Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Local "Letters to a Young Calvinist" Events

For those in the vicinity, just a reminder of a couple of upcoming events this week in connection with my new book, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition.

Friday, December 3, 7:30pm: Talk & book signing at Baker Book House

Saturday, December 4, 10am-12pm: Book signing at the Calvin College Campus Store

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Secularization of Thanksgiving and the Sacralization of the Military

I have a deep ambivalence about Thanksgiving as a holiday. For example, it's not properly part of the (transnational) church's liturgical year, and it tends to be easily conflated with American civil religion--while also tending to paper over the history of colonialism. But while the "official" holiday is at least questionable, certainly gratitude and thanksgiving are central to the Christian life. Indeed, in the organization of the Heidelberg Catechism, the entirety of the Christian life is encompassed under the rubric of gratitude.

So, ambivalence aside, it doesn't take much coaxing for me to take a day to enjoy a feast and football with family and friends (even if that means having to watch the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys). But my friend, Mark, and I both commented again this year on how puzzling it was to see the incessant military references and images on the Thanksgiving broadcasts. It was like the NFL was somehow broadcasting on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Why would Thanksgiving be so interconnected with the armed forces?

But I think I've discerned the logic to this. I know I've noted (complained!) about this before, but I think I've further crystallized the linkage. For some reason, broadcast television always feels compelled to secularize religious and quasi-religious holidays; this is, in some ways, part and parcel of other secularizing currents in commercial culture. But when Thanksgiving is secularized, what's lost is precisely the Object to whom we would render gratitude. In other words, we end up being thankful for "gifts" without being able to recognize the Giver.

So we come up with a substitute Giver, which is something like the idea of "America"--the land of the free. And while there are alternative conceptual histories that would actually honor how much the United States was conceptually forged--that the U.S. is really the experimental product of ideas--our current anti-intellectual climate would rather think of "America" as the product of force and might (as the national anthem prefers). So if we are thankful for America, we're thankful to the military who, proverbially, "protect our freedom, " "keep us free," "make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom," etc. Soldiers are thus revered as the warrior-priests of freedom.

And what are we free for? Well, to shop. And so the best expression of thanksgiving is precisely Black Friday, that Dionysian display of consumerist passion when people literally die in the frantic pursuit of consumer goods.

In sum, the secularization of thanksgiving leads to the sacralization of the military as the guardians of consumer freedom. Such secularization, then, is not a-religious but otherwise-religious. Thus a secularized thanksgiving yields a uniquely American idolatry.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Secular" Liberal Arts Education? Or Still "Secularist?"

Over at the Immanent Frame today, Jonathon Kahn offers some reflections that grow out of the Teagle-funded initiative, "Secularity and the Liberal Arts." Kahn's post, "Reconceiving the secular and the practice of the liberal arts," is essential reading for anyone involved in higher education--whether at public universities or Christian colleges. The very fact that such a conversation could take place is a testament to shifting paradigms fostered by so much good work sponsored by the Social Science Research Council's program, "Religion and the Public Sphere." It is also an indicator that important work by Charles Taylor, Jeffrey Stout, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Connolly, George Marsden, and others is beginning to trickle-down into wider conversations amongst practitioners.

The context for the project is the demise of secularism (and the death of the secularization thesis) coupled with Charles Taylor's account of "the secular" not as some neutral, unbiased, universal space, but rather as the fact of contestability. To say we live in "a secular age" is not to claim that we live in an a-religious age but rather to recognize that we inhabit pluralistic cultures where no one set of plausibility structures is universal or axiomatic. Whereas secularism represented the doctrinaire imposition of one perspective as if it were not a perspective, the "secular" (in this new sense) names this contestable, pluralist environment in which we find ourselves in late modernity. (In ways that I've already noted elsewhere, Kahn notes that this Taylorian definition of "the secular" overlaps with Stout's redefinition of "secularization" in Democracy and Tradition as the state of affairs in which we cannot take for granted that our interlocutors share our fundamental starting points.)

In sum, while secularism is well lost, this does not hail the return of theocracy or Christendom: rather, it requires that we recognize we live in a "secular" age, a pluralist space. Secularism is dead; long live "the secular."

The "Secularity and the Liberal Arts" project sought to explore some implications of this for higher education. In particular, what does the end of secularism mean for those liberal arts colleges that proudly describe themselves as "secular?" As Kahn puts it,

Our “Secularity and the Liberal Arts” group wondered whether, or how, these theoretical moves had made their way onto our campuses. Did the practices and ways of liberal arts life reflect the theoretical work that has been done of late on the secular? We suspected that life on liberal arts campuses, both in and out of class, did not reflect this profound eclipse of the secularization thesis. Our institutions have long valued a notion of the secular that limits and restricts religious expression in order, ostensibly, to promote tolerance and critical thought, to sustain democratic institutions, and to foster civic engagement.

So what would it mean for "secular" liberal arts colleges to jettison their commitment to secularism while still constructing the college as a "secular" space? Could liberal arts education be post-secularist? Kahn summarizes the possibilities:

On these terms, secular institutions such as liberal arts campuses would excel at anticipating and navigating differences among their citizens. What Stout means by “secular, not secularist,” we suggest, is just this. A secularist seeks to rid democratically and pedagogically orientated spaces (e.g., campuses and classrooms) of religious commitments in the pursuit of arrogating authoritative forms of knowledge. Someone who possesses a revalued understanding of the secular as a discursive condition and practice seeks knowledge that helps us, as Stanley Hauerwas describes, “to act wisely in a context of conflict, ambiguity, and change.” When the authority of knowledge is less important than the things that can be done with knowledge (i.e., explicate its logic, argue with it, follow its implications, explore motivations for holding it, and reflect on how it shapes moral formation), the secular becomes a discussion between religious and non-religious citizens who are acutely aware that the demands of secularized democratic life require an extraordinary balance between cherishing one’s own convictions and holding to the awareness that these same cherished convictions are contestable, and that they may at times act as a bludgeon against other democratic citizens.

I want to go on record and say how encouraging it is to see this being articulated. In some ways, the shape of the conversation is getting very close to the sort imagined by George Marsden in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Such "secular" liberal arts colleges would be post-secularist in the best sense, making room for ideas, theories and perspectives rooted in religious and confessional traditions--though it also (rightly) requires religious believers to recognize that we live in a "secular" age--that our religious beliefs are not axiomatic, but contested and contestable.

My question is: would such "secular" liberal arts colleges really provide an education? My concern is this: the revisioned "secular" liberal arts college makes room for religious "views." Indeed, according to Kahn, this (post)"secular" liberal arts college "encourages the expression of views guided or governed by religious commitments." But when you look a little closer, you'll recognize that all of this pluralism is marshaled for something like the task of "critical thinking"--the task of helping students ask the proverbial "big questions." As Kahn observes,

For liberal arts colleges, the stakes of this question are important. The mission of liberal arts education is not simply the conveyance of certain bodies of information or technical skills that are useful in a market economy. Liberal arts colleges understand themselves as places that promote education as a way for students to consider larger questions of meaning and value. Liberal arts colleges are places where students are not thought na├»ve to ask so-called big questions: “What is the meaning of my life?” “How do I understand death?” “Does evil exist?” “What are my obligations to my neighbor, my country, my world?” And finally, “How might my education—in whatever field I study—help me assimilate these questions?” We were struck by the way that considerations of the secular had the profound effect of renewing discussions of what might be called the deeper purposes of liberal arts education.
But here we see that even such "secular" liberal arts colleges would not be willing to relinquish a lingering aspect of the Enlightenment liberalism that informed secularism--namely, the sacred autonomy of the student. In short, while I would applaud the move to this sort of "secular" liberal arts education, such a model still refuses to think about education as formation. It's willing to make room for a variety of "views" and "perspectives" to help students ask "the big questions"--giving them lots of options to consider. But this is largely training them to be spectators and refuses to tell them what they ought to think. Indeed, even the new "secular" liberal arts college will remain committed to a persistent aspect of liberal Enlightenment orthodoxy: an allergy to paideia, to the thick task of formation that constitutes inculcation in a tradition, habituation to a particular vision of the good. (See Alasdair MacIntyre on "The End of Education.") Even a "secular" liberal arts college remains secularist just to the extent that it remains allergic to the notion of education as formation.

Such a vision of education as formation--not just equipping students with a buffet of perspectives, views, and positions, but rather aiming to shape them into certain kinds of people--that is precisely the more holistic educational project envisioned by the Christian liberal arts college in a "secular" age.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Farewell Facebook: My Short-Lived Experiment

Today I deactivated my Facebook account and submitted the request for its deletion (to stave off any temptation from second thoughts later on). After being a Facebook user for about 3 months, I have decided to leave the FB world. I'll be sad to be "disconnected" from some of my "friends," but I'm feeling very good about the decision. So "Farewell, Facebook!"

In the spirit of George Costanza, I want to say, "It's not you, it's me." But I do think it's at least partly you.

There are multiple factors in this decision. For instance, I finally joined Facebook to stay connected with my son who left for college. But now everything I know about him through Facebook I wish I didn't! I also find that Facebook has taken away from what blogging I did--and I think blogging is a much better exercise for a writer than dashing off status updates.

But it's mostly me. Facebook plays into all of my vices: my pride and arrogance, my self-centeredness, my penchant for vainglory. Most of all, Facebook feeds and fuels my addictive personality, especially when it comes to communication. My wife can attest that I was addicted to snail mail before email was even a staple of my life. I have vivid memories of living in our first apartment, waiting to hear the clink of the mail slot, eager to see what would arrive. Indeed, sometimes my lack of patience became so ridiculous I would go to the front of the house and check the box over and over again--not yet? By now? Where's the mail? And then of course, once the mail was actually delivered, I'd have a kind of postpartum funk for the next few hours. Sad.

This fixation, of course, was completely irrational--most of what came in the mail was, well, not exactly bad news, but also not a check from the lottery either. Nonetheless, I've always had an irrationally hopeful attitude toward mail: who knows what opportunity might come through the slot?

Email, as you can imagine, took this to ridiculous new levels, precisely because email can arrive 24 hours a day. You can guess what this does to someone who's already addictively fixated on snail mail that arrives just once a day. Facebook, of course, just added another layer of fixation on such "connection," while also creating a quick and easy outlet for expression that is always a veiled cry for attention.

What's at issue here is precisely the fact that Facebook is an environment of practice which inculcates in us certain habits which then shape our orientation to the world--indeed, they make our worlds. So, in the spirit of Desiring the Kingdom, I started to take a "practices audit" of my Facebook patterns. The results weren't pretty.

All of this came to a head last night while reading Zadie Smith's recent review of the movie, "Facebook" alongside Jarod Lanier's manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget. As Smith notes, in language strikingly similar to my argument in DTK:
We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us?
This was the final nail in the coffin of my concerns about Facebook. I realized what it was doing to me, and so bid, "Adieu."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Semper aggiornamento? On "Always Reforming"

There are strains of the Reformed tradition which like to emphasize that they are "always reforming," invoking the Latin semper reformanda as a motto. But if one analyzes when and how this is invoked, one will notice something very slippery: that under the banner of "reforming" what we get is really just an agenda for "updating" the faith. And such an "updating" project is far from what was envisioned by the Reformers.

Indeed, such "updating" is more like the mid-century stream of aggiornamento advocated by Catholic theologians who were trying to get the church to "go modern"--to "update" the faith by conforming it to the new regnant standards of what counted as rational, true and just. But such a project of "updating" is ultimately correlationist (as I use the term in Introducing Radical Orthodoxy): it locates the standards for what we ought to believe outside the faith--in the supposedly neutral, objective findings of economics or sociology or evolutionary psychology. This puts Christian faith back on its heels, in a stance of deference to the canons of extra-Scriptural authorities.

But such "updating" is not reform; or, to put it more starkly, to be "always updating" is not the equivalent of semper reformanda. To be sure, Christian faith pushes us to value careful attention to empirical realities and thus requires us to grapple with our unfolding knowledge of our material and social world. Without question. In equal measure, the church, in order to be faithful, is called to be always reforming, not sitting on its laurels as if it has arrived at the truth. Since such a pursuit is an eternal vocation, it would seem odd to think we've arrived.

However, the call to be always reforming is not simply a matter of "updating" the faith according to current trends and fads; nor is it even a matter of "correlating" the faith with the supposedly secure findings of other authorities. To be "always reforming" is to be engaged in the hard work of being a tradition, which includes the difficult labor of arguing about what constitutes a faithful extension of the tradition (I have something like Alasdair MacIntyre's account of "tradition" in mind here). This difficult work of reform differs from "updating" because it retains the center of gravity in the tradition (which, of course, includes and prioritizes the "founding document" of the tradition--in this case, Scripture).

This is merely a sketch to watch the "codes" at work when "always reforming" is invoked, and to urge a kind of semantic caution that under the banner of "reforming" language what we often get is a progressivism that is animated by a chronological snobbery which is a far cry from the task of reform, let alone the Reformers.

[Perhaps a word about the image above is in order: I was looking for something that captured the sense of "spiraling forward," which is how I envision this dynamic of reforming a tradition: returning to the sources in order to discern how to faithfully extend and move forward. This image doesn't quite get it, but it's better than yet another mugshot of a bearded Reformer.]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Barna Report on the "New Calvinism"

The Barna Group's report, "Is there a 'Reformed' Movement in American Churches?" seems to be getting a lot more discussion than it deserves (see, for instance, Scot McKnight's post at Jesus Creed). I'm leery about contributing to that attention, but also feel compelled to point out the weaknesses and shoddy social science behind this "report."

The context, of course, is relatively clear: over the past several years there's been a fair amount of journalistic buzz about the growth and importance of the "New Calvinists," or the young, restless and Reformed crowd, as described by Collin Hansen--to the point that it was hailed as one of the 10 ideas changing the world by Time magazine, also receiving attention from outlets like the New York Times and the Economist. And a casual observer can't help but notice an uptick in self-identifying Reformed voices in places like Christianity Today, or the significant attention garnered by figures such as Albert Moehler in the Southern Baptist Convention, or Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, or Mark Driscoll in Seattle.

The Barna Report is thus offered as a bubble-buster: a purported deflator of the hype armed with the "statistics" to prove that this perception is an illusion--that, in fact, things haven't changed in a decade. There are no more Calvinists around now then there were 10 years ago, and thus there's no discernible "Reformed movement" despite appearances to the contrary.

Now, let me first clarify that I don't really have a dog in this fight. A part of my argument in Letters to a Young Calvinist is that a lot of those who identify themselves as "Reformed" are not fully so--rather, they just mean they subscribe to a particular soteriology or doctrine of salvation with a particular understanding of election and predestination, etc. But I try to show that being "Reformed" is more fully-orbed than that--it involves particular ecclesiological and liturgical commitments, and also involves a theology of culture often absent from those who might identify with "the new Calvinism." So while I'm sympathetic to aspects of this movement, I don't have a stake in defending it, nor do I have any investment in defending claims about its growth.

So, with that said, let me offer several criticisms of this so-called "report" from the Barna Group:

1. The reports claims to evaluate "whether Reformed churches are growing." There are already a host of problems just in that claim, so much so I don't even know where to start. Let's point out a few:

(a) I can't think of anyone who has suggested that the growth of "the new Calvinism" entails a claim that "Reformed churches" are growing. Indeed, one of the sort of paradoxes is that this brand of Calvinism is flourishing outside of "Reformed churches"--amongst Southern Baptists and nondenominational evangelicals.

(b) No where does the report or study define "Reformed churches." Instead it queries pastors and clergy about how they would define "their" churches (as either Wesleyan/Arminian or Calvinist/Reformed). It then leaves it up to the pastors to define the terms (claiming that this is standard practice in social science--believe me, it's not). In addition to being clericalist (the pastor defines a congregation?! Not very Reformed!), by framing the binary choice in this way the poll already skews the definition of Reformed and Calvinist along certain lines; in other words, it loads the dice. In particular, this report is misguided by an overly narrow fixation on "Reformed" being reduced to a particular, personal soteriology.

And this lack of definition can explain other oddities. For instance, the report seems surprised that 31% of pastors who lead churches "within traditional charismatic and Pentecostal denominations" would describe themselves as "Reformed." They are puzzled by this because Pentecostalism is "generally viewed as stemming from Wesleyan or Holiness traditions" (i.e., "Arminian" traditions). But this is theologically naive precisely because it doesn't realize the significant theological issue that separates the Assemblies of God from, say, the Church of God-Cleveland (a Wesleyan Pentecostal denomination): that issue is sanctification, and the A/G affirms what it describes as a "Reformed" understanding of sanctification precisely because they reject the "perfectionism" of the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition. So if you ask a Pentecostal if they are "Reformed" or "Wesleyan," they are going to think you're talking about the doctrine of sanctification, not election and salvation. More would define themselves as "Reformed" because more Pentecostals are A/G.

(c) Why on earth would one have to rely on self-definition by pastors to determine whether a church is Reformed? A church is Reformed if it is an heir of, and identifies with, Reformed creeds and confessions. In other words, it's not a secret whether a church is "Reformed" or not. The Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church in America, and a host of others are "Reformed" churches. If you want the statistics, you don't have to "ask the pastor." Such a methodology already betrays a kind of nondenominational evangelical bias. But also please note, once again, that almost all observers of the "new Calvinism" has noted its growth outside "Reformed churches." So not only does the Barna group have a naive, misguided methodology, they're also measuring the wrong thing.

2. We are not given any information about the relevant samples here, except a few hand-waving notes at the end of the report which claim to have secured a "representative" sample through 600 phone calls. This is not social scientific data that would ever pass muster in the scholarly field of sociology of religion (as represented, for instance, by work done in the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion). Indeed, I find it hard not to find this almost laughable in its methodological naivete and anecdotal nature.

3. Finally, this report is utterly naive about what constitutes cultural significance. It falls prey to what James Davison Hunter has criticized as the "grassroots" naivete of evangelicalism: the idea that there's power in numbers. So if "the numbers" don't show growth, then there's no signficant shift--there's no significant "Reformed movement." But as Hunter shows, it's not populist numbers that change culture: it's the leadership power of "elites." So even if there weren't a groundswell of "new Calvinists" in the pews, there only has to be an upsurge of Calvinists in strategic positions of influence and leadership in order for it to make an impact on American evangelicalism. The Barna Report comes nowhere close to being able to measure something like that.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Revolution in Grading

While it is the very height of bourgeois whining, one doesn't have to spend too much time around professors before you begin to hear complaints about grading. Used to our tenured autonomy, and generally enjoying discussion of ideas and texts in class, "grading" is the one drudgery that we have to do. It also comes with some sense of urgency and tends to coagulate around certain times. Around mid-October and early December, I'm pretty sure my wife has taken to slipping Prozac in my tea--which is then exacerbated but my own uptake in whiskey consumption at these points in the semester.

But then this afternoon I hit upon this revolutionary idea while grading papers for my Congregational & Ministry Studies class, "Interpreting Church Practices": what if I assigned projects that I'd actually like to read? Then the time spent grading would actually be a pleasure (all things considered, of course--that is, as long as you can count on students producing decently readable papers).

That was my experience this afternoon. As part of a course focused on practices of marriage, family, and singleness, I assigned students the task of excavating and articulating the normative visions of marriage, family and sexuality implicit in cultural artifacts such as TV sitcoms, dramas, reality TV, films, and novels. So I just spent an afternoon reading some really thoughtful analyses of television shows like Desperate Housewives, Mad Men, and Gilmore Girls and films that included Paper Heart, Elizabethtown, and Away We Go. It was almost like not working--which is the way professors feel the rest of the time! This isn't going to help with the proverbial "blue books," but it's got me thinking about more creative assignments for papers and projects.

Monday, November 08, 2010

An Appendix to "Desiring the Kingdom"

I'm starting to experiment with using Scribd a bit, and just uploaded my first paper. Entitled "Worldview, Sphere Sovereignty, and DTK: A Guide for (Perplexed) Reformed Folk," this was a paper I presented last week at the ARIHE Symposium, a gathering of presidents, administrators, and educators from Reformed colleges and universities. One could think of it as a sort of "appendix" to Desiring the Kingdom, specifically addressed to Kuyperian worries about my argument and proposal.

Worldview, Sphere Sovereignty, and DTK: A Guide for (Perplexed) Reformed Folk

Monday, November 01, 2010

Charles Matthewes on "Narrow" Audiences

While browsing in the Eerdmans booth at the American Academy of Religion meeting, I got sucked into Charles Matthewes new book, The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. While it's not absolutely central to the theme of the book, this comment in the Introduction stuck with me:

It may seem oddly limiting to write a book primarily addressed to Christians; that may seem a strangely narrow audience. But the appearance of narrowness deceives. It is ironic that explicit appeals to Christians are all-too-easily labeled "narrow" or "sectarian" when there are roughly 250 million Christians--of quite diverse flavors, of course--in the United States today, and more than 2 billion around the world. How "broad," in comparison, would be an argument addressed to readers of the New York Review of Books?