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.