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Blog Archive/June 2005

June 29, 2005

Sean Hannity and the Confederacy of Dunces

Did you catch Mark Fuhrman on the “Today Show” yesterday? It seems the former LAPD detective who committed felony perjury during the O.J. Simpson trial is now out to get Michael Schiavo. In an interview with Matt Lauer, Fuhrman called for further investigation into the cause of Terri Schiavo’s initial collapse in 1990, and why Michael Schiavo did not, he says, immediately dial 911.

What’s prompted Fuhrman’s interest in the matter? A tip from Fox’s Sean Hannity, Fuhrman told Lauer.

Of course Hannity wants the spotlight on Schiavo. This will distract the public from the fact that Terri’s autopsy backs Michael Schiavo’s contention that his wife was in a persistent vegetative state, a claim Hannity fought. Like Jeb and George Bush, Tom DeLay, and Bill Frist, the Fox talk show host doesn’t want to look stupid for the wrongheaded partisan stand he took in the Terri Schiavo debate.

But let’s not forget how stupid (or sinister) Sean Hannity really is. On March 23, he interviewed neurologist Bill Hammesfahr, who insisted that Terri was entirely treatable. “Terri is completely aware and conscious and responsive,” he told Hannity. “She is like a child with cerebral palsy. We have kids in the Pinellas County school system every day that are much worse than her, that we're educating.”

Hannity: “Doctor, wait a minute. I've got to get this straight here. You were nominated to get a Nobel Peace Prize in this very work. Are you saying that this woman could be rehabilitated?”

Hammesfahr: “Absolutely.”

Hannity: “Could she talk one day?”

Hammesfahr: “Yes.”

Hannity: “Then how is it possible we're in this position if you have examined her, you were up for a Nobel Prize. I—this is mind boggling to me.”

Hammesfahr insisted that videotapes show Terri following a doctor’s commands and responding to a balloon. He also claimed that he’d treated patients “much worse than Terri who are better, one of them three months into their treatment is talking.”

First of all, Hammesfahr was never nominated for a Nobel Prize of any kind, not in medicine or peace, as Hannity said at one point. Second, Terri’s autopsy destroyed every claim Hammesfahr made about her condition. Terri’s brain was half its normal size, severely and permanently damaged, giving her no chance of recovery. She was also blind.

How did Hannity respond to the autopsy report when it was released June 15? Did he apologize or at least say he'd been dead wrong? Of course not. He put on as a guest that day Mark Fuhrman, who suggested that Michael Schiavo had strangled his wife with a pillow back in '90. Though the autopsy revealed no evidence of any such trauma, Fuhrman explained that a police choke hold could deprive a person of oxygen, without leaving marks. (Fuhrman ought to know. The ex-cop has bragged about beating and torturing suspects.)

Shameless. Disgusting.

But Jeb Bush’s response wasn’t much better than Hannity’s. On the day of the autopsy results he directed Florida’s state attorney to open an investigation into whether Schiavo delayed in calling paramedics when he found his wife passed out in their bathroom. The pretext for Jeb’s sudden interest, 15 years after the fact, is that over the years Schiavo has given different estimates of the time he discovered Terri—was it 4:30 a.m. or 5 a.m.?

Never mind that it was very early in the morning, and Schiavo was panicking and trying to revive Terri—a far more human response than Jeb’s brother, George, showed as he sat dumbstruck in a second-grade classroom after having learned that his country had just been attacked by terrorists.

If Schiavo were trying to harm his wife, rather than help her, why would he have called her father and then 911 at all at that time? Why not go back to bed, collect his wits, and pretend to discover her four hours later?

Other unapologetic opportunists in this fiasco we must not forget:

Senate Majority Leader (and licensed physician!) Bill Frist, who told the Senate on March 17: "Based on the footage provided to me, which was part of the facts of the case, she (Schiavo) does respond."

House Majority Leader (and God-drunk hypocrite) Tom DeLay, who said in a speech to the Family Research Council on March 18: "One thing God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo to elevate the visibility of what's going on in America. That Americans would be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is lucid and starve them to death for two weeks—I mean, in America that's going to happen if we don't win this fight."

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

June 23, 2005

The Five People You Meet in Hell

If Mitch Albom’s “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” didn’t exactly leave you pining for eternity, then Rich Pablum’s “The Five People You Meet in Hell” may be your kind of book. Or, as this wickedly funny parody’s flap copy puts it: “If you’ve ever died, expect to die, know someone who has died, raise alpacas, collect Hummel figurines, breathe air, or enjoy line dancing, you must buy this book. You will never think about your thirteen bucks the same way again... If you experience erections lasting more than four hours, please consult your physician.”


For those unfamiliar with the Albom title, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” tells the story of Eddie, a bitter 83-year-old who feels that his life as an amusement park mechanic is meaningless until a tragic accident ushers him into heaven. There, five people he knew on earth explain the meaning of his life, showing him all the connections that filled his existence with purpose.

Similarly, Edgy Kreep, the protagonist of Rich Pablum’s parable, is a 91-year-old who works a meaningless job at Angeli Pier, a seaside tourist trap that “should have been condemned sometime during the Harding administration.” But when a freak accident sends him to “the other side,” Edgy encounters a string of irritating losers and annoying blowhards compelled to explain the meaning of life. As Rich Pablum (a.k.a. author and screenwriter Billy Frolick) sees it, hell in the afterlife is an awful lot like the living hell we endure here on earth, except that every car is a Kia and all the newspaper articles are written by Andy Rooney.

Ultimately, Edgy, like Eddie, learns that “everything in the world is connected”—“I’m talking about the tides and the moon, man,” he’s informed by a tiny but very serious man, “longitude and latitude…fat-free potato chips and anal leakage.” [Read more here.]

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

June 22, 2005

Love Is in the Air at SoMA—Again

One of SoMA's goals is to promote discussion, to encourage an ongoing dissection of ideas concerning religion and culture. From time to time, we accomplish this goal. Lincoln Swain’s recent essay on agape, A Birthday Party for Whores, certainly inspired comment. SoMA contributing editor Mary Beth Crain responded with a sharp essay insisting that Swain's treatment of Christian love had missed the mark.

Now, Stephen Healey, a SoMA contributor and the Director of the Program in World Religions at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, defends Swain against Crain. In an email, Healey writes:

There is much worth pondering in Mary Beth Crain’s essay, “Agape: Far More Than a Smile.” She presents agape, unconditional love, as an arduous commitment demanding radical selflessness. It’s a welcome message at a time when we have such a trite, superficial understanding of love. For many of us, love is all about sentiment, a good feeling about ourselves that we derive through others.

We’ve lost the understanding that love is also a difficult obligation. Considering the staggering divorce rate, more couples seemingly enter marriage thinking about their honeymoons than they do the vows that bind them: For richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, till death do us part…

That said, however, I have trouble with Crain’s vision of agape as radical selflessness.

In part, her essay is a response to Lincoln Swain’s piece on agape, “A Birthday Party for Whores.” To illustrate his understanding of Christian love, Swain describes the smile he exchanged with a little girl who was watching him enjoy his meal from across a restaurant.

“It’s a nice story about a sweet moment,” writes Crain. “But it’s not agape…True agape is such a profound experience, demanding such an arduous commitment to moving beyond the self, that to water it down to an experience of smiling at somebody when they smile back at you, or even to doing nice things for other people, is grossly misleading.”

I would argue that Swain understands agape to be a spiritual attitude that opens people to one another and has the unexpected power to invite. Swain writes that “Christ, nailed to the cross, invited the thief to heaven with him!” That just might be agape—a momentary exchange that implies a deeper, more meaningful connection between two people. It’s in this vein that Swain mentions his encounter with the girl, demonstrating the difference between connecting with a person through a glance and objectifying a person by, for example, glaring at them. The former involves the sharing of joy with another person; the latter seeks to control or possess them. It seems to me that Crain has lessened Swain’s use of the smile, rather than that Swain has lessened the concept of agape by illustrating it with the smile anecdote.

When I say I’m critical of Crain’s notion of agape as radical selflessness, I should probably say I’m critical of Anders Nygren’s classic, “Agape and Eros,” on which Crain relies heavily. In his book, Nygren makes much of the novelty of the Christian concept of agape, and how it differs from the Greek concepts of Eros. Agape for Nygren is precisely the strenuous self-denying commitment Crain describes. Every form of love for the Greeks, he says, from the lowest (Vulgar Eros) to the highest (Heavenly Eros) provide varying degrees of self-fulfillment. But the Christian notion of agape, Nygren says, requires a complete denial of the self and therefore transcends all other kinds of love.

My problem is that Nygren’s notion of agape is ethereal and rarified. Love absolutized is not only a demanding commitment, it’s a spiritual state that takes us virtually out of our skin and puts us in an otherworldly state that has little connection to our daily lives. This concept may be appealing to some, but it’s not a Christian or a Jewish idea.

Nygren’s concept owes more to Plato’s forms and Immanuel Kant’s transcendental ideas than to the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Plato posited that true reality consists of changeless, eternal essences, or forms, of which everything material is only a poor copy. Nygren’s disembodied agape closely resembles a platonic form. Similarly, according to Kant, when we relate properly to other people we do so according to a transcendental ideal that surpasses the human realm. From this distinction between the limited, inferior world we inhabit to the superior world that exists beyond, Nygren argues that we can only achieve the highest love when we deny the self and all it desires.

But for Christian and Jews, the self (if you will) is a creation of God. Both Jesus and Paul were Jews, and Jews understand love to be earthy and enfleshed, emanating from a passion that resides in the heart. In the Greek Bible, agape is used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to convey a vast spectrum of human relations and inclinations, both physical and spiritual, from a general sense of goodwill to the love (agapan) that Isaac had for a certain meat, to sensual and erotic love, thus blurring the very distinction between agape and eros Nygren wanted to draw.

Nygren was well aware of this, and in “Eros and Agape” he declared: “What Judaism affirmed, Christianity must deny.” Thus, his notion of Christian love has none of its Jewish roots and nuances, which certainly distorts the understanding of love that Paul and Jesus would have shared.

Some might say, yes, but Paul does describe the kind of selfless love that Nygren and Crain have in mind. In chapter two of Galatians, for example, Paul writes: “It is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” But, as with all Scripture, context is everything. There, Paul is not discussing the nature of love, but is arguing why his Gentile converts should not practice circumcision.

One way to prevent agape from being idealized is to insist that there are not two distinct kinds of love (or even three or four), but that there are distinctive ways in which love is embodied in society. Greek civilization at the dawn of the Common Era did not possess the openness and inclusiveness of the early Christian ecclesia. That social openness—of drawing together everyone regardless of social status—was novel. And it was agape. I believe Crain would agree with that. But Nygren’s notion of radical selflessness makes this social vision difficult to maintain in any practical or meaningful way.

For her idea of agape, Crain also draws on Mahayana Buddhism. As a teacher of world religions, I certainly share her appreciation for Buddhism. But she sees greater similarities between the Bodhisattva Vow, which entails working towards the enlightenment of others in a selfless way, and Christian agape, than I do. One difference between Buddhism and Christianity is how the two faiths envision the self. At the risk of overgeneralizing, Buddhists view the self as an illusion, whereas Christians see it as a gift from God. So to draw on Buddhism to illuminate a Christian notion of love is highly problematic from the start.

Ironically, the Buddha came to mind when I read Crain’s assessment of the smile Swain shared with the girl in the restaurant. In paintings and sculptures the Buddha is almost always smiling. He smiles because he understands that suffering is caused by a false view of the self. It’s a simple smile that, unaccompanied by words, has spoken volumes for centuries.

Read Mary Beth Crain's "Agape: Far More Than a Smile" here, and Lincoln Swain's "A Birthday Party for Whores" here.

For more on agape, check out William E. Phipps’ fascinating article, The Sensuousness of Agape, published in Theology Today.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

June 17, 2005

Divine Plan, or Divine Comedy?

It’s Friday, and I’ve got Rick Warren on the brain again. But not because for three Fridays, ending last week, SoMA ran its “The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life” series of essays by Lincoln Swain and now I'm suffering withdrawl. No, it’s because this morning someone posted an interesting comment on the blog entry that accompanied the first Anti-Purpose essay.

“Amy” wrote:

"The advent of this new book [Swain’s 'Dare to Defy'] is quite interesting. I look forward to reading it. However, having read 'The Purpose-Driven Life,' I don't think it means that everything is within God's purpose--every detail of human history, including the murder rampage [in Atlanta after which the suspect released his hostage, after she read to him from 'The Purpose Driven Life']. I understand the book to mean that there is an overarching purpose to life, which we can choose to embrace or not. So it seems to me a combination of destiny (purpose) and choice (free will) equals life. It's neither simply one or the other."

I read Rick Warren much differently, so I responded:

"Thanks for your comments, Amy. You make a very good distinction between a divine plan and a divine purpose. But here's what Warren says: 'Because God made you for a reason, he also decided when you would be born and how long you would live. He planned the days of your life in advance choosing the exact time of your birth and death...God also planned where you'd be born and where you'd live for his purpose. Your race and nationality are no accident. God left no detail to chance. He planned it all for his purpose...he planned it all with great precision...Nothing in your life is arbitrary. It's all for a purpose.' Sounds like a plan to me. Now, I'm sure Warren would say we can choose NOT to follow God's plan. But back to the Atlanta murder suspect. He was comforted by the thought that perhaps God's plan was for him to minister in prison. Wouldn't this mean God also planned, intended, or at least knew about the crime that would land him in jail?

"And if God plans the days we're born and die, then God certainly planned the day those mudered victims would die, and presumably how. From the victims' persepective, getting murdered as they did might have seemed arbitrary. Not to Warren: "there are no accidents in life."... If, as Warren says, God plans for you to live in, say, Ohio, what happens if you move to Calif.? Your entire life--the people you meet, the decisions you make--will be outside God's plan. Or does God's preordained plan somehow change according to our decisions? By definition that's not possible...Finally, let's assume God's plan for the murder suspect wasn't to minister in prison, but was to, say, design golf courses. What good is God's plan for the guy now? I doubt it was this stark question that cooled the man down in the aftermath of the murders... I'm curious what you or anyone else makes of those passages I quoted, Amy. Thanks for visiting SoMA!"

And I meant those last lines. I’m curious what people think about that passage (and the many others like it) in Warren’s book. If you’d care to comment on Pastor Rick and “The Purpose Driven Life (or Reverend Swain and the Anti-Purpose-Driven Life) click here.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

June 10, 2005

The Faith of the Framers

For a good summary of the faith of the Founding Fathers, don’t miss The Week magazine’s recent “Briefing.” The piece explains that the Founders specifically did not give religion the official endorsement of their new government because they feared a repeat of “the same intolerance and bigotry that drove many of the original settlers to the New World.”

“The monarchs of the Old World, they knew, had often invoked God as an excuse to make war,” the piece continues. “Not only had Europe’s kings and princes waged the Crusades in the name of Christianity, they had fought bloody battles of succession and conquest among themselves, with Protestants and Catholics slaughtering one another for political power.”

Wrote John Adams: “I almost shudder at the thought of alluding to the most fatal example of the abuses of grief which the history of mankind has preserved—the Cross. Consider what calamities that engine of grief has produced!"

"When the Founders gathered to write the Constitution in 1787," The Week says, "they were determined to set a different course, so as not to repeat the mistakes of history.’” [Read more here.]

Part III of “The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life”

“Death is the king of fears. There’s nowhere to hide or to run when it comes. And as a popular song puts it, death is the 'one dance you’ll do alone.' For good reason we build all kinds of barriers against death. Not just physical barriers—safety belts, alarm systems, guardrails—but mental ones as well. Refusing to think about or talk about our own death is a choice many of us make. Yet the more we repress this primal fact, the less chance we have of grasping its power to transform our life.”

Read more of Lincoln Swain’s final installment of SoMA’s  “The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life” series here. (And while you're there, be sure to take SoMA's new poll, voting on whether you think Death looks more like Brad Pitt, William Sadler, or Mira Sorvino.)

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

June 4, 2005

Part II of “The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life”

Last week I launched “The Anti-Purpose-Driven Life,” a three-part series of essays by the Rev. Dr. Lincoln Swain, as a response, if you will, to Rick Warren’s hugely successful evangelical Christian fantasy, “The Purpose Driven Life.” In his gazillion-copy selling book, Warren writes that God has created a detailed life plan for each of us. If we want to know the purpose of our lives, he says, we need only ask God.  

In his first essay, Swain wrote that such a notion reduces God to a “celestial puppet master” and deprives us of our full humanity. God wants us to create our own purpose in life, Swain said, and to form ourselves, for better or worse, through the choices we make. Bottom line: because there is no tailor-made divine life plan to consult, we must take full responsibility for our lives.

In his new essay, “Ghost in the Shell,” Swain argues that this existential mandate has a physical as well as a mental and spiritual dimension to it. Many Christians, he says, neglect their bodies to focus on their souls and salvation. But what we do to ourselves physically affects us spiritually. “The body’s actions imprint the soul,” he writes. “Indeed, the body isn’t just the temple of the soul; it is through the body that the soul imposes itself upon the world—writing, speaking, running, loving, building.”

In each of his essays, Swain touches on several seemingly unrelated subjects, and in this piece he calls our attention to society’s neglect of the elderly. No matter how poorly we may take care of our own bodies, he writes, we recoil from those in worse shape, particularly the very old, because they represent our own inevitable decline. “Why do so many people, Christian and non-Christian, focus more on the innocence of children than the wisdom of the elderly?” he asks. “We cry and fight over the aborted fetus, the miscarriage, the stillbirth yet legions of geezers with troves of experience are fossilizing alone behind the doors of nursing homes and shabby apartments.”

“Isn’t an old soul, a well-lived soul, more valuable, more interesting than a virgin fresh one?” he continues. “Perhaps but the old soul is hardly as soothing as the thought of a happy child reveling in the carefree delights of youth. We envy children and their ‘fresh start.’ We see ourselves as them. The old remind us of what’s to come.” [Read more here.]

Note: I recently published another Swain essay, A Birthday Party for Whores, on the subject of agape, and my longtime friend (and recently appointed SoMA contributing editor) Mary Beth Crain called to say she thought the Good Reverend missed the mark. So, I encouraged her to write her own essay on the subject. Mary Beth sat right down at her computer and banged out "Agape: Far More Than a Smile" (they call her “Crank 'Em Out Crain” at the L.A. Weekly, where she’s a staff writer). Don’t miss her essay. It's brilliant. [Read here.]

PS: Just me, or is SoMA's articles column, to the right, starting to look this month like "The Swain and Crain Show"? Don't worry. We've got many other voices in the pipeline.

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

June 1, 2005

Introducing the "SoMA Poll"

I love online polls, especially religion and spirituality polls. I vote in every Beliefnet survey I find. “Do you believe Jesus was literally raised from the dead?” No.  “How do you experience the Holy Spirit most deeply?” I struggle to understand/feel the Holy Spirit. “Have you ever prayed to God to find you a mate?” Yes. (True. As an evangelical teenager, I prayed that God would lead me to the wife He’d selected for me before the dawn of time.)

The answers provided on polls usually oversimplify our thinking on any given subject, but so what? It’s a hoot to weigh in on whether or not you think, say, Ouija boards are satanic, and then to see what everyone else thinks. Plus, voting on divisive issues gives you the feeling you’re making a small contribution to your side of the culture war, when in fact you’re just killing time.  

Thus, I’m proud to announce a new regular feature at—the “SoMA Poll.” There are now four polls on the site. In the left column here on the homepage, below the "Blog Heaven" button, there's a poll asking what you think about religion/spirituality polls. There are also polls in the left column, a little below the art, on the following articles: Mary Beth Crain’s piece on Tom DeLay, Astrid Storm’s review of Lauren Winner’s “Real Sex,” and Puck Purnell’s article on the Nicene Creed. Feel free to vote as often as you want on each poll, but just remember that only your first vote counts.

Consider the polls a way to respond to what you read at SoMA. I’m often asked why there’s not a comments feature on articles. That’s because, as I understand it, the articles are “static files” rather than “database files.” I don’t fully understand what that means, but Chuck, SoMA’s web dude, says it means that people will have to opine on articles in the comments feature here on the blog. I will try to write a blog entry to accompany each new article, so readers will have a place to scream and point out all the mistakes we make.

A word to major media outlets like the New York Times and CNN: SoMA’s polls are very scientific, so please quote them frequently in your reporting on matters related to religion and culture: According to a recent poll conducted by…

Posted By John D. Spalding | Email

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