Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Holy Longing: Spirituality Needs Community

(Reflections on THE HOLY LONGING: The Search for Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser. New York: Doubleday, 1999.)

Ten years after I first read this book, I can attest to its staying power. Early on, Rolheiser tells of a frightened little girl, dissatisfied with reassurance that"God is with you." The girl needs "someone with skin on!" Rolheiser impressed upon me that I and every member of the church serve as Jesus, his spirit "with skin." We are the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:27), he writes, and this is "no metaphor" (249).

Likewise, as part of the body, I have no choice but to be involved, whatever I may think of certain aspects of the institutional church or fellow parishioners.  Ecclesia (translated "church") he says, means being "called out," or "roped into service" the way a bystander becomes involved when there's an accident. He cites the notorious Genovese murder which neighbors witnessed, each assuming that someone else would do something to stop the perpetrator (122).

Rolheiser begins and ends his book with discussions of eros, a Greek word that has come to be associated in our culture with "genitality."  In Rolheiser's world, "sexuality" includes the pride and pleasure of a grandfather in seeing his grandchild -- what we might call a broad view of the term.  In his final chapters, Rolheiser cites the root of the word "sex" ("secare," to separate) to show that sexual desire is just one aspect of the "holy longing" to be part of God and part of others' lives. Augustine, that recovering libertine, had the same insight:  "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless, O Lord, until they rest in You" (5).

Rolheiser emphasizes another Greek word, sarx, used by Jesus at the institution of eucharist -- "unless you eat of my body, you shall not have life within you."  The word suggests all the unpleasantness that we associate with bodies, unlike the word "soma" which conjures a Platonic perfect body in the abstract.  For Rolheiser, this means that Jesus demands that we partake of the bad with the good, or fail to be Christ's followers .

He aims to give us a "spirituality," but he eschews the popular notion that "spirituality" is some private, personal communing with the divine.  It's ministering to others, preparing others for death (as the woman anoints Jesus for death p. 134), and working alongside others for justice that consitutes true spirituality.  

His bottom line is that "spirituality" is meaningless apart from from "organized religion."

Of related interest:  My reflections on Rolheiser's Sacred Fire.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Primer on America's Middle Class

I heard a primer on the term "middle class" on PRI's Market Place on Friday (9/20/2012). Reporter Krissy Clark interviewed Michael Lind, author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.

America's original "middle class" corresponded to the "yeoman farmers" of English tradition.  With some property, some education, and a stake in their communities, they were the citizens who would vote, stand for elections, serve in juries, and make our Constitution work.  The United States cultivated this class by intentional policies starting with public education in the Northwest Ordinance (pre-Consitution), Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, and the Homestead Act -- long-considered but only enacted during the Civil War, in the absence of Senators who foresaw that a giveaway of our vast western land would dilute the power of the slaveowning aristocracy of the South.

According to Lind, the shift from farm to factory early in the 20th century brought new policies meant to support the new middle class consisting of blue collar workers and small-scale entrepeneurs.  These included Labor reforms, Social Security, government involvement in the home mortgage service, and the GI bill. 

But America no longer makes things, and corporations do the bulk of our farming.  Writes Clark,

We’ve got a void where the bulk of the middle class used to be and we haven't quite figured out how to fill it.  Both visions -- of education and entrepreneurialism -- can be inspiring, says Lind. The problem, he argues, is “the math simply does not work.”

And he means the math on both sides. On the one hand, only about 10 percent of Americans are self-employed. On the other hand,  70 percent don’t have college degrees. So, the bulk of Americans won't be owning small businesses or becoming white collar professionals with B.A.s anytime soon.  (from the story at

For the foreseeable future, the bulk of Americans will work in restaurants, retail, and hospitals. Pay in the service economy isn't enough to achieve the security and comfort central to our idea of "middle class."

Will we have that core of people with a stake in stability, an interest in government, an awareness of civic responsibility?  Will the vast majority of people feel they have no stake in the status quo, and no hope of climbing up to the plateau where the middle class used to be?  Hamilton, Washington, and their crowd feared that possibility in 1787; FDR feared in 1933 that America might go communist or fascist. 

Hearing Clark's story, I'm reminded that propping up the middle class is as traditionally American and conservative as any policy can be.  Republicans needn't get so prickly about "class warfare" when talk turns to income distribution, 1%, 47%, "Nickled and Dimed," etc. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

NPR's real bias

The radio program "On the Media" aired this week highlights from a series of programs examining the charge that NPR is biased towards liberal positions.  The highlights of the highlights for me were these tidbits:

  • studies that compared NPR news programming to other sources found that NPR more frequently sited right-leaning sources (i.e. those self-identified as conservative and sited most by Republicans in Congress) than liberal ones at least 55% to 44%, both when Republicans dominated Wasington in 2003 and when Democrats did in 1993.  In the same study, the Wall Street Journal sited liberal sources much more frequently.
  • an extended set of interviews with an evangelical conservative listener to explain his perception of bias led to his keeping a journal of bias.  In the end, he admitted that the reporting was uniformly fair, high quality, and interesting.  He was willing to allow that his own sensitivity was causing him to hear a "tone" of liberal bias in the voices and questions of interviewers.  He sited Michelle Norris's question, "Can the nation afford that right now?" about a proposal to suspend corporate taxes.  Commentator Ira Glass suggested that she would have asked the same question to a proposal to increase spending, and he theorized that the same question from a FOX news anchor would have been perceived differently.
  • polling of media consumers revealed a 2-to-1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans listening to NPR, compared to 4-to-1 for New York Times, and other higher ratios.  The outstanding result in that study was in the response to questions about why consumers are attracted to certain media outlets:  news accuracy?  in-depth stories?  commentary?  entertainment?  variety?  Only NPR was consulted for "all the above."  Also unique was the finding that 10% of each age category listened to NPR.
  • regarding the percentage of air time devoted to gay marriage, abortion, and other perceived liberal causes, coverage was two to three times more frequent on conservative programs (presumably because dramatisation of wedge issues attracts audience.)  While other media covered wedge issues of American politics, NPR was covering international stories and policy debates.
  • Coverage of the Obama administration was more neutral on NPR than other outlets, and much less frequent than on conservative outlets.
My own sense is that NPR is biased in two ways:

First, Reporters, commentators and interviewers search diligently for some common ground where opponents can meet with civility and goodwill.   This summer, for example, I was delighted to hear Romney's lead economic advisor say straight out that the candidates differ by degree, only:  a little more taxation one way, a little less spending the other.  Obama is not a socialist, he said, and Romney would not abandon the needy.   The voices I hear on NPR are unfailingly civil, if not downright convivial. 

There is another bias in the way that stories play up any angle that gives us a narrative of a small David facing a giant Goliath, whether it's a community of poor people against a giant corporation, or a small company against government regulation:  I've heard both.  Goliath always gets equal consideration, however. In another way, NPR favors the Davids of the world by devoting equal air time to interviewing up-and-coming popular artists, elucidating "classics," and bringing obscure artists and thinkers to light.

While I'm on the subject, I've come to rely on the program "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" for laugh therapy when the news has added stress to the week.  Listening on a long bike-ride through urban neighborhoods of Atlanta yesterday, I laughed out loud when Peter Seigel emphasized the amateurish quality of the repugnant video that provided pretext for anti-American violence last week.  "Reviews all over the world were uniformly negative," he said.  "Saudi Arabia gave it two thumbs off." 

Monday, September 03, 2012

To the Seventh Grader Who Knows Everything

You can figure math problems. You know where babies, rocks, diseases and planets come from.  You've read every kind of literature.  You can write paragraphs and read musical notes.  You know about ancient Egypt and Colonial America. Goodness knows, you can work your way around electronic devices.  Now you wonder why you have to face another decade covering all the same basic material.

I wonder what you would say to Ronald, a student I taught around 1985 in Jackson, Mississippi.   Kids were talking about their travels to Paris, Colorado, and Disney World.  Ronald announced that he had never been outside of Jackson's city limits.  That wasn't far:  you can drive from one end of Jackson to the other on I-20 in about five minutes.

His classmates were incredulous, then pitying.  He didn't mind.  "I've seen pictures of all those places. I know the facts about them.  I can see them on TV."  But what about the experience of going there, they asked? "Riding in a car is no big deal. I can get foreign food at the Mall." As for the fun things, like rides at Disney World, he said, "I've been on roller coasters at the State Fair.  I get the idea."

What would you say to him?  Doesn't he have a point?  You could say that a picture of the Eiffel Tower doesn't give you the feel for what it's like to round a corner and see it loom before you, or to hear what's behind and beside you there.  You could point out that visiting where the language and customs are different gives you a new perspective on yourself. But whatever they said to Ronald, he remained unconvinced.  "You have some souvenirs," he'd say, "but the experience you talk about is all in your head, now, isn't it?  You might as well have gotten it from books."  (I may need to explain: The internet did not yet exist.)

Ronald is to you what you are to your teachers.  You think it's enough to know the facts about history and science; you think that sounding out words is "reading," and you think that arithmetic is math.  But your teachers have "been there," and they share experiences of the mind that you cannot conceive.  Their world is layered with meanings that come from memories of history, science, and art.  To us, math isn't just useful; it's beautiful.  To us, Lincoln and Juliet aren't just their character sketches; we know them and talk about them the way you talk about your best friends. 

Your teachers offer you experience in the world of the mind.   They tell you that it's worth working to get there.  You say, "I don't need it."

Like Ronald, you just don't know what you're missing.