Monday, December 31, 2012

Favorite Reads: 2012 Minimalist Edition

I'm not sure how this happened, but somehow my 2012 reading was dominated by non-fiction and only some blips of fiction, short stories, and poetry (in stark contrast to my rich year of fiction reading in 2011).  Of the stories and novels I enjoyed in 2012, I think I would highlight just two (though I hope to have more to say about Tom Wolfe's Back to Blood in the near future):


Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels, the first volume in his Cornish Trilogy (originally published, 1981).  A "campus" novel set at the College of St. John & the Holy Ghost (modelled on Trinity College at the University of Toronto), The Rebel Angels is a bit of an indulgent romp for an academic reader.  The pinnacle of Davies' weird blend of medievalism and Jungian notions of myth, populated with unforgettable characters, it's begging to be made into a Downton Abbey-like miniseries!  


Just one pristine gem to highlight from my reading this year: "The Necklace" by Guy de Maupassant.  This might just be the apotheosis of the short story.  I read this in a marvelous collection, The Oxford Book of Short Stories, ed. Elizabeth Fallaize (Oxford University Press, 2002), which also includes Balzac's classic, "The Message."


So 2012 was the year of nonfiction for me.  And looking back, it might also be described as the year I became a conservative (more on that anon, perhaps).  Here are a few highlights from my reading:

When I read Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, early in 2012, I found myself constantly arguing with it.  This was a sign that it was making a dent on my imagination.  And now that I look back on 2012, this is one of the bookS that has kept wafting back into my consciousness.  Murray is someone that liberals love to hate, but this book really pressed me to revisit some of my baseline assumptions.

In a similar way, Ross Douthat's Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics offers an analysis and argument of contemporary American religion and spirituality that I believe needs to be absorbed and heeded if any kind of integral, orthodox Christianity is going to survive the assimilating maw of American culture.  There might be points of disagreement about the history.  For example, I think the "heresy" of American religion is as old as the American experiment itself--it's just that American culture lived on borrowed capital until the mid-20th century.  But it's Douthat's diagnosis and prescription that are the most important.  (I would recommend reading this alongside Peter Leithart's very important book, Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective.)

I'm most grateful that I finally found opportunity to read Paul Elie's classic, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage--his stirring, intertwined account of the lives of Dorothy Day, Flannery O'Connor, Thomas Merton, and Walker Percy.  The book left me with a deep conviction about the need to cultivate more time and space for contemplation in my life.  (Not that I'm doing any better on that front.)

Finally, in the sheer-delight category, I was enthralled by Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.   Mann challenges both "Sunday school" and "middle school" pictures of the Americas before European colonization.  He debunks the myth of a-cultural Indian existence, showing how indigenous peoples very much shaped nature by their culture.  While recounting the new state-of-the-art in our understanding of the Americas before Columbus, Mann also tells the story of science, tracking debates and developments in anthropology.  A fascinating book.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Books & Culture Podcast: On (Anti-)Intellectualism & the Church

I received an early Christmas present when I realized that John Wilson and Stan Guthrie were discussing my new book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, in this week's Books and Culture podcast.  (You can also listen/subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.)

John does a great job of situating the new book--which will be available in late January--in the context of my argument in Desiring the Kingdom.  He does so by focusing on my admission, in the Preface to Imagining the Kingdom, that DTK was a "hypocritical" book--a long theoretical argument for displacing the centrality and primacy of the intellect.  Addressing that concern and dynamic is a big part of volume 2.  (And in the Preface I do so by drawing on Proust--but you'll have to get the book to see how that works!)

I was intrigued (and humbled) by John's discussion of the reception of Desiring the Kingdom as a kind of retroactive confirmation of the book's argument.  At first he was skeptical of my claim about the privileging of the intellect among evangelicals.  Indeed, per The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, John was inclined to think the very opposite: our problem hardly seemed to be a matter too much thinking.  And yet, as John noted the wide reception of the argument over the past few years, he wondered whether the claim was on to something.

I get at this problem right in the Preface of Imagining the Kingdom.  At one point I articulate it this way:

The point, rather, is that we have a tendency, in Christian higher education and even in the church, to overestimate the importance of thinking. Now, many of those toiling in the not-so-ivory towers of Christian colleges and universities would be quite surprised to hear that thinking is being overvalued in North American Christianity. Indeed, quite the opposite seems to be true: evangelical piety tends to intensify a general anti-intellectual malaise that besets our culture. The response to such a situation would be to encourage more thinking, not less—to emphasize the importance of the mind rather than fall back into the soppy mushiness of “the heart” and its affections. In short, with its critique of rationalist or intellectualist models of the human person, it would seem that Desiring the Kingdom plays right into the hands of antiintellectualism (p. 11).

So I completely understand John's worry here. But note that one of the goals of Imagining the Kingdom is to respond directly to this worry.

This gets at one of the most nuanced--and admittedly perplexing--parts of the argument: that those Christians who are "anti-intellectual" are sometimes the most ardent proponents of intellectualIST pictures of the human person.  Those who are suspicious of the university and "book learnin'" are often still "folk" intellectualISTS who think discipleship and sanctification are a matter of information rather than formation.  Whenever sanctification is conceived primarily as a matter of acquiring biblical knowledge--with no account of the importance of habit--then we are on the terrain of intellectualISM, even if we're talking about a community that looks askance at something like Books & Culture, which is rightly pointing folks to the riches of intellectual reflection.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  I hope you'll listen to the podcast.  And if that piques your interest, I hope you'll pick up Imagining the Kingdom in the new year.   

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Big News: JKAS editor of Comment magazine

I'm very excited to share some big news: Beginning in January 2013, I will take up the reins as Editor of Comment magazine, coupled with an appointment as a Senior Fellow of Cardus, a think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture, drawing on more than 2000 years of Christian social thought.

I'm incredibly excited to join the Comment and Cardus team.  It's a dedicated outlet for my work as a Christian public intellectual, and the invitation--while coming as a surprise--made immediate sense for me.  It also dovetails in providential ways with my appointment to the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview at Calvin College.

I have much more to say about this over at the Cardus Daily blog.  Here's a snippet:

Above all, I want Comment to be a life-giving resource for those leaders, practitioners, entrepreneurs, and creators who are convinced of the importance of Christian cultural engagement but are now looking for in-depth guidance and direction.  In many other venues, we never seem to get beyond the starting block.  We hear a baseline emphasis repeated over and over: that Christians have permission and encouragement to be culture-makers.  While there’s a continued place for “Christianity and Culture 101,” so to speak, Comment aims to take you to the next level—to 201 and 301 levels of analysis.  We want to help you discern the nitty-gritty of how to actually do this and what it really ought to look like.  We’re unapologetic in having a vision for the renewal of North American social architecture.  We’re not shy to say where we think this architecture is crumbling.  And we’re calling Christians to be builders.  

Continue reading at the Cardus Daily and learn more of what's in store for the future of Comment.  And if you're not yet a subscriber, join us today.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ecclesiology and Ethnography: A Response

At the recent meeting of the American Academy of Religion I had the pleasure of participating in a session on ecclesiology and ethnography, engaging some of the contributors to an excellent new book edited by Pete Ward: Perspectives on Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Eerdmans, 2012).  This has since been complemented by a subsequent volumed edited by Christian Scharen: Explorations in Ecclesiology and Ethnography (Eerdmans, 2012) in which (full disclosure) my friend Mark Mulder and I have a co-authored chapter, "Understanding Religion Takes Practice: Anti-Urban Bias, Geographical Habits, and Theological Influences."

The AAR session included presentations from John Swinton, Mary McClintock Fulkerson, Luke Bretherton, and Elizabeth Phillips, all drawing on their chapters in the book.  Here I reproduce the notes of my response as a way of highlighting this new interdisciplinary conversation and, I hope, as a way of extending and expanding it.


Ecclesiology and Ethnography: A Response

John Swinton’s wonderful chapter in this book names a question I’ve heard often.  When, in different contexts, I used to explicate the social imaginary implicit in Pentecostal worship and spiritual practice, inevitably someone from the audience would ask: “Just where can I find a Pentecostal church like you describe?”  After several occasions with no reply, I finally came up with a stock answer: “It’s in Amos Yong’s head!”  Then I would do some hand-waving about my description being “aspirational” and try to move on.  (This will give you some idea of just why I had to leave the Assemblies of God.) 
            It wasn’t until I read Chris Scharen’s SJT article on “ecclesiology asethnography” that I was able to articulate just what was wrong here and began to turn the corner in my thinking about ecclesiology.  So I am profoundly grateful for this volume that is the occasion for our discussion today because I think, like our presenters, it does a fantastic job of articulating a big-tent approach to this emerging conversation between ecclesiology and ethnography.
            And I should admit that I came to the book with some skepticism.  To be perfectly honest, I was expecting a lot more Paul Tillich and Don Browning, if you know what I mean.  That is, I was expecting a “correlational” approach that would offer “neutral” checks and balances to the “biased” claims of theology, with the social sciences “explaining” what worshipers were doing in “objective” categories.  But as you’ve just heard, the conversation is much more nuanced than that.  Given the impossibility of actually “responding” to our panelists in this time, permit me to just extend this conversation by engaging a few themes that have emerged.

1. Ethnography and liturgical priority

I loved Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s critique of “didacticism” and the “inadequacy of propositional theology” for making sense of the complexity of lived religion in congregations (126-127).  I also think she’s absolutely right that the core intuitions of the ecclesiology-and-ethnography project should upset the usual hierarchies of the theological curriculum.  Far from being an “application” appendix, “practical” theology should be the centering discipline, with  biblical studies and systematics as the “grammars” of our worship.
            In this respect, I think we could pursue a more robust account of Christian worship as a kind of irreducible know-how that precedes—and even, to some extent, eludes—our know-whats.  You can run this account either through Wittgenstein or Charles Taylor or Robert Brandom or Pierre Bourdieu—I won’t do so in my brief time here.  Maybe I could suggest a metaphor, however: in poetry criticism, Cleanth Brooks introduced something of a principle: “the heresy of paraphrase.”  The point is that what a poem means in ineluctably bound up with its form which carries a meaning that is irreducible and thus cannot be paraphrased in any other propositional form.  It seems to me that the know-how of Christian worship—and congregational practices more broadly—resist paraphrase.  This puts practical theology, and even the ecclesiology-and-ethnography project, in a region of temptation: the temptation to paraphrase.  And now we’re on exactly the terrain of Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice.  (I unpack this problem in more detail in James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works [Baker Academic, 2013], ch. 2.)  Fortunately, I think the priming intuitions of your project already sense this tension.  But we also need to remember that ethnography is still propositional, constituted by the epistemological “break” that Bourdieu emphasizes is a social break.

2. When and how do functional theologies trump “official” theologies?  Or: when and how do performed theologies trump articulated theologies?

At the end of her very helpful essay—which is part lit review, part case study—Elizabeth Phillips concludes “that the deeply problematic eschatology of Christian Zionism so alters their Christology and ecclesiology as to disconnect them from the Christological and ecclesiological resources that are necessary for well-formed Christian social ethics” (104).   This left me with some nagging questions, not because I think she’s wrong, but precisely because I think she’s right:

  •     At what point do the functional theologies of a congregation—which can only be detected with an ethnographic radar, so to speak—trump whatever “official” theologies that might define them as Christian? 
  • ·      In other words, could ethnographic description ever enable us to theologically evaluate congregations vis-à-vis ecclesiological and liturgical norms?
  • ·      Or, to put it even more strongly: to what extent are we willing discuss the parameters for a Catholic theological anthropology, and thus consider norms for practice that exceed particular congregations?  Who could do that?  From where? 
  • ·      Perhaps this is all just a way of asking: Can ecclesiological ethnography names idolatries and heresies? 

3. Let’s invite the sociologists

Notice who is not here: sociologists of religion. Phillips is right that anthropologists have been much more open to this conversation.  (See, just for one example, the Fall 2010 volume of the South Atlantic Quarterly for a conversation between anthropologists and theologians.)  But then anthropologists, at least after Geertz, have been on the “soft” (or hermeneutic) side of the social sciences and long had a deep-sense of the value-laden nature of observation.  Sociologists—while not as bad as psychologists—still tend to aspire to “scientificity” in ways that get bound up with myths of objectivity.
Yet, more and more, sociologists are taken to be the authoritative voices that distill for us the essence of the church.  And most of that is based on research conducted by quantheads who lack the sort of theological nuance that our panelists have articulated.  Instead, they reduce the church to an organization like others, offering “religious” goods and services, but therefore almost entirely understandable within paradigms for understanding other organizations, including rational choice theory and economic modes of analysis (see: Rodney Stark and his ilk).  With those assumptions, ecclesiology is pretty much irrelevant.  (And it gets really scary when theologians start looking for ‘scientific’ cachet by hitching their wagon to such social science approaches.  Cue your favorite John Milbank quote here.)
            What I find refreshing and promising about this conversation is its refusal of such reductionism, without floating off into aspirational idealism.  As Bretherton summarizes it,

The broader point to draw for the relationship between ethnography, ecclesiology, and political theory is that the church cannot be read as simply a microcosm of broader political processes and structural forces: it has its own integrity.  Yet neither can an analysis of the church be separated from how it is in a relationship of codetermination (and at times co-construction) with its political environment (161).

That seems just right to me: an anti-reductionism vis-à-vis sociology; an anti-gnosticism vis-à-vis theology.  But you might be surprised how little this would be understanding at SSSR.  I would encourage you to consider inviting Christian sociologists of religion into the “ecclesiology & ethnography” conversation, perhaps even trying to host a session at SSSR, in order to cross-fertilize these conversations.  We might thereby expand the disciplinary conversations, building a collective of scholars who undertake ethnography, as John Swinton suggests, for Jesus, and for his body.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Mall as Consumerist Cathedral

When I give talks based on Desiring the Kingdom, I often revisit my analysis of the mall as a consumerist cathedral.  The concreteness and universality of the experience is usually a helpful entrée into the core concepts of my liturgical analysis of culture.

A couple of resources to add to that analysis:

When I was in Charlottesville recently, Louis Nelson, an architectural historian at the University of Virginia, pointed me to Ira Zepp's book, The New Religious Image of Urban America: The Shopping Mall as Ceremonial Center--which seems to confirm much of my reading. 

Second, Jeroen van der Zeeuw from the Netherlands passed along this stark image: an aerial photograph of a mall that makes the "cathedral echo" quite explicit!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

This Old House

Though I come from a people who made their living with their hands, I make my living with words.  So when I need to work something out, or work through something, I don't go chop wood or tinker with a '67 Chevelle, I write.  So be forewarned: therapeutic musings ahead.

This is our house.

Or was.

In fact this is an old picture from the year we bought the house.  Today you'd see a "Sold" sign out front. So technically this house now belongs to a young couple who, I hope, are excited to move into what has been our home for a decade.

It is the only house we've ever owned.  Indeed, when we moved to Grand Rapids from Los Angeles, part of the miracle was realizing that we could own a home.  What I wouldn't have guessed is how much a house would come to own us--that a house could exhibit its own kind of hospitality.

We thought we were a king and queen (with princes and one pretty princess) moving into our new 1500 square-foot "castle" whose coziness would get cozier as our 10-year-old became a 20-year-old, and our 4-year-old became a teenager.   But when we leave Baldwin street for the last time, we'll walk through this old house (it was built in 1900) and see a part of ourselves in every single room.  Not many remember the dingy "Michigan basement" that I redeemed as a rec room, at least fit for teenaged boys willing to make it their lair.  Deanna and I certainly won't forget the unique delight and benefit of adding a wall with a door for our master bedroom.  Maddie and Grayson both transformed the attic bedroom at different times.  And who can forget our "hobbit room" above the kitchen?

I can stroll through the house in my imagination and see almost every nook and cranny.  Here's the floor that our neighbors Sue and Melissa sanded and varnished for us while we were out of town on vacation.  There are the built-in bookshelves I built for my fiction and criticism collection.  The bright colors on every wall are expressions of Deanna's personality.  All of the work in the kitchen is an expression of our commitment to food and family--from the first summer we ripped out the drop ceiling (what were people thinking) to the more recent bamboo floor I laid down, up to the crown molding whose angles were a veritable nightmare for this amateur.

Outside is no different.  I've written before about the gardens of delight Deanna crafted for all of us.  I know it's going to be hard for her to say goodbye to all those perennials and the spaces of flourishing she has tended with her hands.  And there's the fence I built when we prepared for Grayson's high school graduation open house.  In the back corner is a small stone statuette of a cocker spaniel.  It marks the burial place of our old friend, Reilly, who we had to put down in 2007.  It's surrounded with bleeding hearts.  (We're taking the stone marker with us, as a way to take him with us to our new home, and will plant new bleeding hearts--Coleson's favorite.)

This is starting to sound like a country song, right?  Well, as you might imagine, we've been listening to Miranda Lambert's "House that Built Me" quite a bit!  ("...and I bet you didn't know, under that live oak, my favorite dog is buried in the yard.")

This neighborhood has worked its way into our bones, and we'll miss it profoundly.  It has changed, as have we.  The first summer our kids set up a lemonade stand--and were robbed!  A battering ram shattered the tranquil silence one afternoon as a drug bust took place across the street.   Over the years we tried to be patient with the kids as they complained (and were embarrassed) about how their neighborhood was so different from that of their friends.  And yet we also some them grow to embrace it, to the extent that East Hills has woven its way into their identity.  I try to tell them that they were "East Hills" before East Hills was cool.

The farmer's market has been a steady presence and anchor throughout, a regular part of our routines.  We're going to miss that stroll.  But we've left part of ourselves in it with a brick that reads "Practice Resurrection."

Our neighbors have changed over a decade.  We miss Jo and Jose, Greg and Darlene, but most of all Sue and Melissa--neighbors who became cherished friends.  Celia next door is the anchor of the block, here before us, and no doubt here long after us.  We've said goodbye to some who passed.  I can't quite articulate how much I miss Tom, a simple soul who lived in Celia's basement for years.  We could talk about NASCAR and Jesus all day long (always "the Powerful One," to Tom).  The last time I talked to him, we prayed together on that sidewalk right there, asking God to heal the tumor in his belly.  I owed him more than that.

What I can't possibly enumerate are the untold memories and joys--and heartbreaks--that this old house made room for.  This has been the best hardest blessed decade of our lives.  So as we're working through this, and helping the kids through it, we try to emphasize: home is where we are.  That goes with us.  And we're all excited about the new house (just 1 mile west!), in a new neighborhood (Heritage Hill), with new rhythms and opportunities awaiting us (including our Saturday morning standby, Wealthy Street Bakery, just down the street and a new downtown market nearby).

But I don't want to be a Gnostic about this and underestimate the significance of place.  So I find myself --as usual!--thinking about St. Augustine and the sort of dynamics he explores in the City of God.  Yes, sure, we are sojourners and pilgrims in any place.  On the other hand, we are placed and need to bloom where we're planted, looking for ways to foster the welfare of the city.  On a microcosmic level, that's been this old house on Baldwin street for the past 10 years.

We have loved this old house; we've poured hours and hours (and $ and $!) of tender loving care into it for a decade.  We're proud of how we leave it: like a friend that we've counseled and supported and hopefully coaxed into new flourishing.  And we feel like it has loved us in return: sheltering us, comforting us, gathering us,  hosting us.  We are grateful to have been welcomed by this old house.  May it welcome those who follow and may they flourish in its space.  Please take care of our friend.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

What is The Colossian Forum All About?

I get this question a lot.  And now, instead of just pointing people to The Colossian Forum Manifesto or other articulations of our mission and vision, I can point them to a concrete embodiment of what we're trying to foster: a charitable, respectful conversation between young earth creationist Todd Wood and evolutionary creationist Dennis Venema.

See my summary and analysis of their engagement over at The Colossian Blog, and join this new kind of conversation.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A Christian Sociology? On Oppenheimer on the Regnerus Affair

Mark Oppenheimer can't fathom what a "Christian sociology" would be, as evidenced by his odd piece on the recent controversy swirling around Mark Regnerus' study of the children of gay & lesbian parents. Published in today's New York Times, Oppenheimer raises questions about "the role of faith in scholarship."  Oppenheimer clearly approaches the matter with a secularist confidence in the supposed "neutrality" and "objectivity" of scholarship.  So the very notion of a "Christian scholar" would be an oxymoron on that account.  So, at best, the "role of faith in scholarship" would seem to be reduced to three closing options that Oppenheimer countenances:

[I]f there is not really a Christian method in sociology, but there is a role for a self-described Christian in sociology, as Dr. Regnerus once averred, then what is that role? One can imagine several answers. 
First, the religious — or atheist, for that matter — sociologist might have a set of topics that she finds particularly relevant to her beliefs. Given their traditions’ emphasis on traditional family, for example, a conservative Catholic or evangelical Protestant could reasonably gravitate toward the study of family structure. 
Second, a scholar might have faith that good research ultimately brings people to God or furthers his plans. A Christian historian might trust that even a modest study of the Spanish-American War, or of Rhode Island history, would do a small part to reveal the providential nature of all history. 
Finally, a scholar might be a “Christian scholar” by virtue of the pride he takes in his faith, especially in the secular academy. Dr. Regnerus was a proud Christian witness, once upon a time. But these days he won’t discuss his faith, even with a Christian magazine. Two weeks ago, Christianity Today ran a lengthy interview with Dr. Regnerus in which he said nothing about his religious beliefs.
I suppose what's odd about it is the fact that Christian Smith, a renowned sociologist from the University of Notre Dame, and Regnerus himself (a recent convert to Roman Catholicism), seem to largely concede Oppenheimer's skepticism.  As Oppenheimer reports,

Christian Smith, one of Dr. Regnerus’s advisers at the University of North Carolina and now at Notre Dame agrees that a sociologist’s religion should affect only his choice of topics, not his methodology. 
“I believe there is sociology that is practiced in perhaps somewhat different ways by people with different backgrounds of all sorts — racial, socioeconomic, gender and religious, among others,” Dr. Smith said. But every sociologist “operates with the same basic disciplinary approach, methods and standards of evidence.” Dr. Smith said that while he had not talked with his former student “about any possible connection of faith to topic/design,” he was “quite sure his faith did not influence the design.” But he said he could “only speculate” whether Dr. Regnerus’s faith led to his interest in the topic.

Now in a way this doesn't surprise me, and I think it's partly Smith's rendition of Catholicism that contributes to this model.  As I pointed out in our recent exchange in the Christian Scholar's Review (with regard to my review of his book, What is a Person?), Smith carves up the world in a classic version of "manual" Thomism--with a "natural" world that can be known by objective, unbiased reason, though one that needs to be supplemented by a supernatural faith.  (This is just the sort of picture that was challenged by Henri de Lubac and le nouvelle théologie.)  On that account, (supernatural) faith would simply and only direct the Christian scholar to select certain aspects of "nature" to consider--but s/he would then consider them with the same supposedly unbiased "methods" that all other "rational" scholars do.  

But I think it is just this ruse of "unbiased" and "objective" scholarship and rationality that has been rightly called into question over the past 25 years--and not just by crazy Frenchmen.  You'll get the same critique of supposedly "neutral" rationality from Alasdair MacIntyre and Jeffrey Stout.  You can see it in action in Nicholas Wolterstorff's critiques of Robert Audi and Richard Rorty, which caused Rorty to back down from his more rabid secularism.  And as I argue in my exchange with Smith, I think his earlier book, Moral, Believing Animals, is actually solidly in line with this Wolterstorffian take on matters.  But that book--which I like a lot--is also predates his conversion to Catholicism.

The upshot, that Oppenheimer can't consider (nor can Smith & Regnerus, apparently), is that there are no "neutral" or "unbiased" scholars.  So it's not a question of whether faith informs scholarship, but which.   Let's just take the example of sociology: maybe there isn't a "Christian way to crunch numbers," but the number-crunching is only an instrumental slice of sociological scholarship.  Social scientific research is governed by deep notions of flourishing that are not "objective" or universal but rather emerge from stories and narratives and mythologies that are believed.  (Here I'm just repeating Smith's own argument in Moral, Believing Animals!)  

This means every social scientific instrument is already freighted with a thick, normative, albeit implicit, vision of what it is to be human and what human community ought to look like.  Those deep commitments don't make it into the data in any explicit way, but they frame every question that is asked, every bit of data that is selected as significant, etc.  There isn't a single social scientific scholar (or journalist) who doesn't believe some fundamental story about the world.  We're all confessional scholars. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

John Calvin's Catholic Faith

On October 11, 2012 I presented the Meeter Center Lecture, "'Lift Up Your Hearts': John Calvin's Catholic Faith."  (It was a delicious irony that I was delivering this talk on Calvin's Catholic faith on the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Vatican II--when the Roman church finally began listening to him!)  I'm making the talk available via Scribd.  (Audio may be forthcoming.)

I was going for "winsome polemic" here: there are parts that will push different buttons for different communities, including my own.  I hope the provocations can be received in the spirit they were intended: as an invitation to reconsider (or better, remember) what it means to be "Reformed."

"Lift Up Your Hearts": John Calvin's Catholic Faith

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

A Generational Shift in Christian Philosophy?

I've noticed a different sensibility amongst Christian philosophers of my generation--we who are heirs to some of the path-breakers like Plantinga and Wolterstorff and Mavrodes and others.

  • For someone like Plantinga, Christian theism makes a difference for our philosophizing.  There are unique convictions, knowledge, and perspectives rooted in Christian revelation that generate unique philosophical accounts (of knowledge, reality, ethics, etc.) that we could not know otherwise. And there is a certain expectation that such accounts are different from other "naturalistic" accounts.  We thus expect them to not be widely shared (indeed, we might even expect such Christian accounts to be antithetical to naturalistic accounts), though we also expect to be able to articulate a rationale that should be at least understandable.  
  • A new generation of "Christian" philosophers seems to instead be concerned to simply show that our philosophizing doesn't exclude theism.  You can see how this comes with a very different posture and project: there are no "uniqueness" claims about Christian faith or revelation, only "consistency" claims--that being a theist is not inconsistent with much of what the philosophical establishment considers acceptable (say, materialism or naturalism in ethics, or what have you). 
But then at what point does the "theism" become superfluous and merely supervenient?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Is Ours a "Galileo" Moment?: Re-posturing the Faith/Science Dialogue

In September's Christianity Today magazine I published a short article entitled, "What Galileo's Telescope Can't See" (now available online) which also gets at some of the core themes that concern us at The Colossian Forum on Faith, Science, and Culture.

The article pushes back on a tendency to immediately equate contemporary discussions at the intersection of Christian faith and science as "Galilean" moments--demanding that our reading of Scripture be revised in light of new scientific evidence.  While responsible theological interpretation certainly requires that we attend to "the book of nature," in the article I suggest that this analogy with Galileo is often hasty and unhelpful.

Here's an opening snippet:

Analogies have persuasive power, a suggestive force that operates on an almost unconscious level. To say that A is "like" B is to suggest that everything we associate with A should also be associated with B—whether good, bad, or ugly. 
So, for example, if I describe American soldiers as "crusaders," I have just painted them with an analogical brush that colors them as religiously motivated warriors guilty of the worst bigotries of the West. The analogy is loaded with a moral depiction that exceeds what's actually said. So all the disdain we have towards our (usually caricatured) understanding of the Crusades is now overlaid on our perception of military operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. 
Conversely, if I describe the proponents of my cause as "prophets" or "martyrs," I have loaded the perceptual deck with images of heroism and purity. Just by the analogy, we get to don our white hats and claim the moral high ground. Or if we describe our regime as "Camelot," we associate ourselves with romance and royal privilege. Never underestimate the power of an analogy. And never simply accept it. 
There is a particular analogy often invoked in current discussions about the relationship between Christian faith and science. Ours, we are told, is a "Galilean" moment: a critical time in history when new findings in the natural sciences threaten to topple fundamental Christian beliefs, just as Galileo's proposed heliocentrism rocked the ecclesiastical establishment of his day. This parallel is usually invoked in the context of genetic, evolutionary, and archaeological evidence about human origins that challenges traditional Christian understandings. 
Historical analogies like this are often particularly loaded because our age is characterized by chronological snobbery and a self-congratulatory sense of our maturity and progress. Since we now tend to look at the church's response to Galileo as misguided, reactionary, and backward, this "Galilean" framing of contemporary discussions does two things—before any "evidence" is ever put on the table.

Read the rest of "What Galileo's Telescope Can't See."

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sanctification *for* Ordinary Life: Is "all of life" worship?

The Protestant "sanctification of ordinary life" (as Charles Taylor often describes it) can generate a curious question: 

"If all of life is worship, then why do I need to go to church?" 

I address this question in "Sanctification for Ordinary Life," an article in Reformed Worship now available online.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Gift of Constraints: Further Thoughts on Tradition & Innovation

Following up on my earlier article, "Tradition for Innovation," Faith and Leadership at Duke has just published my new article, "The Gift of Constraints." The article is a take on the new Barnes Foundation building in downtown Philadelphia, reading it as a kind of material allegory or parable for leadership lessons.  As you'll see from the article, the architects had to work with odd, stringent constraints; but rather than shutting down creativity, the constraints invited innovation.

Here's an opening snippet:  

Let’s face it: all of us inhabit institutions that we would have built differently. We inherited policies and procedures and even physical plants with aspects that we’d happily do without. Sometimes we bristle under the constraints put upon us by founders and historical bodies that could know nothing of our contemporary challenges.

Many of us have probably daydreamed what it would be like to be free of such constraints -- to “re-imagine” the institution from scratch. Then, we tell ourselves, we’d really be free to push forward our mission and vision. But now, in the real world, these constraints are like millstones, anchors dragging on the bottom as we try to steer the ship forward into new waters.
Could we ever imagine receiving such constraints as gifts? Indeed, is it possible that the constraints of handed-down traditions could be catalysts for creativity and imagination?
I was recently struck by something of a parable in this regard. In May, after a protracted -- and very public -- legal battle, the Barnes Foundation, a Philadelphia fine-arts institution, opened a new building on that city’s famous “museum row.” Called the Barnes Philadelphia, the new museum houses Albert Barnes’ world-class collection of modern art, moved there from its former suburban home in Lower Merion, Pa. The legal wrangling need not detain us here. It’s the result that yields an interesting case study of “traditioned innovation.”

Read the rest of "The Gift of Constraints" at Faith and Leadership.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Book Annotation: Toddler Edition

We all know that children imitate their parents--for good or ill.  So, given my practice of annotating texts, it shouldn't have surprised me that our then-toddler son Grayson thought an open book (in this case, Paul Ricoeur's Oneself as Another) was an invitation for inscription.  Notice that he has already mastered the "layering" principle, utilizing two different colors for his annotation.

Toddler annotation of Ricoeur, Oneself as Another
I knew exactly where to find this, since in some ways it is one of the most important inscriptions in my library--a tactile reminder of what really matters.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Annotating Texts: Some Suggestions (with Pictures!)

A friend of mine who is also a doctoral student recently asked if I had any sort of system for how I annotate books, particularly primary texts.  It was an interesting question, because annotating books is certainly one of the central practices of my scholarly life--and yet it's not something I was ever explicitly taught, nor is it something I've attempted to teach to others.  I suppose I (mistakenly) thought it was somehow "natural," or that annotation practices were so idiosyncratic that it would be presumptuous to even try.

On the other hand, the question got me wondering whether this isn't one of the sorts of concrete aspects of study and scholarship that professors should spend more time talking about.  So, with just that notion in mind, I've here gathered a few random thoughts about how I approach the annotation of texts.  And I've included a few examples, not because I think my approach is exemplary, but only to give some concrete pictures to consider.  I'm sure others have both more elaborate and more efficient procedures.

I would preface this by noting that I think annotation is always determined by a telos: I mark up a book differently if I'm teaching it vs. writing a review; similarly, my annotation will look different if I'm reading the book as a primary resource for a writing project vs. professional development and trying to keep up in various fields.  (I also mark up novels, but won't touch on that here.)

Without further adieu, some random thoughts for a friend that might be helpful to others:

1. Your notation should be a way for you to keep track of the thread of an argument. So on one level, you should be underlining and putting notes in the margin that help YOU keep a handle on the argument. Ideally, you want to do this in a way so that when you return to the book, you can quickly reorient yourself to the argument and the main moves of the text. This requires watching especially for transitions and turning points in the argument.  (I use the top of the page to note themes I'll want to find quickly when I page through later.)

Husserl, Cartesian Meditations

2. You need to develop your own way of noting gradations of emphasis. This might be a simple as single underlining and double underlining. Or could be different colored pens, or ink vs highlighter. Whatever. I just find it helpful to have some layers. (This is especially important when you return to read a text again and again--look for ways to distinguish annotations in later readings--you might have to buy purple and green pens!  And sometimes you'll find you need to later scratch out juvenalia.  My copy of Of Grammatology is filled with this because I first read it as an ardent undergrad who was clueless.)

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

3. Use numbers in the margin to track different parts of an argument as it unfolds.

4. Write marginal comments to try to encapsulate key points in your own language. If you're reading a translation, at some points you might want to note key terms in the original language.

Augustine, Confessions

5. Put circled question marks in the margin where you just can't figure out some point. Don't get bogged down there, however. Note it, mush on, and it might become clear later.

6. Cross-reference. You know how some Bibles have those elaborate cross-reference systems?  Do something like that yourself: point back and forth with marginal notations like: "Cp. p. 17" and then go back to 17 and note the other page.

Heidegger, Being and Time
7. Argue with the author in the margins. Put big Xs (or "B.S."!) beside passages that deserve critique. Perhaps briefly note your critical point.

8. Finally, and maybe most importantly treat the hors-texte blank pages at the back as space to create your own personal index, tailored to what's at stake for you. You're always reading a book with some interest, from some angle, so create an index that helps you come back to the book later and immediately get back up to speed. This might include tracking some specific themes and noting the page numbers where it appears, then drawing some lines of connection, etc. It's also a space to perhaps summarize your taken particular issues, etc.

Jacques Derrida, Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas

Derrida, The Gift of Death [annotated for writing an article]

Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception [annotated for teaching, then writing]
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World [annotated for a review]

Ultimately, you need to craft a 'system' that works for you.  And be open to evolution and development on this score: I annotate books much differently now than I did in college or even grad school.  It's never too late to start, and you can always change how you do it.

Next up: pics of "notes" that my toddlers inscribed in my books over the years!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

How (Not) To Be Worldly: Tracing the Borders of the "Earthly City"

[Apologies for the radio silence over here at Fors Clavigera. To be honest, a lot of my energy has gone to Twitter, which I have found to be a delightful experiment so far.  In fact, the essay I link to below grew directly out of a Twitter exchange with Andy Crouch!  (You can follow me by clicking the link on the right; if you're not a Tweeter yourself, I'd encourage you to consider it.  And look for a future blog post with some reflections on my Twitter experience so far.)]

The phrase "earthly city" gets thrown around quite a bit, but with little precision, and not a little misapplication.   To try to clarify use of  the term--and its distinctly Augustinian heritage--I've just published a little essay, "How (Not) To Be Worldly: Tracing the Borders of the Earthly City" as part of Christianity Today's "This Is Our City" initiative.  (You might think of this as a general audience summary of a key theme in my engagement with "two kingdoms" thought.)

Here's the opening to the essay:

I often hope that my office is haunted. You see, I inhabit a humble corner of cinder-blocked space, with a tiny sliver of window, that was once home to one of my role models: Rich Mouw. Longtime president of Fuller Theological Seminary, Rich made his mark on evangelical social thought while teaching philosophy at Calvin College. It was during that time that he penned a series of small books that not only changed my mind; they redirected the shape of American evangelical cultural engagement. So you can see why I sort of hope that my office is—well, if not haunted, perhaps enchanted. I keep hoping that some of Rich's passion and wisdom could seep into me as I inhabit the same space, an heir to his thought and indebted to his example. 
In books like Political Evangelism (1973) and When the Kings Come Marching In (1983), Mouw challenged the apolitical, otherworldliness of evangelicals by persistently pointing to two themes in Scripture: (1) God's affirmation of the "very-goodness" of creation (Gen. 1:31), including the commissioning of human beings to undertake cultural labor in this world; and (2) the biblical vision of shalom as our true eschatological hope—a creation renewed and restored and flourishing in accord with God's desires. From beginning to end, Mouw emphasized, the Bible enjoins us to join God's mission of renewing all things (Col. 1:15-19). So, as he provocatively put it in his 1980 book, rather than looking for a divine escape hatch out of this world, we areCalled to Holy Worldliness
If that phrase gives you pause, you aren't alone. Isn't worldliness a bad thing? Aren't we supposed to resist the world (per James 4:4-5)? Isn't the "whole world" under the sway of the evil one (1 John 5:19)? Here we hit upon the multivalence of biblical language. Scripture can both loudly proclaim that "God so loved the world" and that we should "love not the world" (1 John 2:15). Context means everything here. As Mouw qualified it, what God delights in is a holy worldliness—a rightly ordered investment in God's creation with a view to fostering its flourishing. It's a "worldliness" in the sense that it is not "otherworldly"; it isholy insofar as it encourages mundane, domestic, cultural life lived under the lordship of Christ.

Read the rest of "How (Not) To Be Worldly: Tracing the Borders of the Earthly City"...

Friday, August 03, 2012

Bruce Springsteen, Educator

I was 15 years old when "Born in the U.S.A." was released, and even those of us in Canada couldn't evade its impact and allure.  This was also the era of the emerging ubiquity of the music video, so Courtney Cox's cameo in the "Dancing in the Dark" video is forever emblazoned on my memory.

I'm nothing close to a Springsteen "fan," however; and yet David Remnick's recent New Yorker profile  was captivating.  What's not to love about a working class Jersey guy who reads Dostoyevsky?

The dynamics of his relationship with his father--and its impact on his creativity--is compelling, and I'm sure has a kind of universal resonance.  As Springsteen frames it at one point:

“T-Bone Burnett said that rock and roll is all about ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s one embarrassing scream of ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s just fathers and sons, and you’re out there proving something to somebody in the most intense way possible. It’s, like, ‘Hey, I was worth a little more attention than I got! You blew that one, big guy!’ ”

But it's his long-time bandmember Steve Van Zandt who offers an analysis of their generation that was almost epiphanic for me.  Talking about Springsteen's tortured relationship with his father (a product of that proverbial "Greatest Generation" that endured WWII), Van Zandt observes (warning: mature language ahead):

“The torture we put these poor guys through, when you think of it now. My father, Bruce’s father—these poor guys, they never had a chance. There was no precedent for us, none, in history, for their sons to become these long-haired freaks who didn’t want to participate in the world they built for them. Can you imagine? It was the World War Two generation. They built the suburbs. What gratitude did we have? We’re, like, ‘Fuck you! We’re gonna look like girls, and we’re gonna do drugs, and we’re gonna play crazy rock and roll!’ And they’re, like, ‘What the fuck did we do wrong?’ They were scared of what we were becoming, so they felt they had to be more authoritarian. They hated us, you know?”

I'm sure the gist of that has been said a million times before, in a million different ways, but it just caught me short in a way that was revelatory.  The insight is probably more perennial than we realize.

Remnick's profile also confirms the way that David Brooks has invoked Bruce Springsteen.  I'm thinking particularly of Brooks' 2009 column, "The Other Education," in which he recounts the sentimental education he received by immersing himself in Springsteen's lyrical universe and concert energy.  "Over the next few decades," Brooks noted, "Springsteen would become one of the professors in my second education. In album after album he assigned a new course in my emotional curriculum."

This is no accident.  Springsteen playfully and ironically confesses as much to Remnick.  When he emerges from the dressing, he snaps into a posture in which he challenges the audience: "'Are you ready to be transformed?' What? At a rock show? By a guy with a guitar?  Part of it is a goof, and part of it is, Le's do it, let's see if we can."

Or as he sings it in "No Surrender": "We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school."