A book I’m editing quotes the following, from Richard Sennett (The Fall of Public Man [New York: Norton, 1992], 259). Make of it what you will.
The reigning belief today is that closeness between persons is a moral good. The reigning aspiration today is to develop individual personality through experiences of closeness and warmth with others. The reigning myth today is that the evils of society can all be understood as evils of impersonality, alienation, and coldness. The sum of these three is an ideology of intimacy: social relationships of all kinds are real, trustworthy, and authentic the closer they approach the inner psychological concerns of each person. This ideology transmutes political categories into psychological categories. This ideology of intimacy defines the humanitarian spirit of a society without gods: warmth is our god. The history of the rise and fall of public culture at the very least calls this humanitarian spirit into question.
The recent news that Conan O’Brien will be replaced by Jay Leno has caused white people to erupt with rage and hostility. You might even expect them to lash out and do something about it like take to the streets or write a letter to NBC to voice their dissatisfaction with the network. But no, white people will solve this problem the way that they solved the election crisis in Iran – through Facebook and Twitter status updates. In 2009, millions of white people took 35 seconds to turn their twitter profiles green, and consequently sent a very powerful message to the leaders of Iran. Their message was that they wanted their friends to know that they would stop at nothing to ensure freedom and democracy for the Iranian people. Thanks in large part to that effort Iran is now completely democratic. With that issue settled, white people are launching a similar campaign for Conan that is sure to have similar results.
–from here, of course
I don’t know why I’m doing this. It goes against all of my better judgment, and I always, always, regret it when I do something similar. Nevertheless, I do. So, despite the fact that my opinion don’t matter jack to no one, I offer a disclaimer: I in no way condone the words Pat Robertson uttered in regard to the earthquake disaster in Haiti. They were wrongheaded, misguided, and utterly devoid of anything approaching tact or sensitivity. Nevertheless.
Here is a principle that should go without saying. If you are going to correct errors in judgment—even if they come from the theological theater of the absurd—do not, in doing so, commit your own errors in judgment. To wit:
Pat Robertson did not say that God is judging Haiti. He said that they made a deal with the devil and implied that their poverty results from the fact they are beholden to the devil’s will, not God’s. I know this only swaps one type of absurdity for another, but it seems, to me at least, significant. Does this imply God’s judgment? Maybe, but then you’re opening up a whole different theological can of worms, having to do with the nature of God’s interaction with the world, one not so simple as the indignant caterwauls all over the internet make it out to be.
The media did not “give him a platform.” As far as I am aware, everything he said was either on the 700 Club (his own show) or in an interview on CBN, hardly a media outlet whose agenda differs from somebody like Pat Robertson. The only thing the media did was run with it. It’s not like CNN sought him out as a correspondent just for a ratings hike.
The things he said were in the context of compassion and prayer. His timing was awful. His lack of tact was reprehensible. His delivery bordered on the plain obtuse. But he did not say the earthquake was a “blessing in disguise” because evil people died and were judged by God but because he hoped it would give them a chance to rebuild in a more fruitful and successful way. Directly following that comment, he urged people to pray for those who were suffering in Haiti. Good advice! He was wrong about blessing though. It was not a blessing. Hopefully it will provide an opportunity to root out political corruption and for the people of Haiti to reorganize their society in a way that mitigates suffering instead of perpetuates it (a little debt relief from the developed world wouldn’t hurt either), but things like that happen in a way that is wrapped in divine mystery, where somehow amid the tragedy of human suffering hope can rises from the ashes.
Any accusation that Robertson is not a Christian or that we should pray for his soul only perpetuates the intolerant, fundamentalist mindset it decries.
The alternative to a theological interpretation of a historical event, especially for Christians, is not a solely immanent interpretation about a historical event. What I mean is, it is entirely unhelpful to say things along the lines of “You know why the earthquake happened? The earthquake happened because tectonic plates shifted in the earth’s crust” (which I have heard). Well, duh, Einstein. It takes a lot of hard thinking to try to parse out the nature of God’s interactions with the world and to unravel the question of evil and suffering—and the answers from the people who have thought it through are either unsatisfying or appropriately vague. Nevertheless, giving the natural explanation is like folding your hand in the middle of the game. Do some work. Think of at least a better theological explanation than Robertson. At least that doesn’t take a whole lot of work.
Pat Robertson is a sinking ship. An absurd, sensationalistic sinking ship. The hardcore religious right has been waning in power and influence for some time, and you only fuel their fire by being ready to get all angry every time he drops one of his theological stink bombs. I have no doubt that all the negative attention he garners with his remarks only reinforces to his mind that he is doing the right thing. You, and the media who runs stories and commentary about him, are only playing into his hand by getting angry.
It’s all here, in this quote. This is Christianity in a nutshell. Athanasius should’ve had an altar call when he finished this passage.
“All this He [God] saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire” (On the Incarnation 2.8).
Shane Claiborne has a letter to nonbelievers in Esquire, in which he reinvents the liberal Protestant wheel, heroically distancing himself from street preachers, televangelists, and all other Christian meanies and then articulating a gospel of love and social justice to replace it.
Now I’m not trying to provide a rebuttal to his message by showing how classically “liberal” it is—that he’s unwilling to speak clearly about judgment or hell (though he is) and that he puts social justice at the heart of the gospel (though he does)—but rather that his letter deploys a certain cultural strategy of Christian engagement with the world. First, he shows an astonishing willingness to throw all of Christian history—and many of his contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ, while he’s at it—under the bus, in order to prove his own authenticity. (It’s amazing that after all these years, Shane Claiborne is the only one who’s gotten it!) And second, he interprets, and presents, the gospel in such a way that his unbelieving, secular readers will find nothing scandalous about Christianity. In other words, he wants to make Christianity relevant, a word he probably thinks is pretty good, and I think is very bad.
Take this for instance:
I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.
Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.
This echoes Donald Miller’s now somewhat-famous stunt he pulled on a secular college campus, where he set up a confessional and, to the students’ surprise, the Christians confessed the sins of the church to their non-Christian peers.
Oh, but he’s reaching the heart of secular America! Maybe. I don’t think this is a strategy that’s going to stand the test of time, however, or even win Christians any long-term intellectual respect, which seems to be his primary goal to begin with. I don’t mean all this as a complete defense of the status quo. I don’t have much patience for televangelists or belligerent street preachers either, but could you choose a much easier target? Who, especially among the readership of Esquire, likes these people?! There should be a Christian equivalent to Godwin’s law of Nazi analogies (whoever draws a comparison to Hitler first loses the argument), except that in the place of Hitler you put televangelists. Also, and more importantly, the idea that religion-qua-Christianity is historically at the heart of the world’s ills, and consequently that we need to apologize for adhering to any form of historically grounded Christianity, is a pretty significantly flawed thesis, one generated from the heart of Modernity, and there are writers out there combating it. (For a relatively short and extremely clear treatment of this, see this article, by William Cavanaugh.) Furthermore, Claiborne often takes a lot of his cultural cues from the likes of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder (generally, Christendom bad, alternative pacifist ecclesial enclaves good) but seems to have missed the fact that these thinkers offer trenchant and inextricable critiques of modern liberal democracies in general, not just of American Christianity’s capitulation to it. In other words, the people Claiborne’s appealing to in Esquire are just the other side of the same coin. A more consistent critique for Claiborne to make would not be that Christians in America have corrupted the gospel and that he’s found the answer by being the first person to read the parable of the Good Samaritan but that Christians in America are actually unwittingly in league with the very people he’s trying to get to take him seriously. Because in the end, his message sounds like a public service announcement. Be loving! Be Nice to poor people! Be tolerant! In the end, Claiborne’s critique is not radical enough. It sounds like civil religion.
The whole thing comes off, on one hand, as a smug dismissal of his own tribe and, on the other, as a plea for religion’s cultured despisers to take Christianity seriously. The nerdy kid on the playground disavowing all of his nerdy friends in order to hang out with the popular kids.
I’m trying to get some thoughts going for a little thingy I’m working on, and it involves this question: What five books, besides the Bible, do you think every Christian ought to have on his or her bookshelf (and to have read, not just to look smart). I have my starting points, but I want to know what others think they should be. Naturally, it could be anything, but try to be realistic, so try to choose books that are comprehensible to the ordinary layperson (which isn’t to say they can’t be challenging).
So. Five essential books for the Christian. Go.
Check it out here. John Hillcoat, the director of the film adaptation of The Road, is also in on the conversation. McCarthy doesn’t do many of these (this is maybe the third or fourth in, what, twenty-five years or something?), so fans slaver at the mouth for things like this, and this one doesn’t disappoint (though I hear the Oprah interview a few years ago was a bust). He’s terse, funny, dark, writerly, pessimistic, and generally very entertaining. They talk about the film adaptation of The Road (which comes out in two weeks) and McCarthy’s career in general. A few excerpts:
The Wall Street Journal: When you sell the rights to your books, do the contracts give you some oversight over the screenplay, or is it out of your hands?
Mr. McCarthy: No, you sell it and you go home and go to bed. You don’t embroil yourself in somebody else’s project.
WSJ: When you first went to the film set, how did it compare with how you saw “The Road” in your head?
CM: I guess my notion of what was going on in “The Road” did not include 60 to 80 people and a bunch of cameras. [Director] Dick Pearce and I made a film in North Carolina about 30 years ago and I thought, “This is just hell. Who would do this?” Instead, I get up and have a cup of coffee and wander around and read a little bit, sit down and type a few words and look out the window.
WSJ: But is there something compelling about the collaborative process compared to the solitary job of writing?
CM: Yes, it would compel you to avoid it at all costs.
WSJ: What kind of reactions have you gotten to “The Road” from fathers?
CM: I have the same letter from about six different people. One from Australia, one from Germany, one from England, but they all said the same thing. They said, “I started reading your book after dinner and I finished it 3:45 the next morning, and I got up and went upstairs and I got my kids up and I just sat there in the bed and held them.”
Principle 1: There are so many ways this movie could have been done badly.
Principle 2: The movie was not at all what I expected, and if it had been, would have been some form of principle 1, primarily because I lack the requisite amount of creativity to imagine something that didn’t fall into one of the Full House–like scenarios I and many other people secretly hoped it would. Instead, it took some real thinking, at least to backtrack from my initial expectations and go where the filmmakers were taking me instead.
Principle 3: The criticisms of the movie I have come across are almost entirely to blame on unreflective responses to Principle 2; that is, they wanted the mediocre, sugary, sentimental pandering they have come to expect from much of Hollywood, and they got a work of subtlety and depth.
Principle 4: The trailers led everyone (including me) astray, implying tear-jerking poignancy when in fact the movie was completely unsentimental (and no less rich for that).
Principle 5: The movie stayed unwaveringly true to the themes of the book by Maurice Sendak, but even surpassed the book in metaphorical and psychological sophistication. (E.g.:  The Wild Things Max encounters, while still representative of his various emotions, are fully rounded characters rather than parabolic types and as such are capable of generating serious and moving conflicts and encounters with Max [rather than pat moral lessons], which I think reinforces the strong Freudian imagery of both the film and the book; in other words, the characters convey traits that, while still technically part of Max’s imagination or psyche, are completely unknown to and unexplored by him. [Incidentally, I found out recently that the psychoanalytic themes in the book are quite intentional—Sendak spent years in therapy—and the book has even been called a “psychoanalytic parable.”]  Max is only able to tame the Wild Things through deception and facade—eventually it becomes clear that he has only fooled them [himself] with his “kingship”—and he must deal with the consequences.  The dysfunction in Max’s life—and, by extension, in his imagination—is serious and real. It hovers at the corner of the movie, and when it breaks in, it is a little terrifying. While he is only a child, Max is “out of control” [a phrase that recurs at key moments in both the “real world” and in Max’s imagination], as are the giant carnivorous beasts he encounters in his imagination. Max, and the viewer, is genuinely afraid. There are both good and bad implications to the “heartwarming” line “I’ll eat you up I love you so.”)
Principle 6: Jacques Lacan sums it all up: “When we learn to make symbols, we also learn to separate from our ambient childhood world of objects and achieve an independent selfhood that is experienced as loss. That lack can never be filled, and all human desire circulates around it, yearning to hark back to the lost unity.” Though this could be taken pejoratively, I don’t think it needs to be.
Ellipsis points, you know them? These things: . . . They are three and always only three. It’s not up to the writer to decide how many there are………….Especially when…….they are not….consistent. And especially abhorrent, don’t use just two! It’s..awful! What is that? Two periods? Should I stop or keep going? My eyes hurt! But Mr. Smartypants over here says that sometimes you should use four. WRONG! That first one is a period, indicating a complete thought and the elision of either the rest of the sentence or one or more sentences, as in “The Revolutionary War was brutal. . . . Washington saved the day.”