Thursday, April 12, 2007

Mistah Christ, He Dead.

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Sometimes the conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan just pisses me off. Even when I disagree with him, I can at least respect the intellectual honesty of the position he espouses. This is not one of those times. He has a post on his site, Dean on Easter, taking to task DNC Chairman Howard Dean's recent Easter message. Below is Sullivan's post in full:

As readers know, I'm a secularist, which is not the same as being an atheist. (Yes, Mr O'Reilly, I'm talking to you.) But even I'm alarmed by the ways in which many politicians on the left go out of their way not to accord Christianity the same kind of respect they would accord any other faith. Howard Dean's DNC Easter message is a classic. Easter is not about redemption for people of all faiths. It's about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Between the Christianism of much of the GOP and religious cluelessness of many Democrats, it's no wonder cultural polarization continues.

I shot him an email about this earlier this evening (after having Brian vet it...I can be a little over-the top sometimes and he's good at telling me when I need to rein in) but I really doubt Sullivan will post the email. And I want my reaction out there.

Why? Maybe because his post and the one he links to just strike me as intellectually lacking and dishonest. Currently, he doesn't allow comments on his blog or I'd post this there--his justification for that is here--that's his prerogative. I'm sure it would change the tenor of his blog if he had people commenting and posting and questioning his posts. The internets can be dangerous territory, especially when people point out you're wrong.

So here's my problem with the post on a simply surface matter: it's essentially misleading. See that hyperlink that says Easter message? It falls in the sentence right after Howard Dean's DNC? Now, logically, you would assume due to simple proximity that that link would lead you to a text of Howard Dean's Easter Message, right? No! That's crazy thinking! You get routed instead to a post at the Rothenberg Political Report by someone named Nathan L. Gonzales (I'll get back to this post and him further down; really, it's a doozey.)

So, Sullivan is dismayed by the fact that Democrats don't extend Christianity the same kind of respect they do other religions? Here's the full text of Dean's offending, clueless message:

“Easter Sunday is a joyful celebration. The holiday represents peace, redemption and renewal, a theme which brings hope to people of all faiths. During this time Christians are called to remember who they are as people of faith, and that even the greatest of evils will not have the last word. It is also a time to reflect upon and be in solidarity with those who are persecuted and suffering among us. We should also use this time to honor those who continue to make incredible sacrifices for us, including our brave men and women in the armed forces serving overseas during this holiday. I would like to wish all those celebrating around the world this Sunday, a joyous Easter.”

Where is this message not extending Christianity the same respect it extends other religions? Granted, it's a broad, ecumenical message. But it is essentially sound. Do we specifically need to explicitly name-check Jesus and his suffering on the cross? Is it clueless that Dean also manages to acknowledge Easter's non-christian roots? Is it clueless that he reminds us of Christ's own basic admonishments in just a couple of sentences? If Sullivan has a problem with the DNC message in toto shouldn't he provide a link to his readers, allowing them the opportunity to read the short paragraph and make their own judgement call?

I am surprised (and disappointed) that he baldly asserts "Easter is not about redemption for people of all faiths. It's about the resurrection of Jesus Christ." He is someone who often discusses his own Catholicism and religious beliefs with eloquence, nuance and grace (if occasionally being self-congratulatory while doing it.) And frankly, that statement is just too blunt to do his other writing service. He misses completely (purposefully?) the phrase Dean uses: "The holiday represents peace, redemption and renewal, a theme which brings hope to people of all faiths." Notice Dean does NOT say that Easter is about redemption for all faiths. He notes that the themes we celebrate at Easter bring hope to people of all faiths. Two very different things. A woefully sloppy reading job on Sullivan's part. Technically, Easter is, on its face, about the resurrection of Jesus. But the ressurection is only part of the entire story. He seems to be evading a simple matter I remember hearing in church: why did Christ come to Earth as a man and die? And why should only Christians appreciate or be reminded of those virtues at Easter? Last I checked, Christians didn't hold a monopoly on them.

Onto my issues with his linking to the Rothenberg Report post. Fundamentally, it's a shoddy piece of writing. By citing it, Sullivan's own intellectual rigor is diminished. Truly, the piece is just bad writing. It's riddled with errors (formatting, misspellings and possessive pronoun problems) that are just embarrassing in what I take to be a professional opinion piece. I'd also argue about the intellectual validity of the piece's essential argument:

Frankly, Webster's New World Dictionary [sic] , which is not regarded as a particularly spiritual or political source, has a better definition of Easter: "an annual Christian festival celebrating the resurrection of Jesus."

Students of rhetoric take note: if you want to be taken seriously, don't qualify or impeach your own source's credibility. And for the love of Strunk and Wagnall, at the very least spellcheck. And if you're using a phrase like "en masse" don't rely solely on spellcheck to make sure it's right...too many of these mistakes can (and obviously do in this case) slip through. Once that happens, and you have a body of errors, you forfeit all credibility. And honestly, relying on a dictionary definition as your support? That's a trope straight out of a mediocre English 101 assignment. And he uses Webster's New World to boot (Mr. Gonzales, titles should be italicized.) Did the other dictionaries offer too much nuance for your liking? (I'm not going to get into that sort of pedantry...but I'll allude to it. You can click the link and read the definitions from a variety of sources.) I won't quibble overmuch, it's the closest thing to objective fact in the piece and the source supports his limited defining aims (while his own rhetoric torpedoes it.) Actually, the dictionary citation isn't too bad, considering that his only other supporting source is this quote:

"This press release, absent any reference to Jesus, without whom the Easter resurrection story is meaningless, is apparently a sad reflection of a 'lowest common denominator' religious outreach of the Democratic party," said Richard Cizik, Vice President of Government Affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, "Wake up and smell the Easter lillies [sic]! This kind of outreach will not pass the smell test of any evangelical."
They use "whom" properly, but they can't spell "lilies"? I'm wondering what Mr. Cizik's damage is here. I suppose Dean's referencing "Christians" in the original post isn't explicit enough? After all, who do Christians follow?

Well howsabout this? Dean writes: "During this time Christians are called to remember who they are as people of faith, and that even the greatest of evils will not have the last word." Isn't the greatest of evils he's referring to Death? And Death doesn't have the last word? And Easter is the time that we remember that? Ergo, Jesus' resurrection trumps the greatest evil? Or is all of this too esoteric? I know some in the conservative movement are not into "nuance." But really, you three dissenting gentlemen all have advanced degrees (according to your bios.) Surely you can unpack that simple phrasing. It's pretty basic English.

Am I wrong in thinking that the roots of Christianity are well-established enough that we know the basic story of Easter? And that essential knowledge begs the explicit recitation of "the story of Easter?" Apparently, I give our culture too much credit; I'll be sure not to do that in the future. Ultimately though, this message according to Mr. Gonzales fails because:

Dean and the DNC simply missed the target this Easter. The press release was astonishing because it's [sic] sole purpose was to acknowledge a religious holiday, yet it was painfully-worded to avoid being religious. If this press release was part of the Democratic Party's outreach to evangelicals, they probably would have been better off just skipping it altogether.

Actually Mr. Gonzales, what's astonishing is that you don't understand the difference between possessive pronouns and contractions. And equally astonishing--no one else responsible for your work seeing the light of day caught it (or any of your other errors), in both the Rothenberg Post or Political Wire, either. And you used to work at CNN, ABC, and the White House?

Anyway, here's my email to Andrew Sullivan:

Correct me if I'm wrong, I am a protestant after all, but wasn't the point of Christ's passion and crucifixion ultimately redemption for mankind? At least that's what my Methodist clergy relatives and friends seem to think. Are you quibbling over the ecumenical nature of his statement? Why can't the actual message of Easter be presented as valuable to people of all faiths? The notion of sacrifice and devotion to others is to be solely the provenance of Christian(ist)s? I also find it interesting you don't link Dean's own statement so we can read and evaluate for ourselves. Especially notable are the grammatical errors and the reliance on a dictionary for evidentiary support (which the author himself slams as an ill-regarded source) in the link you did provide. I expected better from my Freshman Composition students. I expect better from you. I'd think you would as well.

Apparently all that matters is that Jesus died and resurrected. Not what that death is supposed to mean. Nor Christ's own call for his apostles to be fishers of men and to evangelize. Nor the acts of conversion and grace that are held up as exemplary. Nor his admonishments on how we are to treat one another. Part of the appeal of Christianity is the mystery and message; by reducing Easter to this one base facet, they rob that day of its grace and its liturgical standing. In truth, they rob Christianity of its most basic tenets: Christ was the son of God; He came to Earth; He suffered and died upon the cross for the sins of men and was resurrected. His example, apparently, can only be appreciated by Christians.

But, ultimately, according to these gentleman: nope, none of that matters. Just rent Passion of the Christ and shut up, cause here comes the scourging and the dying. All that matters is Jesus died and resurrected for Christians, no greater meaning beyond that. And how dare anyone try to be inclusive. How dare we clueless Democrats mention the fact that other faith systems value some of the same things.

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