Monthly Archives: January 2011

New Starbucks Logo: The Spirit of a Company

Starbucks unveiled their new logo today.

Customer reviews on the Starbucks corporate website are mixed, with more customers expressing displeasure than praising the update.

Now, we know that logos are incredibly important to a company.  Just this year, Gap attempted unsuccessfully to change to a new logo, and public outcry was so strong that they reverted to the former one after only a week.

I’m really not sure what Gap was trying to do with their change.  The original is iconic and has come to represent what the Gap is, but the new one looks like something you’d see on an investment firm.  Starbucks, on the other hand, has made a perfectly reasonable move with their change.

As Naomi Klein has shown in No Logo, the most successful brands (Nike, Apple, Virgin, Google, Coke, Pepsi, Disney, Starbucks) thrive not by producing a specific product but by embodying a certain spirit.  Often the production of the goods these brands sell are subcontracted to other, invisible companies.  Brands don’t want to be associated with particular products, but with a spirit.

Nike, for instance, does not exist to sell shoes, but, according to one statement, to “enhance people’s lives through sports and fitness,” to keep “the magic of sports alive.”  Former company President Tom Clark explained that, “the inspiration of sports allows us to rebirth ourselves constantly.”

For his part, Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz has said, “Throughout the last four decades, the Siren has been there through it all.  Now, we’ve given her a small but meaningful update to ensure that the Starbucks brand continues to embrace our heritage and also ensure we remain relevant and poised for future growth.”  The change, of course, is to drop the name of the company altogether from the logo.  A name, it seems, just ties us down.

I read all of this in light of William T Cavanaugh’s theological assessment of the global market recession.  In most talk about the financial collapse, blame is assigned to either greed, recklessness or lack of governmental oversight.  Cavanaugh, working from Catholic social teaching, attributes it instead to divorcing the market from the doctrine of creation.  The market has become fantastical, mythical, based in commonly held fictions rather than in realistic terms of what constitutes wealth.

In other words, precisely what we need is to be tied down, anchored to the reality of what the earth, our pocketbooks, our communities and our global neighbors can really bear.  Starbucks, it seems to me, is moving us a little further in that spiritual, ungrounded direction.  After all, Starbucks isn’t a coffee shop, it’s our Third Place.

What do you think?  Do you like Starbucks’ new logo?  Am I reading too much into the changes?  How can Christians work to recover the reality behind brands and markets?

Synthetic Life, or, Why I Am A Conservative

Someone asked me recently what I think of the creation of a synthetic life form.  As The Guardian put it, “Scientists have created the world’s first synthetic life form in a landmark experiment that paves the way for designer organisms that are built rather than evolved.”

Here is more or less what I think, conveniently written a decade before the case emerged.

The journalists think it intellectually chic to stand open-mouthed before any wonder of science whatsoever. The media, cultivating their mediocrity, seem quite comfortably unaware that many of the calamities from which science is expected to save the world were caused in the first place by science – which meanwhile is busy propagating further calamities, hailed now as wonders, from which later it will undertake to save the world. Nobody, so far as I have heard, is attempting to figure out how much of the progress resulting from this enterprise is net. It is as if the whole population has been genetically deprived of the ability to subtract….

The only science we have or can have is human science; it has human limits and is involved always with human ignorance and human error. It is a fact that the solutions invented or discovered by science have tended to lead to new problems or to become problems themselves. Scientists discovered how to use nuclear energy to solve some problems, but any use of it is enormously dangerous to us all, and scientists have not discovered what to do with the waste. (They have not discovered what to do with old tires). The availability of antibiotics leads to the overuse of antibiotics. And so on. Our daily lives are a daily mockery of our scientific pretensions. We are learning to know precisely the location of our genes, but significant numbers of us don’t know the whereabouts of our children. Science does not seem to be lighting the way; we seem rather to be leapfrogging into the dark along series of scientific solutions, which become problems, which call for further solutions, which science is always eager to supply, and which it sometimes cannot supply…

It is dangerous to act… on the assumption that our knowledge will increase fast enough to outrace the bad consequences of the arrogant use of incomplete knowledge. To trust “progress” or our putative “genius” to solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion.

- Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle

 

Of course, G. K. Chesterton said it much more briefly nearly 100 years ago.  “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.”

Christians Outside of Government

There is a post running on Revelife right now about Christian anarchism.  (In the interest of full-disclosure, I didn’t really read the post.)  In the comment section a conversation broke out about whether Christians are called to be involved in the government.  One commenter said:

Jesus told us to be ‘salt and light’ in our world. How can we be in the governmental world if Christians don’t go into politics? Some of the greatest reformers in the UK – like Wilberforce and Shaftsbury – were effective because they were politicians. That doesn’t mean everyone is called to do that but we should support those who are and are trying to make a difference to our world. To opt out is to give the world to the atheists and unbelievers which I cannot think is the will of God…. I cannot see how on earth we as Christians can effect government and politics except by some of us being involved in some way. As I said not every Christian will be a politician  but every Christian should be responsible and do the simple things. Like voting. 

 

Though I think that’s a questionable move in the beginning – is the government really a separate world? – the force of the comment is clear enough.  How can Christians makes sure the world comes out right, if they are outside of politics?

The first answer to that is that I’m not at all certain the task of the church is to make sure the world comes out right.  As Hauerwas says at the drop of a hat, “The first task of the church is not to make the world a better place, but to make the world the world.  Without the church acting as the church, how could the world ever realize that it is the world?”  I think that’s more or less right.

At the same time, I don’t think a qualified refusal to support or join the government leaves Christians in a position of irrelevance.  I think Dorothy Day is a good example of a Christian who refused to be directly involved in politics, but affected government and politics.  I think the actions of the Peace Problems Committee following WWI and during WWII in setting up alternative services for draftees was significant as well.

For that matter, the Christian Peacemaker Teams is a brilliant program run by the Mennonite General Committee where individuals sign up for two years of missionary work, where they go into the most violent areas in the world (very often Jerusalem) and continue the long work of one-to-one reconciliation by actually getting to know individuals of the two conflicting sides and bringing them together in friendship.  I think every Christian should be encouraged to do a stint on the Christian Peacemaker Teams.

Then there is the long witness of the Quakers as mediators in international disputes.  It was the Quakers who brokered the first diplomatic contacts between the U.S. and the Soviet Union fifty years ago, and they have also had significant impact on the debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and very practical, real-world options for nuclear disarmament.  Because the Quakers stand as a distinctive, univocal group, apart from party lines, and also because their work is characterized by hard data and research, and respectable scholarship, they are a Christian group whose voice stands out in peacemaking.

The Quakers even have an office at the United Nations, despite their refusal to compromise their distinctive witness to engage in secular politcs.  Being a pacifist, sectarian church isn’t the same as being ineffectual.  This paper, called Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence, was written by American Friends Service Committee precisely on the point of how Christians can directly affect the political process while remaining distinctively Christian and nonviolent.

And though Catholics aren’t by any means hesitant to get involved in politics, the global Catholic church has modeled what a unified global church might do if it worked outside of nationalist political structures.  See my recent post Wikileaks and the Catholic Church for details.

All that said, I’m not a Christian anarchist, but I’m not a Niebuhrian, either.  I definitely believe there is room for Christians to engage with those elements of the secular government that cohere with the mission and identity of the church.  As Augustine put it so long ago,

The heavenly City, so long as it is wayfaring on earth, not only makes use of earthly peace but fosters and actively pursues along with other humans beings a common platform in regard to all that concerns our purely human life and does not interfere with faith and worship.

Hopefully this gives you a few resources to begin looking into on the matter of whether Christians have to join the government to keep from being politically irrelevant.

The Encroachment of the Market

I’ve taken a break from my major reading projects to focus on a little book I got for Christmas called Calculated Futures: Theology, Ethics and Economics.  In Calculated Futures, theology professor D. Stephen Long and economics professor Nancy Ruth Fox engage in an extended dialog about the interplay of their two fields.

Naturally, this is right up my alley.

In the opening chapter, Fox observes that theologians feel that the market is aggressive, even encroaching on traditionally non-economic areas.  Long takes this critique of the market to its fullest limits, arguing that the global market has become a counter-church: the global agency to which individuals look for salvation, albeit a salvation redefined along economic lines.

At one point, Fox points out that this claim is baffling to her.  Long responds:

At a general level we would all agree that family life should not be thought of primarily in terms of its monetary value.  But when we move  from the general to the particular, economists and theologians soon part company. For instance, should the distribution of health, sex, body organs, and infants be conceded a value that allows them to be efficiently exchanged through a market mechanism?  We find neoclassical [that is, neoliberal or libertarian] economists who argue in favor of commodifying all four of these goods.  But are not these goods precisely related to family life?  If the economic facts suggest that a more efficient method of distributing body organs, sex, health, and unwanted infants is through the market, then are not those theologians (such as myself) who fear the encroachment of the market in all aspects of life justified? 

 

I find this point very compelling.

For my part, I can see the market encroaching on my own family life and my mother’s medical experience.  My mother is undergoing her third round of chemotherapy right now, for her second of two unrelated cancers (first lung and then breast).  Chemotherapy is very effective in treating certain cancers, like leukemia.  But in the treatment of multiple myeloma, soft-tissue sarcoma, melanoma of the skin and cancers of the pancreas, uterus, prostate, bladder and kidney, chemotherapy has no measurable effect.

In treating non-small-cell lung cancer (which my mother had), a chemotherapy regime costs around $40,000 and is shown to extend life by an average of two months (src).

Why would an oncologist prescribe such a ravaging, painful treatment for such dismal final results?  Well, there are a couple of reasons.  Firs,t these statistics aren’t the ones that oncologists hand out.  But even with hard numbers like these, cancer patients want to survive, even if it’s a long shot, even if those last two months are unbearably painful.

But the main reason is that over 50% of oncologists annual income is paid for referrals to chemotherapy.  They make money if they convince a patient to undergo chemo, and they don’t make money if they don’t.  The incentives are misaligned, and the chemotherapy companies are only marketable if they keep those incentives misaligned.  In the same way, they are only marketable if they lobby legislators to subsidize them, generally in the name of a “war on cancer.”

Naomi Klein, in her breakout first book No Logo, highlighted many further encroachments of the market, especially into public schools and universities.  Just one of dozens of examples she cites is the case of Mike Cameron, a student who jokingly wore a Pepsi shirt to school on Coke Day (the school’s bid to win a $10,000 prize awarded by Coca-Cola) and was suspended for it.

And again, in my own life, I conducted an experiment recently to see if I could go a full week without advertising for any company.  It’s easy enough to cut the labels off my water bottles.  I can even duct tape over the brand name on my shoes, but if I want to use a cell phone, or post on Xanga, or drive a car, things become more complicated.  Our lives, it seems, are sponsored whether we like it or not.

Most frightening of all, I believe, is the way the church has picked up this marketing logic, advertising itself on billboards, imitating the corporate strategies of Starbucks and Wal-Mart, learning the lessons of leadership from powerful CEOs.  Church Marketing was even a required class for my pastoral ministry degree.

What do think?  Does all of this represent the encroachment of the market into all aspects of our lives?  If so, is it a bad thing, a good thing, or simply neutral?  Are there any alternatives?

Five Political Statements

When it comes to politics, a little goes a long way.

1. Right-wing versus left-wing is just smoke and mirrors.  What matters is oligarchy versus non-oligarchy.

2. If a police officer requires probable cause or a search warrant to look in my glove box, the TSA needs better grounds than, “He wants to board an airplane,” to look under my clothing.

3. Free markets aren’t as important as free people.

4. The more locally a decision is made, the better for everyone involved.

5. “He who breaks a thing in order to discover how it works has left the path of wisdom.”

What It Means To Be Conservative

I’ve tried (again and again) to bring attention to what “liberal” actually means in posts like this one.  I have criticized so-called neocons like George Bush and Sarah Palin for in fact being “conservative liberals.”  And I have tried to lay out some basic tenets of my own conservative politics.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever made it clear what I think it actually means to “be conservative.”

Without attempting to be comprehensive, here are some thoughts.

I. To be conservative means to express some basic doubts about the ability of any one group of people to perfect society.  At various times and in various places religious leaders, sociologists, scientists, dictators and economists have been held up as authorities who could impose a perfected system on society.

II. To be conservative means to love something particular.  There must be some thing that is worth conserving.

III. To be conservative means to get back behind the concepts of “left” and “right,” which are really both version of liberalism.  I say get “behind,” because the left and the right are really inventions of the French Revolution.  In the accepted narrative, everything before modernity was “right-wing.”  But as John Milbank has elucidated, “Pre-nominalist modernity was neither left nor right, neither ‘progressivist’ nor ‘reactionary’—it was simply ‘other’ to most of our assumed sociopolitical categories.”

IV. As a corollary to III, to be conservative means to resist the imposition of the ideology Alasdair MacIntyre calls “The Enlightenment project.”  What is the Enlightenment project, and what is its relevance to conservative thought?  I don’t know how to sum it up any better than Craig Carter has here:

The Enlightenment project is about remaking the world according to the dictates of technological reason and individual choice in order to establish a utopian mass culture by overcoming the restrictions on individual choice created by tradition (especially religious tradition) and local conditions (including geography, history and heredity). When the evils of modernity are pointed out, such as environmental destruction, the breakdown of the family, the decline of mass culture to a lowest common denominator and increasing state tyranny, the reply of liberal defenders of modernity amounts essentially to a bribe and a threat. The bribe is longer life and better health because of medical breakthroughs, more and more consumer goods, ease of travel, luxuries etc. The threat is that if you criticize the goose that lays the golden egg (technological reason) you make yourself an enemy of the people and expose yourself to being marginalized or worse. (src

 

V. Finally (for now), to be conservative means to work against one concrete problem at a time.  Because conservatism by definition cannot be an ideology or strategy to perfect society, it has no particular program to institute.  Rather, conservatives must work to conserve specific goods that are endangered by aggressive, totalizing ideologies.

Christians and Cities

In a post not long ago I mentioned that Christians have an especial calling to tend their cities.  I see this taking many forms, such as using their chapels, land and homes for community centers, and patronizing the arts and their libraries, but also taking the form of serving on town councils and working in urban planning.

Why?  Fundamentally, because the church is called to be a counterculture that serves the common good.  But why cities and urban planning?  Here are a few reasons  I see that emphasis as central.

First, cities are central to the scriptural narrative.  There is an overall movement from a paradise built in a garden (Gen 1) to a paradise built around a megalopolis, a city descended from the sky with gates that are always open for trade; a city that never sleeps (Rev 21).  At the center of this movement is the earthly city of Jerusalem, the city where God said to David, “Would you build me a house?”  But it is significant that in the “New Jerusalem” of Revelation, there is no temple.  The city is altogether a place for worship.

Even when God’s people find themselves as strangers in strange cities, scripture instructs them to

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (src)

 

So cities are essential to the shape of the people of God and to their calling.  Many of the church fathers picked up on this theme, but none so centrally as Augustine of Hippo, whose masterpiece is entitled Civitas Dei – The City of God.  Augustine didn’t take up specifics on urban planning, though, and always remained a theopolitical voice.  Aquinas, however, addressed urban planning specifically, viewing the city as a place where individuals come together so that they can live better lives than they could singly.

His goals in urban planning, which he offered as “advice to the king,” were to provide the urban context in which virtuous living is facilitated.  The king, according to Aquinas, must provide for the community a city that guarantees a place

  1. Suitable to the preservation of the health of the inhabitants. Aquinas mentions specific geographical conditions and building facing in the best direction for air circulation and balance of sunlight and shade, since “the social life is related to the natural life.”  This makes sense when we consider that it is plumbing and air circulation that have done the most to lengthen lives in the west, rather than the sixteen percent of the GDP spent on crisis-care medicine.
  2. Fertile enough to provide them with sufficient food.
  3. Pleasant enough “to give them enjoyment.”
  4. Defended enough to afford them protection and security.
  5. Finally, there must be “places suitable to worship, for the final end of the multitude united in society.”

So we have Aquinas proscribing physical conditions to satisfy physical, existential and aesthetic needs for those who live there.  He bases this on an Aristotelian, common anthropology, where all people were created to be happy and can only find happiness in living well together.  For Aquinas, the city becomes a moral landscape, shaping groups and individuals.

Embracing this view, Christians can see a great deal of potential and danger in the city.  Christians can take part in shaping it toward human-centered ends of happiness together (at least) and worship of God (at best), and resist the shaping of cities that promotes atomism and alienation from one another and from God.  Some specific issues for Christians to bear in mind in urban culture:

  • The increasing prevalence of gated communities
  • The increasing prevalence of ghettos
  • The increasing prevalence of homeless in our cities and the dispersal of “homeless communities”
  • The increasing prevalence of public surveillance
  • The disappearance of public, non-commercialized space
  • Segregation by race and by class

While none of these are overtly theological issues, I believe they press on Christians and urge us to add urban planning to our already long list of active stewardship.

What do you think?  Are cities especially important for Christian involvement?  What issues would you add or change on the list?  What involvement have you seen churches engage in with cities?

The Christian God and the American God

Given the values that the Establishment Clause was meant to serve, I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution. This category of “ceremonial deism” most clearly encompasses such things as the national motto (“In God We Trust”), religious references in traditional patriotic songs such as the Star-Spangled Banner, and the words with which the Marshal of this Court opens each of its sessions (“God save the United States and this honorable Court”).
- Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day-O’Connor, June 14, 2004 

 

In short, references to “God” in American civil life cannot refer particularly to the Judeo-Christian conception of God, which is why we can allow “In God We Trust” on our currency but cannot allow the Ten Commandments to be displayed in our courts.  According to Sandra Day-O’Connor, the only permissible religion for American civil life is “ceremonial deism.”

Since becoming a Christian (almost ten years ago now), I have always seen the gospel and the American system as deeply opposed to one another.  In the simplest terms, the gospel is the good news that there is a king enthroned, and his name is Jesus of Nazareth.  How can this be heard as good news by a people who find their only common identity in rejecting kingship and enthroning instead each individual?

What do you think?  Can the Christian God and the American God be one in the same?  If not, how should adherents to American “civil deism” deal with the the subversive claims of Christians?  How can Christians deal with the American simulacra of Christian themes?

My Conservative Politics (In Brief)

“Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine but demonic.”
- Benedict XVI

I. I don’t find my politics reflected anywhere in the American spectrum.

II. I find it funny that people bother to differentiate between Republicans and Democrats.

III. I believe ‘neoconservatism’ is merely the conservative branch of liberalism, and that a true conservatism must go back behind the architects of liberalism (Locke, et al).

IV. I am wary of libertarianism as it tends toward extreme individualism.

V. I think the “free market” is incompatible with real democracy and must be instituted through force or deception to persist.

VI. I think unrestricted global markets are as dangerous as repressive governments, and harder to combat.

VII. I find the American government far too repressive and far too supportive of unrestricted global markets.

VIII. I am convinced that political science cannot remain an autonomous discipline and must instead give way to theological considerations.

IX. I have been most influenced, therefore, by poets and theologians: Wendell Berry, G. K. Chesterton, Brian Walsh, William T. Cavanaugh, James K. A. Smith, Graham Ward, John Howard Yoder, John Paul II, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine.

X. Ultimately, both market and government must answer to the will and needs of actual human communities.

How To Be Secular In A Secular Age

I am beginning to work on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.  I say ‘work’ very intentionally because this is a monumental work that will probably be remembered as Taylor’s magnum opus.  It developed out of his 2007 Gifford Lectures and transmuted into a 900-page book that without its dust jacket could easily be mistaken for the collected works of J.R.R. Tolkien.  But I’m not the only one who has worked at this.  Taylor (as always) is a laborious, meticulous thinker and cataloger of thoughts.  If the reader rejects his telling or his conclusions, it won’t be because Taylor missed a step.  So from the very introduction, Taylor begins working on answering the question, “What do we mean by secular here?”

For our part, the question might be, how could you possibly consider America a secular nation when every President since Ronald Reagan has ended every speech with, “And God bless America?”

Taylor identifies two common meanings for the term, which he uses to isolate the uncommon meaning that he is working with.

The first common meaning is used in terms of “public spaces.”  Taylor says that these spaces have (allegedly) been “emptied of God, or of any reference to ultimately reality.  Or taken from another side, as we function within various spheres of activity – economic, political, cultural, educational, professional, recreational – the norms and principles we follow, the deliberations we engage in, generally don’t refer us to God or to any religious beliefs; the considerations we act on are internal to the ‘rationality’ of each sphere – maximum gain within the economy, the greatest benefit to the greatest number in the political arena, and so on.”

Such “public spaces” did not always exist, of course.  As John Milbank opens his own magnum opus, Theology and Social Theory, “Once, there was no secular.”  For instance, it was once believed that economics existed to serve the ends of human life, which was defined by theology.  Hence there was a ban on usury.  Such a ban would be unthinkable in a secular society.  But as John Milbank seeks to demonstrate, certain theological positions must be assumed to maintain the autonomy of economics as a discipline, such that economic science isn’t merely “public” or “neutral,” but either heretical or atheistic altogether.

The second common meaning of ‘secular’ stands with a certain ironic aloofness from the first.  Taylor observes that the United States was one of the earliest societies to separate Church and State (secularism in the first sense) but remains the Western society with the highest statistics for both religious belief and religious practice (secularism in a second sense).  Great Britain, on the other hand, still has an official state church that (for example) owns vast tracts of land throughout England, and is irremediably tied to governmental tasks and structures, is not secular in the first sense at all, but shows dramatically lower confessions of Christian belief and church attendance, so is more secular in this second sense.

Taylor’s third sense, the uncommon meaning of secular, is “closely related to the second, and not without connection to the first.”  Whereas the second examines the statistics concerning belief and lack-of-belief, the third sense focuses on the conditions of belief.  “The shift to secularity in this sense consists, among other things, of a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, [sic] to one in which is it understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace… To put the point in different terms, belief in God isn’t quite the same thing in 1500 and 2000.”  And this isn’t to say that the beliefs have changed (though of course there has been some change in both content and emphasis in the last five hundred years, but that’s a different phenomenon), but that the changing context of belief has changed what the act of believing is.

In summary, Charles Taylor describes the new, secular, context of belief this way:

We all learn to navigate between two standpoints: an “engaged” one in which we live as best we can the reality our standpoint opens us to; and a “disengaged” one in which we are able to see ourselves as occupying one standpoint among a range of possible ones, with which we have in various ways to coexist.  But we have also changed from a condition in which belief was the default option, not just for the naive but for also for those who know, considered, talked about atheism [think Hume or Kant]; to a condition in which for more and more people unbelieving construals seem at first blush the only plausible ones.

In a secular age, then, religious belief doesn’t necessarily break down, but naive religious belief does.  As Taylor says, “Naivete is now unavailable to anyone, believer or unbeliever alike.”  Because, with the exception of certain extreme fundamentalists in both groups, it is becoming more and more difficult to encounter intelligent people intelligent articulating views contrary to yours, as it is becoming more and more common to encounter well-meaning people who live good and satisfied lives according to belief-structures contrary to yours.

I am convinced of the truth of Christianity and find the naturalistic reductionism of someone like GodlessLiberal implausible and (I must say) necessarily nihilistic.  GodlessLiberal, for his part, finds my willingness to affirm belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ a tad bewildering and (probably) an example of wishful thinking.  But because we can both consider the possibility of holding positions other than our own, we can talk.