January 27, 2008

Why I’m Voting for Obama

Filed under: Politics — Bob Gifford @ 10:24 pm

On February 5th, I will find myself in a rather novel situation — voting in a primary where my vote actually matters. Until now, California has always had a rather late primary, so my vote was merely symbolic. It was kind of nice, actually, since I could be an uninvolved observer in the primary process, knowing that I would have no meaningful role to play in the decision-making. I could watch from afar without risking any emotional stake in the success or failure of any of the candidates.

This year, however, California has moved up its primary, so I’m forced to decide on a candidate while the outcome is still unknown. I’m registered as an independent, and the Republicans have closed their primary to us non-aligned, but the Democratic primary is open. Which is good, because that is the only party with any candidates I would want to cast a vote for.

For a long time, I’ve felt that Hillary Clinton was the safe, low risk choice. I thought that Obama showed a lot of potential, but I was afraid he was not-ready-for-prime-time and was not quite up to the challenge. Having experienced seven years of a President that seemed to have a lot of charisma but then proved to be horribly incompetent, I was concerned about another untested candidate, no matter how much charisma he had. Sure, Obama could turn out to be great, but he could also prove to be a big disappointment. At least with Clinton, we knew what we were getting, and I would be very content, not thrilled, but content, with her as President.

I also have been turned off by the visceral dislike of so many towards Clinton. A man might be described as being a strong leader, but a woman with the same traits is cold, shrill or strident. I was unwilling to buy into the meme that Clinton was ruthlessly seeking power because it seemed to be based on her gender more than her actions.

But that was until a week ago. And according to Jonathan Chait, I’m not the only one:

Something strange happened the other day. All these different people — friends, co-workers, relatives, people on a liberal e-mail list I read — kept saying the same thing: They’ve suddenly developed a disdain for Bill and Hillary Clinton. Maybe this is just a coincidence, but I think we’ve reached an irrevocable turning point in liberal opinion of the Clintons.

The sentiment seems to be concentrated among Barack Obama supporters. Going into the campaign, most of us liked Hillary Clinton just fine, but the fact that tens of millions of Americans are seized with irrational loathing for her suggested that she might not be a good Democratic nominee. But now that loathing seems a lot less irrational.

Bill Clinton was a good President (even if not such a great husband), but his race-baiting lately has been disgraceful. Kevin Drum is feeling the same way:

I don’t like dog whistle racial appeals when Republicans do it, and I don’t like it when Bill Clinton does it.[…] Yes, Obama has to be able to handle this kind of sewage, and yes, this will almost certainly be forgiven and forgotten among Democrats by November. But it’s not November yet, is it? My primary is a week from Tuesday, and I’m not feeling very disposed to reward this kind of behavior. At this point, it’s looking a lot more likely that I’m going to vote for Obama.

But it’s not just that I’m less inclined to vote for Hillary Clinton. I’ve also been moved by Obama’s vision, as has Caroline Kennedy:

I have never had a president who inspired me the way people tell me that my father inspired them. But for the first time, I believe I have found the man who could be that president — not just for me, but for a new generation of Americans.

Think it’s a stretch to compare Obama to JFK? Take a look:

Obama has overcome my reluctance, my fear, to hope for something more than just competence and the right stand on the policies. He has inspired me to hope for a transcendent vision of what American can be.

Yes we can.

January 22, 2008

His Dark Materials: Anti-Church? Anti-God?

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 9:26 pm

So I’ve finished reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. The question I wanted to answer for myself was whether these books were anti-God, or merely anti-church. Before I report on the answer to this question though, a couple quotes:

My books are about killing God.

Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials

[Philip Pullman advocates] a totally atheist ideology, the enemy of all religions, traditional and institutional, and of Christianity and Catholicism in particular.

Editorial in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper

What the story makes you see is that if you believe in a mortal God, who can win and lose his power, your religion will be saturated with anxiety – and so with violence. In a sense, you could say that a mortal God needs to be killed.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and His Dark Materials fan

So are the books anti-church, which is entirely appropriate, even warranted, given that the church is a human institution? Or are they anti-God, which would not be reason enough to pull the books from libraries, but would give some credence to the hysteria surrounding the movie?

(Warning — spoilers abound!)

In Pullman’s books, God, YHWH, the God of Abraham and Moses, is called the “Authority”. He is merely an angel, like any other, except that long ago he was able to put himself in charge over the other angels and the humans in a manner which his name would suggest. He perpetuates the pretense that he is the creator. (No one knows whether there really is a creator or not.) He has built the Kingdom of Heaven, a huge cloud-encircled mountain floating in the air from where he rules.

Angels age, and eventually die, and the Authority is no different, dying of old age near the end of the trilogy. In his old age decrepitude, his power has passed to his Regent, the angel Metatron, who is more of a totalitarian ruler than the Authority. While the Authority has been content to let the church enforce his rule, Metatron plans to put angels in charge of a new Inquisition to tighten control. Not good.

A key character, Dr. Mary Malone, a physicist former nun who renounced her vows and her faith, says that Christianity is “a very powerful and convincing mistake”. However, it is not accurate to say that the books are atheistic. “Dust” is a substance streaming through the universe. Dust is alive, conscious, and influencing the affairs of humans — it gives Lyra (the main heroine of the story) and Dr. Malone direction and guidance through various means. Dust is a personal God, an immanent God, but is in and through the entire universe.

The Authority and the Church are on the losing side of a Great Battle, to which the reader cheers enthusiastically. But this Authority and this Church bear no relationship to the God and the Church with which I’m acquainted. They are a caricature, they are invented characters that happen to be called by these familiar names. They are not the God and Church as many of us actually experience them. It is Dust that more closely resembles God as Christianity understands God, but even Dust is not omnipotent, and certainly not the creator of the universe (or universes in this case).

Anti-God or anti-church? They are definitely anti-authoritarian, which is a good thing, but it’s much harder to say they are either anti-God or anti-church, Dr. Malone’s statement notwithstanding. This is a fantasy, and even young readers won’t confuse it with reality. If our church was as evil and controlling as Pullman’s Church, it should be fought and overthrown. If God were not immortal, omniscient, omnipotent or omni-beneficent, then God would deserve our contempt, not our worship. In this respect, Archbishop Williams is right — this God needs to be killed.

But our church, or at least my church, is nothing like Pullman’s Church, and the God I experience is nothing like Pullman’s God. So it’s hard for me to take this as a real critique of my religion. It’s a fantasy. Getting upset at these books over their theology is like getting upset at Star Trek over of its faux-science.

The real question everyone should be asking is whether these books are any good as fantasy, not as theology. And there I would have to say that they’re okay, but just okay. For me, they fall short of, say, the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. But that’s hardly reason enough to wage a media campaign against them. Any young adult, or not-so-young adult, reader will recognize them as fantasy, not as a documentary expose’. However, that distinction seems to be lost on some.

January 18, 2008

It’s the Melody

Filed under: Music — Bob Gifford @ 4:02 pm

At Heracletus‘s suggestion, I’ve been listening to some Walter Trout lately, and have been enjoying his cover of Not Fade Away (click here and click the “preview all” button for a quick listen). I found the guitar tablature online, and started playing along with Walter.

I knew I’d heard the song before, so I listened to the original Buddy Holly version which is clearly the same song, but very different. Even the Rolling Stones version didn’t ring true — the drum beat in both versions, and the Grateful Dead version as well, are different, and the chord change from E to A and back again is a beat shorter in Trout’s version than the others. Trout adds this little E-D-E chord change that sounded really familiar, but wasn’t in any past version of Not Fade Away.

It was driving me crazy. As I played it on the guitar, I kept wanting to play a driving beat on the low E string as I slid down from the 12th fret, a frill not even present in the Walter Trout version.

It finally hit me — the song I was trying to play was actually on my iPod — George Thorogood’s Who Do You Love. So Thorogood took Not Fade Away, made a few changes to the chord progressions, added a cool jungle beat, and came out with Who Do You Love. Then Walter Trout went back to Not Fade Away, but played it with Thorogood’s jungle beat, fast E-A-E chord change and E-D-E chord riff added in. It sounds far more like Who Do You Love than Not Fade Away.

So why would Trout cover Not Fade Away instead of Who Do You Love? Is it the lyrics? Was it that he’d rather the copyright royalties go to Buddy Holly’s trust than to George Thorogood?

I listened to all four songs again, and it hit me — the melody. Buddy Holly wrote melodies. George Thorogood, not so much. As a guitar player, I was just listening to the drum beat, the bass and the guitar. But what makes Not Fade Away so cover-able is the melody. Anyone, even me, can mimic Thorogood’s guitar style, but it’s the melody that makes it a song.

Update: Thanks to Larry for the tip off regarding Bo Diddley and Who Do You Love. It turns out I erroneously attributed the song to George Thorogood – it was originally a Bo Diddley tune and has been covered by many, including the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Steve Miller, the Yardbirds, and my favorite, Carlos Santana with the Fabulous Thunderbirds. But George Thorogood definitely made it his own.

January 13, 2008

Zeitgeist the Movie

Filed under: Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 9:03 pm

Ah, yes. We live in a post-modern world, a world of truthiness, where we each pick and choose our own set of “facts” to accept unskeptically as true. I blame the internet for drastically exacerbating this phenomenon of competing personal truths.

My seventeen year-old son asked me to watch a movie on the web called Zeitgeist. Apparently it is passing virally among his peers, so he and some of his friends watched it. The first part purports to debunk Christianity as an entirely fictional re-telling of pagan astrological myths created by Gnostics who replaced the traditional sun-god with a fabricated Jesus. Several of his friends were convinced by it, and decided they were atheists. This caused a bit of a crisis of faith in my son, so he wanted me to watch it with him.

It is really, really clever. I immediately spotted some logical flaws and outright falsehoods, but was impressed by it as a high caliber of propaganda. But propaganda it is, pulling lots of truths and half-truths out of context to support their agenda. (Just one example – Jesus was born on December 25th, the winter solstice, just like many other pagan deities, so his birth is a rip-off of pagan myths. Except that, um, Jesus wasn’t born on the winter solstice. We don’t know when Jesus was born. The early church celebrated his birth on the winter solstice to co-opt the pagan feast of Saturnalia.) Anyone who has ever actually read any of the New Testament will find that their arguments don’t match at all with the facts, but obviously that isn’t their target audience. Those who just don’t know better will find it convincing.

It turns out that the “Jesus Myth” has been around for a long time, and debunked repeatedly. It’s an urban legend.

The problem with finding the truth on the web becomes one of “authority” and “trust”. Anyone can put up a website, make a movie, throw around all kinds of specious claims. If they’re good, they can make it really compelling. If they’re really really good, they will tap into the, yes, Zeitgeist to convince people of things they would like to believe anyway, such as the world is really controlled by a cabal of evil white men so [insert personal disappointment here] is all their fault, or Christianity is an evil plot that has been used to control the masses through fear and intimidation so I don’t have to consider it’s truth-claims.

No one seems to know who is behind this Zeitgeist movie, their credentials, agenda or motivations. They don’t provide sources for their claims. Yet it is compelling enough that lots of teenagers (and I’m sure adults as well) are buying it. So I’ve tried to use it as a learning opportunity for my son — don’t ever believe anything you read (or watch) on the internet unless you know who it is making the claim, what their credentials are, what their agenda is, and what the other side is saying. Determine the authority for the claim, and only when satisfied with the authority should you extend your trust. Be skeptical. Demand primary sources. Look for credentials, opposing viewpoints. Doubt.

Oh, and if only the first part of this Zeitgeist movie is devoted to unmasking Christianity, what is the rest of it about? 9/11 was a government plot, as was the assassination of JFK. Rich bankers caused World War I, the Depression and World War II.

Zeitgeist indeed.

January 9, 2008

The Three Trees

Filed under: Church — Bob Gifford @ 9:11 pm

For your viewing pleasure, here is the Christmas program put together by the Sunday School kids at my church (directed by Lynne DeYoung with editing assistance from Pastor Tony Auer). Here’s part one:

And here is Part 2 and Part 3.

January 1, 2008

Mark Hanson, Passionate Doubter

Filed under: Church,Culture and Media — Bob Gifford @ 1:35 pm

I watched “In God’s Name” back before Christmas, and enjoyed it quite a bit, although running commercials every 12 minutes kind of destroys the thread of a documentary considering the ultimate truths of the world’s major religions. All of the 12 religious leaders highlighted in the film came off sympathetically for the most part (it touched on a few controversial topics such as the middle east and “spiritual warfare” that had me rolling my eyes a few times).

But of course I was paying particular attention to the profile of Mark Hanson, the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and the President of the Lutheran World Federation. Before seeing this, he was just a name to me, so it was nice to learn something of his background. I can see why he was elected Presiding Bishop. One quote of his had me smiling in particular:

I’m known as a passionate doubter, but who never ever loses his faith.


Nice to know I’m in the right denomination.

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