Wednesday, July 30, 2008

"Kingdom"* Gender Politics

I’ve been reading a chapter from my friend Kristy’s book-in-progress recently (I’ve been taking forever, sorry, Kristy), and ran into a footnote (among other things of course) that made me think. She was discussing a book that talks about "kingdom questions" as opposed to earthly ones, and "kingdom thinking". Here's the footnote:
Given my feminist politics, I have serious reservations about using the term “kingdom.” Not only does it imply a male god, it also hearkens back to an antiquated form of patriarchy, where a male sovereign monarch ruled over powerless subjects. That is hardly a system of government I find promising, so it is certainly not an analogy to the divine I find meaningful. Because this term is so common in the contemporary debate over Christianity and civic engagement, however, I use it out of convenience and simplicity in this chapter. I also fear that avoiding the term “kingdom” would only obscure the sexism that haunts Christian thought.

This objection had never occurred to me before; I’m glad I have smart friends to point these things out to me. I find Kristy’s argument compelling – why do we rely so heavily on the authoritarian male terms for God and the people, animals and things that follow God? While the kingdom of God is a term used in the Bible, it made sense in the context of that culture and it’s first English translation. Today doesn’t the “city of God” and “new earth” language in revelation make more sense for our understanding of how God’s care and plan for the earth and its inhabitants works? Is patriarchal culture so woven into the bible and Christian thought that we have no choice but to take the negative consequences of that language with the good ones?

These are the questions I am most interested in discussion about: are there alternative ways to talk about God and God’s way of thinking, and what are the benefits and costs to Christians of using that language instead?

* These quotation marks are necessary, because they are drawing attention to the term. Ok? Ok.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thoughts on Satire

In February This American Life aired an episode that included a fascinating peek into the writers room for The Onion (it can be streamed for free or downloaded for a buck here).  The way they parse the jokes made me so geekily jealous.  I do a fair amount of joke-parsing myself, and sometimes get it wrong when I post regularly on the “blog”.  I even started a twitter account because I wanted to see how often I could be clever in less than 140 characters (hit and miss).

Meanwhile, I can’t stop writing mediocre papers for classes about satire and irony.  Is satire persuasive?  Is irony always cruel?  Bakhtin on laughter has been really helpful in this regard, I think I’ll come back to it later, but these questions fascinate me.

Since I’m in love with serious talk about hilarity, I’m both crazy about and perplexed by the recent discussion about humor in the presidential campaign.  The controversial New Yorker cover spurned quite a bit of discussion about what kinds of jokes, if any, are acceptable to make about Obama.  My favorite is Andy Borowitz’s list of acceptable jokes, including this one: “A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Why the long face?’ Barack Obama replies, ‘His jockey just lost his health insurance, which should be the right of all Americans.’”

There also has been some discussion with differing levels of condescending about whether everyone will get the joke.  And, indeed, a recent pew survey found that 12% of Americans do think Obama is a muslim – they lack the shared sense of reality that is necessary to get the joke.

This leads me to my complaint about satire as a way to make arguments.  If your audience does not already agree with you, not only is satire unpersuasive, it goes right over the audience’s head.  Making fun of people is not the best way to make them come around to your side.  It is a good way to move undecided’s or energize those who agree with you, but that’s it.  

Of course, this isn’t quite that clean and easy (see Larknews or A Prairie Home Companion for a good example of people laughing at their own foibles) but I think it’s something we should be careful of.  Also, Cara Finnegan makes a good point that in the case of the New Yorker cover, the subject of the satire isn’t included in the image itself.  Moreover, the image bothers me because it helps keep these kinds of imaginings about the Obamas in circulation, adding to the general feeling of otherness that is being attached to them, which will affect undecided voters who go with their gut feeling on election day.

In other words, I love a good satire, but I didn’t think this was a particularly well-executed joke.  But the excessive coverage of it (my own blog now is complicit in this I suppose) is way more damaging than the cover image itself.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Faith and Suffering

As part of my grant research I’m looking for ways to frame an analysis of talk about religious practices and health/illness. This morning I read the introduction to Faith in the Great Physician by historian Heather Curtis (reviewed in Books and Culture by Lauren Winner here).

Reading the intro to this book (and Winner’s review of it) brought to my attention the possibility that there might be more than one view of the role of God and faith in illness. In the interviews I analyze (conducted in 2006) we asked the participants if they thought religious practices like prayer or healing services could help prevent or heal an illness like heart disease, diabetes or depression. The answers ranged, but I don’t recall anyone suggesting that illness was a special gift or test and that suffering was in any way spiritual. Neither do I believe that this is a common conception in the contemporary church. However, Curtis describes the culture of the mid-19th century in America where this idea was dominant, especially for women.

Winner summarizes, “Sick people, in particular female invalids, believed that their sickness was God's will, and the most faithful response was humble submission. Women who patiently bore illness that kept them confined to bed for decades were understood as "spiritual virtuosos," who were often blessed by God with special visions that would sustain them through their trials. Their very bodies, passively propped up on pillows, were tokens of faith in the sufficiency of God's grace.”

Perhaps it is my 21st century sensibility that finds this perspective troublesome, and clearly tied up in sexist understandings of female virtue. I wouldn’t suggest we go back to this view, especially in light of the abilities of modern medicine to relieve suffering. However, the very availability of another possibility leads us to evaluate the problems of the current religious attitude toward illness.

Curtis writes at the end of her introduction, “divine healing had a dark side too: in addition to enabling individuals to overcome debilitating diseases, faith cure suggested that sick persons were somehow responsible for their condition and therefore suspect. Rather than risk God’s reputation or their own, many chose to suffer their pain silently or hide it all together.”

This reaction – that those who aren’t healed might not have enough faith – seems especially prominent in discussion of mental illness like depression. In Jane Kenyon’s poem cycle about depression, “Having it Out With Melancholy,” the most haunting poem is titled “suggestion from a friend” and simply says “You wouldn’t be so depressed/ if you really believed in God.” This attitude is clearly the danger that our Christian culture struggles with when we over-emphasize divine healing.

Knowing that the cultural attitude toward faith and suffering changed so dramatically in the 19th century, though, gives us hope for the future. Perhaps another view of the relationship between our faith and our bodies and the problems of our bodies is possible. Perhaps we can develop a way to think about the body, mental illness, and God’s power to heal that avoids punishing those who already suffer, but still looks for healing.