To Laugh at Death

Yesterday I had the misfortune of having to go shopping for costume elements, which included looking for rubber snakes. Side note: Kids these days just don’t seem to be interested in snakes. Dinosaurs are still doing a roaring trade, but it appears that snakes are out. Not enough branding and television shows, I suspect. Anyway, shopping at fabric and party stores three days before Halloween really highlights the strangeness of what exactly we’re celebrating come October 31st.

I walked down aisles of disembodied heads and detached and bloodied rubber hands, wandered through a variety of gravestones, and ran into quite a few half-costumed ghouls and zombies attempting to get the approval of their mothers.  I saw some fancy light machines that projected ghosts on ones’ front yard, and enough fake, plastic, bloody weapons to equip a horror film.

A house down the street from mine has a string of skull-shaped lights hanging from their porch. On the way to work every day I see three ghosts and two fairly friendly looking witches. Two other houses within my daily commute have gravestones on the front yard, and the McDonalds by my office is decked out in all sorts of spiritual beings and ghouls.

There’s something very primitive, and distinctly human about Halloween. For all the modern world’s enlightened thinking and secular commitments, we spend a day tramping around in costumes and decorating our homes, stores, and neighborhoods with trappings of physical death and afterlife.

But what strikes me most is how distinctly earthbound these images of death are. Zombies, ghosts, vampires, wiggling gravestones, animated skeletons, and haunted mirrors all display an afterlife which is, in it’s own way, very understandable. We have turned the dead into extensions of our earthly existence. We are frightened of them, sort of, but only enough to think it’s fun to talk about them and display them, which, I think, means we’re not actually scared at all.

Death, on the other hand, is truly unknowable and beyond our comprehension. The idea of moving on, of entering a new, eternal existence far outside the world we currently know is the image of death that seems not to have captured our penchant for household decoration and merrymaking. As long as our spooks and spirits are sticking around and haunting us, then there is nothing to be too scared of in the afterlife. If the idea of haunted houses is to be believed, you may not even have to move.

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A Tail is a Leg is a Marriage?

As usual, The Public Discourse’s latest article does not leave the reader disappointed. In its current post, Stephen Heaney offers an incisive argument on the illogical premises of gay marriage. His conclusion? Same-sex marriage and opposite-sex marriage are as similar as apple and oranges, but in his own rendering, the function of a leg versus the function of a tail.

For Heaney, proponents of same-sex marriage are guilty of defining marriage “according to non-essential characteristics.” In other words, society has largely defined marriage and its prerequisites by something other than its functional end. This is hardly a novel concept though Heaney argues it well. Similar arguments have been put forth by Robert P. George who argues that a prerequisite for marriage qua marriage, pardon the phrase, necessarily requires “genital complementarity.” Rightly so, the argument stands upon a commitment to natural law reasoning.

The premises of same-sex marriage, believed to mimic opposite-sex marriage, are the following: “Marriage is often characterized today as follows: 1) two people 2) who love each other 3) want to perform sexual acts together, so 4) they consent to combine their lives sexually, materially, economically 5) with the endorsement of the community. Since same-sex couples can meet the first four criteria, how can society refuse the fifth?”

Importantly, Heaney makes the insightful point recognizing that if we grant the status-quo interpretation of marriage and its function according to popular culture, then arguing against same-sex marriage inevitably results in its opponents being seen as judgmental bigots. Luckily, this need not be the case if its premises can be rejected. And, Heaney believes, as do I, they can. “If we accept the misdefinition of marriage using non-essential characteristics as the complete story, it would be impossible to reject same-sex marriage. Given the whole truth, however, it is impossible to accept it. No matter how superficially similar they are to real marriages, same-sex relationships cannot function as marriages.” But, we must ask, what does function really mean?

We must ask the question of whether the above prerequisites offer an exhaustive foundation for marriage or merely part of its foundation. The missing element in the enumerated list above is the assigned task to marriage for producing and raising children.

If society at large has separated the responsibility of producing and raising children apart from marriage, then a whole different discussion will need to take place. Needless to say, even the most hardened proponents of gay marriage are not wishing to eschew the value of opposite-sex marriage.

We must arrive at the conclusion that the production and raising of children is not  an addendum to marriage; no, the production, stabilization, and raising of children must be placed squarely within it and hermetically sealed from allowing more transitory functions to define marriage. What am I arguing? I’m arguing that marriage qua marriage must place at its very foundation the ability to produce and raise children. Anything less than this condition must be seen as insufficient as to designating a same-sex couple’s mutual interest in one another as a marriage.

Heaney  goes on to make the same argument showing the futility of desire and sexual intercourse as a sufficient basis for marriage:

If sexuality did not naturally bring us offspring, it is hard to explain why it exists, whether you believe in a purely material evolution or a loving designer of the universe, for it would serve no purpose. If sexual acts did not naturally lead to offspring, it is just as hard to explain how marriage would have appeared in human history, for it would serve no purpose.

This is a profound argument and one needing to be more heavily employed by evangelical discourse on the subject: the issue of legitimacy. Given our culture’s obsession with “rights,” it would be appropriate, I think, to establish the legitimacy and foundation of rights, even beyond their enshrinement in the Constitution. If same-sex marriage desires legitimacy, it needs to be able to express itself as as naturally occurring as opposite-sex marriage. Going back to the state of nature (which, I know, only hypothetically exists), proponents of same-sex marriage must argue  by means of its natural occurrence, that same-sex marriage has been occurring since the beginning of civilization and therefore easily recognizable. This has not been the case. Thus, for the state to “grant” legitimacy in the case of something that has no instrumental value is purely imaginative.

Opponents of this argument often equate the pursuit of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement along with their own current struggle. The issue, however, dissolves when recognizing that in a hypothetical state of nature, race would not be a factor in determining equality; all races (and genders) would be equal by virtue of their having been created. The problem with equating the struggle for marital equality with racial equality is that racial equality is something that did not need to be bestowed or granted to African Americans by virtue of an intrinsic inequality. No, the Civil Rights Movement simply aimed to confirm—whether by legal status or through lunchroom sit-ins—what occurs naturally, which of course is racial equality. The Civil Rights Movement had to peel back generations of embedded racism where proponents of gay marriage have to “create” an artificially and extrinsically occurring institution and manufacture “rights” around something that is neither naturally occurring nor sufficient as to provide any unitive or procreative value.

Political Correctness…, I mean Religious Correctness

[This post is lengthy; be forewarned]

As I expected would happen, the readers of Mere-O have responded both with class, sensitivity, and elegance to my original post, in which I provoked conversation about the Mosque Controversy in New York City. In this post, I want to offer a perspective that I’ve been giving thought to on this issue. I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts, disagreements, etc. But, of course, let’s be civil.

What are the fundamental issues sparking this contentious debate?

1) Religious Freedom/Religious Liberty. Proponents for building the Mosque believe the Constitution protects any religion’s right to build anywhere without government prohibition.

2) Progress. Proponents also believe that building a mosque on such sensitive and sacred ground as Ground Zero allows for peaceful bridge-building; that is, in allowing a Mosque to be built, we’ll overcome our apparent (and latent) prejudices against Muslims and become better acquainted with a moderate, and supposedly peaceful form of Islam. In all, this position claims that America will better appreciate its own religious heritage by being in tune with it.

3) Respect and Decency. Opponents of the Mosque believe that building such a towering and imposing edifice is in blatant disrespect to the victims and families of 9/11. In this camp, religious liberty advocates still uphold the right to build a Mosque but calls on the Mosque’s builders to delicately consider whether America has been appropriately healed from a disastrous attack perpetrated by a particularly virulent strand of Islam or, in a different vein, whether Islam has fully satisfied the demands of Americans who wish that peaceful Muslims would unequivocally denounce the form of Islam which precipitated 9/11.

4) Conflict over Values. Opponents of the Mosque see much deeper elements brewing under the surface: a political show-of-arms. Islam is a religion ripe with political symbolism, indeed, Islam is a political ideology. According to this breed, the towering nature of the proposed Mosque is the equivalent of engaging in political symbolism, the Mosque representing the totalizing tendency of Islam to usurp the authority of its indigenous habitat, wherever that may be. At a more deeper, fundamental issue, is the debate between Islamic and Western values. Westerners, of course, believing that Islamic nation-states represent some of the most authoritarian, restrictive states in the world simultaneously standing in stark contrast to the liberties upheld by Western democracies. Consider Andrew McCarthy’s words from National Review:

The Ground Zero mosque project is not about religious tolerance. We permit thousands of mosques in our country, and Islam is not a religion. Islam is an ideology that has some spiritual elements, but strives for authoritarian control of every aspect of human life — social, political, and economic. The Ground Zero mosque project is a stealth step in the “Grand Jihad,” the term used by the Muslim Brotherhood and its confederates for what they describe as a “civilizational” battle to destroy the U.S. and the West from within, by sabotage.

Now, I don’t believe McCarthy is channeling the conspiracist mindset of Glenn Beck to say what he says. In fact, I tend to agree. And moreover, McCarthy is writing from the most respected mouth-piece of American conservatism, ensuring that the majority of conservatives feel at least some similar attitude.When viewed properly, as one commenter noted, the supposed overlap of religious liberty and Western values cracks. The issue becomes one of upholding Western values, not arbitrarily denouncing a religion because we disagree with its religious concepts.

Before I offer my own thoughts, I would like to include a few excellent quotes from the readers of Mere-O who so generously discussed this issue in the comment thread.

From Sean Rice:

In seeking the welfare of our city, we should seek to bring it in line with the good principles of God’s Word, and should recognize that our current setting is not a perfect place and is deserving of criticism and needing of change; this prevents us from exalting our culture and falling into tribalism.

From Dave Strunk:

Two principles overlap in concentric circles: religious liberty and Western Christian values [...] The fact that Muslims want to practice Sharia law in parts of the West is a utilization of our own principles against us (I’m going beyond the WTC debate for a second). We want freedom of speech and religion, and so naively allow Sharia law to be practiced in some places (i.e., in some parts of the UK). BUT, Sharia law doesn’t want freedom of speech and religion, and so doesn’t allow it. Whether we call these a clash of Islamic and Christian values, or Islamic and Western values, doesn’t make much of a difference. In one way or another, Islam is clashing with common sense human rights everywhere, and it ought to be stopped in whatever avenue is possible.

Bravo to the readers of Mere-O. If I may generalize, based upon the comments section of my post, it looks as though the readers of Mere-O are in opposition to the Mosque being built on the grounds of a perceived conflict over values.

Now, if you’ll permit me, I’ll throw in my two cents. This has never been an issue of religious liberty. Heck, I’m a Baptist. It’s in my blood to permit anyone of any creed the freedom to worship. So, while I too am in opposition of the Mosque being built, I would defend it on principle on the basis of a purely pragmatic, Constitutional right.

Perhaps, though, the Constitutional aspect of this debate ought to be enlarged by placing the safeguards of the Constitution next to the intent of Islam. When done, revealed in the outcome is the instability of the Constitution to protect itself from staving off attack by the very means it seeks to uphold. What am I saying? I’m saying we’ve caught ourselves in a mess.

Yet, the pragmatic, constitutional concern I harbor does not override much deeper political concerns I have over the building of this Mosque. One, as columnists for the Weekly Standard and National Review have pointed out, the funding for the Mosque is suspect. There are links that the builders of the Mosque have both political and monetary backing from radical strands within Islam. But, on another level, I freely admit that I hold the motives surrounding the building of this Mosque in tension: It is no surprise that history has often been wedged between the values of imposing empires.

How ought Americans see Islamic encroachment? First, we must beg for transparency on the financing and connections associated with the Mosque. Secondly, we must ardently denounce the attempts by some extremists in Western European countries to enforce Sharia law within the confines of the European nation-state. The presence of such law is a direct attack on a nation’s sovereignty and its own rule of law.

We must ask, though, how ought American Christians respond to Islamic encroachment? As we’re instructed to do in Scripture: Love our neighbor. It is important to recognize that the perceived enemy of the State is not the enemy of the Christian. Yes, the Christian recognizes the authority of the state to distribute justice equitably, but the Christian also recognizes that the State is ordered to protect itself and its citizens. The bulk of this debate lies with the State and Christians portending despair ought to look upward. If there is any regret to be expressed in the building of this Mosque, it is in the sadness wrought by seeing individuals being eternally deceived by following a false god. The towering symbol of this particular Mosque communicates the commitments of its adherents. A large Mosque means a larger following—translating into a larger net effect of individuals separated from Christ.

On one level, the pain of this debate is great, for it provokes sacred first principles upon which our nation was founded. Americans, for the first time, are experiencing the birthing pains of a nation dedicated to religious liberty. But, for Christians, the pains of seeing individuals deceived ought to provoke even sharper pains of anguish.

Individuals still wishing to address the tumult surrounding the building of the mosque in terms simply of religious freedom have fallen prey to the limits of political discourse. Individuals keen to the inner-chamber of the debate now recognize that this has nothing to do with religion, per se. Individuals opposing the construction of the mosque recognize the political significance and symbolism of such a towering architecture. A Mosque no less threatens individuals within Western countries as does Islam, with its proclivity toward cultural monism and totalitarian regimes.

As critics are sure to denounce the opponents of the Mosque as nativists and bigots, it is the Mosque’s proponents who I believe represent a naive and elusive commitment to religious pluralism. This type of politick inevitably relativizes the uniqueness and virtue of civilizations by simultaneously trying to uphold neutrality towards all others. And some socio-religious implications are not only impossible to be neutral towards, but must be opposed for the sake of safety.

To be for something, the State may need to be against something. But, this may result in forming an opinion unfavorable to the culture at large. Such is the burden experienced by those willing to value the virtues of a free nation. With time, if Islam can prove itself a catalyst towards Democratic freedom, then its case will have been naturally made in the public square. Until then, it has a lot of work to do in distancing itself from Islamic extremism. Peaceful Islam, if it exists, must pay for the sins of a few.

I’ll end with a quote from Craig Carter, who states the terms far more ably than I:

If they [Moderate Muslims] are not willing to admit forthrightly that 9/11 was caused by a group of young Muslim men, mainly from Saudi Arabia, claiming to be inspired by centuries of Islamic aggression against the infidels – then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

If they are not willing to apologize for the atrocity committed against America by members of their own religion and in the name of that religion, regardless of how misguided they may be regarded as having been, – then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

If they are not willing to meet with representatives of the victims families and listen to their suggestions of how the design of the building could incorporate a suitable memorial to the victims, a clear repudiation of the ideology that motivated the attackers and a commitment to American principles of separation of church and state and liberal democracy – then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

Why not? Because if they wish to be at war with the West, the West should treat them as enemies. Religious toleration ends where murder begins. St. Augustine could have told us that.

Discussing a Delicate Issue

Of late, one of the current topics I’ve spent the most time thinking about has been the debate surrounding the plan to build a Mosque near Ground Zero. Below is a video which has garnered significant attention on YouTube. I would like you, the dazzling readers of Mere-O, to watch this video and share your thoughts about it—whether negative, positive, the outlandish, etc.. In the next day or so, I’ll plan to further this discussion on how Christians ought to navigate the desire for religious liberty while simultaneously upholding the virtues of Western Civilization.

What say you?

Carrying the Fallen

Three American flags draped the coffins lying on the cargo floor of my C-17.  It was only three hours earlier that I had received a phone call informing me that my crew was to fly from Europe to America; no word was spoken about the cargo that would be on-board.  I had just bounded up the stairs into the airplane, coffee still in hand, to begin the pre-flight inspections when I was confronted by the coffins.  I stopped short.  All that separated me from the dead bodies of the American soldiers was the fabric of a flag and the steel wall of the coffin.  I was practically in the presence of death and felt a cold shudder work itself through my body as my mind futilely evaded the urgent images of the lifeless bodies hidden behind the flag of our country.  The fabric of a flag and the steel of a coffin are miserable talismans in the presence of death and only barely serve to keep the horror and terror of the future of all men from rising to the surface of the mind and incapacitating the living.  Yet they did their office and enabled me to pass by the coffins and climb the steps to the cockpit to accomplish my pre-flight duties, pushing questions about the histories of the deceased to the corners of my consciousness until they would rise unbidden, no longer enchanted by the magic of the flag and coffin.

Cruising at 30,000 feet above the frigid North Atlantic Ocean in the dead of night and carrying three slain soldiers to their final resting place forces thought upon even the most simple and uncurious mind.  The knowledge that three human beings’ dead bodies rested on the floor of my airplane urged a variety of images and questions upon me: simple questions like what their names were or what they looked like, sober questions like why they died and for what purpose, sad questions like what their families would do without them and who would play with their children as only a father can.  Meanwhile, my aircraft sped on through the night towards its destination to deliver its somber cargo into the safekeeping of American soil.

We touched down a few hours after sunrise on the East Coast and I pushed the thought of the corpses jostling in their steely beds from my mind as I taxied the aircraft onto the parking ramp.  After shutting down the engines, we were met by a small entourage from the military office of mortuary affairs and briefed on our duties.  The coffins were to be moved from the aircraft to a morgue vehicle and transported to the funeral home and then to their final resting place in the warm earth.  As the plans for the ceremonial transfer were explained, I couldn’t stop thinking how odd it was that we were conducting a ceremony for nobody.  Every person present at the ceremony bore no relation to the deceased; none of us knew their names or faces, none of us knew their pasts or their stories.  Nevertheless, a general and other commanding officers would be on hand, taking time out of their busy schedules to stand at attention and then salute as three caskets were carried 30 yards from an airplane to a van.  A chaplain was present and prayed for each of the fallen, though not by name, and asked God’s blessing on their families.  The crew stood at attention behind the line of coffins and simply watched as an honor guard lifted the steel and fabric boxes and moved them slowly to the hearse.

What was the reason for all this pomp and ceremony for nobody?  Why the respect paid, in such painstaking detail, to the lifeless bodies of three unknown soldiers?  A team of mortuary affairs officials first removed and replaced the flags on the coffins, carefully folding and creasing each to lie crisply over the metal box.  A team of pallbearers arrived in sharp military dress, marching, stopping, bending, lifting and marching again in unison.  Hours of practice under-girded their precision.  A chaplain left his morning duties to pray for three men he never knew and for their families and friends.  The master of ceremonies carefully inspected my uniform and the uniforms of the men on my crew and rehearsed our part in the play, “Stand here, no….move a hair to the left, yes, stop.  Okay, you’ll stand here and salute on my command.  It will be a slow salute, taking three seconds to render.  Yes, yes, just like that.  Try it again.  Okay.  Now I need you to move a little bit to your right.  Thank you, yes,” and on and on it went.

As the preparations continued, I wondered why nobody had bothered to tell these officials that the military, with all its ceremony and respect for the dead, was hopelessly antiquated, out of touch—that the great race of Western men had long ago concluded that men are nothing but machines, that we had risen from a causally-determined ancestry of chimps and amoebas and had only our own creative delusions to thank for our sense of dignity and honor, and that our bodies, once devoid of life, were nothing but lumps of molecular waste ready to complete their part in the eternal circle of life and death.  It was humorous, almost, to see the great respect being shown to dead bodies by men whose culture and education taught them that those bodies had no more value or meaning than a discarded candy wrapper or a pebble in the bottom of a stream.

It’s not usual, these days, to honor the military as a repository of truth or culture; we are much more likely to think of our soldiers in terms of the people they kill, the destruction they wreak, and the havoc they cause around the world.  However, standing at the head of the three caskets that I had flown across the sea, it dawned on me that the military is, in this regard at least, a conserving force in our society demanding that we reconsider the conclusions of our scientific materialism.  Perhaps it is better to trust the instincts and conclusions of men who deal in life and death on a daily basis when it comes to the meaning and value of human bodies.  Perhaps, paradoxical though it may seem, it is only those men whose business it is to kill men who can understand something fundamental about the worth and value of human life and its relation to the body.

As the warm sunshine filled the cargo hold and bathed the coffins in light, the command came sharp and clear, “Tench-hut.  Present, arms.”  The coffins were carried out and I was filled with a sense of reverence for the bodies I had never seen, lying as they were, behind the protective mask of flag and steel.  But they were there, beneath the surface and they had once housed the “immortal horrors” or the “eternal splendours” of human souls.  It was fitting that I should render them a salute as they moved to their final resting place.  Fallen bodies, like fallen men, are images still of God Himself.

People of the Numbers: Christian Smith on Evangelicals and Statistics

Christian Smith, who has made a living correcting mistaken notions about the lives of evangelicals, recently reprimanded evangelicals for their inappropriate use of statistics.  Drawing from the extreme and bogus “only 4% of young Christians will remain Christian” stat, Smith laments the reactive and alarmist attitude that evangelicals–and their non-profit ministries–thrive on.

His challenge to use statistics responsibly is certainly appropriate.  Yet he descends into the sort of polarizing, alarmist rhetoric that he so eschews in those he criticizes.  Continue reading