Sunday, 17 June 2012

Angsty 168th Birthday

Today is the 168th anniversary of the publication of The Concept of Angst. Even all this time later, the existential decision is still just as terrifying and wonderful as it has ever been. Thank you, Kierkegaard, for such an illuminating text.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Biblical Marriage, Gay Marriage

Gay marriage is big news around here at the moment. I'm especially fond of opponents who object to it on the grounds that it's not biblical because I wonder which biblical view of marriage they want. Let's review a few.
  • Abraham had a wife who brought him the maid to have children with when she couldn't conceive.
  • Jacob married both a girl and her sister.
  • Both King David and King Solomon had multiple wives and concubines.
  • Jesus didn't marry and preached that whoever did the will of God was his mother, brother or sister.
  • Paul never married and wished celibacy for all Christians, unless they burned with uncontrollable lust.
  • Paul wrote to Timothy that bishops and deacons should be monogamous.

Several other passages in Paul's books and letters imply a marriage of one man and one woman, but it doesn't appear to be a mandatory structure. If anything, instruction about celibacy or monogamy are firstly about a person being free to pursue Christian service without being distracted by domestic life (a facet of celibate priesthood that seems to be forgotten in common understanding of the vocation). In fact, Paul's writing about family life demands that anyone who does marry should be submissive to the others in the family. No wonder it limits a person's ability to be an activist for the Christian cause.

But what's the consequence of this for gay marriage in civil society? Nothing. Even if we disregard the texts from the Hebrew Bible and concentrate on passages advocating monogamy, we learn that they are addressed to Christians who wish to be involved in a church office, i.e. bishops and deacons. There's nothing in there to prohibit gay marriage as a civil arrangement. If gay people wish to live together and have families, there appears to be no secular reason to stop them.

Is there a religious reason? Let's put it another way. Is there sufficient reason to warrant enforcing Christian ideas on the wider populace? If there is then banks should lend and expect nothing in return; weapons should be rusting from disuse; national borders should be erased; every person should receive according to need; every person should give according to ability; and so on. Christians are called to live that way, but aren't called to legislate any of it for non-Christians.

I'm not going to leave this as a hand-washing, though. There is more to this than simply denying responsibility. Gay couples may well have common financial concerns (investments, property). Should we deny them access to shared control of these assets? Gay couples may experience illness and hospital access may be limited to families only. Should we deny one access to the hospital to visit the other? There are a host of privileges that straight married people enjoy, perhaps without being aware of it. Gay couples are acutely aware of the disadvantage. If we are to love all people, regardless of particularities, and especially people who don't share our worldview, then we should support gay marriages because of the privileges that they will grant to those couples and because of the pain that can be avoided for them in various circumstances.

Gay marriage can't be argued down on the basis of a biblical model of marriage because there are too many biblical models. Christian marriages can't be legislated on non-Christians without legislating a host of other principles. And Christians should show compassion to all people, whether in agreement or not, and therefore should support granting civil rights for gay people to get married.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The music, it does nothing!

I had a strange musical experience over the weekend. On Saturday night I watched Doctor Who At The Proms. It's all about the music of the show, with some theatrics thrown in for good measure. I've liked the show since I was a child and watch the current series when it's on, but even I was surprised when one of the pieces nearly brought me to tears. I was overjoyed to hear it in all its musical glory, without it being just a support to the visuals of TV.

The next morning, however, I was in church. It's a church with lots of music. The service starts with music and the music keeps going. I haven't timed it, but I guess that there's music playing for well more than half the service. We sing it, it plays under some of the speaking, and it's a soundtrack to the announcements.* Nevertheless, even though it's so deeply entwined with religious conviction, I'm sorry to say that it does nothing for me. In fact, it leaves me quite flat.

None of this is limited to Doctor Who, by the way. It's also true of some songs by Michael Franti, Ben Harper, The Herd, and so on.

So why? Here's the list of current hypotheses.

  • The Christian music just isn't as good. Maybe the writers are less skilled.
  • The chord progressions. With the right chord progression, songs feel different.
  • Rhythm correlates with mystical experience, so I block the feelings from the music and throw the musical baby out with the musical bathwater.
  • I don't agree with the lyrics, so the rest of the song becomes meaningless and pointless.
  • The way music is used in church (e.g., music = worship, music coincides with the presence of God) is formulaic rather than spontaneous.

All in all, something isn't right with the religious music I hear. I just don't like it; it holds little aesthetic interest. Perhaps that stops the music from becoming an idol for me (even if it's an idol for others), but that seems unlikely.

How about you? What's your experience of religious music and secular music? What does it do for you?

* As I write this, I remember reading that the X-Files' relationship with music was a bit like this. The percentage of that show with music is much higher than nearly every other show on TV. No parallels to be drawn, this is just a curious footnote.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Modern Dubai, Ancient Jerusalem

Sometimes I see photos of Dubai. It's usually accompanied by paragraphs gushing about the architecture or the opulence or wealth. It sickens me because I know that it's built on some of the worst labour conditions on the planet. A quick web search into "dubai slavery" will give you the picture. I refuse to be impressed by the place.

And perhaps this is just confirmation bias at work, but it also gives me a perfect modern day parallel to the most overrated person in the Hebrew Bible: Solomon.
King Solomon conscripted forced labour out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labour. Solomon also had seventy thousand labourers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones. So Solomon’s builders and Hiram’s builders and the Gebalites did the stonecutting and prepared the timber and the stone to build the house. 1 Kings 5:13-18, NRSV
For the sake of the house of Yahweh, he enslaved his own people. Yeah, great king.

No wonder I have such a terrible reaction when I hear people talk about "the house" rather than the congregation or the building. If it's so bad for Dubai to be built on slavery, then it's equally as bad for Solomon to build the temple on slavery.