Tuesday, May 29, 2007

You know things are bad when you start agreeing with David Brooks...

I'm a tad alarmed at how often I now find myself agreeing with David Brooks. He offers a nice apologia for the "quasi-religious," who inhabit a world between Pat Robertson and Richard Dawkins. He ends a recent column with this nice credo:

Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with “God is Not Great.” Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.”

More on Hitchens; and More Chalmers Johnson on America Empire

Two pieces this morning that deserve wide attention:
  1. Jacques Berlinbau (author of The Secular Bible) has penned a stinging critique of Hitchens' God is Not Good in the Chronicle of Higher Education. What makes it interesting is that Berlinbau is a committed, nuanced, and articulate secularist.
  2. Jonathan Freedland's piece, "Bush's Amazing Achievement" in the most recent New York Review of Books. The "amazing achievement" is how the disastrous effects of Bush Jr.'s foreign policy has brought about the strange world in which both WTO protesters on the street and foreign policy wonks inside the Beltway are all agreed: the neocon project for a "New American Century" is bad news (what we might call a dis-angelion, to play with the New Testament language for "good news"). On this, both Noam Chomsky and the editors of The National Review seem to be agreed. Of particular interest is Freedland's attention to Chalmers Johnson's new book, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Glitch re: Hitch

OK, OK: some readers took the time to point out to me that Hitchens' God is Not Great has indeed received some mainstream press (which I hadn't seen yet since I'd been in England). But Michael Kinsley's review in the New York Times borders on being sychophantic, and certainly lets Hitchens' off the hook. (Kinsley talks about how "logical" the book is. That is a stretch; it might be "syllogistic," but any student in a decent logic or critical thinking class could slice through Hitchens' smokescreen.)

More interesting is Stephen Prothero's review in The Washington Post. Prothero, I think, hits the nail on the head:

Hitchens claims that some of his best friends are believers. If so, he doesn't know much about his best friends. He writes about religious people the way northern racists used to talk about "Negroes" -- with feigned knowing and a sneer. God Is Not Great assumes a childish definition of religion and then criticizes religious people for believing such foolery. But it is Hitchens who is the naïf. To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition, that ordinary Hindus view masturbation as an offense against Krishna, and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis. It is to believe that faith is always blind and rituals always empty -- that there is no difference between taking communion and drinking the Kool-Aid (a beverage Hitchens feels compelled to mention no fewer than three times).

If this is religion, then by all means we should have less of it. But the only people who believe that religion is about believing blindly in a God who blesses and curses on demand and sees science and reason as spawns of Satan are unlettered fundamentalists and their atheistic doppelgangers. Hitchens describes the religious mind as "literal and limited" and the atheistic mind as "ironic and inquiring." Readers with any sense of irony -- and here I do not exclude believers -- will be surprised to see how little inquiring Hitchens has done and how limited and literal is his own ill-prepared reduction of religion.

Christopher Hitchens is a brilliant man, and there is no living journalist I more enjoy reading. But I have never encountered a book whose author is so fundamentally unacquainted with its subject. In the end, this maddeningly dogmatic book does little more than illustrate one of Hitchens's pet themes -- the ability of dogma to put reason to sleep.
Finally, using the word "slumming" to describe Hitchens' engagements with Olasky and Wilson was perhaps a bit strong (chalk it up to jet lag?). Mea culpa. However, I still think these are basically un-interesting engagments. They have a feeling of disproportionality about them (another favorite military strategy of the Bush administration, which Hitch seems to love so much--though one does wonder whether God is Not Great might decrease his number of stays in the Lincoln bedroom). I've no doubt that Olasky and Wilson are sharp fellows. What I'm surprised by is the fact that Hitchens finds time to engage rather marginal voices (less so with Olasky, admittedly).

And despite Hitchens' slide here (why do so many "public intellectuals" become so incredibly stupid when it comes to religion? If I spoke about "science" or "liberalism" the way they talk about religion, I'd be laughed off the page), I continue to remain a somewhat guilty admirer of his snarky arrogance.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Hitchens' Decline

I think Christopher Hitchens must have serious debts to pay. Why, otherwise, would he be spending so much time and energy "slumming" it with a no-name like Douglas Wilson or 'debating' someone like Marvin Olasky (editor of the embarassing newsweekly World)? I guess since the mainstream press hasn't really paid attention to God Is Not Great, Hitch has time on his hands. But seriously...

These engagements with the fringe are snoozers. How about Hitchens and Cornel West? Or Hitchens toe-to-toe with Rowan Williams? Or even Jeff Stout? Methinks Hitchens is picking safe targets (a trick he learned from his friend, W, I guess).

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Pope in Brazil: Liberation Theology Revisited

Kudos to the New York Times for trying to tackle theology with Larry Rohter's story today about the Pope's visit to Brazil (just a month after a major New York Times Magazine article on Benedict XVI). However, the story is an indication of how hard it is to appreciate the nuance of theological debate in a journalistic venue. To that end, I sent the following letter to the NYT (which, of course, will never see the light of day, alas...)
To the Editor:

While Rohter should be commended for tackling a properly theological debate in relation to Benedict XVI's visit to Brazil, the account confirms the difficulty of appreciating the nuance of such debates. The story has an air of false dichotomy about it, or at least over-simplification. We have liberation theologians who care about the proletarian poor on the left, and the magisterium allied with capitalist oppressors on the right--as if Ratzinger was just the religious PR voice for the American Enterprise Institute (putting Michael Novak out of a job!).

But such a picture misses the nuance of Benedict's critique (which is more nuanced than John Paul II's). It is not a question of whether to be concerned with the poor or the "working class"--a long legacy of papal encyclicals already articulates this. The issue is whether "statecraft" is the proper vehicle for dealing with this injustice. Because liberation theology too easily accepts the logic and machinations of "secular" statecraft, and because the Pope articulates a trenchant critique of secularity, one could suggest that Benedict is critical of liberation theology precisely because it's critique of oppression is not radical enough.

James K.A. Smith

Required reading here is Daniel Bell, Liberation Theology After the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering.