Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

Dear Shane Claiborne, Thank You For Saving Us from Ourselves!

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.

Five Essential Books for Christians?

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.

Cormac McCarthy Interview at the Wall Street Journal

cormac

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.”

Thinking About Where the Wild Things Are

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.: [1] 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.”] [2] 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. [3] 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.

An Editorial Tip from An Editor, Free of Charge

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.”

You’re welcome.

Reflections on Robert Louis Wilken at Wheaton

This past weekend, I took a quick jaunt up to Chicagoland to hear Robert Louis Wilken give the inaugural lecture for the Center for Early Christian Studies at Wheaton College. As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of Wilken’s work. A friend of mine is a grad student in biblical exegesis at Wheaton, and we often spar over various “methods” of scriptural interpretation, that is, “critical exegesis” vs. “theological interpretation” (both of which travel under myriad other names), which I’ve also written about before. To top it off, the title of Wilken’s lecture was “Going Deeper into the Bible: The Church Fathers as Interpreters.” My friend had invited me to stay with him and his wife, so I thought it would be fun to drive up there and have a full-out theological smackdown weekend, and it did not disappoint (except that the weekend was too short). The lecture was great (though, disappointingly, no Q&A session), we had lots of good conversation, and I got to visit IVP and see our old stomping grounds of, well, two months ago.

But this is not just a “newsy” post (the kind my mom covets so much). I want to write about a dynamic I perceived that I think is emblematic of the American theological/Christian scene and evangelicals’ place in it. A bit of biography on Wilken is in order here. While not quite in his winter years, Wilken is at the tail end of a prolific and accomplished career. He is a former president of the American Academy of Religion, an institution not historically amenable to traditional and confessional forms of Christianity, and until recently even somewhat hostile to them. One of his earliest books, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (now a classic), aims pretty hard at debunking idealized notions of the early church by sympathetically exploring the logic of Roman criticisms of Christianity. He’s taught at both Notre Dame and Fordham, both Catholic institutions, but not ones where faculty necessarily have to adhere to the strictest forms of orthodoxy. He’s spent the better part of his late career at the University of Virginia. All this is to say, as you’ve probably guessed, that Wilken has always had at least one foot firmly planted in the secular academic world. One could interpret his career in one of two ways, I think. Either, you could say, he intentionally built his intellectual and academic reputation on works that would gain respect not just in seminaries but in the secular academic realm of religious studies in order to later articulate a more positive and robust faith in works like The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, a wonderful exploration of the patristic theological heritage. Or, you could say, he actually did shift throughout his career from a more liberal to a more conservative position, marked in the middle by his conversion from his Lutheran faith to Roman Catholicism. This latter scenario is what I think is more likely.

Okay. If you’re still with me, I applaud you. For here finally is my observation. Wilken’s lecture at Wheaton consisted basically of the lineaments of patristic scriptural interpretation, buttressed by weighty examples from the likes of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. Now for those familiar with these kinds of discussions, there was nothing surprising; it was pretty basic, full of all the classic mistakes that my Bible professors warned me that the church fathers make. Prooftexting! Eisegesis! Allegory! Platonism! (Though it takes some fancy interpretive footwork for them to legitimate the fact that the authors of the New Testament are guilty of all the same “heresies.”) My friend had pointed out to me beforehand his biblical exegesis professors sitting in the audience, who evidently spend a good deal of time meticulously constructing these patristic straw men in order to knock them down with a wave of their historical-critical finger. But here is where the night came to its full ironic climax, and where I realized yet again why—as caustic, dismissive, and cynical as I have often been—I so often prefer the semi-educated, nonacademic “exegesis” in the local evangelical churches I have attended over the years. Here I am, sitting at Wheaton College, a school dripping with evangelical heritage—Billy Graham was president here for goodness’ sake—arguably the center of “thinking” evangelicalism, a school that supposedly defines itself by its fidelity to a broadly confessional evangelical milieu, and I can almost hear the pedantically dismissive demurrals from the exegesis professors when Wilken tells us that Scripture is alive, and that when we read it we encounter God in the words, and that proper interpretation of Scripture is intimately connected to doctrine and to the individual’s spiritual comportment. I can almost hear them say, “But what does that have to do with the ancient Near Eastern background!” And the kicker was when Wilken said, referring to our interpretation of Scripture—and he repeated it two or three times—”It’s not in the head, it’s in the heart.” At this point, though, the biblical exegesis professors had probably already stopped listening.

Evangelicalism in the academy is in such a weird place right now. Does it really take somebody from entirely outside the scope of evangelicalism, and a papist for that matter, to tell us that our Bibles can teach us something useful for our lives? That we don’t have to have a Ph.D. in ancient Semitic languages, or even a preacher who does, to understand the text? The Bible belongs to the church, not the professors.

Two things. First, Wilken knew what he was doing. He knew his audience, and while it was a thoroughly academic delivery, not short on the language of the church fathers, when it came down to it, he could have dwelled at length on phrases such as fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”), but he didn’t. He said, “it’s not in the head, it’s in the heart,” a distinctly evangelical locution.

Second, it didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears, as I have made it appear. This was, after all, the inaugural lecture for the Center for Early Christian Studies, whose mere existence is a late indicator of a shift in the world of evangelicals’ relationship to Scripture and their opening up to the intellectual and cultural ferment of the first six or seven centuries of the church (though I would like to see us open up to the tradition as a whole; there’s still about, oh, a thousand years we all skip between the end of the patristic age and the Reformation). I slaved over the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture at InterVarsity Press for the last two and a half years, for pete’s sake. But I was there with my modern biblical exegete friend (who, I must say, is not entirely unsympathetic to my views), and taking it all in through his eyes and the eyes of his professors, one of whom we overheard after the lecture declaiming in smug tones to a gaggle of students that if Wilken wanted to go on speculating about whatever he thought the text meant, why then, by all means, it’s a free country (or some such dreck). I don’t think the biblical exegesis profs at Wheaton are talking much to their historical and systematic theology colleagues, the latter of whom are even writing books about this stuff. Which is a shame really. My friend put a few questions to Wilken after the lecture, some about what biblical exegesis profs think about this kind of stuff, and Wilken was a tad prickly about the whole thing, and even tersely advised my friend to stay away from biblical studies! I would say Wilken was dismissive, but I got the impression that he had tried many times to have discussions with those ensconced in the world of biblical studies, and had finally decided to wash his hands of them. And while I used to say that there was an equal amount of mud slinging from one side to the other, I have come to think that it tends to be a bit one sided, especially among evangelical academics. Theologians who want to interpret Scripture “theologically” generally don’t dismiss historical-critical endeavors but try to put it in its place, while those in biblical studies tend to dismiss theological interpretation as wrongheaded.

And here at the end I reiterate the weird thing about the academic evangelical moment. While more and more evangelical biblical scholars are embracing the spiraled heights of critical exegesis, theological interpretation, that is, interpretation according to the church’s tradition, is all the rage in the larger academy. And then these evangelical scholars accuse them of faulty interpretation! Pot, meet kettle.