Monthly Archives: March 2011

Anthony Trollope and the Cult of Journalism

Anthony Trollope is one of those writers I’ve always had on my long list.  I finally began reading The Warden this week, and I am impressed. I never doubted that he could turn a phrase or characterize the psychology of a dialog quite as well as anyone in the English pastoral tradition. I never doubted that the adjective ‘masterful’ fully applied to him.  And I certainly never doubted that he depicted virtue and vice with nuance and grace; certainly Stanley Hauerwas and Frederick Buechner have put his work to use to that end.

But I never realized what a brilliant satirist he was.  Here is his depiction of the news media (The Jupiter, whose editor is Tom Towers, is almost certainly The Times):

It is a fact amazing to ordinary mortals that The Jupiter is never wrong. With what endless care, with what unsparing labour, do we not strive to get together for our great national council the men most fitting to compose it. And how we fail! Parliament is always wrong: look at The Jupiter, and see how futile are their meetings, how vain their council, how needless all their trouble! With what pride do we regard our chief ministers, the great servants of state, the oligarchs of the nation on whose wisdom we lean, to whom we look for guidance in our difficulties! But what are they to the writers of The Jupiter? They hold council together and with anxious thought painfully elaborate their country’s good; but when all is done, The Jupiter declares that all is naught. Why should we look to Lord John Russell–why should we regard Palmerston and Gladstone, when Tom Towers without a struggle can put us right? Look at our generals, what faults they make; at our admirals, how inactive they are. What money, honesty, and science can do, is done; and yet how badly are our troops brought together, fed, conveyed, clothed, armed, and managed. The most excellent of our good men do their best to man our ships, with the assistance of all possible external appliances; but in vain. All, all is wrong–alas! alas! Tom Towers, and he alone, knows all about it. Why, oh why, ye earthly ministers, why have ye not followed more closely this heaven-sent messenger that is among us?

A Theological Critique of the Libyan War

Howard Zinn has taught us, wherever we fall on the political spectrum, that to understand history we must read it from the bottom up.  If you want to learn about the French Revolution, reading M. Robespierre’s political writings won’t give you the whole picture, and may mislead you altogether.  If we apply this method to the current Libyan conflict, we will focus not on President Obama’s speech last night nor on billionaire maniac Qaddafi, but on Libyans on the ground.

Obama appealed in his speech to the image of civilians being indiscriminately killed, and to a leader who has “turned on his own people.”  The west is ostensibly going to war (or engaging in “police action”) to stop this violence against Libyans.  Of course, this says nothing of the Libyans who will be killed in the process of stopping the violence.

Augustine wrote in City of God that peace is more fundamental than violence.  We can tell this is so because very few people, if any, go to war because they enjoy war.  Rather, they go to war to seek peace, though on their own terms.  In the Libyan situation you have three groups who each want peace on their own terms.  Qaddafi wants a sustained rule, and is desperate enough to bomb his own cities to cling to that rule.  The protesters view Qaddafi’s rule as a form of sustained violence, and are willing to revolt, violently if need be, to overthrow that violence and install a truer peace.

But what about Obama and the UN?  What kind of peace do they seek?  According to neocon columnist George Weigel, Obama represents “How Democrats View the World.”  In particular, for Obama

Conflict is an aberration, and if there is conflict between nations or blocks of nations, or within nations, it must be because of some palpable injustice, the remedying of which will assuage the conflict in question and restore the natural order, which is peace. The idea that conflict results from the inevitable clash of interests and values in a plural world — which political thinkers from Augustine to Acheson assumed — is in fact not true. Moreover, the insights of psychology and psychiatry are of special utility in understanding the character of political conflict.

If Weigel’s observation is correct, then Obama, even in defending the Libyan rebels, is in truth validating Qaddafi’s rule over-against the claims of the protesters.  Perhaps Weigel is wrong, or perhaps the Obama administration is deeply philosophically incoherent.  One would not be shocked at either occurrence.

But there is another Augustinian observation to be made here.  The Libyan revolt is part of an overall trajectory of the Arab world right now, where revolutions are also being attempted in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt and Jordan.  Some of these are wholly nonviolent, as in Egypt, while others, such as in Yemen, look more like terrorism than revolution.  But taken together they represent what Gene Sharp calls “the science of people power.”  He says of Egypt’s revolution that it shows

That it can be done. In past years, there have been a lot of misconceptions about nonviolent action. People used to think that it was very weak and that only the violence of war could remove extreme dictators. Here was another example that shows this myth isn’t true. If people are disciplined and courageous, they can do it.

In particular, Sharp observes that “When people lose their fear of an oppressor’s regime, the oppressor is in deep trouble.”  Qaddafi saw how Mubarak was deposed, saw the movements all across the Arab world, and sought to reinstill  fear.  Could he and would he have done it?  Certainly.  And would this have cowed the population back into line with the regime?  Perhaps.  Look at Iran a year and a half back.

But if the Libyan rebels and their transitional government could weather the violence, as the nonviolent Egyptian rebels did in Tarhir Square, the Qaddafi regime would unmask both their own unrighteousness and the truth of the protesters’ claims.  This is how Augustine treats Romans 13, which says the state will praise those who do good.  In Augustine’s view of the state, a proper state will praise those who do good by rewarding them, but from a corrupt state the highest form of praise is to be destroyed for doing right.

From the perspective of the protesters, then, the worst thing that can happen is U.S. led intervention on their behalf.  From a pragmatic standpoint, the options seem to be a coin-flip between a stalemate resulting in Qadaffi remaining in power and a military overthrow of Qadaffi resulting in a government established not by Libyans but by the UN Security Council.  Theologically, the Libyan protesters have lost the opportunity to, like the Egyptians, “go with the grain of the universe” and instead have to live caught in a war that is no longer truly about them.

A Subversive Prayer for National Leaders

In a recent blog post, Brian Walsh (co-author of the provocative Colossions Remixed commentary) offered a prayer for the upcoming Canadian elections, which were moved forward to this spring by a vote of non-confidence in the current administration.

Around halfway through, Walsh enters into a section contrasting the lordship of Christ with the position of our elected officials.  Being an elected official in a republic is both a high and a low position.  It is high because you are directly enabled to wield power, pass laws, etc., but it is low because you are, ultimately, a public servant, entrusted with representing not yourself but your constituents.

But Christ’s lordship is yet higher and lower still.  It is higher because Christ is ultimately far more powerful than “the most powerful man in the world,” the President of the United States.  And it is lower because Christ emptied himself (kenotically), not clinging to his rights as deity but taking on the form of slave.

Here is what Walsh prays.

Before you, Lord, every tongue will confess,
but you were never democratically elected.
Before you, Lord, every knee will bow,
though you lost the only vote you ever faced against Barabbas.

You are the exalted one because you were first raised high on a cross.
Yours was not the campaign trail of media moments,
but a path to the cross.
Yours was not a narrow obedience to the party line,
but an obedience to death,
……even death on a cross.

No one would ever elect you, Lord,
but we dare to call ourselves citizens of your Kingdom.

Send your Spirit upon us so that we might be discerning citizens.

What does this mean for Christian political identity?  How do you pray for national leaders?

Book Review: Migrations of the Holy by William T. Cavanaugh

I have read a staggering number of books that claim the subject “political theology.”  Many of these books fail at a fundamental level.  In attempting to allow Christians a voice in the public square, they “translate” particular Christian beliefs into a supposedly more “universal” language that all reasonable people should be able to attend to.  The reason such a move is considered necessary is because the nation-state is viewed as the agent through whom politics is done.  For many,  “to be political” means  to engage with the government.  For the church “to be political,” therefore, means for the church to attempt to influence elections and the actions of elected officials.

For some time many of us, and many authors of books categorized as political theology, have suspected that this is not quite right, but have been unable to put words to it.  Many books on political theology fail fundamentally because while they attempt to articulate a vision of the political relevance of the church, they are unable to break free from the assumption that at the end of the day the church is relevant – or not – insofar as she can influence secular government.

This is the myth that William T. Cavanaugh’s book Migrations of the Holy confronts and shatters.  The central argument of the book is that the apparent secularization of Western society is only apparent.  He says

In important ways, the United States has not really secularized at all.  What has happened instead is that in the modern era the holy has migrated from the church to the state. By this I do not mean that Christian evangelicals have an inordinate influence in the current administration. I mean that faith in the United States and in “secular” Western values can take on the status of a religious conviction, and the United States has assembled the largest military in history to propagate it. (112)

Cavanaugh pursues this central argument through a series of interconnected essays, examining a host of issues: American exceptionalism and America/democracy/freedom as an object of worship, relocating the just-war doctrine within the church rather than the state, the church’s perspective on national borders, the problem of the sinfulness of the church, the problem of the church’s history involving torture, and the best account I’ve seen yet of Augustine’s City of God in its application to contemporary political theology.

As a writer, Cavanaugh is visibly improving with each book he publishes, and I would confidently say that this is his best book yet from the standpoint of clarity and accessibility.  It ought to be satisfying to trained theologians, while 90% of the book is easily understandable to the average lay person.  And unlike some of his heavy-hitting books in the past, this one comes in at a quite achievable 198 pages.

If I have any criticisms of this book, I can only do so only because Cavanaugh raises both expectations and possibilities in the area of political theology with this book, but does not quite manage to achieve them.  It is without a doubt the best introduction to thinking politically about the church on the market.  That said, this is a collection of essays, and in a couple of places that shows.  The book lack a concluding essay or afterward, and feels like it just stops.  And while Cavanaugh offers some very tantalizing practical applications at points during the book, the implied promise never quite materializes, and the reader is left wondering, “So what now?” (The book I am tentatively outlining now is my proposed answer to that question.)

With all that said, I thank God for this book.  It is the book I will recommend to all of my friends when they ask for help understanding the political implications of the gospel.  I am eagerly awaiting critical reviews, and I can confidently predict that no theologian will be able to ignore the contents and presentation of this book.

Watch for it over the next couple of weeks as I plan to summarize each chapter critically here and push back a bit about the practical implications of Bill Cavanaugh’s ideas.

Jubilee and Christian Economics

Jubilee was a multi-layered practice often rejected, ignored or manipulated in ancient Egypt.  It instructed that all debts be canceled every seven years, and all and return to its original owners ever fifty years.  This left room for considerable consequences for your actions – an entire generation could be dispossessed of land – but provided a basic equality of opportunity for Israelite families.  In economic terms, the means of wealth production was partially equalized.

But the theological idea behind Jubilee is this: Yahweh owns the land.  “The land shall not be sold on perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Lev 25:23 ESV).

Ron Sider, in his book The Scandal of Evangelical Politics lays out what this theological point would mean for a Christian account of economics:

Interestingly, the principles of Jubilee challenge modern extremes of the political left and right. Only God is an absolute owner.  No one else has absolute property rights. The right of each family to have the means to earn a living takes priority over a purchaser’s “property rights.”  At the same time, Jubilee affirms not only the right but the importance of private property managed by families (normally extended families) who understand that they are steward responsible to God. This text does not point us in the direction of the communist model where the state owns all the land. God wants each family to own the resources to produce their own livelihood. Why? To strengthen the family (this is a very important “pro-family” text!), to give people the freedom to participate in shaping history, and to prevent the centralization of power and the oppression and totalitarianism that almost always  accompanies centralized ownership of land or capital by either the state or small elites.

From all this, Sider makes the conclusion that the Biblical concept of justice demands that “every person (or family) has access to the productive resources (land, money, knowledge) so they have the opportunity to earn [a living] and be dignified participating members in their community.”

Religious Violence: The Center of the Issue

William T. Cavanaugh, author of The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, recounts seeing a poster at a university campus where he was speaking.  The poster was for his own event, with the question, “Does Religion Cause Violence?”  Somebody had scrawled across the entire poster in black Sharpie, “DUH!”

That pretty much sums up the attitude toward the subject.  It seems so obvious and self-evident that religion does cause violence.  After all, what about the Crusades? what about Islamic terrorism?

There are actually a couple of ways people attempt to argue against this idea.  One is to argue that good religions do not cause violence, and the violence done in their name is only by those who misunderstand the religion.  “Clearly the Crusader is not a Christian, because a Christian wouldn’t do what the Crusader is doing.”  The second way is to argue that these religions are neutral and that what actually motivates religious violence is some sort of socio-political cause.

Cavanaugh rejects both these ideas.  In fact, he baldly says, “Religion causes violence.  I have no doubt.”  Then what is the myth of religious violence for Cavanaugh?  It is that religious ideology causes violence whereas secular ideology does not.  In the received story, violence utilized by a secular society is rational and is necessary to combat the irrational and fanatical violence of the religious.   The myth of religious violence then becomes a kind of rhetorical tool at the disposal of secular liberalism to justify its wars.

But can we really suppose that religion is any more prone to violence than a secular body?  At the center of the issue are these questions posed by Bill Cavanaugh:

  1. Is there any good reason to suppose that people are more likely to kill for a god than for a nation?
  2. What percentage of Americans who self-identify as Christians would be willing to kill for Jesus (or for their Christian faith)?
  3. What percentage would be willing to kill for their country?

It seems clear to Cavanaugh (and sadly I cannot disagree) that most American Christians would be willing to kill for their nation but not for their religion.  In fact, Cavanaugh points out, the majority of Christians in America are not even willing to evangelize in public, finding it in poor taste, but are willing “to endorse organized slaughter on behalf of the nation as necessary and sometimes laudable.”

In light of this, it seems that there is no coherent way to isolate religion from other ideologies as the one particularly given to violence or promoting violent adherence.  Secular ideologies such as nationalism and capitalism can incite just as much violence as so-called religious ones.

Humanist-Catholic Debate: Worth the Effort?

From a note on Benedict XVI Facebook page (of all places):

Last month two groups of people met in a church in central London to discuss gay adoption, abortion and religious schools. On one side were representatives of Catholic Voices, on the other a group from the Central London Humanist Group.

The point, says Paul Sims of New Humanist magazine, was “to experiment with the idea of Humanists and Catholics sitting down and engaging with each other on contentious issues in a cordial manner”.

The two groups focused on issues of gay marriage, gay adoption and abortion.  Not surpringly, little common ground was found besides the obvious.  Does this mean that such meetings are pointless?  The question takes on more force when you examine the aftermath of the Pope’s visit in late 2010, which on the surface was more beneficial to BOTH groups.  Catholics called it a PR victory, as church attendance rose afterward, and their opponents appeared “shrill and intolerant,” whereas secular humanists called it a PR victory because they received a good deal of media coverage and provoked public debate of the very questions they wanted to draw attention to.

So then, should we even bother with civil public debate?  If so, why?  Is this sort of debate an aspect of public witness, or is it frivolous?

Theology is Not Reducible to Soundbites

“You’re asking for it both ways: that doesn’t make sense.”

Rob Bell was interviewed about his new book Love Wins by Martin Bashir of MSNBC recently.  Everyone is already busy discussing the content of the interview, but I am more interested in the getting behind the content to the nature of the interview itself.

I always squirm a bit when I watch Christians (whether theologians or not) trying to articulate their views in big media outlets.  I squirm because most good theology is not reducible to soundbites.  (Yes, that was a soundbite about theology.)  So invariably either the host or the guest must be frustrated in what they’re attempting, and the audience is left with nothing much.

With Rob Bell, though, the situation is more complex.  A lot of very serious students of theology and pastoral ministry would love to get Rob Bell to answer these sorts of questions.  He’s the kind of guy who responds to a yes or no question by saying, “Well, let me tell you a story,” and that’s sincerely disconcerting to many Christians.  So on one level, it is refreshing to see someone assertively put these sorts of questions to Rob Bell.

on another, more fundamental level, what is happening here is not discussion, but the pre-empting of discussion.  When the question is put to you in terms that do not permit a coherent answer (e.g. “Is God uncaring or impotent?”), and you are not permitted to redefine the terms, communication is made impossible.  It does not improve communication to simply repeat the question, more loudly and insistently.

If I were in Bell’s position here, I would refrain from answering most of these questions, and resist evading the questions as well, but attempt to deconstruct the process of hard-hitting questions and 24-hour news cycles altogether.  I would say, “This is complex stuff, and good theology is not reducible to soundbites.”

That is one reasons why I am not invited onto prime time news shows.

In the Middle of the Tsunami: A Pre-emptive Theodicy

As I sit down to write this, the tsunami has started, but has not ended.  The world is in the middle of the tsunami.  This means that we have no idea, at this point, how destructive the tsunami will be (though it looks to be incredibly destructive, predicted to affect over fifty nations).  But even without knowing the details, we know a few things.

First, with or without a tsunami or other natural disaster, today would be an incredibly destructive day. Infants would (and will) die in NICU, people would (and will) lose their battles with cancer, cars would (and will) wreck, and on and on.

Second, we can reasonably expect an outpouring of world support, as world leaders make a show of contributing to the rebuilding of hard-hit areas, hundreds of thousands of Americans and Europeans make donations through Red Cross, and church youth groups make impromptu mission trips to impacted areas.

And third, we can already imagine the old debate flaring back up.  Skeptics will hold images of the tsunami before us and ask, “How can a good god permit this kind of suffering? this kind of tragedy?”  And some Christians will say that God caused the tsunami, but for reasons best known only to him (probably to punish sinners, though), while others will vehemently disagree and say that God has no choice but to allow such evils, because of a prior commitment to “free will.”

For a number of reasons, I think these lines of defense, whether or not they are inaccurate in themselves, are misguided from the start.  They are playing off our field, so to speak, asking Christians to justify the God of deism.  So without trying to play such explanatory games, I offer this passage from David Bentley Hart’s 2007 reflection on the Indian Ocean tsunami:

To see the world as it should have been, and so to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love… What Christians should see, then, is not simply one reality: neither the elaborate, benign, elegantly calibrated machine of the deist, smoothly and efficiently accomplishing whatever goods a beneficent  God an intractable potentialities of finitude can produce between them; nor a sacred and divine commerce between life and death; nor certainly “nature” in the modern, mechanistic acceptation of that word.  Rather, the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautiful as the beginning of days.

To cultivate this way of seeing is to abandon theodical categories.  It is to take seriously the narrative of scripture and not merely the philosophical necessities of “holding a position.”  It is to take seriously (perhaps more seriously than the skeptical interlocutor) the real suffering present in the world.  And it is to recognize that the god the skeptic doubts is not one that Christians worship in the first place.

This is not a theodicy, but (hopefully) a pre-emptive theodicy, or a pre-emption of theodicy.  This is the word before the first word.  Perhaps let us consider this worldview and the charity of our own hearts before we begin the rhetorical arguments for and against a god of logical necessity.

Bono on Jesus

Bono often surprises me. Sometimes he surprises me by being humble, or being sincere, or being candid.  But here he surprised me by being well-read.  In an interview with Michka Assays (his usual interviewer for book-length projects), he said this:

Assayas: That’s a great idea, no denying it. Such great hope is wonderful, even though it’s close to lunacy, in my view. Christ has his rank among the world’s great thinkers. But Son of God, isn’t that farfetched?

Bono: No, it’s not farfetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: he was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that. He doesn’t let you off that hook. Christ says: No. I’m not saying I’m a teacher, don’t call me teacher. I’m not saying I’m a prophet. I’m saying: “I’m the Messiah.” I’m saying: “I am God incarnate.” And people say: No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet, we can take. You’re a bit eccentric. We’ve had John the Baptist eating locusts and wild honey, we can handle that. But don’t mention the “M” word! Because, you know, we’re gonna have to crucify you. And he goes: No, no. I know you’re expecting me to come back with an army, and set you free from these creeps, but actually I am the Messiah. At this point, everyone starts staring at their shoes, and says: Oh, my God, he’s gonna keep saying this. So what you’re left with is: either Christ was who He said He was the Messiah or a complete nutcase. I mean, we’re talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson. This man was like some of the people we’ve been talking about earlier. This man was strapping himself to a bomb, and had “King of the Jews” on his head, and, as they were putting him up on the Cross, was going: OK, martyrdom, here we go. Bring on the pain! I can take it. I’m not joking here. The idea that the entire course of civilization for over half of the globe could have its fate changed and turned upside-down by a nutcase, for me, that’s farfetched.

Bono is clearly channeling C. S. Lewis here.  Some of Lewis’s own structure remains intact.  “But actually Christ doesn’t allow you that” is not so far off from Lewis’s “He hasn’t left us that option.”  But Bono has also made the old argument clearly his own, in the same way I heard him give a vulgar paraphrase of the Exodus at the G8 Summit in 2005.  Bono believes what he’s preaching.