Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Brooks on Gladwell: Not Quite

I'm about halfway through Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which has been a breezy but fascinating read (any book whose argument hinges on Canadian hockey players is bound to suck in a Canuck). I'll comment more fully on the book when I'm done (over at What I'm Reading), but given David Brooks' column on Gladwell today, I wanted to make one clarification.

Brooks' generally appreciates Gladwell's emphasis on the role that social forces and other cultural "conditions" play in success. In Gladwell's account, there are no "self-made men," so to speak. There are those who inhabit a kind of perfect storm of opportunity that gives them an advantage. Thus Bill Gates' goes on to found Microsoft in no small part because he attended an elite private school in the late 70s which had its own computer terminal (in a time of mammoth mainframes). This, along with other factors, provided opportunity for extensive practice (10,000 hours is a magic number of "mastery" in the book) which then puts Gates ahead of the curve as other opportunities arise.

Gladwell's argument or analysis has a Rawlsian political edge to it: society should create egalitarian structures of opportunity. While I don't think Gladwell cites (or even reads) Rawls, he does suggest policy makers imagine a kind of "original position" where we don't know where we stand within a society. Wouldn't we all pick those configurations which broaden opportunity?

But Brooks then seems to "overread" Gladwell. Though affirming the importance of these cultural, even biological, conditions (I'm eagerly awaiting Brooks' new book on neuroscience), he makes this criticism:
Gladwell’s social determinism is a useful corrective to the Homo economicus view of human nature. It’s also pleasantly egalitarian. The less successful are not less worthy, they’re just less lucky. But it slights the centrality of individual character and individual creativity. And it doesn’t fully explain the genuine greatness of humanity’s outliers.
But that's not true of Gladwell. He doesn't reduce success to luck; he recognizes that there is a threshold of ability that must be in place in order for "luck" to work. For instance, you won't win a Nobel prize if you have an IQ under 120. But on the other hand, having an IQ over 120 does not make you more likely to win a Nobel. In other words, once you get to the 120 threshold, IQ no longer becomes a significant predictor. At that point, other forces of opportunity take over. While Brooks hails the importance of "personal initiative," Gladwell's account of the genius Chris Langan shows that one has to have the opportunity--the good luck--to become the kind of person who has such "initiative." In short, Brooks has underestimated Gladwell's account.

Mr. Johnson's Critical Wisdom

Apropos the last post, consider Adam Gopnik's recent summary of Samuel Johnson's "philosophy" of criticism:
No critic has ever been wiser about the limits of criticism, and about how few rules can ever be made for writing; Johnson is the model of a reactive critic, seeing when a piece of writing was made, and how it works, then and now. His premise was always that something that had long pleased readers must have pleased them for a reason; sometimes it was because of a quality or a problem in their time that had made the work seem briefly pleasing, sometimes it was because of some permanent quality of imagination or truth. The critic’s job was to distinguish between what belonged to the history of taste and what belonged to the canon of art, and to try to explain what made the permanently pleasing permanently please. For Johnson’s great question is not how to write, or what to write, but why write. His criticism provides a simple answer: to help us enjoy life more, or endure it better.
Johnson has no illusions about criticism’s ability to fix or cure. Critics are to writers not as doctors are to patients but as bearded ladies are to trapeze artists—another, sadder act in the same big show.

On the "Uses" of Literature

Having just finished another rendition of my course on "Philosophy of Language and Interpretation," this time around I found myself more and more fascinated by Wittgenstein (and a later disciple, Robert Brandom). In particular, I was struck by how fruitful Wittgenstein's account of meaning as "use" could be for thinking about literature and poetry. While my primary training is in phenomenology--specifically the train of thought that runs from Edmund Husserl through Heidegger to Jacques Derrida--I found this "semiotic" stream less provocative than Wittgenstein's "pragmatism."

So I was intrigued to read a recent piece in the Chronicle Review which raised some similar concerns. Though Rita Felski ends by commending phenomenology for the study of literature (which I still think is valuable), in the middle of her argument is a claim that warrants some Wittgensteinian unpacking:
What literary studies sorely needs, in other words, is a nonutilitarian understanding of use. To talk about the uses of literature is to insist that those uses are plural and diverse. We need to surrender, once and for all, the quixotic pursuit of a single concept that can explain why literature matters.

Read the entire article.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Goodbye "Holiday" Feasting, Hello Advent?

A couple of weeks ago my home institution announced the latest way the economic downturn would affect us: they canceled the annual Christmas banquet for faculty and staff. Given budget shortfalls and belt-tightening that has happened across the college, this made good sense to everyone I talked to. And today on NPR's "All Things Considered," Jenny Gold reported that this was a growing trend across industry in the US this year. As she opened:
You may not have to worry about the awkward encounter with your boss at the office holiday bash this year. Scores of U.S. businesses plan to forgo their annual holiday party as a response to the slumping economy. That means no top-shelf scotch, no co-workers getting down on the dance floor, no heaping platters of hors d'oeuvres.
(Alas, the annual Christmas banquet at Calvin College has never included any of these things, except for the awkward encounters with top-level administrators.)

But these cancelations might be their own kind of gift. Indeed, they might provide an opportunity to remember that Advent is, in fact, a penitential season. As I pointed out last year, the Christian liturgical year is in tension with the Hallmark calendar. While "the holiday season"--with its parties, feasting, and consumer indulgence--ramps up around Thanksgiving (or earlier!), Advent is a season of expectant waiting and penitential reflection on why we need the Savior we await. As Joseph Bottum rightly notes in his lament, "The End of Advent,"
What Advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation and channeling it toward its goal. There’s a flicker of rose on the third Sunday—Gaudete!, that day’s Mass begins: Rejoice!—but then it’s back to the dark purple that is the mark of the season in liturgical churches. And what those somber vestments symbolize is the deeply penitential design of Advent. Nothing we can do earns us the gift of Christmas, any more than Lent earns us Easter. But a season of contrition and sacrifice prepares us to understand and feel something about just how great the gift is when at last the day itself arrives.
The cancelation of the corporate Christmas party in the opening weeks of December might be a tiny opportunity to participate in this discipline, which looks forward to the inbreaking of the Feast. Granted, our economic situation isn't likely to change much in Christmastide, but perhaps our Advent denials can store up for a brief Christmastide abundance.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lest We Forget: On NOT Picturing the War in Iraq

This month's Vanity Fair has an informative article by Seth Mnookin on the New York Times bureau in Iraq. The Times is one of the few news outlets with a substantial presence to report the war (CBS news, for instance, has no full-time correspondent in Iraq), at a substantial cost. I found Mnookin's observation about photography to be particularly interesting and unsettling:
In the past several years, the military has used its ability to refuse to accept reporters on embeds as a way of controlling what images come out of Iraq. One example of this occurred over the summer, when a credentialed photographer who posted pictures of dead American soldiers on his Web site was told he could no longer work in areas of the country controlled by U.S. Marines, even though his work had not violated any of the coalition forces’ official rules for media members. A recent Times story found that, five years into a war that has resulted in more than 4,000 American combat fatalities, fewer than a half-dozen graphic images of dead American military personnel have been published.

Canada: The Movie

From Vanity Fair: "Not to be outdone by its colonial cousin Australia, the Commonwealth of Canada has commissioned its own 300-minute tentpole, starring Alanis Morissette and Dan Aykroyd as lovers divided by language, ideology, and the great Molson-Labatt debate." Read the rest.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fish on Academic Freedom, Again

Stanley Fish's most recent column on academic freedom is worth a read, even if one might not agree with him. The hook is a new book by Finkin & Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (Yale, 2009). The authors first distinguish between academic freedom and the sort of freedom secured by the First Amendment. As Fish summarizes,
“We argue that the concept of Academic freedom . . . differs fundamentally from the individual First Amendment rights that present themselves so vividly to the contemporary mind.” The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are “grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes.”
That seems clearly true to me, and explains alot of confusion about academic freedom. (It seems to me that the AAUP is unable to make this distinction.)

However, Fish (and the authors?) seem to then assume that "higher education" is a rather monolithic phenomeon. Or, to put it otherwise: the authors rightly ground academic freedom "in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education." They then define the mission or purpose of "the" university as the generation of new knowledge and the modeling of "independent thought." As Fish summarizes,
If the mission of the enterprise is, as Finkin and Post say, “to promote new knowledge and model independent thought,” the “special conditions” necessary to the realization of that mission must include protection from the forces and influences that would subvert newness and independence by either anointing or demonizing avenues of inquiry in advance.
Threats to academic freedom, on this account, include any "forces" that would mitigate this mission and subject it to the strictures of "public opinion." But this does not secure the freedom for professors to say just anything (e.g., to hijack a class on organic chemistry with rants about the war in Iraq or Prop 8 in California).

But on this point I find two interesting lacunas in the discussion: First, Finkin and Post's definition of the university's "mission" seems to exhibit a couple of tensions. On the one hand, the mission seems largely defined by research, whereas Fish's examples tend to focus on the classroom. Finkin and Post's definition of "the enterprise" focuses on the generation of new knowledge and seems to have little room, or at least little account, of the centrality of an education. Second, when this "enterprise" does include education, it's reduced to the liberal mantra of modeling "independent thought," in which case it seems that we're right back in the terrain of First-Amendment-like ideals of autonomy and freedom (often couched in the ruse that we are teaching students how to think not what to think; alot of partisan ranting gets smuggled into the classroom under the guise of "critical thinking"). Thus Fish praises the book because it "declares that while faculty must 'respect students as persons,' they are under no obligation to respect the 'ideas held by students.'" That might sound like its tweaking the student-centered, liberal ruse, but at the end of the day what it still can't entertain is this radical notion: that education might only be an education insofar as it constitutes a formation. (Indeed, one of the things the other Stanley [Hauerwas] emphasizes throughout The State of the University is that an education can't not be formation; the question is, formation to what end?]

Second, can Fish--and Finkin and Post--imagine a multiplicity of kinds of institutions of higher education? They seem to assume there is this thing called "the university"--which has multiple outposts or branches across the country--and all of those microcosmic instantiations of "the university" participate in this definition of "the enterprise." But might there be institutions of higher education that, in fact, embrace the project of education as formation, as inculcation into a tradition and its imagination, precisely as the ground for 'critical thinking?' (Every "critique" presumes some criteria.) Might there be universities which, suspicious of the empty ruse of "independent thought," are honest and up front about their enterprise as educating a people toward a substantive telos, a particular vision of the good life? Couldn't we imagine universities that acknowledge the traditioned nature of all our inquiry, and which seek to generate new knowledge, but do so in accordance with the rigors and "thickness" of an acknowledged tradition--a tradition which is not seen as restrictive and limiting, but rather which opens up the world for us? And wouldn't that be exactly the mission and "enterprise" of Christian and Catholic universities? Otherwise, why should they exist?

Finkin and Post suggest that our understandings of "academic freedom" must be grounded in a "substantive account of the purposes of higher education." I agree; I think we just need to acknowledge that there is not one set of purposes that define higher education as such. What counts as higher education, and what defines the task of higher education, is itself contested and multiple. Different institutions will have different understandings of that mission and enterprise. Academic freedom at the Christian university will be grounded in the articulation of the purpose of the Christian university. Within that mission and task, we will still prize "academic freedom," but it will be a bounded freedom (in good Augustinian fashion). The "boundaries," however, should not be subject to the whims of "public opinion," even public opinion within the church. For instance, it should not be subject to the hobby horses of trustees or presidents or "concerned parents." Academic freedom should flourish within the bounds of "Catholic" Christianity--defined by the thickness and time-tested-ness of the creedal and confessional tradition, not the current whims of radio preachers or talk-radio pundits.

Such an account cuts both ways; that is, such a model is an equal opportunity offender, because it resists the whims of both the left and the right. For instance, I find trustees and "concerned parents" often get hooked on hobby-horse issues that reflect current neo-conservative fixations (e.g., homosexuality, free markets, or [still!] creation/evolution). On the other hand, I find my more predictably "liberal" colleagues--even at a Christian university--tend to be easily co-opted into the agendas of (what passes for) the left in this country, and basically end up assuming, and even fighting for, a classically liberal notion of "autonomy" (which is why these professors, even though they're at a Christian or Catholic university, are largely allergic to the notion the notion of education as formation).

But now imagine that we're thinking about a Christian university community whose 'boundaries' (and hence horizons of possibility) are defined not by some 20th-century "Statement of Faith" abopted from a radio evangelistic ministry, but rather the Scriptures and historic creeds and confessions of the church (Apostles' Creed, Nicea, Chalcedon). In fact, imagine such a Christian university bound itself to confessions that included historical Reformational documents as well (say, something like the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort). Then this university would situate itself in the thickness of a tradition that ranges from the first to sixteenth century. The "tradition" that informs its mission and task is catholic and thickly specified, and provides an untold wealth of resources for thinking about and grappling with the world--a generous platform to launch rigorous programs for generating new knowledge from within these horizons of possibility--even to generate knowledge and discover things about the world to which the so-called "secular" university would remain blind (which is precisely why I think this tradition is enabling, not 'limiting' or constrictive).

Well, what would this mean for either the conservative trustees or the 'liberal' professors? It turns out that "the tradition" undercuts both. On the one hand, the conservative trustees and "concerned parents" will be hard-pressed to find their hobby-horses making a run in the tradition. Further, it should be noted that many of the conservative trustees and "concerned parents," who often seem quite commited to the laissez-faire ideals of the "free" market will find that this tradition also constitutes a radical critique of the notion of "freedom" operative in said market. On the other hand, the 'liberal' professors who just assume autonomy as an ideal will find that the tradition's understanding of freedom constitutes a radical critique of the quasi-Enlightenment models they've assumed.

What we will find in this tradition, however, is a thick sense of who we are called to be as human beings re-created in the image of God, which provides a rich foundation for imagining the shape of an education that constitutes the formation of a people who desire the kingdom.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Desiring the Kingdom" Cover

I'm very pleased with the cover for Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009). The art & design folks at Baker Publishing Group are very receptive to suggestions and invite my input on most projects--and then always pull together a clean, pleasing design.

I'm particularly thrilled with the fact that we'll be able to use this image. This is a tapestry in the Quest for the Holy Grail cycle by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Volumes 2 and 3 in the trilogy will also include images from this cycle. I think the pieces are stunning. In fact, I made a pilgrimmage to the Birmingham Museum this past spring to try to see them in person, but they are kept in very controlled storage. The colors and detail are sumptuous and the theme of the "kingdom" runs through them with a sense of enchantment. I hope the book does something similar.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Just for Fun

I remember when my daughter, Maddie, took this picture--in the field beside a farmhouse we stayed at in northern Italy. I just think it's such a cool shot. She added the text for her website, I think.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

"Speed Racer," Common Grace, and "Progress"

Last night my boys and I watched the Wachowski brothers' latest offering, Speed Racer. I quite enjoyed their (perhaps indulgent?) visual forays, variously hovering between surreal and camp. (I confess to also kind of enjoying the cheap chimpanzee comedy shtick.) But I also found myself strangely intrigued by a melodramatic, almost cliche line uttered by Racer X to Speed:
"It doesn't matter if racing never changes. What matters is if racing changes us."
The context is the corporate corruption of the WRL, which is rife and systemic. It has always been this way, and Speed despairs that it might always be. And it's not clear that winning within the system will really change the system. But at the same time, X and Speed both have a compulsion to race, and that compulsion can only work itself out within the system. (One might say that the corrupt system owns all the tracks.) So given that context and compulsion, the question becomes an issue of assimmilation: "What matters is if racing changes us." Now, granted, this could sound like a kind of Stoicism. But I don't think it is, because Speed and the entire family are trying to imagine racing otherwise--and are trying to embody a different kind of team, and different kind of racing, and different kind of practice within the corporate system. But if Racer X is right, one doesn't necessarily work out this impulsion in order to "transform" the system ("It doesn't matter if racing never changes.").

So this got me thinking a bit (and I'm very much thinking out loud here): How much of the Reformed agenda of "transforming" culture is secretly--and perhaps essentially--informed by a kind of myth of progress? To what extent does the "transforming culture" agenda have to assume that "racing can change," so to speak? And is that warranted?

In re-reading Kuyper recently, I was astonished (one might say appalled) to see his shameless 19th-century progressive confidence in "the West" (all thanks to Calvinism, of course). (How much of this is due to an implicit post-millenialism of some sort?) In general, I think Reformed "transformers" assume both the "racing can change" and "racing will change," to stick with the filmic metaphor.

But I just wonder: is that warranted? On what grounds? (I should note that even if it's not warranted, that doesn't thereby entail the truth of some dispensationalist pessimism about creation and culture per se, as if everything but the soul is just destined to "burn up.") What can we expect from "the earthly city?" (Nota bene: Augustine's "earthly city" is not synonymous with creation or temporality; it's origin is the Fall.) I suppose I find myself with little confidence in any "progress" in the earthly city apart from eschatological renewal and transformation. And within such a system, what matters is that "racing" not change us. Link

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

New Book: The Logic of Incarnation

Some Fors Clavigera readers might be interested in a new book that has just appeared from Wipf & Stock: The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith's Critique of Postmodern Religion, edited by Neal DeRoo and Brian Lightbody. This grew out of a conference that engaged my work at Brock University in St. Catherine's, Ontario. Drawing together philosophers, theologians, campus ministers, and other practitioners, the took takes up various facets of my engagement with postmodernism and religion, including my critique of the "religion without religion" school of Caputo (on the theoretical side) or Pete Rollins (on the practitioner side, so to speak). I contribute a long first chapter ("The Logic of Incarnation: Towards a Catholic Postmodernism") that sort of provides an overview of this critique of Derrida & Co.'s "logic of determination" and the alternative I describe as the "logic of incarnation." I also contribute an Afterword that responds to each of the chapters.

The original conference was great fun, and this book was a way to revisit those conversations--as well as an opportunity for me to clarify some issues, respond to some criticisms, and get to say some things I haven't elsewhere. (It's also a treat for me to see Neal, my former student, bringing this to fruition. Thanks, Neal!)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Poetic Musings at AAR

I usually enjoy the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the yearly gathering of scholars in religious studies and theology. But this year I found it a slog. I'm not sure if this is a reflection of the meeting or of my own personal ambivalence about the very project. But the drone of papers occasioned in me a kind of ennui I've not experienced there before (the book exhibit was a bit of a tonic). In fact, during one very-long paper I was so bored and disheartened that I took up poetic doodling. I hope this was only a phase, or the bad fish talking--otherwise, I've got serious professional issues on the horizon!

A poem inspired by a theological presentation at AAR:

Babel's babbling and confusion
comes home to roost in
the many gurgling tongues of the
chattering self-importantly,
most sincerely,
with an idolatrous cleverness.

Serious and sober,
yea "evangelical,"
but really just a DJ--
riffing and mixing,
generating a cacaphony of theologemes
that dance and dangle
between piled names.
A show of erudition,
gesticulating about 'communicative action'
and saying...what?


For which I give thanks.

For never has the vocation--
or is it just my desire?--
of the poet felt more clear.

For I am befuddled by this Babel,
foreign tongues of barbarians.

From its rambling , "rigorous" confusion
I want only to fall into the
clarity of Franz Wright,
the lucidity of Anne Sexton,
the bumpkin simplicity of young Donald Hall.

Compared with the muffled but incessant
utterances of the theologian,
poetry rings with the clarity of
crunchy leaves in the quiet of a
frost-covered autumn morning.

God, of course, is no theologian.
He is a poet hidden and violated,
muzzled by the theologians.
As long as there are theologians,
God's existence will remain in question.

How long, O Lord?
When O When will you silence the theologians--
Silence my theologizing--
And sing to us, your poiema,
in the poems of your strange saints.


Friday, October 31, 2008

The Radicality of Marriage

I have been hoping for several years to develop a course that I'd love to teach at Calvin--on marriage, family, and sex from a philosophical and theological perspective (drawing on Aristotle, Aquinas, Hauerwas, David Matzko McCarthy, and others), but also utilizing literary and poetic sources. I think it will be a hard sell for me because it will be perceived as a "conservative" course so I expect opposition from certain quarters. But, in fact, I think the course would be radically counter-cultural. As Slavoj Zizek provocatively asks:
What if, in our postmodern world of ordained transgression, in which the marital commitment is perceived as ridiculously out of time, those who cling to it are the true subversives? What if, today, straight marriage is 'the most dark and daring of all transgressions?'" -Zizek, "The Thrilling Romance of Orthodoxy," in Theology and the Political: The New Debate

This doesn't mean I would have any truck with the rabid Constantinianism (and hypocrisy) of evangelical anti-gay marriage campaigns . Indeed, a radical theology of marriage would also be subversive for a church which has also pretty much accommodated itself to serial monogamy.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Adam Smith on Taxation

A little tidbit from Steve Coll's New Yorker piece, "Overtaxed," reflecting on Joe the Plumber and the specter of socialism:
The principle that Obama evinced, which most economists would regard as unexceptionable, can be traced to Adam Smith. In “The Wealth of Nations” (1776), his seminal treatise on capitalism, Smith wrote:

The necessaries of life occasion the great expense of the poor. . . . The luxuries and vanities of life occasion the principal expense of the rich, and a magnificent house embellishes and sets off to the best advantage all the other luxuries and vanities which they possess. . . . It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Just Charity: A Follow-up to some Questions

I've received a few questions and some criticism regarding my previous post on "Just Charity." Admittedly, within the 500 words of a newspaper column, it's difficult to be nuanced. So let me follow up here by responding to two sorts of questions.

Objection 1: Your reading of Acts 5 seems to miss two crucial points: (a) Ananias and Sapphira's sin was lying, not refusal to share their possessions; and (b) the text seems to clearly say that the property "belonged" to them both before and after the sale, and hence it was sort of "voluntary" on their part.

I might say a few things in reply:

First, our artificial chapter divisions are unhelpful here. What we now have as "chapter 4" ends by emphasizing that there "wasn't a needy person among them" because the owners among them were selling what they had in order to share (re-distribute) the resources. So coming off chapter 4, Ananias and Sapphira stand in contrast to Barnabas, who laid everything at the apostles' feet (4:37).

Second, Acts 5:3 seems to indicate that there sin was two-fold: (1) lying AND (2) "keeping back" some for themselves. The deed they "conceived" (5:4) seems to have been their shared plan to hold some back. The act itself was the lie: what they laid at the apostles' feet was not what they were de facto claiming--it also wasn't what was expected (given the patterns established in chapter 4).

Regarding "ownership," it is an interesting claim. After it was sold, it was still "under their control." I don't think this works well with Lockean models of property and ownership. But it does bring to mind the compassionate father's response to the elder brother in Luke 15: "All that is mine is yours" (Luke 15:31). I think it's very easy to be anachronistic and read our post-Lockean conceptions of "private" property and ownership back into a world that pretty much couldn't imagine what "private" means. As part of a community, who share "all things in common," of course they also remains 'owners,' in a sense--stakeholders in the common purse.

Finally, we'd have to again nuance just what "voluntary" means. Did Peter put a gun to their head to get them to give all that they had? No (guns not yet being invented ;-). Were they "coerced" by threats of torture? No. But was it expected of them as an act of gratitude? Yes. Was giving all considered a particularly benevolent "charitable" act, above and beyond the call of duty? No.

Objection 2: Let's say you're right that the early church was committed to a practice of redistribution of wealth and resources as a spiritual discipline--an alternative economy that testifies to the economy of shalom in the coming kingdom, and thus is a foretaste of the eschatological reordering of the economic. Why should anyone think that this translates into a program for the state? Isn't there a huge difference between an ecclesial socialism and a state-based socialism? In fact, shouldn't we be libertarians with respect to the economics of the state even if we might be ecclesial socialists, so to speak?

Again, several things come to mind in reply, on the fly:

Part of me can appreciate how one might come to something like this libertarian conclusion. I'm no advocate of state-based socialism. But on that point, let's be clear about something given the context in which these discussions are happening: Barack Obama is no socialist! Believe me, I'm a Canadian, and nothing close to socialism will ever be policy in this country. (Our conservative party in Canada is still to the left of the Democrats here.) So I feel like the "socialism" talk in the current milieu is a complete red herring.

Anyway, I agree that authentic 'socialism' (to use an ill-fitting word) would have to be (and could only be) ecclesial--a "socialism by grace," since it requires not only rightly ordered systems but also rightly ordered agents who inhabit those systems (I refuse to choose between the two). However, that said, I think we should also be seeking to enact a kind of "spill-over" of redemption in our culture as much as or wherever that is possible. So, for instance, all things considered, even if we think racism can only be effectively undone within communion in Christ, I hope it's obvious that we ought to also work to end lynchings, Jim Crow laws, school segregation, unjust school funding policies that privilege the wealthy, etc. The criteria here is admittedly ad hoc but still critical: we can evaluate what policies and systems look more like the kingdom than others (I'm leaning here on Augustine's City of God and Oliver O'Donovan's Desire of the Nations). And on that ad hoc basis, some policies are much more "kingdom-looking" than others. That would be my way of considering income redistribution that happens through taxation (along with universal healthcare, etc.). We look at the Scriptural hints of what a flourishing society looks like, and that picture becomes a criterion for measuring the relative justice and injustice of policies here-and-now.

(Admittedly, if you're a dispensationalist, you won't have any reason to think that there's any continuity between the now and the not-yet. I'm not going to argue the insufficiency of dispensationalism here; I'll just say it has not been the Catholic faith.)

Finally, I'd be very curious to know whether those who offer such a "baptized" libertarianism would really be willing to sign up for an ecclesial socialism. In my experience, they are also libertarians about the church (which is why many of them are also Protestants). I'd be much more willing to hear this line of critique if I thought the "Christians" offering it were living out economic redistribution within their ecclesial communities. But I don't think that is happening. I think the supposed "theological" arguments for libertarianism are a bit of a ruse--a cover for what, at the end of the day, is a political ideology that is drastically modern, individualist, and selfish.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Just Charity: "Charity" and "Compulsory Income Redistribution"

If anyone would like a peek into the inanities we have to endure here in West Michigan, just consider a recent guest commentary in the Religion section of our local paper, The Grand Rapids Press. In it the author excoriates the "compulsory income redistribution" that he believes stands in contrast to "true Christian charity." (As further evidence of the ludicrosity (?) we have to live with in West Michigan: the same paper endorsed McCain for President.)

I just sent off the following to the Press for consideration to be published next Saturday, but I'm not sanguine it will be published, so I'll post it here:

Just Charity

By James K.A. Smith

Some very important things can be lost in translation. Paul Rhoda’s recent commentary on Christian “charity” is a clear reminder of this. Having filtered the notion of “charity” through the libertarianism of Lord Acton (with a little help, I suspect, from his ideological heirs at the Acton Institute), Rhoda ends up with a very strange version of the Bible. Let’s call it the PRV, the Paul Rhoda Version.

If his commentary is any indicator, the PRV is a peculiar book. It’s not even really a translation; it’s an anthology—a Reader’s Digest compression with some heavy edits and omissions. The result is a different book.

Let’s consider just one of his claims: according to Rhoda, “Christian compassion is voluntary.” But such language of “voluntariness” is a modern invention. Our notion of something being “voluntary” implies that it is optional and un-coerced. In fact, we might even deserve some praise for doing what’s only “voluntary,” as if this was going above and beyond the call of duty.

But did the early church see compassion and charity as “voluntary?” Or, to take up Rhoda’s specific case, did the early church see “income redistribution” as “voluntary?”

The short and easy answer is, “No.” We can note at least three reasons.

First, such a conception of “voluntary” charity assumes a notion of freedom and autonomy that would have been utterly foreign to the Hebrews and to first-century Christians. According to the biblical picture, to be “free” is not to be autonomous or un-coerced. We are free when we are empowered to do the good. The strangeness of the biblical picture is that true freedom comes in subjection to the risen Lord. It is slaves of Christ who are truly free.

Second, the biblical narrative makes no dichotomy between love and justice. The biblical word sometimes translated as “charity”—the Greek word agape—does not refer to something that is optional for Christians. If it were, how could it be commanded throughout the New Testament?

Finally, the PRV seems to just leave out those cases that contradict Rhoda’s claims. For instance, Ananias and Sapphira seemed to have worked with something like Rhoda’s conception of “charity.” According to Acts 5, they were generous and charitable. Having sold a piece of property, they came to the apostles and made a big show of their charitable “donation.” What was the result? Peter renounced the couple’s selfishness! They were holding back. In fact, they both immediately died under judgment (Acts 5:1-11). Is this any way to treat charitable donors? What was the problem?

Well, they must have been reading the PRV. They mistakenly assumed that the redistribution of their income was a “voluntary” matter. But the early church had a clear and established practice of compulsory property redistribution. They sold what they had, pooled their resources, and had all things in common (Acts 2:44-45; 4:34-37). The church was living out an alternative economy—one compelled by gratitude and constrained by love. This wasn’t optional or voluntary, but was the reflection of a people serving a gift-giving King.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Snyder on Many Modes of "Understanding": More on Poetry

As you might gather from the synergy between Fors Clavigera and What I'm Reading, poetry's been on my mind alot lately. Building on an emerging theme I noted elsewhere, Dana Goodyear's recent New Yorker piece on sometime "Beat" poet Gary Snyder offers another catalyst for thinking about "poetic" truth, or poetic understanding (see "Zen Master" in the October 20 New Yorker).

The circle that included Snyder, Ginsberg and others were oral poets. This doesn't mean that they subscribed to any "phonocentric" conception of poetry, as if spoken poetry was "truer" or "purer" than written poetry. It simply means that theirs were poems meant to be spoken and heard--they were created with the cadences of speech and orality in mind. When they were written, they were akin to musical scores. Nobody would confuse the score of Mahler's Symphony No. 2 with its performance; and the score is meant to serve the performance. So too with oral poetry. Other (what--literate? textual?) poetry is meant to be read; it lives off the visuality of the graphemes, the marks and spaces on the page which often can't be reproduced in recitation. In contrast, Snyder struggles to find a syntax for writing his oral poems; he has to stretch the forms in order to create a "score." As Goodyear observes,
"on the page their forms are fluid, loose, irregular. Blocks of indented lines indicate a shift in voice, and often a slight conceptual change. [...] White space in the middle of the lines is for a caesura more substantial than a comma or a semicolon; white space between stanzas allows time to elapse."

This slippage between the written and the performed--and the irreducibility of the one to the other--also hints at different modes of understanding. As Snyder himself puts it,
"When people tell me they don't understand a poem, I say, 'Fine, just listen to it. The exposure to its is part of its power. Don't vex yourself with an intellectual understanding of it.' We don't expect to understand graphic art that way."

Notice that "understanding" is qualified: "intellectual" understanding is a particular "way" to understand. But there are also others. Hearing and absorbing the performed poem constitutes its own sort of visceral understanding--a mode of understanding which has its own integrity. This is not "implicit" understanding to just then be "made explicit" by "intellectual" understanding. It is understanding of a different order, and any attempt to translate it into another order will also occasion some loss. There are many ways to "understand."

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Church as Poetry?

Denis Donoghue's recent review of Jay Parini's book, Why Poetry Matters, got me to (analogical) thinking: might the situation of poetry in late modern American culture be akin to the situation of the church? Here's how this connection got swirling around in my head:

As Donoghue opens,
If you were to write a book called Why Poetry Matters, you would be wise to concede, as Jay Parini does, that “to most people” it doesn’t. “That is, most people don’t write it, don’t read it, and don’t have any idea why anybody would spend valuable time doing such a thing.”
Despite screeds and jeremiads about the MTVization of mass culture, and even a proliferation of magazines and collections, "the practice of poetry is still a subculture; it does not matter in any public sense." And yet...

...both Donoghue and Parini mount a sort of defense of poetry in spite of its being a "subculture," even recognizing that it could perhaps only be a "subculture." The logic seems to be that something's being a subculture does not entail that it doesn't matter; in fact, a subculture could be a subculture for the common good. As Donoghue concludes,
Reading a poem entails, to a special degree, the act of paying attention; we are required to concentrate our minds, not only to the extent we do habitually on words as they pass in ordinary life but as we are impelled to do on words in the intricacies, frictions, and evasions of lyric form. That so much in contemporary life encourages us to do otherwise—to accept things as they are, whether for the sake of ignorance or convenience—suggests, finally, why it is that poetry matters.
The poets, and the world of poetry, constitute a sort of faithful remnant that bears witness to how we might inhabit the world otherwise. It devotes itself to cutting against the grain of the linguistic practices into which we are habituated by a "barbarian" culture. (On this last point, see James Wood's skewering of the "Republican war on words" in a recent New Yorker.) This subcultural labor might look like a withdrawal into private irrelevance and complacency, but in fact it is a concentration of energies for the sake of the world.

So let me make the analogical leap (this might only makes sense in my own head): What if we thought of the church as poetry--as this sort of subcultural project that is undertaken for the common good, as a witness to how "the common" could be otherwise? One will rightly hear in this suggestion a kind of oblique response to Jeffrey Stout's criticism of Hauerwas and MacIntyre. On Stout's critique, the conception of the church as a unique polis--the center of gravity for our "political" endeavors--is an irresponsible retreat from the "public" sphere and the common good.

Would Stout want to offer the same critique of poetry? Doesn't poetry represent a subculture that's content to hang out in neglected corners, fostering a conversation and way of life to which "mainstream" culture is not privy? Aren't poets "irresponsible" for devoting themselves to such a subcultural project? By drawing this analogy, I do not mean to suggest--a la Rorty--that the church is (or ought to be) a collection of "private ironists"--an assortment of dandy aesthetes for whom the church is akin to "the club," into which they retreat from 'worldly' affairs. I don't think that's how Donoghue or Parini view poets either.

Rather, the point is that subcultural labor can be for the world, a labor undertaken in hope and witness, and in a spirit of hospitality, hoping for the growth and expansion of the 'subculture' into culture as such--the church as the poetry of the world. It brings to mind my favorite line from Dutch theologian Klaas Schlider:
“Blessed is my wise ward-elder who does his home visiting in the right way. He is a cultural force, although he may not be aware of it.”

Friday, October 17, 2008

What's in a name? Adieu, Work Research Foundation

I'm a big fan of Comment magazine, which I regularly press into the hands of students. It's engaging, accessible, intentionally Christian, deals with things that really matter, and is theoretically rigorous without having to wear its theory on its sleeve--which is just to say that it is thoughtful without being plagued by 'academese.' If you haven't subscribed, do so today.

Comment is one of the many fruits of what was the "Work Research Foundation" of Canada. Today they announced a new name, Cardus, which they explain as follows:
The Cardus was an ancient north-south road that connected the people of Roman cities to their major public spaces. On the Cardus Maximus governments, markets, temples and more lived and worked to build a common life for the good of the city.

Today’s North American cities are connected by high speed highways, and asphalt roadways, bringing their occupants in encased metal bodies from point A to point B. Global culture generates a huge amount of data, but it is segmented, disconnected and isolated. Our think tanks have concentrated on politics, but forgotten the importance of culture. Professors and policy advocates are world leaders in minute areas—but who paints the bigger picture? Our institutions, like our people, function in a new kind of social and intellectual isolation. Policy is made without a place for religion, religion is practiced with little thought to the common good, and work is done without connecting the "why" to the "how".

Enter Cardus. We believe that economic, social and religious patterns have a deep influence on each other, and that we ignore these to the peril of each. These forces do not operate independent of each other, and neither do their institutions. Public life is sustained not just by social or political effort, but by a plurality of institutional cooperation.

Thus—this is the moment for a think tank to bridge politics and culture, to rethink, research and rebuild an integrative vision of North American social architecture. And Cardus isn't merely rethinking and researching an alternative vision for public life—we're actively working to renew and rebuild. Cardus is a North American public policy think tank, equipping change agents with a strategic public theology to renew North American social architecture.
Fair enough, and makes sense. But I'm going to miss "the Work Research Foundation." And I hope it's not churlish to say that I have my doubts or reservations--that this feels like a bit of an "upwardly mobile" move, a move from a focus on labor to a concern with more bourgeois structures. I don't think that's really the case, but I do think that what began as the sort of organization that found its roots or antecedents in Christian labor unions has found itself more comfortable with bankers and entrepreneurs. This is just the sort of trend which has made me skittish about the Kuyperian project in North America. But these are just the mild laments of a friend who will miss the solid blue-collar reminder I always heard embedded in the "Work Research Foundation."

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Joe Six-Pack called...

...and he's mad as hell. He thought the McCain-Palin camp were in his corner (stacked as it is with crushed Budweiser cans), fighting for him. But it turns out all McCain cares about these days is poor Joe the Plumber--whose raking in over $250,000 a year and is still griping about paying taxes.

Average Joe is a little miffed at both and is pretty sure he'll vote for Obama.

Update: Turns out Joe the Plumber is not actually licensed as a plumber, and hasn't even been paying what taxes he already owes. Hmmmm...any chance Joe Six-Pack made a little anonymous call to the IRS?

Evangelicals and Empire

I just received my copy of Evangelicals and Empire: Christian Alternatives to the Political Status Quo, edited by Bruce Benson and Peter Heltzel (with a Foreword by Nicholas Wolterstorff and an Afterword by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri). It's an eclectic, big tent collection, since it includes an essay like Jim Wallis' "Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush's Theology of Empire" (ch. 1) and my own, "The Gospel of Freedom, or Another Gospel? Theology, Empire, and American Foreign Policy," which would be critical of Wallis' habit of continuing to connect "empire"-talk to a particular nation-state. Other contributors include John Milbank, Gail Hamner, Corey Walker, Amos Yong, Michael Horton, and many others.

Kudos to Bruce and Peter for managing to get Hardt & Negri to provide some (albeit brief) feedback on the collection.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Christ and Culture Revisited

Christianity Today has finally posted my brief review of D.A. Carson's latest book, Christ and Culture Revisited. They asked me to be charitable and constructive; this was the best I could do I'm afraid.

I also managed to exercise some self-discipline and not say a word about Carson's critique of me in the book. I'm saving that up for a more substantial piece that I hope to float as a draft over at The Church and Postmodern Culture. I actually think there's some potential for us to make some headway together on these matters and hope to be able to clarify some elements of Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? that Carson rightly questions. For now...

Read "Christ and Culture and Church and Creation"

Friday, October 10, 2008

Brooks on the Decline of the Republican Party

I never have been, and never could be, a fan of the Republican Party. However, I have become very sympathetic to elements of a classic conservatism that one finds, say, in Edmund Burke. I've been pressed there by a sense of the need to submit to Catholicity. Where I continue to demur concerns whether a catholic conservatism--which prizes the importance of tradition, character formation, and a sort communitarianism that trumps individualism--has any relevance or hope of viability in the federal politics of a pluralist nation-state (I think not). On top of that, the nationalist Republican version of conservatism has persistently (and paradoxically) tried to wed such a Burkean disposition to a trenchant liberalism when it comes to markets and consumption (what's more liberal than laissez-faire economics?). Hence my fundamental cynicism about partisan politics.

However, my ambivalence about the Republican party doesn't mean I don't lament its further demise in its most recent cynical incarnation. A Republican party that could nominate Sarah Palin has pretty much proved John Stuart Mill's aphorism correct when he described Conservatives as "necessarily the stupidest Party." David Brooks laments the same in today's column in which he chronicles the demise of a party which has sold its electoral soul to the wide swaths of anti-intellectualism that are alive and well in this country, fostered and fueled by the inanities of talk radio and cable news networks. As he notes:
Modern conservatism began as a movement of dissident intellectuals. Richard Weaver wrote a book called, “Ideas Have Consequences.” Russell Kirk placed Edmund Burke in an American context. William F. Buckley famously said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard. But he didn’t believe those were the only two options. His entire life was a celebration of urbane values, sophistication and the rigorous and constant application of intellect.

Driven by a need to engage elite opinion, conservatives tried to build an intellectual counterestablishment with think tanks and magazines. They disdained the ideas of the liberal professoriate, but they did not disdain the idea of a cultivated mind.

Ronald Reagan was no intellectual, but he had an earnest faith in ideas and he spent decades working through them. He was rooted in the Midwest, but he also loved Hollywood. And for a time, it seemed the Republican Party would be a broad coalition — small-town values with coastal reach.

In 1976, in a close election, Gerald Ford won the entire West Coast along with northeastern states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Maine. In 1984, Reagan won every state but Minnesota.

But over the past few decades, the Republican Party has driven away people who live in cities, in highly educated regions and on the coasts. This expulsion has had many causes. But the big one is this: Republican political tacticians decided to mobilize their coalition with a form of social class warfare. Democrats kept nominating coastal pointy-heads like Michael Dukakis so Republicans attacked coastal pointy-heads.

Over the past 15 years, the same argument has been heard from a thousand politicians and a hundred television and talk-radio jocks. The nation is divided between the wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts.

What had been a disdain for liberal intellectuals slipped into a disdain for the educated class as a whole. The liberals had coastal condescension, so the conservatives developed their own anti-elitism, with mirror-image categories and mirror-image resentments, but with the same corrosive effect.

The federal electoral game has come down to a tribalism. The presidential debates have amounted to little more than another opportunity for the candidates to preach to their respective choirs. And thus campaigns come down to little more than a bet on who has the bigger choir, and who can motivate their choir to come out and vote. Since the elite choir that the Republican party really serves is so small, they had to look for a cagey way to find another choir. Their bet--embodied in Palin--is that there is a massive, perhaps largely quiet, choir composed of Joe Sixpacks in the middle of the country--a choir whose anthem is a long disdain for complexity and "learning."

But that's not "conservatism." It is a wanton disdain for the wisdom of the past that has spiraled into a reverie of ignorance cloaked as "common sense." That such people get a vote is exactly why conservatism has always had an uneasy relationship with democracy.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

"Thinking in Tongues" from First Things

[This article appeared in the April 2008 issue of First Things; since it takes a few months for articles to become available for free online, I thought I'd here point to it.]

Over the past decade, Pentecostalism has become something of an academic darling for historians, sociologists, anthropologists, and scholars of religious studies. Researchers ensconced in the secularized environs of the university have produced a flood of books and studies about the fantastic worlds of global Pentecostalism. And yet, while sometimes sympathetic and irenic, the academic interest in Pentecostalism has had the curious backhanded effect of disenchantment. The sociological fascination proves a cover for condescending incredulity, with Pentecostalism reduced to a sort of global snake-handling.

This reduction of Pentecostalism to a specimen shuts down the articulation of Pentecostalism as any kind of theological voice. Indeed, the sociological account of Pentecostalism implies that “Pentecostal theology” is an oxymoron. Which is a shame because, over the last century, an interesting theology has been developing in such classical Pentecostal traditions as the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ, as well as in charismatic movements within the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. (The shared sensibility of Pentecostal and charismatic traditions is often described under the umbrella of small -p pentecostalism.)

At the heart of this Pentecostal theology is an ontological claim: that the same Spirit who animated the apostles at Pentecost continues to be actively, dynamically, and miraculously present both in the ecclesial community and in creation. Pentecostal theology is a theology of the Creed’s third article and is predicated on the belief that the Spirit is a spirit who surprises us by continuing to speak, heal, and manifest God’s presence in ways that counter the shut-down naturalism of modernity. As a result, following in the wake of the Spirit, it is a nimble theology that seeks to explicate and understand the controlled chaos of charismatic worship—a faith seeking understanding of the experience of the Spirit’s surprising ways.

Although Pentecostalism sometimes gets a space on the table as a subject of study, it rarely gets a seat at the theological table as a contributor to the conversation, even among serious theologians. On one level, this is not surprising. The Pentecostal movement emerged largely from an underclass with little access to formal education. In an often-told story, one of its saints embodied this marginalization: Willie J. Seymour—the preacher at the center of the Azusa Street revival in 1906, a son of former slaves—received his theological education in Texas while listening in a hall outside the classroom that white students alone could enter. Pentecostalism is a tradition of preachers and evangelists, not scholars and doctors.

Continue reading "Thinking in Tongues" at First Things

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Federal Elections the Canadian Way: Give me 5 Weeks

As a Canadian living the States for a dozen years now, I have found that I've never quite shaken the Canadian penchant for understatement--which is just a backhanded way of saying I've never warmed up the to gargantuan hype that characterizes so many facets of American life, which all look "Texan" from a Canadian perspective. So much of American culture and politics is characterized by a mammoth "spectrality." From kindergarten "graduations" to the recent national party conventions, to Canadian eyes all of these things look big and garish. In this respect, I think Canada remains a cultural colony of Britain. (These same tensions can be found in my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church or North America, which comprises both American and Canadian congregations. For instance, as my friend Peter Schuurman will point out, when synod meets and our college president is bragging about the successes of a multi-multi-million dollar campaign to build yet another flashy building on campus, the Canadians--their voices still tinged with more recent immigration--will quietly say, "Vell, OK...but of course vat's important is that vee remain faithful to the Lort." American Christians tend to be interested in big shows of cultural powers; Canadian Christians tend to be suspicious of anything that's big.)

Take, for instance, the shape of federal politics: an American presidential campaign is basically 2 years long. In short, an elected president is just barely halfway through his term before he needs to begin campaigning for re-election, kicking into gear a massive PR machine that will run for two years, eating up unbelievable amounts of time and money. In contrast, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper just announced that Canada will have a federal election this fall--October 14, as a matter of fact. While the American press is focused on the "60-day homestretch" of the years-long American presidential campaign, the Canadian federal election will be announced, contested, and resolved in 38 days--total! And, of course, as a parliamentary system, the election is not so completely fixated on the election of a chief executive. In fact, Canadians can't select who will be Prime Minister; instead, they vote for members of parliament whose party they believe will best lead the country. (In fact, if the party leader--say, Harper--fails to win the seat in his riding, he can't be prime minister.)

I don't have any illusions that Canadian politics is any more pure or just than American politics. But it does seem to me that the "smallness" of Canadian politics--including the brevity of a federal election campaign--has a number of virtues vis-a-vis the mammoth political machines that churn up public discourse in multi-year American system of campaigning.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

What I'm Reading: Wood, Flaubert, Mailer, etc.

Someone had told me that they thought the feed for my other blog, What I'm Reading, was not working properly. I hope that's now been corrected, but just in case, I'll here post periodic updates to point those who might be interested over there. Recent reviews include James Wood, How Fiction Works, Flaubert's Madame Bovary, and Norman Mailer's account of the 1968 Republic and Democratic National Conventions in Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A New Kind of Politics? Or the Same Old "Religion?"

Barack Obama's acceptance speech was historic, forthright, even "specific" at points. And as expected, it exhibited his rhetorical gifts, echoing the cadences of MLK's preaching.

That said, what purports to be a "new kind of politics" sure sounds pretty familiar. In particular, the following stood out to me:
  • Though Hillary didn't get the nomination, and despite all the blather that this is no longer the party of the Clintons, surely the fact that a big promise of tax cuts was central to his speech is a clear sign that this is a post-Clinton Democratic party which amounts to little more than Republican Lite. Coupled with a focus on family prosperity and an (albeit tempered) reliance on "the market," this continues to show that what passes for "the left" in this country is almost laughable.
  • More significantly, despite all the talk of newness and change, the rhetoric and religion of Americanism still sounds the same from where I sit. In language that could have just as easily appeared in Bush's second inaugural or the National Security Strategy of the Bush administration, Obama promised to "restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace and who yearn for a better future." And immediately following this, he ramps it up a notch, associating America with the proverbial "ultimate sacrifice," spilling blood for the flag:
    I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America - they have served the United States of America.

    So I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.
    Ah, yes, that last point recalls something I noted two years ago in Obama's widely praised "Call to Renewal" speech: that Obama exhibits the same sort of politics as Jim Wallis who, at the end of the day, claims the religion must be "disciplined" by democracy. To put the question starkly: Can any Christian really say that they put their "country" first? Both Republican-speak and Democrat-speak remain committed to the god of Americanism.
  • Finally, Obama's speech draws on the borrowed capital of Scripture in exactly the same way as the Religious Right: it invokes powerful, symbolic language of Scripture which refers to the church and transposes it to the United States of America. For instance: the speech closed with a veritable benediction: "Let us keep that promise - that American promise - and in the words of scripture hold firmly, without wavering, to the hope that we confess." The allusion is to Hebrews 10:23: "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised if faithful." The context makes it clear that this is the church's hope in Christ, but here Obama idolatrously transposes that to the "American promise." This is a "new kind of politics?" Sounds like the same old sort of civil religion we've heard from the Religious Right for years--the same (idolatrous) civil religion of Americanism.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Is "the American Dream" a Christian Dream?

I have been--and will remain--relatively quiet about the presidential campaign. (I can muster enthusiasm for municipal politics, and perhaps even state politics, but remain completely cynical about federal politics.) However, my patience for leftish evangelical infatuation with Obama is spilling over a bit this morning (almost equal to my cynicism for an evangelical right that could get behind McCain).

I'll just register one question, given the fact that even Stanley Hauerwas has said, "I'll probably vote for Obama." It seems that the thrust of this week's Democratic Convention--presaged in Michelle Obama's speech last night--will be to emphasize that Barack Obama is a "mainstream American" who has benefited from and lived out "the American dream."

But is the American dream a Christian dream?

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Orwell Diaries

The Orwell Trust, administrators of the Orwell Prize, have created a blog publication of George Orwell's diaries from 1938-1942. They describe the project:

The Orwell Prize, Britain’s pre-eminent prize for political writing, is publishing George Orwell’s diaries as a blog. From 9th August 2008, Orwell’s domestic and political diaries (from 9th August 1938 until October 1942) will be posted in real-time, exactly 70 years after the entries were written.

Orwell’s ‘domestic’ diaries begin on 9th August 1938/2008; his ‘political’ diaries (which are further categorised as ‘Morocco’, ‘Pre-war’ and ‘Wartime’) begin on 7th September 1938/2008.

The diaries are exactly as Orwell wrote them. Where there are original spelling errors, they are indicated by a ° following the offending word.
An intriguing way into the mind of one of the century's best writers ("political" or otherwise).

Friday, August 15, 2008

On Evangelicalism at Immanent Frame

The Social Science Research Council's blog, The Immanent Frame, has become the arena for discussion of issues related to religion, civil society, and public life, with a particular focus on issues of (post)secularity. They are now hosting an ongoing conversation about evangelicals and evangelicalism, somewhat in light of the shifting political climate in this year of an American presidential election. They recently included a post from my colleague Joel Carpenter on the global complexion of evangelicalism, and today they've posted my own contribution, "Who's Afraid of Sociology?," which makes a theological case for affirming sociological definitions of "evangelical." The conversation will continue with posts from many others.

Monday, August 04, 2008

"Desiring the Kingdom" is Finished!

A big part of my blog silence over this summer stems from the fact that I've been holed up, hermit-like, trying to finish my next book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation. Today I'm rewarding myself with a day off because, thanks be to God, it's done! I submitted the manuscript to my patient and gracious editor this past week. I've been so mired in this for so long, my initial response was "good riddance!" But I hope that when I get the galleys back, I'll have gained sufficient critical distance to make some further improvements. I have an overwhelming sense of the inadequacies of the book; but at other times, when I've gotten feedback from others, I also have a bit of hope that it might be helpful. (This is the first volume of a trilogy, so I have two follow-up volumes to fill in some gaps. This first volume is meant to be an overview of the argument accessible to students and practitioners; the follow-up volumes will be more scholarly monographs.)

The animating impetus of the book is rethinking the shape and practices of Christian education, particularly in Christian colleges and universities in North America (I recognize that these are strange beasts to those in Europe and elsewhere). In particular, I'm pressing the limits, even distortions, that attend "worldview"-talk which tends to now dominate Christian higher education. Such worldviewism, I suggest, continues to reduce Christianity to an intellectual system that can be grapsed apart from the church and is then "taught" as information to be merely transferred from one head to another. In contrast, I argue that Christian discipleship is a matter of formation, not mere information--and that "Christian" education should be fundamentally a matter of shaping our love, our desire, to be oriented to the shape of the kingdom of God. And such formation happens not primarily via the heady, cognitive "lectures" (whether in our Protestant sermon factories or our Christian college classrooms) but through embodied practices that seep into our imagination and get hold of our gut, our heart, our kardia.

In short, I'm suggesting that before we can ever articulate a Christian "worldview," we are engaged in the practices of Christian worship. Drawing on Charles Taylor, I argue that the practices of Christian worship "carry" within them an "understanding" of the world that is better described as a "Christian social imaginary." Thus Christian education needs to be more integrally and intimately connected to the church and her worship then has generally been the case in North American Christian higher education.

There's also a correlate to this analysis: that cultural practices and institutions are not just venues for conveying "messages" or "abstract values;" rather, they constitute liturgies which function as pedagogies of desire bent on getting us to love rival kingdoms, visions of human flourishing that are antithetical to the biblical vision of shalom.

I paste here the Table of Contents which provides a bit of a map of the book, which should appear in the late spring of 2009 from Baker Academic:



Beyond “Perspectives”: Faith and Learning Take Practice

Making the Familiar Strange: A Phenomenology of Cultural Liturgies
The End of Christian Education: From Worldview to Worship (and Back Again)
Picturing Education as Formation in Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier
Elements of a Theology of Culture: Pedagogy, Liturgy, and the Church


Chapter 1
Homo Liturgicus: The Human Person as Lover

From Thinking Things to Liturgical Animals
From Worldviews to Social Imaginaries
From Spheres to Aims: Liturgical Institutions

Chapter 2
Love Takes Practice: Liturgy, Formation, and Counter-Formation

Why Victoria’s In on the Secret: Picturing Discipleship at the Moulin Rouge
“Thick” and “Thin” Practices: Ritual Forces of Cultural Formation
Formation, Mis-Formation, and Counter-Formation: Liturgies Secular and Christian

Chapter 3
Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Cultural Exegesis of “Secular” Liturgies

“Reading” Culture Through the Lens of Worship
Consuming Transcendence: Worship at the Mall
Marketing (as) Evangelism: Picturing the Liturgy of Consumerism in The Persuaders
Sacrificial Violence: The “Military-Entertainment” Complex
Cathedrals of Learning: Liturgies of the University
Picturing the University’s Liturgies in Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons
Apologetic Excursus: The Persisting Witness of Idolatry
Picturing Resistance in 1984


Chapter 4
From Worship to Worldview: Christian Worship and the Formation of Desire

The Primacy of Worship to Worldview
The Sacramental Imagination: Resisting Naturalism and Supernaturalism
Picturing the Sacramental Imagination in Graham Greene and Anne Sexton
Excursus: The Shape of Christian Worship

Chapter 5
Practicing (for) the Kingdom: An Exegesis of the Social Imaginary Embedded in Christian Worship

Liturgical Time: Rhythms and Cadences of Hope
Call to Worship: An Invitation to Be Human
God’s Greeting: Hospitality, Community, and Graced Dependence
Baptism: Initiation into a Royal Priesthood/Constitution of a New People
Song: Hymning the Language of the Kingdom
Confession: Brokenness, Grace, Hope
Law: Order, Norms, and Freedom for the Good
The Creed: Situating Belief
Prayer: Vocalizing Desire
Scripture and Sermon: Re-narrating the World
Eucharist: Supper with the King
Offering: Kingdom Economics
Sending: The Great Commission as Cultural Mandate
Worship, Discipleship and Discipline: Practices Beyond Sunday

Chapter 6
A Christian University is for Lovers: The Education of Desire

A New Monasticism for the University: Why Christian Colleges Should Corrupt the Youth
Christian Education Takes Practice: Three Monastic Opportunities
Excursus: Christian Worship as Faculty Development: From Christian Scholars to “Ecclesial” Scholars

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Azusa Street as Postmodern Revival @ Azusa Remixed

The Azusa Remixed collaborative blog is now up-and-running with some interesting first posts dealing with global issues, Alister McGrath's take on Pentecostalism, and postmodernism from a pastoral perspective. The blog will be a mix of popular and academic discourse, though all aimed at being thoughtful and reflective. I hope it will become a clearinghouse for engaged discussions of global pentecostalism.

My own initial contribution has just been posted: "Azusa Street as Postmodern Revival." This will be the first of two parts. The second will focus more specifically on pentecostal concerns.

Update: Part 2 is now available.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Who, Augustine, and American Beauty

In my freshman philosophy course, right after we read Augustine's Confessions, we watch and dissect one of my favorite films of all time: American Beauty. Having read Augustine's Confessions as a proto-existentialist text (I've tried to make this case here [Part I]and here [Part II]), we then read the film as Lester Burnham's "Confessions" of a sort. I have found that if the Confessions remained fuzzy for students, after "reading" it through the lens of American Beauty it often "clicks."

One semester I had a student with hearing impairment, so we watched the film with its subtitles. This turned out to be a revelation since the subtitles also reproduced the lyrics of the eclectic soundtrack for the film, all of which is just bang on for the characters and scenes--and unappreciated if you don't listen closely.

Perhaps my favorite is the song that accompanies Lester Burnham on his final jog, "The Seeker," by the Who. Released in the year of my birth (1970), the song is a quasi-Augustinian anthem and I've found myself hooked on it of late. (OK, OK: Guitar Hero did bring it back to mind.) Here's a decent reproduction available for free on YouTube:

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Salman Rushdie in The Guardian

One of our very favourite routines in England was heading out Saturday morning to get "the papers," and returning to curl up with a coffee and the Books section of the Saturday Guardian. Now back in the States, I'm reduced to reading it online (which is a pretty sorry substitute, but I'll take what I can get). A feature this week is an interview with Salman Rushdie. Commenting on fellow novelists like Martin Amis and Ian McEwan who, Hitchens-like, have been ranting about Islam, Rushdie protests:

"I thought the attack on Martin in the Guardian by Ronan Bennett [in an article published last November and condemned by McEwan] was out of order. To say he is racist because of that is wrong. I may not like the things you believe and, by the way, the fact that you believe them makes me think less of you as a person. I may despise you personally for what you believe, but I should be able to say it. Everybody needs to get thicker skins. There is this culture of offence, as though offending someone is the worst thing anyone can do. Again, there is an assumption that our first duty is to be respectful. But what would a respectful cartoon look like? Really boring! You wouldn't publish it. The nature of the form is irreverence and disrespect.

"What pleases me, though, is that at least in Britain there is still the possibility of literary people writing on current affairs. Here [in the US], that's much less true. Who wouldn't have wanted to read Joan Didion's take on Hillary Clinton, or Don DeLillo writing about the US election? In the past, Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal could be public intellectuals, but there is much less scope for that now."

Friday, July 11, 2008

Farewell to Generous Orthodoxy's "Think Tank"

Though signs of its demise have been evident for about a year, I'm sad to say goodbye to one of the better blog experiments I've been part of: the Generous Orthodoxy "Think Tank." Launched by some bright and enterprising graduate students--Steve Bush, Keith Johnson, and Myles Werntz, as I recall--the goal of the blog was to encourage conversation amongst (progressive) evangelicals in theology and ministry. Though many of those who committed to be contributors never did so, those who did participate were thoughtful, creative, and forthright. I found the site to be home to some excellent theological conversations that were generally quite accessible to those outside the narrow realm of theological academe. When it was at its best, I thought Think Tank was a great example of how the blogosphere could really be a space for constructive theological debate that moved the conversation forward. I learned much from it and I'll miss it. Thanks, guys, for all your good work.

(While most readers of Generous Orthodoxy "Think Tank" will already know about it, I would highly recommend Ben Myers' "Faith and Theology" blog as an alternative. It is, hands-down, the best theology blog out there.)

While I'll no longer be able to post at Think Tank, I will be part of a new blog venture being launched by Brian LePort: "Azusa Remixed" will bring together a cadre of pentecostal scholars and practitioners to provide "a compendium of global pentecostal theology, praxis, and history." The site officially launches on July 14, 2008.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The End of Death's Reign? Morning Musings on Coldplay

I've been enjoying Coldplay's latest offering, Viva la Vida or Death and All of his Friends. But the lyrics of "Viva la Vida" have been a thorn in my side, mainly because I just haven't been able to determine the referent (not that I think there need to be ONE, ULTIMATE referent--indeed, I'm not entirely sure that Martin knows what the song is referring to). A quick internet skim seems to indicate that this has been a matter of discussion. Here are the lyrics (though they really need to be listened to, not just read):

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

I used to roll the dice
Feel the fear in my enemy's eyes
Listen as the crowd would sing
"Now the old king is dead, long live the king"

One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand

I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can't explain
Once you'd gone there was never
Never an honest word
That was when I ruled the world

It was a wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in
Shattered windows and the sound of drums
People couldn't believe what I'd become

Revolutionaries wait
For my head on a silver plate
Just a puppet on a lonely string
Oh, who would ever want to be king?

I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can't explain
I know St. Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world


Hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
For some reason I can't explain
I know St. Peter won't call my name
Never an honest word
But that was when I ruled the world

But then yesterday I had a bit of an interpretive inspiration from a sermon on the resurrection (focusing on the Creed's affirmation, "...the third day he rose again from the dead"). This took me to the end of 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul makes a confident, triumphant, albeit eschatological announcement about something "to come": "When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ' Death has been swallowed up in victory.' 'Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?'"

Paul notes that this victory is, in an important sense, still to come: when that transformation (resurrection) takes place, then we will almost be able to taunt death as he does here: "Where, O Death, is your victory now?" But given the resurrection of Christ, there is also a sense in which that eschatological reality--that reality to come--has already broken in upon the world. The first victory has been won. Death's reign has been deposed, though we live in a (horribly long) interim where death is a kind of lame duck king. Thus John Owen, the great Puritan divine, penned a masterful treatise on The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

This got me thinking: could it be that the track "Viva la Vida" is an anthem in this tradition? That is, could it be that the subject or referent of the song is actually "Death and all of his friends?" Is death perhaps this deposed king who once ruled the world? Granted, it requires a radical faith to not think that death still rules the world. But could "Viva la Vida" be an eschatological hymn, sung in hope, with some intimation that death has been deposed? Indeed, could we hear Coldplay's catchy little tune as a popular, 21st-century rendition of John Donne's great metaphysical poem:
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
I hope so. I hope as such.