Thursday, June 25, 2015

Hope in historical unpredictability

The fellas over at First Things--along with their allies and fellow travelers (and, uh, frenemies), and are quite a gloomy lot these days. There's a distinct sense that orthodox Christianity is doomed in American society. Many in this cohort have shifted their attention from strategies of engagement in the public square to how best to deal with impending exile from mainstream American life. The "so-called" Benedict Option, articulated most popularly by Rod Dreher, has been gaining traction. Michael Hanby's profoundly despairing essay on "The Civic Project of American Christianity" was widely and heatedly discussed.

It's in this context, then, that I find Michael Brendan Dougherty's most recent column at The Week rather refreshing. Dougherty essentially says two things.

First, he points out how many seemingly unstoppable trends in the past half century or so were reversed or undone in ways no one predicted:
But history has surprising turns, ones that can be hard to see even in retrospect. It is possible to imagine a future in which 2015 doesn't augur the beginning of conservatism's final descent, but instead represents a temporary nadir. 
...Many Cold War conservatives were convinced that communism would triumph over the West. Conservatives of the late 1980s and '90s thought that the increasing crassness of popular culture and the rise in crime were related and unstoppable. Entirely wrong, all.
Dougherty then highlights many societal trends that, while apparently secular and anti- or post-Christian in nature, have surprising resonance with the concerns of conservative Christians. He points to feminism's relatively recent turn away from unfettered sexual libertinism and towards a genuine concern over the destructiveness and danger of casual sex. He notes that "the desire for organic, natural, and sustainable products" should be very amenable to true conservatism--which should be about conserving, after all. He highlights the ways that union organizers resists statism and New Urbanism emphasizes humane scale and beauty. In short, not all is bleak.

A decade ago, historian John Lukacs saw these surprising convergences. "A great division among the American people," Lukacs wrote, "has begun--gradually, slowly--to take shape: not between Republicans and Democrats, and not between 'conservatives' and 'liberals,' but between people who are still unthinking believers in technology and economic determinism and people who are not." Later in the same book, he quoted Wendell Berry's similar thoughts. "It is easy for me to imagine," said Berry, "that the next great division will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines."

Ultimately, though, the particular hopeful trends Dougherty mentions are less important than the basic concept he outlines at the start. History is unpredictable. Trends that seem unstoppable stop.

Some years ago I wrote some thoughts about Tina Fey, Mark Twain, and racism:
Consider: if we today have problems discerning whether 30 Rock is racist, imagine how much more difficult this would be in a century. When people with inevitably different perspectives from another culture with its own constructions of race and society attempts to parse commentary, humor, and racism within 30 Rock, some of them are likely to think, wrongly, "Wow, that is actually pretty racist." And if, in one hundred years, that discussion actually is occurring, Tina Fey's work and legacy will have approached Mark Twain's. 
I later connected that thought with a broader point about the unpredictable judgments of our progeny--the frightening reality that what we see as our best, most "forward-thinking" qualities might come in for vociferous condemnation somewhere down the line:
At the end of last year I wrote that Tina Fey's not-controversial-except-to-neocon-pundits joke about Mark Twain might actually be a brilliant anticipation of the totally unfair ways we'll be judged by our descendants. And it's that unpredictability--turning a prescient, humane condemnation of racism into racism itself--that makes me think worrying too much about our grandchildren's judgment is a waste of time. They'll probably have bad taste.
More to the point today: we surely needn't worry about those proclaiming right and wrong sides to history. After all, they aren't making "historical" claims, in the sense that they can be proven or supported with reference to past history. Whether the proclaimers recognize it or not, such assertions are fundamentally prophetic. That is, they are making a claim about the purposes and intentions of the author of history.

And the author of history either does not exist or he is God Almighty.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Redeeming the Oppressor

I'm praying that the church massacre in Charleston will do for some what the Birmingham church bombing did for Dennis Covington's father:
Dad had no use for the Klan. He was a gentle, principled man. But he must have sensed even then that the past he seemed bent on avoiding was bound to be claimed by someone, somewhere along the line. He was, as I've said, in theory if not in practice, a segregationist. Some of his arguments seem tamer now in retrospect, tempered as they are by time. But he was still a segregationist, in an era when legal segregation was our greatest shame. The bombing on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963 broke my father's resistance, and his heart. The girls who died in the bombing were about my age. We hear the news on a small brown radio in the kitchen after church that Sunday. It was the first time I ever saw my father cry. The bombing seemed to seal a permanent judgment on the city. 'The shame will be ours forever,' editorialized a local newspaper at the time. But Martin Luther King, Jr., foresaw ultimate salvation in the tragedy. At the funeral for three of the girls, he said, 'The deaths may well serve as the redemptive force that brings light to this dark city.' And it did. What happened in Birmingham in 1963 not only redeemed the oppressed. It also redeemed my people, although we haven't been able to accept that yet. We haven't yet taken that particular snake out and lifted it aloft in the light--the dangerous, unloved thing about us: where came from, what we did, who we are. (from Salvation on Sand Mountain)
Oppression, as Covington (and King) observed, harms the oppressor as well as the oppressed--though of course in very different ways, and the oppressor is unlikely to recognize how participation in evil brings destruction to one's own soul.

Explicit white supremacists may be few and far between today, but there are still many among us who reflexively label young black people as thugs, who ignorantly cast all problems of inner-city poverty as personal failures of moral weakness and in so doing whitewash hundreds of years of institutional racism (along with well-intentioned but effectively disastrous programs instituted as recompense in the 1960s and '70s)--and who defend an antebellum society built on the sweat and blood of the enslaved and a government founded explicitly to defend, perpetuate, and extend race-based slavery.

Let Dylann Roof's evil be turned into some good for those of us who have yet to face where we came from, what we did, who we are.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Things we do and do not know

Responses to the horrifying massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina have been all over the place. Daniel Silliman makes an important point in his short post on shock as a form of denial
One piety, commonly expressed in times of tragedy, is that such violence is beyond comprehension. There is always the danger, however, that it is beyond comprehension only because it's easier not to comprehend. 
Shock is sometimes a form of denial. 
In this case, the violence comes in a context. It follows a long history. Violence against black churches is not new in America; violence against this specific church isn't new either.  
"Many are shocked at not only the grisly nature of the shooting, but also its location,"writes Benjamin Park for The Junto. "Yet this experience is unfortunately, and infuriatingly, far from new: while black churches have long been seen as a powerful symbol of African American community, they have also served as a flashpoint for hatred from those who fear black solidarity, and as a result these edifices have been the location for many of our nation’s most egregious racial terrorist acts." 
As Jamil Smith puts it in The Atlantic, "The black church hasn't been safe since there has been a black church." 
Whoever has ears to hear, Jesus said.

Monstrous evil sometimes uncovers insufficiency of language and poverty of thinking. Calling horrific acts--whether this week's terrible shooting or, say, Hitler's Holocaust--demonic or insane often functions as an excuse to leave it at that. In other words, if the devil or madness is to blame, then simply throwing one's hands up is a valid response.

I do believe that evil is at work in the world--and not merely in some kind of impersonal force but in principalities and powers. But like explanations that resort to "human nature," it may be generally true, but it doesn't tell us much about about the particular event, and leaving it at that generally obscures more than it reveals.

It may be the case, moreover, that insanity played a role in this week's shooting. This need not be so, however. We tend to assume that unspeakable evil is necessarily insane--that, in other words, the sane are incapable of such acts. But this, I'm afraid, is not a true description of reality but rather a coping mechanism that puts a safe distance between the truly evil and the rest of us. Right now we do not know nearly enough to discern whether insanity played a role.

But--and this is the key point--even if it did, that would not therefore mean insanity is a complete and exclusive explanation. Studying history attentively should teach us that causation isn't generally singular. Often causes overlap in complex and even contradictory ways.

We do not, as I said, know whether the shooter was insane. But we do know some other things. So perhaps instead of throwing our hands up about things we do not know, we ought to start reckoning with the things we do know.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Forgiveness is unnatural

Over the past week I've seen a number of people express anger and bitterness towards the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. The idea that God would forgive monstrous evil is proof for some of Christianity's moral bankruptcy.* That might seem odd on the face of it. Isn't forgiveness supposed to be good P.R. for Christianity? Don't people usually get upset about the wrathful justice of God? Ultimately, these twin critiques--Christianity as evil because of God's judgment and Christianity as evil because of God's mercy towards the wicked--stem from the same corrupted understanding of forgiveness. And since a corrupted understanding of Christian forgiveness necessarily entails a corrupted understanding of the God who forgives, the problem cuts straight to the heart of Christian theology.

As sociologist Christian Smith first observed, the religion of most Americans--even those in the Church--is not really orthodox Christianity so much as a kind of "moralistic therapeutic deism." Most of us want a religion that helps us generally be "good people" and feel good about ourselves as such. We like a God, then, who excuses or overlooks our everyday faults and flaws.

This is not, however, a God who forgives. As C.S. Lewis observed, what we call forgiveness is usually just excusing. That is, rather than acknowledging and forgiving a wrong, we find a way to excuse ourselves or others from guilt. The wrong simply ceases to be considered a wrong and thus does not need to be forgiven in the first place. We want a God, then, who excuses, and who sees us as basically good, who sees our flaws and failings as we do--as insignificant trifles.

In order to extend forgiveness, though, you have to recognize the inexcusability of what's being forgiven. And in order to accept forgiveness, you must acknowledge your need for it. Forgiveness does not minimize evil. It is, to the contrary, inseparable from wrestling with the full weight of evil. And we simply won't do that with the greed and lust, the narcissism and vainglory that characterize your average American's sins. These might be flaws, but surely they're not really evil.

The God of moralistic therapeutic deism cannot comprehend or accept evil. When confronted with our sin--and the sins of those like us--we simply recategorize them as understandable and ultimately excusable flaws. Some evil, though, cannot be explained or excused away. The revelation of sexual abuse and molestation by a Christian reality TV celebrity last week sparked a social media explosion--and some angry rejection of the doctrine of forgiveness. In the face of this sort of unspeakable evil, the gently excusing God will not do. We want our God wrathful and vengeful and unforgiving.

This is a natural reaction--and a good reminder that forgiveness, by contrast, is unnatural.

Throughout his public life, Martin Luther King Jr. modeled the Christian doctrine of forgiveness in all of its complexity and power and unnaturalness. The evil which Dr. King confronted seems to us stark, unaccountable, and foreign. My students sometimes speak of the Jim Crow Era as though it were a thousand years ago and a thousand miles away--rather than within living memory and in this very town. Dr. King faced repugnant racism, systematic oppression, a legal system that tacitly and sometimes openly sanctioned lynchings, the bombing of churches, and murder of children. This is wickedness on an unthinkable scale. Yet Dr. King responded in Christian love and forgiveness. In a 1957 speech titled "Some Things We Must Do," he warned his followers against bitterness. "We must," he said,
somehow stand up before our white brothers in this Southland and see within them the image of God. No matter how bad they are as we think, no matter what they do to us, no matter what they said about us, we must still believe that in the most recalcitrant segregationist there is the image of God.
Dr. King then turned from attention from his followers to the segregationists against whom they struggled. To them, he proclaimed his indomitable love:
Come into our homes at the midnight hours of life and take us out on some desolate highway and beat us and leave us there, and we will still love you. Run all around the country and send your literature, and say that we aren’t worthy of integration, that we are too immoral, that we are too low, that we are too degraded, yet we will still love you. Bomb our homes and go by our churches early in the morning and bomb them if you please, and we will still love you.
Dr. King was not naive, and he did not excuse. He saw the image of God in the segregationist and loved him for it, but in so doing he never minimized the wickedness of segregation. Even as he faced evil that would overwhelm general human decency and goodwill, Dr. King never lost hope. Earlier in the speech, he explained why:
I believe in the future because I believe in God. And I believe that there is a personal power in this universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole. I believe that there is a force, a creative force, that works at every moment to bring low prodigious hilltops of evil and to bring down gigantic mountains of injustice. And He’s still working; He’s working now, at this hour. And because He’s working, I know He’s working to establish His kingdom.
That is the Christian God--the one and the same God who forgives and who brings about justice. The challenge for Christians today is to live in and for and from that God--and not the God who excuses our sins but will not forgive the more monstrous sins of others. The God who is God requires that we neither overlook nor minimize evil but learn to forgive it, and in so doing learn how to receive forgiveness ourselves.

To do that--to forgive and be forgiven--we must name evil for what it is. In a recent essay on "Paschal penitence," Episcopal Bishop John Bauerschmidt wrote that the practice of Confession "is not a 'sad' reminder of sins that should be left off in a 'happy' Eastertide, but part of the proclamation of the very meaning of the Resurrection." The good news of forgiveness, in other words, cannot be separated from the "bad news" of our sin. We cannot accept forgiveness without accepting our own sinfulness.

Nor can we extend forgiveness to others if we fail to account for their sinfulness. We must, furthermore, be willing to confront not only personal but also structural and systemic sin. We should not be afraid to confront and name these institutional and communal sins--whether we're speaking of the unnacountability of the Roman Catholic hierarchy amidst sexual abuse scandals, oppressive systems of racism that still persist in America today, or widespread abuse in some patriarchal, fundamentalist branches of Christianity.

The good news of the kingdom of heaven is also hard news. We should not, then, be surprised when people reject God's forgiveness--any more than when they reject God's justice. As St. Paul taught the Corinthians, "The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." 

---

*I'm specifically writing here in response to those who expressed disgust or anger at the Christian doctrine of forgiveness per se (here are two examples that came across my feed, but you can find examples ad infinitum by searching "forgiveness Duggar" on social media).

I am not addressing the scandal itself--because I know almost nothing about the reality TV family at the center of the scandal, and I don't know a great deal about the scandal itself. I feel the need to specify things to which I am not reacting:

(1) I am not dealing with those who are accusing Josh Duggar of hypocrisy. Some people have expressed anger at apparent hypocrisy on the part of the man at the center of the scandal who has, I gather, accused gay men of being molesters (so I'm told, anyway--again, I knew basically nothing about him a week ago). Assuming that's true, the principle of Matthew 18 and debt forgiveness would apply here--you can't receive forgiveness and condemn others at one and the same time. Matthew 18 does not provide a perfect correspondence. Mr. Duggar in this case is not withholding forgiveness for the same sin he committed but is rather projecting his particular sin onto an entirely separate issue. But, in any case, I'm talking about forgiveness itself--not the hypocrisy of the forgiven.

(2) I am not dealing with those accusing other Christians of hypocritically demanding forgiveness for a molester while heaping condemnation on less destructive sins by others. One example I've seen mentioned is those who see Freddie Gray's drug use as somehow justifying his negligent homicide at the hands of Baltimore Police. So while some Christian conservatives condemned Gray (and many other young black men who've died at the hands of police), others are now demanding forgiveness for Mr. Duggar. If you assume that these are the same people--which very well may be the case--then the critique is valid. But in any case, that's not what I'm talking about here.

(3) I am not dealing with those pointing out that forgiveness does not necessarily entail the erasure or removal of consequences. Sometimes people assume that truly forgiving means not holding accountable. "Forgive and forget" expresses this idea. This is a corruption of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness. Forgiveness requires that we reject vengeance--but not necessarily all punishment. Just punishment is not about inflicting harm or exacting revenge. Just punishment ultimately flows not out of hate for the offender but out of love--for the offended, for the community in which the offense took place, and even for the offender himself. Loving the offended, the community, and the offender usually requires that sin entail consequences. So this is a valid critique in general--and it's probably relevant to the specific instance. But I'm not reacting to this.

So to be clear: I'm responding to a rejection of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness itself when applied to those we see as monstrous--revulsion at the idea that God and others would forgive a child molester.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Accidental Plagiarism

It seems like every time an author becomes mired in a plagiarism scandal, you hear excuses about sloppy notetaking or research skills leading to someone accidentally stealing the work of another writer.

Have you ever bought that line? I tend to have a... let's just call it skeptical response. My response is something of a "trilemma" reformulated from C.S. Lewis' own famous trilemma*: the author making that excuse is either a liar, an idiot... or a lying idiot.

*Lewis argues that the Jesus depicted in the Gospels is either a liar, a madman... or God. 

Just now, though, I'm not excited about where that particular trilemma leaves me. Here's why:

This morning I went into the unruly drafts folder of my email account looking for a particular project. A draft from a month or so back caught my eye. Upon opening it, I saw two paragraphs that I wrote down for a blog post I never finished. As I reread those paragraphs, I tried to remember why I hadn't ever finished the post--these were (I thought with a touch of self-regard) well-crafted and thoughtful paragraphs.

Those paragraphs were responding to an essay, and as I tried to recall the essay in question I realized with a start that this is that essay. This was not my own writing. I was looking instead at a draft of an email I'd intended to send to a coworker: a short excerpt that was supposed to be paired with a link to the essay. But I'd been interrupted before I could finish the email and had forgotten about it. Those two unattributed paragraphs sat in my drafts folder innocuously for a couple months, and when I returned to them, I somehow managed to believe they were my own written work.

So where does that leave me with my plagiarist's trilemma? Well, since it doesn't make me a liar or a lying idiot, my own trilmma convicts me of pure, unadulterated idiocy.

Or, perhaps, I ought to extend a little more charity--and a little less presumption--in my judgments of accused plagiarists.

I can't imagine that I would ever have gotten to the point of publishing those paragraphs while still thinking it was my own prose. After all, the entire span of time from opening the draft to realizing my mistake could not have been more than a couple minutes. But I also have to recognize that, in the first place, the draft was only a couple months old. Had it been a year old, I might very well have never realized my mistake. And, secondly, I do not write all that much. Those two paragraphs were not sitting amidst reams of my own written material.

In other words, had I been looking at stray notes from a book-length project--the kind that might cover years of research--it seems to me highly possible that those two paragraphs could have slipped into that project without citation or attribution. Nor does it seem totally unrealistic that larger or multiple sections of unoriginal material could be unintentionally plagiarized due to sloppy notetaking.

Anyone who writes cannot be reminded of this too often: it is essential to use care and attentiveness in the use of sources and citations. When taking notes on a source, make explicitly clear the differences between and among direct quotations, paraphrases of the text, and your own thoughts or responses to it. Your reputation and your reliability depend upon it.

Lastly, I've been reminded of the demands of charity. Charity requires us to resist the satisfying urge to excorciate others for their mistakes, and charity calls us to presume the best rather than assume the worst in others.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Broiled Fish and Resurrected Bodies

I gave the following as a faculty devotion. It's been slightly edited for posting here. Many of the thoughts stem from E.L. Mascall's Christ, the Christian, and the Church, "Early Traditions and the Origins of Chrsitianity" by N.T. Wright, and Fr. Glenn's recent sermons.

READING: Luke 24:36-43
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
The newspaper headline would be: “Resurrected Christ appears in crowded room, eats broiled fish.”

I find the fish particularly interesting, because it fits in with a series of events in Jesus' ministry connected to food and drink. Think of the turning of the water into wine, feedings of thousands, the Last Supper.

Food is a particularly recurrent feature of the resurrected Jesus. Earlier in Luke 24—just before the account we read—St. Luke tells us of Christ's appearance on the road to Emmaus, during which he breaks bread with the two followers of Christ. On Thursday Sarah will give us a no-doubt brilliant exegesis of Jesus' post-fishing breakfast with some disciples. And here, of course, here we have Jesus snacking on some broiled fish. It says he “ate it before them,” which paints an odd picture to me—Jesus chowing down on fish, everyone staring at him, mouths probably still agape.

These food details interest me, and not just because I like food. Growing up, I interpreted the appearances of Christ between his resurrection and ascension as primarily about proof that he was in fact raised from the dead. That's obviously a huge part of these stories. It wasn't until much later that I started thinking about those appearances in light of the promised and yet-to-come resurrection of the dead.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Friday, April 3, 2015

ALMIGHTY God, we beseech thee graciously to behold this thy family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was contented to be betrayed, and given up into the hands of wicked men, and to suffer death upon the cross; who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
-The Collect for Good Friday (the Book of Common Prayer, 1928)

~~~

Though this life
Is Ash Wednesday,
It’s Ash Wednesday,
It forever approaches Good Friday.
-Elvis Perkins

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"Any real, authentic community of Christ’s love will provide you with opportunities for great personal sacrifice--that is, ample opportunities to imitate Christ." -Fr. Glenn, Sermon for Lent I (2013).

Friday, March 20, 2015

History and the Exodus

In the past year or so I've become increasingly interested in the historicity of the Old Testament. I have long been thinking about the role of story in the life of the Church more generally, but my interest in the particular nature of Old Testament stories has grown more recently. One question I'm often thinking and rethinking is that of the relationship between those stories and history. Should, more specifically, the Old Testament's historical reliability affect--whether adversely or positively--the Christian's confidence in Holy Scripture? How should the Christian react to claims about the historicity of the Old Testament?

That question is far too complicated for any blog post by any writer, and it's obviously beyond my training and intelligence. But I do think there are a couple of workable "ground rules" from which to operate--or, maybe, a couple of pitfalls to avoid.

To begin with, it is important that we acknowledge our own limitations. We have to start by recognizing that many "problems" of biblical reliability are in fact problems of our own making--due not to the text itself but to our own errant interpretations and inevitably incomplete knowledge. It may be the case, for instance, that the apparent conflict between contemporary science on origins and the Book of Genesis has less to do with Scripture per se and more to do with modernist assumptions inherent in fundamentalism.

To take another example, when we expect ancient authors to use numbers in a consistently straightforward way, we may be anachronistically applying contemporary expectations to a foreign context. Ancient authors' use numbers in symbolic or indirect way--even when we cannot quite penetrate or understand the symbolism--should not be seen as inaccuracy or falsehood. This is analogous to, say, criticizing someone for using the phrase "sunrise" when the "objective truth" of the matter is that the earth is spinning rather than the sun rising. In both origins and numbers the same basic concept is at work: rather than attempting to understand a text on its own historical terms, we superimpose our own expectations of how (we assume) numbers ought to work. And when it turns out that the author is using numbers differently than expected, we're likely to accuse them of inaccuracy and unreliability.*

*Of course, I have objections to a whole set of ideas about "objectivity" at work here--namely, the assumption that "perspective" (the human being watching the sun rise) is irrelevant or inaccurate. But that's for another time.

What I mean is that you must try, so far as possible, to judge Scripture on its own terms, rather than imposing your own modern historical or scientific expectations onto it--expectations that might have been absurd, if not completely meaningless, to an ancient audience.  This does not mean, though, that historical unreliability in Scripture would be insignificant to the Christian. This does not mean, to push to the other extreme, that I am comfortable with the progressive move to reduce all of Scripture to "spiritual truths" that persist even if the claim the text makes is false. If you wish to read a text on its own terms, you have to take its claims seriously. The attempt to "spiritualize"--and thereby neutralize--the truth claims of Scripture is no less anachronistic than the most benighted fundamentalist interpretation out there.

It's with this in mind that I've been reading the fascinating conversation developing around a recent essay in Mosaic Magazine disputing the widespread scholarly dismissal of the Exodus story's historicity. Gerry McDermott's blog, The Northampton Seminar, directed me towards the initial essay, which uses two separate approaches to argue for the historical reality--at least to some extent--of the Exodus story. On the one hand, Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, undercuts the premises and assumptions at play in the dismissal of the Exodus story. He then offers up old and new evidence to support the historicity of both the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt and the subsequent Exodus.