Facebook is already dead

First, I want to go on record saying I thought MySpace was better than Facebook and I was resistant to join Facebook. I mean, MySpace allowed you to learn basic coding skills! And MySpace gave you the option to have a song on your page! But alas, Facebook won…for now.

The other day I was watching a debate between Yanis Varoufakis and Gillian Tett where the topic was “Can We Fix Capitalism?”

I’m not an economist, so I’m not commenting on the debate itself. I watched it to learn and be informed. What I want to discuss here is a snippet of an exchange between Varoufakis and Tett that I thought mattered more than a quick glance would reveal. Varoufakis has been arguing that capitalism is already dying or is basically dead or has “evolved into another system”. He proposes that something he calls “technofeudalism” has taken its place. If you want to know his thoughts on the matter, here’s a clip where he shares his idea with Slavoj Žižek:

If you don’t want to watch the video, I’ll provide a very brief, very rough simplification: Capitalism needs (A) “profit to drive it” and (B) that “exploitation takes place in markets” but what we see with Amazon, Facebook, etc., is not a market since people like Bezos and Zuckerberg use their digital platforms to predetermine what can be bought or sold. Varoufakis believes that this limiting power is more feudalistic than market-driven and since it’s done through “platforms” the person who decides (“one person owns to whole digital space”) what can be bought or sold are those who own the platforms. (Varoufakis argues that once you get on Facebook, you’re already “outside capitalism”.)

While this is fascinating, I want to go back to the aforementioned debate. During the debate, in an attempt to defend capitalism’s redeemability, Tett points out change can happen, that these “platforms” don’t have to have the last word, and that, in fact, they’re already losing their grip. Her point to Varoufakis: Gen Z isn’t on Facebook.

Now, I’m not saying that this gives Tett the edge in the debate; I’m saying this one point is fascinating. Because Varoufakis’ observation seems valuable to me. Something is changing. But Tett’s observation also matters: these multi-billion-dollar corporations aren’t invincible or eternal. In fact, like Blockbuster, I think the clock is tick, tick, ticking on Facebook. Facebook may dominate the connectivity of Millennials, Gen X, etc., but Gen Z is on Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. While Facebook owns Instagram, it appears that TikTok’s model (and still YouTube’s) is becoming increasingly attractive. What’s clear is Facebook itself is dying and this became most apparent this week when Zuckerberg lost $29 billion and Meta lost $200 billion. Why? Facebook is seeing a drop in users.

I don’t see Facebook rebounding. I don’t think the “Meta” rebranding will work. Facebook has lost the next generation already. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they lose my generation as well. I mean, MySpace did.

So, Varoufakis may be correct. We may be moving into technofeudalism. But Tett is right about at least one thing: consumers still have the power to bring even giants like Facebook to their knees.

The rhetoric of “It’s for the kids…”

Now, I want to clarify that the rant that follows isn’t personal. I’ve been treated well by my employer. My pay is decent for a K-12 educator. My life-work balance improves with every year on the job. I’m not patronized. I’m treated like an educated adult who has a field of academic expertise. I’m trusted to provide the best education possible to my students (and I’m confident that I do that and I do it well.) And I’d say that relatively speaking, my employer has been cautious and tried to protect teachers during this pandemic. So, I’m saying this as a teacher who has it pretty good; a teacher who is employed at a private school with class sizes that aren’t overwhelming and with students who treat me with kindness and respect. But we teachers are family, so I need to say something about education in the United States, broadly speaking.

If you’ve spent any time around K-12 education you have heard people use a magical phrase that justifies how teachers are treated: “It’s for the kids.” If teachers aren’t paid a living wage, their sacrifice is “for the kids”. If teachers are asked to work unpaid overtime, it’s “for the kids”. (And by the way, most teachers don’t get paid for our summer “vacation” unless we opt to spread our ten-month salaries over twelve months, so many teachers work another gig in the summer and sometimes even extra jobs during the school year!) If teachers have to be verbally abused by their students or their students’ parents, it’s “for the kids”. And many of the non-profit organizations designed to improve schooling in this country buy into this philosophy (e.g. Teach for America), happily pushing participants to work themselves to exhaustion “for the kids”.

Then the pandemic came along. Many teachers were told that their subject matter doesn’t matter because what matters is that they provide a place for children while their parents go back to work. If the quality of their teaching is subpar, it’s ok: just give us a place to send our children so we can make money. In essence, many teachers have been told their respected vocation is actually free childcare designed to allow their parents to go back to work so that the economy can thrive. Teachers became “essential workers” braving Covid-19 exposure on the front lines. All the while, many of our fellow citizens demanded that they return to take care of their children while complaining about requests for those children to be vaccinated and wear masks.

Now, teachers are leaving education at alarming numbers. Where I live in Texas, and elsewhere, some schools are begging parents to come to be substitute teachers because of the teacher/staff shortages caused by Covid-19 infections and teachers walking off the job permanently. Some people are aghast by this. How can teachers do this to the children? The hypocrisy is stunning as are the assumptions. Teachers aren’t in a vocational caste where they must remain in education until they die. Teachers are humans with (free-ish) wills. Many teachers are quite educated. I know this is surprising to some but many teachers are intelligent enough, innovative enough, and entrepreneurial enough to do quite well in other sectors! There’s nothing that demands that teachers stay teachers until they die. When society tells its teachers that economic profit matters more than the well-being of the teachers they think must be life-long saints, there shouldn’t be any surprise when those same teachers ask themselves, “Wait! If the economy is what really matters, why don’t I get myself a piece of that pie? Maybe that way I can retire someday too!”

The empty rhetoric of “It’s for the kids…” has been exposed when it became clear that many people care less about “the kids” than they projected. But here’s what is also important to realize: every underpaid, overworked adult teacher is a human who was once a kid. When the exploitation of teachers is justified by saying it’s “for the kids,” and that teachers should work themselves into the ground so that the next generation can have better opportunities, they’ve revealed that what they’re saying is that they want teachers to keep fueling the machine. Teachers need to work hard to create the next generation’s exploited, overworked, underpaid, dehumanized workforce. “For the kids” then means, “we need more bodies to help make capital!”

If you think this is a lie, notice the predatory lending habits associated with student loans. There’s a segment of our society that salivates at the idea of more and more children becoming young adults who don’t understand finance or know what they’re doing when they take loans for tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Is that “get them into college” mentality really the magic bullet we think it is? If wages are stagnant but the cost of education continues to skyrocket, what we’re telling the next generation is this: “If you want to be educated and maybe work one of the jobs that come with that education, there will be a tax: you will spend hundreds a month from your wages on student loan payments.”

If American society wants to do something for the next generation, it needs to find a way to pay teachers better, make sure their work-life balance can be maintained, shrink classroom sizes, update their facilities, provide them with the necessary resources, etc. That’s “for the kids”. Teachers shouldn’t be martyrs. And this is true of apparently “progressive,” “pro-education” states like California, who thinks it’s ok to offer high school teachers a starting wage of $48,044 – $52,466! That’s not a living wage in California; not even close! As a society, we can right these wrongs or we can watch educators walk out the door, all but guaranteeing that the next generation will have something else stolen from them along with the health of their natural environment.

Teaching isn’t just my job; teaching is my passion and part of my identity. This may not be healthy but I’m not alone. Most teachers do the work they do for the same reason. We’re not just employed as educators; it feels like it’s part of our being. But teachers can be pushed beyond their limits and when they walk, they walk, and you may not be able to replace them. So, let’s do something “for the kids” and treat teachers with the dignity they deserve, paying them the wages they deserve, and giving them the work-life balance and working environment they deserve. I’m looking at you, California!

Book Note: Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower”

Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower (reprint. 2019; New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993). (Amazon; Bookshop)

[There may be minor spoilers in this post but nothing that’ll give away the essence of the narrative in either The Parable of Sower or The Parable of the Talents.]

As I read Octavia Butler’s prophetic, sci-fi dystopia, The Parable of the Sower, I found myself encountering a variety of emotions. I was unnerved because it seemed like Butler was almost a seer. I was hopeful because even in the midst of desperate situations, her characters show how humanity can survive and find new meaning. I was challenged because the hope she offers isn’t one of divine intervention but instead one where we are our hope, for better or for worse. I was intrigued and provoked because my religious studies-obsessed brain had the opportunity to ponder the emerging religion of the main character: Earthseed.

The narrative of Sower begins in 2024. It centers on a seventeen-year-old named Lauren Oya Olamina who lives with her family in a walled neighborhood compound while the world outside—her world being near Los Angeles, CA—has collapsed. Climate change has brought drought to California that makes it nearly uninhabitable. As we learn in the first part of the sequel, something known as “the Pox” has pushed the United States to the brink of collapse with the various states closing their borders to one another. We even learn that Olamina’s father, a history professor, and Baptist preacher, sometimes teaches using his computer and sometimes has to go to campus—which sounds a lot like Zoom-hybrid teaching to me! This is taking place in the midst of an economy that’s collapsed, in part, into debt-slavery where people are owned by corporations. When you shift over to The Parable of the Talents, written in 1998, there’s a candidate for the presidency who has the slogan “make America great again” and he’s connected to violent Christian Nationalists. It’s a little too close to our actual timeline (though Talents begins in 2032).

In response to the apparent collapse of civilization, Olamina beings to create a new religion called “Earthseed”. It’s as if process theology, Black American Christianity, and Buddhist and Daoist ideas were thrown into a blender and served in the context of environmental collapse and the legitimate question of whether humans need to consider space exploration for a home other than earth. There’s a lot going on there but it’s beautiful and challenging, and thought-provoking.

I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot, so I’ll end with two comments:

  1. As I learned from the CrashCourse video discussing the book (don’t judge me, CrashCourse is legit!), SciFi can be divided three ways: (A) What-If?; (B) If-Only; (C) If-This-Goes-On. Sower is definitely (C). Sower warns us that if certain elements of our society don’t change, there will be trouble. You can tell Butler lived in California but her foresight is unnerving. I lived in California in the 1990s and 2000s as well and only briefly began to think about climate change after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. (Which one of my more conservative colleagues has cited as evidence that global change isn’t worth the panick, so not sure whether to blame Al Gore or just the role of our current forms of partisianship for creating that talking point!) Of course, to my defense, I was a pre-teen when Sower was published…but still, I don’t remember many adults taking climate change as seriously as Butler did and Butler, while slightly ahead of schedule, seems to have been more in tune with the consequences of climate change than many of her contemporaries realized three decades ago.
  2. I’m obviously very open to synchristic religion. In fact, anyone who claims to be orthodox this or orthodox that will get a skeptical eye from me because I’m sure that any form of religion you practice has been mixed with something that your religious ancestors would have considered necessarily “other” (which is why binaries like “Jewish-Hellenistic” or “Christian-Pagan” seem to be massive oversimplifications in my mind). While I’m not saying that “EarthSeed” should be a real thing —since I’m, in fact, quite skeptical that space exploration won’t be anything other than what we’re seeing now with Bezos, Musk, and other billionaires playing with their space toys while the rest of us have to deal with the real problems and limitations of our planet—I do think that Christianity can borrow from Daoist, Confucian, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikhi, et al., thought and it would make Christianity healthier and more adaptable to the world in which we live. So, there may be something to Tamisha A. Tyler’s article “Lauren Oya Olamina: Theologian of Our Time” that’s worth our consideration if we want our religion(s) to evolve in the twenty-first century.

Critique of a received Nietzsche

Yesterday, I was asked the following question on Facebook by my friend Fr. Nate Bostain in response to my post “Christianity as ‘a technique of survival for the oppressed'”:

Nietzsche’s critique of Buddhi-Christian morality in places like “Genealogy of Morals” is that it is a slave morality meant to hold the powerful and capable down by the dictates of the masses. The herd is driven by ressentiment to hold in bondage the excellent and superior through sanction and shame. Thus we must transvalue all of these values by rising above them and overcoming the herd. Do you think that sentiments like Thurman’s prove Nietzsche right? Or is there another dialectic at work here? I have my own thoughts, but I want to hear yours.

Now, I’m not widely read on Nietzsche. I’ve encountered too many different interpretations to speak with confidence about his ideas like the Übermench, the will to power, or the death of “God”. But I do know of this received Nietzsche that’s understood by some critics to be an inspiration for Hitler, by some admirers as Ayn Rand’s continental counterpart, and maybe by both as an example of social Darwinism. So, I’ll try to speak, briefly and generally, about this received Nietzsche and whether his received philosophy rebuts people like Thurman and Thurman’s reception of Jesus.

First, I don’t understand personhood and individuality to allow for this received Nietzschean paradigm to work. This may be due to several years of introducing students to Buddhist and Confucian thought but as with the Buddhists, I can’t fathom reality without a recognition of our absolute interconnectivity. In fact, I place such philosophical weight on this idea, that Indian monism and Spinoza’s god have been ideas I’ve been giving a lot of thought. This isn’t to say that I’m a determinist or a Calvinist in the Christian tradition. I do believe in will. Whether or not we should use the term “free will” is something I’m still pondering. I might say we have “free-within-limits will,” which is something I presume most defenders of free will recognize but is something I want to emphasize. I can’t will myself to fly to the moon in my body alone; I can’t will myself to have the body-type necessary to qualify as a potential NBA or NFL or even MLB player. There are limits and those limits are determined, in part, by who I am as a person and the systems/societies/cultures of which I’m part.

Since our interconnectivity goes all the way down, I look at people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk not as a geniuses that rise above the system but as the eventual beneficiaries of a system that has evolved to create such people. If Bezos and Musk weren’t Bezos and Musk, someone would be them, because our forms of hyper-capitalism (or techno feudalism!) functions to create these people. Again, this isn’t to say Bezos and Musk didn’t contribute to their eventual standing, just to say that they didn’t will it independently of the system that made it happen and the people who build Amazon, Space X, etc.

We’ve lived through the perfect example of the point that I want to make: the Covid-19 pandemic. Our current globalized system of trade and travel made it almost inevitable that this virus would spread across the planet. Were some decisions made by powerful people that may have contributed, like the discarding of the Obama Administration’s pandemic-playbook by the subsequent administration, factors? Yes. Were powerful individuals involved? Yes. But could have the former president made the decisions that were made by his administration had he not been elected and been elected in a system where the majority vote wasn’t the determining factor? No. He would’ve been just a famous TV star and wealthy real estate mogul with a Twitter account.

Systems are powerful realities that mean more for our understanding of the world than “great men”. Systems cause people sick with a virus on one side of the world to eventually impact people on the other side of the world—people they never met and never will meet. If, god forbid, nucular powers like India and Pakistan engaged in atomic war, it doesn’t matter than I live in Texas. I will feel the impact.

My person is not isolated; my person is determined by the networks of which I’m part and in turn contributes to those networks to influence others. This is why I mentioned Confucianism because I agree with the idea that rituals form us—doing the same thing over and over again becomes normalized for us and shapes us and changes who we’ll be, whether this is brushing your teeth, pledging allegiance to the flag of your country, or saying prayers.

Second, and related, while there’s no doubt that certain elites benefit from the social-power constructs of a given age, that does not follow that they themselves are inherently/ontologically “excellent and superior”. As I said regarding Bezos and Musk, as individuals they’re not completely accidents of the system but there’s nothing that says that those two men had to become who they became or that two other people couldn’t have arisen to create a massive online trading platform or a privatized NASA. I liken Bezos and Musk to men bench pressing with people holding up the bar on each end and then mocking the person next to them for being unable to lift as much weight.

A while ago I listened to a podcast series that explored how Blockbuster collapsed and Netflix rose to prominence (season 2 of Land of Giants). And yes, there were decisions and individuals to blame for how that happened—but as you listen to how everything unfolded, you realize that this sort of thing is more than any one person, and more than any one decision. And now, Netflix looks weakened. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the next to topple. If this happens, some individuals will play a part but no one person will determine Netflix’s survival or demise.

Third, I’d note that those in power are completely dependent upon the systems they inhabit and often are lucky that those systems aren’t easily toppled. Engels mourned the reality that London was full of people who had the combined power to overthrow a system that oppressed and used them but wouldn’t (couldn’t?). And history shows that most people stay in power because gaining unified mass and mass resistance is very difficult (once again, because systems are powerful). As the architects of the United States Declaration of Independence wrote, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” In other words, powerful people’s power is at the mercy of the basic, observable fact that it takes a lot for the masses to move together toward their own liberation. This doesn’t prove that the masses are full of weaker, less competent people; it proves that systems are difficult to change when people are used to them and the alternative is unknown. (Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t, as it’s said.) Didn’t The Matrix teach us this? And Plato?

In summary, I don’t believe in the Übermench as he has been received. (I don’t know enough about Nietzche’s thought to directly address his concept.) I don’t believe in the “great men” of history, even Jesus. In fact, whatever its historical value, the canonical value of the Book of Acts for the Christian New Testament is that it decenters Jesus in order to center him. In other words, Jesus’ greatness is determined by, as the Fourth Evangelist (John 14:12) presents Jesus as saying, “I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Jesus’ greatness is determined by the community and his absence. (Yes, I know that Johannine “absence” is still presence by the Spirit but that only adds to my point that Jesus-multiplied in his movement, i.e. Jesus-absent from his movement, is what makes Jesus great in the logic of the Gospel of John and the Book of Acts.)

I believe that the Buddhists are right that I have no-self outside of the variety of external contributors to the located collection I am. I believe the Confucians are right that I have no-self outside of the rituals and practices that form me, many which I receive, passively, from my society. I believe Thurman is correct in inviting the oppressed to see hope in the way of Jesus but also in inviting the oppressor to repent because the oppressive actions we do against others—others who are not ultimately as separate form us as we imagine—will harm us. There’s only so long that you can pour the pollution downstream before there’s no where for it to go—as the rapid change of our global climate is showing us in real-time. And you can contribute only so long to a culture of harm before you’re harmed by that culture—see how America’s belief that redemptive violence is the solution to everything has created a culture of violence here at home, where most Americans own more than one gun—not because they fear people from the other side of the world but because they fear their closest neighbors. This is what Thurman knew; what Jesus knew.

Christianity as “a technique of survival for the oppressed”

I continue to toss around Adam Clark’s words in my head: Christianity is “an invitation to see ‘from below’”. Now, as someone who teaches religious studies, I’m aware that there’s no essentialist definition of Christianity. There are liberating forms of Christianity, like those mentioned by Clark, and there are other forms, like the white supremacist, nationalistic versions that have become increasingly empowered over the past half-decade. But if the word “Christianity” is going to remain a meaningful word for me, then I need definitions that make Christianity a concept worth pondering.

I’ve come across another statement that helps me think. I found it this morning in Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited (p. 18) this morning:

“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed.”

I’ve noticed, thus far, that in admiring Jesus it appears that Thurman avoids the anti-Judaism found in many hagiographical writings about Jesus. This is meaningful to me and I hope that when I finish the book this has remained a consistent theme. For now, the thought of Jesus’ teachings and way of life being a method or a technique is a valuable lens.

Book Note: Danté Stewart’s “Shoutin’ in the Fire”

Danté Stewart, Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle (New York: Convergent, 2021). (Amazon; Bookshop)

Danté Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle is a beautiful and troubling book. It’s beautiful because it’s a testimony to Black-strength, Black-resilience, and Black-pride. It’s troubling because I’m a white reader who was confronted with the meaning of whiteness. But the synthesis of this beauty and this trouble is that it’s essential if you want to hear a contemporary voice speak aloud about what it means to be Black and Christian and American (p. 6).

The title comes from the story in the Book of Daniel where the three Hebrews are thrown in the fiery furnace by the order of the King of Babylon. The title is unpacked through chapter-after-chapter of testimony as to how the Black Church is a witness to this spirit—the spirit of fidelity in the midst of a life-and-death trial. This book is written with the recent murders of Black Americans from Treyvon Martin to George Floyd being always present but also with white silence, especially white, Christian American silence, blaring in our ears.

I was raised as a Oneness Pentecostal who left that tradition for the broader, more mainstream white Evangelical Church. Stewart was raised as an Apostolic Pentecostal who left his tradition for the broader, more mainstream white Evangelical Church. Eventually, Stewart leaves white Evangelicalism and in the process is able to rediscover some of the life-giving treasures of his Apostolic Pentecostal roots. I have left Evangelicalism as well but I couldn’t look back to my Oneness Pentecostal roots with the same fondness. It was easy for me to see that the major difference is that Stewart’s Apostolic Pentecostal community was held together by more than its doctrine but also by the shared experience of being Black Americans, a shared experience I didn’t have with my fellow white Oneness Pentecostals. In other words, my white Oneness Pentecostalism didn’t contribute to my struggle for freedom or the for the recognition of my humanity like Stewart’s Apostolic Pentecostalism did for him. As I read, I could see that Stewart had experienced something in his formative years that I couldn’t and that while our Christianities shared creedal similarities, that’s where the parallels mostly end (though running, shouting, tongue-taking, etc., are shared experiences).

White Evangelicalism didn’t try to rip my identity from me. But white Evangelicalism did try to rip Stewart’s identity from him. And his departure from white Evangelicalism was when he realized he had a role to play in the struggle for Black-liberation in this country. That’s when he was empowered to read Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, et al. And that’s when Stewart was given words that informed his voice as a writer. When you read this book, you’ll be glad that Stewart found his way out of white Evangelicalism because we need his voice: it’s prophetic, it’s poetic, it’s powerful.

The two chapters that will live in my brain forever are “Rage.” and “Back Roads.” It’s in “Rage.” that Stewart explains how he recognized the power and life-giving strength of Black-rage against white supremacy and its impact. But this is also the chapter where he talks about his journies in white Evangelicalism, how he wanted to be accepted in those circles, how he found himself being numbed to the Black experience in this country, and how he escaped.

Stewart writes of how he initially responded to a question asked across social media, “What radicalized you?” with the tweet “JESUS & JAMES BALDWIN” but how he then came to realized that as important as Jesus and James Baldwin were to him, “It wasn’t Jesus or James Baldwin who radicalized me. It was white people. Apathetic white people.” (pp. 78-79) Stewart tells stories about how his Evangelical Church tried the whole “racial reconciliation” approach, which for those in the know, is often code in many Evangelical Churches for “Black Christians are welcome to join our white Church and embrace our traditions, music, hermeneutics, etc., as long as you don’t make us feel bad about the state of race relations in this country”. But as Black people were murdered by the police, Stewart realized he was not in a place that seemed to care. Their approach to racial reconciliation was to do a small group study around a book written by John Piper (p. 80). Yes, John Piper.

As I read this, I remembered my time in white Evangelicalism. While my experience was nothing like Stewart’s because I’m white, I can say that his criticism of white Evangelicalism’s approach to racial reconciliation is every bit as problematic as that chapter describes, and their sense that their theology is normalized “theology,” traditional “theology,” even orthodox “theology,” rather than a specifically situated expression of white theology is what makes it all so very troubling.

It was “Back Roads.” that made me stop several times to digest Stewart’s words. I want to share three extended quotes from that chapter, then I’ll shut up, step aside, and encourage you to buy and read this book:

“Any conception of God, Baldwin wrote, must deal honestly with the ways Black people are unloved in American society and in the American church and give us all something that helps us to work for a world in which all bodies experience what God desires.”

Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 111

This reminds me of the words spoken by Irving Greenberg, who wrote in Cloud of Smoke; Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity After the Holocaust (p. 506), that, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” Likewise, no Christian theology can be done in America that isn’t credible in the presence of Black Americans who have seen white American Christians hide behind their theology while continuing their acts of oppression. (As James Cone taught us as Adam Clark recently reminded us.)

“If the white folk I worshipped and went to school with and had dinner with had the imagination to see C.S. Lewis’ Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as Jesus, then I knew there should have been no problem when Black folk said Jesus was Black and Jesus loved Black people and Jesus wanted to see Black people free. Just as they found meaning in the symbol of Aslan’s representation of love, I found meaning in the symbol of Jesus’ solidarity with Blackness. But, sadly, I found out that many could see the symbol of divine goodness and love in an animal before they could ever see the symbol of divine goodness and love in Blackness.

Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 115

These words remind me of the embarrassing and shameful response I heard from many white Americans to the statement, “Black Lives Matter”. Many of the same people who could listen to the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those persecuted,” and recognize that Jesus was being derogatory toward the rest of humanity but instead was highlighting the special value of those often overlooked and trampled on by society, somehow couldn’t stand the idea that Black Americans were saying, like Jesus, “In a country that says we don’t matter, we declare we matter.” Instead, many white Americans just reinforced the point by trying to silence Black voices.

“I saw why they insisted on saying Jesus was Black. Of course they were not talking about his skin color, though he definitely wasn’t white; they were talking about his experience, about his solidarity with the oppressed, about his universal love, about his commitment to God’s just future, about his healing of wounds, and his good news that Black life does not end in this moment but will forever be beautiful, worthy, and loved. They knew Jesus knew what it meant to live in an occupied territory, knew what it meant to be from an oppressed people, and in a place that does not care about your religion—at least not the way they practice it—but does care to remind you of its idea about your place in society. The threat you pose to their lies. They knew Jesus knew what it was like for people who looked like him to care more about being in proximity to power, and he knew that those in power did not care about people that looked like him.”

Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 117

When I first read James Cone critique of whiteness, I was taken back; I was upset. I didn’t get it. I thought he was talking about me, the individual. This meant I needed to hear what he was saying because I was identifying with whiteness—not pigmentation but the cultural perks and privileges that come with being recognized as “white” in America. If I wanted to follow in the ways of Jesus, I’d have to abandon my pride in my privilege, in my whiteness, like the “rich young ruler” was asked to abandon his pride in his privilege, in his wealth. When I read the last quote from Stewart, I was reminded of this ongoing challenge for white Christians like myself that want to do better. We must recognize that if we’re going to learn to be Christians, we must learn from the people with whom Jesus would surround himself, with whom he’d identify, with whom he’d be in solidarity.

Go read Shoutin’ in the Fire.

Christianity as an invitation to see “from below”

When I teach, I tend to sideline my own religious and theological views, especially with a new group of students. I do this for a few reasons. First, while I do teach at a private Episcopal school, and therefore lack the constraints that a public school teacher would face when teaching religion, I’m not there to make duplicates of myself. I change my own views on matters of greater to lesser importance so frequently, that if I tried to make a disciple one semester, they’d find themselves out of step by the next semester. Second, I’m not trying to make disciples; I’m trying to provide students with the necessary tools to think about their world critically as they emerge into adulthood—and it so happens that my area of expertise and gifting has to do with exploring our world through the lens of religion. Third, there remains something about teaching adolescents rather than young adults, or high schoolers rather than college students, that requires you to recognize that you’re educating people who are part of an intrinsic relational web that includes their parents, extended family, and possibly their religious community. I take that complexity seriously aiming to be more of a tour guide to the world of critical thought than a polemicist for my own views.

That said, there are matters about which I’m passionate and they rarely have to do with the things that traditionally divide religious communities. I’m not deeply concerned with the theology proper of my students. I’m probably more influenced by Indian monism or Benedict Spinoza than the Cappadocians. Often, I tell them that theology is partially aesthetics so that the theology that makes me feel alive isn’t necessarily the theology that will satisfy the analytic mind but instead the theology that will make me see the beautiful potentiality of the world. (I think I got this from Tripp Fuller, mentioned below, but I listen to a lot of podcasts on my commute, so I can’t remember exactly who planted that thought in my brain.) When students read the Bible in my classes, I try to get them to think about the text from a variety of perspectives, introducing traditional “academic” approaches like reading as historians, literary critics, or philosophers while also trying to push them to think about how this text has been, currently is, and might be received by various readers and communities of readers. I don’t have a bibliology that I push, though they can tell I’m not an evangelical and I embrace critical scholarship. When it comes to ethical hermeneutics, I tend to preach that the Bible is like a mirror—whatever parts of it resonate most with you probably tell you more about yourself than they do about the Bible which is a diverse library, not a monolog of a book.

But when pressed, once I have established rapport with my students and they know me, my teaching style, and that I care not just about their grades but about the formative potential that critical thinking and liberal studies offer them, I may open up a little more about my views on matters, if it’s safe. For example, eventually, students ask me which religion it is with which I identify. I’ll put my cards on the table and tell them (a) I’m a Christian; (b) that many Christians may reject my claim and that doesn’t bother me; (c) and that my Christian identity is analogous to my identity as an English-speaker. Christianity is my religious “mother-tongue,” if you will. As an English speaker, I wish I was bilingual or trilingual, as many people are. (In fact, this analogy works better in the United States than it would in many other parts of the world.) As an English speaker, I can learn how to speak another language pretty fluently, though I’m prone to learn a second or third language through English. And just because I speak English, and understand the world through English, doesn’t mean speaking Spanish, French, Russian, or Japanese is “wrong”. Similarly, I speak “Christian”. It’s my religious-language that helps me symbolize the world and decode it. I can speak some other “languages” fairly well, like Judaism and Buddhism; there are other “languages” with which I lack fluency and my speech needs work, like Shinto and Indigenous American religions/spiritualities.

Some people are raised bilingual. I say this literally, as in you may have grown up speaking English and Spanish, and I say this metaphorically, as in you may have been raised in a family that’s part Hindu, part Christian, as a few of my students have been. You may create a pidgin language but when you do, observe that fewer people can communicate with you in your new Judaism-Buddhism hybrid language than if you spoke Judaism to some people and Buddhism to others. Anyway, you get the linguistic analogy. The point is that I’m not going to sidestep being Christian once my students push me to tell them where I stand (especially once they start guessing and asking if I’m everything from an atheist to a Buddhist, which I understand to mean I do such a good job of trying to teach about various religions truthfully and fairly that they don’t know my own views). But I don’t see my Christianity as something at which I arrived objectively, or that I see as “right” over against religions that are “wrong”. I see my Christianity as the symbolic system that informs my embodied hermeneutic. And even then, in the words of May Angelou, “I found that I really want to be a Christian” but this doesn’t mean I’ve arrived at whatever it looks like to be a Christian in a way that benefits the world around me.

This can be dangerous though because my Christianity has a specific white American accent and with that accent comes ways of seeing and explaining the world that can be unhealthy as my “worldview” may be informed by racist, colonizing, patriarchal, etc., presuppositions of which I need to be aware. I’m not objective. I stand in a place and a time. I recognize this and this means I also need to hear not only how people speak about the world through other religions but also, to continue my flawed metaphor, how other accents from my own religion may help me see the world differently.

I wish there was a transcript of the recent Homebrewed Christianity podcast where Tripp Fuller revisits 01/06 with Adam Clark and Jeffrey Pugh because there’s something Clark said that has stuck in my head for several days now but that may not be word-for-word accurate. Clark said something about defining Christianity as “an invitation to see ‘from below'”. Why has this lodged itself in my brain? Well, I admit I’ve always had an uncomfortable relationship with the institutional Church, in spite of having received all my education from places that identified as “Christian” and even now working for an Episcopal school. I’ve been uncomfortable not only because one of my first memories of visiting the Church that raised me was a kid saying something to the extent of “you don’t belong here” (I was five and that comment stuck) but because time after time, especially since the election in 2016, but now reinforced during the pandemic, I’ve begun to wonder if Christians and Christianity, at least in the United States, might be one of the least-Christlike identities one can hold. It’s Christians who are willing to bury our democracy in order to create a theocratic ethnostate that appears to have emerged straight from the imagination of Margaret Atwood.

One trap into which I’m prone to fall is to accept the monopolizing claims of the white Church in America as the true representatives of Christianity. This leaves me with a decision—accept what they’re selling or distance myself from Christianity. This is a false choice because the white Church isn’t the only witness to the Gospel, and in spite of their institutional power, publishing houses, colleges and seminaries, etc., all that makes them appear to be everywhere, there’s the voice of the Black Church, the Latino Church, the Asian-American Church, et al. There’s the voice of Christians who have been living their Christianity without power and support of the state, or the ways of seeing the world, normalizing the world, and universalizing our own subjectivity, that comes with being in the majority.

But back to Adam Clark‘s comment. Christianity from a certain place isn’t this type of an invitation. The Christianity represented during the January 6th Insurrection isn’t this type of Christianity. That’s the type of Christianity that embarrassed me and makes me want to never identify as a Christian again. But those aren’t the only Christians. For every John Piper and Mark Driscoll-type who make god out to be a violent monster who wants us to all burn eternally because of divine arbitrariness or whatever, and who needed Jesus to die because he was thirsty for blood and violence, we have a James Cone whose The Cross and the Lynching Tree will have forever altered my view of Jesus, the crucifixion, and what it means for our theologies. If there’s a god, and I hope there is, then this god must be a god like the one envisioned by Cone—a god who suffers with us not who created us to watch us suffer; the loving and overcoming god of the Black Church and not the triumphalistic deity of Christendom and of many in the white Church.

This is why I need to read the Hebrew Bible alongside Jewish exegetes (because Christian-hermeneutics go off the rails when we don’t listen to Jewish thought) and Black womanist theologians like Wil Gafney and her Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. I need to hear not just Martin Luther King Jr. interpreting the Gospel but also the voices that make white America less comfortable, whether Christian or not—the Malcolm X’s; the James Baldwins; the Octavia Butlers; the Cornel Wests. I don’t read them virtuously; I read them in desperation. I need to hear a voice that helps me understand how I can salvage my Christianity and because I need my religious-language to understand the world, and I don’t want to start from scratch as I near age forty, I look for people who live Christianity in such a way that I can imagine Christ entering their Churches.

Now, all of what I said is extremely selfish. I didn’t say I read these authors for their sake or for the sake of their communities. I don’t think they need me. They may need me to get out of the way, to learn to listen, but that’s it. I need them. If I’m going to avoid the vacuum that would form by abandoning Christianity altogether out of shame then I need someone to show me how Christianity should and can function. (Not to fetishize the Black Church, or the Latino Church, etc., as if they are problem-free, but to recognize where they do Christianity rightly.) I need to see from the perspective of those who read the Bible from a place where they can identify with Jesus; I need to learn how to see “from below,” as Clark said, rather than from the triumphalistic perch of a crumbling, racialized Christendom. I need to read the Bible and hear the Gospel in such a way that I recognize I’m the Romans in the Gospels, not Jesus’ closest disciples. And I need to try and repent and humble myself before the Galilean.

Book Note: James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son”

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son (reprt. 2012; Boston: Beacon Press, 1955). (Amazon; Bookshop)

I didn’t intend to finish this book during the weekend when we celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Actually, I started reading it a few months ago and I thought I’d finish it during the winter break but as I’m prone to do, I got distracted when a new wave of books arrived in my mailbox. But I made my way back to it and now I’ve read it.

I think one of the things white Americans need to know is this: MLK isn’t the only Black American voice with which we should be familiar. Also, the parts of MLK’s legacy with which most of us are familiar are often sanitized for us. But if we really care to hear the voice of our Black neighbor, we need to read more of King’s corpus, and we need to hear voices other than those of King.

Whenever I read a book by a Black author I’m hesitant to say much because (1) it can come across as virtue signaling and (2) it places me back in the central role as a speaker rather than a listener. So, I’ll say little. Instead, I’ll say: go read this book if you want to hear the thoughts of one of America’s legendary and insightful Black authors. What I will say is more of a sharing; a sharing of a few of the statements that really hit me between the eyes:

  1. In the “Preface to the 1984 Edition,” Baldwin writes of white Americans that when our legends are attacked, “as is happening now—all over the globe which has never been and never will be White—my countrymen become childishly vindictive and unutterably dangerous.” (p. xxii). If we’ve seen anything over the past half-decade, it’s this. Threatened by pluralism, white Americans have become scary. Baldwin reminds us a paragraph later: “The people who think of themselves as White have the choice of becoming human or irrelevant.”
  2. An important experience I had while reading this book is recognizing how many Black Americans feel white Americans see them but also hearing how many Black Americans feel about white America. (Note: I’m torn between capitalizing “White” since in a sense, to keep it lower-case seems to universalize whiteness when whites are just one demographic among many in the United States while simultaneously sensing that one of the things white supremacy has done to white people is prevent us from actually creating a constructive culture of which we can be proud because much of our identity-making has been a project that attempt to lift ourselves up at the expense of people of color, making me wonder is the lower-case, denoting a lack of unified culture built around any real solidarity, is more appropriate. I don’t know.) Baldwin speaks of himself as a “kind of bastard of the West; when I followed the line of my past I did not find myself in Europe but in Africa.” (p. 6 from “Autobiographical Notes”) He comments that much of what is celebrating in this country, “Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the strong of Paris, the cathedral at Chartes, and to the Empire State Building” are “not really my creations; they did not contain my history”. (pp. 6-7) Baldwin observes that to be Black in America means that one must “hide from himself as the price of his public progress”. (p. 9) And as he writes in “Many Thousands Gone,” for the Black American, “the past was taken from him whether he would or no,” (p. 30) as he is “adopts the vestures of his adopted land” (p. 30).
  3. People like me need to realize that our whiteness—not pigmentation but the cultural weight of whiteness that we white people have created—can become threatening even if that’s not our intent because so many people who look like us have used their whiteness to dehumanize our Black neighbor. In the essay, “Notes on a Native Son,” Baldwin remembers a time when he basically zoned out when he was refused service by a white female waitress and that this dehumanizing act “made me colder and more murderous than ever” (p. 98) Even as the woman fearfully and hesitantly enforced segregation, her feelings about her participation in this act were secondary to what the act was doing to Baldwin. Baldwin didn’t do anything he ended up regretting but what he felt arise in him scared him. On several other occassions, he comments on these feelings. For example, in “Stranger in the Village,” he says, “…since white men represent in the black man’s world so heavy a weight, white men have for black men a reality which is far from being reciprocal; and hence all black men have toward all white men an attitude which is designed, really, either to rob the white man of the jewel of his naïveté, or else to make it cost him dear.” In the next sentence (p. 170), he states, “The black man insists, by whatever means he finds at his disposal, that the white mean cease to regard him as an exotic rarity and recognize him as a human being.”
  4. Baldwin’s comments in his “Autobiographical Notes” (p. 9), “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” This was made evident in narrative form in his essays on his time in Paris, where for all the perks of experiencing French culture, he still felt away from home. Many white Americans have the attitude that “if you don’t like it, leave,” which is silly, at best. True love doesn’t mean lying to yourself or cheerleading everything that something or someone you love does. You can love a child or a parent and rebuke them. In fact, you must if you truly love them. We white Americans need to learn that the anger we hear from some Black voices is often more disappointment than anything. Black Americans love this country as much as white Americans do, maybe more when you look at how many white Americans would happily cast aside democracy in order to establish a ethno-state or a theocracy.

I said too much. Read the book.

Zizek, Barthes, and interpreting the Matrix

Yes, I’m still pondering The Matrix Resurrections, even after taking in all the insights that Tripp Fuller, Donna Bowman, and James McGrath offered. Slavoj Žižek wrote a review that I needed my friend Nate Bostain to help me interpret: “A Muddle Instead of a Movie”. Hopefully, Nate will write a blog post I can link, because he had good insights for someone like me who struggles to understand Žižek. Then Wisecrack made a video that looks at the film through Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” that’s worth viewing: “Matrix Resurrections Hates Itself!” So, if you’re still geeking out on the fourth installment of this franchise like I am, I hope this provides you with some enjoyable reading and viewing…even if Žižek’s last paragraph leaves you as confused as I am.

Book Note: Edward L. Greenstein’s “Job: A New Translation”

Edward L. Greenstein, Job: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019). (Amazon; Bookshop)

The Book of Job is my favorite book in the Bible, I think. Sometimes it’s the Book of Ecclesiastes. Sometimes, I’m captured by the narratives of the Book of Genesis. Sometimes the Gospels of Mark or Luke are were I’m at. But usually, it’s the Book of Job…unless it’s the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Edward L. Greenstein, a professor emeritus in Bible at Bar-Ilan University, completed a new translation of Job a couple years ago. Finally, I got around to reading it. It’s excellent.

Greenstein has spent a lifetime thinking about the Book of Job—a notoriously difficult book for even experts in ancient Hebrew to translate. His wealth of knowledge with regards to ancient Semitic languages allows him to see Job with new eyes: eyes that noticed loan words from other languages or concepts from Babylonian or Egyptian literature that may make more sense than the received Masoretic Text (or even the ancient versions like the Greek translation of Job). So, what you’re getting isn’t just a fresh translation, like we might receive from Robert Alter, but a fresh translation combined with a lot of textual criticism.

Greenstein’s translation is annotated with footnotes so that the scholar can follow along with his thinking. The rest of us who aren’t in that league can enjoy a fresh interpretation of the text.

The “key” reinterpretation of the Book of Job is found in how Greenstein renders two verses: 42:5-6. So you can get a sense of the difference, here’s the NRSV’s rendering next to Greenstein’s:

NRSV: I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

Greenstein: “As a hearing by the ear I have heard you, And now my eye has seen you. That is why I am fed up; I take pity on ‘dust and ashes’.”

As you may have deduced if you’re familiar with Job: this is Job’s response to the deity’s monologue in chapters 38-41. In the NRSV, Job is overcome and admits defeat, even repentance. But according to Greenstein, Job doesn’t accept divine bullying as a legitimate response to his lawsuit against the deity. Instead, he recognizes the deity to be the very tyrant he feared he’d be and dismisses god’s lecture. Obviously, this puts a completely different spin on how we read the book.

Greenstein gives an in-depth explanation for how he got to this translation on p. xix-xxi of the Introduction, so I won’t duplicate that here. If you’re interested, find a copy. But also, if you’re interested in this topic, you may just want to purchase a copy. It’s worth adding to your library!