I am listening to an mp3 of a sermon by the pastor of the New City Fellowship Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The pastor is saying that New City Fellowship Church never excommunicates anyone for sinning.

No no no– they only excommunicate people who refuse to stop sinning.

Not very aphoristic is it? Not a neat little parallel statement: my intuition is, what’s the difference? And I don’t think my intuition is altogether mistaken on the issue.

Pastor Randy Nabors talks as if sins were discrete, isolated acts that violate clear and simple rules issued by God in the bible, in English, and which are readily available in printed form, comprehensible and unchanging.

That was the mistake of the Pharisees, of course. And the first thing we deny is that we are, in fact, behaving exactly like the Pharisees. We just can’t help it.

The truth is, we love rules, because we love strutting around pointing out that other people have broken them. We deny that we are being legalistic or proscriptive or simplistic or pietistic or moralistic and we do all those things by saying that you can only be forgiven if you stop sinning, as if there was the remotest chance in hell that we could ever stop sinning or that you who demand that we stop sinning are not, at this very moment, sinning yourself.

I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you have repented and are therefore forgiven at the moment when you have stopped sinning. I believe that you “repent” when you acknowledge that all of us are corrupt human beings who are utterly unworthy of God’s grace and unlikely to receive it on our own through our own virtuous actions.

You see– that’s the part I don’t believe Pastor Nabors and most Christian preachers really believe– that they haven’t “earned” it. Theologically, of course, they might say they haven’t, but they don’t really believe it. How can you possibly identify other people as sinners– so bad, they must be expunged from a congregation– unless you truly believe yourself to be so worthy that you can sit in righteous judgment?

They will object:

When they begin their judgments, they say, “of course we are all sinners, but” and then they should stop.

They’ve already said the important thing: they too are sinners. That’s enough.

There is no “but”, no qualification that suddenly, miraculously entitles them to sit in judgment.

“When they said, repent, repent, repent, I wondered what they meant.” Leonard Cohen, the Future.

Pastor Randy Nabors’ sermon was supposed to be about Jezebel, but it turns out it isn’t about very much at all. It is 34 minutes long, and it consists of a long sequence of utterly unremarkable observations and rules. Surprise, surprise, those rules you have heard repeated to you 30,000 times by now are true the 30,001st time and the 30,002nd time too. Maybe. Now do you know what the rules are?

I was really disappointed. New City Fellowship is a very diverse congregation and seems to be involved in some genuinely interesting urban ministries. But there was nothing in this sermon that sounded the slightest bit interesting: don’t sin, Jesus loves you, Jezebel was evil, don’t marry people who don’t respect me (non-Christians).

Why is this same message repeated every Sunday? You can’t remember it? Or could it be that the message is not meant to be teaching or preaching.  It’s a public expression of the sinlessness of the faithful listeners, isn’t it? You affirm your own purity and worthiness by receiving this sermon and looking at your neighbors and receiving their approving looks (unless you have a nose ring) smiling and nodding and saying, “amen, brother”, for I am not a sinner like those people…. Me too– I’m against Jezebel.

An “Inventory of Small Affronts”

“…their film is relentlessly unmoving, largely, I think, because life for Harry Stoner is less a series of lost confrontations with conscience which might be moving than an inventory of the small affronts that are the consequences of his failures.”

From the New York Times Review by Vincent Canby of “Save the Tiger”, February 1973.

That’s a pretty astute observation. There are a lot of movies guilty of the same flaw: they become an inventory of small affronts, as a substitute for real spiritual or moral crises, because it is far easier to show the affronts.

In “The Devil Wears Prada”, Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly has to take a long, lingering, slightly envious look at Andy Sachs as she walks away from her job and the high life and the travel and the money… for true love, of course. Then Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) tosses her Blackberry into the fountain, an implausibly stupid act that is utterly at odds with the character and the story, because otherwise the audience won’t “get” that she is disgusted with the endless emotional compromises necessary to be Miranda’s assistant. It’s the affront, the stick-it-in-your-eye act that defines the audience, not the character. And Andy returns to her vacant but unshaven boyfriend to tell you that she can’t even have a soul on her own: she (and the audience) gets her validation from the man.

[This is the moment America should have known that Donald Trump was going to win the presidency thanks to the majority of votes of white women. 2022-05]

And it leads me to a second point. Once again, we have a big Hollywood film in which a strong female character with intelligence and ambition is shown to be heartless, soulless, and unloved. Andy forswears Paris and runs off to rejoin her self-righteous (and tediously uninteresting) boyfriend. In the movie, that is because she finds the high life emotionally unsatisfying. It is more wholesome to serve the needy projections of the blue-collar male than it is to make a lot of money, travel the world, meet achievers in all kinds of fields, and do work that actually has an impact.

The movie gives you to understand that Miranda doesn’t do anything important. She does fashion. But that’s to make it simple for the audience. The real Mirandas of the world include researchers, historians, book editors, professors, writers, and directors. And the real Mirandas might actually find something stimulating and interesting about traveling to cities like Paris.

This is code to the American viewer, which they understand perfectly. Even American women understand this code, because they like the movie too, and they know that Miranda is really very, very, unhappy at her job. Because, if she was happy, that would prove that it might actually be worthwhile to finish that college degree, get a good job, get better at your job, achieve things, and so on. But that would require work and dedication and ambition and self-confidence.

No, no, no– go home and have babies. You will be fulfilled.

I wouldn’t mind so much if they hadn’t cheapened the story with the affronts, the suggestion that Andy can’t be happily ambitious because it means she has to run a lot and put up with insults and indifference. And if only, if only, her boyfriend had one or two qualities besides an irritable and vacuous self-centeredness.

But then, if the boyfriend had been genuinely interesting, you might have wondered: was Paris also genuinely interesting?

Where are Your Marchers? Your civil libertarians? Your Freedom Fighters?

The Bush Administration asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit against AT&T for complying with a government “request” to turn over– without the inconvenient assistance of an actual warrant or subpoena– information about millions of private phone calls made by Americans.

The government argued that the judge needed to protect national security by turning a blind eye to this rather blatant invasion of personal privacy. The judge declined to do so.

What’s wrong with you people out there? Can’t you read? Why are there no marchers in the streets to celebrate this victory of liberty against government over-reach, this violation of civil rights?

Where are the raging editorials? Where are the outraged investigative pieces on the news?

I’m not mad. I’m just curious. I read your Constitution and your Bill of Rights and I’ve heard you sing your anthems, and I’ve seen your tattoos and your bumper stickers. So where are you now?

Bob Dylan: “As I Went Out One Morning”


We have been thinking of possible band names for the last few days. How about:

  • The Taliband
  • Fractal Mode or Fractal Chords
  • Mortuary Beserck
  • Phantom of the Oprah

Enough. I was also thinking about a Bob Dylan song from “John Wesley Harding” (1967), and album which may well be his finest. The song is “As I Went Out One Morning”.

Like all of the songs on that album, the arrangement is clear, sparse, simple, economical, and crisp: drums, bass, and acoustic guitar, and harmonica. Dylan’s nasal voice is confident and nuanced.

As I went out one morning
To breathe the air around Tom Paine’s
I spied the fairest damsel
That ever did walk in chains

Tom Paine was a celebrated pamphleteer at the time of the U.S. war for independence, best known for his tract “Common Sense”, written in 1776, which advocated an end to the British Monarchy. Paine provided Franklin and Jefferson with some of the inspiration for their own theories about the state and authority and the individual, and these worked their way into the U.S. constitution and Bill of Rights. Paine himself later returned to England where, among other things, he advocated the creation of pension plans, and progressive taxation. The man was ahead of his time.

I offered her my hand
She took me by the arm
I knew that very instant
She meant to do me harm.

The girl seems to represent religion. She is enticing, with promises of spiritual reward, and he offers her his hand. But then she demands more: she takes his arm. In the economy of this song, we waste no time: he immediately suspects she is up to no good.

“Depart from me this moment,”
I told her with my voice
Said she, “But I don’t wish to.”
Said I, “But you have no choice.”
“I beg you sir,” she pleaded
From the corners of her mouth
“I will secretly accept you
And together we’ll fly south.”

Religion? Or utopianism? Does she represent Dylan’s brief faith in the idea of human progress? Unfortunately, we’re not likely to get a straight answer from Dylan anytime soon, so our only clue is her suggestion they “fly” south. To paradise?

I love the amazingly stripped down lines, especially the first four of the verse above, with that inverted “said I”.

Tom Paine comes to his rescue. The spirit of liberty himself? Or the spirit of “common sense”, of a kind of rational agnosticism?

Just then Tom Paine himself
Came running from across the fields
Shouting at this lovely girl
And commanding her to yield

Why did I think the girl represented religion? I believe it was a review by Greil Marcus that came out shortly after the album that first made that suggestion. That makes less sense to me now, and given subsequent developments in Dylan’s religious views, it does seem more likely, now, that the girl embodies utopianism or socialism. Alluring, but basically a means of enslaving the individual in favor of the collective.

On the other hand, “ever did walk in chains”, suggests that her true spirit was constrained in some way, shackled by something. That is more suggestive of religion, strait-jacketed by the spirit of conformity and collective ennui, though it could also evoke the idea that a socialist utopia is always accompanied by the chains of authoritarianism.  Tom Paine represents just plain old common sense: the illusion of utopia is contrary to what we see and know about human nature.

And as she was letting go her grip,
Up Tom Paine did run
“I’m sorry sir,” he said to me.
“I’m sorry for what she’s done.”

It’s a strange, very beautiful song. If you’ve never heard it… you haven’t, have you?

Modestly revised Februrary, 2007.

The entire lyric of “As I Went Out One Morning”.