Jesus Seminar

It is 7:30 Friday November the 13th. We are in the main sanctuary of Covenant Presbyterian Church at the corner of Mineral Point and Segoe Roads on Madison's west side. Two young men address a crowd of about 140 people. Their names are Arthur Dewey and Julian Hills.

Dewey, a burly fellow, looks not unlike an ex-prizefighter rather than the professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati that he is. He hails originally from Massachusetts.

Hills is from England. He immigrated to the United States in 1976, is a professor of theology at Marquette and an ordained Episcopal priest. He is slender and elegant, an almost ideal picture of a priest of that denomination, and like Dewey is brilliant, learned and very funny. Both are in their forties. Both have their doctorates from Harvard University.

For being inside this church that Friday night and all day Saturday these two are saying some rather unsettling things.

This is understandable.

For this is the Jesus Seminar on the Road. And these men are Fellows of the famous (and in some quarters, notorious) Jesus Seminar, the first and best known project of Westar Institute. Launched in 1985, the Seminar is devoted to a fundamental reassessment of the Jesus tradition, both in the ancient gospels and in modern interpretation.

Westar Institute in its mission statement describes itself as a member-supported, nonprofit research and educational outfit dedicated to the examination of religious traditions and to the promotion of religious literacy. To that end, Westar sponsors academic seminars and research projects and promotes educational programs for interested groups and individuals to correct the sometimes shocking ignorance Americans have about religious matters. For example, many who have been polled state that they believe the Bible is inspired and without any errors, but cannot name the four gospels.

Pulp magazines, the mission statement continues, have too long played on the fears and ignorance of the uninformed. TV evangelists have traded in platitudes and pieties. Fundamentalists have sought to exploit the fears of their hearers by the exclusive claim to truth and the threat of damnation if you do not believe that exclusive truth.

Academic scholars, for their part, have confined their pronouncements to the classroom or buried their considered judgments in scientific journals and technical jargon. They have often refused to communicate the results of their research out of fear of public controversy and political reprisal.

The Westar Institute, which is not affiliated with any church or denomination nor does it represent a particular theological point of view, has sought to change all that. The Jesus Seminar, with more than two hundred participating scholars, has attempted to distinguish fact from fiction in the ancient gospels.

And what are those results? Using standard enlightenment techniques of textual, linguistic, and historical criticism that have been employed for centuries to determine the authenticity of any ancient text, the Fellows of the seminar have determined that only 18% of the Gospel sayings and 16% of the reported acts of Jesus are probably authentic--that is more or less directly traceable to the historic Jesus.

In this study, the Virgin birth, many of the miracles, most of the sermons, and the Resurrection and Ascension are not thought to be authentic. They did not happen. Some of the miracles, many aphorisms, most of the parables, and the crucifixion did.

The most important outcome of this study represents an enormous shift in religious sensibility. That is to say, our attention is drawn not to the religion about Jesus, but the religion that Jesus had. We are encouraged at long last to discover for ourselves what Jesus found so enchanting in his vision of God's Domain and why he pointed away from himself to that Domain.

This represents a dramatic movement away from the exclusive claims to the truth by the creedal and confessional churches, to a picture of a powerful ecumenical genius in the person of Jesus. He opens a way not only to meaningful contact with Judaism and Islam but also to Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism, not to mention the faith of native peoples all over the world.

(The detailed results of more than fourteen years of intense deliberations are reported in two books available through any bookstore, the Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (1993) and The Acts of Jesus: The Search for the Authentic Deeds (1998).)

Westar seminars other than the Jesus Seminar are also at work. The Paul Seminar is considering the authenticity and integrity of the Pauline letters.

The Canon Seminar is debating which early Christian works, canonical or non-canonical, should be included in a new New Testament and seek to reedit the New Testament.

The Creeds Seminar proposes to revisit the Council of Nicea and determine which momentous decisions taken at the Council call for revision, if any.

And last of all, is the Cinema Seminar which serves as a consultant to Paul Verhoeven in preparation for a new film on the life of Jesus. Verhoeven is the director of Robocop and Showgirls who also is a PhD in physics! and is a Fellow of the Seminar.

A personal note here.
Once I was a seminarian on my way to a Lutheran pulpit. At Luther Seminary I became troubled by the idea that my church and Christianity possessed the only way to salvation--as our creeds insist. I could not accept that. I ultimately rejected my own denomination and organized religion altogether for a while, but found much to my surprise that there was within me a great deal of leftover religious passion.

That brought me to an intense study of comparative religion and experiments in meditation. I adopted Buddhism as a method congenial to my temperament, and have taken vows in three levels of the Tibetan tradition. While living in a temple in Japan, I was initiated into the Zen tradition as well.

I have found much to my intense pleasure and satisfaction that, as one who follows Buddhist discipline, I can reclaim much of what I lost so many years ago. There is a great hope here for a new Reformation and with it the renewal of the Christian Church.

The audience reaction over the three sessions was fascinating. There were a few who were made rather anxious over what they were hearing. But for the most part many men and women during the question and answer period showed a good deal of surprising sophistication about these matters. They seemed eager to find out more about the work of the Seminar. The clergy that were there seemed not unsympathetic either. All were in varying degrees comfortable, if challenged, with what they were hearing, though some were fearful at the effect these studies might have on the ordinary church goer.

In this regard, Hills and Dewey admonished the audience: Never underestimate the intelligence or the tolerance of the man and woman in the pew. You'd be surprised at how open they are to new ideas.

Anyone interested in investigating these issues can check into the Westar web site at or write the Westar Institute at P.O. Box 6144, Santa Rosa, California, 95406. I think you'll find the materials very exciting indeed.


In Praise of Freedom and Reason
November 1998

Prometheus, the great Greek savior of man, the one time ally of Zeus, in defiance of the gods, having taken pity upon man's desperate lot, stole the fire of the sun and gave it as his gift to man. For his love of man, Zeus punished the Titan. He was crucified on the highest rock of Mount Caucasus and wounded with a spear in his side. Scorched by the sun, Prometheus was visited every day by an eagle that tore at and feasted on his liver, which Zeus caused to grow again every night. Prometheus's gift was the gift of fire, the gift of the light of reason, of art, of all the crafts, of technology. The cost of that gift was terrible.

Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.

Any healthy person even of severely limited mental capacity possesses a functioning, expansionary reason. The ability to compare and to make useful generalizations presumes that there is an order in nature.

The ability to make generalizations, and the talent for creating poetic images based on that order involves nothing more than a total, sometimes vital transformation of consciousness.

Ideas, being the radiance of the mind, thought forms, being the revelry of Reality, Reason, being in every action the best friend of man, are not to be avoided. It is indispensable to have an intellect endowed with the power of comprehending and applying thinking to one's own needs.

The comparison of comparable things inspires the notion of the self-evident truth. The self-evident is the definition of the mathematical. The ability to perceive the mathematical is the basis for the triumph of reason. Philosophy aims at the clarification of thoughts. It is not a body of doctrine but an activity.

The successful evolutionary adaptation of animal communities is in part due to the genetic disposition toward selflessness--living for the herd, the flock, other than only for oneself; and in animals of the higher sort--particularly humans with their sudden quantum spurt of the size of the cerebral cortex, that sense of selflessness is joined to the growth of reason.

Reason by its very nature is impartial and expansionary.

Thus moral behavior based on love and caring can be seen to be grounded in nature and expanded by the nature of reason. Because it is true that no more than a few at any time have a highly developed sense either of altruism or reason (which means by conversion that there are always some who do!): neither of those two joined wings, the far right in both politics and religion: saintly ethical or ideological radicalism on the one hand, nor self-seeking laissez faire reaction on the other is the natural reality.

But moral leadership as a deflectionary force--as a constant leaven, seasoning, if you will--has always been a political possibility; and in eras of moral progress (of which there have been in all likelihood more than one might imagine) is probably the way that advances have been made.

In the late middle ages there began to flower the greatest contribution of the West to World Mythology: that of the historically effective, morally responsible Individual--that fountainhead for all the creative power of action, art and science, that has fundamentally given shape to Europe and the modern world, and will determine the future of the planet.

The quality prerequisite for the Individual is the ability to make independent judgment: Here I stand; I can do no other. The sources for independent judgment in Europe were the growth of the Protestant heresies against the Latin Church and the Renaissance faith in Reason. One is not obliged to believe anything, except what emerges out of careful examination of evidence.

Human freedom is rooted in contingent nature. Chance, by definition, is the underpinning of freedom. Except in logic, there are no necessary conditions. There is no necessary being. The very existence of the cosmos itself is not a necessary condition. Being itself is accidental, although the Reality beyond the categories of being and nonbeing of course is not.

If the humanities reflect the New Millennial synthesis of individuality and interconnectedness, as they cannot help but do, then, based on the sciences, the humanities educate for values. Among these values are self-awareness, sensitivity to others, moral responsibility, effectiveness of action, duty to the whole human community, and then to the larger organic and inorganic community, aesthetic openness, a sacred responsibility to the angels of art and science, with a good solid dose of that kind of skepticism that is rooted in the uncertainty principle--and through them the possibilities for spiritual liberation and political freedom.

Self-government (therefore political liberty), could not exist without the mythologies of the individual. A sense of the community of individuals must arise from the mythologies of interconnectedness.

At once it struck me, John Keats said, "what quality went to form a man of achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously--I mean negative capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after an ideology".

In course of thirty-four years of teaching I came to admonish my students to beware of defensive arguments. That is an argument that defends an unexamined point of view without first examining the premises on which that point of view is based. It simply does not do to employ logically suspect strategies, such as impugning the motives of research, appealing to authority, insulting the sincere points of view of others without disputing them logically and on the evidence, appealing to tradition, (the work of the Jesus Seminar, by the way, has a solid tradition of textual criticism of its own that reaches back, considering the great church father Origen, nearly 2,000 years), appealing to the emotions, especially the fear of the loss of the familiar and the security of long-held opinion.

Ideologies are based on partial truths, they are prisons of the mind. We are no longer free to let things be what they are, but we twist them to fit into a framework we impose. We freely choose to surrender our freedom because like children afraid of the dark, we can't abide to stand within a mystery and so must have a truth that is total.

Rather what must finally be fostered for those free spirits among us is to respond to and express their awe and gratitude to the mystery of all Being, to sing their raptures in the midst of that truest kind of pilgrimage of all: to continue the search for insight outside the context of compelled belief, without the expectation of any final outcome--that is content to keep mystery as mystery.

Questioning is the piety of thinking. Doubt is the chastity of the mind. The uncertainty principle is a moral law disguised as a scientific necessity. Moral laws and scientific necessities may be the same thing.

This challenge. Rather than engaging in logically dubious discourse, wouldn't it be better if the the Seminar on the Road were invited to this community, allowed to make their presentation, so that all could decide on the merits of the arguments for themselves?

Steven Fortney
Jan 13, 1999


The Jesus Seminar Millennium Meeting
October 20-23,1999, Santa Rosa, California

In the same way that I was Present at Creation when in attendance at the Dalai Lama's Kalacakra in July of 1981--that is, the official establishment of Buddhism on a new continent--so was I present at what is certain to be the beginning of the most significant reform of the Church in its history. Indeed, as one of the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar put it, this Reformation spearheaded by the revolutionary work of the the Seminar would by comparison make Luther's Reformation look like a tea party.

This was certainly one of the most exciting four days of my life. How wonderful to see the reform movement led by Martin Luther and the tradition of critical scholarship begun by Remarius and David Friedrich Strauss so alive and well in our own time.

There were six hundred people (almost all Associates, that is, lay and non-academic members of Westar Institute) in attendance at this conference, a number that surprised almost everyone. These were mostly Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Quaker, Roman Catholic, a sprinkling of Hindus, Buddhists, and Jews, no Evangelicals and one solitary Baptist out of the many there. Many attendees of this conference, including a fair number of the Fellows (the scholars with the appropriate advanced degrees that do the technical work), are Christian clergy.

We were from all over the country, with the understandable preponderance from the far West, but with international locations well represented from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Great Britain, Germany and France.

The scholar-presenters were some of the greatest and most distinguished names in the field, including Robert Funk, John Dominic Crosson, Karen King, Lloyd Geering, John Sheehan, and others; and last but not least the celebrated and controversial Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Newark, New Jersey, John Shelby Spong.

Almost the entire conference could be described as Christian, many of them devout, though with reservations about the content of their faith. In my interviews with them, some of the questions that drive so many out of the church seemed alive in the questioning of these folks. In fact, one is led to believe that many of what Bishop Spong calls Christians in Exile or Robert Funk's Catacomb Christians fill the pews of the main line denominations of America and Europe to this day. That, of course, must include the Churches of Stoughton as well.

These are some of the many questions that were brought up by both the scholars and the audience. Test yourselves to see if some of them haven't occurred to you.

Why is it that the Bible is characterized as the Word of God and held in varying degrees as authoritative, when it is plain that it is a library of texts uneasily collected together, full of inconsistencies, inaccuracies, and questionable morality (check out the 28th chapter of Deuteronomy), when it can just as easily be seen as a library of literature, some individual parts of which have inspired believers to follow the spiritual life?

Why is it that some churches, following the first five chapters of Genesis insist that those texts are adequate as 'science' when plainly the scientific models such as found in Big Bang Astrophysics, Darwinian evolution, DNA biology, the story of relativity and the new physics are so much superior that they utterly cancel out Genesis as 'science'?

Why do some of these churches ask us to sacrifice 2,500 years of the history of science and our brains, and demand us to believe the incredible? And why do they seldom ask us to examine Genesis for the story it truly contains, which is a penetrating account of man's alienation from the Ground of his Being, which still has much relevance as a description of the human condition?

Why are we asked to believe that God revealed himself to only one small tribal group of desert wanderers, when it is plain that other world religions, some even older than our own, have just as an amazingly vital relation to the sacred as Western believers do.

Why is there thought to be one Bible that is the only true one when in fact there are many world scriptures just as insightful.

Why is it believed that there is such a thing as a transcending God separate and above nature when it is just as likely that the sacred is immanent in our acts of compassion, equality and justice which is where the life of the Kingdom truly is?

Why believe in a jealous God and exclusive creeds, that to the shame of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have fostered so much violent intolerance, pogrom, and holocaust throughout their histories, and still represent a clear danger to those who disagree with them? How did it happen that so much of the history of those who follow the Bible has been so poisoned by the persecution of its enemies?

Why believe that Jesus is the only Savior of the world when he said no such thing about himself (his most common self-designation was as the Son of Man--a reference to that same figure in the book of Ezekiel) when it is plain that other messengers of the Sacred such as Mahavira and the Buddha and others are just as great and just as powerful in their literature?

Why are we asked to believe that the only way God could learn to forgive the offense of sin his creation committed was to kill his son in one of the most agonizing executions known to man?

Why are we asked to believe that the corpse of Jesus was literally resuscitated three days after his death? And not understand that resurrection can be thought of as symbolic of the birth of the life of the spirit out of the flesh and has nothing to do with literal risings?

Why is it that so many pastors and priests keep themselves and their congregations in a state of ignorance of the advances of biblical scholarship over the last 200 years, when so many of their parishioners have clear reservations about what they hear every Sunday in preaching or liturgy? Why are the laity asked to sacrifice their reason out of the fear that a genuine spiritual liberation will bring and throw themselves into the arms of a defensive literalism?

And why are the women in some traditions demeaned to a second class status and gay and lesbian folk judged and condemned, when in the Grace of the tradition all are equally sinners and equally forgiven; and that in any case that the laws in Leviticus condemning homosexuals to death are plainly absurd?

Jesus did not worship himself. He announced the Kingdom. Why is the Church stuck on making Jesus a divine Christ and for all practical purposes forgetting the Kingdom that was his main proclamation. Why ignore the Message (his teachings) and focus only on the Messenger?

These are many of the questions I heard articulated by the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar and of the 600 Associates attending them. I cannot help but believe that these questions have occurred as they did to them to many of you as well.

John Shelby Spong, whose book Christianity Must Change or Die, one of the speakers at this conference, insists that he would rather see Christianity die rather than continue with these limitations. Indeed, even as a devoutly Christian Bishop, a loyal son of the Church he loves so deeply, he feels that the church is largely dead already, and that minor adjustments to modernity simply won't do. That would be like, he said in his speech that Friday night, giving a corpse a facelift and then pretending that it is alive.

I suspect that many intelligent men and women in the pews have had as the 600 have had thoughts and questions like these cross their minds at one time or another.

Here is a challenge.

Take your questioning seriously. Do not be afraid of it. There are many like you Christians in Exile, as the good Bishop calls us, who think exactly as you do. You are most certainly not alone.

Those thoughts you have that there might be a better way and a deeper understanding within your own tradition are the hopes of countless church people across the land. Cherish and deepen those thoughts. Consider your part in this impending renewal of the Church.

Insist on strict standards of honesty from your priest or pastor. The Jesus Seminar, Fellows and Associates alike, have to their sorrow learned how countless pastors seldom teach what they themselves know for fear fear of disturbing the weakest and most fearful of their congregation.

The Seminar has instituted a popular practice called the Jesus Seminar on the Road, in which their scholars will appear by invitation to share with you their work. Why not consider inviting these men and women and their program here?

To contact Westar Institute by mail, phone or fax: Westar Institute, P.O. Box 6144, Santa Rosa, CA 95406, (707) 523-1323, fax (707) 523-135X. Or check out the home page website: Westar Institute and look for the Jesus Seminar on the Road.

Steven Fortney
October, 1999


Religion, Terror, and September 11th

No one who has read the recent account of Jerry Falwell's judgment against America can help but ponder the place of religion in human life. If you aren't familiar with the article I refer to, Falwell is reported to have asserted: ....[That] liberal civil liberties groups, feminists, homosexuals and abortion rights supporters bear partial responsibility for Tuesday's terrorist attacks because their actions have turned God's anger against America. "God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of America to give us probably what we deserve," said Falwell, appearing on the September 13th showing of the Christian Broadcasting Network's 700 Club.

He went on to say that the American Civil Liberties Union has "got to take a lot of blame for this," federal courts and others who he said were "throwing God out of the public square." He added: "The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked.....I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way - all of them who have tried to secularize America - I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'"

On reading this one is impressed with how incredibly cruel, ignorant, and hopelessly insensitive this man is, particularly to the families of those who died, who suffer unimaginable grief at the loss they have endured. Nearly 3,000 have perished at this writing, and their families are now asked to believe by this so-called religious leader that the terror and the agonizing death by fire, and falling, and crushing, and suffocation were caused by a God who is supposedly teaching us a lesson. What an appalling thought. What unredeemable cruelty. But we got what we deserved.

The opposite is the case. We are not punished for our sins. We have been assaulted for our virtues, among them: our freedom to make choices, our freedom to grow beyond the bounds of our nurture, our freedom to express ourselves without retribution, our freedom to assess the fanatic whether homegrown or foreign inspired as the enemy of that freedom, our freedom to live in a vital, vibrant national community where our differences are celebrated, our freedom to grow in wealth and opportunity, our freedom to use what ever instrument it takes to care for those in need, our freedom to exercise the compassionate heart not only for our own and world brother and sisterhood of mankind, but of all beings, the being of the planet itself. Yes. Our freedom to be pagan if we so choose. In short our freedom, the very foundation of our democracy.

But yet, in spite of that televangelist simplistic approach to an enormously complex situation that has religious, and social, and political and economic aspects, in this conflict religious doctrine does in fact play a role.

Osama bin Laden hates us. He hates us he says, because we dwelt for a while in Saudi Arabia, the home of Mecca and Medina, to resist Saddam Hussein's attempted takeover of Kuwait. He hates us because he thinks we are determined to destroy Islam. He hates us because we were responsible for the creation of the State of Israel. He hates us because we support that state. America under Harry Truman and others at the time in response to the Holocaust decided that the Jewish Remnant was in desperate need of a homeland. In 1948 that homeland was created. The Arab world erupted in fury, and it took Israel wars and resistance and years to finally stabilize itself, and create a Western outpost surrounded by Islam. The Palestinians sheltering the terrorists within their boundaries to this day seek to destroy Israel. Bin Laden is correct when he believes that the creation of Israel is the child of Western Civilization at its best. And that should Israel be destroyed without resistanc! e by the entire West, our civilization of Liberty in Community will be diminished, and will most certainly decline.

Yet Islam in its finest expression is not the enemy. Islamic terrorists have perverted the better lessons of Islam. That being said there is something in all Doctrine, whatever Western religion you wish to talk about, that is a breeder of intolerance.

There is no God but God, Allah is his name, and Muhammad is his prophet. Israel is called by Yahweh to be a uniquely chosen People. The Christian celebrates the One True Church the only Savior of all mankind. These are the battle cries of the Three Monotheisms. All one needs to do is to examine even briefly the careers of these three in our common two thousand five hundred year history to see the bloodshed and carnage. In the Book of Judges, the warrior Israelites were merciless to their enemies. Currently Israel has reacquired its warrior past. In the history of Islam, Muslims converted by the sword where necessary and were responsible with heroes such as Tamurlane for only one for great carnage. Christians slaughtered great numbers of heretics during the Albigensian period, and on the third crusade made the temples and mosques and churches of Jerusalem knee-deep in blood. In a later crusade Constantinople was destroyed by Western armies. Constantinople was the seat of O! rthodox Christianity at the time. So Christians destroyed Christians.

It would seem that those who are religious people need to meditate on all this. Do I have a belief that is the one true belief? Does my faith in its Doctrine the word or the idea of Only? Does it own an exclusive truth? Does it matter that it is a social, political, economic, or religious belief or a combination of all these? If I embrace a Doctrine, is that Doctrine potentially dangerous to others? If my beliefs are exclusive will that inspire the fanatic? We know that there are Islamic Terrorists. We know that there are Jewish Terrorists who are perfectly willing to enter a mosque and slaughter the praying there. Are their Christian Terrorists? Ask all those dead in Oklahoma City.

What is the fault here?

It is probably not those of genuine religious disposition. The fault surely in those who embrace an exclusive Doctrine. My Doctrine is true. My words about God are the only true ones. Yours are of Satan. Therefore I can kill you in the name of God for your own good!

Genuine spirituality is not the culprit. Let that be clear. The mystical wings of all religions, East (who for the most part have not fallen victim to the angers of Doctrine) and West, of the Three Monotheisms, clearly are of the highest expressions of a free humanity. The Sufis of Islam, the Cabala of Judaism, the Hesychast Mystics of Christianity all believe that somehow the sacred is both Immanent and Transcendent. That the sacred envelopes the universe and dwells in each human heart. If all have access to that sacred spark, one can only be tolerant of the variety of religious expression worldwide that honor immanence no matter its external form. We all become brothers and sisters of the world holy community. So many in the main line denominations (watch the most intelligent and sensitive of them of the Odyssey Channel's "Faces on Faith" to see) are expressing this universal faith these days.

Meditate if you wish on your faith. Purge it of all doctrines of intolerance. Embrace the world church, temple, mosque, sangha as equally valid approaches to an inward truth. If the holy is immanent as well as transcendent, if the holy lives in each of us, then, understanding, charity, tolerance, and grace is its inevitable outcome.

Bishop Desmond Tutu responding to something ridiculous Falwell once in no uncertain terms told him to "go to hell!" Well, that may not be necessary. Falwell should consider moving to Afghanistan though. He and the Taliban are kindred spirits, it seems.

Steven Fortney
July, 2000


A Sense of History

One European intellectual not long ago declared that America was the only country in the world that he knew of that moved from barbarism to decadence without experiencing the civilization in between.

There are, however, some developments contrary to Anatole France that give me a certain hope not only for the American Civilization but for the health of the Stoughton Community as well. That is that in various ways a growing sense of history seems at long last to be overtaking the naive immediacy that has been so characteristic of the way Americans usually think. Instead of having a consciousness only of space, since we have no more empty spaces on this continent to conquer, we can develop a sense of time.

Why is a sense of history so important?

I think I've said before a country without a sense of its past is like a human without memory. A human without memory is an idiot. And for a country to live in an eternal present is the idiocy of barbaric self indulgence. One cannot weigh the consequences of one's actions against the schooling of history, against the outcomes of the future. Living for the moment is the crassest and most lamentable hedonism--that philosophy which says that the only important thing for one to do is to gratify one's immediate desires without memory of context or anticipation of consequence.

What has come to pass are the growing preservation consciousness developing in this city, the desire to restore and maintain our architectural heritage; and the rapidly developing traditions of Civil War reenactment that has swept the country in the last three decades.

The greatness of knowing history resides in an understanding of the mysterious character of origins. The knowledge of our earliest history is not a ferreting out of primitive lore or a collecting of bones but a deeper sensibility of who we are, where we came from.

Once know this the direction of our development begins to make more sense. It is also then possible to anticipate developments rather than be ambushed by surprises constantly.

The present cannot comprehend itself until it remembers and makes present its history. Morality and ethics are a function of human consciousness in history.

We emerge from history, and then we create our own history. "Man's character is his fate," the Greek philosophers held. Man's character then creates a direction for history itself.

It is thought that the source of human unhappiness is self absorption. Moral action requires the action of selfless individuals. There is no morality in history, though occasionally a few moral men have made historical decisions.

The Druids, the priest-poets of the Celts, were called among other things, the Keepers of Memory. This is the ancient function of the elders who teach and are guardians of tradition. This is why the skilled teaching of history and the passionate reading of it is so important. Cicero includes memory as one of the five arts of Rhetoric. "The past is never dead," Faulkner declares. "It is not even past."

Culture springs from man's being-in-the-world with immense force through the two laterals: geography, history; across the entire space of the planet, throughout the whole written and unwritten history of man.

Much has been written lately of the ancient Jewish invention of history. Yahweh's call to Abram was a call into History, and therefore the call into rational consciousness itself. The Hebrews invented linear time because they believed that eternity can enter time. The Bible supposes that the divine can in fact intervene and shape history.

One lasting positive contribution of this notion of Jewish History is the determination that time has a beginning, middle and an end. Each event in history is unique. Therefore each individual is unique. The idea of the morally responsible and historically effective individual is the greatest single contribution of the West to the history of thought. It is the wellspring and fountainhead of our immense creativity.

With Kenneth Clark, the author of Civilization, I hold a number of rather eccentric beliefs. (I've never bothered much about being politically correct.) I believe that order is better than chaos, creation is better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence (and this is the most important of all) we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. Man is conditioned by History. What keeps humans for ever in a predicament is that they are fundamentally historical beings whether we acknowledge it or not!.

Hans Christian Heg, the hero of my novella--and I hope the hero of our people-- is very much alive for me; as is his time, his experience as a Norwegian immigrant, his passionate patriotism, and the meaning he invested in the American experience through the agony of civil war. Because of his involvement in his time I can make so much more sense out of our own.

That thousands of men and women are reenacting the great events of this most critical period of our history--the American Civil War; and that until now the good citizens of Stoughton continue to interest themselves in the preservation of our past--most recently in the preservation of that valuable and lovely old high school which has been used most recently as the district Administration Building, indicate that there may be a growing maturity of our country.

Perhaps we haven't really skipped civilization after all, as the Europeans think we have. Perhaps we are only at the beginning. But only if we acknowledge that our futures emerge from an immense and complex past; and are willing to deepen the adventure of that exciting pilgrimage to take place in an equally large and complicated future.

Steven Fortney
October, 2001



I see in a recent report in the Hub that the Mormon church has bought property in Stoughton. The television advertisements for the Mormons imply that the church is but another domination within Christianity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jessica Longaker, a student of the movement, has detailed some of the more bizarre beliefs of the church. If I were a woman considering conversion I would look into these doctrines very carefully. If I were a man, particularly a Ferengi male who doesn't even chew his own food (the woman must do it for him!) I'd get into this outfit in a real hurry because it sounds like a lot of fun for a male.

What follows is my paraphrase of Longaker's article Women and Mormonism. I have the original in my possession with a complete bibliography in case anyone is interested.

These beliefs are but a small sample of the odd and preposterous doctrines of this weird assembly. I have highlighted some of the paraphrase for emphasis.

Many religions have recently begun changing in an attempt to equalize the roles and responsibilities of men and women. Mormonism is one of the exceptions. "Woman's primary place is in the home, where she is to rear children and abide by the righteous counsel of her husband." This attitude,...the absolute power claimed by the men of the church, creates a legacy of profound sexism which modern Mormonism has been unable to escape....Opposition towards men is tantamount to arguing with God.... Women also promise to obey their husbands in everything.... All Mormon men are ordained as members of the "priesthood," with the absolute authority to...speak for God....A woman's young son is, therefore, more qualified to advise her than she is to advise him.

The most notorious example of Mormon treatment of women is, of course, the practice of polygamy.... Adam, so the belief goes, in his previous spiritual existence, had many wives, of whom Eve was just one. Jesus was also a polygamist who was married whereby He could see His seed before He was crucified, and his wives were Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene. Polygamous marriage was supposed to "make possible the procreation of enough bodies for thousands of spirits which have long awaited incarnation.

Mormon Doctrine states that God was once a human man, and He is now a glorified, resurrected Personage having a tangible body of flesh and bones. The relation between the holy spirit and Mary was carnal. As a matter of fact, "all gods first existed as spirits, came to an earth to receive bodies.... After death, a good Mormon man.... becomes a god, and receives his own planet to populate and rule over ....

After death, while their husbands are creating and ruling over planets, the women have the questionable honor of bearing his "spirit children" for eternity. These spirit children descend to their Father's planet to inhabit bodies as mortals....Birth control is, of course, very strongly discouraged....this effectively reduced women to mere commodities. Heber C. Kimball said, "I think no more of taking another wife than I do of buying a cow...."

Girls and boys are also told that a good and proper Mormon home is run by the man. A handbook written for fourteen year old boys states that, "The patriarchal order is of divine origin and will continue throughout time and eternity" ....Girls are told that God wants them at home, and boys are never taught to clean up after themselves, since when their mothers stop doing it for them, their wives will take over the job.

Mormons.... believe that the woman in a relationship bears the guilt for any sexual wrongdoing. Girls are told that if they "let" a man touch them, he will not respect them, even though he is the one doing the touching. One Mormon woman's date, at the front door of her house at the end of a perfectly sinless night, ordered her to enter her house, fall on her knees, and pray for forgiveness for the sins that she had made him want to commit.

The strict chastity demanded by the church often clashes with the fact that girls are taught please their husbands and the other men in their lives.....What does a girl do when the man she is dating, whom she is supposed to obey because he is inspired by God, wants to do more than kiss her? In Mormon-dominated Utah, in 1978, seventy percent of the teenage brides were pregnant at their weddings.

However,...Bearing children is the main purpose of a woman in this life; Sonia Johnson stated that, "I'd been conditioned to believe that if I didn't have babies, I wasn't worth much. Having children was what women were made for."

The Mormon church of today is still clinging to the beliefs of the nineteenth century....Obviously, the Mormon church is not going to alter its views on women in the immediate future....Men and women cannot truly become equal in the church, for the basic tenets of Mormonism are so fraught with sexism that equality would change the religion beyond recognition.

Steven Fortney
October 2001


What the Terrorists Really Want

I am a patriot.

One cannot live through a four wars, have a father who was an army chaplain, grow up on or near army bases most of one's young life, join the auxiliaries and reserves of the air force, army, and navy and not be one.

One cannot work for years on the story of one of our genuine heroes, Brigadier Hans Christian Heg, and learn why he fought and why he died at Chickamauga and write a book about him and not be one.

One cannot be a part of a family who has lost one of its sons to Viet Nam and not be one.

But most of all, one cannot study and revere the geniuses who were our Founding Fathers, who created the first and most successful Enlightenment nation history has ever seen and which is still the bright beacon of almost all peoples on the earth and not be one.

This is a nation founded on certain principals. Among them Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. It would do us good to meditate briefly on these.

When one takes vows in my religious tradition one is obliged "to live a little more for others and a little less for me," as one Carter Family song has it. It is the vow to live for others that is so enriching. Many teachers, pastors, great populist politicians like Paul Wellstone, writers do that. They at least try to live more selflessly. One learns that we belong to several communities greater than ourselves, in the universe, in nature, among our fellows. To believe that one is only to look out for number one or only one's class or religion or company is a tragic and arrogant denial of that sense of our larger communities.

The Founding Fathers debated among themselves whether to use the phrase the pursuit of property or the pursuit of happiness among the self-evident truths of our Declaration of Independence. It was a stroke of their genius that they chose happiness.

One is not obliged to submit to brotherhood, or church, or chosen people, or certain business corporations (where you have to sing the company song each morning and then get exploited to make the owners even richer than they already are and lose your entire pension to boot when your company goes belly up!), to think other's thoughts, to do other's bidding, irrespective of what reason, evidence, and simple humanity determines. That is why in another stroke of genius our Founding Fathers followed by Europe and even Turkey mandate the separation of church and state. This liberated religion altogether. That is a key. No pope, mullah, bishop or pastor or rabbi or tyrant or CEO can tell us what our happiness is. Tell us what to pursue. To impose their Doctrine on us. That is our business and ours alone. Americans have taken this lesson to heart, to their great credit. That is why we are a great nation.

If one chooses to follow these styles of group mentality, well and good. But one must not, one must never, assume that your truth is everybody's truth; and that that truth should be imposed on those who simply don't believe in that supposedly inerrant truth. That is a recipe for disaster. Church, brotherhood, chosen, state, or corporation must be restricted to their own groups. All truths are qualified. Uncertain. Those who believe with Certainty that their Truths are Absolute act outside the pale of humane behavior. They must never be allowed to impose on the liberty of others. On the pursuit of happiness of others. Absolute, so-called Eternal Truths imposed in History result in Tyranny. Its always been so. To pursue happiness is and has always been a tentative and joyous adventure undertaken with certain risks.

That is our patriotism. And a blessed thing it is.

The fanatics of the fundamentalist faiths do not believe this. They are not interested in tolerance or compassion. They say they have the truth. The Absolute Truth. So they can burn heretics at the stake, they can slaughter the Philistines, they can dynamite little children, they can fly airplane bombs into our tall buildings and kill and kill. One of their sacred texts commands them " slay all unbelievers wherever you find them, and take them captive, and prepare for them each ambush. (Koran, Sura 9.5)" This they take to be a literal command from God himself.

These fanatics are not content to merely cherish their own beliefs. They think those who do not agree with them need punishment. Need killing. Need to be put outside the pale and condemned eternally to the fires of hell. The fanatics have the truth. The whole truth.

These fanatics are not content just to destroy our bodies. To take our lives.

They wish, by keeping us in constant fear, to destroy our individuality, our freedom. Our Liberty.

They wish to create fear that any of us can be killed because we disagree or do not believe in their version of Truth. If they cannot kill our bodies, they try to kill our souls.

Their real target is our security, our happiness in the way our Founding Fathers envisioned it.

The pursuit of happiness is the very essence of Modernism, of a progressive Democracy.

V.S. Naipaul, the celebrated writer, even goes so far as to define the pursuit of happiness as the foundation of what he calls the Universal Civilization. And that Universal Civilization is the hope of the world for all people.

What happens when a people pursues their happiness? Each individual determines what his happiness is. Each individual pursues it in his own way. A nation, a community, of tolerant individuals is thus created. And the explosive, creative power of the Liberty Nations, which include northern Europe, America, and even Turkey, to a certain extent, India, and some in the emerging nations of the third world, is powerfully released. The constraint of traditional religions and ideologies is broken. The group mentality that these foster is undone. Our freedoms to be who we are as individuals, with rights as individuals, each with our own purpose in life, is sanctioned.

It has taken humanity thousands of years to achieve the kind of free democracy we now enjoy. The happiness of each individual is the root of that democracy. The terrorist has no idea what this means. Out of ignorance he feels it is his divine duty to destroy that democracy, that freedom, that individuality. To subject our liberties to texts supposedly dictated by God for all time. He intends to foist this horror upon us. And of course that horror must be resisted endlessly.

Theirs is an all-out war against our happiness rooted in our lives and liberties. There will be no contentment among those wretched people until that happiness is utterly destroyed.

That's what the terrorists really want.

Steven Fortney
December, 2002


Calling Names

Has this ever happened to you?

Someone unloads a whole truckload of criticism on you that seems to miss the mark utterly. And you think to yourself: "Gee whiz! I'm not sure where you're getting all that, because how you are describing me doesn't seem to have anything whatever to do with my sense of myself at all!"

They are talking about someone you don't know. They are talking about a stranger.

Sometimes you feel impelled to object to that.

These recent examples.

To be called an "angry iconoclast."

How very odd, you think. You have always been an intensely religious person. Perhaps not orthodox. But very religious. Where did that come from?

Angry? But you have no anger. You are the soul of serenity and beatitude. Full of good will and peace to all others.

Iconoclast? Image-breaker? On the contrary. You have spent your whole life cheerfully and positively creating the images for an authentic life. In poems. Novels. Teaching.

To be sure, you were disappointed at the failure of your religious upbringing. You even spent some time in a seminary to explore that, you were so troubled. And you had to leave that seminary, which was one of the finest Lutheran schools in the country, for good reasons. You simply couldn't believe in the mythologies of your upbringing. Such as miracles, taken literally, virgin births, resurrections, bodily ascensions, and the like. So you were in a state of rejection for a long time. But you never forgot your training.

Over the years you seriously explored the history of religions and comparative mythology. And found out that mythologies contained certain truths. That ascension may mean the growth of the spirit within the body. That resurrection had nothing to do with a corpse reviving, but with the birth of the spirit out of the mortal tomb of the flesh. That reincarnation attested to the advance of the spirit within one's lifetime, not life after life after life. Many take those mythologies, those sacred stories, seriously, without having to think them literal. It is possible and even necessary to do that. Jesus and Siddartha are historical figures. Christ and Buddha are their mythic overlays.

So you joined seminars to recover the historical Jesus and found out that in the parables and aphorisms that can be reasonably attributed to the real person, Joshua ha-Notzri, that underemployed scaffold builder we know by his Latin name, Jesus, that his message was the proclamation of what he called the Domain of the Father. The open table of his banqueting was his method of teaching. His metaphor. All were welcome. All of every class. Of every occupation. Male and female. Sinners. All before the Father were equal, radically equal. The temple, the empire, the priestly and official class were unnecessary as mediators between the Truth and the human. That relation was direct and unencumbered. Available to all. Is it any wonder that that proclamation got him killed and changed the world?

Siddartha Gotama, the young prince, who became the Buddha whose teachings I follow, who also changed his part of the world forever did very much the same thing in his attacks on the caste system five hundred years before Jesus. All were capable of receiving the teaching, he proclaimed. Even thieves and murderers. And women. This was even more radical in his time than in the Roman world of the first century. A priestly caste was not necessary. The Kingdom and Nirvana, you discovered, were from the same house in the same neighborhood. Far from being enemies, Jesus and Siddartha would have been companions. You even wrote a story about that, you were so entranced by the idea.

Far being from an iconoclast, through these studies you had recovered loyalty to your upbringing. Even if you did throw out the dirty bath water, you saved the baby.

And then there is that scary word, treason.

There are some who seem to feel that dissent is treason. To question is to be disloyal.

Is all this war talk and the repression of dissent a cover to keep attention of the people away from the current administration's desire to undo essential social protections for the disadvantaged of America, to conceal the venality of corporate America, to compromise the environment, to destroy our liberty, as a consequence of the hideously named Patriot Act? To win elections? To spend fifty billion dollars to fight an enemy because "He tried to kill my Dad?"

Is Iraq really the source of terror? Or is our real enemy the fanaticism of Islam, its terrorist cells.

Of course Saddam is a wicked man. The world would be better off without him. But to advance patriotic and economic arguments against this weakened foe to excuse aggression against a country, a first strike, something we have never in our history done before, would reduce us to the other Invaders of world history, Gengis, Attila, Mohammad, Tamurlane, Hitler.

What about Saudi Arabia? Many terrorists are Saudis. But they have what we call "our oil," and ought not to be disturbed, isn't that so? And North Korea has a very large Army where we would lose thousands, maybe tens of thousands if we invaded there.

And then what would happen as a consequence of that war of first strike aggression?

Would it make our relation with the Arabs and the Muslims even worse? Would it destabilize the whole Middle East? Would it cause even more terror? More innocent deaths?

And even if our proposed invasion succeeded, would those native populations who we are supposed to be helping have any idea what democracy really meant? Would they even know how to implement it?

You have read the book of the enemy. Its so-called holy text. You find it violent and hateful and a danger to those outside their faith. You know the radicals of this indigestible faith are the enemies of democracy. They must be contained. Our liberties must be preserved against the onslaught of that brand of ignorance. Their fundamentalism. Of all fundamentalisms. Of all those who say they have an Only Truth.

Is that so-called war on terror not even a war at all? Isn't it a police action against a large and dedicated international criminal conspiracy? Whose targets are innocent people, our children, our very Happiness? How would the recognition of that simple fact change our behavior?

Is all this, as some comic suggested, that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor we must attack China because it was weaker?

Is even asking these questions an act of Treason?

As an American, a passionate patriot who believes in free speech, and all other civil liberties, you think this is a reckless use of words.

Once in a school in Lebanon, a scholar suggested that the Koran was written by men in stages at different times, not by Allah. His students were so enraged at this blasphemy that they seized their professor and threw him out of a window.

If one dares to dissent, to question, which is as you think a precious right that belongs to all Americans, do the professors of that liberty risk being tossed out of windows?

If we are to defend ourselves, perhaps we ought to do some hard thinking. Who is the real enemy here? And what do we really have to do to contest it?

Let's keep a true sense of ourselves however complicated and subtle that is.

Name calling is simple. It is ignorance. Labeling avoids difficult thinking in favor of slogans that are mistaken for thought. That's why there are teach-ins. That is why there is research. Investigation. Reason. To help us clarify and deepen thinking.

To call dissent treason is shame beyond reason.

You are free. You are that wondrously complex thing, an American. A religious human. And you refuse to let the simplifiers define you.

Steven Fortney
January 2003




Politics. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage. Ambrose Bierce

A few year's end points.

I am utterly delighted that the Republicans did so well this year. What a gas. Isn't Molly Ivins going to be fun to read!

Of the many things in the Contract with America (hard to tell if we're with politicians or with the Mafia here) is the school prayer amendment. I, for one, can't wait. As a devout member of the Santeria Faith I know how I will serve as a role model for the spiritual guidance of our children. I will march as if I were an Onward Santeria Soldier to the front of my classroom. With my chicken. Since this will supposedly be a moment of silence, I will strangle (so it won't make any noise) the chicken first, and then cut it's throat. Then I will silently sprinkle the blood of the chicken liberally throughout the room. I thought at first that I would behead my goat there. But there is a lot of blood in a goat. Too messy. I'll save that for September when we gather around the flagpole to pray for the schools. Rudy was out there two years ago. Praying on street corners. I'll warn him ahead of time though. Don't want him to get any goat blood on his contract.

Something about that contract brought back haunting memories. The part about cutting taxes and increasing defense spending. Didn't Reagan do that 14 years ago? Isn't that what inflated the deficit explosively? Am I missing something here?

I particularly like the idea of the capital gains tax cut. More subsidies for the rich. Of course they deserve it. The shift in wealth over the last 14 years from the lower and middle class in favor of the wealthy has been obscene. But they deserve it, the rich do. It costs a lot of money to relocate a plant to Mexico these days. A billion dollars simply doesn't go as far as it used to. God forfend, according to the Bob Dole (is he a pineapple or just giving it out), that the wealthy should have to pay their fair share to support the nation, state and community. And of course Newt Grinch will tell you orphanages cost a lot these days. And Tommy Thompson is right in there with the gang. Property Tax relief? Ha ha. In my three previous essays I showed you how it could be done. But it won't be done that way. If it is done at all. Dole and Grinch and Thompson and Rudy too don't want their rich friends to suffer any more than they have to. I think they want me to feel sorry fo! r rich people. I know, I know. Constantly getting tax breaks is pretty exhausting business. I do feel sorry for them! I mean that sincerely.

The American people want change--or so say the analysts. I'm here to prove the contrary. How do I do that? Well, just look at what happened locally. In one of the dimmest of recent electoral performances, rivaling that of the vote for, say, Warren G. Harding, we reelected Rudy. Now there's a guarantee for you. He won't do anything for, to, or against us. If you don't want government to interfere with your life we couldn't have done better. Even the Wisconsin State Journal couldn't endorse him! (Just to show you how resolutely conservative I am, I voted in abject obedience to the Republican paper this time.) That's something ain't it? Well you won't get no change with Rudy, that's for sure. But you got to admire the efficiency of that campaign. The whole of it and presumably his entire political philosophy was reduced to one word. NO. Pretty good, that. Simplifies life, doesn't it? Positively breathtaking in its essential brilliance.

We'll work it out. As a devout member of the Sufi Church when we meet at the flagpole next September I'll do a couple of Whirling Dervish Dances for us to make us a little more positive. I won't chant though. This is supposed to be a moment of silence. Then I'll get that goat! Off with his stinky head! This is very ecumenical of me, I know. Oh well, it's all the same God anyway. And that's what the American people really want. It's in the contract, isn't it?

Steven Fortney
February 1995


The Ferengi
How we voted for Tommy and Rudy and Scott but got Ferengi instead.


I don't know how many of your readers are Star Trek buffs as my wife and I are. Or Deep Space Nine enthusiasts as I am. On those wonderful TV shows there are a marvelous multiplicity of weird characters, among whom my favorites are the Klingons and The Ferengi. I love the Klingons, warriors who will scuffle at the drop of an insult, because they remind me of middle school kids, whose sense of honor seems always to be wounded and are always squaring off and fighting about something important like boyfriends and girlfriends. Or their locker number. A typical Klingon party ends with two of these warriors singing horrible songs in Klingon poetry, making toasts with dreadful green drinks and then bashing their heads together.

I especially love the Ferengi because they are as equally retrograde as the Klingons, though in an entirely different way: their whole life is money, profit and acquisition, which in the spiritual scheme of things, as we all know, are among the lower centers of consciousness. They love good food, fine clothes, good drink, sex, and money. With money first. The very first. They are so refined in their acquisition of loot and lucre, filthy or otherwise, that they have evolved a book written by Quark called The Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.

You may not know anything about Star Trek or Quark or the Rules of Acquisition. So I offer a few of them for your delectation. What follows are the actual rules quoted from this excellent book and my updating of them.

Rule#1. Once you have their money, never give it back.
Read my lips, no new taxes. Don't you dare tax anything except the middle class and the poor. Make sure you let corporations and state governments raid the retirement funds of their workers. Social Security is enough for those poor slobs. And by all means make sure you don't cut physicians fees in Medicare reform.

Rule #6. Never allow family to stand in the way of opportunity.
Cut off all welfare in two years, even if the kids are only three and there aren't any jobs for mom. Get these kids into orphanages. They'll be happy there. For moms and dads sneak in all the hidden taxes you can think of and make life a little harsher for these family raisers. Have school boards make their educational aides live on far less and pay out of that for their health insurance. Adversity makes us strong, doesn't it? And for our grandmothers and grandfathers cut the heart out of Medicare. Get them into HMOs so that private enterprise can make a profit. And why do those people need help? They're going to die soon anyway.

Rule #10. Greed is eternal.
Especially for those downsizing corporations. Especially those who fire wage earning workers and replace them with part-time minimum wagers. Especially for baseball owners. Especially Bud Selig and Tommy and their pals. (Rudy didn't vote for that one.) Life just is just too hard without a skybox.

Rule # 21. Never place friendship above profit. Rule # 121. Everything is for sale, even friendship.
Even if your constituents don't want the state to subsidize baseball,vote to do it anyway. What do they know? And makes sure by saying such things as "Stick it to 'em" so they know in what high esteem they are held.

Rule # 35. War is good for business.
Make sure the NRA gets a state law invalidating local gun ordinances. Rudy, who will be hereafter known as pistol-packing Rudy, went for that one.

Rule # 41. Profit is its own reward.
Not virtue. Not education. Not compassion. Not fairness. Not sanctity. We have baseball, but an abolition of the Department of Public Instruction and an assault on education and poor people and children and old folks and sick people. But thank goodness, we have baseball. And an ecstatic Wisconsin Association of Manufacturers. And state chamber of commerce.

Rule # 89. Ask not what your profits can do for you, but what you can do for your profits.
Make sure you pay close attention to all those lobbyists who think the interests of the common folk is somehow counterproductive, dangerous, subversive and wicked. Do you suppose that the massive legislative effort that won a stadium for baseball will ever win anything for education, for children, for old people, for sick folks, for the middle class?

Rule # 97. Enough is never enough. Rule # 144. There's nothing wrong with charity, as long is it winds up in your pocket.
It's only right that the rich get all the tax breaks. Make sure you get more tax breaks for the wealthy and those record profit corporations, heaven knows they need them. A rich person who has benefited obscenely though the current tax laws both federal and state just has the worst time acquiring that third yacht and the fourth car. A fatter bottom line. Poor fellas. (Just think of the hideous anxiety of having a lot of money.)

Rule # 106. There is no honor in poverty.
Stick it to 'em: little children, old people, the working poor. Let's face it. They're nothing but scum. And, after all, we need low-income slaves to maximize our profits.

Rule # 181. Not even dishonesty can tarnish the shine of profit.
And we're told it's good for a small child, an old person, the working poor have what little they have taken away from them. Makes them into much finer people. Improves their character. Makes them desperate for any job they can get.

Rule # 244. More is good. All is better.
How much more advantage do the rich need? And how much longer will Tommy Thompson and our pal pistol-packing Rudy help them?

I think you're getting the idea.
The new republicans are Ferengi.
Newt Gingrich is a Ferengi.
So is Tommy Thompson.
So is Rudy.
So is a certain school board
The whole darn country and the whole darn state have been taken over by the Ferengi.

O well, there's always bread and circuses to keep the old people, the sick people, the children, the working poor and so forth distracted and even happy. I mean baseball.

They don't call it a baseball diamond for nothing.

Steven Fortney
October 1995



I am meditating on the carnage of recent elections. I think Homer said it pretty well in the Odyssey written almost three thousand years ago. He is describing the Cyclops, those savage one eyed cannibals that Odysseus met on the island of Oggygia on his way home. Odysseus also met the Gingrich-Thompson-Silbaugh politicians (we could call them our modern Cyclops) there and described them in the following terms:

...These men settled laws. They live apart
on lofty mountain ridges, dwelling
in hollow caverns. Each makes laws
for wife and child, and gives no heed
to any save himself.

That about sums it up. If you remember some months ago a description was given you in three of these letters as to how genuine tax reform by removing the education from the property tax could be accomplished fairly. A proposal was made to employ a modest increase in the sales tax, minor increases of fair graduated state income taxes, and compensatorily raising corporate taxes to make up for the property tax cuts. You should remember it was predicted that Prince Thomas, he of the One Eye, and his Knights (or nights) would do no such thing. And of course he did no such thing.

Instead the proposes cuts in essential middle class services, increases in a whole list of fees which mostly fall on that same middle class, caps on education which predictably will be a disaster for most school districts, a deficit spending (do I smell Reagan the Dim here? who crippled this country because he couldn't count?--are we missing something here? Are we just not getting it?) to be deferred to the next biennium, and of all things a tax cut for the very wealthy! My word. It's your old deja vu all over again.

What's worse I hear echoes from Washington here. As a political junkie addicted to C-Span the venom and meanness coming out of our current Rouse of Misrepresentatives has reach depths not to be anticipated or believed. Same story. Cuts for the middle class and poor. Benefits for the rich. King Newt's One Eye glares even more angrily than Thompson's. One wonders what they're looking at. Their own coming wealth? The pampering of the upper classes who took the last tax cuts and moved them to Mexico? Who or whatever it is, be assured those single eyed ideologues aren't looking out after us!

Let us brood over the definition of politics that Ambrose Bierce came up with in his wonderful book: The Devil's Dictionary. Politics. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

Quite true. Quite bitterly true, isn't it?

Some of us, however, feel quite clean in spirit. Some of us didn't vote either for King Newt, Prince Thomas, Squire Rudy.

But we wish we didn't have to worry so over all those people who will be hurt by those turkeys. Old people. Poor people. School Children. Middle class folks being nickeled and dimed to death by hidden tax increases. All those folks it's so much fun to attack these days.

It's not that we didn't know what was going to happen.

Let's retire to the deck this find spring day and have a little Gentlemen's Jack's on the rocks. We've a lot to think about.

Well, here's mud in your eye! Let's hope we have at least two. It will keep us from utter blindness.

Steven Fortney
October 1995



A year ago last summer Ruth, my cousin Tom Larson, and I were enjoying an ice cream at an outdoor cafe in Rothenburg, Germany on of the most perfectly preserved medieval villages left in Europe. Though it was but a few miles from my childhood home, Schweinfurt, the location of one of the most intense allied bombing raids of World War II (the target was a ball-bearing factory) and during which four out of every ten flying fortresses was shot down, Rothenburg itself remained untouched by the war.

It was a lovely warm June day. Across the square from us some Bavarian kids dressed in sixties tie-dye t-shirts, with a boom-box blasting rock and roll, were playing a basketball game--in front of a large stone cathedral that had been built in the eleventh Century. The contrast between the modern and the ancient, the present and past was decisive.

A week later we were visiting our host Jan Blaho in Prague, the Czech Republic. We had just finished a tour of that magnificent city, viewing so much of the wonderful architecture, that we were quite saturated by a history that had been preserved since the eighth century.

I commented to Jan, who was born and raised not far from Prague, but who had spent much time in Australia and America, "There's so much history here. Doesn't it affect how you think about things? There must be a difference between the American and European mentality in view of the immensity of your past."

Jan thought a moment. "No I don't think so", he said.

Kathy, his American wife immediately jumped in. "It sure does!" she said emphatically. "You're so used to it that you just don't notice...."

Stoughton recently won a huge grant to preserve the baroque theater above city hall. All work should be finished by the turn of the century. Indeed, John Vondran tells me that it could be done even sooner. Even so, the shows in that theater, unfinished as it is, because the place is old and elegant, have a savor all their own.

The citizens of Stoughton a few years ago forced the city not to abandon the Carnegie Library but to preserve and remodel it. Some of us on the city council, myself included, were willing to build an entirely new library. But the referendum taught us otherwise. And, thankfully, showed us by a huge majority of citizens emphatically that the old library must be saved.

We are finally developing a sense of history, it appears.

Now we are faced with the disposition of the old high school, the former administrative building. Driving on the street where the middle school used to be for the first time in years, that building is in full view. And a lovely old thing it is, too.

History must be acknowledged if we are to ever mature as a people. The building must be preserved. It ought not to be erased.

Otherwise in a hundred years we will have nothing but parking lots surrounded by shiny new pole buildings.

A human without memory is an idiot.

A society without a sense of history is barbaric.

The building must be preserved.

Steven Fortney
December 1997


American Chaplain in Norway
Albin L. Fortney, Major, Ch.c

Lutheran Herald
August 14, 1945

EDITOR's NOTE. The following letter from Chaplain Fortney was received by Dr. J. A. Asgaard, who has made it available to the church papers. The picture on the cover of this issue accompanied the letter. Chaplain Fortney was one of the first pastors of our Church to enter the chaplaincy, beginning his service in 1939. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese attack. Following several years in the Pacific, he was stationed in the States for some time and was then transferred to the European theater of operations.

These days have been some of the most exciting days of my life. A few days ago I wrote a letter to you merely giving a suggestion that I was going to Norway. It was not possible at that time to tell you outright that that was my destination. But now that I have arrived in Oslo it has become permitted information.

I learned about four weeks ago that I was to be the senior chaplain on the Task Force assigned to occupy a portion of Norway. My first inkling of it came when I discovered that I had a set of orders that would take me from northeastern France, in the region of Reims, to Scotland. I got confirmation of it when I arrived in Paris and saw the senior chaplain of the European Theater of Operations. I took the available rail transport to Dieppe and arrived there scarcely ten days after that city had been liberated by the unconditional surrender. We immediately took ship to England.

On the train to Dieppe I ran into my "first Norwegians." They were 1st Lieutenant Finn Rodland and 1st Lieutenant Olav Sorum. Both these men had been prisoners of war in Germany and both had made their escape before the general liberation. Both had been prisoners of war for more than two years and had seen the worst that German sadism could display. The strangest thing of all about them (to a man who has listened to hatred and vengeance for well onto four years) was the lack of that spirit in them. They knew how low humans could fall. Their lack of hatred was due, not to a stupor that could easily have conquered them, but rather to that simple "Norwegian" logic, that: "It may be assumed that nearly half of the war has been groveling in the muck of bestiality. If we lose our faith and our God, the world is lost; if we remain human and reflect upon the fact that we are created in the image of God, there is still hope left for the world."

As Lieutenant Sorum and I stood on deck watching the gunners sink a floating mine, it was rather cold, and I noticed that Lieutenant Sorum had no gloves. I asked him about it and he said he didn't have any. I dug into my, suitcase and gave him an extra pair that I had. He was speechless with joy! So was I, with surprise! He was not content with shaking hands in thanks. He threw his arms around me. He had not had a pair of, gloves in five years!

After one week and one day in England and Scotland, our Task Force personnel started for Norway. One of the first pleasant surprises we had was to board the ship and find it mostly filled with British and Norwegian personnel. The Norwegian Army, both masculine and feminine, had trained in England. They wore the British battle dress, and in many cases were almost as British as the British. Their accent, was completely British, which was a bit surprising to one accustomed to hearing the admixture of Norwegian with Middle Western. The quiet poise and dignity of the feminine part of the army was something that almost any feminine army could do well to pattern.

It had been in the face of grim realities that they had joined the Army. They had joined the army to be (in spirit) with their husbands when they could not be with them in person. They had joined because they could see in that the only way of being of service to the country that they had loved so well.

Constantly I heard stories of marvelous escapes from Norway. Constantly, l heard stories of the wonderful part that had been played by Bishop Eivind Berggrav, the Primate of Norway. Their king, of course, is their sense of security, and permanence, but the bishop in his untiring efforts, his principles, and his leadership has captured their imagination as no one else. There is ample reason to believe that, the bishop was very near the top in the resistance movement, and that while he was for the greater part of the time in house arrest.

One little lady-I shall not mention her name-on the morning we entered Stavanger Fjord went with me to the top deck to see as much of the country as possible as we went along. Her home was way to the north in Bodo. She had made her escape on a Red Cross ship early in the occupation. The ship had been strafed, bombed, and sunk in the region of Iceland. They had been adrift on rafts (only the old and infirm ride on rafts, the rest hang on the outside) and finally picked up by destroyers and landed in Iceland. Some time later they made their way to Scotland where she as soon as possible joined the N. K. K. H. (Norwegian Women's Army) commonly called the "K Army." Sometime later, while a member of that organization, she married a young captain. This young man had volunteered for sabotage in Norway. She likewise volunteered, but was not accepted. Somehow I think that that blue-eyed little girl, weighing scarcely five and a half stone, with her cool competence would have been v! ery efficient on just about any job that she would undertake. He had made many trips into and out of Norway, but now she told me she hadn't heard from him in two years.

"It is fantastic" she said, "that I am returning to Norway. But it is not an unmixed pleasure."

She told me of her family who had changed their politics and had gone to the Quisling side. So she had renounced her family, since she was thoroughly convinced that there could be no good reason for their having failed her. "I will never forgive my sister," she said. "She should have come with me or soon after before her parents had the chance to influence her." We had been looking over the starboard rail all this time and I just chanced to look in her direction in time to see the tears streaming down her cheeks, which I never, would have suspected as she spoke.

Later her friends told me her husband had been killed by the Germans. There were no tears now for him. It hurt her more to have her parents living under traitorous circumstances than to have her "husband killed in the pursuit of his mission"

My short stay in Stavanger, was crowned with a visit with Bishop Gabriel Skagestad. He, like all the rest of the bishops, had left his post of duty and operated free lance during the occupation. He had of course, been taken off the usual pay and had automatically made himself an outcast and an enemy of the "government." It had become a crime to feed him or to give him money. Yet, he had never been without money and had never been without food.

Only about fifty of the regularly ordered clergymen of the Evangelical Lutheran Church had stayed in their parishes. The rest had left and gone underground. The bishops' seats had been filled by those senile old men who had stayed in the Church. The rest of the calls had been filled by school teachers, organists, "klokkers," janitors, and other more or less free lance preachers, etc. Their reward after five years is imprisonment as traitors. Most of these jolly well deserve it. All will receive a fair trial.

For me to start a conversation in Norwegian on the streets almost anywhere here would start a minor riot. It is extremely difficult for them to understand bow some of us could retain the Norwegian, as my family has, for almost one hundred years. They consider it truly amazing. Consequently, as I stepped off the ship in Stavanger and started talking Norwegian, in just "et oieblik" there were a hundred people gathered around me. I was the first American off our ship. I believe I was the first American in Stavanger, and I am almost certain that I was the first Norwegian-American (Norwegian speaking) in Stavanger after the war.

Thursday, June 7, is the day of the return of the king. This is precisely five years after his departure under the rain of bombs that he had experienced from time to time for two months after the entry of the Germans under the sponsorship of the traitor Quisling. Five years of threatened starvation which was delicately balanced by gifts of Sweden and Denmark. Five years of going without clothes. Five years of black market activity. Five years of suspicion of one's neighbors. Five years of guarding their very souls against the inroads of the temptations of sacrifice to convenience--and in some cases, watching one's friends fall victim thereto. Five years of torture by the Gestapo. Five years of watching brothers and sisters make their preparations for departure for England. Five years of seeing sons and daughters leave their homes in the morning and not return, the question being in their minds, "Did they escape to England or were they caught by the Gestapo?' Five years of! systematic murder.

For the first time in my life I listened to "ja vi elsker dette landet" with a very troublesome lump in in throat. It was one of the first times I had ever heard it sung in seriousness. All other times back in Minnesota and Wisconsin had been in semiseriousness, indeed many times it had been sung in parody mid much laughter. The only other time I had ever heard it sung in unmixed seriousness, was aboard the ship coming to Norway when several of the Norwegian officers and enlisted men asked me to lead in the singing of their national anthem.

On Saturday, June 9, 1 saw Bishop Berggrav. Knowing as much as I did about him, I was truly impressed that a man of his humility and self-effacement should be such a "strong man" of Norway. We had about an hour together and I had some pictures taken.

At the close of my talk with the bishop he gave me an invitation and pass to the official Service of Thanksgiving for the return of the king, to be on June 10 (the next day). So I attended it as the bishop's personal guest. Thousands of Norwegians were turned away.

I had seen the king twice before, and of course the crown prince and crown princess with their family, in America and Norway. The Norwegians love their king, and justifiably so.

On Tuesday (yesterday) I, took General Summers out to see the bishop. I was proud of the bishop and I was proud of my general. He truly seemed to grasp the whole situation. I am satisfied that the general will not quickly forget that visit.

Incidentally, the pictures of me and Bishop Berggrav were, at his request, taken in front of the carved wood statues of Hans Nielsen Hauge and Martin Luther.

Steven Fortney
October 2000


Politics and Liberalism

When my brother died as a casualty of the war in Viet Nam, our family felt as though we had been hit by a gigantic force which pushed us aside like fruit flies smashed by a glacier. Those forces were the political history of the US and the history of South-East Asia on a deadly collision course over which no one seemed to have any control. And Kendall Thomas Fortney in 1968 was crushed by it as though he were nothing. My brother was a decent caring man who refused to kill and became an unarmed medic in the path of a war that destroyed him.

I have a friend who was taken seriously ill. He was hospitalized and cured, but it cost him the principal of his entire pension. Now he subsists in subsidy housing on social security. He barely scrapes by. He can barely afford the drugs he needs to keep him alive.

Conservatives seem to adore those huge economic engines presumably in the name of liberty. My politics is liberal (though with a powerful dose of independence and self-reliance) in that it insists upon the interconnection of that individual will to all the natural and social communities it is born out of, and insists on responsible participation in them.

Man is good enough to make democracy possible and wicked enough to make it necessary, so the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr holds. Man is good enough to make free enterprise possible and wicked enough to make some controls essential. All we need to do to understand this wickedness is to think of Ford-Firestone who in the name of the market and seemingly have killed scores of people for profit by selling it seems with knowledge aforehand products that were likely kill. Or that plant in Milwaukee that posted record profits and then laid off 4,000 of its employees to move where help was even cheaper for even greater future profits.

Must we live in a society where old values and new visions are buried under unbridled growth and condemn ourselves to a soulless wealth? Or must we rather therefore abandon the will to unmoral wealth in favor of the will to health and the creation of caring communities.

So, at long last, the only response to the giant Machines of History is not national, or economic, or narrowly political, it is spiritual--a response of simple human compassion arising from our deepest souls in the face of all economic, religious, and political ideologies. Out of that compassion we are to use government where necessary to create communities that truly care for and protect the poor, the disadvantaged, the dissenter, the elderly, the children, working people, middle class folks (patiently waiting for that trickle) and all those who would be subordinated by a conservative politics to the giant and destructive machines of history of which they seem so fond.

The indirect benefits so dear to the heart of so many conservatives so far has only served to widen the gap between the very rich and the rest of us. One questions in view of the conservative candidate's tax cut favoring the very wealthy: How much more do those people need anyway?

In the compassionate heart, people are first. To create a community that would be gracious and fair in which to dwell politics must insist on a liberal corrective for the foreseeable future.

Steven Fortney
October 2000


The Pledge

Here are some thoughts on the recent court decision on the pledge of allegiance. I was a junior in high school in Michigan when the changed wording "under God" was added by congressional act. In other words I spent some sixteen years of my life with the old Pledge. I was never comfortable with the new language even in my seminary days when the God of my early nurture was a lively concern. My father, a veteran of World War II who earned three battle stars, and millions of soldiers like him, lived with the old language, fought one of the great wars in human history, at no particular disadvantage, without that 1954 addition.

Is America under God? Are all the other nations not? True, we are rich and favored. But is that a result of blessing? What about other countries, like say Patagonia, which is very cold, and it's people very poor? Is that evidence that Patagonia does not have God's favor? Can the same be said for Albania, or Chad, or Mississippi, for that matter? It seems plain that divine favor if such exists is rather unequally distributed.

There is another, more scientific, and historically informed interpretation of America's fortune. This has little or nothing to do with God's alleged favor, or overness, or our underness. What follows is a compressed secular version of history:

America is but one nation state among the Western democracies. She may be favored by a wealth of land, of natural resources, with a rather peculiar history lucky in its founding statesmen of genius--but she has no special covenant of blessing any more than does any other nation state. There is no special providence guiding America, (if there is any lesson to be learned from Viet Nam, it is in this) except by virtue of the Abraham Lincolns among us who, like him, hear calls from the better angels of our own secular nature, to keep and preserve this union. We do not see the hand of any God in its settlement, exploitation (consult our Native Americans on this subject--not to mentioned our rapidly vanishing natural resources), development. This is the work of men and women. But that is to say our great nation is the outcome of several wonderful historical accidents and the efforts of our immigrant population to exploit those accidents. But accidents nevertheless.

It is possible, in spite of the anticipated roaring of the evangelicals over this secular rendition of our origins, to be fervently patriotic as an American nevertheless, but particularly as an American with a deep historical sense. Our founding fathers were men of genius. They with Lincoln created the last best hope of man on earth in the making and preserving of a Union that shelters the growth of communities of free individuals. And what a price we paid for that! The growth of criminal men of wealth and mindless consumerism which like Maurice Minnifield and other market fundamentalists cannot look at any event but as an opportunity to cash in on it (the ridiculous son of Ted Williams who wants to market his father's DNA) certainly is at odds with the ideals of Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Monroe. One is not un-American when one criticizes our current situation. Or our current political habits.

New World American culture is clearly post-classical--its own classical period having extended from the foundation of the republic through its civil war to the Tet offensive, where the limits of her power and provenance became evident. From childish jingoism through adolescent heroism--World War II had to be one of the few truly necessary wars in the history of the planet--now we have come to middle age. If we revert to childishness--rocket rattling, turf eating, materially self-indulgent boorishness--we will be a danger to ourselves, our environment, our planet. An invasion of Iraq would be more devastating than the current planners have let on. If, however, we mature to a proper modesty, a sense of our proportion in a sharing world community, as over against our recent self-absorbed go-it-alone uses of power, with our educational advantage, we could be a boon to the human species and to the planet.

Our founding fathers were Deists. Many of them were Masons, the liberalism of its day. They had a lively memory of the terrible religious wars that preceded them historically. In one of the most important decisions they ever made they determined that there should be no state church, no state religion. They saw that the separation of Church and State must be made secure. Moreover it must be made secure for religious faith itself! It is a part of our liberty to be able to choose one's faith without compulsion. It is on this basis that the recent court decision regards the pledge as currently written is unconstitutional. Please remember that this change occurred as a change in Law. It was a congressional act. Almost all other expressions of faith have no basis in law. You therefore can sing God Bless America all you want without fear of judicial judgment. But a law is unconstitutional or it is not. An act of Congress is either unconstitutional or not. Hence the decision.

I am going to change the Pledge once again to make a point. I will use a word that according to all historians of religion is the purest expression of monotheism ever conceived. It is a great concept straight out of the Bible. It is the most radical of all the expressions of the majesty of God. Of His absolute Transcendence. Of his unqualified Rule. Of his Glory and Power.

This is how the new pledge would read:

....One nation under Allah....
Why not use that word? I don't know about you but that gives me pause. Isn't it clear why our Founders considering State sanction of religion, any religion, made the decision they did.

The court decision should stand.

Steven Fortney
July 2002


Protesting War

The behavior of our country in the last few months is alarming. We seem to be marching to a war we don't understand; we seem to be gutting our civil liberties in the name of that war. This is madness. There are questions that need asking.

Is all this war talk and the repression of dissent a cover to keep attention of the people away from the current administration's desire to undo essential social protections for the disadvantaged of America, to conceal the venality of corporate America, to compromise the environment, to mistrust our liberty, as a consequence of the hideously named Patriot Act? To win elections? To spend fifty billion dollars to fight an enemy because "He tried to kill my Dad"?

Is Iraq really the source of terror? Of course Saddam is a wicked man. The world would be better off without him. But to advance patriotic and economic arguments against this weakened foe to excuse aggression against a country, a first strike, something we have seldom (with the exception of the Mexican and Spanish American War in the nineteenth century) in our history and never in the 20th century done before, would reduce us to the other invaders of world history, Gengis, Attila, Mohammad, Tamurlane. We have even tried to bribe a country to allow us to do this. Turkey has so far refused.

What about Saudi Arabia? Many terrorists are Saudis. But they have what we call "our oil," and ought not to be disturbed, isn't that so? And North Korea who actually has a nuclear capability but also has a very large Army of a million men where we would lose thousands, maybe tens of thousands if we invaded there.

And then what would happen as a consequence of that war of first strike aggression? Would it make our relation with the Arabs and Islam even worse? Would it destabilize the whole Middle East? Would it excite even more terror? Cause more innocent deaths?

And even if our proposed invasion succeeded, would those native populations who we are supposed to be helping have any idea what democracy really meant? Would they even know how to implement it?

Is that so-called war on terror not even a war at all? Isn't it really a police action against a large and dedicated international criminal conspiracy? Whose targets are innocent people, our children, our freedom, our happiness? How would the recognition of that simple fact change our behavior?

Is even asking these questions an act of treason?

Thank heavens that the numbers of the questioners increase every day as we get closer to war and the killing.

If we are to defend ourselves, perhaps we ought to do some hard thinking. Who is the real enemy here? And what do we really have to do to contest it?

The current haste to war avoids difficult thinking in favor of slogans that are mistaken for thought. That's why there are teach-ins. That is why there is research. Investigation. Reason. To help us clarify and deepen thinking.

I took an oath once when joining the reserve navy a long time ago, and six times as an alderman more recently. I pledged to preserve and protect the constitution of the United States. To be loyal to America. Seven times. And I didn't even need to. My own patriotism is for me beyond question or compromise. I am loyal to an America which is fair, open, tolerant, cherishes diverse opinions, constitutional, a lover of the Bill of Rights. Our current rulers don't seem to have read that very constitution very carefully. Sometimes in the recent wartime surge of blind jingoism and the threat to our constitutional liberties I sometimes wonder seriously if the America I pledged to be loyal to and defend and loved even exists any more.

Steven Fortney
March 7, 2003


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