Sunday, October 22, 2006

A Little More on Zane and Other Sundries

I wrote about Zane here, not long ago. I haven't talked to him again, but I did talk to his ex-wife today, for something like three hours. I called just to get Zane's brother's number again. Zane's brother, I'll call him Bill, called me back as we were out the door for SF, and I lost his number by the time I had a moment to call again. He was a good man, a friend as well, and someone I thought could give me another perspective on Zane.

Not content to just give me the number, Zane's ex, I'll call her Susan, wanted to talk. About Zane, about Estella my first wife, whom she saw at a wedding last summer (with Robert and two children in tow; that took some time for me to process, though I didn't write about it here; it was the first time I heard for sure they were married and had children). There was more of the same sad and dark from Susan's life as well. Her church, my old church, kicks any member out for initiating divorce barring abandonment by a non-Christian spouse or continual adultery. This means that if your spouse had an affair but now wants to get back together, or loses his mind as Zane tragically has, or becomes an addict...you cannot divorce him or her without being, in essence, excommunicated.

What kind of hard-line shit is that?

I'll tell you what kind. The kind that looks into the NT for a new law beyond the law Christ gives us. That looks for proof-texts in the NT, one from Jesus when challenged by legalists and another in a letter Paul writes to a particular church on a particular occasion, to be the complete practical law regarding divorce for an entire congregation in myriad circumstances 2000 years later. Isn't it odd that while Jesus provides no way to remarry after divorce in his remark, unless the other partner is unfaithful (he doesn't say one can't divorce), Paul cuts a bit more slack in the case of the unbelieving partner who leaves. But then, Paul may not have had access to extensive Jesus-tradition, or sought to memorize it. He was consumed by the kerygma itself and not part of the original community. Or he may have felt the right to reinterpret the edict situationally, something Jews had been doing for centuries.

Enough soap box for tonight. No matter what, I cannot see how kicking Susan out of her twenty year church was anything short of religious abuse.

The hardest thing about talking to Susan was not talking about Zane, though but talking about Estella. Susan didn't have any real information, just spoke to her at a wedding last summer and once on the phone some time back. Supposedly, E quoted me as saying long ago that "Zane is wound so tight he's going to snap one day"...though maybe, Susan said, I was quoted by the woman who was getting married. It's hard to imagine Estella using my name in a conversation at all. It sounds a lot more like the bride, a woman I knew years ago. As for saying that particular thing, I have no recollection. Looking back, I can see warning signs that Zane might end up seriously depressed...but psychotically paranoid, I would never have predicted that.

Susan had questions from our last talk; she wanted the whole Robert and Estella story, the story I haven't even told here yet it is so hard to write. And I told it. The emotion hot on my skin as though I was submerged in its fire, while I fought to keep out of clinical obsession and stay in the hot stream of the feeling itself. Pretty much, I was able to do that. That was a victory. Susan wanted me to follow up with the medical board and try, after all these years, to pick up with the complaint I filed more than a decade ago about Robert's unethical conduct. I just don't know. She also talked a lot about narcissistic personalities, something I appreciated. For surely, Robert, a man I called the nefas in my own mind for years, the unspeakable evil...surely he was narcissistic, self-absorbed, and dangerous to his clients. But now, you see, I begin to tell the final chapter.

Talking to Susan both times has been good and I found the pain a fraction of what it was the first time we talked. I don't know how Zane would feel about it, but I have no intention of telling him. Susan tells me they used to go places and he would think the way cars were parked, or the way someone walked past them, a sign of an imminent conspiracy plot. Such tragedy.

Now I sit here and write. And writing like this in blog, while a far, far cry from speaking in a supportive group, is surely something. S is at her mom's all weekend; Mikey is now asleep. I have to take him to school at 8:00 tomorrow, but then I go to old-guy grappling class after I drop him off, a group of older men, mostly prison guards oddly enough, who meet to train moderately without adding to their individual injury lists. I love that time. Since it is only 10:30 at the moment, I sit here and stare at the screen in wonder. How beautiful to write here, now. What a luxury. You are now free to roam about the keyboard.

And so this becomes sundry blog. Littla this, littla that...

Carson and Moo have impressed me with their Introduction to the NT. The conclusions are traditional-conservative, yes, but for an approachable NT intro which describes various schools of thought on critical issues and manages to take a side without being defensive...it's a useful beginning, truly. I've paused in the middle of Wright's VOG; honestly not because I don't understand him, but because his positions are so idiosyncratic, on the synoptic problem or some of the parables for example, that I want to see the larger picture first. C and M do that, as does the L.T. Johnson cd series I'm listening to in my car (almost done with all 18...this has made my commute a pleasure).

I taught myself the greek alphabet and am beginning to read a little biblical Greek. Why not? As soon as I can afford a good primer I'm going for it. If I do go to seminary in four years, I hope to have considerable coursework done in my head. Much less stress that way. If I never go, the questions are so vital for me I can't help myself exploring. May God bless my chaos.

Peace and love to all.

What Christian Am I?

I found this quiz at Sandalstraps' Sanctuary.

You scored as Emergent/Postmodern. You are Emergent/Postmodern in your theology. You feel alienated from older forms of church, you don't think they connect to modern culture very well. No one knows the whole truth about God, and we have much to learn from each other, and so learning takes place in dialogue. Evangelism should take place in relationships rather than through crusades and altar-calls. People are interested in spirituality and want to ask questions, so the church should help them to do this.

Emergent/Postmodern

71%

Neo orthodox

68%

Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan

64%

Roman Catholic

57%

Modern Liberal

46%

Classical Liberal

43%

Reformed Evangelical

32%

Charismatic/Pentecostal

18%

Fundamentalist

4%

What's your theological worldview?
created with QuizFarm.com


I am surprised I came out postmodern emergent. This surprises me since I know almost nothing about emergent. I think I'm a liberal Episcopalian, deeply concerned with historical Jesus research, symbol, and loving social action. One thing I know; what the emergent church seems to mean by postmodern (and I know very little about the emergent church) has almost nothing to do with what literature teachers mean by postmodern. The other thing I'll admit is that the descriptive paragraph describes me pretty well.

The neo-orthodox thing does catch my eye.

Just what do I believe at the moment? (Perhaps this will cinch the pomo label on me unawares).

For one, I believe there are many things we do not and will not know on this earth. Not primarily because we live in a postmodern, language infused world where all knowledge is highly personalized. On the contrary, our true limitation comes from the fact that we live in one tiny corner of a vast material universe and have no direct access to our Creator, let alone His World. We don't know many things because God has not told us many things. Why? I don't know. But judicious use of those last three words, "I don't know," and "I don't know yet," is critical to any reflective process on the cosmos and God.

On the modern/postmodern paradigm, I'd note, for the record, the fact that the human mind unknowingly distorts truth is hardly a 20th century idea. Francis Bacon, the inductive empiricist, in his Novum Organon of 1620, makes a powerful case with his famous "Four Idols" that human inquiry is far from error-free. It's a pre-linguistic document, yes, but even language gets its Idol for Bacon. I think it was C.S. Lewis who said that every idea has been held by some person in every age. The more I read, the more I agree.

Pieces of evangelical Christian culture may well be shifting away from simple answers, rigid systematic theology, and quick appeals to authority (including the proof-text). But this is not a new phenomenon in Christianity at large. What is most interesting is how the emergent church is doing this and growing when the mainline denominations, which have been following this path for some time, continue to shrink in many locations.

So, if I'm not sure I'm postmodern, what do I believe?

The Bible is a collection of books which reflects a mysterious combination of the human and the divine. There are many ways this is described, but my faith is based on the canonical gospels, and, it's fair to say, on the spiritual experience of Paul and the other apostles. This is quite apart from whether Adam and Eve were real people, or there was a universal flood, or whether God told the Israelites to butcher cities, or whether there was one feeding of the multitude or two. We may not have a book from the sky, but this does not discount the fact that what we do have is remarkable, and necessary, religious literature. Without the bible, what would we know of God? Perhaps God has told us just what we need to know. But rather than trying to measure all truth on this planet "according to God's Word," our search for truth and meaning must use intuition, rigorous reason, the moral sense, and a critical reading of the scriptural books; all this must be cocooned in a committment to love.

Though the bible books may not be perfect, Christianity is not Christianity unless it is a historic religion; I believe Jesus is unique in recorded history and what he did and said matters. He is who he said he was and he rose from the dead. The gospels may not be innerrant, but that does not mean they are wholesale creative fictions.

Is the trinity real? Quite possibly. I think the earliest Christians had to deal with Jesus' remarkable nature and the Spirit he spoke of in light of their monotheism and this led, perhaps more quickly than is sometimes assumed, to the concept of the trinity. Is this the final word on the godhead? Is it even comprehendable to the human mind? We will never know in this life. It surely is a beautiful, corporate depiction of the deity, one which models service and elevation, power and gentle urging, father and son and awe-full mystery.

What else? Does baptism cause sin to be forgiven? I have no idea. I think response to Christ involves action based on faith in some form, and that Jesus will turn away no one who seeks him. Any shred of an attempt, I must believe, is enough (hopefully even if one never hears of Christ). Do the elements in the Eucharist change at all? I actually tend to think no, but again, a spiritual change in matter (if this can happen) cannot be measured. Does the communion touch me spiritually, heal and build me? Yes. And I had a mystic experience at my first Episcopal communion, or one of them, when I wasn't even attending church. I will never neglect the Eucharist or deride it in any way. This does not mean the elements assume deity themselves or should be venerated. Frankly, I don't care what happens to the elements or when; if anything does happen, it surely happens at every Christian church on the planet, even the most dry-lipped chalk-proper denominations. Do I think a priest is necessary to celebrate the communion as my church teaches? Nope. Where two or three are gathered.

Since the core of my faith is the gospel material, I have many questions about it. In my world, this is the place to work. Did Jesus teach judgement? I have to believe so. Was it temporal, eternal? This is a very big question for me. Was the destruction of the Temple in 70 God's directed act? I can't say. Am I going to heaven when I die? I don't know that either. Is there a resurrection of the dead? Dear God I hope so. The NT teaches it explicitly in multiple tradition and so much Christian hope is pinned on it.

Dialogue does matter more than confrontation. What is postmodern about that?

Perhaps I simply don't understand the emergent church. I'm not sure any of the ideas there are new, though I do think it is providing a necessary challenge to American fundamentalism. That challenge was bound to happen and will continue.

My true concern right now is how to energize my own little parish and Episcopalianism as a whole. I think it is a beautiful and glorious community, democratic, liturgical, rational and love-focused. Of course, that's only my experience. Why the ECUSA, along with the other mainlines, has been shrinking for several decades while the evangelical churches boom is something I'd like to understand. Is this shift a good thing, or is the church growth movement creating larger numbers of church members with shallower Christian experience? Have head-counts and entertaining services substituted in some cases for enhancing personal spiritual committment? To put things darkly, do people simply want to be told what to think (as the ECUSA may have done before pieces of it became 'liberal' thirty or forty years ago)? Perhaps the old style of worship has simply burned out. Are we all tired of centuries old hymns and traditions? There is so much wonder in the old practices, the ecclesiastical calender especially. I hope this at least is never lost even if we all move to overheads and microphone bands.

I know very little about all this, though it looks like I'm going to have to learn as my role changes at the parish. Since I think human nature is fundamentally the same over millenia, my guess is the churches have always been filled with the same kinds of people as now; some want a stronger connection to God, some just show up. The fact is many more (of all kinds) are showing up in the new evangelical churches than they are in the ECUSA. Why? And how much should the mainlines adapt? All good questions.

Well, enough of this. Take the quiz if you'd like and have fun with it. Sandalstraps was surprised by his category; myself as well.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Life in the Community College

Laying on my office floor this morning (a truly comfortable way to read in my eight by six foot cell, though I am sitting up to type), I am trying to make sense of Heidegger's Dasein, which I hardly understand at all; then I suppose I don't need to understand it because I am immersed in its being-stream, and his Geschichte, which I sort of understand from reading biblical criticism if nothing else.

The question is how am I going to, at 1:00 today (and with a composition class in between) tie what little I know of Heidegger into the idea of the hermeneutic circle, then into Gadamer's idea of tradition; above all, how to contrast this with the 'conventional' criticism of the American E.D. Hirsch. (In case I sound like a scholar, all this is in fact taken from Chapter 2 of Terry Eagleton's remarkable little book Literary Theory). That the questions these individuals pose about textual meaning are genuine I have no doubt. And so I'll start here: does the author's intent matter? Could Frost's "Stopping by Woods" be about, say, football?

The good thing is that the foray into the ivory swamp of literary theory is a side project within my Am. Lit. class, and the main topic for discussion, Emerson's "Self-Reliance," I know well enough: "whim."

Funniest of all, after my Am. Lit. I trot over to a basic grammar course where we are learning about fragments. (Let's see, oh yes, the object case of the relative pronoun can begin a dependent clause...)

That is community college English life. In two years I'll probably lose Am. Lit. and be teaching the British seminar, or Shakespeare, or maybe Mythology again. In many ways, I love this. I'm getting the education I was once denied. And Eagleton is making sense in a way he didn't in college (how did I not see, then, what a raving Marxist he is). In another sense, I wish I taught three classes instead of five and had more time to concentrate on one area, to actually play scholar, though if I could pick right now, that area would be NT studies and I'd have to teach in an entirely different environment.

That's all I have time for right now. Shouts out to all. It's been a very tough week emotionally, but it's been as much growth-pain as stuck-pain and I'm feeling over the hump. My EFM group is awesome once again; I told them about my OCD and depressions of the past when I did my spiritual autobiography for this year and they were quite cool. I can't express how good that support feels, or how long it's been since I felt it in a group. OCD, shit life, can't be managed in isolation, without support. In contrast to the great people in the grouop, the readings for the second year in EFM, the NT year, so far suck doorknobs, but since we all feel that way (including the rector) it helps. The OT material was much, much better (and I hear the NT is being revised again). I do find myself disagreeing with my rector over all kinds of things...the level of Hellenization in Palestine, especially in the gospels...but since we are all learning and everyone's attitude is good, I believe this is healthy.

Learning is one of the great pleasures in life; I'm glad to be here.

Have to run. Two minutes to showtime.

t

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Happy Windsday, Eyeore

Fall, and its wonderful wind, are very much with me.

Work has been very busy. Getting ready for winter in the mountains also takes lots of work (which I put off over the summer) and I haven't had time to write at all. I read my post below again, and feel like it will take me some time to get to What We Are 2.0 (though who knows; it was fun to write). One thing I believe is that I need an actual NT education. My conclusion to that essay is lacking without one. N.T. Wright is only one voice, and a very distinctive voice at that. I want to read Meier and L.T. Johnson; also the more skeptical critics like Crossan. Not to mention those with large historical value, like Wrede. I can't yet offer a scholar's assessment of the NT, only a personal one.

But right now I don't have time even for that. Hopefully soon, though. As I said, I enjoy the work. If I were in grad school now I already know the two papers I'd like to write: one would be an examination of Wright's position on apocalyptic language in the synoptics; the other would be an examination of tradition transmission during the NT period. I know work has been done in both of these areas, and I would love to read it and write about it.

So far, second year EFM is slow to get off the ground. I have found two other interesting sources for NT work, however.

Luke Timothy Johnson did a 'Great Teaching Series' recording of his intro to the NT course. I've heard the first six CD's, and he is quite engaging. Non-dogmatic, even secular, but rich in his literary analysis and generally fair. Also, I orderd the Carson and Moo Intro to the NT. This book is a time warp for me. It was recommended by my brother's Christian-academic friend, and while it is deeply traditional (conventional authorship is upheld for every gospel, even Matthew and John) the authors are making fair points, even if their views are in the minority at the present. The book is more conservative than anything I've read, or even thought, for years. But surely every view should be assessed; presuppositional bigotry against conservative scholars is no better than dismissive bigotry against the liberal ones. I am embarrassed, and have embarrassed myself in this way, when a Christian blasts a book or theory because of its author's religious views without evaluating the idea closely, alongside all the other evidence. NT scholarship, like all other forms, embraces and abandons its trends.

On a slightly side note, I'm pleased to note Jesus' own love for dinner parties and his desire to eat with all. Most scholars agree on this, at least. "The Son of Man came eating and drinking"...my kind of environment. I still have to learn how to embed youtube files here, but I am heartened by the Dropkick Murphy's rendition of "Amazing Grace" on the youtube website. They may be off key, but Jesus has been accused of drinking with guys like this before. It is good for me to remember this. One thing that drove me from the church a dozen years ago was white-glove Christianity. I admired the twelve-step model so much ("I'm Dave, I'm an alcoholic"), and wondered why, when my ex and I shook hands with the ushers coming into the sanctuary at my big-box church, I couldn't say, "Morning, I'm Troy; my marriage is falling apart and we haven't had sex for three months, can we pray about this with you?" I could have found that prayer at that church in other ways, and perhaps did, but there was always this no-grit squeak about Sunday services. Church is not about exterior polish, being good or looking good; it's about crawling (or dancing, or skipping, or if need by crying) into the community of God to eat and drink with Christ once again. We do it because we need it. We always have.

The Christian church, to feed its members, must embrace emotional reality and the technology of recovery; it is love in a practical deeply needed language. It must also embrace theological mystery and tolerate diverse points of view. It must also embrace mercy as a paradigm. This must begin with those who provide example in the churches, the teachers and leaders. If I can't be real about my pain and frustrations, about the reality of life's emotional struggles that we all bake and broil in, I do those below me true harm.

In my own parish (for, as they say...point a finger, three point back right atcha) the tone, the culture, is deeply entrenched. And it's old culture. Old building, old people (mostly), old oak-foothills...old culture. Much of this is good. They help each other when they need it, and I still am absorbing that praxis. They are graceful in many ways and more open-minded, by far, than my old big-box community. Though I haven't had a chance to speak or teach in any context, when and if I do, I hope, with careful precision, I am able to be slightly transparent. Even that would shake and shock. Done right, it might also move and heal.

Of course, all we do must be informed by love, or truly, it is the clanging cymbal.

But I am ahead of myself. My autobiography in EFM should be raw enough next week, and I need to focus on that. EFM, of course, is a closed and trusted group of people I've known for some time.

Teachers, I note again, just can't stay off the soapbox.

Love to all.

Monday, October 02, 2006

What We Are 1.0

I dedicate this (overlong) post to my near-brother Michael, his gracious wife and beautiful baby girl.

***

One of my great pleasures in life is eating and drinking with friends. Dinner parties, especially, are warm and memorable times, and something I've only learned to appreciate in the last six or seven years. A good friend, a man who is nearly family (and whose family is a large reason I learned to love dinner parties) invited my wife and me over to his house a little while ago to eat and to hold his tiny baby girl! His parents, whom I love, were coming. How could we not go?

The pork ribs were excellent. My friend Michael makes his own marinades, as his father did and does, and some ingredients were easy to taste: molasses, for one, and fresh rosemary. The spontaneous genius-touch, though, which I give away on the web itself (without asking) was coffee grounds. A few coffee grounds in the marinade added a smoke-pleasure to the meat that's hard to describe.

Ah. And I brought an Australian Shiraz and a very fine Tokay desert wine also from down under; (both from Costco, less than 25 bucks for the pair; this is for for any who read from and pay teacher-taxes in California).

At the end of the evening, after his parents left and his infant girl was dozing in her baby swing-chair, the talk turned to Youtube.com, the free website where anyone can post a video clip. I first heard about youtube on NPR, and I went there just a few times; after the initial novelty (this is all kinds of video, much self-made, and most happily no porn), after I rewatched the classic SNL skit with Christopher Walken..."more cowbell"...I lost interest. I did see a very sweet and funny video with two teenage girls called "Pump It." They sing along, sped-up chipmunk style, to the song of that name (and I assure all, it's quite innocent and sweet; it makes me think of my son's life as it is developing apart from me). I recommended it to Michael, and he recommended another video called "What We Are." Mixed in among some fairly funny Star Wars parodies ("Chad Vader, Day-Shift Manager") we watched "What We Are" together. (Incidentally, I was unable to import any of these into my blog and gave up trying; the videos, however, are easy to find in youtube's search engine).

This post is my meagre response to the world-view of "What We Are."

A little background: my good friend is an English professor at another school, sometimes reads this blog, and left a childhood faith at about 16, probably because, just as I discovered later in my own life, he realized he didn't personally believe. This event was long before I knew him, and I know few details. The fact that, now, he refuses any middle ground lifestyle, will not go through the motions of Christianity (communion, prayer) when he does not believe in Jesus, is actually something I admire. Whether he still considers religious questions or looks for spiritual answers I actually don't know.

I do know, when religion is tossed out, the western material zeitgheist, empirical naturalism, is a common replacement. In my own mind, it remains a powerful dialectic partner with my faith.

Enter (again) the video "What We Are." If you have time, watch it before reading the rest of this. It's witty, funny, cute, though clearly has actual purpose. Since it represents materialism at the powerful popular level, I find it is worth a response. (I note now, in my final edit, someone has posted a decent, warm-hug but very sane response titled "What We Really Are.") Is "What We Are" a straw man of secular materialism? Perhaps. It seems to me materlialism, when it indrafts humanism, may depend on some straw man points of view (chiefly, why must any strong individual subscribe to the social contract?). But I think many people I know would take this video quite seriously; my guess is my friend, who is brilliant, did not recommend it out of hand. Of course, as I've worked on my respone, I have had to admit more and more that my response will be incomplete. An entire counter would involve every apologetic notion in my head, every reason I myself believe, and this post will not be that. A complete counter along those same lines would also involve plenty of thinking I have yet to do. I'm still building the intellectual framework for my faith.

Still, some things can be said.

For one, the video does not distinguish between what can be accounted near-certain truths and assertions which it merely presents as true. It begins with a slide show stressing something humans almost surely know: the discovered Universe is utterly vast compared to human beings, compared to all of Earth. Unimaginably big. This fact should inspire humility in our often arrogant race, a fact the video stresses to its advantage. (In fact, human limitation is a key theme of the video clip, though all limitations it places on human knowledge...'we are all just monkeys'...must of course be applied to its own statements as well). But just because we know the universe is extravagantly gigantic, does this mean humans are not significant? This is the opening salvo-joke of the film. Surely the video is attempting to undermine ancient assumptions, many of them religious or quasi-religious, about the placement of the earth at the (obvious) center of the cosmos, assumptions based partly on weak empirical observation and partly on ethno-pride. My own faith, without its founder recorded as saying anything at all regarding cosmological placement, says the Creator of the universe came to this puny planet in human form. The question should be raised, and is implicitly raised in my view in "What We Are": why would the Creator God ever trouble with something, or someone, of such insignificant size and so remote?

The universe is radically vast, more vast than I can begin to fathom. But there is also something quite radical and vast about a single human mind. What should stagger me more, a preoposterously huge cosmos, or the fact that I have an emotional sensation when I read a single poem? I cannot understress: size matters, but mind matters more. The human moral conscience alone, its existence testified to by theists and non-theists throughout history, is more astounding, even curious, than the largest galaxy without mental life. Man's moral reflectivity, his passion for beauty, his art, his mathematics, his ability to choose between destruction and mercy...these are impressive ethical, phenomonenlogical and empirical realities. And if, just if, spirit exists, some undying individual transcendence, it would matter more than a billion stars on their way to burn-out or implosion. Man surely is a vapor; St. James is right. But by extension, though it takes longer to die, so is my galaxy. A swirl of burning chemical gas a billion light years across is impressive (as long as there is a mind to feel impressed). One human being marvelling at said galaxy, feeling dwarfed in comparison to its material properties, strikes me as much more. Galaxies neither think nor feel. They do not write poetry or cry. They are not self-conscious. They surely cannot pray.

Perhaps such a chain of being, with mind higher than mass, is artificial. The more I reflect, the more I refuse to think so, however. If we are the only self-aware minds in the universe, I believe our ability to consciously reflect on the cosmos is the greatest achievement among all stars.

The video doesn't mention this fact and I may be drifting in this paragraph, but plenty of materialists believe there is likely other life, smart life, even some smarter life, on other congenial planets somewhere in the universe. They could well be correct. Yet when they ponder this, Sagan-like, there is nearly always the accompanying but unspoken (perhaps unthought) assertion that intelligent extraterrestial beings, if they ever show up, will be materialist-Darwinists who will explain evoulution to us in more precise terms from their advanced point along the evolutionary schedule. On the other hand, these beings could, quite frankly, be theists who impress us with their theological development. What a shock it would be if we found another race of beings who were scientifically superior to humanity and yet worshipped a deity, perhaps with greater clarity and committment than our own muddled race. This is of course speculation on my part, but it seems that we should not consider the reality of ET life in any form proof against belief in God or even Christianity until we find meet these beings and swap creation myths.

After the brief slide-show intro on how dorkily tiny Earth is, "What We Are" proceeds to answer the question implied in its title: What Are We? What we are, it turns out, are monkeys, developed primates, who, almost unluckily, got stuck with the complex mental pain of self-awareness. The great irony, for the film, is that most of us are in denial about this fact. We think we're something more, or better, but in reality we're just monkeys.

I have two concerns with this.

For one, there are many things which make us different from monkeys. The video would be just as logically accurate to say we are all just molecules or single-celled organisms or amphibious transitional forms because we evolved from these. My wife and I would be enlightened to admit we are, at essence, iguanas. While the similarities between humans and primates are obvious (and the video points some of these out, humorously) there are fundamental qualitative differences. For me, as I've said, self-conscious moral reflectivity is high on this list. Almost all humans have a personal standard of behavior, more or less. Some of my values may be erroneous, but generally I know if I back into someone's car in the parking lot I should leave a note. Perhaps my culture tells me this, but it seems I can step back and compare two cultures, my own, which tells me to leave a note and cover the costs of my damage, and another deficient culture, which (hypothetically) tells me the whole thing is funny and I should tear out of there before I'm caught. Let the other, unlucky, man or woman pay for the damage. Why do I have such a moral sense?

The other fact, noted by many writers in history, is that we don't live up to our own moral code. The fact we have a regular sense of self-defiency is quite curious. Even those of use who are the best at not self-blaming must say that we are all just human. Generally I will leave a note when I back into a stranger's car, but surely I do and say things, often, which hurt those nearest me, a greater wrong than property damage. And I've done worse things still. Sometimes I feel guilt soon after, sometimes I don't until later reflection. But the fact remains: humans ponder the impact their behavior has on others in a way I do not believe exists in the rest of the animal kingdom. If I'm wrong, I'd like some anthropologist to steer me to the right books. When my dog digs into the trash and then shies away when I come home, this seems a long distance from the complexity of human ethical preoccupations. It may be that our moral sense evolved and that lower forms of conscience are evident in the animal world, but moral concerns exist in humans to a self-reflective and complex, even contradictory degree.

But there is more. We use symbols and no animal (naturally) does. We have entire nuanced languages. And oddly enough, we are capable of evil on a scale no animal could imagine. We don't kill just for food or territory; we sometimes kill for power or hate, even inconvenience. And yet, astoundingly, humans also choose self-sacrifice in remarkable circumstances, at times for individuals outside the family or clan. Some of us have devoted our entire lives to the service of other humans, many prompted by their religion. We are just as capable of mercy as we are of massacre.

It may be that I need to go back and read Jane Goodall, but the reality that human beings are not monkeys at all in their essential and foundational selves seems blindingly obvious. If we are just monkeys in a self-made industrial jungle, what is to stop me, ethically, from taking your car, your money and your mate if I am stronger, bigger, and quicker? Oh, my humanness? Yes. I would agree. But surely not my monkeyness.

My second issue involves evolution itself. I have no abiding religious issue with evolution. I do feel many processes, in fact the most fundamental processes on which evolution depends, have not been fully observed. However, as I understand it (which is not very well, nods to my friends Krav Mom and Herr Schnickelfritz) the evidence for shared ancestry is very strong at the genetic level. Perhaps I did descend from monkeys (and I know this is not actually what biologists say, but the point is taken) without any Divine special creation of man as described in the Jewish scriptures. This opens up genuine (though far from dismissive) theological questions for Christians regarding these Jewish scriptures, even some of Jesus' own comments on those scriptures, but if the evidence points towards evolution, I must go with the evidence at hand. If nothing else, such a concept, if true, provides reason for humans to feel profound (though hardly self-denigrating) epistemic humility.

If there was ever a time I wish I could cite a quote from somewhere in my reading it would be now, but Darwin himself is reputed to have felt epistemological anxiety over the fact that he came to view man as no more than a developed ape. How can we be certain regarding our thoughts about the world around us if our mental processes are merely those of advanced primates? What does advanced mean in this context? This is a complicated question, and there are no easy answers. Still, though I have argued at length we are not "just monkeys," if we descended from something like them, this fact should keep intellectual arrogance in check. It should cause us to all be on guard as we make proclamations regarding the universe and what may lie beyond it. Science might prove some of its premises to wide-scale scientific satisfaction, but then it has only proved them amongst its collective monkey-brains. The same is true with philosophy and theology. Here, I agree with the video: we must be humble before a cosmos we hardly know our own place in; epistemic caution is in order.

If we did 'just' evolve does that mean we are still not special, perhaps even special to God? Does this mean we are, in an almost Platonic sense, at our essential core, just monkeys (and iguanas)? Perhaps our existence is only the product of, to paraphrase S. J. Gould, amazing laws in this amazing universe, extraordinary organizing forces without known origin. Then human beings could be compared to extremely complex, living and self-aware biological snowflakes formed purely as the product of natural mechanisms which work, at least, in our very little corner of space. It is also true, of course, that if there was Divine intervention beyond natural law at some point in the process, if God really did step into his evolving material universe to make Life or to make Humans for his own purpose, this intervention is clearly impossible to prove or disprove with what we know. To argue that he may have intervened directly in the unfolding of natural law is not really 'God of the gaps,' arguing God must have stepped in to complete an evolutionary process we haven't yet observed; I didn't say he did or had to, I said he might have. Why I think he might have comes later. And on the 'God of the Gaps' concept, critiqued everywhere from Paul Davies to Michael Shermer: there are plenty of things evolutionists can't explain yet either, but I've never heard an evolutionist tell me the means by which non-living matter produces living matter is 'evolution of the gaps.' Materialists assume human development occured only by natural processes. Maybe so. But that makes the existence of those processes no less remarkable, nor their human product on earth any less valuable or remarkable (or for that matter, curious).

Which brings me closer (but not quite closer to) my final point, and the spot where will I park this entire essay.

In the video, all religions are human wish-fulfillment invention and, not surprisingly, the source of violent contention. Religion has produced violence, no doubt. So has thirst for technology, comfort, power, sex, dominance, and land. So has political ideology. So has sports fanaticism. (I suppose, in its own way, religion has mixed with most of these). But religion has done so much more for our race, my religion I will say, than merely produce holy warriors, pedophile priests, and inquisitors. Belief in Christ has enhanced the lives of many millions, and I am not willing to say these life enhancing experiences are only the result of telling onself a happy fairy tale, as the life-change often occurs in the absence of classical or obvious wish-fulfillment paradigms. Meaning some of us have felt moved or changed by God, vitally, when we have only the murkiest idea of who God is or what he wants or has to offer. I have seen this and I have read this and I believe I have experienced this. Nor am I willing to say at this time that all religions are essentially and experientially the same, that all religious experience is identical to the Christian one, or that all religious claims, across cultures and times, are identical. This is an enormous issue and one I don't have the time (nor I admit the expertise) to engage here, and I say this only in passing. It is also worth note in passing that God may not only speak to Christians or through Christianity. It is my very dear hope he does not limit his love and grace solely to those who have heard of his son. Frankly, I don't know. The missional nature of the early Christians clearly must be the continuing model; beyond that only God can see.

And now here I arrive where I have been headed all along. I could have marked an asterisk at the top of this essay and said that anyone too busy (or bored) to continue with the whole thing might as well scroll down to this spot. For here it is:

Whatever we are, whatever we come from and however we got here, Jesus lived and died, spoke and acted within our race. The historical fact of Jesus, the literary fact of the gospels, these must be reckoned with. These questions cannot be denied a thorough hearing. They cannot be written off as just another set of erroneous religious questions to be laughed off in the glorious light of empirical science. The gospels, despite repeated and even brilliant attempts, do not appear to have been cleanly dismissed into the same category as Homer and Hesiod.

And here, continued reading of the gospels and N.T. Wright's persistent scholarship are slowly nudging me away from my own skepticism.

I have been willing to consider on the Jesus question, at times at least, along with many before and beside me, that we don't really know if Jesus said much of anything we find in the gospels. The resurrection probably happened, the disciples certainly must have believed it, but the work required to evaluate ancient history, and from biased sources no less, is beyond the tools of historians. I question this more and more. I have also considered, with others before me and beside me, that the disciples fantasized, in some form, the resurrection appearances and then, eventually, by some means or other, produced fictionalized gospel traditions within their communities, including the resurrection and empty tomb stories and the miraculous accounts. I believe this less and less. (Faith, I think, can co-exist along with such hypotheses).

What, in briefest terms, grabs me in the gospels and in Wright's work on the synoptics?

Here I must end part one; I already have much written below this which will become 'part two'. When I have more time, I will throw up what are my honest reactions and assessments. They won't be thorough. I have as many significant questions right now as I do signficant answers. I can only scratch the barest surface of Wright's work. But it will be a start. For no matter what I hear about evolution or the monkey nature of human beings, about the bio-chemical nature of human consciousness, or more difficult, about the problem of human death and disease, the aparently random nature of life and death on this planet, the gospels and their Christ must still be engaged at the literary and historic level, at the human level, and engaged closely.