Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Stuck in the Middle with You

I pull into the Meijer parking lot at 2:30 and punch in on my Blackberry (yes, those still exist). For my Coke job, I'm on the road, going from store to store stocking shelves. The Blackberry is how we clock in and out and how get our route and keep track of what we've done at which location -- how many cases we pulled, whether or not anything is out of stock, etc. It's also our only contact with the office, by email (usually) or phone. I haven't been to the home office in months.

The first thing I do is check the coolers in the checkout aisles. These we stock with 20 oz. single bottles of our main products, and they're the first thing the higher-ups would check if they visited the store. Stocking the coolers is a little like having your towel with you in Hitchhiker's Guide:
A towel...is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can
have.... For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have "lost."
Basically, if the coolers are stocked, the supervisor will assume you've got everything under control and simply haven't gotten to the other bits yet, whereas if the coolers are a shambles this will cast something of a pall over the visit.

I say this as if such a visit has actually happened, which it hasn't. I also haven't seen any of my supervisors since training. But the effect is real; if I go into a store and  the coolers are in good shape, I immediately assume the stop is going to go well in general, even if that happens to not be true. Someone told me that sales from the coolers alone pays everyone's salary but the truck drivers, but this strikes me as a tall tale. Unless that includes vending machines; that might actually be plausible.

Today the coolers look fair but they need some attention, and I am just completing my perusal of them when the day guy catches up to me. A typical route is four or five stops with the same Meijer outlet as the first and last stop. That means that sometimes I run into the day merchandiser when our stops overlap.

He tells me that the bad news is they've cleaned us out of two liters and the coolers need to be hit, as I've already seen, but the good news is he's got the backstock all organized and ready to go. We talk shop and a little gossip and he heads out.

I head to the backstock area -- and it is nicely organized -- and load up an L-cart with 20 oz. singles, which we just call "cooler pop." I'm in the middle of stocking the coolers when my phone rings (my regular phone, not my Blackberry). It's not a number I recognize, so I just answer "Ted Troxell," in case it's a student (I'm teaching an online class) or something official. Usually it's a telemarketer.

This time it's not a telemarketer or a student. It's Will's teacher.

"Hi, this is ____ from Will's school." I'm immediately on edge: I've never gotten a call from the school before, but he's in summer school now and this is a different facility. She immediately puts me at ease.

"Everything's fine," she says, but she wanted to let me know that their resident MacGyver had fixed Will's wheelchair by using one of the ankle straps, which we don't use, to repair the lap belt, which was broken. She wanted to make sure that was okay, which had me wondering in what kind of scenario that wouldn't be okay.

Will's been on hospice care, which has been a great boon. An aide comes out to give him a bath twice a week and a nurse and social worker come out every other week. Most of his care is coordinated through this one service and they do a great job. He's managed to avoid any major hospital stays and is, in general, healthier than he's been in a long time.

There are some downsides. He has to show signs of regression in order to keep qualifying. If he makes too much improvement, he'll get kicked out of the system and we'll be navigating things on our own. It's the medical analog to the welfare recipient who gets a job and then no longer qualifies even though they still need the help.

Lately he's been having trouble with seizures and chorea (erratic involuntary movements) and even as we're trying to address those issues we're also secretly glad that this might be enough to secure his place in hospice a couple more months. It's an odd world to live in, where you simultaneously want your child to be healthy and to regress enough to qualify for hospice, precisely because it's hospice care that's doing the most to keep him healthy. It's not just a catch-22; it's Derrida's pharmakon inverted.

Another artifact of being on hospice is that we only get about two weeks of Will's medication at a time, so it feels like we're constantly running low. The idea is that a patient in hospice is dying, and not just in the Sylvia Plath/Eastern philosophy sense in which we're all dying. Ergo, they don't need a stockpile of drugs.

(It reminds me of a scene in Brighton Beach Memoirs. Eugene's mother sends him to the store for a quarter pound of butter. He complains that she sent him just that morning for a quarter pound, so why didn't she just have him get half a pound then? "And suppose the house burns down in the afternoon," she says. "Why do I need an extra quarter pound of butter?")

It also means that the insurance company won't cover both hospice and repairs to Will's wheelchair (it also won't cover prescribed modifications to the chair, like a headrest that would keep Will's head from flopping, or additional equipment like something to sit in besides the broken wheelchair). Dying people don't need to be secure in their wheelchairs, apparently. They're dying anyway, right? It makes a certain kind of sense, in a systemic corporate logic kind of way, but not on a human scale.

"Are you kidding?" I tell Will's teacher. "Of course! Thanks so much." We exchange pleasantries and hang up. It's just a wheelchair strap, but somehow I feel lighter, like for awhile I might be able to believe in humanity. It's the little things, I guess. I text Dawn to let her know, and then I have to get back to work.

These coolers aren't going to stock themselves.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

A Day in the Life

"Will you feed Will?" she asks me.

"Of course," I say. "I was planning on it."

"Do you think we could crack the window open? I want to hear the rain."

"Sure," I smile. "I'll close it when I come to bed." I open the window and adjust the blinds so the air can flow.

"I can hear the crickets."

"Actually, they're probably peepers."


"Spring peepers. Frogs."


My pedantic side is showing; who cares if they're crickets or frogs? I roll my eyes at myself in the dark.

I'm home a little early from my Coke job. My schedule is 2:30-11 but some nights are slower. I worry that I won't have enough hours to pay child support, but I also get paid mileage for going from store to store and that should compensate. Plus last week I worked a warehouse shift, which pays a lot more and I worked five hours of overtime.

It's time for Will's last feeding. Will is ten years old and has lissencephaly, a disorder in which the surface of the brain is smooth, lacking the ridges and crevices (technically gyri and sulci) which ordinarily characterize the brain's topology.

The result is, among other things, cognitive impairment and chronic seizures, requiring a cocktail of drugs which would kill most of us just to keep things somewhat regulated. The prescriptions all say x amount x times a day "for seizure control" but I'm learning quickly that "seizure control" is wishful thinking at best. It seems more like a dark joke that's not very funny.

Actually there's a cognate of gallows humor that's part of the discourse of special needs families. "Willy's talking back again," I'll say to Dawn, who'll reply something like, "Probably we're not spanking him enough." Or the time I told Dawn that I had to take his driving privileges away because he was burning out the clutch.

[Don't judge me; I just had that clutch replaced.]

I'm new to this. Not just to the procedures and routines, but to the life-world of having a special needs child. I'm sure it's cute to the veterans: the noob's first blog post. Isn't he adorable? I've tried to jump in with both feet; Dawn sometimes seems amazed that I want to jump in at all.

There's a lot of philosphizing and theologizing in these circles. A lot of theodicy. This makes sense; we're face-to-face with some of the most challenging aspects of life. We're tempted to wonder why, and to speculate, but I think we also intuitively know there's no answer. To me it's just life. Nothing more, nothing less.

In my case, I'm choosing this life, but I don't actually see it any differently than if Will were born to me. Ignoring for the moment the extent to which it feels like this life chose me –  a sentiment that is phenomenologically viable but metaphysically suspect  there was no cost/benefit analysis with Will on the minus side when I decided to start a new life with Dawn.

In fact, pardon the salty language but that's a shitty way to look at it anyway. Will was and is simply part of the constellation of things that make up this life, and I feel I belong here. So yes, I'm up at 10 o'clock feeding a child with a terminal brain disorder, and that's not tragic or admirable or even all that remarkable. It's just life. "Was that life?" Nietzsche asks at the end of Thus Spake Zarathustra  "Then once more!"

Will can't properly chew or swallow, so he gets fed through a gastric tube, or g-tube. There's quite a bit of terminology to learn here; Dawn was proud of me recently for using the phrase "rescue meds" in a Facebook post. I'm still trying to sort out the taxonomy of seizures. Anyway, his pills get crushed and suspended in liquid and delivered through the tube via a large syringe.

In another attempt at "seizure control," Will's on a ketogenic diet –  think Atkins –  and can't have the liquid drugs because most of them have sugar in them. This means crushing the pills in a mortar and pestle, pouring the powder into the syringe, putting the plunger in the syringe without the powder shooting out the other end (a rookie mistake, and yes, one that I've made), and then pulling water into the syringe to create the suspension.

This is then injected into the g-tube and followed by three more syringes full of water. This happens three times a day, each instance followed by two feedings an hour apart. In the morning, for instance, he gets his meds at 6, then feedings at 7 and 8. At night it varies, and on this particular night he needs one more feeding before we're done for the day.

His food, such as it is, is some sort of keto-friendly protein shake. Sometimes we just call it formula. It's supposed to be vanilla, but it ends up smelling like cake batter with a hint of Parmesan cheese. Like cake batter made with sourdough starter or something. Sickly sweet, with a hint of sour, and not in a good way.

I turn on Will's light and he's awake and alarmingly alert. I say "alarmingly" because a) he's supposed to be sleeping and has had some trouble with the whole day/night thing lately and b) because when he's alert (which is, on the whole, a good thing), feeding him becomes a matter of dodging fidgety limbs that seem precisely calibrated to knock your hand and splash his food everywhere.

It's like he waits for it. To feed him, we attach a plungerless syringe to the line and use it as a funnel for the food. He doesn't have much motor control, but his hands instinctively grasp, and he could conceivably grab the line and yank out his g-tube, which introduces a host of problems.

More likely, however, you'll have his arms contained with one of your arms, feeling clever with your other hand holding the syringe out of reach, and a knee will come out of nowhere in some kind of ninja move and douse you with formula.

Did I mention the sickly-sweet/sour smell?

I mean, theoretically, of course. It's not like this has actually happened to me or anything.


Tonight I'm onto him. I watch the arms and the legs and the feeding goes on without a hitch. I change his diaper, and give him a pad and a second diaper because he likes to gunnysack on us, saving it all up for a massive flood in the morning. We do a lot of laundry.

I situate him on his side, with his stuffed bear and a pillow between his knees and a blanket. "It's sleepy time," I say, hoping he'll take the hint and get some sleep. In the morning we'll start again with pills and the morning feedings, along with getting him ready for school. I'll have some papers to grade, and around 1:30 I'll get my route from Coke.

I check Facebook, and think about a snack but it's late and I'm not hungry. I brush my teeth, close the bedroom window and blinds, and get in bed.

"Did Willy get a blanket?"

"Of course," I say, and kiss her forehead. I'm not even sure she's really awake.

In about five minutes, I'm not either.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Black Coffee

Despite the sheer frequency with which I am "drinking coffee and grading papers" on Facebook, I'm not as much of a coffee snob as one might think. I do drink it black, as God intended (when asked how he liked his coffee, my grandfather would say "in a cup"), and I have a predilection for the darker roasts: I like my coffee to taste like it's been smoking Chesterfields waiting for me to get up.

But I'm not that much of a connoisseur; I grind my own but I'll buy Meijer brand beans, and sometimes I'll just pop a K-cup into the Keurig because, you know,convenience and stuff. So, sure: it's Sumatran, but it's a freaking K-cup.  That's like feeling good about yourself for drinking champagne instead of beer and then popping open a bottle of AndrĂ©.

This didn't stop me from offering to review a new roast/blend by my Facebook friend and fellow blogger Brian Gumm. I forget how it happened. I think he was razzing me about the Keurig and whatnot and the smack talk ended up with him sending me some free beans to try with the promise that I'd do a writeup. 

Apparently I need a sign that says "Will write for coffee."

Because I totally will. I'm just saying.

Anyway, Brian sent me two: one is sort of a black and tan concept blending light roasted Costa Rican beans with darker roasted Brazilian which he calls "Americano Blend," the other just a roast of some Tanzanian Peaberry. I try the Americano Blend first. Once ground, the blend is actually lighter than I expected -- almost blond -- and the aroma is rich with just a hint of spice. 

[More disclaimers: I'm just using the filter option on my Keurig, whereas a true aficionado would probably do a French press or a pour-over, and I'm using a blade grinder when everyone knows you're supposed to use a burr grinder. What a Philistine.]

The resulting brew is true to the sight and smell of the grind. The first few sips are light, even a little watery for my taste. As it cools a bit, however, richer flavor notes come out. There's the brightness and spice one normally associates with Latin American blends, along with the smoothness of a good Colombian, with just a smidge of earthiness I didn't expect. 

Overall, it's lighter than I usually like, though I would enjoy this as an after-dinner coffee, with or without dessert (something fruity -- I'd want something with more bite to go with chocolate or custard-type desserts). Those who prefer lighter roasts would probably find this one delightful.

Next is the Tanzanian. First, it seems to be aptly named. I mean, I don't know Tanzania from a hole in the ground, but I know what peas look like, and the coffee beans really are pea-sized and round. The grind is rich and earthy with some hints of dark chocolate.

So is the brew. Unlike the Americano Blend, this is my, er, cup of tea. It's not terribly smoky, but it is robust with some bite to it. Some brightness comes through, like an unexpected sheen on a otherwise matte finish. This is a roast that I would drink for breakfast, or to wash down several chocolate eclairs. Because chocolate eclairs.

Overall, this was some good coffee. The beans are fair trade and organic, which I like, and the roasts have a lot going for them. Brian is thinking about a Tanzanian/Sumatran blend. I'd love a chance to review that one.

[Sips Tanzanian]

Friday, March 21, 2014

Drive My Car (A Reluctant Lenten Reflection)

In a gesture toward what I like to call "involuntary poverty," I gave up my car for Lent -- or rather, my car gave me up. There's a joke being played on the atheist forced to observe in this way, even if there's no one there to play it.

Lent, as a season of fasting prior to Easter, has been part of liturgical life longer than Christmas has, and for some reason, even though I'm not a terribly devout observer of Lent (or terribly devout in general), I like that it exists.

Eugene Peterson, in Reversed Thunder, writes that one of the good things about church is that it goes on without us. Whether we pray or not, people are praying. Whether we're even there or not, people are gathered. Somehow this is comforting. I feel that way about Lent.

I'm not sure why this is. My friend Daniel, a Catholic convert, told me, "I think it is interesting to see the attraction Lent has for my non-religious, atheist, agnostic and even Jewish hipster friends. Of all the things within Christianity that is culturally accessible I wouldn't have chosen Lent to be it."

I wouldn't have chosen to give up my car, either, and I do hope I get it back before Easter. About a month ago (before Lent began, actually) it broke down on the way out of Ann Arbor -- I hadn't even made it out of the city -- and has been stranded there ever since awaiting an engine replacement.

I'm learning to appreciate, however, the way this forces me into a discipline I did not choose. I'm walking more places, obviously, and to be honest I'm enjoying the exercise: except for some rudimentary (and sporadic) calisthenics, I don't work out. A 20-minute walk can do wonders for the otherwise sedentary, and I've enjoyed quite a few 20-minute walks.

It also throws me upon the mercy and generosity of others. The illusion of independence is shattered and I am forced to both ask for help from others and allow them to help me without the pretense that I'm going to be able to meaningfully pay them back. There's a certain paradoxical charity in allowing others to be charitable without trying to reciprocate (cue Derridean reflections on the gift).

I see this more generally as well. I'm staying during the week with a younger couple, and I try to be the model houseguest. I'm quiet. I'm neat. I also have an almost obsessive-compulsive need to be helpful: I do the dishes, or fold the load of laundry I find in the dryer when I do mine.

I sometimes notice, however, that these efforts also have the potential to subtly rob my friends of their opportunity to offer me hospitality. I'm not saying I shouldn't do them, but it introduces an element of payback. It hints at a calculus. Sometimes I duck out of the house on foot before I can be offered a ride; there's just a whiff of passive-aggressiveness about it.

There's a lesson to be learned here, and a balance to be sought. Maybe I'll find it. Maybe, on the other side of my reluctant Lent, I'll have grown in some sort of discipline of receiving charity.

Or mabye I'll just have killer thighs. Either way.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Modern Love

Things change, sometimes rather quickly. Heraclitus and the Buddhists seem to agree that change is the only constant. That sounds about right. No less a college of poets than REO Speedwagon adjures us to roll with the changes. You got to.

I'm getting a divorce, and I've fallen in love with one of my best friends, Dawn (and by "fallen in love with" I mean "plan to marry" -- we're not messing around) and these are related in all of the ways one might imagine them to be.

This means an odd combination of things that are wonderful and free and healthy and things that are difficult and fraught and complicated. That's not what this post is about, but it's necessary information to make sense of the following.

I'm living in Ann Arbor on the weekends and teaching in Mt. Pleasant during the week. It's not ideal, of course, but it's the situation we're in and we're trying to make the best of it. Oddly enough, then, the weekends find us wondering where we might go to church.

This is odd not so much because we're doing things of which the church might not approve -- all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, right? -- but more because I'm a theologically interested atheist and she's a theologically curious agnostic. In fact, wrestling with faith has been a point of connection for us over the course of our friendship, and one of the many things over which we've bonded.

So why bother? It's a fair question. The answer might be that we're both too conditioned. It's possible. But we also both have a thing for being part of a tradition, even if it's as dissenters or heretics. It's still a way of being part of something larger than ourselves, something that precedes us and will go on after us.

It's a way of giving nod to a sense of mystery that doesn't really disappear in a cloud of atheist skepticism or agnostic ambivalence. It's not radical discipleship or robust orthodoxy, but at least we're talking about getting our asses to church.

Neither of us, however, has any kind of taste for church-shopping, and evangelical churches are out. No more "Protestant guitars." Dawn converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, and has yet to fully recover from her Assemblies of God upbringing (German District, she is fond of reminding me -- I didn't even know that was a thing). She's lapsed, somewhat, but the Mass still holds an attraction for her.

It does for me, too. I went through a Catholic phase back in the day and wrote a Mass for my master's thesis. I love Thomas Merton and Kathleen Norris (who isn't exactly Catholic, but is a Benedictine oblate, so there's that). I have a shelf full of Catholic books -- a prayer book, the Rule of Benedict, a bunch of contemplative stuff.

So we went to Mass last week. It was quite beautiful. It's been awhile for me -- I consider myself "pre-lapsed" -- and I keep forgetting that the response is "and with your spirit," not "and also with you," though I still prefer the latter. It was nice to sing hymns and damned if I didn't bust out a tenor part even though the hymns weren't printed in 4-part. Whatever.

The problem is, we'll both be divorced and thus Dawn will be barred from Communion, as am I because I'm not confirmed. I could go through RCIA but then the divorce thing would come up and maybe the atheism thing and I'm not sure which would be the bigger deal. And I can only imagine how much of a pain in the ass I'd be in one of those classes. I went to a Catholic grade school. Nuns hate me.

There's also the matter of our considerable disagreements with Catholic dogma -- women's ordination, LGBTQ inclusion, birth control, abortion, the nature of authority, the existence and/or nature of God -- you know, stuff like that.

The Episcopal church might be a better fit in those areas, and we've kicked that around, too. But again: Dawn's Catholic. She feels like a tradition already chose her, even if she also feels somewhat betrayed by it.

Plus, I was up until recently actively involved in an evangelical church that fared little better on those items, and there's a grand history of folks identifying as Catholic and having profound disagreements with the Church. There's being Catholic, and then there's being Catholic. One of the weirdly attractive things about the historical Christian traditions is that they give you something pretty solid to kick against.

So we're going back to Mass. We'll see what happens. I'll be the atheist singing tenor, holding hands with the agnostic receiving Communion.

(Today's title courtesy of David Bowie.)

Thursday, December 12, 2013

White Christmas

There's a great scene in Ken Burns's Jazz where the narrator reads a horrifically racist quote from Nick LaRocca of the Original Dixieland Jass Band and then the scene cuts to Wynton Marsalis, who just says "Well..." before a deliciously long pause. The timing is perfect, and Marsalis launches into some meaningful reflections on race in America. The "Well..." offers just a bit of humorous punctuation to ease the tension. I think of that scene sometimes.

Aisha Harris recently published a piece in Slate arguing that it's time Santa got a makeover.
Harris writes poignantly about the social dissonance of growing up African-American in a world where cultural icons like Santa are white, about the way in which a white Santa reinforces the normativity of whiteness. She suggests that we replace Santa, not with a black Santa, but with a penguin. I think, but can't prove, that she's being tongue-in-cheek here, indulging in a bit of mild Swiftian satire.

This got picked up by Fox News personality Megyn Kelly, who panned the idea in her segment The Kelly File. To be fair, Kelly and her panel praise Harris for the depth of the writing, and the way she brings the reader into her experience, but ultimately they can't abide Harris's modest proposal. Suggesting we replace Santa with a penguin is where Harris "goes off the rails," Kelly asserts, but the interesting and almost tragicomic bit is where Kelly insists -- more than once -- that "Santa just is white." Then she adds that he's white just like Jesus is white, which she says is a "verifiable fact."


Santa is white because white people have claimed domination of America since, I don't know, 1492 or thereabouts. The American Christmas holiday comes to us primarily from England (white) and Germany (also white), while Santa himself comes to us by way of the Dutch Sinterklass, who is white because Dutch people are -- you guessed it -- white. The Santa we know is white by dint of historical contingency. It's not that Santa "just is" white, as Kelly claims, but that Santa just happens to be white because the legend as we know it was made up by white people.

Santa may have ended up white, then, regardless of the source material. I had assumed that Saint Nicholas of Myra, on whose life the Santa Claus legend is loosely based, would not have exactly been white as we understand it because he was from what is now Turkey, but an astute reader (see below) suggests that given the demographics of that time and place, this ain't necessarily so, and corroborates this rejoinder with iconography. I'd still call it historical contingency, but the point is a good one.

Jesus, however, was from northern Israel, and his non-whiteness is a little more secure. It's not that Jesus is black, of course (except "ontologically black," a la James Cone, but that's different), but lets's just say he'd be a lot more likely than me to get profiled by the TSA. People who look like Jesus probably looked do not, in today's politically climate, enjoy the privilege of being considered white.

The fuss over Christmas also serves as a screen for religious and cultural skirmishes more generally. Festivus poles have gone up in several places, and in Oklahoma even Satanists and Hindus are seeking civic recognition as a quid pro quo for a monument of the Ten Commandments. This, predictably, has Christians -- or at least a certain kind of Christian -- in a tizzy over the loss of what they want to believe is a Christian America. Christian America is a cherished myth, right up there with a six-day creation and Obama's socialism.

Of particular interest is this chestnut from right-wing radio host Bryan Fischer. According to Fischer, "religion" for the Founding Fathers meant Christianity exclusively, ergo First Amendment protections apply only to Christians. It's an interesting invocation of authorial intent. Fischer supports this claim by pointing out that 99.8 percent of the population of the colonies were Christian. The the other .2 percent were Jewish (this, apparently, not being enough to warrant protection). 

He's right that the overwhelming majority were Christian of some denominational stripe or another, but there were also, however scant, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and various kinds of occultists, some of whom maintained nominal membership in Christian churches to avoid persecution. And he's completely ignoring the religio-cultural sensibilities of the Africans enslaved and the indigenous peoples displaced by all those nice Christians.

Moreover, by the same logic, 100% of the Founding Fathers were white and male, and they only extended suffrage to white males, so we should probably limit First Amendment protections to white males as well (I am assuming Fischer would find this objectionable; I could be wrong). The point is that we have, throughout history, corrected for the shortsightedness of the Founders and extended rights and privileges to people groups not on their political radar.

This raises the question of the extent to which the U.S. can be considered Christian, and what that might mean. Let me suggest three ways in which we might consider a nation Christian. One is culturally, referring to the extent to which the dominant culture is at least nominally Christian in a way that has some bearing on national life. Another is legally, meaning the extent to which Christianity is established or sanctioned as part of the legal code. A third is what I'm going to call qualitatively, by which I mean the extent to which a nation can be said to be following Jesus.

This last one is tricky: to what extent can a nation be said to follow Jesus? Jesus doesn't make this easy insofar as he doesn't seem to have been all that interested in forging a nation. A people, sure, but a transterritorial, diasporic people, not a nation with sovereignty to protect. It's an admittedly Anabaptist sensibility, but I'm skeptical that a Christian nation, as such, can even exist. 

But that's not fair. I should at least be sporting and offer some kind of criteria, so here goes: I'd take claims of Christian nationhood seriously, in this qualitative sense, if a nation can be said to love its enemies, care for the poor, and welcome the stranger. The first one is easy. The U.S. has never loved its enemies. This would simply have been impractical, and thus perhaps it is an unfair criterion, regardless of how clear Jesus might have been about the issue.

Let's back off the pacifism, then, and go with something more practical: submission to the governing authorities a la Romans 13. Interpretations vary here, too, of course, but for the sake of argument let's agree that this does not mean slavish obedience. It does seem to rule out armed insurrection, however, so even if we don't hold the Founders to Anabaptist standards of pacifism, the birth of the nation involved playing fast and loose with biblical standards.

There is a way around this: the leaders of the resistance were, in many cases, junior magistrates of a sort, beholden to the will of the people. If the people were being oppressed, then those junior magistrates had a duty of obedience to the higher political will to foment revolution. Neat as it is, this has several problems, not the least of which that it reflects a political sensibility that would not have been intelligible to Paul -- thus, by Fischer's logic, we can't count it because Paul couldn't have meant that.

Another counterargument is that desperate times call for desperate measures. The British certainly weren't following Jesus or Paul, so the logic goes, and the colonists were just making do in a situation far afield of Christian discipleship all around. The British were simply bad people, and God was clearly on the side of the Good Guys. Perhaps we could call the Lakota or the Cherokee as character witnesses.

We could hope that the U.S. fares better in aiding the poor, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Ask the sharecroppers, or the coal miners, or the railroad workers about our care for the poor -- including the working poor. Even a cursory look through labor history betrays our grim track record in this regard. 

Welcoming the stranger, though -- here we shine, right? Ellis Island? The great melting pot? The land of opportunity? "Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free." Sadly, history betrays us yet again. The U.S. has been, in general, fairly welcoming of the same -- white Europeans, but especially the Anglo-Saxon variety -- but less so of those who are different. This includes the more obvious, such as the persecution of Asian immigrants on the West Coast and the "nativist" reactions against Catholic immigrants in the 19th century, but also counterintuitive oddities like the racist treatment of the Irish (and their equally racist journey to mainstream inclusion). 

Our legislative commitment to helping the poor varies, as does immigration policy. The nation in general, however, has not been a friendly place to the poor or the stranger. To the extent that, legislatively, we are getting worse on these issues, drifting away from the teachings of Christ, those efforts are being spearheaded by people who claim to be Christian. If the U.S. is not the Christian nation it once was, blame the Christians. But to the extent that we're willing to accept my qualitative criteria -- and I realize we could debate them -- the U.S. is not and has never been a Christian nation. 

Whether or not the U.S. is legally Christian should be more straightforward: establishment was explicitly rejected. Jefferson made his own intentions clear in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, a letter which includes the famous reference to "a wall of separation between church and state." This language did not make it into the Constitution -- but neither did God. The point is that Jefferson, who gave us the language of "endowed by their Creator," invoking "Nature and Nature's God" in the Declaration of Independence, was clearly anti-establishment, a sentiment shared by enough of his confreres that it did make it into the Constitution. 

It is primarily culturally that the U.S. can be said to be Christian, and here people like Fischer have a point. We observe Christian holidays. We take oaths on Bibles. We have a National Cathedral. The American civic religion is parasitic on Christianity. We could argue that they're not the same thing (the qualitative argument) or point out that this is de facto and not de jure (the establishment argument), but it's there. What's more, a case can be made that this bleeds into the legal: these can't completely be separated. 

Here historical contingency raises its deconstructive head again. Of course colonists were predominantly Christian: they were from Europe, home to the rise (and fall) of Christendom. Only among the intelligensia was atheism even on the cognitive map. For many of the Founders (and certainly their constituents) it was literally unthinkable. Other religions were considered "heathen" and "uncivilized." 

Fischer wants to sacralize their ethnocentrism as a hermeneutical principle. That the Founders would couch their political musings in a (broadly) shared metaphysics is unremarkable. It does not follow that they were thereby inscribing that metaphysics into the social code.

What defenders of "Christian America" don't seem to realize is that irrespective of their personal pieties, which varied considerably, the Founding Fathers collectively created the most secular nation imaginable at the time, the most secular nation ever to exist up to that point. They did this despite the broadly Christian milieu in which they were operating, and they did it quite deliberately.

Nevertheless, if Fischer and his ilk are correct that America is at least culturally Christian in the way I'm describing, they're also right that our cultural Christian identity is waning, especially as the courts sort out the implications of recognizing this heritage while at the same time upholding disestablishment. 

This is not, however, just about separation of church and state. As Richard Beck argues,
What is being "lost" in our nation isn't Christianity but white hegemony. The white majority of America is declining. America is becoming more diverse and pluralistic. And retailers, well attuned to the demographic shifts in their customer base--it is their lifeblood after all--shift to reflect the times. "Happy Holidays" is what you say when a religiously and ethnically diverse population is standing in your checkout line. It's simply good business sense.
The "Christian" culture that informs the American social imagination is largely WASP culture -- if a bit softer on the 'P' these days. The lament over Christmas is, consciously or not, a lament over the loss of cultural dominance.

And that's why Jesus is white.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Santa Claus Is Coming to Town

It is fashionable, this time of year, to bitch and moan that Christmas is not what it used to be, or what it is supposed to be, or has become in one way or another sullied and denigrated.

The jeremiads range from complaints that Christmas is too commercial and consumer-oriented to hand-wringing over the excision of explicitly Christian content from our public celebrations of the season.

Some even take exception to the use of "X-mas," complaining that Christ has been "X-ed out" of Christmas -- apparently unaware that the use of the Greek chi, or X, has been a shorthand for Christ in the Christian tradition since long before Macy's had a Santa Claus. One way or another, however, we are barraged with diatribes berating us for forgetting the "reason for the season."

The real reason for the season, however, is that it's so damn dark. The Christian holiday is piggybacked onto a melange of pagan celebrations, most of them having something to do with the winter solstice. Just on the
other side of this longest night the sun slowly begins to reclaim its authority over the sky and our pagan ancestors found cause to celebrate.

For some this becomes just more evidence of the "war on Christmas," and there are always those encouraging us to forgo trees, or the use of "yuletide," or Santa, because these accoutrements are tainted by their pagan lineage.

The irony here is that the birth narratives themselves suggest construction out of the raw material of pagan mythologies. That and some bad translating: in a key prophecy in Isaiah, the Greek Septuagint uses the word for "virgin" to translate a Hebrew word meaning "young woman." This is not linguistically untenable in a world where a young woman could reasonably be assumed to be virginal, but the original context probably refers to the prophet's wife, who -- without prying too much into the prophetic personal life -- was probably not a virgin.

Jesus doesn't even get born until later in the tradition. For Paul, Jesus seems to have been "declared the Son of God by the power of his resurrection" (Rom 1:4). The writer of Hebrews evinces a similar perspective. Mark's Gospel has Jesus declared the Son of God at his baptism, 'Son of God' being a royal or messianic designation.

Only Luke and Matthew give us (somewhat conflicting) birth stories. John is bullish on pre-existence and incarnation but is silent about the actual birth. John's take on "only begotten" seems far more cosmic, and much less literal, than parthogenesis.

A cruder version of divine conception lay at the heart of Rome's etiology; mythical founders Remus and Romulus were the semidivine twin sons of a woman raped by Mars. The god Mithra was born in a cave at the winter solstice, attended by shepherds (which might explain a few things) but he was actually birthed from a rock, which seems a bit mundane (pun intended). As a mythological trope, virgin birth was not unheard of, and ancient kings -- who were often also gods -- were often assigned some kind of miraculous birth appropriate to figures of great importance.

The details are contested, of course; some take all such references to be mere copycats. The early church fathers, for whom such "signs and wonders" were exceptional but not, strictly speaking, impossible, regarded the similarities as Satanic counterfeits. The more modern C.S. Lewis cleverly argued that in Jesus, God made these mythological elements come literally true so that Christians could have bragging rights. My virgin-born savior can beat up your virgin-born savior.

The common Biblical trope for special nativities is to have a child born to a barren woman, like Hannah or Rachel, or to a woman beyond childbearing years, like Sarah -- but Luke used that one with John the Baptist, so he had to dig deeper into the collective unconscious to get Jesus into the world in something beyond the usual way.

Suffice it to say that there's a strong hint of syncretism here, and those who would excise all things pagan from our midwinter celebrations might find themselves going all Thomas Jefferson on the Biblical text itself. There is no pristine, unadulterated Christmas. If anyone should be grousing about having their holiday hijacked, it's the pagans.

The consumerism angle has some teeth to it. I am not a fan of capitalism. Contrary to the famous speech by Michael Douglas's character in Wall Street, greed is not good. It does not "work." It might be harnessed for brief moments of corporate glory but it is a lousy long-term strategy and it will destroy us. The invisible hand is giving us the finger right about now. The market is not a benevolent god.

As strongly as I feel about this, as much as I believe that if a sustainable future exists, it is a post-capitalist future, this is not a problem with Christmas. Granted, there are ways in which the Christmas buying season might put a finer point on things, laying our contradictions bare (and nobody gets trampled in a Wal-Mart on, say, St. Patrick's Day), but the problems of capitalism are not limited to Christmas, nor is the commercialization of Christmas terribly new. Christmas, like truth, was never what it used to be.

So, if we filter out those elements that are not specific to Christmas, and the grumblings of those who think the entire world should validate their belief system, what are we left with?

In the midst of the darkest time of year, we string lights and decorate with shiny things. We pay attention to children. We give each other gifts. We think about the poor and the less fortunate, and while it would be better to do this all year, at least we do it. We throw more parties, and visit more relatives. We wish each other well on a regular basis.

We invoke something called "Christmas spirit" as an excuse to momentarily shed our cynicism and look beyond our selfishness. We sing songs, and show a higher tolerance for jazz than at any other time of the year. We make cookies and drink eggnog. We make snow angels and write Christmas cards. We go to church and light candles and even the most skeptical of us are tempted to strain for a glimpse of the numinous.

Christmas makes it fashionable to talk about things like peace and love without getting strange looks. Christmas gives us the gumption to share our feelings with that person we've been admiring all year, or the fortitude to extend grace to that pain-in-the-ass down the hall.

Christmas, for all of its saccharine sentimentality, for all of its sappy sitcom send-ups of A Christmas Carol, for all of its tendency to degenerate into an ideological battleground, encourages good things in us. Does it "work"? I don't know about that.

But it beats the hell out of greed.