Monday, February 11, 2019

The unFaith - Never Had It, Never Will!

I still haven't read Southern Baptist divine R. Albert Mohler Jr.'s We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong (Thomas Nelson, 2015), but I promise you solemnly, this generation shall not pass away before I do so and write about it here.

Meanwhile, I happened on unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity ... and Why It Matters (Baker, 2007) by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.  The authors worked for years for the Barna Group, an evangelical polling organization, and Kinnaman is currently its president.  Early in his career, Kinnaman set out to explore why younger Americans don't find conservative Christianity appealing; unChristian is his first book based on the research he conducted.  As you can see, it's somewhat dated by now: it was published during the second Bush administration, before Obama became President, before the Supreme Court struck down laws against same-sex marriage, before conservative evangelicals sold their souls to So-called Donald J. Trump, and as younger people have continued to defect from Christianity in most of its denominations.  Since 2007 Kinnaman and Lyons have published two more books on the same issue, most recently in 2016.  It'll be interesting to see how the spiel has developed, but I'm not in a great hurry to find out.

The reasons their informants gave Kinnaman and Lyons for rejecting born-again Christianity were pretty predictable.  Anyone who's listened to people talking about religion will have heard them: Christians are judgmental, hypocritical, too "political," they only pretend to like you so they can try to convert you.  The authors fret about these complaints, acknowledge that they are not unfounded, and urge lay Christians and clergy to adjust their approach.  They fill out the book with contributions by numerous evangelical writers, ranging from Charles Colson to Jim Wallis, mainly infomercials for their various ministries. These are very upbeat, but if they're doing so well, why do the numbers of churched Christians continue to dwindle?  There's nothing radical here, Kinnaman and Lyons are just rearranging the deck chairs in hopes that the right configuration will make the Titanic float again.

There's even an entire chapter devoted to Christians' treatment of LGBTQ people, and it too is what I expected.  I'll discuss it in more detail later this week -- surely that post is coming quickly -- but basically it warns against having "God Hates Fags" on the walls of your church or youth ministry's coffeehouse.  Daring, that, but almost willfully irrelevant. Very few American Christians, even the most reactionary, regard Westboro Baptist Church as a role model; they mainly use WBC as a bogeyman to show how much nicer they are. (That, I think, is what Kinnaman and Lyons are doing.) I don't blame them, since the alternative would be to rethink Christian teaching on sexuality altogether.  More on that soon; I think this issue deserves a post of its own.

While gender and sexuality are indeed hot issues for young people, it's noteworthy that Kinnaman and Lyons barely touch on race.  There's one anecdote, on page 190, about a pastor who excluded (presumably) black teens from a church youth concert in California, and a concession that "Unfortunately, stemming from our common sin nature, Christians continue to harbor prejudices regarding race, age, gender, and intelligence."  They encourage Christians to be "willing to talk with Christians of different racial and ethnic backgrounds about their political persuasions" (169), but that's about it.  From this I infer that they imagine their readers to be white, of Western European descent, which bespeaks a serious lack of imagination on their part, especially since most born-again Christians in the US are African-American males.  Nor do they show any awareness of the role white evangelicals have played in the promotion and defense of white supremacy in this country.  Once again I thought of the scholar James Barr's judgment that " the conservative evangelical view of sex and marriage, far from being haunted by sin and guilt, is light and superficial."*  I'd say that such superficiality extends to conservative evangelical views of race and other social issues, and there's nothing in UnChristian to indicate otherwise.

Kinnaman and Lyons also insist on the intellectual cred of evangelicals today.  One of their commentators, D. Michael Lindsay, leads the charge:
The percentage of evangelicals earning at least a college degree has increased by 133 percent, which is much more than any other religious tradition. Indeed, the rise of evangelicals on America’s elite campuses is one of the most notable developments in higher education over the last thirty years. As highly selective universities have sought to diversify their student bodies by race, gender, and ethnicity, they have also unintentionally diversified their campuses’ religious makeup. As Gomes said, “A lot of Midwestern white-bread Protestant Christian evangelicals at whom Harvard would never have looked in the past, and who would have never looked at Harvard, suddenly became members of the university [149f].
I wonder if that increase in the numbers of evangelicals getting degrees is due to their numbers being much lower in the past; the comparison to other religious traditions suggests to me that it is, just as women greatly increased their college participation as various (mostly external) barriers that had previously discouraged or excluded them were removed.  The quotation from Peter Gomes (1942-2011), longtime chaplain and professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University, is amusing in the context of this book, because Gomes was black, gay, and (though celibate himself) a solid advocate of "marriage equality."  I doubt Lindsay was unaware of this, but I wonder if Kinnaman and Lyons were.

Lindsay also pointed out that "Practically every university in the Ivy League was founded to serve the church, and for most of their history, these institutions have been places where faith and knowledge support one another" (148).  True enough, but this is hardly specific to Christianity: Islam and other world religions have also founded universities and other institutions of learning where "faith and knowledge support one another."  There's also a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism in American Christianity, which goes back to the New Testament.  It's good to avoid stereotyping, but in all directions.  (For that matter, atheists and agnostics are not all intellectual heavyweights either.)

UnChristian held few surprises for me; it supported what I already knew about conservative Christians' efforts to make sense of and counter their dwindling presence and influence in American society.  "Young adults," the authors lament, "are less likely to support a 'Christianized' country ...   [They] are less likely than their predecessors to support keeping the motto 'In God We Trust' on our currency, the phrase 'one nation under God' in the Pledge of Allegiance, or the Ten Commandments posted in government buildings.  They are also less likely than Boomers and Elders ... to favor a federal marriage amendment defining marriage as possible only between one man and one woman" (164).  Not only that: "Young adults are less likely than preceding generations to start their political explorations as Republicans" (165) -- Oh noes!  Which I welcome, of course, though I'm also concerned about what young people will replace Christianity (or the GOP) with, be it alternative religions or atheism.  As an atheist myself, atheism is the option I favor, but I also know atheism is no guarantee of thoughtfulness or wisdom.

* Barr, Fundamentalism (Westminster, 1977), 331.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

In Whose Service Is Perfect Freedom

While I was in Chicago over the New Year, I found a book of fiction from North Korea, the first I've encountered and evidently the first that has appeared in the West.  (By coincidence, I found it in the same used bookstore where in 1995 I found the first South Korean novel I ever read, A Gray Man by Choi In-hun.)

The book, a collection of stories, is called The Accusation; the author uses the pseudonym Bandi.  The English translation, by Deborah Smith, was published in 2017 by House of Anansi in Canada and by Grove Press in the US.

There are some strange things about it.  According to a rather novelistic afterword, Bandi's manuscripts were smuggled into South Korea in the late 1990s; they weren't published even in Korean for another couple of decades.  There may be good reasons for the delay -- maybe publication waited until Bandi died, for his own safety? -- but there's no explanation.  Also the account of the process by which the material was smuggled seems unnecessarily complicated, even contradictory; again, that could be to protect the smugglers and the author.

I'm not sure what I expected from the stories.  They're about the oppressiveness of life in a harsh totalitarian regime, where people can lose their homes and jobs for infinitesimal ideological deviations, or even for being anonymously accused of them.  The cover blurb, reproduced on Amazon, calls The Accusation "eye-opening" and a "vivid depiction of life in a closed-off one-party state."
The Accusation is a deeply moving and eye-opening work of fiction that paints a powerful portrait of life under the North Korean regime. Set during the period of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il's leadership, the seven stories that make up The Accusation give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships. The characters of these compelling stories come from a wide variety of backgrounds, from a young mother living among the elite in Pyongyang whose son misbehaves during a political rally, to a former Communist war hero who is deeply disillusioned with the intrusion of the Party into everything he holds dear, to a husband and father who is denied a travel permit and sneaks onto a train in order to visit his critically ill mother. Written with deep emotion and writing talent, The Accusation is a vivid depiction of life in a closed-off one-party state, and also a hopeful testament to the humanity and rich internal life that persists even in such inhumane conditions.
The publication and translation of The Accusation is surely an event, but is it really "eye-opening"?  As an official enemy of the US, North Korea has been very effectively demonized in South Korean and Western media; much of the half-century-long flood of propaganda is even true.  I doubt any reader of Bandi's stories will find any fundamental surprises in his account of life in a highly repressive society.  Quite a number of books by Western visitors and North Korean defectors have appeared in the past few years, so we don't lack for first-hand accounts of life there.  The Accusation would have been more of a revelation if it had been published sooner.

What struck me most about The Accusation was how familiar it felt.  I've read a fair amount of fiction from Korea, some of it written under the Japanese occupation of 1910 to 1945, some of it written in the postwar period, during and after the South Korean dictatorships imposed and supported by the US.  Much of the claustrophobic feel of Bandi's fiction was reminiscent of the stories of those earlier periods.  During the postwar dictatorships, people suffered discrimination and repression because they had family or other ties to the North; being accused even of socialism, let alone communism, could have uncomfortable consequences much like those suffered by Northerners with family in the South.  For many years after the Korean war, there was a curfew in the South, and woe betide anyone caught abroad between midnight and 4 a.m.  The Kwangju uprising in the Southwest of South Korea of 1980 was put down with extreme brutality by Park Chung Hee's successor.  People were jailed, tortured, and executed for often flimsy political reasons; they might spend many years in camps in the countryside.

Or consider this anecdote, from the opening pages of  Korea's Grievous War by Su-kyoung Hwang (Pennsylvania, 2016):
In 1960, a crowd of mourners dressed in white formed a long funeral procession in a provincial district in South Korea. Young men and widows holding portraits of the dead led the grieving throng to a graveyard where their deceased family members were to be buried together. The collective casket contained the remains of over seven hundred people who had been massacred at the beginning of the Korean War. Their families had disinterred the bodies from a mass grave and were giving them a decent reburial. An inscription placed at the graveside read, “To the traveler passing by: historians of the future generation will tell the story of this grave.” One year later, under a newly established dictatorship, both the inscription and the burial site had disappeared without a trace. The families who had organized the mass funeral were arrested, imprisoned, and silenced. Their stories disappeared from public consciousness for decades.
Both North and South plotted to infiltrate and subvert each other.  In the 1960s a little group of convicts was sequestered and trained as commandos to cross the DMZ and assassinate then-DPRK dictator Kim Il Sung, as payback for an earlier attempt by Kim to assassinate then-ROK dictator Park Chung Hee. The operation was shelved when Park decided to make friends with Kim instead; it remained a deep secret until it was commemorated in a blockbuster 2003 South Korean film, Silmido.  South Korea, though nominally more open than the North, still had a reputation as the Hermit Kingdom until the 1988 Olympics were held there.  But the old rulers of the Republic of Korea were never really happy about the increase in freedom south of the 38th parallel, and there has been more or less constant pressure to turn back the clock.

Because of all this and more, I was taken aback by the claim at the end of the book's second afterword, that the "manuscript that had been in Bandi's possession was now going to South Korea, to a land of freedom and hope" (245).  That was much more true at the time Bandi sent his work south, than it was when he began to write it.  Outside of those few who knew something about Korean history, the change went largely unremarked in the United States.  Remember, like many other dictatorships South Korea was officially part of the Free World during the Cold War.  Little glitches like torture, massacres, and death squads were not incompatible with the US conception of "freedom" then, and not much has changed.

This is not to say that North Korea is a free society -- of course not -- or that I don't hope that the Kim dynasty will ultimately be replaced with a freer, more democratic government -- of course I do.  These days I dare to hope that such a change might happen in my lifetime, without the bloodbath dreamed of by South Korean and US hardliners alike; we've had enough of those.  I just believe that The Accusation was published a bit late to be effective propaganda.  If you haven't read much Korean literature, or even if you have and want to hear from a wider range of voices, it's worth a read.  The day may not be too far off when it will be as dated as Soviet-era dissident literature.  That's something worth hoping for.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Fierce Latina Holds Her Fire

It seems that the Trump regime's coup against the government of Venezuela isn't going as smoothly as he expected, and I take some comfort from that.

I'm not surprised that most Democratic Party politicians and fellow-travelers have supported the coup.  Even Bernie Sanders couldn't oppose it without including some US propaganda against Maduro; but then he's always been weak on foreign policy.  Representatives Ro Khanna of California, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have condemned the coup forthrightly, but they're the exceptions.

I am surprised, I admit, that new Democratic Congress member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has hesitated to take a firm stand.  On January 30 the journalist Max Blumenthal reported:
I caught @AOC rushing into a committee hearing today on the Hill and asked her about Venezuela. "We're working on a statement," was all she said before entering the room. Don't think her name was on @USProgressives letter against intervention. Will have more reactions soon.
I don't like to quote the Daily Caller, but only right-wing media seem to be reporting the statement she finally, belatedly made:
“Our office is monitoring it closely. I think that, you know, the humanitarian crisis is extremely concerning but, you know, when we use non-Democratic [sic] means to determine leadership, that’s also concerning, as well,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Daily Caller on Thursday. “So, we’re figuring out our response and making sure that we center the people of Venezuela first and foremost.”
This won't do, though the capitalization of "democratic" there is amusing and presumably not Ocasio-Cortez' fault.  I see nothing here that would justify her hesitation about issuing a statement before.  It's just typical both-sides equivocation.  The "humanitarian crisis," as she must know, is largely the US' doing, thanks to its support for the anti-democratic Venezuelan opposition, and especially the sanctions that are intended to harm the overwhelming majority of Venezuelans.  If she doesn't know it, she should probably have admitted her ignorance and refused to comment.  But it doesn't take much background to oppose US support for coups.  The burden of argument lies not on opponents of US interference in other countries, but on those who support it.

Ocasio-Cortez' customary forthright readiness to snap back at Trump's malfeasance is on hold here, and I wonder why. The other frosh Representatives she calls her sisters are on record opposing the coup; why doesn't she follow their lead?  I've been wondering if perhaps significant numbers of her Latinx base support the coup, but I haven't seen any evidence one way or the other.

For me, it's pretty simple, given the US' horrific record in Latin America generally, and in Venezuela specifically.  It's difficult to distinguish lies from truth in US coverage of the situation, which has been fanatically hostile and indifferent to factual accuracy ever since Chavez was first elected.  If you want an introduction to the matter, Alan MacLeod's Bad News from Venezuela (Routledge, 2018) is a good place to begin, and will point you to other discussions.  But even if Maduro were as bad as we're told, that wouldn't justify US interference in Venezuela, which our gangster leaders are not even bothering to hide.  (A "dictator"?  "Corrupt"?  "Incompetent"?  These are all qualifications for US support of a regime.)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has some good positions and proposals, and I still approve of her more than I don't.  But I'm monitoring her closely, and I find her reluctance to speak out against the US-backed coup in Venezuela extremely worrying.