Sunday, January 31, 2016

More grounds for hope in historical unpredictability

Today I read two sweeping narratives (one by Justo González, the other by Bishop John H. R. Moorman) of church history. I had to write a brief response as part of a class on Medieval and Reformation church history, which I thought I'd post here. Alfred the Great figured prominently in both narratives. The theme of my response resonates heavily with a theme I've thought about quite a bit over the last year--call it hope in historical unpredictability.

And there was death on the Emperor
And night upon the Pope;
And Alfred, hiding in deep grass,
Hardened his heart with hope. 
-G.K. Chesterton, 'The Ballad of the White Horse'
As I read through the tumultuous history of the Church from the 5th to the 12th centuries, I was struck by the ups and downs and radical reversals throughout the period. So many unexpected challenges arose, oftentimes just when things seemed to be settling down into a beautiful Christian ideal—the Vikings sweeping through Britain, wealth corrupting the Cluniacs, Islam overwhelming the core of ancient Christianity.

Of course that's discouraging from a Christian perspective. Yet I found myself oddly encouraged by what seemed like the sheer contingency of Christian history, the sense that everything so easily could have been radically different. For me, this historical grounding offers a great sense of hope and confidence.

So many today speak as though the Church were entering a period of unprecedented decline. That's true in the sense that every historical development is unique and unrepeatable. But the Church has weathered greater crises than what we now face, and those who speak of the past as though it were a wonderful period of consistent and universal Christian faith are misguided and misguiding.

As I see it, there are two common responses when faced with the messy complexity of the Church's history. One is to reject the messiness of reality in favor of a comforting fantasy—that the Church has been a solid, stable, monolithic, and unchanging presence from Jesus to Pope Francis. The other is the more postmodern choice: since the Church is historically contingent, the current state of things must be totally arbitrary. Both are lazy options, and both work from an unexamined premise—namely, that a Church reflecting the messiness of historical life cannot also be the true body of Christ.

The reality that things could be different should not drive us to delusion or despair but instead should spur us to gratitude and determination—gratitude for the goodness of our liturgy and common prayer as precious, fragile, and by no means inevitable gifts; determination to preserve the best and mend the worst in each of our churches.

Of course, victory is in the sovereign hands of God, who will accomplish his purposes, and who is ultimately responsible for the survival and health of our Church. As T.S. Eliot wrote in The Four Quartets, "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business."

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Epiphany II

Fr. Glenn's sermon this past Sunday was beautiful. Here's the conclusion.
We know Jesus’ parable about the sower going forth to sow the Word of God, and we know that when the seed fell upon good ground, an open heart, it brought forth more fruit than anybody including his disciples could have ever imagined. But we also know — most importantly of all — that for the seed that is sown to burst into life, it must first die and be buried. And we know that because Jesus said so in the very week he would give his life up for the life of the whole world, and the Apostle John recorded it for us in the 12th chapter of his Gospel: 
“And there were certain Greeks (note these are Gentile converts) among them that came up to worship at the feast: The same came therefore to Philip, which was of Bethsaida of Galilee, and desired him, saying, Sir, we would see Jesus. Philip cometh and telleth Andrew: and again Andrew and Philip tell Jesus. And Jesus answered them, saying, The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” -John 12:20-25 
In less than 48 hours from that moment, Jesus was nailed to the Cross. Jesus is the Seed of Abraham, and Jesus’ glory is his death, and his garden tomb is the ground from which he rose, and his rising has brought forth the fruit of everlasting life just as we will sing on Easter Sunday morning: 
Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him.Christ is risen from the dead,and become the first fruits of them that slept.For since by man came death,by man came also the resurrection of the dead.For as in Adam all die,even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
Read the whole thing here.

Friday, December 11, 2015

"Let us make the human"

I've been largely absent from the blog lately because I am now a Postulant in the Anglican Province of America, and to that end I started work this semester on an M.A. in Religion. That's on top of my full-time teaching job. Below is a brief oral presentation I gave answering the question, "How are human beings different from other members of the 'animal kingdom'?" It seems to fit with the blog, so I am posting it here.

Human persons are the crown and culmination of God's good creation. We are God-breathed bearers of God's image, created by God to steward and cultivate the world in community with other persons. So we have a place of incredible honor and dignity—but also of great responsibility.

As a starting place and grounding for an understanding of human beings, you can't do better than the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. Try not to get caught up in the differences between the passages—there are some tensions in the two accounts if you come at it from the standpoint of contemporary historical or scientific practice. But those questions probably would have been meaningless or pointless to the Bible's ancient audience. Instead, try to see these as complementary accounts from different perspectives.

Genesis 1 provides a cosmic picture, a survey of the universe from the eye of God. The six days of creation are sprinkled with complementary opposites—evening and morning, day and night, heavens and earth, sea and land, sun and moon. Finally, God says, “Let us make a human in our image, by our likeness” (in the translation of one Hebrew scholar). “And God created the human in his image / in the image of God He created him / male and female He created them.” Thus the man and woman form the final, culminating complementary opposite.

In contrast with this cosmic picture, the second chapter of Genesis has a more earthy tone, what with its focus on naming critters and tilling the earth. The earthy tone is matched by its earthly, human perspective. Here we find the male human formed first: “The Lord God fashioned the human, humus from the soil, and blew into his nostrils the breath of life...” Afterwards God fashions vegetation to sustain and occupy him, and then God creates all the animals and so forth. Finally God creates “a woman.”

So what do these two accounts tell us about human beings?

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

"World History in Two Minutes"

This little video has 19 million views on YouTube, so you may have already seen it--I just saw it this morning.

Although (because?) it's incredibly frenetic, it's effective affective: the images and soundtrack are illegally judiciously chosen and impressively synchronized.

A great deal of the power comes from the rushing onslaught of very familiar, vaguely familiar, and unfamiliar images thrown together. I experience a "microburst" of emotional and intellectual associations, for instance, when the famous image of the fleeing Vietnamese children and U.S. soldiers pops up. But before you can even begin to reflect consciously, the image flurry continues.

And the premises are fascinating. While you watch, think about what view of history it presents--and what is deemed important or insignificant based on what's included and emphasized, and what's left out.

A couple of my own immediate observations (I'd suggest watching it before reading my thoughts):

  • The sequencing of images presents a powerfully progressive view of history--mankind pulling ourselves up from the primordial slime into greatness. 
  • It's also very "presentist." Some of the omissions and emphases are frustrating; others are just plain amusing:
    • It covers the whole period from ancient Egypt to ~1900 in fifteen seconds, but the Second World War alone gets ten full seconds.
    • The First World War--"the Great War"--is completely skipped. 
    • The period from 1900-present is over half of the whole video.
    • We get more images of video games than we do of the entire Greco-Roman period!

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Reigning as Christ

I gave the following as a faculty devotion. It's been edited for posting here.
“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame”
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell's
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
I say móre: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is —
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men's faces.

What we do is consistent with who we are. Each creature does what he is--acts outwardly what he is inwardly. And who we are, Hopkins says--if we are that just man of grace (that man justified, or made just, by grace)--is Christ.

So who are we? Christ. And what does Christ do? Well, he reigns.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Sunset Tree is an old friend. Those opening lines unfold like a hug after a long absence.

In general I don't listen to pop and indie music as seriously as I did a few years back--I don't regard it as seriously, I suppose.

There are exceptions, though. Some day I'll try to put down in words all that album has done for me over the years. But not today.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Ken Burns' 'The Civil War' & The Lost Cause

John Fea--whose blog is a must-read for anyone interested in American history--linked today to a fascinating post about Ken Burns' The Civil War. In the linked post, historian Kevin Levin writes about The Civil War's "split personality":
[Shelby] Foote spoke 7,653 words compared to the second highest speaker, who spoke 1,112 words... His primary responsibility  was to comment on military matters and he did this quite effectively from telling colorful stories about the experiences of the common soldier in battle to waxing poetic about Nathan Bedford Forrest. He pushed a narrative that remains incredibly popular for people who for whatever reason would rather hold on to a personal memory of the war that is void of the story of slavery and emancipation. What’s left is a popular narrative of brave soldiers fighting for their respective causes. 
Shelby Foote was the star of this documentary and rightly so, but Burns ought to be able to acknowledge all these years later that the amount of air time he was given likely allowed certain viewers to slip through without fully coming to terms with the tough questions of slavery and race. 
I see The Civil War as a wonderful example of the split personality of Civil War memory. On the one hand Burns embraced and even anticipated a robust narrative that deals directly with the tough questions related to slavery and race – one that we’ve seen blossom during the the Civil War 150. At the same time Burns’s film reminds us of the difficulty of fully reconciling this narrative with a lingering Lost Cause narrative.
Ken Burns' The Civil War is my favorite documentary, hands down. Like Fea, I've seen it multiple times, and I'll be showing extended clips of it over the next month as my students study the Civil War. Having said that, it's also a documentary with some significant problems.

Kevin Levin's analysis is spot on. The Civil War reflects a significant break between Burns's own view and that of Foote. As Levin suggests, Foote's prominence owes a lot to his magnetism on screen, which is clear and undeniable. Foote is a master of the fascinating anecdote. I could listen to him talk for hours on end.

But he clearly subscribes to a hefty amount of Lost Cause mythology. As Levin suggests, slavery is constantly pushed to the periphery based on the banal observation that the average Confederate soldier wasn't a slaveowner (as though the causes of wars ever have much of anything to do with the motivations of foot soldiers). Nathan Bedford Forrest gets called an "authentic genius" without any acknowledgement of his post-war role. Foote is allowed to portray Lee as, basically, a kind-hearted fella who hated slavery when all recent research suggests that this is, at best, an absurd oversimplification.*

Burns clearly does not subscribe to Lost Cause mythology. Given that, he should have done a better job of balancing out or contextualizing Foote.

*For the record, I don't think the demonization of Lee as a monster is much better--but I just spent a year as a thesis adviser to a student who was trying to insist that Lee was basically a Southern abolitionist, which...

Monday, August 31, 2015

My grandmother, Ruth Johnston Perkins, died in May less than two weeks before the birth of her great-granddaughter. I wrote a remembrance of her this summer titled "A Grandmother's Life, Death, and Resurrection," which has just been published at The Imaginative Conservative.

An excerpt:
Grandma’s courage at the end and the birth of our daughter have both been sources of great comfort to our family. Ultimately, however, they are not enough to defeat death—not nearly enough. The manner of Grandma’s passing reveals the depth of her faith and character, but Grandma’s dignity did not defeat death. Though her legacy lives on in the name and life of our daughter, it does not keep Grandma alive in any way other than a metaphorical sense. As the psalmist grimly and correctly observes: “…even the wise die; / the fool and the stupid alike must perish / and leave their wealth to others. / Their graves are their homes forever, / their dwelling places to all generations, / though they called lands by their own names. / Man in his pomp will not remain; / he is like the beasts that perish.” Nothing Grandma did, and nothing we do, could overcome death. Grandma faced death: Death took her. 
Death’s victories, however, are inevitably Phyrric.
You can read the rest here.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Rule of thumb: avoid insulting that which you have not read

None of us ever fully lives up to our standards of kindness and charity--not always, anyway.*

Last year I wrote a post titled "Polls and Desires." The topic of that piece is rather ancillary here--I was exploring the yawning gap between the conclusions we draw from polls and what polls are actually able to tell us. That reflection was inspired by a highly critical book review published in The American Conservative. In my post, I said some rather unkind things about the book under review--a book I had not read, whose contents I insulted secondhand.

You can imagine my surprise when I came home the other day to find in my inbox an email from Donald Lazere, the author of that book. Professor Lazere's email was unfailingly gracious. He has granted me permission to excerpt it here:
Your analysis of the “unmarked norms” of capitalism and consumerism was right on the mark (or the unmarked) and confirmed that this dimension of political attitudes is almost never directly addressed in either mainstream politics, media or scholarship. In fact, your arguments are much the same as mine throughout the section discussed and the rest of the book, in which I try scrupulously to counter-act the tendentiousness and false dilemmas of most polemics. 
Why, then, did you ridicule and say you didn’t intend to read the book? Weren’t you prejudging it? Why not give it a try?
After receiving his email, I went back and reread my original post. In hindsight, I'm taken aback by the strong language with which I dismissed the book in question--Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias. Of course, I'm unlikely to agree with the premise of a book with that title, and Jonathan Marks' review reinforced that presupposition.

But I had no business dismissing a book I hadn't read in such a cavalier manner. (It's probably a good rule of thumb not to dismiss anything you haven't read or seen, right?)

After I wrote my post on "Polls and Desires," Professor Lazere responded in the American Conservative to Professor Marks' review, which prompted a somewhat combative conversation between the two. In the comments of the response, I noted that, based on the book's table of contents,
I do get the sense that [Lazere's] book may have a wider range and more compelling points than Marks’ review indicated. Dr. Marks may have engaged in some caricaturing of Lazere’s book to make it seem more ridiculous.
At that point I should have amended my original post or written some kind of follow-up pointing to the discussion between Marks and Lazere. I did not do so and instead let my unfair and presumptuous characterization stand. For that I apologize to Professor Lazere.

In any case, it may be worth your time to read the full exchange--Marks' review and then Lazere's response and the ensuing discussion (which carried into the comments section). Should you find yourself interested in Professor Lazere's book but turned off by the price (which is pretty standard for academic publication these days), do know that Palgrave Macmillan will soon be publishing Why Higher Education Should Have a Leftist Bias in a (presumably more affordable) paperback edition.

*Some of us, of course, have no such standards in the first place. Those whose standards are scorn, indifference, and cruelty seem to do a better job of actualizing them.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Textbooks Standards and the Limits of Human Knowledge

Catastrophic evil grabs headlines. I tend to think, though, that we're less endangered by the comparatively rare instances of spectacular depravity than by the the toxic and altogether commonplace combination of arrogance and ignorance.

Consequently, what's most exasperating about neo-Confederates and their implicit fellow travelers is their utterly absurd and totally unjustified attitude of learned superiority. They defend a repugnant government. They idolize an evil society. But what I find most annoying--rather than horrifying--is the arrogance with which they proclaim their ignorance. Historically indefensible attempts to minimize the centrality of slavery to the Confederate cause are invariably followed by the pompous demand that their opponents "read some history."

Look, I know history is complex, and that all generalizations in historical study overlook caveats and nuance and exceptions to the rule. But unless we're to do away with generalization altogether--in which case the study of history would not exist, and in its place we'd have archival cataloguing of meaningless and disconnected scraps of information--we have to live with some degree of simplification. As John Lukacs is fond of saying, "Generalizations are like brooms--they're meant to sweep."

So we must generalize at times and in places or give up on historical study. Given this inevitability, we simply have to evaluate which generalizations are more justified and which are less. And if there ever was a defensible, sweepingly true generalization, it's this: the Confederate states seceded and fought a war to defend, extend, and perpetuate an economic and social system defined by--founded and entirely dependent upon--race-based chattel slavery.

The historical evidence is overwhelming--from the declarations of secession to the arguments of southern secession commissioners to the statements of the major political figures of the Confederate States of America to the Confederate Constitution. Meanwhile, alternate theories are indefensible--bad faith distortions largely manufactured by Lost Causers after 1865 as a fig leaf to disguise their slavery-centered revolt. Southern states and the C.S.A. were eager to trample states' rights in defense of slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act, for instance, was arguably the most invasive federal law ever passed. The tariff was lower in the 1850s than in most of the previous decades,* and references to it among secessionists were sporadic and inconsistent. It's true that during the Civil War Abraham Lincoln acted outside of Constitutional bounds, but as the war went on so too did Jefferson Davis and the Confederate government concentrate power at the federal level at the expense of the states.**

It was with great interest, then, that I listened to Diane Rheem's show yesterday on the Texas textbook kerfuffle.*** Obviously I have very little sympathy with those who wish to believe that states' rights was just as central to secession as slavery--much less with those who want nonsensically to treat slavery as a "side issue."

As the panelists discussed the Texas textbook standards--which certainly appear to be frankly ridiculous--a vision of a universalized, national history education emerged from some as the solution to the Texas problem. Early on, Diane Rheem asked, "But wouldn't you think there would be sort of a standardized history text that every child in America would learn the same things about?" Throughout the show, various panelists lamented that this was not the case.

As repugnant as Texas' standards appear to be, I also have to admit that I am deeply uncomfortable with this nationalized vision for historical education. Rheem and her panelists are unconsciously subscribing to the notion that if we just get enough experts together, we can conjure up one single historical account that should suffice to explain everything to everyone.