Sunday, November 30, 2008

Lest We Forget: On NOT Picturing the War in Iraq

This month's Vanity Fair has an informative article by Seth Mnookin on the New York Times bureau in Iraq. The Times is one of the few news outlets with a substantial presence to report the war (CBS news, for instance, has no full-time correspondent in Iraq), at a substantial cost. I found Mnookin's observation about photography to be particularly interesting and unsettling:
In the past several years, the military has used its ability to refuse to accept reporters on embeds as a way of controlling what images come out of Iraq. One example of this occurred over the summer, when a credentialed photographer who posted pictures of dead American soldiers on his Web site was told he could no longer work in areas of the country controlled by U.S. Marines, even though his work had not violated any of the coalition forces’ official rules for media members. A recent Times story found that, five years into a war that has resulted in more than 4,000 American combat fatalities, fewer than a half-dozen graphic images of dead American military personnel have been published.

Canada: The Movie

From Vanity Fair: "Not to be outdone by its colonial cousin Australia, the Commonwealth of Canada has commissioned its own 300-minute tentpole, starring Alanis Morissette and Dan Aykroyd as lovers divided by language, ideology, and the great Molson-Labatt debate." Read the rest.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Fish on Academic Freedom, Again

Stanley Fish's most recent column on academic freedom is worth a read, even if one might not agree with him. The hook is a new book by Finkin & Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (Yale, 2009). The authors first distinguish between academic freedom and the sort of freedom secured by the First Amendment. As Fish summarizes,
“We argue that the concept of Academic freedom . . . differs fundamentally from the individual First Amendment rights that present themselves so vividly to the contemporary mind.” The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are “grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes.”
That seems clearly true to me, and explains alot of confusion about academic freedom. (It seems to me that the AAUP is unable to make this distinction.)

However, Fish (and the authors?) seem to then assume that "higher education" is a rather monolithic phenomeon. Or, to put it otherwise: the authors rightly ground academic freedom "in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education." They then define the mission or purpose of "the" university as the generation of new knowledge and the modeling of "independent thought." As Fish summarizes,
If the mission of the enterprise is, as Finkin and Post say, “to promote new knowledge and model independent thought,” the “special conditions” necessary to the realization of that mission must include protection from the forces and influences that would subvert newness and independence by either anointing or demonizing avenues of inquiry in advance.
Threats to academic freedom, on this account, include any "forces" that would mitigate this mission and subject it to the strictures of "public opinion." But this does not secure the freedom for professors to say just anything (e.g., to hijack a class on organic chemistry with rants about the war in Iraq or Prop 8 in California).

But on this point I find two interesting lacunas in the discussion: First, Finkin and Post's definition of the university's "mission" seems to exhibit a couple of tensions. On the one hand, the mission seems largely defined by research, whereas Fish's examples tend to focus on the classroom. Finkin and Post's definition of "the enterprise" focuses on the generation of new knowledge and seems to have little room, or at least little account, of the centrality of an education. Second, when this "enterprise" does include education, it's reduced to the liberal mantra of modeling "independent thought," in which case it seems that we're right back in the terrain of First-Amendment-like ideals of autonomy and freedom (often couched in the ruse that we are teaching students how to think not what to think; alot of partisan ranting gets smuggled into the classroom under the guise of "critical thinking"). Thus Fish praises the book because it "declares that while faculty must 'respect students as persons,' they are under no obligation to respect the 'ideas held by students.'" That might sound like its tweaking the student-centered, liberal ruse, but at the end of the day what it still can't entertain is this radical notion: that education might only be an education insofar as it constitutes a formation. (Indeed, one of the things the other Stanley [Hauerwas] emphasizes throughout The State of the University is that an education can't not be formation; the question is, formation to what end?]

Second, can Fish--and Finkin and Post--imagine a multiplicity of kinds of institutions of higher education? They seem to assume there is this thing called "the university"--which has multiple outposts or branches across the country--and all of those microcosmic instantiations of "the university" participate in this definition of "the enterprise." But might there be institutions of higher education that, in fact, embrace the project of education as formation, as inculcation into a tradition and its imagination, precisely as the ground for 'critical thinking?' (Every "critique" presumes some criteria.) Might there be universities which, suspicious of the empty ruse of "independent thought," are honest and up front about their enterprise as educating a people toward a substantive telos, a particular vision of the good life? Couldn't we imagine universities that acknowledge the traditioned nature of all our inquiry, and which seek to generate new knowledge, but do so in accordance with the rigors and "thickness" of an acknowledged tradition--a tradition which is not seen as restrictive and limiting, but rather which opens up the world for us? And wouldn't that be exactly the mission and "enterprise" of Christian and Catholic universities? Otherwise, why should they exist?

Finkin and Post suggest that our understandings of "academic freedom" must be grounded in a "substantive account of the purposes of higher education." I agree; I think we just need to acknowledge that there is not one set of purposes that define higher education as such. What counts as higher education, and what defines the task of higher education, is itself contested and multiple. Different institutions will have different understandings of that mission and enterprise. Academic freedom at the Christian university will be grounded in the articulation of the purpose of the Christian university. Within that mission and task, we will still prize "academic freedom," but it will be a bounded freedom (in good Augustinian fashion). The "boundaries," however, should not be subject to the whims of "public opinion," even public opinion within the church. For instance, it should not be subject to the hobby horses of trustees or presidents or "concerned parents." Academic freedom should flourish within the bounds of "Catholic" Christianity--defined by the thickness and time-tested-ness of the creedal and confessional tradition, not the current whims of radio preachers or talk-radio pundits.

Such an account cuts both ways; that is, such a model is an equal opportunity offender, because it resists the whims of both the left and the right. For instance, I find trustees and "concerned parents" often get hooked on hobby-horse issues that reflect current neo-conservative fixations (e.g., homosexuality, free markets, or [still!] creation/evolution). On the other hand, I find my more predictably "liberal" colleagues--even at a Christian university--tend to be easily co-opted into the agendas of (what passes for) the left in this country, and basically end up assuming, and even fighting for, a classically liberal notion of "autonomy" (which is why these professors, even though they're at a Christian or Catholic university, are largely allergic to the notion the notion of education as formation).

But now imagine that we're thinking about a Christian university community whose 'boundaries' (and hence horizons of possibility) are defined not by some 20th-century "Statement of Faith" abopted from a radio evangelistic ministry, but rather the Scriptures and historic creeds and confessions of the church (Apostles' Creed, Nicea, Chalcedon). In fact, imagine such a Christian university bound itself to confessions that included historical Reformational documents as well (say, something like the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort). Then this university would situate itself in the thickness of a tradition that ranges from the first to sixteenth century. The "tradition" that informs its mission and task is catholic and thickly specified, and provides an untold wealth of resources for thinking about and grappling with the world--a generous platform to launch rigorous programs for generating new knowledge from within these horizons of possibility--even to generate knowledge and discover things about the world to which the so-called "secular" university would remain blind (which is precisely why I think this tradition is enabling, not 'limiting' or constrictive).

Well, what would this mean for either the conservative trustees or the 'liberal' professors? It turns out that "the tradition" undercuts both. On the one hand, the conservative trustees and "concerned parents" will be hard-pressed to find their hobby-horses making a run in the tradition. Further, it should be noted that many of the conservative trustees and "concerned parents," who often seem quite commited to the laissez-faire ideals of the "free" market will find that this tradition also constitutes a radical critique of the notion of "freedom" operative in said market. On the other hand, the 'liberal' professors who just assume autonomy as an ideal will find that the tradition's understanding of freedom constitutes a radical critique of the quasi-Enlightenment models they've assumed.

What we will find in this tradition, however, is a thick sense of who we are called to be as human beings re-created in the image of God, which provides a rich foundation for imagining the shape of an education that constitutes the formation of a people who desire the kingdom.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Desiring the Kingdom" Cover

I'm very pleased with the cover for Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009). The art & design folks at Baker Publishing Group are very receptive to suggestions and invite my input on most projects--and then always pull together a clean, pleasing design.

I'm particularly thrilled with the fact that we'll be able to use this image. This is a tapestry in the Quest for the Holy Grail cycle by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. Volumes 2 and 3 in the trilogy will also include images from this cycle. I think the pieces are stunning. In fact, I made a pilgrimmage to the Birmingham Museum this past spring to try to see them in person, but they are kept in very controlled storage. The colors and detail are sumptuous and the theme of the "kingdom" runs through them with a sense of enchantment. I hope the book does something similar.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Just for Fun

I remember when my daughter, Maddie, took this picture--in the field beside a farmhouse we stayed at in northern Italy. I just think it's such a cool shot. She added the text for her website, I think.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

"Speed Racer," Common Grace, and "Progress"

Last night my boys and I watched the Wachowski brothers' latest offering, Speed Racer. I quite enjoyed their (perhaps indulgent?) visual forays, variously hovering between surreal and camp. (I confess to also kind of enjoying the cheap chimpanzee comedy shtick.) But I also found myself strangely intrigued by a melodramatic, almost cliche line uttered by Racer X to Speed:
"It doesn't matter if racing never changes. What matters is if racing changes us."
The context is the corporate corruption of the WRL, which is rife and systemic. It has always been this way, and Speed despairs that it might always be. And it's not clear that winning within the system will really change the system. But at the same time, X and Speed both have a compulsion to race, and that compulsion can only work itself out within the system. (One might say that the corrupt system owns all the tracks.) So given that context and compulsion, the question becomes an issue of assimmilation: "What matters is if racing changes us." Now, granted, this could sound like a kind of Stoicism. But I don't think it is, because Speed and the entire family are trying to imagine racing otherwise--and are trying to embody a different kind of team, and different kind of racing, and different kind of practice within the corporate system. But if Racer X is right, one doesn't necessarily work out this impulsion in order to "transform" the system ("It doesn't matter if racing never changes.").

So this got me thinking a bit (and I'm very much thinking out loud here): How much of the Reformed agenda of "transforming" culture is secretly--and perhaps essentially--informed by a kind of myth of progress? To what extent does the "transforming culture" agenda have to assume that "racing can change," so to speak? And is that warranted?

In re-reading Kuyper recently, I was astonished (one might say appalled) to see his shameless 19th-century progressive confidence in "the West" (all thanks to Calvinism, of course). (How much of this is due to an implicit post-millenialism of some sort?) In general, I think Reformed "transformers" assume both the "racing can change" and "racing will change," to stick with the filmic metaphor.

But I just wonder: is that warranted? On what grounds? (I should note that even if it's not warranted, that doesn't thereby entail the truth of some dispensationalist pessimism about creation and culture per se, as if everything but the soul is just destined to "burn up.") What can we expect from "the earthly city?" (Nota bene: Augustine's "earthly city" is not synonymous with creation or temporality; it's origin is the Fall.) I suppose I find myself with little confidence in any "progress" in the earthly city apart from eschatological renewal and transformation. And within such a system, what matters is that "racing" not change us. Link

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

New Book: The Logic of Incarnation

Some Fors Clavigera readers might be interested in a new book that has just appeared from Wipf & Stock: The Logic of Incarnation: James K.A. Smith's Critique of Postmodern Religion, edited by Neal DeRoo and Brian Lightbody. This grew out of a conference that engaged my work at Brock University in St. Catherine's, Ontario. Drawing together philosophers, theologians, campus ministers, and other practitioners, the took takes up various facets of my engagement with postmodernism and religion, including my critique of the "religion without religion" school of Caputo (on the theoretical side) or Pete Rollins (on the practitioner side, so to speak). I contribute a long first chapter ("The Logic of Incarnation: Towards a Catholic Postmodernism") that sort of provides an overview of this critique of Derrida & Co.'s "logic of determination" and the alternative I describe as the "logic of incarnation." I also contribute an Afterword that responds to each of the chapters.

The original conference was great fun, and this book was a way to revisit those conversations--as well as an opportunity for me to clarify some issues, respond to some criticisms, and get to say some things I haven't elsewhere. (It's also a treat for me to see Neal, my former student, bringing this to fruition. Thanks, Neal!)

Monday, November 03, 2008

Poetic Musings at AAR

I usually enjoy the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, the yearly gathering of scholars in religious studies and theology. But this year I found it a slog. I'm not sure if this is a reflection of the meeting or of my own personal ambivalence about the very project. But the drone of papers occasioned in me a kind of ennui I've not experienced there before (the book exhibit was a bit of a tonic). In fact, during one very-long paper I was so bored and disheartened that I took up poetic doodling. I hope this was only a phase, or the bad fish talking--otherwise, I've got serious professional issues on the horizon!

A poem inspired by a theological presentation at AAR:

Babel's babbling and confusion
comes home to roost in
the many gurgling tongues of the
chattering self-importantly,
most sincerely,
with an idolatrous cleverness.

Serious and sober,
yea "evangelical,"
but really just a DJ--
riffing and mixing,
generating a cacaphony of theologemes
that dance and dangle
between piled names.
A show of erudition,
gesticulating about 'communicative action'
and saying...what?


For which I give thanks.

For never has the vocation--
or is it just my desire?--
of the poet felt more clear.

For I am befuddled by this Babel,
foreign tongues of barbarians.

From its rambling , "rigorous" confusion
I want only to fall into the
clarity of Franz Wright,
the lucidity of Anne Sexton,
the bumpkin simplicity of young Donald Hall.

Compared with the muffled but incessant
utterances of the theologian,
poetry rings with the clarity of
crunchy leaves in the quiet of a
frost-covered autumn morning.

God, of course, is no theologian.
He is a poet hidden and violated,
muzzled by the theologians.
As long as there are theologians,
God's existence will remain in question.

How long, O Lord?
When O When will you silence the theologians--
Silence my theologizing--
And sing to us, your poiema,
in the poems of your strange saints.