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29 February 2004

Co-opting Protestants?

From the National Catholic Register:

When the largest private screening to
date of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ ended Jan. 16 in Denver,
more than 1,300 college students sat speechless for 10 minutes. The
only sounds in the room, filled with members of the Fellowship of
Catholic University Students, were the sniffles of those brought to
tears by the experience.

The reaction wasn’t unusual. Kimberly Hahn, chairman
of the board of the National Association of Catholic Home Educators,
witnessed a nearly identical scene with a slight twist at a private
screening of the film in California.

“It was two to three minutes of pure
silence,” Hahn says. “It was broken only by the words of a Protestant
man who stood up to say that, from that moment on, he would never
experience communion in the same way.”

For a Protestant, that’s massive.  That imbues the
symbolic Communion most Protestants, and virtually all evangelicals,
believe in with a sense of real sacrifice and Real Presence that opposes their
communion theology in a very significant, perhaps even irreconcilable,

I think that evangelical Protestants may not be fully
recognizing how far apart they are from Gibson on this issue. 
Gibson has a different view of the Eucharist/Communion than most of his
Protestant allies, and that affects the way his movie was made. 
The question to ask is how that view of the central act of Christian
unity (whether it’s endowed with Christ’s Presence in a very real way
[Gibson] or whether it is a solely symbolic act [evangelical
Protestants]) affects the effectiveness of the motivations for which
each group wants to use the movie.   I think it might be hard
to be an evangelical Protestant and buy into a film with an extreme
hyperdylia of Mary and a transubstantiationist view of the
Eucharist.  From what I have heard (I won’t see the film until
tomorrow when I go to see it with Br. Rufus), the film’s depiction of
the Passion relies upon this worldview, and separating that out (which
an evangelical will have to do) is not a simple, perhaps even possible, task.

Posted in Rayleejun on 29 February 2004 at 12:09 pm by Nate

“Brown” student

So I had this interaction with a student the other day that was kind of weird.  Let me set it up for  you.

Last week (about 10 days ago) was the first time I had all of my
official new students in my sections.  So I had a list of names
and people with those names showed up for 90 minutes in my
presence.  There were 30 of them, and I got to know them pretty
much if they piped up and spoke a few times.

This is pretty normal — when I get 30 or 50 new people in my life, I
tend to remember the ones in my line of vision or who make themselves
noticed by talking.  I get to know all of the students after a
couple of weeks, after I’ve had a chance to figure out section dynamics
a bit.

So this student came up to me after class the other day, asking some
advising questions (I’m also an undergraduate adviser in the
department).  I worked at answering them, and then, as they had
some relevance for the course I am teaching in, I asked her, “Who is
your teaching assistant?”

“You are,” she replied.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I didn’t remember you for sure, and I
didn’t want to make a mistake in assuming you were one of my students.”

“I’m not surprised that you forgot me.  I’m brown, after all.”

I should interject here that the student in question has the complexion
of someone whose ethnic background is Latin American.  Her name is
also a fairly common Hispanic first name for women, and her surname is
definitely Latino.  Most of which doesn’t register for me,
especially in the deparate attempt of the first weeks of class to just
names with faces; I’m just trying to figure out who a student is, not
the whole back story.

“What do you mean?” I asked, somewhat taken aback to be accused of racial discrimination so brazenly.

“I’ve just had other TFs who can’t remember who I am because I’m
brown.  There was one who remembered everyone in the class except
me.  There was one black girl, and he remembered her name. 
He remembered the names of all the Asian people….”

“Well,” I noted, “it’s probably more that you didn’t speak up much in
class the one time we’ve met so far.  I just got 30 of you, and I
haven’t memorized all of your faces and names yet, but I do tend to
remember the students who participate in our discussions.  As for
being brown, I’m from California and have taught for a number of years
there, where I had plenty of brown students, and yellow students, and
white students, and black students, so I doubt it had anything to do
with your being brown.  Probably that you didn’t speak up much.”

“I guess so.  It’s just that I’ve had TFs who didn’t remember me because I’m brown.”

And then we went on to discuss her advising question.

A few notes here.  I find the blindness to her own
discriminatory biases kind of surprising.  She seems to imply that
Asian students, for example, are all the same, as a way of highlighting
the overt discrimination that she encountered — if they are all the
same or look it or something, and the teacher remembers their names,
then it must really be discrimination that the one brown person didn’t
get noticed.  Also, she seems to assume that I am just some
brown-haired white guy, without knowing the larger facts of my life,
i.e., that I also belong to a minority group.  If we wanted to
play the victimology game here, I’ve got more claim in that regard than
she does, even if I am a white guy.  But I’m not interested in
that game, because it’s not productive to my life as an individual
trying to grow into a certain sort of fullness and I don’t think it’s
the basis of an effective, engaged politics.

I mentioned this to my advisor afterward, and her reaction was more
indignant than mine.  “I would have told her, ‘You don’t want to
go there,'” she said.  And part of me wanted to do that.  But
I’m not senior faculty with tenure, first off.  Second, I wanted
my student to understand that my non-recognition of who she was was
predicated on her less-than-stellar academic performance than anything
else.  There were better alternative explanations than that I
discriminated against her because of her ethnicity.

Now, this student has prejudiced me against her in a worse way. 
I’m aware that she tends to leap toward certain explanations, and that
her style tends to the combative, prejudicial, and negatively assumptive.  Which
leaves a bad taste in my mouth in dealing with her. But I will also
probably target my teaching to take out those foundations from under
her and get her thinking rather than emotionally reacting.

I’d be interested to hear how others would have reacted.

Posted in IvoryTower on 29 February 2004 at 11:34 am by Nate
26 February 2004

Passion, like every other site on the web

I don’t have tons of time to blog tonight, even though I had a couple
of interesting conversations today (one somewhat strage one with a
student) that I do want to write about.

But I noted what Andrew Sullivan said on his blog on the Gibson film.  Here follows an excerpt:

[The film] brings this simple but
awe-inspiring story to life in a way very difficult to approximate in
the written or spoken word….
The Gospels do end in extraordinary drama,
pathos, plot, agony. Portraying them vividly may, we can hope, bring
some people to read the Gospels and even to explore further what the
redemptive message of Jesus really is.

At the same time, the movie was to me deeply
disturbing. In a word, it is pornography. By pornography, I mean the
reduction of all human thought and feeling and personhood to mere
flesh. The center-piece of the movie is an absolutely disgusting and
despicable piece of sadism that has no real basis in any of the
Gospels. It shows a man being flayed alive – slowly, methodically and
with increasing savagery….
Yet for Gibson, it is the h’ors d’oeuvre
for his porn movie. The whole movie is some kind of sick combination of
the theology of Opus Dei and the film-making of Quentin Tarantino.
There is nothing in the Gospels that indicates this level of extreme,
endless savagery and there is no theological reason for it. It doesn’t
even evoke emotion in the audience. It is designed to prompt the
crudest human pity and emotional blackmail – which it obviously does.
But then it seems to me designed to evoke a sick kind of fascination.
Of over two hours, about half the movie is simple wordless sadism on a
level and with a relentlessness that I have never witnessed in a movie
before. And you have to ask yourself: why? The suffering of Christ is
bad and gruesome enough without exaggerating it to this insane degree.
Theologically, the point is not that Jesus suffered more than any human
being ever has on a physical level. It is that his suffering was
profound and voluntary and the culmination of a life and a teaching
that Gibson essentially omits. One more example. Toward the end,
unsatisfied with showing a man flayed alive, nailed gruesomely to a
cross, one eye shut from being smashed in, blood covering his entire
body, Gibson has a large crow perch on the neighboring cross and peck
another man’s eyes out. Why? Because the porn needed yet another money

…The central message of Jesus – of love and
compassion and forgiveness – is reduced to sound-bites. Occasionally,
such as when the message of the sermon on the mount is juxtaposed with
the crucifixion, the effect is almost profound – because there has been
an actual connection between who Jesus was and what happened to him.
But this is the exception to the rule. Watching the movie, you can see
how a truly powerful rendition could have been made – by tripling the
flashbacks and context, by providing a biography of Jesus, by showing
us why he endured what he endured. Instead, all that context, all that
meaning, has been removed for endless sickening gratuitous violence.

And here’s an explanation for all of this, courtesy of the Times:

As an actor and successful director, from “Mad Max” (1979) through “Lethal Weapon” (1987) and its sequels to the Oscar-winning “Braveheart”
(1995), Mr. Gibson has long been a Hollywood pet. But he has also been
known as a prankster and a self-confessed abuser of various substances.
Many in the relentlessly secular movie industry see his recent
religious conversion — he practices a traditionalist version of Roman
Catholicism — as another form of addiction.

Sorry that we’re just doin’ quotes tonight.  More Nate-substance soon.

Posted in OnTheWeb on 26 February 2004 at 11:42 pm by Nate
25 February 2004

Looking for a yellow star?

a great piece
on the real dangers of anti-Semitism and The Passion.

Snyder points out that the danger of talking about the possible
anti-Semitism in the film is that we will tend to group Jews together,
as if they were some homogenous group, with a consensus
opinion. We will cease to treat them as individuals, and we will ask
what “the Jews think.”

Lately, my phone won’t stop ringing.

Because suddenly Jews are interesting again,
fascinating, unusual and targeted. Because suddenly, everyone wants a
statement. They want me
to say I’m scared to death, or they want me to say I’m not frightened
at all. They want me to resurrect the Holocaust, proclaim that I don’t
think violence will erupt, but that my grandparents didn’t think it
would erupt in Berlin.

It doesn’t really matter what I say, so long as it fits into the
column, and so long as it’s a defined position, symbolic of all the
emotions of my chosen people, my Jewish race. So long as I’m not
confused, conflicted, bewildered by complex factors.

Now that’s some food for thought.

Posted in Politicks on 25 February 2004 at 10:19 am by Nate
24 February 2004

Gibson’s version of the Passion

From the Times‘ review of the film:

What makes the movie so grim and ugly is Mr. Gibson’s inability to
think beyond the conventional logic of movie narrative. In most movies
— certainly in most movies directed by or starring Mr. Gibson —
violence against the innocent demands righteous vengeance in the third
act, an expectation that Mr. Gibson in this case whips up and leaves

On its own, apart from whatever beliefs a viewer might bring to it,
“The Passion of the Christ” never provides a clear sense of what all of
this bloodshed was for, an inconclusiveness that is Mr. Gibson’s most
serious artistic failure. The Gospels, at least in some
interpretations, suggest that the story ends in forgiveness. But such
an ending seems beyond Mr. Gibson’s imaginative capacities. Perhaps he
suspects that his public prefers terror, fury and gore.

I do plan to see the film,
with a monk I know.  But not tomorrow.  I don’t know about
Mel Gibson, but tomorrow is a holy day of obligation, and I will be in
church, not at the movies….

Posted in Rayleejun on 24 February 2004 at 11:16 pm by Nate

Tired…from the day and of Bush

Everyone I seem to run into around campus is pretty tired right
now.  Not sure why….  But we’re all dragging.  And the
semester just got going, it seems.

Bush sanctioned a constitutional ban against equality of
marriage.  I’m not going to comment on his statement at length, both because I’m
tired and because the statement demonstrates a pretty inane,
anti-historical, uninformed understanding of social institutions and
this one in particular.  The best insight that I have seen in this
whole debate, especially as a social scientist who studies
institutions, came from Malcolm Gladwell’s piece in The New Yorker,
dated 1 December 2003.  He opened the piece with a discussion of
drug use in the NFL and the league’s stated concern for its
players.  He ended thus:

Despite the N.F.L.’s claims that it is concerned about the health of
the players, it is more concerned about the health of the N.F.L.
Football’s governors make a distinction between natural violence and
artificially aided violence, and it’s their contention that the former
has a good deal more market appeal than the latter, in the same way
that consumers are believed to be willing to pay more for pure orange
juice than they are for the adulterated version. What the N.F.L. really
cares about is the institution of football. That is the reason
players, when they are not smashing into each other on the field, have
to behave like Rotarians, and dress up nicely in suits, and visit sick
children in the hospital, and not smoke marijuana. The idea is that
there is some abstract thing out there called “football” that is bigger
than them and will long outlive them all, and that it needs to be
nourished and protected with socially appropriate behavior.

If this argument sounds familiar, it is because the idea that institutions-and not the constituents of institutions-need
our support is very much in vogue right now. The case against
affirmative action, for instance, has become an argument in defense of
the institution of higher learning-which is, apparently, so
fragile that it will crumble in the face of a few sub-par test scores.
The same logic was at work last week in President Bush’s response to
the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling that gay couples have
the right to marry. “Marriage is a sacred institution
between a man and a woman,” he said. There’s that word again, and
notice how the sentence doesn’t quite make sense. It should read: “a
sacred bond between a man and a woman.” But the President had to say “institution,
because nobody imagines that the court’s decision will actually
jeopardize the personal bond between any particular man and any
particular woman. Notice, as well, that neither the President nor the
N.F.L. bothered much with the principles involved in these causes. That
is why the N.F.L., in its statements about the health of its players,
had to obscure the fact that there isn’t any appreciable ethical
distinction between the profound physical harm caused to football
players by playing football and the harm caused to football players by
taking drugs. Massachusetts officials, for their part, in criticizing
the court’s decision, maintained that the purpose of marriage
was procreation, that children were better off in male-female unions,
and that gay unions would pose a burden to the state. None
of those
arguments are derived from principle; they are arguments of expediency.
They are appeals to the institution of marriage, and institutions-on
and off the football field-are where we hide when we can’t find our
(emphasis added)

I believe that my political and spiritual duty — and I hope yours too
— lies in standing up for the principles of justice and mercy. 

What the president does is unjust.  It denies people — citizens
— of their right to equal treatment under law.  It lies in the
same moral plane as anti-Semitism and racism.  It refuses to
affirm the dignity, equality, and worth of all human beings.  What
the president does is not only unjust; what the president does is sin;
what the president has done is to fall prey to evil.

Posted in Politicks on 24 February 2004 at 10:20 pm by Nate
23 February 2004

Revealer on Gibson’s Passion

These are the comments I dashed off as I read this comment over at the Revealer.

Two comments about this stuff generally.

You’re right that the idea that Jesus didn’t have to die as
substitutionary, sacrificial atonement is actually not a new one, and
it’s one that the press won’t get. Primarily, I’d guess it’s because
the understanding in Christianity of what that “sacrifice” is supposed
to mean is complex and not at all agreed upon. There’s a freelance,
former Dominican, Catholic theologian named James Alison who advances
very convincingly that the god who died on the cross wasn’t the god-man
Jesus, it was the deity that human beings inevitably try to turn
themselves into. God didn’t need a blood sacrifice, he argues; human
beings did. We didn’t kill God, we killed ourselves, he argues
(infinitely better and more subtly than I just did). But the press
neither has the time not the inclination to be repsonsibly educated
about the fact that Gibson’s (as well as that of many evangelical
Protestants) substitutionary atonement theology is hardly the oldest,
last, or only word on what the passion might mean for Christians and
the peoples of other traditions (’cause, as you point indirectly point
out, there’s a possibility that it means something for people who are
not Christians, but that whatever that is is something very different).
Hell, let’s be honest, most of my fellow Christians don’t know what the
“atonement” means or why there has to be (or maybe does not have to be)
a theory of it.

What really chaps my hide about the above is that it already sounds
like anyone who doesn’t subscribe to a semi-Calvinist, Mel Gibson
“traditionalist Catholic” substitutionary atonement theory (the whole
“God needed a blood sacrifice to satisfy His hearty appetite for
vengeance”) will be painted as a liberal. But there’s plenty
of room for ascribing to other theories of atonement that are hundreds
of years old (and some older than the ideas reportedly in the film)
without being painted as a “liberal.” Again, the press often doesn’t
know what to do with any religious belief in the US that isn’t modified
Puritan-Calvinism or that does not fit in political categories of
“liberal” and “conservative” (which aren’t good categories for
describing much of our politics, and they’re eminently wrong for
working with religion).

Second, the Revealer would find a divide, I think, in terms of the
press coverage. Large metropolitian dailies with national distribution
(I’m thinking of the big three — NYT, LA Times, Washington Post — but
there could be others) will probably take the secular line. Regional
and small city papers will probably take the cultural Christianity tone.

Posted in Rayleejun on 23 February 2004 at 1:01 am by Nate
22 February 2004

Nope, Nader is not a good thing…

Dave’s wrong. He’s smart, but he’s entirely wrong in this entry. It’s too bad, because he’s often quite perceptive and pithy in his thoughts on politics

We live in a two-party system, which is not just an archival feature of the power of the two parties. Because it’s a winner-take-all (as opposed to PR), federal, separated executive-legislative system, third parties face massive structural impediments to being “viable.” If you want third parties with any power or influence, you need a parliamentary system, at the very least. Which ain’t gonna happen in this country anytime soon.

I’ve written about this before, and it might help to review my entry on the median voter theorem.

Also, Tyler wrote about this a couple of days ago and continues to write about it now. Tyler has a good intuitive understandings of the structural institutions of our political system.

Posted in Politicks on 22 February 2004 at 3:25 pm by Nate


Egomaniacal, ill-informed bastard!

So he’s gonna cost us the election. And if you don’t believe that he did in 2000 (as some of my friends still maintain), check this site out….

Posted in Politicks on 22 February 2004 at 11:57 am by Nate
21 February 2004

Wanna make the presidential campaign more real?

David Brooks writes incredibly intelligent prose this morning about the surreality of the presidential campaign process. Read it, and you’ll begin to understand why the process seems so disconnected from most Americans’ lives.

It’s the opposite of solitary confinement. From now until Election Day, you will never be alone, and you will never shut up….Remember, you are no longer a human being. You are a freak. You must manufacture certitude and omniscience to prove you’re a real leader.

Perhaps we should go back to the beginning of the 20th century, when presidential candidates did not do their own campaigns but instead had sugrrogates doing the work for them, while they conducted meetings on their porch every so often with the citizenry and the press. Of course, this might also have the benefit of strengthening party organizations, which research indicates would increase voter turnout. And although one might object to the idea that a Mark Hanna could rise again and effectively wield more power than the candidate (or the president, should the candidate become elected), why would this be any worse than the current system? Then, powerful party hacks were condemned for having lots of authority and power over the candidate; some regarded the candidate as simply a puppet of the party bosses. but are our candidates any less a set of puppets? Everything they say has to be field tested, they never interact in meaningful way with average citizens, and although they choose their own advisers, they seem to be at the mercy of the advisers (who are often party leaders and hacks in the same way as in the past) as much as when the parties chose the advisers for the candidates.

So how is it any better now than then?

(And I still think that then might have been better, as more people voted, possibly due to much stronger party organizations. There is some debate in the literature about this point, whether it was denominator effects or strong party organization that increased the proportion of voters in the first part of the twentieth century. But that’s for someone else to blog about, at least for today.)

Posted in Politicks on 21 February 2004 at 12:40 pm by Nate