Fraysters crack back on Slate's resident nontheist.

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Oct. 12 2005 3:09 PM

Get Thee to a Church!

Fraysters crack back on Slate's resident nontheist.

Getting Religion: Longtime frayster Shrieking_Violet can sensibly thread the needle of a combustible issue with the best of them. Responding to Christopher Hitchens on the purported absence of a religious test for political nominees, SV first applauds Hitch ... 

He is an artist with the sledgehammer, not the scalpel.

He scores a few points, too. Like most Americans who dwell outside the Realm of the Megachurch or other aggressively sectarian faiths, I find the obligatory kowtowing and pandering to people who believe literally in myth and magic to be maddening. The fact that a large percentage of Americans want to write 21st Century law based on a selectively literal interpretation of Ancient Hebrew sacred texts and some overheated rhetoric from St. Paul is a sick joke. It's not even reasonable theology, for Christ's sake, let alone reasonable politics. It's enough to make a reasonable person want to flee to Old Europe.

But despite her "secular half-hearted Episcopalian" bent, SV cautions Hitch against his aggressively anti-theistic screed:

For all the black days in the interwoven history of Church and politics, it might behoove Hitchens to recall that revolutions inspired by atheist appeals to "reason" racked up a far bigger body count in the 20th Century than either Osama Bin Laden or Eric Rudolph could ever hope to achieve. Lenin. Stalin. Mao. Pol Pot. Not a choir boy among them.

Modern secular liberalism is built upon the principles of Enlightenment humanism, but it is also a rather clear, linear outgrowth from the more radical aspects of the Christian message. When Germans beat their swords into plowshares, learned to love their neighboring nations, and built social services to care for their citizens, they were led not by secular revolutionaries, but by a party known as the Christian Democrats. When Abolitionists railed against slavery, and when Civil Rights marchers challenged the hierarchy of racism, they were led by Christian ministers. The very core of modern Western Civilization is composed of a trust in reason and science, tempered by a faith in the values of peace, compassion, and brotherly love, and a humility regarding our role in the universe that precludes absolutism.

The latter half of this equation is the legacy of Christian theology. And it's the latter half that Hitchens and his Trotskyite-cum-Neocon fellow travellers so conspicuously lack…

…why does Hitchens, the enlightened prophet of secular reason, fall for this shtick like a rube at a sideshow?

Perhaps for the same reason that a generation of rational secular people in the West fell for communism while Stalin was systematically disappearing a generation of Russians into slave labor camps. He thinks a little too damn highly of his rational secular philosophy and he has no damned faith, hope, or love in his jaundiced soul.

Get thee to church, Hitch.

Check out responses from Varian, here, who puts SV in the "odd position defending Christianity," and from Lyger, here.

Play the Feud: Fraywatch hereby announces an open casting call for the First "Fray Survivor":

fraysters are separated into two eight-person tribes and engage in team competition once a week to win immunity. The losing team goes to tribal council and votes one of their members off. Eventually, the tribes are merged and the contestants compete for individual immunity. The last 7 fraysters voted out serve as the final jury and vote for who, between the final 2 remaining fraysters, should win.

Prospective contestants should respond in the above post. The winner of FS1 will receive a probationary star for 90 days … KA12:00 p.m.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Worship as Sport: Since Larry David exposed the black market of High Holiday tickets in the season premiere of Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's only appropriate that rob_said_that wonders if "skyboxes are far behind" at evangelical megachurches:

Viewing these images of the megachurch in action, I got the feeling that they've kept everything bad about the scale of Gothic and Renaissance cathedrals but little of the good. In fact, it's all about scale. How big can we make it, how many people can we fit into it, how small can we make people feel individually yet how big as a group?

…In these modern megacathedrals (or, in some cases, dihedrals, since some of them look as swept as jet wings), where are the arcades, the columns, the clerestory windows, the pendentives holding up the dome, all the fine details that furnish you with eye candy. If you're in one of these football stadiums like the one in Houston, the stage-altar has been reduced to the level of a detail: you can only see the pastor on the Jumbo-Tron. (Question: are they going to feature instant replays?) Will wealthy supporters be able to view the service from skyboxes, where they can sit outside in a private loge or retire indoors to view the service on HDTV while noshing on the full buffet?

Rob may be half-joking about the skyboxes, but it underscores his larger point that

What these megachurches do preserve of the cathedral tradition is the notion of class hierarchy. In the old system, the apportionment of seating reflected the notion of a structured society: God was at the top, the clergy were next to God, the wealthy nobility were next to the clergy in the pews (but just across the altar rail), and the common folk milled about in the nave…

For stewartandall here, "these churches reflect suburban culture and its demands for comfort above transcendence," and the_count remarks that "the new architecture mirrors the new religiosity in america":

where once you might have strolled among quiet cloisters, alone but for the echoes of your footsteps (and perhaps, god,) you now have conference rooms, where you confer with men…

where once you might have found solid stone walls resonating with a sense of timelessness and permanence, you now find drywall or, at best, concrete. it seems everywhere, you're reminded that you are in the house of man, a house of men.

sure, one might say it encourages congregation and fellowship. and call me conservative if you must…but i've always considered religion a profoundly personal affair…

sadly, these new "churches" seem to me to discourage personal communion and deep reflection--opting instead for the frenzied mob and the herd mentality, where peer pressure and peer reinforcement drown out the quieter, and perhaps truer, message(s) of christ.

to my senses, these new "churches" combine all that's wrong with religion with all that's wrong with secularism--and the religiosity birthed is the sort that exalts and congratulates man, the sort that, far from bringing god into personal lives, relegates god's existence (dubious as that already seems) to mere pages in a book--law to be propounded from above rather than love graced, to effuse from within.

Here, haikured offers a more mainline assessment:

A fundamental problem for designing a modern cathedral that is inspirational or awe-inducing is that massive architecture has now become common-place. In the middle ages, a cathedral was a scientific marvel, and probably by far the biggest enclosed space a person would go into. Now even houses have "cathedral ceilings", not too mention what we routinely see in shopping malls, government buildings, and sports arenas. So people are harder to impress. But there is also a difference of focus. Entering an old cathedral, attention seems drawn upwards, to the space itself, whereas the altar and whoever is on it often seems somewhat small, and at various corners completely obscured and hard to hear. The main event is the enclosed sacred space, which is felt even when the church is empty. In new mega-churches, the "main event" is clearly what is happening on the stage.

A handful of Mormon readers dropped into the Fray to comment on Witold Rybczynski's observations about the Conference Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in downtown Salt Lake City. Halcyon writes:

I come from the Mormon tradition where a striking dichotomy separates the cookie-cutter, mundane architecture and decor of the standard meetinghouse from the overly ornamented temples. (Newer "mini-temples" have also earned the nickname McTemples for being vanilla replicas of one another.)

Rybczynski wisely lists the conference center in Salt Lake City as an example of uninspiring, stadium-style places of worship. What he does not mention is that the conference center replaces the tabernacle (home of the eponymous Mormon Tabernacle Choir) as the primary meeting place of the saints, thus, the prominent organ pipe, which is the hallmark background for the choir. The conference center doesn't begin to compare with the other historic and architecturally stunning buildings on temple square: the Salt Lake temple with its many spires and intricately carved granite, which took 40 years to build; the tabernacle, an engineering feat built by the sweat of 19th-century pioneers who carved each wooden nail by hand; and the assembly hall, a minor gem of its own.

I am certain there are ways of interpreting soaring naves and radiant clerestories in a modern way. However, I'm just as certain that building styles borrowed from the corporate HQ vernacular and big-screens and stages replacing altars and pulpits also borrowed from the corporate, whether you attribute them to motivational gurus like Tony Robbins or the rockstar packaging and promotion employed by any major record label. Regardless, such architecture replaces the intimate and inspirational "places apart" with the nondescript and quotidian.

And noname7800 enlightens us on the origins of Mormon religious architecture:

The LDS Conference Center may indeed share many characteristics with other "Mega-Churches," but what Mr. Rybczynski may not know is that it comes from a very different architectural geneology. Almost 150 years ago, critics were making the same architectural complaints that Mr. Rybczynski does (secularized, lacking religious symbols, un-church-like) about an earlier Mormon "mega-church": the Salt Lake Tabernacle. In the 1860's, this building held 8000 people and had no internal, supporting columns. The sea of pews and the blank white oval dome made the building sparse and stoic.

The Conference Center is not a new idea in Mormon culture, it is a continuation of an earlier ideal: gathering to hear the Word trumped the need for religious ornamentation. Community over ostentation; preaching over architecture; function over form.

Worship broad transepts and austere eaves hereKA 11:55 a.m.

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Thursday, October 6, 2005

Caught In Between: In his column today, John Dickerson lays out the border skirmish between eggheads and religious conservatives within the Republican Party. As a practicing Catholic who finds solace in the teachings of the "great self-sacrificial figureheads like Sts. Francis and Dominic," Shadrach is left asking, "Where do I fit in?"

Here's where I compromise the all-too-generalized categories of this article: I'm not a secularist in the simplest sense that the author employs. I go to Mass and promote the advancement of parochial Christian schools in the U.S. In short, I like Jesus just as much as the next guy. What bothers me is not that she is an evangelical without an intellectual foundation but that evangelicalism itself dosen't have an intellectual foundation. It's all wishy-washy feelings and having a personal relationship with Christ and blah bleh blue. It has yet to produce great philosophers in the vein of what Aquinas or Augustine did for Roman Catholicism. It boasts no great self-sacrificial figureheads like Sts. Francis and Dominic or even the various nuns and monks who's theology was strong enough to compell them to give up materialism for a greater good. I'd bet evangelicals drive luxury SUVs in the same proportions as the rest of us. This isn't just a Protestant vs. Catholic thing either. I would be pleased if it even had a Martin Luther or John Calvin who, while complete nutbags, engaged in heavily intellectual discourse. Instead, the most famous evangelical is George Fucking Bush who declared two wars in four years. How can we take evangelicals seriously when their elected spokesman is willing to ignore entire sections of Christ's simple message namely, "turn the other cheek"? And how can we rely on this sort of theo-ideology to keep her commitment to constitutional contructionism when it is clearly all over the map?

Lastly, finding Christ dosen't make you a Republican, nor do Republicans have a corner on God. Until the election of George H.W. Bush, evangelicals were evenly divided over both parties. Before that election, *no* president had ever won an election without the Catholic vote. That's right, every Democrat who ever won an election before 1988 had the Catholic vote. Moreover, evangelical theology isn't a far cry from many theological denominations that consistently stay split across party lines: Baptists for instance. No sir, this isn't just a frightening time for the left, this is a frightening time for anyone who would like to know what they're getting when they get a new Supreme Court justice. Telling me she is an evangelical is telling me only that she is a member of a politically incongruent group and that her beliefs are subject to change.

Rally against this nomination everyone. Do it for Jesus.

The debate reminds Fraywatch of Saul Bellow's caustic comment about multiculturalism (see Hilton Als' entry here) and the absence of an African Tolstoy or a Papuan Proust. Has the evangelical movement been slow to turn out superlative thinkers? Is that a prerequisite for any important religious movement? The Fray welcomes Shad's brand of cerebral, bookish Catholicism, as well as comments from those who want to counter his post with instances of evangelical protestant philosophy.

Inflation Mutation: According to the_slasher14, here, in Moneybox Fray, the coming inflationary economy has a different tinge to it:

What is different THIS time, however, is that we are not threatened by demand inflation within our own economy. The cause of soaring prices is not American economic activity.

The dramatic increases in productivity generated by the technical advances of the 1990s, plus the use of those technical advances to outsource significant amounts of work to places where it is much cheaper than it is here, has prevented "demand" inflation from being a significant factor. Wages IN THIS COUNTRY have been going down since the Carter Administration and only the movement of wives into the labor market has prevented family incomes from cratering to Depression levels.

What is driving THIS inflation is the fact that many countries are now in competition with American businesses for the natural resources of the world in a serious way -- for the first time.

Needless to say, slash is no fan of the Fed's measures to calibrate interest rates to head off inflation. In response, diogene reminds us that inflation helps Americans with debt.

Personal Memento: This is an interesting thread initiated by ster in response to Jay Michaelson's piece on acute memory loss. Ster deftly excerpts Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, Book II, and elicits a stellar effort (and rebuttal to MA) from Fritz_Gerlich ... KA2:10 p.m.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2005

One Man's Commode: Read any art piece on Slate and you'll invariably find a lucid corresponding post from Utek1. Here's his extrapolation on Michael Kimmelman's discussion with Stephen Metcalf on, among other things, Marcel Duchamp's urinal and the age-old debate over what's art and what isn't:

Kimmelman describes one of the rarely acknowledged joys of the arts: they can help people find their own aesthetic, to enrich their own lives, from a finely cooked meal to a perfect CD mix to just the right accessory for ones wardrobe. The arts help to attune us to the sublime in ordinary things, and to appreciate different sensibilities in ways that can expand our own. This is what Duchamp was getting at with his found objects, or Dr. Hicks with his 75,000 light bulbs (I understand Dr. Hicks' obsession every time I pick up the Grainger catalog and look under "Lighting"---I swear there are 75,000 different choices, a veritable cornucopia of illumination). This is the side of art that speaks to the soul more than any jargon-laced hucksterism in Artforum.

But according totwifferTheGnu, Duchamp's "only true contribution is recognizing complete bullshit as an art." And BenK groans:

Ah, back to the various dead horses, right?

Do we have to discuss whether an object of art must be beautiful? Or skillfully made (like 'state of art' or 'artisan' or 'artful')? Or whether it communicates a message? Does it need to please, to instruct, or simply be made?

…do we get to skip all these unresolved questions now, having paid our due? Who won the war? Or was it just that everybody is continually the loser, now that expensive art is ugly, beautiful things are cheap, nobody with any skill is honored, and the critics are losing their audience?

U1 gives a charmingly faith-based response:

Like questioning whether God exists, the fact that such questions about Art are ultimately unanswerable does not relieve us of the need to ask them. Wrestling with these questions is part of what makes us human.

For another good read on the subject, particularly what Kimmelman describes as the Scylla and Charybdis of art criticism—being either too rarified or too broad—check out Good_Chris here.

More Miers: Look who's taking up for Harriet Miers—improbably, it's BOTF charter member historyguy, here:

I like her. I don't care much about the lack of alleged expertise in appellate practice. The Supreme Court is an easy job. The best lawyers in the country write the briefs and argue the cases. The smartest young law school graduates serve as clerks and do most of the actual writing. The appellate court opinions they're reviewing are also written by smart folks who know how to present the issues. The justices only have to make decisions…

In other words, of all the places to put a possibly incompetent crony, the Supreme Court is the spot where there's least potential for damage. If the president wants to promote friends, that's the right place to do it.

I also suspect she isn't incompetent. She worked her way to the top of the inbred Dallas legal community without family connections--and without a penis…

… The Supreme Court decides over 100 case a year, and about 99% of them have nothing to do with abortion. More than half have no political dimension at all. Many of them have real effects on the stuff historyguy does every day when he's not on the fray, which is litigate cases in federal court. Unlike most of the other justices, Harriet Miers is an actual lawyer with experience in private practice who had to read Supreme Court cases and write briefs on behalf of clients making sense of them. Unlike the others, she knows that the difference between a useful and a useless Supreme Court decision.

…On the constitutional case, she'll probably vote the same way as anyone else President Bush would appoint. That's a wash, not a negative.

Democrats should ask the tough questions at the hearings, focusing on the Bush Administration scandals just for embarrassment purposes, but there's no point in opposing her.

Over in JF, Degsme turns in a nice analysis on Miers vis-à-vis Sandra Day O'Connor.

Light in August: Regarding Rachel Shteir's piece on August Wilson, an exasperated destor23 writes, "Sheesh, another takedown obit" from Slate:

To say that Wilson was in once instance "more Amiri Baraka than Lorraine Hansberry," seemed to be pejorative but I'm not sure why -- seems like literature and theatre and poetry needed them both, so what's so wrong with being one or the other in one moment?

"More agitprop that playwriting," was another odd accusation in this piece -- a writer like Bertolt Brecht would probably sigh and wander away from your table rather than bother to explain that the terms are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Like I said, it's a good essay and I appreciate the thought behind it, but as an "obit," Wilson deserves better.

Arcadia offers a concurring opinion here. Was Shteir too ungenerous? Weigh in hereKA12:25 p.m.

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Monday, October 3, 2005

The Nominee Is … : The fact that David Frum is calling the Harriet Miers nomination "an unforced error" and theocrats like Sam Brownback are reserving judgment have liberal jurisfraysters, such as JohnLex, already reading the tea leaves. Thrasymachus offers as "the most natural conclusion" that Miers fits the Roberts mold:

Miers is not a "movement conservative," and she won't upset too many corporate apple carts.

This choice, like the choice of Roberts, marked a fork in the road for the Bush Administration. The Republican evangelical lobby wants Roe v. Wade overturned, gay marriage outlawed, the media censored, creationism taught in schools, etc. etc. etc. . . and they see the Supreme Court as an implacable roadblock in their efforts to make these things happen. The Republican corporate lobby, on the other hand, just wants to see its legislative agenda go through, along with a healthy crop of spending bills in their favor.

Once Reid made it clear that the Republicans would have to choose one or the other (by brilliantly threatening to block the GOP's legislative agenda if the filibuster was abolished), the fix was essentially in.

Bush could have been a contrarian and tried to ram a Janice Rogers Brown through the confirmation process; but in the end it's a battle he'd have been better off losing than winning.

The evangelical lobby has been left at the altar once again. . . and from the increasing crescendo of their grumblings, it's possible that they're not going to take this in good spirits.

T. extrapolates over in Jurisprudence Fray. And here, TychoBrache reiterates his long-standing contention that Bush has never had any intention of overturning Roe.

Minority Report: A searing critique of the Democrats' paralysis from IOZ:

It's perfectly evident that the Democrats, for all their complaints about life in the wilderness, don't really mind very much. More than anything, the Democratic mentality is that of the comfortable middle manager: willing to make only the most marginal risks and never, ever, ever willing to make a damn decision and accept that the inevitable consequence of decisiveness is responsibility. Like typical middle managers, they're chock full of indignation at the bone-headed way upper management is running things. And like typical middle managers, they're absolutely unwilling to draw up or even suggest an alternative plan. Just think of John Kerry--the presidential candidate!--saying that it was not his but the President's job to figure out what to do in Iraq. It's the old refrain: "Until my promotion comes through, it's not my job." Of course, the promotion never comes through, and it's never your job.

The Democrats have truly become an army of clock-watchers. And if you think it's bad nationally, just take a look at Dems on the local level around the country, absolutely terrified to tinker with outmoded municipal machinery.

Pro-Joss: TheMaxFischerPlayers does a nice job taking up for Buffy and Angel creator Joss Whedon—who recently ventured into the feature world with Serenity—and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Like many readers hanging around Culturebox Fray, MFP takes umbrage at Seth Stevenson's characterization of Jeunet as "inept." But MFP spends the majority of his post  discussing the machinations inside Whedlon-world and parts ways with andkathleen, here, on Buffy's jumping the shark. Hard-core fans looking for further reading should check out doughdee222 and his Babylon 5 parallel hereKA4:15 p.m.

Kevin Arnovitz is the author of Clipperblog and a contributor to NPR, Out, and the New Republic.

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