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...