Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Progressive Church: Love, Hatred and Tolerance

I think it's an interesting phenomenon that as the Republican party grows increasingly fringe in its appeals, it loses its ability to cast a large umbrella under which to accommodate several, sometimes disparate views. Increasingly, moderates will find themselves falling toward the Democratic. For others, progressivism seems to be a natural bent their faith would take them. While no man needs a religion to establish morality, the religious faithful obviously have slants their morality will take as they reconcile internal impulses with the commands of their religious texts. Without getting into the details of why Christians distinguish the commands of Old and New Testament, which is derived from the forms of covenant established in the Old Testament versus New Testament as well as distinctions made in hygiene versus moral commands, my hope is to illustrate the spirit of the commands of Jesus Christ and the church he established. Today I want to deal with the issues of hatred, love and tolerance, and the appropriate Christian response to a diverse world.

The issues of poverty and social programs that were previously covered seemed to lend themselves easily to the views of progressives, religious or not. However, not all opinions are shared equally among all progressives, and especially as one moves toward social issues of abortion, homosexuality and the like, it can be harder to find consensus. This is especially true of those who consider themselves socially conservative while fiscally liberal.

There's middle ground to be shared, and such issues can be tackled, but it's first best to address how the church approaches issues that it disagrees with, regardless of the subject matter. Disagreement is an inevitable part of life, regardless of the nobility of those involved. The founding fathers certainly disagreed with each other, loud and often. It is argument and debate that helped create the sturdy Constitution that forms the foundation of the country. The ancient church fathers had their debates and discussions, debates whose stakes were, spiritually speaking, far more critical than matters of politics.

America is a country of debate and argument. The church is, inherently, a place of exclusion. Its own, central holy text asks of its followers to be intolerant of certain behaviors among the body of its believers. Christ himself showed himself to be intolerant of a number of behaviors, and certainly those who came afterward continued to argue against infinite intolerance within the body of believers.

However, the church's struggle in the American theater stems not so much from its disagreements, but how it frames its arguments. Let us look at the extremes in order to analyze this. Among all Christian groups, it is perhaps the Westboro Baptist Church that gains the most ire, most likely to their vocal denigration of individuals. This is a 'church' that protests at veterans' funerals, loudly says homosexuals are going to hell, and insults other religions.

America is the land of the free, and free speech, even what others term 'vile' free speech, should be permitted. Three questions arise from a pattern of vile speech, however. First, how effective is vile, aggressive speech at winning the unbelieving to their cause? Second, is such speech in step with the pattern Christ set in his preaching? Third, what does it matter to attempt to legislate behavior in the eyes of God?

The first question is more quickly addressed than the next two, perhaps because anyone can relate that has found themselves insulted or cast as outsiders. To tell someone they are going to hell, to say they are less than human, to tell them they should die, to say they aren't 'true' Americans, or to tell them they are deserving of less rights than others, all casts them as outsiders. In a debate, any man would be on a fool's errand to insult his opponent, and then argue for his opponent to come to his side. Yet this happens weekly in America, as 'religious' politicians and various pastors man their positions and announce to their followers what is wrong with 'others'. This is followed up with calls about how to curb the behavior of these others. Finally, they somehow, bizarrely, feel they can then win over others to their cause. It is sheer insanity.

To pause a moment, the point here is not that the church does not have a right to disagree against types of behavior. The question is how these behaviors are addressed. Does it imitate the pattern of Christ?

First off, the most blatant example of a behavior Christ set to curb took place when the adulteress was about to be stoned by religious leaders, the Pharisees. From John 7-8, Jesus and the Adulteress. 2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

There are three parties involved here. One, a religious group condemning a person, threatening them with their lives. The second, the sinner in question. Third, a person setting an example, forgiving, and then firmly, but gently, telling the sinner the course of action to take. Of these three, what does the modern church's behavior most often mimic? Pertaining to question one, which of these approaches, Christ's or the Pharisees, would be most effective?

Because Christ did not hold himself above others, or think himself too highly to share time with those he disagreed with. In fact, only by conversing with them could he get his point across. This is addressed when he has dinner with a tax collector. It should be understood that tax collectors represented government repression and corruption in this era, and were reviled by almost all Jews. Yet Christ had this to say in Luke 5, Jesus Calls Levi and Eats With Sinners.
27 After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, 28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29 Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”
31 Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

Christ never held himself better than others, but went to where they were. He considered the people that were sinning to be in need, not people that needed denouncing and shouting down. If Christ were ministering today, would he stand on the side of the Westboro Church? Or would he argue against the Westboro Church in the same way that he did against the Pharisees? Further, it's important to note that it is not only the Westboro Church that has behaved reprehensibly or spoken vilely. One only has to look through the pages of of Daily Kos or Think Progress to identify pastors and congregations that have acted and spoken shamefully.

Christ never stopped arguing his point, that sin was wrong, and what sin was. However, he never treated sinners as anything less than human beings. He sat down with them, dined with them, befriended them. He didn't shout them down, condemn them to hell or wish for them to die or burn. In truth, Christ was most likely heartbroken by everything he was surrounded by. Agree with all of what he considered sin or not, Christ was foremost motivated by love, not hate. It was why he could be intolerant enough to discuss sin and the need for change, but tolerant enough to share dinner with them and respect them as human beings. That is the delicate line that the church has begun to snap week after week.

Which brings us to a final point, and a short one considering all that has been written. What good does it do to legislate a person's behavior? This is a question specific to those who believe in Christ, because it pertains specifically to how they address those around them. Christ treated others with love, dignity and respect. He argued against behavior he felt was wrong, but not by treating others as less than human. How then can the church claim to be doing this, while simultaneously asking others to play by morality rules that are not their own?

The decision to abort is a woman's, personal and sometimes very painful. However, it's her choice. Two homosexuals that love each other, unable to have visiting rights or to share medical coverage, are forced into painful decisions. The church, by imposing its view of morality on others, thus intrudes onto critical choices that are not its own to make. The very act of doing so dehumanizes the subjects, because it reduces them to political objects, rather than human beings making very human decisions. In truth, if God's command is for people to avoid homosexuality, then legislating that homosexuals not marry does nothing to actually address the issue. It doesn't mean there are less homosexuals, and it doesn't mean that somehow there is less sin. If abortions are illegalized, women will still get them. Erasing something from the public face does not erase the thing. Worse, it dehumanizes those involved, and forces even more awful consequences for them. It reduces humans to less than humans.

The question for the church, then, becomes this: If you were shouted at, denigrated, and forced to comply to a morality that is not your own via political action, would you be willing to come to the side of those who had insulted and oppressed you?

In truth, the only sensible answer is no. If the church's utmost responsibility is caring for the souls of the people, then it does itself the most harm by enforcing its view points on those who disagree, or denigrating them with insults. Even more than a matter of strategy in its attempts to share its views with the world, the church is called by the very pattern of its founder, Christ, to be loving and kind in its dealings with the people it interacts with. If its member can't share its views with others in a way that demonstrates love, then it shouldn't share them at all. A pastor's role isn't to tell his congregation just how bad the world outside the church is, but to tell his congregation to show love to those outside those walls in order to show the merits of the church. Of course there are times when correction of church members needs to take place, but, speaking Biblically, this was most typically handled privately between the individuals the matter concerned. This was done specifically to avoid demonizing and ostracizing people. More rare was the church wide admonishment that needed to occur. Yet in all of its dealings with non-believers, the church was given an example by Christ to show its merits by examples of love first, and then by words and tenets. Simply speaking, there is no other way to show others of your merit.

Perhaps for all these reasons, the church's involvement in politics has done most to get it off track. Politics is war, when following Christ should be about love. The church shouldn't agree with everyone on every point, or it no longer is what it claims to follow. Likewise, it no longer is what it claims to follow when it becomes involved in hate mongering. It is a delicate line that the church has to learn to walk.

My purpose in these writings is, of course, NOT to attempt to reconcile all views on all things. People will forever find things about the Bible they do not like, and Christians will always find things about other societies or customs they can't agree to. However, I think it's important to find the common threads between these views, because I can't imagine Christ wanted to establish a church whose reputation was one of greed or hatred. It is likewise unfortunate that the loudest are the most visible, and the loudest are often the most angry or dissatisfied. This does not mean there are not, likewise, a large number of Christians who are uncomfortable with exploitative and discriminating policies. At any rate, this was written with a positive outlook and a hope to bridge some gaps. Thanks.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Review: P.F. Chang's @ The Quarry

The Rundown:
The City: San Antonio
The Place:
P.F. Chang's
The  Day:
The Time:
8:00 - 9:30
The Review:

Following the rather disastrous first journey to P.F. Chang's last week, I was generously extended an invitation to return, this time armed with a gift card. I assure you that the following review is based entirely on the merits of the restaurant, and not on the fact that a portion of the meal was already paid for.
I'll begin by saying that, rather than attend the P.F. Chang's at La Cantera, I this time traveled to the location in the Quarry. This makes me unable to comment on whether the previous location has improved, but does allow me to assess P.F. Chang's other restaurant. To be quite honest, it was a massive improvement.I was greeted quickly by the hostesses upon my arrival, who identified my reservation and handed me one of those small buzzers they use to alert you when your seating is ready. Nervous that this might be quite a wait, I sat around chatting with my date for the evening, one I was hoping to leave a good impression with. Fortunately, our reservations were met quickly, within minutes of my arrival. No long waits, and we were taken to a lovely booth in the corner, away from too much of the crowd. Exactly the sort of treatment those who reserve in advance should receive.
 Our server was excellent, not only friendly but attentive. His tableside manner was top notch, and he served out our sauces, mixed and ready for use on our food orders. A step skipped at the last P.F. Chang's I attended, this small gesture added to the overall ambiance and upscale feel of the place. The combination of tableside manner, overall attentiveness and friendliness went a long way.

I had the crispy honey chicken this time around, along with an agave margarita and a jack and coke. The drinks themselves, not too strong, were at least tasty. For the price, just within the realm of reason. Meanwhile, the chicken, at 13.99, was prepared quite nicely. In contrast to the dry chicken I encountered at the last P.F. Chang's, the chicken at this location was, mostly, moist and fresh. Some of it, which I assumed sat toward the bottom of the pan, was definitely cooked just a tad too long. A little more stirring and a little less sitting would have most likely helped. Still, the taste and tenderness was, overall, quite right. The rice arrived alongside our meal, as it should, and in a manageable bowl as opposed to the large monstrosity I received at the last location. Thankfully, it was not overly dry, an improvement over the last location as well.
A few quibbles. Toward the back end of service it became apparent our server was a tad overwhelmed, and his attentiveness wavered. A shame, given his strong showing for the majority of dinner service. Still, I give him high marks for a fantastic dinner experience overall. Second, the decor. While the overall presentation was nice, warmly lit and nicely colored, there were parts of the wall coming apart. To really strive to be the best, that is unacceptable. Especially considering the large, stone horse that sits outside, the large tv that is anchored over the full bar and the lovely tables and settings, such details do stand out. Yet these are minor comments, and overall presentation and service were quite nice. Best of all, the food was, mostly, quite good.
I use the term 'mostly' a good deal in this review, and P.F. Chang's at the Quarry gets things mostly right. With just a few minor tweaks, they could have the perfect dinner service. As of now, it's still a fantastic restaurant, and one I'd recommend taking any date to before a jaunt off to the theater nearby, or to one of the many bars that lie just down the street on Basse and Broadway.

The Final Call:
Facilities: 4/5


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Review: P.F. Changs

The Rundown:
The City: San Antonio
The Place: P.F. Chang's
The  Day: Friday
The Time: 9:00-11:30
The Review:

I haven't been back to P.F. Chang's in some time. This location, at the mid upscale, outdoor shopping venue of La Cantera, presents itself as trendy and somewhat upscale as well. I only wish that more had gone right with the evening.
Attending as part of a birthday party, there were, perhaps, fifteen of us at the most. A large party to be sure, but it shouldn't matter whether you're there as an individual or as part of a fifteen top, certain elements need to be gotten right. The first misstep was the confusion over our reservations. Originally made for 9:00 that evening, our reservations were, instead, pushed to 10:00 without prior notification to the birthday girl. A bad first step to be sure, and a problem for anyone that had not eaten, or who had other places to be that evening.
Still, we lingered about in the lounge, taking drinks and chatting. Finally, 10:00 P.M. rolled about, and we were notified that room still was not available. Good restaurants have to be greedy, but not too greedy. Overbooking your dining room and making guests wait is not an appropriate way to conduct a business. We were seated, perhaps, at 10:20. In honesty, it was closer to 10:30, an hour and a half after our intended reservation time.
Following the wait, our orders were placed. Given the large number of people in the party, I won't make much of a deal that it took longer than thirty minutes to prepare our food. I can live with that, considering our numbers. What I can't accept is the condition of the food on arrival. I have an inkling that the cooks in the back left certain items on the stove too long while waiting on other items to be finished. I say this because both the fish that was served to my friend and the chicken I had were both dry.
Talking of my order, I had the Chang's Spicy Chicken, a dish that headlined their menus. Our waitress spoke highly of it, and so I wish it had been prepared with just a slight bit more care. The chicken arrived first, without the white rice that was supposed to accompany it. The dish, properly, should be enjoyed along with the rice simultaneously. Otherwise, you simply have a platter of lightly fried chicken in front of you. That was exactly what I had, and as the minutes rolled by and my chicken grew slightly colder, I waited for rice. It was finally brought out from the back, and I wonder what sort of care they used to rush it out. Not burnt, it might have been heated too quickly, as some of the moisture was no longer there. The chicken itself was slightly too dry, with portions of it actually somewhat rubbery. The sauce was tasty, but no amount of sauce will make up for dry chicken and dry food.

Don't get me wrong, there was quite a bit on my plate to eat, but at 14.00 dollars it's obvious that P.F. Chang's prices were set for quantity, instead of quality. Perhaps most insulting was the included gratuity for our party size. While not an issue under normal circumstances, there could have at least been some consideration paid to the fact that we waited so long. The gall. 

All said, it was rather a disappointment, considering the overall care invested in its look and esthetic.

Like many urban modern Chinese restaurants, Chang's attempts to blend slightly upscale sensibilities with Chinese imagery, or at least as close to China as most Americans can imagine. Overall the look of the restaurant is quite nice, especially for evening dining. Muted colors give it a warm feeling and good impression, and the dark tables present a nice color to pair with the lighting. The bar is friendly, and dual televisions gave patrons a chance to watch one of two NFL games on that night.
Our server herself was quite friendly, and the staff was obviously trying to get us seated as quickly as possible, once the faux pas concerning our reservations came to light.  The only knock I might have against the service was, really, that they needed two people to attend to our table. In the entire time I sat, I never had my drink refilled, and it was obvious that our waitress had entirely forgotten about the rice until reminded. A shame really, given her friendly nature. However, service is the name of the game, first and foremost. I would only hope that, next time, she pay more attention to every customer down the line of her table.

The greatest knock against the restaurant, though, isn't the wait, or the occasional lack of attention, though both need consideration. The greatest knock is that the food just wasn't good enough, not for the price and definitely not following the wait. Customers will wait, to an extent, for good food. So, would I go back? Indeed I am, to conduct a follow up review of the place, in the near future. I can only hope that, next time, it doesn't take two and a half hours to complete a dinner service. Heaven help us.

The Final Call:
Facilities: 4/5
Staff: 4/5
Service: 3/5
Drinks: N/A
Food: 2/5

Overall: 3/5 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Review: Tonic Bar

The Rundown:
The City: San Antonio
The Place: Tonic
The  Day: Thursday
The Time: 9:30-10:30
The Review:

I came to Tonic early on a Thursday night, hoping for a few quick drinks before jumping off to hob nob about town. Unfortunately for me, quick drinks were not in the cards.

 Tonic is a rather spacious bar located at 5500 Babcock Road in San Antonio, Texas. Blessed with a large main room for bands, couches along the rear, an intermediate lounge area, a back game rool taht includes pool tables and darts, and finally an exterior porch with its own bar, one would think that Tonic has all it needs to be a success. What was unfortunate about Tonic was not so much its facilities as much as its service. At the hour I arrived there were, perhaps, 15 people about the bar. One gentleman was washing dishes behind the bar, while three women served the patrons. I use the term 'served' lightly, because it became quickly obvious that if you weren't a regular, you weren't being served.
Despite three bartenders, service moved at perhaps a snails pace. There's a chance it moved even slower, as slow as it took for the band to get set up on the stage. This led to a lack of buzz, and a lack of enjoyment. In my hour at Tonic I struggled just to get two beers served. Not mixed drinks, not liquor or margaritas. Two beers.
 The problem arose from a lack of involvement from the bartenders. My main bartender became occupied on the other side of the bar with other customers, fair enough. That's understandable. However, you still can't excuse the lack of attention to a patron when there were so few customers. The frustration would not have been so high if the other bartenders had helped pick up the slack. One disappeared for almost the entirety of the hour. The other, a woman who seemed to be in charge of things behind the bar, busied herself with conversations she conducted with a regular and the dishwasher. She was perhaps five feet away from me but never paid attention to my beer. Bloody hell, she never even said hello.

It's not the first time I've seen this woman, and each time she has consistently had a bad attitude that can be felt around the bar. She rarely seems happy and while I respect her desire to stick to her work, she rides the other bartenders but produces little effect. Paired with her own failure to properly serve the bar, it just comes across as hypocritical.
I can't speak for the food and won't attempt to make a judgment based on it, and I didn't get any liquor so I won't make a call based on their mixing skills. However, the most important aspect of any restaurant or bar is service. When the night grows old and the evening gets hectic, you can understand a lack of attention. You can see the bartenders struggling to keep up and know they're doing their job. However, when you can't get a simple beer, there's a problem in its service.

Overall? Bad service, in what can be a great establishment. There's so much room here and so much potential. They have various events from time to time, such as all day music concerts with live bands. They also have something called "Porneoke", karaoke with porn playing behind the singers. I understand they've also had jello wrestling and such, but I wonder if these events are designed to bring in as many people as possible in lieu of their inability to be able to win customers via great service. It's a shame. They should be able to do so much more with this place.

The Final Call:
Facilities: 4/5
Staff: 2/5
Service: 2/5
Drinks: N/A
Food: N/A

Overall: 2/5