Monday, December 19, 2005

Merry Christmas, Texaco!

After being encouraged that some moderate Republicans (including one of our West Michigan congressmen) successfully blocked the agenda of conservative Republicans to open up oil drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the conservatives got what they want by employing a failsafe strategy: attach what you want to a Pentagon spending bill and spineless Democrats (and moderate Republicans) everywhere will cave. (After all, who wants to be seen as against the military?) Shameless, and disappointing. As one congressman put it:
"A can't-pass measure has been added to a must-pass measure in order for the Republicans to give an early huge Christmas gift to the oil companies of the United States," said Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Whatever happened to the days when such ludicrous defense spending was not a de facto "must pass" measure?

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Welcome Back, Mr. Hitchens?

It was wonderfully refreshing to actually see Christopher Hitchens offer a critique of the current administration, and in particular, the Defense Department's propaganda tactics in Iraq. Hitchens has been so busy defending the war in Iraq I was starting to think he was losing his contrarian edge. This piece in Slate is proof that some of the old Hitchens is still lurking inside his DC apartment. I suspect that the Orwellian in him just couldn't ignore the disturbing echoes of the "Ministry of Truth" in 1984.

[By the way, word on the (blog) street has it that Hitchens' next book will fill out his critique of religion. Warner Twelve will publish God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion. This should be the perfect foil for a book I've got in the works: On Religion: An Open Letter to Christopher Hitchens and Other Cultured Despisers.]

Monday, December 05, 2005

Give a Water Buffalo for Christmas

What to get for that special someone who has everything? How about a water buffalo? Or ducks? Or a mosquito net? Or even a house? Last year while we were in England we bought some gifts for our family through Oxfam: a goat and some ducks as I recall. The "gifts" were then sent to those who really needed them in the developing world.

This year we're doing the same thing through the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee. The CRWRC has set up a great "gift shop" that allows you to purchase a whole range of things for specific justice missions around the world--including all the suggestions noted above, as well as literacy classes in Haiti, seeds & tools in Sudan, school lunches in Romania, and much more. When you purchase the gift (online), you'll receive a card that you can shared with your loved one. Our families loved it. Consider doing it this Christmas!

Un-Natural Law? Alito on Non-Resident Aliens

The Washington Post ran a fairly disturbing analysis of some of Alito's opinions written opinions while serving as a senior lawyer in the Reagan Justice Department. Of particular interest--to me--was his rendering regarding the constitutional rights that are afforded (or not!) to not just illegal immigrants but also non-resident aliens--of which I am one! (I'm a Canadian, for the record--which will explain quite a lot for some of my critics.) In a January 1986 memo to the FBI director Alito said that constitutional rules that applied to citizens (in particular, the prohibition of spreading 'stigmatizing' information about someone) did not apply to nonresident immigrants. He also cited a 1950 Supreme Court case "to support the contention that nonresident immigarnts of other countries had 'no due process rights' under the Constitution."

One could point out just a couple of serious concerns here: first, this is just the kind of aggressive limitation of legal protection that fuels the current administration's "exceptional" stance vis-a-vis the Geneva Convention and a host of other human rights expectations for non-American citizens in custody. Second, such a constructionist or conventional notion of rights would seem to contradict Alito's own natural law philosophy. I'm no fan of natural law theory, but at least it mitigates against this kind of commodified treatment of non-resident aliens.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Political Time North of the Border

Today a no-confidence vote in the House of Commons dissolved the 38th Parliament in Canada. This will now kick off one of the longest election campaigns in the history of the country: 56 days. That doesn't leave much time for mudslinging, though we Canadians can be quite resourceful.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Canadian University Rankings

Many American's are familiar with the US News & World Report rankings of colleges and universities in the United States. Canada has a rough equivalent: the annual Maclean's ranking of Canadian universities.

(In Canada, "colleges" is a term used only to refer to community colleges and technical schools, which don't grant any kind of "degrees," not even an Associates. So in Canada, a high school senior going to the University of Toronto would say, "In the fall I'm going to university" [and yes, without the definitive article]. This always makes it a bit awkward when I'm back home and folks learn that I teach at Calvin College--which they tend to think of as some kind of community college.)

One significant difference is that the Maclean's ranking is pretty much comprehensive: except for a few small "private" universities (of which there are very few in Canada), this ranking evaluate every university in Canada under three categories: Medical Doctoral (universities with PhD programs, law schools, and med schools), Comprehensive (universities with doctoral programs but not med schools), and primarily undergraduate institutions.

This year McGill and the University of Toronto tied for top spot in what we might call "Canada's Ivy League" (we like to refer to Harvard as the McGill of the United States! ;-) Both are world-class institutions. In the comprehensive category, the University of Waterloo took top honors (I completed my undergraduate degree there). And in the primarily undergraduate category, it was mainly east coast or "Atlantic province" universities at the top, including St. Francis Xavier, Mount Allision (where I always dreamed of playing football when I grew up), and Acadia.

I sometimes find myself a bit homesick for the environs of Canadian universities, which I've always felt was quite different from the American scene (being in England last year reinforced some of that). The Maclean's ranking also includes some good articles exploring the unique challenges of Canadian higher education and research as it tries to resist the brain drain of American universities. Good reading.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Evangelicals Out of the Box: JKAS on NPR

This is probably shameless self-promotion that conflicts with good Calvinist humility, but Fors Clavigera readers might be interested in an upcoming NPR program. Krista Tippett's public radio program, "Speaking of Faith" will broadcast a show next week called "Evangelicals Out of the Box." It will feature conversatiosn with me and Fuller professor Nancey Murphy. The announcement of the program describes it this way:

Evangelicals Out of the Box

Stereotypes tell us this: Evangelical Christians are politically conservative, closed-minded, morally judgmental, and anti-science. We speak with Jamie Smith and Nancey Murphy, two creative members of a new generation of Evangelical thinkers and teachers, who defy stereotypes and reveal an evolving character for this vast movement that describes 40 percent of Americans.

The program will be released on October 21, and then air on stations throughout next weekend. But it will also be available on the web. For more info, visit the Speaking of Faith website. The site includes a listing of stations and broadcast times. Just FYI.

Friday, October 14, 2005

World's Top 100 Public Intellectuals

I have always found the notion of "public intellectual" interesting, but slippery--particularly given that there can be quite a plurality of publics. (The Church, as a public, might have a different set of public intellectuals than, say, the "public" as defined by the NYT. I've often thought that if a particular congregation represents a certain "public," then there should be a sense in which the pastor is its public intellectual. I think this has traditionally been the case in black churches, and was historically in Protestant churches.)

In any case, Prospect magazine, in conjunction with Foreign Policy, recently proposed The World's Top 100 Public Intellectuals. An interesting list to browse (keep in mind that one of the criteria was that the figures must still be alive). Several philosophers make the list (e.g., Dennett, Walzer, Rorty), a couple of theologians (Benedect XVI and Hans Kung), couple of cultural theorists (Negri, Zizek), and my favorite journalist, Christopher Hitchens.

One interesting lens through which to think about the list: I don't know if there is a single Protestant on the list. What about Rowan Williams? Or Cornel West?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Our History of Violence

I finally had the opportunity to see David Cronenberg's new film, A History of Violence, starring Viggo Mortensen (as Tom Stall), with an excellent performance by William Hurt (as Richie Cusak).

As you'd guess, the film very much interrogates violence on a number of different levels, with various kinds of "disturbance": from a sado-masochistic erotic scene to violence against children, coupled with key scenes involving bodily tissues and fluids. (Having been tipped off to the latter in A.O. Scott's NYT review, my wife passed and I went with my friend, Mark.)

Cronenberg is clearly out to de-aestheticize violence that is a staple of Hollywood, and increasingly, our cultural practices. There is a way that he is trying to wake up us up to what we might call, loosely paraphrasing Hannah Arendt, the "banality of violence."

But the final sequence of the film is highly ambiguous, and so one wonders what Cronenberg is after. Clearly, the closing scenes invite theological reflection. [Note: if you've not seen the film, and plan to, don't read any further.]

The closing sequence is launched by a Cain & Abel encounter between brothers Joey Cusak (Mortensen) and Richie Cusak--invoking the "first violence" of Genesis 4. As Richie peers up the barrel of Joey's pistol, he pleads, "Jesus, Joey..." Joey responds with a bullet to Richie's forehead, looks over his brother's body, and then mutters under his breath, almost shaking his head: "Jesus, Richie..."

We then cut to a scene of Joey at the lake behind Richie's mansion, peeling off his blood-stained clothes (casting off the "old man" as it were), and washing himself in the baptismal waters of the lake. He then makes the long trip back from Philadelphia to his (now disrupted) ho-hum farm house in rural Indiana. Walking into his house, his family (who all now know his history of violence), are quietly eating at the table. In silence, the youngest daughter prepares a place for him at the table, inviting him to join the meal. His son Jack, who was enraged by his father's history of violence, passes him the meatloaf as an extension of hospitality, and his wife, Edie, simply looks at him through tears...and the celluloid goes dark. The film seems to end with this eucharistic hospitality, where the history of violence is forgiven when Tom/Joey is welcomed to the table.

But I think that such a reading is taking Cronenberg's bait. In other words, I think that Cronenberg is playing with us here, inviting us to see redemption where there is none. The utter ambiguity of the final scenes--including remarkably ambiguous expressions on the face of Tom and Edie--invites quite a different reading, one that is much more cynical. On this reading, Cronenberg is slyly inviting us to see our implication in violence, our own history of violence. (The use of the sex in the film is clearly intended to suck us into being erotically charged by violence, which is exactly what Hollywood [and Fox News] lives off of.) So on this alternative, decidedly un-Christian and perhaps even "pagan" reading (thinking of Milbank's discussion of the pagan in Theology and Social Theory), the first violence of Cain & Abel is a necessary violence, replayed over and over again, without end and without escape from the cycle. Joey's washing in the lake is not a redemptive cleansing, but more a matter of "washing one's hands," the wistful illusion of being done with violence, when in fact it is violence which nourishes all our practices and privileges. And his silent welcome to the table at home is not a matter of eucharistic hospitality and forgiveness, but rather the silent complacency that wants to act "as if" we weren't implicated, "as if" the violence never happened, "as if" we can just get on with out lives and not talk about it. At the heart of this reading is a heightened sense of the banality of violence--that the pristine peace of every Mayberry is built upon a history of violence.

And I think it is precisely this second, alternative reading which would be the most "Christian." In other words, the real theological import of A History of Violence will be found in refusing the easy, almost trite, identification of Christian symbols and instead seeing in them a more sinister implication of us in our own histories of violence. In other words, I think Christians should read A History of Violence as a pagan comedy, not a Christian tragedy.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Orwell, Foucault, and the State of Urban Public Schools

Jonathan Kozol's recent Harper's essay, "Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid" is one of those pieces that makes you want to just crawl into a corner and sob--right after you find somebody to shout at because of the terrible pain in your gut.

Documenting years of visits and conversations with children, teachers, principals, and education bureaucrats at state and federal levels, Kozol paints the picture of a nation that is clearly going backwards. Fifty years after the supposed 'victory' of Brown v. Board of Education, Kozol shows that civil rights legislation hasn't erased racism, and that legislation for equality needs to be backed up by tax laws that could actually fund equality--but we all know that in that respect, America is headed down the wrong road. Not even Democrats have the courage to talk about raising taxes anymore! I confess to feeling overwhelmed by the direction this nation is headed. How does this happen?

Kozol provides a stark picture by considering the "head start" that suburban white children get, and shows up the ridiculous language of "accountability" that we get from the "No Child Left Behind" Act:
Three years later, in third grade, these children are introduced to what are known as "high-stakes tests," which in many urban systems now determine whether students can or cannot be promoted. Children who have been in programs like those offered by the "Baby Ivies" since the age of two have, by now, received the benefits of six or seven years of education, nearly twice as many as the children who have been denied these opportunities; yet all are required to take, and will be measured by, the same examinations. Which of these children will receive the highest scores? The ones who spent the years from two to four in lovely little Montessori programs and in other pastel-painted settings in which tender and attentive and well-trained instructors read to them from beautiful storybooks and introduced them very gently for the first time to the world of numbers and the shapes of letters, and the sizes and varieties of solid objects, and perhaps taught them to sort things into groups or to arrange them in a sequence, or to do those many other interesting things that early childhood specialists refer to as prenumeracy skills? Or the ones who spent those years at home in front of a TV or sitting by the window of a slum apartment gazing down into the street? There is something deeply hypocritical about a society that holds an eight-year-old inner-city child "accountable" for her performance on a high-stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years earlier.

If this isn't haunting enough, he goes on to provide a picture of urban school regimens that sound like they're lifted right out of the pages of Foucault's Discipline and Punish or Orwell's 1984. The picture is so overwhelming, it's hard to know how to respond except in a psalm of lament.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Above All, Save the Merchandise

In the face of al-Quaeda's attack on the Twin Towers and Pentagon, the White House's admonition was clear: "Shop." The one thing the enemy won't destroy is our freedom to go the mall.

And now, in the wake of a national tragedy, we find a similarly ridiculous focus on the market and merchandise. From the NYT:
With police officers and National Guard troops giving priority to saving lives, looters brazenly ripped open gates and ransacked stores for food, clothing, television sets, computers, jewelry and guns, often in full view of helpless law-enforcement officials. Dozens of carjackings, apparently by survivors desperate to escape, were reported, as were a number of shootings.

On Wednesday night, Mayor Nagin ordered 1,500 police officers, most of the city's force, to turn from search and rescue to stopping the looting.

While children remain stranded on rooftops without fresh water or food, and corpses floating past them, the Mayor is channeling precious human resources to protect Wal-Mart. This is akin to police chases over a stolen $13,000 Honda as justification for lives lost.

Grief over a national tragedy is compounded by an overwhelming sense of the amoral tentacles of the market squeezing our very imaginations.

Friday, August 26, 2005

A Generous Orthodoxy Think Tank

I've enjoyed being a part of a new venture launched by Stephen Bush called "Generous Orthodoxy: Think Tank." This creates the space for some excellent conversation between evangelicals scholars, graduate students, and practitioners who want to both push the envelope but also remain faithful to the tradition. It includes some of the sharpest young voices in evangelical theology such as John Franke and LeRon Shults. That it has been taking up far too much of my time is testament to how valuable this site will be.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Oh, well, if it's biblical...

I was glad, or at least relieved, to see evangelical leaders--including even Al Mohler--roundly denounced Pat Robertson's remarks about assassinating Hugo Chavez. And Christian charity also requires me to acknowledge that, after some curious backpedalling (in which Robertson seemed to become a deconstructionist as he waxed eloquent about the dissemination of meaning around the phrase "take out," as if the meaning of the word "assassination" was determined by reader-response!), Roberts has now apologized for his comment (though not to Chavez).

However, there's another gem in this news cycle. Marvin Olansky, editor of World magazine (favored periodical of evangelicals devoted to America's civil religion), while criticizing Robertson, also suggested that "Biblically, assassination may be used in times of war, last time I looked we were not at war with Venezuela."

I have not the least doubt that Olansky has "chapter-and-verse" to support this notion, but I'm honestly trying to imagine the hermeneutical framework and biblical theology that could make such a claim possible.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Benedict XVI at World Youth Day

World Youth Day in Cologne looked like a stunning event--a richly international gathering of Catholic youth from around the globe. While they displayed some of the exuberant features of North American youth culture (I saw "the wave" making its rounds at one point), one must also be struck at how radically different this Catholic youth movement is from dominant strains of evangelical youth culture, which seems captive to an entertainment model and mimicks a kind of MTV-ized version of the faith. The 11th commandment for evangelical youth pastors seems to be, "Thou shalt not be un-cool" (playing right into the hands of the "Merchants of Cool").

But World Youth Day is eminently successful precisely because in many ways, they reject cool. Here's an elderly man (not even as charismatic as his predecessor), dressed in anything but hip clothes (no GAP or baggy jeans in his vestments), who refuses to talk down to them. I was able to watch some of the beautiful Marienfeld Vigil on the Saturday night. Benedict XVI's address at this vigil was inspiring: inviting them to tread the way of the Magi, he noted that the wise men were seeking "true justice that can only come from God." He noted that the king they found was quite different from their expectations, forcing them to rethink their entire paradigm of "power." The baby king "contrasts the the noisy and ostentatious power of this world with the defenceless power of love, which succumbs to death on the Cross." He went on to admonish these young people that "only form the saints, only from God, does true revolution come, the definitive way to change to the world." Unlike most youth events I've experienced in evangelical subculture which usually just invite kids to stop having sex, Benedict XVI was inviting these young people to a mode of political discipleship intimately tied to the Church (this is not about a "private Jesus" he said) and the sacraments.

Admittedly, I'm still bothered by a deep tension in Benedict XVI's vision: on the one hand, he argues that true justice and true revolution are tied to the Cross and the Church; on the other hand, he speaks in more generally theistic, natural-law-like terms because he wants to invoke God's justice as something to which Europe (as such) should be subject. So there is a lingering nostalgia for Christendom. Or, if I could put it otherwise, there is a deep tension, I think, between his Christological/crucicentric emphasis and his natural law desires. What would correct this, or at least humble the natural-law side of the tension, is a more robust account of sin coupled with a more specific pneumatology. Why should we think that "Europe" would embrace the foolishness of the cross?

Who Would Jesus Assassinate?

I'm not one to caricature the Religious Right by taking Pat Robertson as the norm. However, that Robertson could--on air on the 700 Club--openly call for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (one of several leftist leaders in South America), and that this wouldn't cause an uproar amongst religious convervatives--such a scenario surely is some kind of indicator of the degree to which the conservative religious imagination in America has become captive to forces that have less to do with following Jesus and more about protecting the American way.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Wanted: Tickets to NYC

While I will have just landed from Spain, I find myself wishing for some mode of ominpresence as I've just seen that Christopher Hitchens is going to be debating George Galloway in New York on Sept. 14! Readers of Fors Clavigera will have found (qualified) praise of both in previous posts.

Donations for airfare to NYC would be happily accepted! :-) But in lieu of such patronage, if anyone can make it and take notes, please contribute to my envy by passing them along. (For the record, I expect Hitchens to carry the day.)

Friday, August 19, 2005

Africa, Poverty, and America's Empty Promises: or Why Bono's Wrong

The Council on Foreign Relations has provided the transcript of a fascinating and enlightening discussion with Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs on the question, "Can We End Global Poverty?" Sachs is particularly forthright on how out of step the American position on African aid really is:

SACHS: Most of us that have looked at this in recent years--and I've been looking at this intensively for about a decade now--believe that if we're going to help the impoverished regions get out of a trap of disease, hunger, environmental degradation, excessive population growth, and the whole spiral of disasters, we must provide serious financing. And there now is pretty much a worldwide consensus on this, except in the United States, which stands aloof from that consensus. And we have a pretty deeply ingrained feeling in this country that we should not do more. That's a feeling that has many different roots. But when George Bush said to Tony Blair last week, "We won't do more," he was expressing what is a commonly held belief in American politics.
He also documents the way in which even the aid that is promised translates into almost no real significant contribution toward development. Here Sachs tries to demythologize the impressions we have about aid that is promised:

The biggest myth--if I could just filibuster for one more minute on this--the biggest myth in our country is how much aid we give and how much has gone down the drain. This is what I confront every day, many times a day from hate mail, to questions, and so forth. Let me just run through, if I could, what we actually do for Africa.

The U.S. aid to Africa is $3 billion this year. That $3 billion is roughly divided into three parts: The first is emergency food shipments. Of the billion or so in emergency food shipments, half of that, roughly $500 million, is just transport costs. So the commodities are maybe half a billion dollars. That's not development assistance, that's emergency relief. The second billion is the AIDS program, now standing at about $1 billion. That, on the whole, is a good thing. I would call it a real program. It's providing commodities; it's providing relief. It started late and it's too small, but it's there. The third billion is everything else we do for child survival, maternal survival, family planning, roads, power, water and sanitation, malaria; everything is the third $1 billion. Most of that, approaching 80 percent, is actually American consultant salaries. There's almost no delivery of commodities, for example. There's essentially zero financing to help a country build a school or build a clinic or dig a well.

When you get down to it, the actual financing we provide to help Africans invest in their future is well under $1 per African per year. Then, the politicians say--as George Bush did yesterday--we give so much money and it's misused; we won't let that happen. The fact is we put in almost no funding, and it accomplishes almost nothing. And then we bemoan the waste. I don't know how to break through that misunderstanding. That's what I've been trying to do for many years, but it's very, very powerful in this country.
And so he explicitly notes that Bono's modus operandi, which is to never criticize the Bush administration (but rather kiss their butt because they hold the biggest purse strings) is, when it comes down to it, a futile endeavor:
Bono's belief has been that being nice is going to be the way to bring everyone along. And everything that's been announced has been championed. We get good headlines for the Millennium Challenge Corporation. We say it's wonderful. The Bush administration claims it's tripled aid to Africa, which, aside from the fact that you can multiply three times an insignificant number and still get an insignificant number, it's also not even true in terms of the numbers.

But this is an administration that people don't like to take on head-on. You get slammed when you do it. They work very closely with the White House, Bono and his group, because they think that that's what's going to bring--that's what's going to bring everything along. I mean, Bono's not only well-meaning, he's heartfelt and earnest, and incredibly hardworking, and I admire him enormously for it. But my job is to know the arithmetic, and we're not solving the problems. We're just talking about them.
I would highly recommend reading the Sachs interview in tandem with Bill McKibben's Harper's article on "The Christian Paradox," where he very simply but clearly documents the disconnect between all the Christian rhetoric that fills political airwaves in this country and the actual practices of a developed nation with a disastrous infant mortality rate, a singular and really astonishing commitment to the death penalty, and a trigger-happy tendency to militarism.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

When Even "Realism" Starts to Look Good...

I am no fan of "realism" as a doctrine--either in foreign policy, or in terms of the Nieburhrian project for public theology. However, I must say that in wake of neocon idealism, a little dose of even realism is a welcome relief! This is clearly articulated in an excellent NYT editorial today from Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs. Rose provides a fascinating account of the dialectic of American foreign policy in which a nagging idealism (the legacy, I might suggest, of our Puritan founding) keeps rearing its head, only to run up against the "reality" of what even Rose calls "a fallen world." This dialectic plays itself out through the election cycle, with idealists being chastised and replaced by realists. Quite a convincing history.

The hook for this piece is Rose's suggestion that Bush Jr.'s idealism (newly adopted after 9/11) is now being de-fanged by Rice's realism. But the problem with this picture is something that Rose himself notes: Rice and the realists in the State department "still believe in American power and the global spread of liberal democratic capitalism." Well, then, they're not really realists, are they? This continued commitment to an idealist democratic peace theory and export of American democracy pursued with missionary zeal would suggest that Rose's obituary for the administration's idealism is a bit premature.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Jesus and Petroleum

I finally got a chance to watch "I Heart Huckabees" last night: a fun-enough pop-existential film a couple of notches up from "Garden State." It probably tries to be a bit too smart (the film centers around a couple of "existential detectives" well-played by Dustin Hoffman and Lili Tomlin), but at least it doesn't resort to name-dropping--despite ample opportunity to do so in a film that references angst and deconstruction.

But for my money, one scene was worth the price of the rental. Tommy (Mark Wahlberg) and Albert--the existential seekers in the film--end up in the suburban home of a nice Christian family. They sit to dinner with the family but when it becomes apparent that they have a couple of "philosophers" in the house, Dad becomes nervous. The one thing not allowed in their house is questions--no doubts, no anxieties, no sneaking out at night to expose oneself to the yawning abyss, etc. But Tommy and Albert are rife with questions about meaning and justice. And so a snippet of the conversation:

Mrs. Hooten: Albert, what brought you to the philosophical club?
Albert Markovski: You mean the existential detectives?
Mr. Hooten: Sounds like a support group.
Cricket: Why can't he use the church?
Mrs. Hooten: Sometimes people have additional questions to be answered.
Cricket: Like what?
Albert Markovski: Well, um, for instance - if the forms of this world die, which is more real,the me that dies or the me that's infinite? Can I trust my habitual mind or do I need to learn to look beneath those things?

Tommy's particular concern is humanity's wanton addiction to petroleum that is ravaging the planet and the fine-knit interconnections of the universe. So it doesn't take him long to castigate Dad for the mammoth SUV in the driveway, remarking how angry God must be with him for not being a better steward of creation--to which the young daughter replies:

Cricket: Jesus is never mad at us if we live with Him in our hearts!
Tommy Corn: I hate to break it to you, but He is - He most definitely is.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

On Joel Osteen's "Church": Does Jesus Exist to Make us Happy?

Just want to point readers to Jason Byassee's excellent piece on Joel Osteen. Jason is remarkably charitable to Osteen, but in the end--and because of that--offers a stinging critique of Osteen's version of what Rodney Clapp once called "Winnie-the-Pooh" theology. Pooh bear reasons as follows: If I hear buzzing, there must be bees about; if there are bees, there must be honey; and if there is honey, it must be FOR ME! Osteen translates that into a theology which populates a stadium each Sunday.

Yet another reason that the church stands in dire need of her own Orwell.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

America Supports UK War Against Terror: By Sending the LAPD to London

In 1984, George Orwell carefully describes the way that a state of "permanent war" is employed to solidify a people by getting them committed not just to national defense, but the more elusive "national security." The former requires a response in the face of hostility; the latter requires a pervasive and exhaustive attempt to eliminate any possibility of threat. This, of course, is a regulative ideal, which is to simply say that it is impossible. But permanent threat coupled with the goal of absolute security is an equation that can yield an (of course) "resolute" commitment to an end which will excuse all kinds of disturbing means.

While living in Los Angeles, we saw this played out in the Rampart Division of the city: given the mission of eradicating gang violence, all kinds of corrupt, yea fascist, practices were permitted as necessary means for attaining the given end. It seems that the UK has been watching "Training Day." With the news of the brutal execution/assassination of a tube passenger (5 shots, to the back of the head, while they had the "suspect" on the ground), London bobbies have put away their batons and opted for LAPD kind of tactics (quite apart from the Rampart "Crash Unit" in the late 90s, the LAPD also recent shot and killed an 18 month old baby in the arms of an admittedly armed criminal).

What is "security" worth? Is this an end we should even hope for?

Friday, July 08, 2005

America for Export: Hitchens on Thomas Jefferson

I think Christopher Hitchens is slipping.

That I came to his new book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, expecting a "line" is surely a sign that he is losing his independence. While he remains a "contrarian" voice, his contrariness is becoming more predictable and is almost taking on the flavor of a party line. In sum, I find less surprises from Hitchens anymore. And it's all because he seems to almost biologically recoil from anything remotely religious, especially "Islamo-fascism" (as he puts it)--though he seems less averse to the versions of Christian fasicism that traffic under the banner of "compassionate conservatism."

Of course, the conjunction of Hitchens and Jefferson warrants a reading, and readers will find Hitchens willing to paint an honest portrait of a fascinating figure. But despite his criticism of longstanding hagiographies, one gets a sense that Jefferson is let off the hook a bit too quickly on a few points. Indeed, having just finished Hitchens' Why Orwell Matters, I was surprised at the degree to which Hitchens was more suspicious and iconoclastic with respect to Orwell and more inclined to charitable, benefit-of-the-doubt interpretations when it came Jefferson (particularly on matters of slavery--if Jefferson "half-abominated" slavery, did he not also half-embrace it? One wonders if the latter significantly cancels out the rhetoric of the former). This seems especially true after having just emerged from Gore Vidal's less flattering account of Jefferson through the eyes of Aaron Burr (in Burr).

Hitchens' charity toward Jefferson stems, I would suggest, from a kind of apologetic project. As becomes clear in the book, Hitchens is looking to this "author" of America as a historical validation of his own endorsement of the Bush administration's unilateralism and neo-conservative foreign policy. This is coupled with Hitchens' sympathy with Jefferson's antipathy to institutional religion of any stripe. Both of these are combined in the opening pages where Hitchens notes that Jefferson "trenchantly restated the view that the American Revolution was founded on universal principles, and was thus emphatically for export. He laid renewed stress on the importance of science and innovation as the spur of Enlightenment, and scornfully contrasted this with more faith and credulity" (p. 3). That, in a nutshell, is the gist of why Jefferson matters today. Thus he ends on the same note (pp. 187-188).

This dual emphasis on exportation of the American experiment and anti-religious sentiment is crystallized in Hitchens' enlightening analysis of an oft-overlooked episode in American (or Western) history: The Barbary Wars. Their re-description today is charged with a sense of repetition: the scene involves rogue 'nations' (Algiers, Morocco, Tripoli) controlled by "Muslim autocracies" terrorizing the coasts and shipping lanes of Europe and, increasingly, the young American Republic. (Hitchens especially highlights the Barbary appeals to the Koran and what amounts to sharia law.) In the face of Barbary barbarism, Thomas Jefferson emerges (in Hitchens' tale) as the, well, 'resolute' cowboy who refuses tribute and commands the outfitting of a naval squadron. Faced with a Saddam-like nuisance in Yusuf Karamanli, Jefferson "coolly decided to take this latent delcaration of war at face value. He secured agreement from his cabinet on the dispatch of a squadron, and further determined not to trouble Congress with the matter" (p. 133). In short, Jefferson's decision was unilateral even from a domestic perspective (and quite likely illegal), but that all receives a wink and a nod from Mr. Hitchens because of the spectacular results: "Over the next four years, the Barbary coast was effectively 'pacified' by a unilateral American expedition. [...] In essence Jefferson's policy was an unalloyed triumph for peace, and the freedom of trade from blackmail, through the exercise of planned force" (133, 135). One almost wonders if Jefferson landed on the deck of the USS Constitution with a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished."

It's hard to tell whether we're getting Thomas Jefferson in George Bush's image, or vice versa. In either case, it seems that the price of Hitchens' being "right" about America's various current wars involves a loss of his independent streak--and hagiography by other means.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

It Only Hurts When I Laugh: Why "Harper's" Won't Change America

The May issue of Harper’s magazine is, as usual, a feast. But there is a distinct theme running through it: an almost apocalyptic collection of editorials and essays that chronicle the dangers of evangelical Christianity. From Lapham’s characteristic fundamentalism of the left, through Jeff Sharlett’s foray into the exurban world of Ted Haggard’s megachurch, to Chris Hedge’s hilarious and frightening tour of the National Religious Broadcasters conference. (One could also compare Bernard-Henri Lévy’s Tocquevillean tour in The Atlantic Monthly.) The writing is crisp and witty; the research is thorough and sometimes even charitable; this is just the kind of stuff that makes us shell out the cash for Harper’s, The Atlantic and other favorite cultural observers.

But I can’t stop thinking about Levi-Strauss. Indeed, periodicals are increasingly publishing pieces that I’ll call “Harper’s anthropology”—though you’ll also find it in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and other key media outlets. Just as Western anthropologists of generations past trudged through island jungles in search of the exotic “other” in “primitive” societies, so today journalists depart from the safety and civilization of Manhattan to the exotic environs of—Kansas! Or Oklahoma, or Florida, or Colorado Springs.

Not having seen middle Americans who believe actually believe in God, these journalists cum anthropologists are simultaneously awed, bewildered, fascinated, and frightened. Their articles read a bit like dispatches from strange lands. “I’ve been to red America,” they seem to say, “and it’s stranger and scarier than you could have imagined.”

One of the letters in the same issue of Harper’s astutely observes that this kind of “Harper’s anthropology” of middle America only serves to exacerbate the problem. It is just this tone that contributes to the martyr complex that comfortable, middle-class white folks feel in suburban Kansas City—and it is precisely this sense of victimhood which galvanizes the Religious Right.

Now, I’m the first one to enjoy the sardonic witticism of Harper’s anthropologists. (When Wells Tower went undercover as a grassroots volunteer for the Republican party in rural Florida, the result is an uproarious story. Who can forget his account of one of the Republican faithful dressed in a furry dolphin suit, invoking the name “Flipper” outside a Kerry appearance. Or his encounter with a Democrat protester who points to a carefully positioned Kerry/Edwards sticker and shouts to the young Republicans: “See this sticker? You know what’s under there? My penis, my homosexual penis!”)

And I remain convinced that many of these observations are right on the money—mainly because I’m an insider. I get the jokes because I live with this stuff. When, for instance, Sharlet describes “Commander Tom”’s maniacal commitment to the Royal Rangers (an Assemblies of God version of the Boy Scouts), I have a weird sense of laughing at myself since I, too, have seen the Frontiersmen Christian Fellowship at Royal Rangers Camperoos. My boys have worked their way through the ranks of Straight Arrows, Buckaroos, and Trailblazers. And Sharlet is right: there are parts of this that are downright spooky. Or when Hedges describes the creepy netherworld of Christian radio, with its holy dieting programs and violent anti-gay rhetoric, he rightly identifies a significant force that shapes the imaginations of many Christians who would describe themselves as “evangelical.”

But here’s the rub: I get the jokes because I’m an insider; but it’s precisely because I’m an insider that I know that Harper’s anthropologists aren’t going to change things. All-expenses-paid trips from New York to exotic locales like Colorado Springs will feed the alarmist stance of detached coastal regions, but these dispatches from the twilight zone of the Midwest aren’t going to change the hearts and minds that matter. They’re only going to contribute to the problem. If, as an evangelical, I am horrified by what I see played out under the banner of the Religious Right, I know that countering this won’t be accomplished by witty, sardonic editorials in my favorite magazines—not even witty, charitable editorials for Sightings! Rather, what it will take is a patient, charitable transformation of the evangelical imagination from the inside. And that can’t be done by visitors writing for Harper’s. It will take a long-term commitment to re-educating evangelical hearts and minds in the venue of denominational magazines like The Pentecostal Evangel or the CRC Banner—and perhaps even through the airwaves of—gasp!—Christian radio. That will be a calling, not for visiting anthropologists, but resident teachers.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Jim Wallis' Civil Religion Revisited: A Blog "Interview"

My earlier post on what I described as Jim Wallis' "Constantinianism of the left" has generated some thoughtful dissent. As a way of clarifying my critique and carrying the conversation further, bloggers Eric and Dale posed a few questions to me for an "interview" of sorts. Eric posted the interview on his blog. I'm mirroring it here. My thanks to them for pushing me on these matters a bit.

from ERICISRAD [17.6.2005]

[Intro by Eric:] A couple days ago on Thursday, I finished sitting in on a Radical Orthodoxy class taught by my pastor at PLNU. Even though I graduated three years ago with a degree in computer science, it's probably no surprise to readers of this blog that I have become increasingly interested in all matters theological. So, in this class, we read four books (mentioned here), and the first of these was Introducing Radical Orthodoxy (IRO) by James K. A. Smith. Knowing that we were about to read some dense (and oddly esoteric!) material, it was refreshing to begin the course by reading a well-written and challenging book to help map out the RO scene.

Not too long ago, I found this interview I posted with Jamie Smith concerning some general questions about Jamie, his interactions with RO, and what implications he thinks RO has for us as Christians. This lead me to his blog that was linked to at the bottom of the interview, where I found many insightful posts about this and that.

A few days later, my friend Dale on his Theoblogical blog found Jamie's blog through the link in the interview I posted not knowing it was Jamie's blog, and read a post that drew Dale's ire as it was criticizing Jim Wallis based on the language Wallis uses as he tours the country promoting his God's Politics book. I tended to agree with Jamie's criticism, but Dale did not and made a few posts in a kind of dialogue with Jamie's post. When I informed Dale that the Fors Clavigera blog was the same person as Jamie Smith, Dale changed perspective a bit (who could blame him-- there actually have been some really poor criticisms of Wallis from some bizarre viewpoints!). Due to my postings on IRO and the interview with Smith, Dale's interest was piqued and began reading IRO very soon to get a feel for RO in an effort to see just how much weight this criticism of Wallis by Smith really held up.

As is evidenced by the many insightful posts Dale made on the IRO book (mostly in agreement, actually!), Dale has been quite intrigued by Smith's mapping of RO. However, Dale's questioning of Jamie's critique persisted. So, I just figured it would be a good idea to get to the source and e-mail Jamie myself. Jamie agreed to answer a few questions, so I helped Dale craft a few about Wallis and IRO. Below is that e-mail conversation.

(My apologies for the above lengthy intro to the heart of this post, but I think it slightly helps readers to know how all this came about. It's been an interesting discussion thus far!)


Thank you for being open to this discussion with Dale and I. Yesterday, we crafted a few questions that we thought would help clarify your critique of Jim Wallis of Sojourners. All three of us have seen or met Jim Wallis in person on his latest book tour, and Dale has been following Wallis and the work of Sojourners for at least the last twenty years.

The questions below are in response to your blog post on Fors Clavigera called "Constantinianism on the Left?"

1. Pertaining to language, how DOES one speak truth to power without "ceding too much to the state" in such a way that they avoid being "statist" and still speak to the state, in what I would call "accessible" language so that the state can best be "called to task"? Is this even possible, or are we called to speak differently?

This way of putting the question still assumes a certain confidence and hope in the the state which I think is misplaced. I don't think it's a matter of calling the state "to task." I think it's more a matter of showing the state what it can never be: a properly ordered community lovingly aimed at bearing the image of the Triune God. The notion of speaking "to" the state with the hope that the state will "get" it works from a misplaced confidence that this is even possible. I don't deny that, on good liberal, capitalist grounds, one could perhaps convince "the state" to stop killing children in Iraq or Taiwan, but to consider that a "success" would be to adopt quite a utilitarian criteria.

This question seems to work from a picture of the church (or "Christians," as I think Wallis would put it--or maybe even just "people of faith") talking "to" the state with the hope of getting the state to agree with her/them. I'm just not sure that such a dialogue is either possible or desirable. In my more cynical moments, I think it's casting pearls before swine. The Church is NOT called to engage in some kind of apologetic project to "convince" the state to do "the right thing" (which the state, per se, could never properly recognize). Rather, the Church is called to model the kingdom for world, showing the world what it cannot be apart from the regenerating power of the Spirit. The Church should model the in-breaking of the kingdom to the state, but not with the mis-guided hopes that the state could enact this in federal policy.

2. How is it that Wallis ends up "humanist"? We understand your perception of the telos of Wallis' language (with which Dale is in disagreement), but into what particular definition of a "humanist" does this tie?

Grant that there was meant to be a certain rhetorical flourish in this description of Wallis as a "humanist." But what I meant by this was that Wallis, but trying to generically appeal to "values" (gag!) or "people of faith" was reducing the particularity of the Church's theological articulation of "the good" and thinks this can be translated into a generally available and accessible notion of "justice"--unhooked from the real particularities of Christian confession. This is why I describe his project as a "Constantinianism of the left"--Wallis is working with a covert natural theology: he thinks that the "core values" of biblical justice can be articulated, legitimated, and adopted apart from the particularies of Scriptural revelation and narrative. He thinks he can show that "biblical" justice just makes "good sense" to congressional representatives and voters. But this mitigates the scandal of particularity. I would prefer Milbank's formulation: "Can morality be Christian?" His answer is a resounding "No."

By the way, I think Eugene McCarraher's recent article in Books and Culture ("The Revolution Begins in the Pews," May/June 2005) articulates a similar critique of Wallis' God's Politics, especially when he suggests that the book is an "exemplary artifact of religious liberalism, the leftish and weaker variant of the civil religion" (p. 27). Those who lack imagination will think that this is a "conservative" judgment; it's not.

3. In light of your mention of Reformed Tradtion's Michael Horton saying that Turretin and Geerhardus Vos's "method is NOT bringing a prior philosophical construction to the Scriptures; rather, their method--- centered around covenant--- grows out of the narrative and canon of Scripture itself" (IRO 82-83), who is there who is really free of "prior philosophies" in coming to the Scriptures? (the opposite end of the pole being "natural reason"

I'm not entirely sure how this ties to the first couple questions, but in any case: That should have been qualified a little more--especially since I'm very critical of open theists who think they're purging themselves of "Greek metaphysical presuppositions" and just reading the Bible "as is." Such a notion is naive. But the point that Horton is trying to make is that, contrary to the common criticism of post-Reformation theology as "scholastic" and "rationalist"--letting some notion of universal reason trump the particularity of Scripture--in fact their method begins from the particularity of the Scriptural narrative and gives up on any notion of universal, rational legitimation. In other words, they begin from the kerygma, not some dream of first rationally justifying a foundation that can appeal to all.

Thanks for pushing me on these matters.

[Postscript by Eric:] And thank you, Jamie, for taking time out of your busy schedule to engage us in discussion and to help clarify a few things. I agree that the last question above doesn't really tie into questions about Wallis, but Dale wanted to take advantage of the "2-3" question criteria for which you allowed (heheh).

I highly recommend the article that Smith mentions above. I just read it today after his mention and it mirrors some of my own strong reservations about Wallis' "values" language.

Again, thank you Jamie for your thoughtful interaction with us.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Bush Redux: On How Not to Invite the President (or, Those Crazy Nazarenes!)

One of the default responses to President Bush's presence at Calvin was the passive reply, "Who could say 'No' to the President of the United States?" (Part of the fuzziness of the discussion here was the fact that, apparently, the White House has a practice of soliciting invitations. I guess one gets an elbow in the rib at a dinner party and a White House official let's it slip that, Hey, you know, the President wouldn't mind being invited to Calvin College (wink, wink). Then one extends an invitation--which means that one RSVPs to the invitation to extend an invitation.)

Anyway, in response to the question, I usually replied: "Well, I don't think Goshen College would have participated in the process or extended the invitation." But leave it to my Nazarene friends to provide a concrete case. A new friend and fellow traveller Pastor John Wright has just blogged about how the Nazarene General Assembly did just what folks here thought unthinkable: they 'dis-invited' the President (or, perhaps more properly, the declined the invitation to extend an invitation).

This almost makes up for James Dobson...

Sunday, May 29, 2005

A Commencement, A Wedding, and an Alternative Politics

As the President of the United States delivered the commencement address at my institutional home, Calvin College, I was celebrating a wedding with a young couple that my wife and I counseled during their engagement. Being on sabbatical excused me from attending, so I chose the wedding over the President’s visit. Because of this, I was confronted with questions on two fronts.

To astonished West Michiganders (while Michigan was colored a blue state in the last election, it’s western environs are a deep rouge), I had to admit that I was going to pass on this wonderful “honor” to be in the presence of the President. But to many of my equally disappointed colleagues, I also had to explain why I wasn’t there to wear an armband at the ceremony, and why I didn’t sign the faculty’s letter of protest which received national media attention. It was the latter group I found to be less charitable, calling into question my commitment to the vaulted Niebuhrian dream of “transforming culture.” One colleague even dug up the Reformed tradition’s oldest and vilest epithet, suggesting that I was acting like (gasp!) an “Anabaptist.”

But being at the wedding, I want to suggest, was a political act. (Of course, it was also a good time; but not that good: it was a Baptist wedding, so sans libations).

Let me backtrack a bit: as most now know, our campus was shaken from its West Michigan Republican slumber with the announcement that our commencement address would be delivered by the President of the United States. Almost immediately, all kinds of coalitions of dissent and protest began to form. Eventually amongst the faculty two dominant modes of engagement won out: a plan to wear symbolic armbands during the commencement, and an opportunity to sign an “open letter” to President Bush, articulating a critique of his own policies and a more constructive vision of politics seeking justice for all.

And then it slowly began to happen: the unfolding of a Seinfeld episode. You know the one: where Kramer participates in the AIDS walk but prefers not to wear a pink ribbon.

“What!?,” is the response. “Who won’t wear the ribbon? Why won’t you wear the ribbon? You’re against AIDS, aren’t you? Then why won’t you wear the ribbon?” Kramer collapses under the blows of other protesters.

I began to experience something similar: “Why won’t you sign the letter? Aren’t you opposed to Bush’s policies?” Yes, absolutely was my reply; but I also wasn’t comfortable with the articulation of an alternative which still, to my mind, was trying to play the game by the rules of a politics that wasn’t mine.

For instance, I couldn’t sign on to "respecting" (rather than simply “obeying” [Rom. 13]) the office of the President since I'm not sure that the executive branch has ever been a force for justice in the world. And quite to the contrary, this is the office of the Commander-in-Chief: the office that has, with the push of the proverbial “button,” rained untold suffering on many, from the horrendous bombings of Japan to Clinton's wag-the-dog war crimes in Sudan, not to mention the current Iraq war. So I just can’t bring myself to look on this “office” with too much respect. Nor could I sign on to the criticism of the Iraq war as “unjust” and “unjustified” because the letter, while purporting to speak from Christian confession, entertained that war could be just, which I don’t.

So, with a sense of respect for those undertaking this organized dissent, I politely declined participation, sent our RSVP to the wedding, and began to check the couples’ gift registry.

While I was prepared for brusk treatment from those on the Right, I wasn’t really prepared for the hegemonic response from my “progressive” sisters and brothers. Because of my (non)response—which they variously labeled as quietest, pietist, escapist, perfectionist, purist, Anabaptist, and sectarian—a number of my colleagues judged that I was either a cop-out or a sell-out. One was even happy to label my “silence” as evil. If you won’t wear the ribbon, if you won’t sign the letter, if you won’t wear the armband, you must be complicit with the system. By not signing the letter, I might as well have pushed the button on the cruise missiles that tragically shattered an Iraqi family’s wedding.

Being called evil is a bit hard to take—especially for someone who has been an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq (and war in general), as well as the injustices that are the fruit of capitalist systems for distributing resources, not to mention the maddening conflation of foreign policy with bastardized theology. But because I didn’t respond in the “right way,” because I wasn’t “participating in the political process,” I was remaining silent—silently evil.

Once I gathered my thoughts however, I responded with a question: Why would you conclude that because I’m not signing your letter that I’m being “silent?” Is there only one way to speak? If I don't do what you’re doing, does that mean I’m not doing anything?

A proper response in this situation must proceed from a careful diagnosis. And it is here that I think my progressive colleagues are a bit shortsighted. We need to first ask: Why was it that so many in Calvin’s constituency—and many other Christians in West Michigan—eagerly welcomed President Bush into a central ritual of our college community? Why is it that the Reformed cultural elite have come to so closely identify being faithful with being committed to a party that privileges the wealthy, is aggressively militaristic, and caters to the nouveau riche of late capitalism?

My answer would be both simple and complex: this represents a failure of discipleship. If we find the climate of highly-churched West Michigan to be so complicit with institutionalized social injustice, then we have no one to blame but ourselves. Clearly, our churches, far from forming us otherwise, are actually contributing to the formation of docile subjects of the GOP machine.

What, then, would be a fitting response? Armbands? A letter?

If the problem is a failure of discipleship, the only proper response must be a rigorous commitment to re-imagining Christian formation. The best response will be a matter of worship, not publicity. (And, in fact, I fear the “open letter” to President Bush only exacerbated the problem, galvanizing the constituency and confirming all their suspicions about “liberal” academics, losing a chance to really be heard by our constituency.)

So we went to the wedding. We participated in a liturgy of worship that, to some degree, had the goal of constituting a “peculiar people” whose politics is otherwise. And what I'll continue “doing” is try to reshape and re-educate the imagination of the church so that in time they will be formed as disciples who will immediately see the injustice of exploitive domestic policies and the utter inconsistency between Christian confession and militaristic foreign policy. I guess I'm taking a longer term view (which doesn’t play well with activist urgency). I’m also taking a stance of hopeful charity, trusting the possibility that the Spirit can change hearts and minds—even in West Michigan! (Such a miracle would be enough to make the staunchest Reformed folk entertain Pentecostal visions.)

And here I must confess that I don’t see many of my progressive sisters and brothers eager or willing to take up this hard, long work of discipleship and formation in the churches. Many of my colleagues who so loudly and publicly protested the Bush visit with their armbands and other declarations tend to inhabit ecclesial spaces where they’ll find many sympathetic to their political stance—and from there articulate their prophetic critique. But as Richard Mouw wisely counseled me several months ago, we need fewer prophets, and more teachers. Or as Klaas Schilder put it a half-century ago, in his own little book on Christ and Culture penned in the shadow of fascism:

"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. Let them mock him: they do not know what they are doing, those cultural gadabouts of the other side!"

So I’ll continue to see my adult Sunday School class or our Bible study group as political spaces where, slowly to be sure, disciples of Jesus are shaped by the politics of Jesus. This politics doesn’t play the game of party lines or state power, but rather seeks to form us otherwise—as those who desire a different kingdom and who serve a king-in-waiting.

A Europe "To Come"--or Not?

Last fall while I was working on my new book Jacques Derrida: Live Theory (Continuum, due to appear in the Live Theory series late this summer), I was most intrigued to go back to some of Derrida's thoughts on the "idea" of "Europe" offered back in the late 80s and early 90s, as the idea of the EU was coming together. There Derrida spoke of an "other Europe" and a "Europe open to the other" as a "Europe to come." (Recent waves of xenophobia across Europe would seem to indicate Europe, rather than opening itself to the other, has become fixated with shutting its doors.) There Derrida wondered aloud about the possibility of France's leadership in this new Europe.

So it is with some interest that I'm watching this week's key votes on the EU Constitution in France and the Netherlands, though I confess to not yet having formed any strong position on the matter. But for a very helpful entree into the Constitution, which utlizes web technology very well to highlight the points of debate, see the constitution feature created by Le Monde.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Galloway Redux

OK, having been just scolded by Gideon Strauss, and duly informed by Christopher Hitchens, let me qualify my "praise" for Galloway by noting that I was praising his no-holds-bar rhetorical approach to the dullness of the Senate subcommittee. I didn't mean to extol him as a moral saint. So, the re-cantation out of the way, I still wish we could import more British parliamentarian posturing into the mundane, monotome rambling of the senate and congress. Who wouldn't want to hear Galloway sustain a filibuster?!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

From Republic to Empire: The Fascism of the Sith

Just returned from taking the boys to see Revenge of the Sith. Pretty much all one could hope for (if you have realistic hopes), and more. The Buddhism of the series is clearly confirmed, but for me the most interesting line of development was the transformation of the Republic into an Empire--all in the name of peace and protection. The Emperor's "resolve" is for the sake of homeland security. Sound familiar?

Senator Amidala captures the irony of fascism's triumph: "So this is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause." Indeed.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

George Galloway: My (New) Hero

I first heard of George Galloway when we were living in Cambridge: he had become quite notorious as a renegade (now ex-)Labor MP, deeply critical of Blair and the Iraq War. The Sunday Times Magazine did a feature spread on him that was fascinating, though not altogether charitable. His (voluntary) appearance before a Senate subcommittee brought some of his blistering rhetoric stateside, bringing with it a taste of British parliamentary debate that I deeply miss. [Be sure to watch the video if you can.]

The BBC has culled some choice quotes from Galloway's testimony. My favorite:

"I have met Saddam Hussein exactly the same number of times as Donald Rumsfeld met him. The difference is that Donald Rumsfeld met him to sell him guns and to give him maps the better to target those guns."

Washington doesn't know what to do with this strange, truth-telling beast.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Blame Carter

Much ink has been spilt on the supposedly new emergence of imperial aims in American foreign policy, including jeremiads about how everything has changed post-9/11. In a sweeping essay in the Wilson Quarterly ("The Real World War IV")--something of a precis to his new book, The New American Militarism--Andrew Bacevich carefully demonstrates thst American foreign policy, with respect to the middle east, really hasn't changed since the twilight of the Carter administration. Bacevich suggests two key factors that contributed to the current excesses of "American militarism":

First, American militarism isn't all that "new": ever since Vietnam, he suggests, Americans--on both left and right--have been infatuated with American military might. "Militarism insinuated itself into American life."

But second, one can see a kind of chemical reaction between this deepening militarism with respect to foreign policy and a very particular domestic interest: preserving the "American dream." This "American way of life" revolves around automobiles, and so one of the most important elements required to maintain this culture is perpetual access to cheap oil. So if we want to understand "the rising tide of American bellicosity that culminated in March 2003," Bacevich remarks, "we must look as well to national interests and, indeed, to the utlimate U.S. interest, which is the removal of any obstacles or encumbrances that might hinder the American people in their pursuit of happiness."

Ironically, the first "villain" in this narrative is not one of many hawkish Republicans, but the timid southern evangelical, Jimmy Carter. Though Carter also represents a missed opportunity.

On July 15, 1979, Carter--seeing that American's increased addiction to foreign oil [at the time the US imported 43% of it's oil; today it's 56%]--delivered a national address that offered an almost prophetic critique of American consumption. Americans, he warned, had come to worship self-indulgent consumption of material goods as the way to define themselves. This, he suggested, stemmed from a "mistaken idea of freedom" understood merely as self-interest, to which he contrasted a "true freedom" which sought "the path of common purpose" and mitigated self-interested hoarding of resources. And then he uttered a notion that was--and very much is--a taboo for the "American way of life": he told American's that they must make sacrifices. He called on Americans to restrict their use of energy resources, to park their cars one day a week, to pursue alternative sources of energy, and to just generally put a cap on their consumption.

The message landed like a lead balloon, and within just a few months, fighting for his political life, Carter made an about-face and articulated what would come to be known as the "Carter Doctrine": “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region,” he declared, “will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

It was Jimmy Carter, then, who declared World War IV. And it seems that any who disagree with the current rendition of American militarism in the middle east can only excuse themselves if they also reject the Carter Doctrine. But that, of course, will require a people who are willing to forego a culture of consumption. I'm not too hopeful that "America" is very interested in that. But it might be that within America we could find new monastic communities with the resources and will to do so.

Friday, May 13, 2005

This Historian Should Pay More Attention to the Present

Yale historian Donald Kagan delivered the NEH's Jefferson Lectures last night in Washington. Undertaking a rant against postmodern "theory" and seeking to reclaim the Enlightenment dream of objectivity, Kagan argued that history was the discipline best poised for this reclamation project. As the Chronicle reports:

'Mr. Kagan also defended his view of history as "Queen of the Humanities, standing between and slightly above her noble handmaidens, the muses of literature and philosophy," against the claims made by last year's Jefferson lecturer, Helen Vendler, a poetry critic and professor at Harvard University.

Ms. Vendler's 2004 lecture took the view that education in the humanities should focus on language, literature, and the arts, rather than on history and philosophy (The Chronicle, May 7, 2004). Mr. Kagan disagreed, noting that in the "modern world," where the influence of "religion and the traditions based upon it" has faded, "the need for a sound base for moral judgments has not."'

The influence of religion and tradition has "faded" in the modern world? Is Kagan so lost in the archives looking for that elusive objectivity that he can't find time to read today's newspapers?! If this is the kind of astute analysis that her majesty History has to offer, then I think her reign is a blind one. While Kagan perhaps captures the spirit of Jefferson, it is just such blind commitment to Enlightenment dreams of secularism (which promised religion would wither away) that blocks any real progress on dealing with the wide impact of religion and traditon across the globe. Mr. Kagan would do well to pay a little more attention to the present.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Constantinianism of the Left?

Jim Wallis' book tour for God's Politics made a stop at Calvin College last night. His presentation was disappointing (alot of slogan-mongering), but it was really his position that was disappointing. Though not surprising, I must say; I'm glad to have gone, if only to confirm my suspicions. There are a couple of areas in which Wallis either gets it wrong, or doesn't get it:

1. I would describe Wallis' position as a kind of Constantinianism of the left. While he's not out to establish a theocracy governed by a leftish god, his position is nevertheless deeply "statist." In Dan Bell's terms, he still believes in statecraft. What was most telling, I thought, was for all his talk about faith, and even "evangelicalism," last night, I don't know that he ever once mentioned _the Church_! Instead, he'll focus on "people of faith" getting out the vote, lobbying congress, and doing everything they can to marshall the political process to effect prophetic justice. But that kind of picture plays right into the hands not only of American liberal individualism, but also the deep anti-ecclesial individualism of evangelicalism. In contrast, I think the only hope for justice is a robust church, which requires an ecclesiological account of the formation of disciples. Wallis seems to think a good "moral" civics lesson is enough. Indeed, at the end of the day, he thinks that democracy trumps the Church, for as he put it (yes, this is a direct quote): "Religion must be disciplined by democracy."

2. I couldn't help but concluding that, whatever Wallis' earlier stance might have been, he's really just ended up as a humanist. The talk last night was riddled with talk of "values"--which is just the code word for some kind of vague, supposedly common American moral vision. So there's all kind of bluster about morals, faith, religion, and "values," but this is all aimed at the end of just creating a kinder, compassionate American civil theology.

Instead of Wallis' leftish civil theology, I'll continue to believe that our most important political action remains the act of discipleship through worship.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Idolatry of Tax Cuts

Michigan and Grand Rapids are in bad shape. With thousands of jobs leaving the state, and decreasing tax revenues, every level of government has been hit in the state--and often the worst effects seem to trickle down to municipalities (though the trickle is more like a downpour, gaining steam from Washington on down!). The City of Grand Rapids faces a $35 million dollar shortfall and has to contemplate closing parks and pools to scrimp and save (though such drastic attacks on quality of life will barely make a dent on the deficit). And the Grand Rapids Public School board faces an $18 million dollar shortfall. Desperate times.

Of course, there is a solution to all of this, but it can never be uttered in our current, still-post-Reagan climate (a climate that Clinton only fostered, by the way, and which W. has run with): we could increase taxes, and specifically, we could increase taxes for the wealthiest elite in our state (there's no shortage of them). The problem, of course, is that it's generally that same group/class who make it to Lansing. Uttering the words "tax increase" in West Michigan is tantamount to treason (it might actually be worse than treason for Besty DeVos).

So I was quite intrigued this morning by a story on NPR about Indiana's Republican governor (and former Bush budget advisor), Mitch Daniels. While elected on the now universal promise of tax cuts (geez, not even the fricking Democrats will talk about raising taxes!), Daniels' experience of revenue shortfalls has got him singing a different tune, asking for--if you can believe--a TAX INCREASE. And not only that, he's asking for a specific tax increase ON THE RICH (rather than the ridiculous schemes promoted in Michigan to increase the sales tax, which is really just a way of disproportionately taxing the poor). Daniels has requested what to any charitable Martian must sound eminently reasonable: a 1-year, 1% tax increase on the income of those who make OVER $100,000. As you can imagine, the idea landed like a lead balloon.

Interestingly, Daniels tried to make the case for this by invoking the analogy of an old-fashioned barn-raising where a community, together, out of a concern for the common good, each plays a part and does that they can to help achieve a stated goal (raising a barn). This is often seen as a snapshot of communal affirmation of a commmon good. The problem is, the metaphor--and the very idea itself--assumes something that has been consistently eroded in this country since Reagan: a spirit of altruistic, disinterested concern for my neighbor and a commitment to a good that is greater than my own self-interest. In short, the barn-raising project requires a community of people who have been formed to not put their own interest first, to care about the whole more than the part. In short, it assumes a social system of "cooperation" as sketched by John Ruskin, F.D. Maurice and others--an understanding of cooperative social arrangements that runs counter to the competitive arrangements needed by and produced by capitalism. But even since Bush the Senior uttered "It's YOUR money," any hope of such a cooperative framework has been steadily eroded. Hell, not even the CHURCH forms people to care about others any more! Indeed, the most vociferous opponents of tax increases in Michigan are all of the Vandersomething Republicans who dutifully attend their so-called "Reformed" churches every Sunday.

But could it be that the Gospel of incessant tax cuts (especially for the rich) is, in fact, another Gospel? This diabolical message has nothing to do with the vision of Jesus who came preaching liberation for captives, healing for the sick, justice for the poor--and yes, tax increases for the rich.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Elections don't entail Democracy

A recent article by Nir Rosen in Harper's points out the flawed, populist notion of democracy embraced by the Bush administration. In "After the Election: Iraq's democratic preamble to civil war" (April 2005, pp. 71-74), Rosen shows that the White House's fetishization of elections is incredibly naive. The administration pressed for "free" elections in Afghanistan and Iraq as proof that democracy had emerged in the region, but as Rosen concisely notes: "elections are the result of democracy, not the catalyst for it." And in fact, the fetishization of elections (and the subsequent "branding" of purple-inked fingers as symbols of "freedom") actually meant that the elections were conducted under some of the most un-democratic conditions one could imagine, including paid "reporters," ballots without names, restriction of free speech, and above all, the continued climate of terror and fear. Rosen thinks that this sham of an election is actually a prelude to civil war. All the White House can see is their supposed triumph in all those purple fingers.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

"American Catholics": American, or Catholic?

It was only a matter of time: with the election of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, news outlets from NPR to the New York Times were quick to divine the response of so-called “American Catholics.” The trickle of laments so far (Jack Miles, Charles Curran, and Jesuits everywhere) is sure to be followed by a torrent of jeremiads over the next several weeks from the usual suspects (Peter Steinfels, Gary Wills, et. al.) who will bemoan the fact that the cardinals chose a Pope who, of all things, endorses the teaching of Church. (This happens even as other American neocons like Michael Novak and Richard John Neuhaus are eager to paint Benedict XVI as the Pope of the free market.)
But the apoplexy of these “American Catholics” is not the sort of response you’ll find in the Pulaski Square or Burton Heights neighborhoods in Grand Rapids. Nor will you find such weeping and gnashing of teeth amongst those worshipping in the basilica in Dyersville, IA—or even in the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles, where immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala greet the news of Benedict XVI with joy. No, for the opinions of these so-called “American Catholics” you’ll have to make your way to the halls of east coast Jesuit universities and New York editorial offices.
So the notion that these New York and Washington intellectuals represent “American Catholics” is a gross overstatement and misnomer. (Sometimes the label is more specific and rightly indicates that these are the opinions of “liberal Catholics.”) Many Americans who are Catholic—not too mention the Catholic faithful in Latin America and Africa—won’t find the election of Cardinal Ratzinger the least disturbing or surprising. In fact, they will eagerly look to Pope Benedict XVI as shepherd of the flock.
Why the difference of response? Why does Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as Pope generate such despair among “American Catholics,” and yet is welcomed by many Catholics who live in the United States?
I think it has something to do with how you conjoin the terms. The so-called “American Catholics” want a church that conforms to the sensibilities of American liberalism: personal freedom and autonomy, a rejection of authority, a disparaging of tradition, and an expanding “private” sphere that let’s us do what we want. The Church is great, they’ll say, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of us pursuing our version of the American dream.
But that is precisely to miss what it means to be Catholic—indeed, what it means to be a Christian. The way of the cross is not the way of self-invention and private fulfillment. It is the way of discipleship. And discipleship requires learning to subject one’s desires and interests to God’s authority. As we see in Mary, the first disciple, to follow Jesus means learning to say, “Let it be.” In this respect we must recognize, as Pope John Paul II argued, that there is a deep antithesis between liberalism and Catholicism. The fact that Pope Benedict XVI agrees with this only indicates that he affirms the centuries old tradition of the faith. Should we really be surprised that the Cardinals elected a Pope who affirms the faith?

The chorus of “American Catholics” want a church without discipleship. I expect Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy will force them to be honest and choose between being American liberals and being Catholic.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Pope John Paul II: A Reformed Appreciation

The passing of Pope John Paul II into eternal life is not only a loss for the Catholic church; it is a loss for Christians of all traditions and confessions. Indeed, though I trace my confessional identity to the Reformation protest against “Rome,” it was John Paul II who reminded me that to be Christian is to be catholic.
Pope John Paul II articulated what papal biographer George Weigel describes as “the catholic difference;” that is, the Pope unapologetically asserted that to confess Jesus is Lord is to see the whole world differently. The Pope’s vision of catholicism, in other words, is what Weigel calls an “optic:” “a way of seeing things, a distinct perception of reality” that made a difference. But this was a catholic difference: on the one hand, this vision was generous and ecumenical, such that Christians from across traditions and around the globe could join together to proclaim the Gospel to the modern world. It is no surprise, then, that Pope John Paul II was committed to reconciliation, overseeing the most comprehensive commitment to religious dialogue in the history of the Vatican–including fruitful dialogue between Rome and the churches of the Reformation. (This passion was articulated in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint.) On the other hand, this catholic vision was different. The Gospel proclaims that the whole world belongs to God, and that this makes a difference: for the way we think about justice, economic distribution, our relation to material goods, human relationships and bodies, and even how we think about suffering. So the Pope was also unabashed in his assertion of this difference, never shy to articulate a prophetic critique of what he saw as the creeping “culture of death” taking hold of the modern world, whether in the oppressive form of Communism which he helped topple, or in the form of America’s persistent use of the death penalty and unjust military interventions. The Pope’s prophetic vision of the Gospel’s impact on every sphere of life helped those of us who are Reformed to be reminded that ours is a catholic vision.
The Pope’s vision will forever be known as one committed to the “culture of life” as opposed to the culture of death. Unlike the simplistic versions of this bandied about in American party politics, Pope John Paul II left us with a rich philosophical and theological articulation of this moral vision in encyclicals such as Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. At the heart of this was a theology of the body that could affirm all the goods of embodiment, from the arts to sexuality, in a way that avoided the puritanical gnosticism of much of evangelicalism. And in his final years the Pope modeled for us a profound theology of suffering, trying to show a modern world that, despite all our pretensions to mastery and control, that there is redemption to be found by living out of control, and receiving grace from a God of great gifts.
Christians of all confessions, and perhaps especially Christians from the so-called “Reformed” churches, should take time this week to give thanks to our giving God for the gift of John Paul II. We would do well to learn to see the world through the optic of “the catholic difference.”

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

The Apocalypse Cometh

The NYT has reported that Bush will propose Wolfowitz as the New World Bank President.

What was the number of the beast, again?

Our Orwellian Universe

Today NYT editorial, "Counterfeit News," points back to a disturbing article from a few days ago: "Under Bush, a New Age of Pre-packaged News." The article documents the extent to which the White House and over 20 federal agencies spent millions of dollars to produced "video news releases" which are clearly intended to appear as authentic news reports. (This is on top of the White House's employment of paid pundits to author columns in favor of their policies, or planting reporters in the White House press room to toss softball questions to W.) These visual propoganda leaflets were regularly picked up by local news stations and broadcast "as is," without any qualifiers or provisos. The article is really a must read.

The editorial rightly distributes blame here: certainly these federal agencies are at fault, but the Times says blame equally lies on the shoulders of those news outlets which employed the videos. We should also qualify this carefully by noting that the same practice was used under the Clinton administration, though it has been expanded under Bush.

The temptation of these moralistic criticisms, however, is to imagine that apart from these artifacts of federal propoganda, we are the gifted recipients of "real" news. In a culture where the major networks and news outlets are controlled by massive market interests, let's not kid ourselves. This came home to me during our sojourn in Cambridge: for those who restrict themselves to mainstream American news sources--and I'm not talking about FOX, but ABC, NBC, even the NYT--the foreign media can constitute nothing short of a revelation. These latest revelations only confirm David Domke's analysis of the press's complicity with the White House's "political fundamentalism."

Launch: Welcome to 1984

I have been contemplating launching a blog of this sort for a while. A piece in the New York Times finally convinced me to follow through (see next post). Unlike my other blog, which has basically become something between an annotated bibliography and a collection of book reviews, I hope this blog will offer my off-the-cuff thoughts relating to contemporary politics, foreign policy, culture--and the Church's relation to all of this.

The title, "Fors Clavigera," comes from one of my heroes, John Ruskin, who published a series of monthly letters under this title from 1870-1878, and then more randomly from 1880-1884. The letters, as the subtitle indicated, were addressed "to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain." Their polemic contained, in occasional form, the core of Ruskin's social vision for community founded on participation rather than competition--part of what was more broadly described as "Christian socialism." Ruskin was driven to this work, from his more theoretical labors at Oxford, out of a sense that he couldn't live with himself if he didn't do something. Indeed, as his editor puts it, Fors Clavigera was the payment of a ransom: an effort to secure some peace for his conscience amidst all the "material distress" he saw in the culture surrounding him.

It is the occasional, from-the-hip nature of Ruskin's Fors that seems especially fitting for a blog; indeed, we might suggest that Ruskin's monthly letters constituted a proto-blog. Rather than seeking to write a "system," as he put it, he chose the title Fors "to indicate the desultory and accidental character of the work." It was a space in which he could discuss "any matter which chanced to interest him."

This humble little Fors is undertaken in the spirit of Ruskin, who was--for the sake of conscience--driven to articulate a critique of the social dysfunction that surrounded him which, of course, can take many forms. Today, at this moment, I can't help having a deep sense that we are surrounded by the fascism of various empires: political, ecclesiastical, consumer, and media.