the doors of average Americans, buying the justice system, walking congressmen on leashes, scripting the news, taking the economy hostage and generally destroying the gardens of the poor and middle class sucking them dry…

—Huns of sumac
amassed at my garden’s edge
surge toward logical
rows of beets and
ranks of peppers
ignoring the protocol
of invitation

Who invited them in? Was it me? Having become a robot of consumption how can I claim innocence in the dismantling of my own best interests?

I shop Walmart for bargains sending my job to China contributing to the wellbeing of the wealthy and wonder why my standard of living is taking a dive. I elect crooks to congress —or stooges for corporations at least— and wonder why the government is nothing but the legislative arm of the oil and pharmaceutical industries. I pray to the Lord for deliverance as directed by religious collaborators of hedge-fund managers and still things fall apart. Is it possible I’m being manipulated by cons playing the god card —who wouldn’t understand fairness and compassion if it were personally served by Jesus on a silver parable …

—sumac amassed
under the wingspread of a hawk

who is clueless
concerning the theological
knots of Aquinas

In nature, beautiful and sustaining as it is, there’s a dark side, a ruthlessness which in human terms we experience as cold and merciless, so we build systems to counter senseless chaos; to manage it: government, religion, family —whatever gets us through the night as John Lennon said. We contract with each other to keep things orderly —socially, economically, politically. Our various concoctions of philosophies guide us. But now and then we become prisoners of our philosophies and find ourselves serving them rather being being served by them. At such points shysters and crooks step in and, with the help of clueless ideologues, twist and mangle our systems, making a mockery of our arguments for god and justice…

—a hawk who can’t imagine
Anselm’s ontological
argument for god,
who just wheels like
Gump’s feather rising
and falling on whims
of wind scanning for lunch
without thinking I think,
therefore I am, being
without the anguish
of Hamlet’s big question; 
someone whose
knowledge is written in
his cells

For shysters and crooks everything is a potential opportunity to grab more. Orderly systems and philosophies make it difficult for them to ply their trade. Operating under a code outside the social compact they go about their business of stealing and manipulating, cranking and crafting laws to meet their own needs by the influence of their money on politicians and media, instinctively serving their own purposes only.

Still, even shysters and crooks are not immune to the pathologies of certain systems. Though they may cruise through congresses, supreme courts and presidencies upending the social agreements we’ve made with each other, they’re still enmeshed in ecologies they can’t trump. Though they may emit smokescreens of babble through their smoke-stacks of Babel and pollute the gardens of not only vegetables but philosophies, they are choking themselves in the bargain. The shallowness of their understanding is a debt they heap on their own heads as well. Being profoundly stupid is no bar to being profoundly rich.

— a bird snared nevertheless
in the terminal webs
of bi-pedal thinkers who
plumb and mine the shadows
in their heads

Although for some there may seem to be alternates to fairness and justice —and even to truth—  there’s a fixedness to the fabric of our humanity and place in nature nevertheless.  As the English poet John Donne said (and warned)

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

by Jim Culleny
for the Shelburne Falls Independent

From Bachmann to Breivik

August 7, 2011

The lawyer for Norwegian, Anders Breivik, the world’s latest mass killer, says his client appears to be insane. I’d be comforted if Breivik was classically insane. Devastating as such psychotic episodes are there are other more troubling insanities that scare the hell out of me. These days insanities are so prolific and mainstream it’s like taking a stroll down the cereal aisle of a supermarket. We need new insanity about as much as we need a new permutation of Coco Puffs.

If Breivik’s tragic, murderous insanity has to do with a physical or chemical flaw in his brain it would be no less tragic but much easier to come to grips with than if it turns out to be political insanity. If it’s political or religious insanity its ruthlessness and potential for havoc becomes more pronounced and contagious.

My guess is Breivik is about insane as a faith fanatic of any religion. For example, a Scientologist only sounds uniquely off the wall until you get a load of what’s spewing these days from the U.S. Congress, presidential candidates and media outlets. In Washington and many State Houses insanity’s the new normal.

Unreason comes in many styles and colors. It’s both very cool and fashionably retro. True-believing irrationality may look comfortably home-spun on someone until its seams split and its camouflage falls apart leaving it wild-eyed and naked with an assault rifle in it hands —or until it stands at a podium in the shape of Michelle Bachmann.

Lunacy such as Breivik’s cannot be satisfied with an appeal to humanity. Humanity cuts no ice with ideological missionaries of any stripe. Islam is not unique in this. The news photo of white-Christian Breivik smiling absently from the window of a cop car after slaughtering dozens of children with dum-dum bullets should be enough to prove that. I’ll take classical psychosis any day to the everyday, scripture-twisting kind practiced by purist true-believers.

In Breivik terms, Norway’s not that far from the USA. It’s not a stretch to suggest the Republican Party has become a sort of cult, though this would be denied by its mouthpieces. Republican adherence to doctrine is called by the faithful “standing-on-principle”, but viewed from the outside, it looks like a mob of zealots pounding bibles and waiving the constitution, longing to evict infidels (“liberals” they call them) from the DC holy-of-holies and purge the nation of unbelief to pave the way for the New American Jerusalem.

You think I’m being hyperbolic?  Well, take Michelle Bachmann. As Matt Taibbi said recently in Rolling Stone, “In modern American politics, being the right kind of ignorant and entertainingly crazy is like having a big right hand in boxing; you’ve always got a puncher’s chance. And Bachmann is exactly the right kind of … crazy. Not medically crazy, not talking-to-herself-on-the-subway crazy, but grandiose crazy … crazy in the sense that she’s living completely inside her own mind …  unable to meaningfully communicate with the human beings on the other side of the moat, who are all presumed to be enemies.”

Of course she’s zoned in perfectly on the contemporary strain of American politics that doesn’t believe in America or the American idea: the idea that America is not an exclusive club belonging to fundamental Christians; that America’s greatness is in its past rejection of exclusivity, that it has been, until now, pluralistic.

Having graduated from the law school of Oral Roberts University (of which 60% of graduates fail the bar exam) Bachmann, as Taibbi points out, has gone on to practice the fundamentals of her alma mater which is to be a “change agent” who would help bring the law more in line with “eternal principles of justice.”  If you think that has anything to do with the U.S. Constitution you’d better adjust your expectations. What Oral Roberts U is talking about is biblical morality. The kind that excludes people like your gay niece, nephew, sister, child or brother from the niceties of liberty and freedom of expression.

For instance, without having a rational leg to stand on, the Bachman Clinic would strive to cure your loved ones of what, for all they know, is a god-given inclination to love someone of their own sex. The “clinic” of Bachmann and her husband has nothing to do with science, it’s based on scripture written at a time people of faith were burying adulterers to their necks and stoning them to death.

Do not be fooled by Bachmann. Based on her history and her utterances she would love to run the country as a church.  That’s the craziness that scares the hell out of me. On a national scale Michelle Bachmann’s kind of craziness is one step closer to that of Anders Breivik; the kind that would finally destroy what it means to be American.

Michelle Bachmann would have us pray ourselves out of economic and social decline as we typically pray for victory in war, adhering to guidelines set down by Moses and Paul, attuned to the exclusivity of religious fascists like John (Hurricane-Katrina-was-the-judgment-of-God-against-New Orleans) Hagee.

 Bachmann would have us pray for deliverance as our enemies simultaneously pray for our defeat. But we can only hope that god is not fool enough to be confused by the conflicting interests as left or right, Muslim or Christian.

John Steinbeck made a brilliant observation in his book Tortilla Flat.  He said, ”Ah, the prayers of the millions, how they must fight and destroy each other on their way to the throne of God.”

Such prayers in politics are red herrings in the struggle have-nots must chronically endure to have a little. Jesus in his teaching, made it clear where he stood in that struggle. It had nothing to do with any religion.

by Jim Culleny
for the Greenfield Recorder, 8/7/11