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Family Planning in Jurassic Park, Part 1

I am “pro-choice” because I am “pro-life.”

Set aside for a moment how problematic those labels are. Set aside as well (just for the moment) how detrimental the polarization of these labels is. I’m convinced that a lot of Christians work hard to occupy that very peculiar and apparently contradictory space that I just declared, but few talk about it. There are good reasons for the silence – this is a precarious and complicated space, not at all easy to describe let alone defend.

I am convinced that so many of us stumble over this particular moral/political issue because we try to craft positions in the abstract, philosophically or theologically. Think about the scientist creating an ideal laboratory environment for an experiment. More often than not the lab results don’t work out there in the “real world” because context nearly always trumps ideals.

So I want to frame this attempt at describing my “pro-choice-because-I’m-pro-life” position by turning to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. I’ll say more about the position itself in Part 2, but here I want to underscore how important it is to frame it with real life and not abstract principles.

I take Michael Crichton’s story and Spielberg’s film as the quintessential judgment on all human attempts to capture, contain, control, and circumscribe the untamable energies of life. I also see in that film a poignant testament to context; even the best ideas and well-laid plans will falter and fail without due attention to the particularities of contextual realities.

Keep both the vagaries of life and the complexities of context in mind as I offer just three Jurassic observations to frame what I’d like to propose in Part 2 of this mini-blog-series. (Click here if you need a primer or refresher on the film).

Paddocks and Ghettoes
John Hammond, the creator of Jurassic Park in Crichton’s story, was both a genius and a fool. He tried and ultimately failed to separate carnivores from herbivores in elaborately protected “paddocks.” Okay, let’s just call them ghettoes.

Nothing in the U.S. (I would argue any country) is free from the dynamics of race and class and more broadly the attempt by every society to cordon off some segments of the population from the others. The attempt to do that in Jurassic Park by separating meat-eaters from veggies proved disastrous. Every similar human attempt ends in precisely the same way; we are likely witnessing just the latest iteration of that failure in the uptick of gun violence in the U.S.

We cannot have a conversation about “family planning” (and everything that innocuous moniker implies) without talking about gated communities and “sacrifice zones,” those places where U.S. society has consigned all the expendable ones, all the “undesirables,” all those who might stand in the way of corporate profits. For more on this, I cannot recommend highly enough two recent books by Chris Hedges concerning this vexing morass of social and political issues. (See/read the Bill Moyers interview here.)

It would certainly be easier if we could approach all of our ethical dilemmas by analyzing ideal states. Have you ever said “well, all things being equal” when trying to make an argument? I have. Sadly, there is no such state. We can’t pretend we don’t live in a society of paddocks.

If we’re going to talk about contraception, abortion, and reproductive health, we must talk about the racial and economic paddocks in which those issues exhibit a range of meanings and implications that fall well outside our neat-and-tidy moral systems.

Lab Coats and Cassocks
The managers of Jurassic Park sought to control such a potentially dangerous environment with one simple innovation: ensuring at the time of conception that every dinosaur would be female. This would guarantee no unwanted reproduction – “unwanted,” of course being a cipher for “disrupting our plans for making profit from a well-controlled theme park.”

There’s a long and troubling history in western culture of trying to control reproduction, from the pseudo-science of racial differences rooted in phrenology to the eugenics programs supported by some of the biggest corporate financiers in the early 20th century. I mean folks like Carnegie and Rockefeller.

Human reproduction has been one of the most highly regulated activities in nearly every human society in every historical era. Religion has most often been the preferred way to regulate it. Let us not, however, assume we have passed into an enlightened era where science corrects religion’s excesses. The development of the birth control pill originated with those who were mostly concerned with eugenics, with controlling human reproduction based on race, ethnicity, ability, and “desirability.”

One might wish that science played a stronger role in today’s political discourse, but we must not think that everything labeled “scientific” is value-neutral or benign. Today’s reproductive technologies and their applications alike are deeply embedded in the discourses of what matters to the dominant culture of this society.

We should also remember that the Jurassic Park experiment failed. The dinosaurs found a way to reproduce, or as Sam Neill’s character put it when he found a dino egg out in the field: “Life found a way.” It always will. And surely that alone should inject a bit more humility in everyone’s approach to what “life” means.

Roars and Whimpers
The penultimate scene in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park features a T-Rex roaring beneath a fluttering banner that reads, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.” Old paradigms never exit the stage gracefully, or with a whimper. They usually roar their way into oblivion.

Of course, the sequels to Jurassic Park make clear that even dinosaurs can make a comeback. So let us consider carefully our current political and social climate with reference to a centuries-long legacy of male privilege in western culture. I hear it roaring, do you?

I do not mean that men are dinosaurs. I mean that the system currently still shaping North Atlantic societies that organizes its polices, institutions, laws, and religious communities by stratifying a society based on maleness is doomed, no less so than T-Rex or the Brontosaurus – but none of us should underestimate the effects of those final roars.

T-Rex will not go quietly into that good night and there are plenty of whimpers in that roar’s wake – not least are the cries heard from women who might be forced to have abortions, which “progressives” don’t like to talk about. (Check this out in China, but also in Massachusetts.) How can we possibly have a conversation about life, about contraception, about science, about human thriving while all our voices are drowned out by the roar of white male privilege?

I would love to consider what life means and what conception entails without the roaring voices of mostly male politicians who want to insert vaginal probes in women’s bodies, or those who think there is such a thing as “legitimate rape,” or lobbyists who pretend that race, class, and economics play no role in crafting social policies about reproductive health.

Maybe someday we can; but not today. So in Part 2 I’ll suggest why “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are just about the most misleading labels one could imagine for this topic of deep concern, how we might talk differently about this vexing topic, and what a peculiar Christian response might look like. Stay tuned…

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Saving the Planet One Dogmatic Doctrine at a Time

Ideas matter. They matter all the time, but especially in times of peril – social, political, and ecological peril. We live in such perilous times today.

These days, ideas matter in direct proportion to every degree of elevation in the planet’s mean temperature (the double entendre here is useful). All of us need to take action now for this planet, this “fragile earth, our island home.” But we won’t get very far without sustained and careful thinking and deliberation. Ideas matter.

I don’t mean that ideas matter in isolation from action. That binary distinction is more than a cliché; it’s as furry with mold as the old blue cheese I recently found in my refrigerator. No one does hardly anything without thinking, even when some forms of thinking have become a habit. Ideas matter.

Consider just two recent examples of the clarion call for thinking carefully and deliberately together about our world. The first comes from Bill McKibben, a leading environmental advocate and writer. His latest piece in Rolling Stone is one of the more sobering assessments I’ve read about our global climate change crisis. McKibben himself describes the piece as among the most important he has ever written.

The second comes from someone I don’t know on a website I only recently found. Alan Goldstein describes in concise and compelling ways the current economic and social crisis our planet now faces. I find his analysis on target but his proposed solution weak.

Both of these pieces illustrate my point: ideas matter. Among the ideas that matter are religious ones generally, and theological ones in particular. Just read the daily newspaper. Religious ideas are fueling war, conflict, economic policies, social configurations, ecological positions…the list goes on and on. So how curious that neither McKibben nor Goldstein offers even a single word about religion!

How human beings think about God (or not) in relation to ourselves, to other humans, and to other animals has a profound impact on how we live (even if our practice doesn’t always match our theory perfectly or even closely). So how then do we think about God? And how do we deliberate together about our thinking? And how do we put our thinking into action and how does our action reshape our thinking?

I care about these questions as a human being, as a Christian, as a priest in the Episcopal Church, and as a theologian. I’m grateful for the responses in various venues to my recent blog post that suggest that others care about this, too.

So I decided to assemble a series of blog posts to describe how I approach theological ideas and the difference they make in how Christians live. That’s a ridiculously huge topic, so these are more like conversation starters.

I’ll begin with this: There is no grand solution for our planetary problems. There is no universal, all-encompassing strategy for human thriving. We all seek in vain for the pill, the method, the text, the location, the practice, the rite, the community, the guru, the geography, the school that will cure what ails us.

I’m glad there is no such thing or place or person or community that can do that. Because what we have instead are shards of beauty, slices of the piercingly poignant, the strands of awe dangling in the breezes of forests, the pimples of delight on the chin of lovers, the absurd glory of dead pets, and the stains of thumb-marks on pages turned in cherished texts.

We take all of this into our wildly graceful moments of human relationship, into our fumbling attempts at creating transcendent communities, and our visceral responses to weather reports.

All of this is the stuff of religion and theology. But few would guess it from reading media reports about denominational gatherings. If Christian theology can’t go back to the campfire where we all sit together and tell stories and shape communities of action and practice, then we are doomed.

But I don’t believe that. I believe religion generally and Christian theology in particular can help turn the tide toward flourishing – what God has intended all along. My next posts here in this blog will offer suggestions about how Christian communities might make ideas matter. Stay tuned. And please add your voice – without it, we’ll be stuck, mired, buried in a culture that denigrates ideas.

Don’t let that happen. Ideas matter.

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Apocalypse Kind-of-Now: A Brown Green Season?

Ecological “issues” are an annoying interruption of the stuff that matters now. I don’t really believe that, but my blog posts would suggest otherwise.

I had a plan. Write about the war on women’s bodies in Lent and write about ecology in Easter – the new creation, totally tied to women’s bodies and gender. Lovely plan, but current events intervened.

And that is precisely the problem.

I totally support full marriage equality for all couples; the end to poverty and racism; full agency for women in decisions about their bodies. So why does the very framework that makes any of those possible in any way get such short shrift? I mean the planetary environment upon which each of relies for every breath.

Here’s the thing: “Apocalypse” is nigh; if not “now,” then soon, within my lifetime (if I’m lucky enough to live another 30 years). Hyperbole? Not really. Read just this one among many accounts of what we’re facing right now (here’s the lede of that story, which you shouldn’t read if you are prone to insomnia because of fretting: “The Earth is within decades of reaching an irreversible tipping point that could result in ‘planetary collapse’, scientists warned yesterday.”) Read yet another alarming account here.

Important digression: I adore my ten-year-old godson (oh, God, could he just say ten forever? No…not good. But he rocks my world right now). Okay, my point: Will he be able to live on this planet 30 years from now? Probably, but not likely in the same comfortable way that I am living on it now. That breaks my heart.

But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that my adorable godson is not the only reason why any of us should care about the environment, and passionately, with urgency. So why should we?

In some Christian circles (very similar to the one in which I grew up), there is no reason. We actually don’t have to care. The theological logic goes basically like this: God created a good world; humans screwed it up; God sent Jesus (oh, after that Israel interlude, of course) to save us; those who believe all this will go to heaven, a literally disembodied, unearthly place where we don’t have to fret about things like nuclear power plants, plastic choking our oceans, massive extinction events, or potable water.

I’m really not making this up. Evangelical and fundamentalist Christians of a certain type truly believe that Earth is disposable; God will create a new one.

Let me be clear: I have no desire to set up an “us versus them” scenario here in which us good liberal Christians save the planet while those fundamentalists destroy it. That would be easier to write about, frankly. More accurately, there are some Evangelical Christians who are far more passionate about the environment than many of the liberal, “progressive” Christians I know.

Now that’s peculiar. And I take a great deal of hope from it. Decades ago Lynn White, Jr., wrote a devastating essay about religion and its deleterious effects on the environment (read about it here, and yes this is a Wikipedia link). Taking his critique seriously means that we need compelling religious and theological reasons why priority #1 right now is the planet itself. Thankfully, those reasons are ready-to-hand. (Check out this, and this, and this.)

But we do have a problem: current events will always interrupt us. The latest sound bite, the latest outrage about women’s bodies, LGBT people, the economy, war….all of these will always interrupt what we need to do and say right now about where we live, right now.

I don’t have any solutions to the problem of compelling interruptions. I issue only a plea: Let us please figure out how this long “green season” in the Church year after Pentecost can inspire all of us finally to do something about a planet that is dying, right now – our planet, this “fragile earth, our island home” (The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 370).

Come on. Let’s figure this out – for my beloved godson, your grandchild, your niece, your neighbor, the puppies your dog is about to have, the litter of cougar cubs that will be born this year, the salmon spawning in our rivers, just take your pick  – let’s figure this out for all of us, for all of them, for all.