Monday, December 31, 2007

Wanted: A Conservatism Sans...

The Summer 2007 issue of Modern Age (archive here) includes an interesting symposium on "Why I Am a Conservative." While some of the essays are given to ideological whining, some are very engaging, throughtful pieces (see especially the essays by Christopher Olaf Blum and Jeffrey Hart). Anyone who is working with some caricatured notion that "conservative" simply means "pro-Bush" or "Religious Right" or "neo-con" should pull their head out of the equally-ideological liberal sands it's stuck in and dip into this symposium, starting with Blum and Hart.

I continue to find myself deeply sympathetic to a conservatism that owes more to Edmund Burke than Ronald Reagan. And so reading a symposium like this continues to be a tantalizing exercise in exasperation. My margins are regularly marked, "Yes! Amen!" and then, "What?! Why?" Why does conservatism seem to come with so much extraneous (even, I would contend, inherently contradictory) baggage? Am I the only one who dreams of a conservatism without nationalism, without militarism, and without capitalism? Can't we imagine a conservatism without Americanism (just how could a revolutionary project be "conservative," again?)? A conservatism without a Constantinian Christendom?

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Last Prophet of Leviathan

Some Fors Clavigera readers might be interested in my review of Mark Lilla's book, The Stillborn God, which now appears on the "Immanent Frame" blog hosted by the Social Science Research Council.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Baptismal Promises and Automobility

I tend to waver between Baptism and Eucharist as my favorite sacraments (I'm sure the very notion of a "favorite" sacrament is rather adolescent and probably heretical, but alas...). Today, on the final Sunday of advent, a family in our congregation joined the long heritage of those presenting their child for baptism, sealing the promises of the covenant. An important part of the liturgy is not only the promises that the parents make to care for their child and raise him in the faith, but also the promises that the congregation makes to be the family of God to these parents and for this child. Turning to the congregation, the minister asks us whether we will promise to care for, nurture, instruct and support the child and his parent, to be a community that provides Christian instruction and formation, encouraging him to become a disciple of Jesus and a citizen of the kingdom, to which we respond: "We do, God helping us."

The congregational vow is a reminder that the nuclear family is insufficient for the formation of faith-full children--that the tiny enclaves of our "private" homes can't bear the weight of what the vocation of parenting calls us to do. Thus the baptismal vows are one of those glimmers in the church's life where we actually renounce the American gospel of individualism and self-sufficiency, of so-called "family values."

But I've been wondering of late: what do such promises mean in a culture of automobility and transience? What does it mean for us to promise to raise and nurture this infant when, because of our market-driven habits, either he or we will likely have moved on to "bigger and better" things before he's in 10th-grade catechism class? What is the traction of a vow for a people that tend to commercial nomadism?

I suppose, at the very least, that the catholicity of the church should mean we assume the promises made by our brothers and sisters in Denver or Pella, in St. Catherine's or London. Certainly. But it's not quite the same as sticking around to see this young baby, baptized today, emerge as a disciple of Jesus right here in the neighborhood. What if we started thinking of baptismal promises as real estate anchors--that our commitments to care for a community of children might trump our other "opportunities?"

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Quintessence of Dust

I'm not prone to "shout outs," but I'd like to make an exception to the rule in order to point folks to my biologist colleague Steve Matheson's excellent blog, "Quintessence of Dust," devoted primarily to issues in the science/religion dialogue, and particularly (of late) the issues and questions raised by Dawkins, Dennett and their ilk, on the one hand, and the "folk science" of creationism and 'Intelligent Design' on the other. He's doing battle on both fronts in a way that is both irenic and no-holds-barred. He's currently enjoying a sabbatical (doing research at the Van Andel Institute) which has been a perfect opportunity for him to regularly post thoughtful, engaging entries.

In short, I think Steve's blog is a model of why the blogosphere should exist. Add it to your feed or bookmarks and enjoy.

Friday, December 07, 2007

What's Your "Walk Score?"

The good folks at Comment magazine, published by the Work Research Foundation, pointed me to, a site that allows you to plot the "walkability" of your neighborhood, or to use as a tool when considering a move. Just type in your address, click, and see how your house rates. Our house scored a respectable 77. From first glance, it seems to me that the site should also factor walkability to public transit. But an interesting snapshot of one's built environment.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The God of Americanism: On Mitt Romney's "Faith in America"

[This post also appears on the PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly blog, "One Nation: Religion and Politics," along with responses from others such as Charles Matthews, David Gushee, Stephen Monsma, and Randall Balmer.]

A lot can hang on a preposition. Mitt Romney first promised a speech about his faith, then backed off to offer a broader take on America’s religious landscape and its heritage of religious freedom. So rather than offering an apologetic for his own faith, Romney instead offered an account of “Faith in America.” But the speech has me wondering whether there’s a difference; more specifically, I wonder what’s at stake in that “in.” From where I sit, it looks like Romney’s “own” faith is faith in America. Americans needn’t worry about Romney’s Mormonism because, at the end of the day, the faith that trumps all others is “Americanism.”

Don’t get me wrong: this religion has a long and illustrious history (documented in David Gelertner’s recent book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion). It is a noble faith that feeds off the blood of its martyrs—in particular “the greatest generation” to which Romney first appeals—who made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of the religion’s highest value: freedom (understood, I should note, in largely negative terms as freedom of choice). Indeed, “freedom” and “liberty” are the mantras of this faith, and Romney’s speech invokes these shibboleths no less than thirty times (God or “the Creator” or “divine author” comes in at a close second with 21 references). And Romney doesn’t fail to allude to the great artifacts of this religion. Americanism has its own sacred documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), its own saints (“the Founding Fathers”), and has even birthed its own cathedrals and grottos (just stroll the National Mall).

So if Mitt Romney was looking to quell concerns about his religion, I think he’s performed admirably! He has indicated, in no uncertain terms, that he is an “Americanist” like almost every other presidential candidate (from I don’t care which side of the aisle). He is an American before he is a Mormon. He is primarily interested in conserving America’s role as a hegemon (“preserving American leadership” is the guise under which he segues to talk about religion). And he enthusiastically adopts Sam Adams axiom that it’s not the specifics of piety that matters, but rather whether one is a “patriot.”

If conservatives were worried about his Mormonism, I think Romney has laid his cards on the table and said to them: “Look, don’t worry. Mormonism doesn’t prevent me from being an Americanist. We’re brothers in that cause.”

In a way, this is refreshingly honest theology. In fact, if one pays close attention to the actual theology at work here—that is, if one starts asking just which God is being invoked—one finds that it is a particular deity: “the divine ‘author of liberty.’” The god of the culture warriors has always been a generic god of theism (precisely like the god of the Founding Fathers): a “God who gave us liberty” (to do what we want). The “Creator” is a granter of inalienable rights and unregulated freedoms, a god who shares and ordains “American values.” If evangelical culture warriors had worries about Romney’s faith, his jeremiad today should confirm that he pledges allegiance to the same “God of liberty” that they do. We’re all Americanists now.

But I hope Mr. Romney and his culture warrior friends (whether on the Right or Left) won’t be surprised if some of us find it hard to believe in Americanism and its God of liberty. Some of us just can’t muster faith in the generic theism that is preached on the campaign trail, whether from the Right or Left. Some of us Christians have a hard time reconciling the Almighty, all-powerful, law-giving God of liberty with the crucified suffering servant born in a barn and executed at the hands of the elite. Some of us are trying to figure out what it means to be a people who follow one who relinquished his rights rather than asserted them, who considered submission a higher value than freedom. We serve a God-man who wasn’t concerned with “preserving leadership” and the hegemony of the empire’s gospel of freedom, but rather was crushed by its machinations for proclaiming and embodying another gospel.

We’re not out to win a culture war; we’re just trying to be witnesses. We’re not out to “transform” culture by marshaling the engine of the state; we’re trying to carve out little foretastes of a coming kingdom. And so we can’t share Mr. Romney’s evangelistic zeal for the god of Americanism.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Gospel of Freedom, or Another Gospel?

The Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago has just posted a 'working paper' of mine for their December Web Forum. The paper, entitled "The Gospel of Freedom, or Another Gospel? Augustinian Reflections on American Foreign Policy," offers a theological critique of the particular notion of "freedom" that informs recent policy. I'm looking forward to seeing responses from Eric Gregory, David C. Schindler, and Paul Williams. Here's their introduction:

In this issue of the Web Forum, excerpted from a longer work in progress, James K. A. Smith critically examines the meaning of “freedom” used to support the expansion of a new, global, market-based imperialism. He argues that this kind of freedom is at odds with other values held by those who affirm a Creator and a teleological good for humanity. A better alternative, he contends, is an Augustinian account of desiring freedom:

In the history of philosophy and theology, there have been two dominant, and competing, concepts of freedom…one is a “libertarian” understanding of freedom that equates freedom with freedom of choice or the power to do otherwise. To be free is to have options to choose and the ability to choose, uncoerced and unrestrained, from among these options….

This conception of freedom has become so dominant that it is almost impossible for us to think of freedom otherwise. And it is particularly this notion of freedom that feeds Empire and its market network. Because this libertarian, non-teleological, and negative concept of freedom eschews any specification of a telos as a restriction or constraint on my options, and therefore a restriction of freedom, it fosters the proliferation of choices without any valuation….This is precisely the environment necessary for the flourishing of the market, which requires endless creation of new “goods” for consumption…

But the primary deficiency of libertarian freedom is that it disconnects freedom from the dynamics of desire.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Advent vs. "Countdown to Christmas"

I was jarred yesterday upon entering the sanctuary: the banners and colors for advent were black. A stark black cloth was draped across the pipes of the organ, and four narrow black banners stretched vertically across the front of the sanctuary--the first marked with a flame at the base, indicating the first Sunday of Advent.

This dark simplicity was so jarring because it stood in such contrast to the festive colors that have lined the city streets, the labyrinths of the mall, and even the grocery store since before Thanksgiving. The reds and greens of a secularized "Christmas" are woven through public and private spaces, accented by glittering silvers and golds, and twinkling lights of all colors. Having gathered from this dazzling, festive space outside, the black banners of the sanctuary come as a shock.

Which, of course, is exactly the point. Having been more deeply formed by Hallmark and Target, even Christians have confused Advent with our culture's "countdown to Christmas." Most specifically, we have forgotten that Advent is a penitential season akin to Lent. It is a season in which we are confronted with our need for a Savior, thus we relive Israel's anquished hope and expectation. It is a season whose garments are the sackcloth and ashes of the prophets or the camel's hair cloak of John the Baptist, not the jolly get-up of Santa Claus. Advent is a season marked by fasting in longing, living on the meagre diet of John's locusts and honey--not the sumptuous extravagance of corporate "Christmas" banquets or the fabled indulgence of office "Christmas" parties.

We've been trained to want Christmas without waiting; rather than a beginning, Christmas day has been turned into a culmination, an end point. After December 25, it's all over except for the soon-to-be-broken toys and the mounds of leftovers. Thus we busily feast before the day. Advent gets subsumed by the frantic "countdown to Christmas." But the result is the exact opposite of Advent which is a season of penitential longing, formative denial, and hungry hoping.

This hungry hoping was captured, I thought, in a classic hymn we sang yesterday:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,
who orderest all things mightily;
to us the path of knowledge show,
and teach us in her ways to go.

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan's tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadows put to flight.

Advent is not yet Christmas--it is preparation for that twelve-day feast. The black of the Advent sanctuary weighs heavily on us, the same way that the darkness of the Lenten sanctuary--culminating in the darkness of Tenebrae--births in us an affective, intense desire for the inbreaking of Resurrection Sunday, for the light and white and lillies of Easter! So, too, the black of the Advent sanctuary can foster in us a new repetition of Israel's hoping. How I'm looking forward to the transformation on Christmas day! Then, in the midst of festive light and dazzling color, we'll sing the refrain with new fervor:

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Jesus for President

Amish_button_2Forget Bono! Shaine Claiborne and friends are campaigning for "Jesus for President." I'm intrigued to hear what they have to say.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Pot, Meet Kettle; Kettle, let me introduce you to Pot

Am I the only one who found this a tad ironic?
MOSCOW (AP) -- The Russian government under Vladimir Putin has amassed so much central authority that the power-grab may undermine Moscow's commitment to democracy, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Saturday. [Read complete story here]
A U2 lyric comes to mind: "Would you deny for others what you demand for yourself?"

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

From Conservativism to Creedalism: David Brooks on the Republican Forgetting of Burke

My downward spiral into (truly) conservative sympathizer continues: I find myself nodding in agreement, even muttering a couple of quiet "amens" when I read David Brooks' column on "The Republican Collapse." In it Brooks pens a litany of all the ways that American neoconservatism fails to be properly conservative, and knows nothing of Edmund Burke (something I've hinted at before).

Friday, October 05, 2007

Measuring GPMs: The God-O-Meter

I often chide "Christian" music which simply takes whatever pop form is currently commercially successful (say, boy bands or Britney-like pop tunes) and then merely substitutes "Christian" lyrics. I like to refer to this as ramping up the "JPMs"--the "Jesus-per-minute" factor. The strategy is one of naive sanctification--as if "holy" lyrics somehow save or redeem the form.

I was reminded of this when the NYT's "The Caucus" Blog pointed to Beliefnet's "God-O-Meter" (pronounced Gah-DOM-meter). According to the site:
The God-o-Meter (pronounced Gah-DOM-meter) scientifically measures factors such as rate of God-talk, effectiveness—saying God wants a capital gains tax cut doesn’t guarantee a high rating—and other top-secret criteria. Click a candidate’s head to get his or her latest God-o-Meter reading and blog post. And check back often. With so much happening on the campaign trail, God-o-Meter is constantly recalibrating!
GPMs on the campaign trail, JPMs on the music charts--same ridiculous strategy: ramping up the semantic references to the divine hardly redeems the surrounding politics or commercialized music. References to God don't thereby sanctify or redeem domestic policies that oppress the poor or foreign policy that breeds war. In fact, if Jewish prophets have anything to say about it, ramping up the GPMs only makes this worse (see Jeremiah 7). Better to be honest oppressors than pretending to cover your oppression with God-talk.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Prince's Private Army

The NYT provides a harrowing account of one of Blackwater's episodes of "going ballistic." A must read.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Real "Fors Clavigera"

As I indicated on my first ever post, this blog is offered in homage to John Ruskin's 19th-century experiment, Fors Clavigera. I was thus delighted to find that the Google book project has made one of the volumes available online.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Why Are We Here? Or, Can One Still Get an Education at a University?

Anthony Kronman's essay in the Boston Globe, "Why Are We Here?" (subtitled: "Colleges ignore life's biggest questions, and we all pay the price") is generating quite a bit of attention. See my contribution to the discussion in a symposium pulled together by the good folks at Comment magazine.

Update [01/10/2007]: Gideon Strauss, the indefatigable editor of Comment, has solicited a response from Kronman.

Monday, September 10, 2007


In the early 20th-century, Edmund Wilson Jr. thought he could glimpse the emergence of a genuinely American literary form.

This has got to be it: Harlequin NASCAR.

[HT: my old friend Jeff Dudiak]

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Selective Outrage: Murder in America

I found Bob Herbert's editorial in today's NYT striking and disturbing. In the wake of the murders in Newark, NJ, he notes that since Sept. 11, 2001, nearly 100,000 Americans have been murdered. He notes the irony of selective outrage:
At the same time that we’re diligently confiscating water and toothpaste from air travelers, we’re handing over guns and bullets by the trainload to yahoos bent on blowing others into eternity in armed robberies, drug-dealing, gang violence, domestic assaults and other criminal acts.
The war-machine is tethered to the society of the spectacle: the images of 9/11 engender an entire culture of revenge (marketed on T-shirts and bumper stickers) that then underwrite a widespread commitment to further violence in the form of war. But the banality of these murders--3 here, 2 there, and many out of sight--fails to generate the same impassioned opposition. But as these numbers show, since 9/11 many more Americans have been killed by other American than by Al Quaeda or radical Muslims. What would it take for that reality to actually result in change in policy?

[For just a glimpse of how the United States compares to other industrialized nations, compare this BBC report or this CDC report focused on violence suffered by children.)

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Tourism & Revisionist History

While driving across southern Virginia last week, we came across an incredible--and incredibly disturbing--billboard. As part of a tourist campaign commemorating the 400th anniversay of the "first landing" in 1607, the billboard featured a Native American man. Beside him were the words, "Their sacrifice made our nation great," and the man is wearing a black T-shirt saying, "Thank You Powhatan." (You can see the T-shirt in the middle of the collage here.)

The semantics here is stunning: "Sacrifice" clearly connotes an air of intentionality and volition, as if the First Nations were "laying down their lives" for their friends! Did the British also make "sacrifices" for the American colonies in the revolutionary war?! This is just the sort of revisionism that makes it easier for white American to feel better as they spend hundreds of dollars touring western Virginia and celebrating the story of the nation that would be hailed as "a city on a hill."

This goes to prove Paul Ricoeur's point that history is always told by the winners (and re-told, and even re-invented!). But who knew a tourist bureau could exhibit such a Baudrillardian cynicism about meaning.

[Update: Jeff Sharlet's Revealer points to a story about "the Other Jamestown party" which decries the 'official' commemorations as "politically correct" (!). Incidentally, a week and a half ago I was stuck in traffic on this very road.]

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Hilton, Hotels, and Hospitality: Oh, the Irony

The Hilton Family of Hotels has launched a "be hospitable" campaign (just as heiress Paris has been welcomed into a slightly different hotel in southern California). The idea--which is a crass example of "welfare" marketing, selling a product by being "good"--is to compile and record random acts of hospitality around the country, all in the spirit of hospitality that supposedly motivates the Hilton hotel empire.

But of course the irony is that the explosion of the hotel industry is a symptom of the remarkable decline of real, concrete hospitality in this country. Not only do we not welcome the stranger, we don't even make room for our own families any more. Or those visiting don't want their style cramped by staying at Uncle Ben & Aunt Susie's, so they check into the hotel first (recall a recent Holiday Inn campaign that centered around how terrible it must be to actually stay at your family's house on Thanksgiving). And this is true even in the church.

The random acts of so-called hospitality being logged by this campaign are just a cover for the exponentional decline of real hospitality. If we actually, really, concretely started to practice hospitality--welcoming the stranger--the Hilton hotel empire might be in trouble.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

You know things are bad when you start agreeing with David Brooks...

I'm a tad alarmed at how often I now find myself agreeing with David Brooks. He offers a nice apologia for the "quasi-religious," who inhabit a world between Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins. He ends a recent column with this nice credo:

Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with “God is Not Great.” Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.”

More on Hitchens; and More Chalmers Johnson on America Empire

Two pieces this morning that deserve wide attention:
  1. Jacques Berlinbau (author of The Secular Bible) has penned a stinging critique of Hitchens' God is Not Good in the Chronicle of Higher Education. What makes it interesting is that Berlinbau is a committed, nuanced, and articulate secularist.
  2. Jonathan Freedland's piece, "Bush's Amazing Achievement" in the most recent New York Review of Books. The "amazing achievement" is how the disastrous effects of Bush Jr.'s foreign policy has brought about the strange world in which both WTO protesters on the street and foreign policy wonks inside the Beltway are all agreed: the neocon project for a "New American Century" is bad news (what we might call a dis-angelion, to play with the New Testament language for "good news"). On this, both Noam Chomsky and the editors of The National Review seem to be agreed. Of particular interest is Freedland's attention to Chalmers Johnson's new book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Glitch re: Hitch

OK, OK: some readers took the time to point out to me that Hitchens' God is Not Great has indeed received some mainstream press (which I hadn't seen yet since I'd been in England). But Michael Kinsley's review in the New York Times borders on being sychophantic, and certainly lets Hitchens' off the hook. (Kinsley talks about how "logical" the book is. That is a stretch; it might be "syllogistic," but any student in a decent logic or critical thinking class could slice through Hitchens' smokescreen.)

More interesting is Stephen Prothero's review in The Washington Post. Prothero, I think, hits the nail on the head:

Hitchens claims that some of his best friends are believers. If so, he doesn't know much about his best friends. He writes about religious people the way northern racists used to talk about "Negroes" -- with feigned knowing and a sneer. God Is Not Great assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery. But it is Hitchens who is the naïf. To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition, that ordinary Hindus view masturbation as an offense against Krishna, and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis. It is to believe that faith is always blind and rituals always empty -- that there is no difference between taking communion and drinking the Kool-Aid (a beverage Hitchens feels compelled to mention no fewer than three times).

If this is religion, then by all means we should have less of it. But the only people who believe that religion is about believing blindly in a God who blesses and curses on demand and sees science and reason as spawns of Satan are unlettered fundamentalists and their atheistic doppelgangers. Hitchens describes the religious mind as "literal and limited" and the atheistic mind as "ironic and inquiring." Readers with any sense of irony -- and here I do not exclude believers -- will be surprised to see how little inquiring Hitchens has done and how limited and literal is his own ill-prepared reduction of religion.

Christopher Hitchens is a brilliant man, and there is no living journalist I more enjoy reading. But I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject. In the end, this maddeningly dogmatic book does little more than illustrate one of Hitchens's pet themes -- the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep.
Finally, using the word "slumming" to describe Hitchens' engagements with Olasky and Wilson was perhaps a bit strong (chalk it up to jet lag?). Mea culpa. However, I still think these are basically un-interesting engagments. They have a feeling of disproportionality about them (another favorite military strategy of the Bush administration, which Hitch seems to love so much--though one does wonder whether God is Not Great might decrease his number of stays in the Lincoln bedroom). I've no doubt that Olasky and Wilson are sharp fellows. What I'm surprised by is the fact that Hitchens finds time to engage rather marginal voices (less so with Olasky, admittedly).

And despite Hitchens' slide here (why do so many "public intellectuals" become so incredibly stupid when it comes to religion? If I spoke about "science" or "liberalism" the way they talk about religion, I'd be laughed off the page), I continue to remain a somewhat guilty admirer of his snarky arrogance.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Hitchens' Decline

I think Christopher Hitchens must have serious debts to pay. Why, otherwise, would he be spending so much time and energy "slumming" it with a no-name like Douglas Wilson or 'debating' someone like Marvin Olasky (editor of the embarassing newsweekly World)? I guess since the mainstream press hasn't really paid attention to God Is Not Great, Hitch has time on his hands. But seriously...

These engagements with the fringe are snoozers. How about Hitchens and Cornel West? Or Hitchens toe-to-toe with Rowan Williams? Or even Jeff Stout? Methinks Hitchens is picking safe targets (a trick he learned from his friend, W, I guess).

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Pope in Brazil: Liberation Theology Revisited

Kudos to the New York Times for trying to tackle theology with Larry Rohter's story today about the Pope's visit to Brazil (just a month after a major New York Times Magazine article on Benedict XVI). However, the story is an indication of how hard it is to appreciate the nuance of theological debate in a journalistic venue. To that end, I sent the following letter to the NYT (which, of course, will never see the light of day, alas...)
To the Editor:

While Rohter should be commended for tackling a properly theological debate in relation to Benedict XVI's visit to Brazil, the account confirms the difficulty of appreciating the nuance of such debates. The story has an air of false dichotomy about it, or at least over-simplification. We have liberation theologians who care about the proletarian poor on the left, and the magisterium allied with capitalist oppressors on the right--as if Ratzinger was just the religious PR voice for the American Enterprise Institute (putting Michael Novak out of a job!).

But such a picture misses the nuance of Benedict's critique (which is more nuanced than John Paul II's). It is not a question of whether to be concerned with the poor or the "working class"--a long legacy of papal encyclicals already articulates this. The issue is whether "statecraft" is the proper vehicle for dealing with this injustice. Because liberation theology too easily accepts the logic and machinations of "secular" statecraft, and because the Pope articulates a trenchant critique of secularity, one could suggest that Benedict is critical of liberation theology precisely because it's critique of oppression is not radical enough.

James K.A. Smith

Required reading here is Daniel Bell, Liberation Theology After the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Equality Riders @ Calvin College

For the past several months Calvin College, my home institution, has been very intentionally planning for a visit from the SoulForce "Equality Riders"--a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christian students who, in the spirit of the civil rights "Freedom Riders," planned a road trip to visit Christian college campuses and raise awareness about the challenges faced by gay Christians. Some thought that Calvin's administration was over-preparing for this visit, and making a mountain out of a molehill. However, a blog post from an Equality Rider this morning seems to make all that labor worthwhile: Rider "Matt" described their Calvin visit as a "true Christian welcome" and the "most welcoming stop on the Equality Ride." While there was not necessarily agreement, there was nonetheless a charity that trumped disagreement. And that, it seems to me, is witness to a tiny little in-breaking of the Kingdom.

It was precisely because it went so well that there seemed to be so little news coverage of the visit! Whereas their visit to Cornerstone University yesterday, where they were barred from campus, led to arrests and--you guessed it!--news coverage on every local station.

Kudos to the college administration who worked so hard on this, particularly Shirley Hoogstra (VP of Student Life) and Dale Cooper (Chaplain), along with many others, who modeled thoughtful and intentional compassion.

Jeff Sharlet Audio

I previously announced a lecture by Jeff Sharlet at Calvin College on "Fundamentalist History, Secular Myth, and the Media's God Problem." Audio of that lecture is now available via the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship (with thanks to Dale Williams). Sharlet's talk was entertaining, informative, and disturbing. Enjoy!

Monday, April 23, 2007

Stark Options in France

Imagine living in a country where you could actually choose between the Left and Right, and not just Right and Right-Lite? Though it does seem that Le Monde was pulling for the "centrist" Bayrou--who, even though he didn't make the run-off, has become a crucial figure in this election because he holds sway over a very important voter base.

Friday, April 20, 2007

New Obsession: The Deadliest Catch

Having conceded to my wife and children's request for something more than basic cable (but not premium!--yes, such a martyr, I know...) has translated into a new vice for me: an almost obsessive interest with the Discovery Channel's The Deadliest Catch. (This brings on bouts of affluenza on the nights when I have to choose between The Deadliest Catch and American Chopper, but I find Catch winning out.)

I discovered Deadliest Catch on New Years' Day. For the past several years our family's New Years' tradition has been to all cuddle up on the couch for the afternoon (Michigan winters will do this to you), load the coffee table with hot chocolate and snacks, and watch a movie or two together. This past year, after watching the movie, somehow we ended up on the Discovery channel which was offering a Deadliest Catch marathon. I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I stayed glued to the television for, I think, four hours straight!

For those who haven't seen it (which will include, I guess, those with more spiritual discipline than I, who remain committed to simplicity and thus spurn the temptations of cable--pray for me!), The Deadliest Catch is a documentary series that recounts the drama of fishing vessels pursuing king crab off the Alaskan coast. I hesitate to describe it as "reality TV" since it makes a mockery of all the other drivel that traffics under that banner. Crab fishing in the icy Alaskan waters is one of the deadliest jobs in the world (over 90 fishermen have died in the past 20 years) and the drama is heightened by the brevity of the season. The crews are looking to make their year's wages within a short window, all dependent on the ability to actually find the crab and at the same time survive the dangers of these Alaskan waters. (And kudos to the cameramen who undertake the same risks to bring us these images!)

The show follows the ups-and-downs of these ventures, ranging from the hilarity that comes along with such labor comraderie to the heart-breaking sadness when tragedy strikes. Rugged, cussing boat captains are reduced to tears as they hear word of a ship going down and claiming three lives. It is some of the most compelling drama I've ever seen on television, and goes a long way to redeeming the medium. (Further kudos to the Discovery Channel, which is a Smith family favorite and goes a long way to alleviating my guilt for caving in and signing up for standard cable.)

But I must confess that there's a regrettable aspect to all of this, namely the economics that drives this drama. While there are some fishermen for whom this is a way of life that is in their bones, for most it seems that the only "end" for such risk is the astounding paycheck at the end. Thus one regularly hears comments from the crew--smashing 6-inch ice off of overhead cables and braving rogue waves that threaten their footing--about the "ca-ching" that they're after. In other words, this is a drama undertaken for lucre, and pretty much nothing else.

On top of that, the entire industry is one generated by economies of luxury. They are fishing for king crab, which doesn't make its way to all that many American dinner tables. Rather, it is the fare of the rich, or the middle class who splurge once or twice a year. It is sobering to think of how many lives are lost for the sake of providing the well-heeled with luxurious cuisine.

Neither of these economic factors seems to redeem the tragedy. Perhaps, though, one can find it redeemed in the friendships forged amongst this community who lives on the icy edge of danger. But I fear not.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Secchia's Economic Logic

[This is a response to Peter Secchia's recent op-ed in the Grand Rapids Press arguing for the benefits of a downtown casino in Grand Rapids.]

For Peter Secchia, the generation of revenue covers a multitude of sins.

Despite charges of hypocrisy, I don’t think Secchia has really changed his mind. While he has opposed a tribal casino in West Michigan, his opposition was “based on economic factors.” Unlike others who oppose casino development on moral grounds, or on the basis of the documented social repercussions, Secchia’s opposition concerned economic fair play: as tax-free entities, tribal casinos are playing with a loaded deck.

But in his argument for a downtown Grand Rapids casino, I detect a worrisome logic at work. So let me take up his invitation to conversation about his proposal.

Secchia’s argument goes something like this: The federal law that authorizes tribal casinos is regrettable and lamentable, but won’t be changed anytime soon. So tribal casinos are inevitable. Since they are inevitable and unpreventable, they will inevitably suck revenue and profit from Grand Rapids. Therefore, we should build a Grand Rapids casino to stem the tide, protect private sector profits, and generate revenue that will benefit the community.

Let’s call this the argument from inevitability. It amounts to a version of the axiom, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” The argument begins with a sigh, recognizing a regrettable state of affairs. One then throws up one’s hands and laments, “But it’s not going to change.” Therefore, the argument concludes, we should harness this regrettable but inevitable reality and turn it to our good (where “good” means profit and revenue).

Based on this reasoning, Secchia suggests that a Grand Rapids casino could be a cure to all kinds of social ills in the city, from empty swimming pools to empty bellies. (Was he kidding when he suggested funneling gambling profits to churches?)

But why stop there? Based on the same logic, it seems like we could harness all kinds of lamentable but inevitable activities in order to generate revenue for our beleaguered city. For instance, consider this version of the argument from inevitability: Prostitution is a terrible thing. But given its status as “the oldest profession,” it’s not going away any time soon. As a result, prostitution represents an entire underground and tax-free economy that is, in effect, robbing our city of revenue. Therefore, we should legalize, regulate, and tax prostitution. The funds generated could open the pools and perhaps provide scholarships for GRCC.

And while we’re at it, drug trafficking in our city won’t soon go away. You get the idea.

Running the argument with these alternatives shows us more starkly that Secchia’s logic is purely economic. But the generation of revenue does not cover the multitude of sins and injustices associated with casinos and gambling. We shouldn’t let Secchia’s fiscal myopia blind us to that.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Internet Politics: Take a Survey

A doctoral candidate in political science asked if I would share the following survey in order to generate data on how political advertising operates in the blogosphere, and I agree to share the link. Please considering take this brief survey:

Exploring the Role of Internet Advertising in American Politics

This survey is designed to help us understand what Americans like you think about internet advertising, modern campaigns, and politics. We are very interested in your thoughts on this matter and greatly appreciate your participation.

Click here to take the survey:

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Jeff Sharlet @ Calvin College

Fors Clavigera readers will be familiar with Jeff Sharlet's work in Harper's, since I've pointed there now and again. Well, I'm happy to report that I've been able to arrange for Sharlet to come visit Calvin College and present a public lecture on Wednesday, April 11, 3:30pm in the Meeter Center Lecture Hall at Calvin College. He will speak on "Fundamentalist History, Secular Myth, and the Media's God Problem." For complete information about the talk, see here.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Required Reading: International News

It's 8:34am on the morning of Monday, March 5. After prayer, I begin my day with a bit of a news round-up. And this morning I noticed a unique difference:

Front and center of the BBC's page was this story: "More civilians die in Afghanistan" (as a result of US bombing)

But in supposedly "liberal" American media, the story barely registers: at the New York Times website the story way below the fold, so to speak; at it at least appears in a "latest headlines" box, and the L.A. Times has it above the fold on the front page of their site. And just out of curiosity, I checked at (which I hardly ever look at) and the story nowhere appears. (I can't bring myself to look at

Monday, February 12, 2007

Chicks Rule!, or Art and Ideology

My wife proved herself a prophetess last night. Despite the prognosticators, she confidently proclaimed that the Dixie Chicks would be winners at the Grammy's--though I don't think she envisioned them winning 5 awards (in every category for which they were nominated).

There is, of course, a sweet irony about this. This trio that won "Best Country Album" has not received an iota of country radio airplay time because they dared to be critical of the unmitigated militarism of the current administration. And these same Chicks that won five Grammy's (!) did not receive a single award at last fall's Country Music Awards.

We have been DCX fans since the beginning and enjoyed seeing their tour's kick-off show in Detroit last summer. (Who launches a country tour in Detroit?!) While I wish they were a tad more elegant about this last night, I'm happy that their work has been vindicated in this way. Don Henley was just downright giddy about the Dixie Chicks last night. (Alot of folks have noted that the Chicks' album, Taking the Long Way, has 70's-ish Eagles-like echoes.) When Don Henley is in your corner, it makes morons like Toby Keith look even smaller.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Edwards and the "T"-word

In rolling out his campaign for nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards sounds like...well, a Democrat! It's quite jarring to hear when one has become used to the basically right- and centrist-B.S. that passes for Democratic rhetoric in the wake of Bill Clinton. But the New York Times reports:
Appearing on “Meet the Press” on NBC on Sunday, Mr. Edwards said he would raise taxes on people making more than $200,000 a year to help pay for the [health care] plan, which he estimated could cost up to $120 billion a year.
That's right, folks: Edwards dropped the "T"-bomb (or is it the "R-T"-bomb): he will campaign for raising taxes. And in particular, he will suggest that it might not be a bad idea to tax the wealthy at a rate a tad higher than the working class. Where'd he come up with this stuff? (Maybe he took a glance at the way the rest of the entire civilized world operates.)

Granted, it's a bit early to know just what Edwards' is about. But I confess to being a bit giddy that somebody would roll out their campaign in this climate and unapologetically talk about raising taxes.

What would American politics look like if the working class were no longer duped by the cloak of social conservatism worn by the bourgeoisie, and actually started to vote in their interests?

[As a teaser for you-know-who-you-are: Given that they're still placing their eggs in the basket of statecraft, I'll be very interested to see whether Jim Wallis & Co. have the courage to get behind Edwards' (fairly) strident anti-poverty, anti-war campaign. Or will the rhetoric of "feasability" and "pragmatism"--and just the sheer glow of celebrity--keep them close to people like Obama and Hilary?]

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Sunday "Snow Day"

For the first time in my memory, our city is experiencing a "snow day" on a Sunday (yes, my kids think God is playing a cruel joke by dumping a blizzard on the weekend!). All of the local churches, because of what's being hailed by sensationalistic local media as "The Blizzard of '07," are closed this morning and services are cancelled.

But why should a dumping of snow shut down Sunday worship across the city? Because people overwhelmingly drive to church. A Sunday Snow Day is a tangible confirmation of the loss of the parish in the North American church. Sunday is yet another "commuting" day because the automobility of religious communities merely mimicks the automobility of the culture in general--with this exception: if this was a Monday, more folks would have braved the roads for work than for worship.

This is related to the research project ("Subdivided by Faith") that Mark Mulder and I are conducting for the Center for Social Research. In particular, we are investigating how and why evangelicalism (and other Christian traditions, too) so easily gave up on "the parish"--and the impact of that on culture.

The other question to be asked is whether there's any hope for recovering the parish model. Could we imagine a configuration of urban life where a "snow day" just means bundling up for the walk to church?

Friday, January 26, 2007

A Soundtrack for American History?

Jeff Sharlet’s most recent essay in Harper’s focuses on yet another front in the Religious Right’s strategy for the culture wars (in addition to the courts, the marriage altar, and science classrooms): U.S. history. At stake here is just how we narrate the story of the American experiment. The Right clearly sees the power of story, and Jon Meacham’s protests in American Gospel to the contrary, they remain committed to a story of biblical proportions—a tale of exiles and promised lands, exoduses and deliverance, cities on hills and New Jerusalems. I’m grateful for another one of Jeffrey Sharlet’s entertaining dispatches from the exotic world of Protestant fundamentalism, giving us a glimpse into the curricula of Christian madrasas located in homes throughout the nation.

I do have some minor reservations about Sharlet’s account—in particular, his suggestion that the Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper is something of a progenitor of R.J. Rushdoony’s “dominionist” theocratic project. This is mistaken and over-reaching on at least two counts:

First, while Kuyper did articulate a critique of the sacred/secular distinction, particularly as inherited from the Enlightenment, as well as the liberal notion of “neutrality” in a supposedly secular public square, his critique did not entail any pretension to theocracy. This is because of a central theme in his thought: the notion of “sphere sovereignty” which carefully and rigorously distinguished between the proper realms of authority for the state, the church, commerce, and other spheres. One might suggest this is a kind of Dutch rendition of the “wall of separation.”

Second, we can look at Kuyper’s own practice. As prime minister of the Netherlands, Kuyper’s vision translated into a robust pluralism that has never really been entertained in the United States, not even by the left (taken as they are with the benighted notion of a “neutral” public discourse).

But this is perhaps a bit of a marginal skirmish. More importantly, Sharlet’s piece pushed me to a musical meditation: for the past week I’ve been ruminating on Buddy Miller’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “With God on our Side,” on Miller’s Universal United House of Prayer album. (You can listen to Miller’s version here.) Tracking the rhetoric of divine sanction of American conflicts—from Puritan violence against Native Americans up to the nuclear age—Dylan interrogates just the claim made by the Religious Right’s version of history: the persistent refrain of “God on our side.” Stand-alone lyrics don’t do justice to the mournful lament, but the song opens:

Oh the history books tell it
They tell it so well
The cavalries charged
The Indians fell
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh the country was young
With God on its side.

The refrain continues through the Revolution, Spanish-American war, up through 20th-century conflicts. But just when this starts to sound like an anthem for manifest destiny, the lyrics take a turn, and conclude thus:

In a many dark hour
I've been thinkin' about this
That Jesus Christ
Was betrayed by a kiss
But I can't think for you
You'll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

So now as I'm leavin'
I'm weary as Hell
The confusion I'm feelin'
Ain't no tongue can tell
The words fill my head
And fall to the floor
If God's on our side
He'll stop the next war.

I think the song should be required listening in 7th grade history classes across the country (one could hope it might be listened to by some home schoolers, too!). Dylan’s and Miller’s is a very different story about God’s role in U.S. history—one with a prophetic heritage.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Where's Hitchens on Carter?

Christopher Hitchens has, notoriously, come to a kind of tepid "defense" of the work of David Irving, who is in turn notoriously charged as a Holocaust denier, or at least revisionist. (See "The Strange Case of David Irving," in Hitchens, Love, Poverty, and War.) Hitchens' willingness to even have his name appear in a sentence containing Irving's stems, I think, from Hitch's long-standing advocacy for the Palestinians and thus his willingness to thus toy with something very few American intellectuals will touch: a critique of Israel.

So I find myself waiting for Hitchens to say something about "the Carter affair"--the controversy generated by Carter's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. (The NY Times reports today on a number of advisors to the Carter Center resigning over the book.) Granted, Carter is not one of Hitchens' favorites, but neither is he any kind of admirer of Irving. I think Hitchens owes us an intervention on the issues here.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Carbon Credits: Cheap Grace?

The Martin Marty Center's Sightings post for today is a brilliant piece by Elizabeth Musselman on carbon offsets as the new "indulgences"--a mode of cheap grace that assuages guilt without requiring any change of lifestyle (sort of like the Bush plan to find new drugs for the American addiction to oil, rather than curtail the addiction). The piece is not yet archived on the website, so I'll paste it here:

Carbon Offsets: The New Indulgence? -- Elizabeth Musselman

"Feeling guilty about all those greenhouse gases you generate?" Morning Edition host John Ydstie asked listeners of Martin Kaste's recent National Public Radio story on the thriving carbon offset businesses in the United States. "There may be a way to get out of that eco-guilt, if you're willing to pay." Here's how it works: With the computational help of a website sponsored by the nonprofit organization The Climate Trust, American energy consumers can now compute exactly how much carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere every year and then invest proportionally into a company that provides programs to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere in the world. The calculating mechanism enables the energy consumer to donate just enough money to help the company offset the exact amount of pollution generated by that consumer's lifestyle -- no more, no less. Thus, we can continue to drive our SUVs and turn up the heat in the winter without guilt, because by engaging in this financial transaction that Kaste calls "atmospheric penance" we can be reckoned as "carbon neutral."

Guardian commentator George Monbiot compares carbon offset programs to sales of indulgences in medieval Europe. Citing the worst abuses of indulgences (such as the sale of pardons for incest and murder), Monbiot identifies three problems with carbon offset programs. They encourage people to continue to emit carbons now in exchange for the possibility of reduced carbon emissions in the future (and any scientist will admit that an ounce of carbon saved next year isn't as ecologically valuable as an ounce of carbon saved today). Further, they eliminate the sense of guilt that might drive energy consumers toward earth-saving lifestyle and policy changes. Finally, they are simply too little too late. "You can now buy complacency, political apathy, and self-satisfaction. But you cannot buy the survival of the planet." Is Monbiot a modern-day Martin Luther figure, heroically railing against the sale of false ecological salvation to save us from the eschatological terror of environmental collapse? Or should we all purchase carbon offsets after reading this article? Perhaps the answer to both questions is "yes."

Monbiot's easy identification of carbon offsets with indulgences is too simple. As Luther pointed out, indulgences targeted the poor, often keeping salvation-hungry peasants from feeding their families (see the 46th of Luther's 95 Theses). Today, those who feel the most immediate effects of our environmental crisis are the poorest citizens of the world. So in our case, the poor are better off if we do everything we can to slow the impending environmental doom -- which includes financially supporting carbon offset programs. And remember Luther's claim (see thesis 82) that if the Pope really had the power to spring souls from purgatory he should automatically save everyone rather than only those who pay? Similarly, if our financial contributions can really reduce global climate change, shouldn't we automatically contribute everything we can, regardless of how much CO2 we personally emit? But it would still not be enough. Carbon offsets alone won't save our earth from burning any more than indulgences could have saved souls from burning. It is clear that Luther and Monbiot agree on one thing: The reality of sin (read: greed and complacency) makes any simple human effort toward salvation (read: environmental restoration) a mere drop in the bucket. It would take ten billion dollars a year to return the United States to its 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Even if that could be accomplished, we would still need to change radically the way we live and consume in order to prevent the disaster that many scientists say is now inevitable. Should we donate money to help fund the capture of methane gases on Mexican pig farms and the creation of windmills in India? Yes. Should we stop driving so much? Yes. Should we buy locally? Yes. Should we lobby for policy changes? Yes. The list goes on and on.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that it was near the end of a 2,000-mile solo driving trip that I first heard the NPR story about carbon offsets. Feeling guilty, this theologian and future pastor drove the rest of the way home, donated money to a company that reduces carbon emissions, took the train to school the next day instead of driving -- and then promptly returned to her normal lifestyle. Apparently, it will take more than a temporary feeling of eco-guilt to change my driving habits. And it will take more than carbon offsets for us to save ourselves from the sins of complacency and consumerism that threaten the future of our planet.

Martin Kaste's National Public Radio story "'Carbon Offset' Business Takes Root" (November 28, 2006) can be listened to online at:
The Climate Trust's carbon offset website can be found at
George Monbiot's Guardian article "Selling Indulgences" (October 18, 2006 ) can be accessed at:
Luther's "95 Theses" can be found in Luther's Works: American Edition, vol. 31, ed. Harold Grimm.

Elizabeth Musselman is a Ph.D. candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School and a candidate for ordained ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

"No Iraqi Left Behind?"

It seems to me that the President's woefully inadequate proposal for "winning" in Iraq is like a band-aid on a severed jugular. And the logic of the "benchmarks" for Iraqis sounds remarkably similar to the vaunted moralisms of the "No Child Left Behind" Act translated into a foreign policy.

The Council on Foreign Relations provides a helpful panel reaction to last night's speech (though Michael Gerson's contribution is almost laughable in its deference to the administration). Other contributions, however, are insightful yet balanced. To pick just one snippet, Max Boot notes the following:

Based on classic counterinsurgency calculations (1 soldier or policeman per 40 or 50 civilians), pacifying Baghdad, a city of 6 million people, requires a force of some 150,000. The beefed-up U.S. force in Baghdad still will be less than 40,000 strong.

Gerson, on the other hand, praises a "realistic plan," and lauds the President for being "unimpressed by the conventional foreign policy wisdom" (!). In this way Gerson extends the fundamental anti-intellectualism of this President, who glories in rejecting the "conventional wisdom" of science as well.