The electoral math

It’s early in the head-to-head campaign, with some polls showing Romney ahead and others showing Obama.  The deciding factor, of course, is the electoral college.  It takes 270 to win.  According to this analysis in the Washington Post, Obama has 196 electoral votes tied up, with 41 leaning his way  (total=237).  Romney has 170 solid, with 21 leaning (total=191).  There are 110 electoral votes in play that could go for either candidate, which means that the election will be decided by nine states:  Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia.

Here is a likely scenario: Southern states break for Romney (Virginia 13, North Carolina 15, Florida 29;  Total: 248) as do the Western states (Nevada 6, Colorado 9; total: 263), and throw in New Hampshire (4; Total: 267).  The upper midwest states states go for Obama (Wisconsin 10, Iowa 6, Ohio 18, Pennsylvania 20;  Total: 291).  Obama wins.

Romney would have to get at least one of the upper midwest states, though the economically-depressed rustbelt tends to lurch to the Democrats.  Then again, rural Iowa would be enough to elect Romney.

Do you see any of these states going in a different-than-predicted direction?

Auden on modern liturgies

A letter from the late poet W. H. Auden to his pastor, on the occasion of the church–St. Mark’s Episcopal in New York City–adopting a more modern liturgy:

77 St Mark’s Place
New York City 3

Nov. 26th [year not given]

Dear Father Allen:

Have you gone stark raving mad? Aside from its introduction of a lesson and psalm from the O.T., which seems to me admirable since few people go any more to Mattins or Evensong, the new ‘liturgy’ is appalling.

Our Church has had the singular good-fortune of having its Prayer-Book composed and its Bible translated at exactly the right time, i.e., late enough for the language to be intelligible to any English-speaking person in this century (any child of six can be told what ‘the quick and the dead’ means) and early enough, i.e., when people still had an instinctive feeling for the formal and the ceremonious which is essential in liturgical language.

This feeling has been, alas, as we all know, almost totally lost. (To identify the ceremonious with ‘the undemocratic’ is sheer contemporary cant.) The poor Roman Catholics, obliged to start from scratch, have produced an English Mass which is a cacophonous monstrosity (the German version is quite good, but German has a certain natural sonority): But why should we imitate them?

I implore you by the bowels of Christ to stick to Cranmer and King James. Preaching, of course, is another matter: there the language must be contemporary. But one of the great functions of the liturgy is to keep us in touch with the past and the dead.

And what, by the way, has happened to the altar cloths? If they have been sold to give money to the poor, I will gladly accept their disappearance: I will not accept it on any liturgical or doctrinal grounds.

With best wishes

[signed]

W.H. Auden

HT: Meghan Duke and Joe Koczera

Auden is not referring to “contemporary worship,” of course, just the folky trendiness of modern-language liturgies (think Catholic folk masses as opposed to the Tridentine Mass; Lutheran Worship, as opposed to The Lutheran Hymnal, though not nearly so much).  I believe this letter dates from 1968 and probably refers to some of the trial orders of worship that would lead up to the 1979 version of the Book of Common Prayer.  Still, what we now know as contemporary Christian worship arguably had its theological beginnings in the worship innovations of these liturgical churches, which adopted the principles of being community-centered, using modern music, and being culturally relevant.

Auden was arguably the greatest poet in English in the generation after T. S. Eliot.  Whereas Eliot, born in St. Louis, gave up his American citizenship to become a naturalized British subject, Auden did the reverse, giving up his British citizenship to become an American.  Both had been known for cutting edged bohemian radicalism and then converted to Christianity.  I suppose I should also say that Auden, who was open about it, was gay, though I haven’t run across anything where he justifies his sexual orientation.

There is much good material here:  his rejection of the notion that liturgical worship is undemocratic; his defense of archaic language; his point that the liturgy is supposed to connect us with the past and with the dead, his exhortation “by the bowels of Christ.”

http://greesons.typepad.com/.a/6a0120a679bde1970b0120a85249c2970b-800wi

Stalin’s five-year-plan for atheism

Eighty years ago on this day, May 22, 1932, Josef Stalin began his program to eliminate the very memory of the name of God in the Soviet Union within 5 years.  The following account of Stalin’s “atheistic five-year plan” is from a Russian site and is clumsily translated into English, so I’ll edit it slightly:

On Tuesday, there will be 80 years since the Soviet government issued a decree on “atheistic five-year plan.”

Stalin set a goal: the name of God should be forgotten on the territory of the whole country [by] May 1, 1937, the article posted by the Foma website says.

Over 5 million militant atheists were living in the country then. Anti-religious universities – special educational establishments for training people for decisive attack against religion – were organized.

According to the plan on religion liquidation, all churches and prayer houses should have been closed [in] 1932-1933, all religious traditions implanted by literature and family [in] 1933-1934.   It was planned that the country, and firstly, youth would be grasped by total anti-religious propaganda [in] 1934-1935; the last clerics were to be eliminated [in]1935-1936; the very memory about God should have been disappeared from life to 1937.

However, the 1937 census in which  a question about religion was included on Stalin’s instruction puzzled Bolsheviks: 84% of 30 million illiterate USSR citizens aged over 16 said they were believers; the same was reported by 45% of 68.5 million literate citizens.

via Interfax-Religion.

HT:  John Couretas and Joe Carter

That form overwhelms content

I have spared you my American Idol reflections up to this point, that show being one of my pop-culture vices, but a recent performance was so emblematic that I cannot help but comment upon it.  Joshua Ledet, arguably the best singer in the contest (who made the top three but, unfortunately, got voted off before this week’s finale), sang as his personal choice John Lennon’s “Imagine.”  Now that has to be one of my least favorite songs, a treacly anthem to atheism.  Joshua, though, has made much of the fact that he’s all about the church, his father being a pastor, and singing gospel songs or non-gospel songs with gospel stylings every chance he gets.  He sang “Imagine”–”Imagine there’s no Heaven;it’s easy if you try/No hell below us; above us only sky”–not to go against type, though, but, according to what he was telling the judges, because of its uplifting and inspirational message!  He obviously didn’t understand what he was singing.  The reason, I would suggest, is because the music sounds uplifting and inspirational–in a peculiarly sappy way–and that overwhelms for most listeners the nihilistic lyrics.

This is the same principle demonstrated by the avant garde East German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote with musical collaborator Kurt Weill the song “Mack the Knife” for his play The Threepenny Opera.  You know the song, which has become a “standard” of light jazz and lounge crooners.  It’s got a light swinging tune.   But notice the words, all about how a shark has teeth that are razor sharp and is like Mack, who will kill you with his blade.  The melody is sunshiny and peaceful, but the lyrics are dark and violent.  Brecht was purposefully playing form off against content.  Usually, the two go together, mutually re-enforcing each other.  But Brecht was trying to write a song in which the two go in opposite directions.  In his experiment, he believed that the form would overwhelm the content, that audiences would pick up on the happy melody and consider it a happy song with the disturbing lyrics having no impact!  And he was right, as evidenced every time “Mack the Knife” gets played in an elevator or as Muzak in a shopping mall.

This is important to realize when it comes to contemporary Christian music.   The assumption has been that to make Christianity relevant and to communicate with the culture, all we have to do is take “secular” forms–rock, metal, hip-hop, whatever–and put Christian words to it.   But Brecht’s experiment with “Mack the Knife” and Joshua Ledet’s performance on American Idol prove that it’s not so simple.   Death metal with Christian words will come across as and will have the effect of death metal, with the Christian words hardly registering.  Form is not neutral.  Form will drown out the content.

What we need from contemporary Christian artists (musicians, painters, filmmakers, authors) is not slavish following of other people’s styles, attempting to Christianize them; rather, we need original styles, ones that can carry the Christian message and that other people will imitate (thereby promulgating, even unintentionally, the Christian content).

To Bain, or not to Bain?

Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, is a rising star in the Democratic party.   He’s in trouble with Democrats now, though, for objecting to the Obama campaign’s attack on Mitt Romney’s old private-equity firm, Bain Capital.

Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, a close ally of President Obama in the upcoming election, slammed the president’s campaign Sunday for ads attacking Mitt Romney’s work for the private-equity firm Bain Capital.

Booker, who noted that many of his constituents are investors in or employees of New York-based financial firms, said it was wrong for the Obama campaign to portray the expected Republican nominee as someone who pursued profits by slashing jobs while serving as Bain’s chief executive.

“If you look at the totality of Bain Capital’s record, they’ve done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses,” Booker said during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And this, to me, I’m very uncomfortable with.”

The mayor later released a YouTube video in which he tried to clarify his comments and emphasize his support for the president.

Booker’s remarks earlier Sunday were aimed at a television advertisement introduced by the Obama campaign last week that sharply criticized Romney’s record at Bain — a line of attack seen as central in an election whose outcome is expected to be shaped by voters’ economic concerns.

via Newark Mayor Cory Booker slams Obama campaign attack on Romney’s work for Bain Capital – The Washington Post.

Bain would buy up troubled companies and either get them up and running again or sell off their assets.  Jobs were sometimes created and sometimes lost.  But dying companies are going to lose their jobs eventually anyway.  Still, it’s easy to portray companies in this line of work and their executives with vulture imagery and to bring out people who have lost their jobs in the corporate takeover and put them on TV, as the Obama ads have been doing.

Mayor Booker is rejecting the demagoguery, as well as recognizing that corporate tycoons are big contributors to Democratic coffers.  (Though now Booker has apparently been pressured to back off his criticism.)

Is portraying Romney as a corporate villain a winning or a losing issue for Democrats?  Or, conversely, is nominating a corporate executive in a bad economy with high unemployment a winning or losing issue for Republicans?

A nation of heretics

Ross Douthat begins with reflections on three recent cases in American religion:  the popularity of prosperity-gospeller Joel Osteen; President Obama’s statement that the reason he now favors gay marriage is because he follows Jesus; and new statistics that find that non-denominational Christianity is now the third largest category, behind Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists.  He then draws this conclusion and applications:

For decades, the cultural tug-of-war between the Christian right and the secular left has encouraged people to envision the American religious future in binary terms –as either godless or orthodox, either straightforwardly secular or traditionally Christian. But these examples and trends suggest a more complicated reality, in which religious institutions have declined but religion itself has not, and Americans increasingly redefine Christianity as they see fit rather than than abandoning it entirely.

We aren’t a nation of rigorous Richard Dawkins-style atheists and equally rigorous Pope Benedict XVI-style Catholics, in other words. Instead, we’re a nation of Osteens and Obamas, Dan Browns and Deepak Chopras –neither a Christian nation nor a secular society, but a nation of heretics.

To many Americans, this description no doubt sounds like a compliment. Because we’ve always been a nation from of religious freethinkers and entrepreneurs –from Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joseph Smith and Mary Baker Eddy –the word “heretic” often carries positive connotations in our religious culture. It’s associated with theological daring, spiritual experimentation, and a willingness to blaze new trails and push on toward new horizons.

But the heretical imperative in America’s religious life has usually existed in a kind of fruitful and creative tension with more conservative, institutional, and historically-rooted forms of faith –first denominational Protestantism and then later the Roman Catholic Church as well. And the post-1960s decline of these churches has taken a significant toll on our common life, in ways that both religious and secular observers should be able to recognize.

For one thing, individualistic and do-it-yourself forms of religion are less likely to bind communities together, encourage stable families, assimilate immigrants, and otherwise Americans to live in healthy fellowship with one another. It is not a coincidence that as the institutional churches have lost their purchase among poor and non-college educated Americans, that population’s social ills have multiplied and its economic prospects have dimmed.

At the same time, self-created forms of faith are also less likely to provide a check against the self’s worst impulses –whether it’s the kind of materialism that Joel Osteen’s sunny promises encourage, or the solipsism that percolates under the surface of popular spiritual memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love.” Many of America’s contemporary crises, from the housing bubble and the financial crash to the collapse of the two-parent family, can be traced to just this tendency — encouraged by too much contemporary religion — to make the self’s ambitions the measure of all things.

Finally, when strong religious impulses coexist with weak religious institutions, people become more likely to channel religious energy into partisan politics instead, and to freight partisan causes with more metaphysical significance than they can bear. The result, visible both in the “hope and change” fantasies of Obama’s 2008 campaign and the right-wing backlash it summoned up, is a politics that gives free rein to both utopian and apocalyptic delusions, and that encourages polarization without end.

via ‘A nation of Osteens and Obamas’ – Guest Voices – The Washington Post.


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