Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

Intimate Relationships as a Form of Narcissim?

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.


Pat Robertson’s Remarks

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.

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.

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.

What to Do if You Are Here Searching for Ben Gibbard

Probably you should just leave. Because you’re not going to find much of interest here.

On this blog, I regularly get hits in the teens, maybe fifty or sixty—maybe a hundred if I generate some current-events controversy in my small circle of friends, family, and acquaintances. But now I am officially part of the Blogosphere. Fame! Fortune! Gossip!

I have noticed in the last several months that the number of hits has regularly crept close to 100 per day, and then 150. Where was all this traffic coming from? Well, it seems that there are a lot of tweens out there searching for pictures of Ben Gibbard, and a while back I published a post called “Monday Morning Diversions,” which was not very exciting but happened to include a few pictures of Gibbard, and not even for reasons related to Death Cab for Cutie or even Ben Gibbard himself. Nevertheless, that post has generated, by far, the most traffic to my blog that I have ever had. Just tonight I was looking at my stats for the first time in a long time, and I noticed that on September 21, the number of hits to my blog spiked dramatically. 408 searches for Ben Gibbard! 499 total hits! A quick Google search tells me that Ben Gibbard was wedded to Zooey Deschanel on September 21. A match made in indie-band heaven.

So, tweens, sorry to disappoint. Off you go now.

Evangelicals, Globalization, and Papal Encyclicals

Take it from me, sitting in the belly of the beast, when Evangelicals ask you for a “serious dialogue” about “new models of global governance,” reach for your gun.  Or your rosary.

Cabel Stegall, here, commenting on sixty-eight evangelicals’ response to Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

N.B. I don’t reproduce this simply to hate on evangelicals; it’s just that sometimes I grow weary of my tribe’s penchant for middle-ground—and hence often middling—positions in public discourse (so often frustratingly and even self-referentially on display here), especially in relation to globalism. Why is it so scary to be radical? I suppose there are two reasons: first, our emphasis on evangelism leads us to “be a light” to the broadest number of people—i.e., fewer extremes, fewer alienated potential believers—and second, our penance (or is it just embarrassment?) for our (now-crumbling) association with the Republican Party since Reagan. I mean this in the least snarky and most objectively observant way possible.

The Shams of My Demographic

It’s interesting to catalog people’s reactions to the blog-cum-book Stuff White People Like. The responses that intrigue me most are the cloying, almost gleeful way white people themselves, directly at the center of the author’s crosshairs, are eager to identify themselves as such: “Guilty!” or, “He’s right, I do LOVE my Macbook!” or, demonstrating an even more profound lack of self-awareness, “But I’VE loved the Cubs from the beginning, before it was popular to like the Cubs.” (I actually saw a comment to this effect, and a savvy commenter pointed out that this demonstrated a typical strategy of white people, viz., to claim authenticity by trumpeting their a priori loyalty to the trendy object under scrutiny.)

These responses are a little bit bewildering to me, because the insights of the blog/book seem so utterly damning, and irony is in so many ways central to white people culture. And here let me insert myself into the equation. I am a white person (albeit in qualified ways, but there is much proof). So when I read the blog, it’s like having the mirror held up to me, and as a good caricature often shows, I am able to see my flaws all the more clearly, and hopefully able to view myself with a little more irony than before. In other words it provides an opportunity for self-examination and a mild form of catharsis — some worthy Socratic and Aristotelian practices. But I said it was damning, not just funny and a little bit helpful. Perhaps this review by Matt Milliner will help explain why. Near the end he says, “Stuff White People Like . . . has defined not a race but a demographic; and by defining it, has exposed one massive pretension: We white people thought we had escaped demographics.” And later on he says, “Lander [the author of Stuff White People Like] so effectively demolishes our attempts at uniqueness that his book could legitimately be called the end of Generation X. In other words, we’ve all been found out.” (The subtitle to the book, by the way, is “The Definitive Guide to the Unique Taste of Millions.”

So I necessarily ask myself as I write this: am I really just trying to demonstrate that I am part of this trendy demographic? Well, I hope not. But in many ways I can’t escape it — my adherence to evangelical Christianity providing the major exception to the rule, although Milliner also notes that Lander “inadvertently provides the definitive guide to the Emergent Church.” (But let’s be clear: I in no way identify myself with the Emergent Church, aside from also being a young evangelical Christian, and as such somewhat confused about my identity.) So what’s the tonic? The ironic self-posturing and sham pretensions of my demographic/generation having been exposed and lampooned, what to do? Here’s Milliner’s remedy, which has much to commend it:

Have children, stay married, learn more about economics, be more sincere than ironic. Despise not the specter of Lander’s book – “the wrong kind of white person” – i.e. the ones at Sam’s Club. Know that it’s as pathologically weird to hate one’s country as it is to hate one’s parents. Above all, take traditional faith seriously.

Good words, and ones I intend to (and already do) follow. But still, but still. The more cynical part of me remembers this quote from Life After God by Douglas Coupland:

You know – I’m trying to escape from ironic hell: cynicism into faith; randomness into clarity; worry into devotion. But it’s hard because I try to be sincere about life and then I turn on a TV and I see a game show host and I have to throw up my hands and give up. Too many easy pickin’s!

There’s some kernel, some germ of truth to the shams and pretensions of my demographic, some search for a genuine and authentic lifestyle that’s at the heart of much of the facade (and much of the answer, or the beginnings of one, is also found at the end of Life After God). I think it’s for people like me to parse that answer out, but importantly, much of that must be done privately, under the discipline of silence, without the snobby pretense that usually accompanies it. To that I now go.

What’s Wrong with Theology: A Short Case Study

Earlier today, browsing the Amazon page for Augustine’s Essential Sermons, I came across this passage from the “Product Description”:

The eleven volumes of Augustine’s popular sermons (Sermones ad populum) . . . showcase Augustine the brilliant speaker and engaging preacher of the Word and have proven an indispensable resource for contemporary scholarship. . . . [Edmund] Hill’s translation and extensive notes have received many accolades by scholars, but professors have clamored for a one-volume anthology in paperback form that would be affordable to students and that could be used as required texts in teaching undergraduates, graduate students and seminarians. . . . Students and preachers alike will discover Augustine’s masterful interpretation of the Word of God and creative skills in engaging the people of God.

What’s wrong with this description? More importantly, who is missing? These sermons are “an indispensable resource for contemporary scholarship,” and the translations have received “many accolades by scholars,” and this one-volume anthology will be useful for “undergraduates, graduate students and seminarians.” But where is the layperson? There’s a reason they ain’t titled Sermones ad professorum. They were preached in a church to laypeople, and now they are tragically of interest primarily to scholars and students training to become scholars. The devoted layperson has been left out of the picture altogether. Language like this is a symptom of a disease — the co-opting of theology by the academy from its place in service to the church.

Augustine himself would have been unhappy with our bifurcation of theology and spirituality, or their institutional parallels, academy and church. Consider:

Factum audivimus: mysterium requiramus.
(We have heard the fact, let us seek the mystery.)

One of the maddening things about my “Christian spirituality” classes in grad school was the constant separation students fretted over between “head” and “heart.” This may have been a legitimate problem, but the way they articulated it made it sound like the problem was somehow too much theology. Wrong! A bifurcation of “head” and “heart” is the result of faulty theology, not too much. Something we could learn by reading more Augustine.

(A bracing post-Enlightenment tonic for this ailment is Andrew Louth’s marvelous book Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology, which Eighth Day Books has put back in print.)

(crossposted at Nonnus.)

Patrick Deneen Tells Us How to Live

I just read a longish essay on Front Porch Republic by Patrick Deneen, titled What Is to Be Done? Although the entire thing is worth reading (as is most everything by Deneen), this marvelous quote near the end is where he really delivers the goods. Idealistic? Maybe, but read the entire essay, and you’ll get a better sense of where he’s coming from.

Small changes might have large effects over time. Demands in changes to zoning laws, requiring more mixed use space – commercial, residential, educational, religious and otherwise – would begin to re-integrate the various central activities of human life. Demotion of the automobile is a major desideratum, and here a great coalition between the environmental Left and traditionalist Right is there for the picking. Libertarians, Catholics and traditionalists can make common cause in demanding more economic and legislative subsidiarity, although libertarians must chasten their dogmatic individualism and understand that the best restraint upon large-scale centralized institutions are not individuals, but communities. There is no “free market” – it is the fantasy of ideological purists – but there are markets that leave us more free as members of communities and relatively more immune from large-scale centralized institutions (public or private) than others. People might be persuaded to call for a different finger to be put on the legislative scales: not the one that now gives advantage to large-scale organizations, but a different finger that gives advantage to smaller companies, family-businesses, local enterprises whose bottom-line is not the benefit of absentee shareholders, but the life and fabric of good communities. Liberatarians are right that onerous regulation is to be rejected, but not because it represents an imposition upon profitability, but rather because it is desired by both big government and big business as an obstacle to entry of smaller players. Perhaps something so inventive as a dual regulatory system could be conceived, in which smaller businesses bear a lighter burden. Incentives to smallness and localism should become the norm and default, and not the current set of incentives that favor the creation of entities that are “too big to fail.” Anyone who believes that the past year demonstrates our greater “freedom” needs to have their pulse checked.

A Humorous Anecdote, Plus A Short and Hopefully Not too Preachy Observation About Television, Or, How to Be Counter-Cultural and Completely Baffle People at the Same Time

At work this afternoon, I received the following in an email from Jess:

An AT&T salesman just came to our door:
Salesman: Are you currently with AT&T, ma’am?
Jess: Yes.
Salesman: Phone, TV, Internet?
Jess: Yes. Well, phone and internet. We don’t have TV.
Salesman: Oh. So who do you have your TV service with?
Jess: No one. We don’t have TV at all.
Salesman: You don’t…no TV? No Basic? Did you get the converter box? *looks of bewilderment, astonishment, what-century-are-you-living-in*
Jess: Nope, we don’t watch TV.
Salesman: Well, I’m gonna get you TV.
Jess: I don’t want TV.
Salesman: You don’t wa…?! *shakes head, leaves*

Way to go, my love! The only thing I would have done differently is hand him a copy of Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman.

This brought to mind another experience/observation I had/made the other day. I saw an advertisement for a Lexus with televisions built into the back of the driver’s seat and passenger’s seat. I have also noticed as of late the near ubiquity of televisions in supermarkets. So now we can watch television at home (usually in almost every room in the house), watch television in the car, and watch television at the supermarket while we shop. Even if we need to stop for gas, there are more and more televisions at the pump.

There is a word for this, I think. It is called addiction.