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Monday, June 27, 2016

Acton blogs this year

I attended Acton University again this year, and my blogs on the subject (which were found at Mission:Work last time) can be found at Pickled Pencil this year. Pickled Pencil is a group blog primarily run by my friend Brandon Harnish. These posts are my first contributions over there. The most recent one is a report on a talk I attended at Acton this year comparing the thought of Jacques Maritain and Alasdair MacIntyre. The subject is relevant in the wake of the Brexit vote, since Maritain was a strong proponent of European (and indeed world) unity, while MacIntyre is suspicious of large conglomerates and emphasizes local community.

Further Acton posts will be appearing at Pickled Pencil this week.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Tubers vs. grains

This article argues that societies that ate roots/tubers (potatoes, manioc, yams, etc.) got as many nutrients as societies that ate grains, but had fewer reasons to develop complex societies (because grains can be stored in large quantities and are easily stolen). Hence, potatoes and other tubers were a "curse" to societies like the Caribbean Taino that relied on them for food.

I question this language of "blessing" and "curse." The assumption seems to be (if the theory is right) that developing a complex, hierarchical society is a good thing. Certainly it has led to many good things--and to many evil things.

It might be more accurate to say that the curse of tuber-eating societies is contact with grain-eating societies. The Taino weren't cursed by their manioc. They were cursed by the Spaniards.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp--in which I take the opposite view from Winston Churchill

According to Roger Ebert's review of the 1943 film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Winston Churchill once demanded of Anton Walbrook, the Austrian refugee who plays a German officer in the movie, "'What's this film supposed to mean? I suppose you regard it as good propaganda for Britain." Walbrook supposedly responded, "No people in the world other than the English would have had the courage, in the midst of war, to tell the people such unvarnished truth."

I'm not quite sure what to make of this story, given my own reaction to the film. Perhaps it means that I'm a hardened anti-war cynic driven to folly by my fear of being naive, and that the reaction I want to have (which is basically Ebert's reaction) is the right one. Or perhaps it's testimony to the depravity of moral sensibility on questions of war, violence and nationalism prevalent in the 1940s.

The fact is that after watching the film (one I've wanted to see for years), I would be inclined to answer Churchill's ironic question with an unironic, "yes, of course I do--it's excellent propaganda for Britain, and I only wish it were true."

Colonel Blimp portrays its central character (who confusingly is not called Blimp but Miles Candy, eventually becomes a general, and does not die in the course of the movie) as an affectionate caricature of a British military officer. In the opening frame sequence he is an elderly, mustachioed general mocked by a young Home Guard officer for his attachment to a gentlemanly way of warfare whose time is  long past. The bulk of the movie describes Miles Candy's life over a period of forty years, beginning in 1902 when he goes impulsively to Berlin to squelch rumors about British atrocities in the Boer War, in which he has just earned the Victoria Cross. The film takes for granted that the stories are false, and plays on the irony of the Germans of all people being outraged by stories of atrocities. One of the more interesting and subtle suggestions in the movie (stated baldly and in a naive way by Candy's wife as a suggestion that there's "something wrong" with the Germans, but hinted in more sophisticated ways elsewhere) is that German militarism and ruthlessness were in part the product of inexperience. German idealism and high culture leave the Germans ill-equipped to deal with actual warfare (in the 1902 sequence a German officer tells Candy that he envies the British because they have military experience, while the Germans know war only in books), and they quickly become savage. The British, on the other hand, have steeped themselves in a code of military behavior that protects them from slipping into savagery, but at the same time disadvantages them over against the enthusiastic ferocity of the Germans.

In the film, Candy draws entirely the wrong lesson from the First World War, concluding that it had been won by British fair play and honor over against German ruthlessness and leading a whole table of well-placed British gentlemen in generously assuring a former prisoner of war (his friend and successful romantic rival Theo Kretzschmar-Schuldorff) that Britain will help Germany "get on its feat again." Theo shakes his head over this naivete, reflecting to himself that it will give Germany a chance for revenge. When we next see Theo, in the 1930s, he is seeking asylum from the Nazis and ruefully remarking that he understands Nazi militarism as a recovering addict understands drugs. Theo, and many other characters, berate Candy for his naivete and warn that if Britain refuses to use the same methods as the Germans, then the Germans will win and there will be nothing but "German methods."

Candy, then, can be seen as a romantic hero who represents an older British way of warfare, hopelessly inadequate to modern conditions but at the same time deeply lovable and admirable. But the film is more complex than that, as its portrait of Candy's private life shows. His first love, Edith, marries Theo (because Candy's not in touch enough with his feelings to figure out that he's in love with her until it's too late) and years later he marries a much younger woman who reminds him of her. She dies fairly soon (after about seven years of marriage if I have the film's chronology right), and at the end of the movie he is employing a young female driver who again resembles his lost love strikingly (it should be made clear that there is no hint of a sexual relationship in this last case). All three characters are played by Deborah Kerr, a move that reminds me of Meg Ryan's similar turn in the underrated Joe Vs. the Volcano and, more relevantly and disturbingly, of Kim Novak's performance in Vertigo. Candy's obsession with finding a lookalike for Edith, like the "makeover" scene in Vertigo, seems to indicate that his "romanticism" has something deeply unhealthy about it. The film sums up large stretches of Candy's life, before his marriage and after his wife's death, by montage sequences in which the heads of wild animals appear one after the other on blank space in his "den." In a particularly creepy moment, he shows off a picture of his dead wife to Theo in order to demonstrate how much she looked like Edith--and the picture is enshrined in the midst of the animal heads, as if it were another trophy.

So taken as a character sketch, the film is an ambivalent and deeply engaging work of art, giving us a figure whom we can't help loving even as we recognize that he has a strained relationship with reality.

But from a political and moral point of view, the more ambivalent the portrait of Candy the more disturbing the film's underlying message becomes, because the alternative to Candy is pragmatic ruthlessness, a determination to do whatever it takes to win and to beat the Germans by their own methods.

Most nations like to tell about themselves a story something like this: "We are good, honorable people who are always being beaten by other people because the other people are more ruthless than we are. This is our greatest fault and we need to correct it by becoming just as ruthless as our enemies. That's too bad--it will mean that we lose something very quaint and sweet and precious--but it's necessary to preserve what really matters in our way of life, and since we are such nice people who don't want to be mean we really don't need to worry that we will go too far." This film, it seems to me, tells a story very much like that. Walbrook's "unvarnished truth," which offended Churchill, turns out to be, "We British are unfailingly honorable except when we reluctantly see the light of common sense and do what has to be done."

Apart from its moral problems, the story isn't historically accurate. The British did, in fact, commit atrocities in the Boer War. They herded women, children, and Africans into concentration camps where thousands of them died of starvation. The Germans were indeed, as the film hints, learning from the British. But the British were their models not only in soldiering but in war crimes. The film also skates over the Treaty of Versailles, giving the entirely inaccurate impression that the nice Allies helped the Germans on their feet after the war only to be stabbed in the back.

If the film were nothing more than war propaganda, this playing fast and loose with history would be unremarkable. But precisely because the film is so complex and compelling, one is left wondering just what Powell is doing here. Is he perhaps giving us a deliberately unreliable perspective, reflecting Candy's subjective view of himself? (Cinematically, some important sequences, including Theo's meditation on British naivete and kind-heartedness, are presented when Candy is offscreen, so it's hard to argue that the whole movie is from his POV.) Is the film saying, "actually the British are not as innocent as they think," and is this lack of national self-knowledge mirrored in Candy's personal life? Maybe. Maybe my first reaction that the film is very sophisticated war propaganda doesn't do it justice. Or maybe it's just a film that, like other great films, takes on a life of its own and thus transcends any "message" the directors may have intended.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is similar in its effect on me to Zhang Yimou's Hero, another film which I found ideologically disturbing but artistically compelling. (No, before you ask, I don't put Birth of a Nation remotely in the same category. It's just racism with great spectacle.) Like Hero, this movie will be with me for a long time.

Since I've focused on the film's ideas and characterization, I should add that it's darn entertaining. Anyone who likes British film and television should love this movie, and anyone who doesn't (if there is such a barbaric person to be found among my readers) should give it a try anyway. If you have made it through watching the characters of Downton Abbey sipping tea significantly at each other for hours on end, Colonel Blimp should be a refreshing change.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

The most basic argument against Protestantism

Dave Armstrong at Patheos Catholic has pointed out that early Protestants "detested divisions" and were very concerned to maintain unity.

He's right. The most basic argument against Protestantism, which does not require any particular theological premises about authority, is

1. The Protestants expected and claimed that all Christians of good will ("endowed with the Spirit" as my dissertation subject Martin Bucer would put it) would be able to see that their interpretation of Scripture was correct, and that by unleashing Scripture a renewed and reunified Church would emerge. (It's important to bear in mind that early sixteenth-century Christians saw the Church as divided and fractious, and were looking for _greater_ unity, not less).


2. This didn't happen.


3. Therefore, by the standards of the early Reformers themselves, Protestantism is a failure.


Instead of admitting this, Protestants have spent 500 years arguing either that [visible] unity really doesn't matter or that it will happen if we only get one more bit of light out of Scripture or throw off one more unbiblical tradition.

Of course this is painting with a huge brush. Many Protestants do recognize this. But as a whole, Protestantism tends to take the Reformers as a model either substantively (by trying to follow their doctrines) or methodologically ("ecclesia semper reformanda"/"God hath yet more light to break forth out of His Holy Word") or both. And both of these approaches have proven disastrous.


Guarding our neighbor's pride--yet another response to Morgan Guyton

If I'm not careful this blog will become nothing but a parasite on Morgan's. He raises such good questions in both his blog and his FB comments, and I find myself responding on Facebook at such length as to warrant a blog post of my own. I'll try to blog about other things as well. . . .

Most recently, Morgan has raised the question of how his sense of the need to affirm "queer pride" relates to his theological belief that we need to be willing to "renounce everything about who we are in order to become a Christian disciple."

I think there are two issues here:
1. The question of whether "pride" has the same negative connotation for people (especially but not exclusively people who belong to disadvantaged social groups) whose temptation is to self-contempt as it does for people whose social location and/or psychology make them more likely to be tempted to arrogance.

2. Granted the traditional premise that pride is bad, the paradox arises that humility for me means, in some sense, respecting the "pride" of the other.

I think 1 is resolvable by recovering the fully orthodox Christian doctrine of human nature--i.e., rejecting the Calvinist and to some extent also the Augustinian (though there's a lot of value in Augustine) claim of total depravity. I can distinguish, for myself (though of course it's not easy), the line between affirming my value as a good creation of God (over against the voices in my own head or coming from other people that tell me I'm no good) and a sinful arrogance that lords it over others. I think (and there's plenty of support for this in Augustine and even in Calvin) that a mark of pride in the sinful sense is that it leads us to be abusive toward others. Pride is the chief characteristic of tyrants--which is why, in case anyone reading this should have any doubts, it's always a bad idea to vote for a person who says he has never needed to ask God for forgiveness. Psychologically, I think it's sound to say that pride in the sinful sense is always the result of a lack of confidence in one's inherent dignity as God's good creation. (The promise of the serpent, "you will be like gods," implies that the dignity Adam and Eve already have as God's creatures and stewards of the earth isn't enough--that they are really inferior beings who need something more that the serpent can offer in order to have real dignity.) If you have inherited vast wealth and feel the need to prove to yourself and the world that you are more than just the spoiled scion of privilege, you will be tempted to become the kind of person who is always bragging about being a "winner."

The trickier problem, as I see it, is no. 2. Humility, for me, means in part that I submit myself to the wisdom of the Christian tradition, on sexuality and on other matters. But at times this may involve me in complicity with the abuse of others. I find the Christian (and specifically Catholic) picture of what human sexuality is supposed to look like profoundly compelling, and I find that it speaks effectively to my own potential to abuse others. But I hear the point that Morgan and many others are making that when I, as a heterosexual male, affirm the eternal validity and authority of this ethic, I am contributing to a way of thinking that causes gay people to fall into despair, lose any sense of their dignity as children of God, and in some cases kill themselves.

An issue that touches me more closely is women's ordination. I find it arrogant of me to assert, over against the Catholic Church, that the practice of ordaining only men is theologically flawed (even though my own theological reasoning would lead me to conclude this). But it is more poisonously arrogant of me to affirm, over against my wife and other women who feel called to ordination, that their calling is invalid because a theological system that I find personally compelling says so. The conclusion I've come to with regard to Catholicism is that I can submit my own "intellect and will" to the Church, but not that of my brothers and sisters in Christ (particularly, in this case, my sisters in Christ). 

I don't think there's an easy answer here. I come down on a different place with regard to how this applies to gay people than Morgan does, but I'm deeply conflicted about it precisely because I fear that I'm actually exercising a form of arrogance in trying to be humble vis-a-vis the historic Christian tradition. One of the reasons I find Morgan's presentation of the "pro-gay" case much more compelling than that of many other progressives is that Morgan clearly recognizes the conflict from the other side. 

Friday, May 06, 2016

Romans 1, original sin, and identity

One of the key passages in theological debates over homosexuality is Romans 1, in which Paul appears to label same-sex sexual behavior as an example of the depravity that results from idolatry and human sinfulness generally. Morgan Guyton argues in this recent post that, in fact, the teaching of Romans 1 leads in the opposite direction. One way to make this point, found in this address by the Catholic theologian James Allison, is to argue that Paul is using examples of sexual depravity that Jews would have found horrifying in order to set up the rhetorical "punch-line" of Romans 2. Allison points out that it's pretty ironic to use Romans 1 as an excuse for pointing at some "other" group of people and demonizing them as hopelessly depraved, when that's exactly what Paul is criticizing his Jewish readers for doing in Romans 2. (Morgan makes very similar points in his book How Jesus Saves the World From Us and, implicitly, in this piece as well.) So I'm broadly in agreement with the point Morgan makes in the conclusion to his post:
. . . .since I’ve met too many LGBT people who are plainly not filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice, I have concluded that Paul is not condemning LGBT identity itself in Romans 1. When I was filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, and malice, it was an LGBT church that nurtured me back to health. 
However, agreeing with people is boring. Here's the part I disagree with. Morgan argues in the first section of his post that original sin should be understood as social, not biological. He repeats the common claim that Augustine basically invented this idea based on a mistranslation. (I don't think that's true--Augustine used a questionable translation of Romans 5:12 to support his theology, but I don't think that one verse was the reason he came up with the theology in the first place. I also question whether the weaker pre-Augustinian language of an "inherited stain" should be understood as purely social.) He finds the idea that "people are born wicked" to be "one of the most nihilistic, toxic teachings of pop Christianity."

I wouldn't, myself, say "born wicked." But I would say "born/conceived as sinful beings." I don't think we can reduce original sin to the effects of socialization on us and rule out a "biological" component. I believe that the Biblical and traditional picture of the Fall (human and/or angelic) is that it affects every aspect of the universe as we know and experience it. (See my seven-part blog series on Greg Boyd's "warfare theology," especially this post on Boyd's doctrine of creation. While I focus in that post on problems I have with aspects of Boyd's position--as I said, agreeing with people is boring--I think he makes an excellent claim for the need to invoke the fall of created beings as part of our explanation even of "natural evil.")

Morgan argues that Paul's appeal to a natural knowledge of God in Romans 1 refutes the idea that "we were born with a 'fallen nature' that makes us unable to see and worship God." I agree. This is why I think the Calvinist view of human sinfulness is untenable. Calvin, for instance, argues that people are culpable for not recognizing God even though the knowledge of God in creation is never going to be enough to bring them to salvation, and I find his argument completely unconvincing. Similarly, Morgan argues in the second part of the post that criticizing same-sex behavior but not orientation is a "compromise" reached by evangelical Christians who realize that they can't "pray the gay away." From a Catholic perspective, at least, this isn't true at all. (Gagnon, whom Morgan cites as saying that orientation is sinful, is, again, a Calvinist.) Orientation, while it may be "disordered," is not in itself sinful. In both of these cases, Morgan is setting up a false dichotomy.

The Fall may affect our biology without making us incapable of seeing and worshiping God. It may consist in part of disordered desires which are shaped by culture so as to become part of our identity. We are all affected by this. We all have identities that are, in part, idolatrous. I understand how glib it seems for a heterosexual to say "we're all sinners." And of course the claim that we are all sinners, that all of our desires are disordered to some degree, and that all of our identities are idolatrous to some degree, doesn't necessarily mean that same-sex desire is "intrinsically disordered" (i.e., that a sexual desire for a person of the same sex is disordered by virtue of the sex it is oriented to). But it provides conceptual space in which this is a possibility. I applaud Morgan's reluctance to tell someone else that their sense of identity is wrong. But when I am asked to reject and tear down the historic Christian understanding of sexuality and marriage (and yes, I know many progressives deny that there is any such thing as a coherent "historic Christian position," but I can't address that here) on the basis of someone's sense of identity, my belief that all of our identities are shaped by idolatry is going to make me slow to join in the crusade.

Morgan describes the position of "sexual traditionalists" as being "that LGBT identity is just a fad created by the market, an unnatural desire formed by our skewed frame of reference." I certainly would not trivialize LGBT identity in this way. I do say--and said in a comment on Morgan's FB post a few days ago--that I think the broad cultural framework in which we debate these issues is shaped by what Zygmunt Bauman would call "liquid capitalism." And possibly Morgan had that remark of mine in mind. I was not clear enough in that discussion that I think this shapes all of us--I am not for a minute suggesting that gays are somehow more the puppets of late capitalism than the rest of us. We are all shaped by a culture that bombards us constantly (through advertising, for instance) with the message that we are defined by our unique, unquestionably valid desires, and that these desires (which drive the engine of capitalism) cannot be denied without harming us. 

So yes, it's clearly true that Paul's condemnations do not apply primarily or in their full force to people who are in faithful same-sex sexual relationships. But Paul's portrait of a world mired in idolatry applies to our world of late capitalism as it applied to the world of Greco-Roman paganism. And so when there is a call to change an important part of Christian doctrine and practice, I have to ask myself whether that change will really (as Morgan thinks) move us toward greater freedom from idolatry, or whether it's a move toward a different kind of idolatry. From my perspective, this is exactly why we have the Christian tradition to guide us--not that we accept it blindly or uncritically, but that we allow it to raise questions about the idolatries to which we may be blinded by the mores of our place and time.

But of course, most people who champion "sexual traditionalism" not only do so in a way that is cruel and unjust to gay people (which I may well be guilty of as well, though I try not to be), but abstract it from these larger cultural issues. Conservative Christians seriously seem to think that gay marriage is a horrific threat to society while drone warfare, pervasive gun violence, social inequality, torture, and environmental devastation are all, at most, political issues which Christians should carefully think about while avoiding taking "self-righteous" absolute positions. (That's leaving out the large number of conservative Christians who think that right-wing solutions to these issues are the only "Biblical" ones!). That's one reason why I find Catholic social and moral teaching so compelling--it addresses the whole range of moral issues in a way that cuts across left-right dichotomies. I think that the Catholic Church is wrong about women's ordination, and they may be wrong on sexuality too (or they may turn out to be right about women's ordination as well). I don't think we have certainty about any of this, and I think we should be charitable to each other as we try to work it out.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Review of Morgan Guyton, Part 2

Chapter 7 of How Jesus Saves the World from Us, "Communion, not Correctness," deals with the question of doctrinal orthodoxy. Morgan compares doctrine to a blues jam, in which there is a basic "orthodoxy"--a particular scale and set of chord progressions--but lots of freedom to improvise within this. Morgan illustrates his principle with examples of his own practice, following the usage of local churches even on points where he might not agree. So, for instance, he says "Our Mother and Our Father" in a progressive church, but "Our Father" in a more traditional one, and says "Hail Mary" along with the Catholics even though he holds to "a traditional Protestant perspective on the naming of the Trinity and the role of Mary in our spiritual life." I like Morgan's musical metaphor a lot--it reminds me of Clement of Alexandria's wonderful opening to Exhortation to the Heathen, in which he plays on the musical connotations of "nomos" (law) to suggest that Christ is the one who retunes the broken harp of humanity to play God's music. But as with some of the other chapters, I'm not sure Morgan thoroughly resolves the ambiguities in his contrast of "communion" and "correctness." He acknowledges that some doctrinal errors really are incompatible with the music, but at the same time he wants to excoriate those who "stop the song" every time they think somebody has made a mistake. (Dare I mention Norman Geisler's persecution of Mike Licona here?) But surely nearly everyone (even Norman Geisler) would agree with this in principle. The problem is that we don't agree on where to draw the line between the two things. I think that the views found in John Shelby Spong's "Twelve Theses" render the music of Christianity unrecognizable. But some people within the Episcopal Church, while not necessarily agreeing with Spong, would say that I'm "stopping the music" by saying this. On the other hand, I find Geisler's vehement objection to Licona's very careful and nuanced understanding of Biblical inerrancy to be completely indefensible--but someone for whom Biblical inerrancy is a central truth of the faith, the basic "scale" of the Christian music, would naturally disagree. This is one of the reasons why I am drawn to Catholicism. I view the "Magisterium" very much as a conductor (excuse me, "band leader"--perhaps the fact that my primary musical idiom is classical is not entirely unrelated to the fact that I'm more theologically conservative than Morgan, by the way!), with the responsibility of deciding when the music needs to be "stopped" to fix a major problem. To be sure, I think it's hard to deny that the Magisterium has frequently been guilty of "stopping the music" unnecessarily (not to mention the little problem of calling in the police to arrest the offending players for their musical crimes). Having a Magisterium doesn't solve all our problems, by any means. But I think it does play an important role within the broader "music" of orthodox Christianity.

Chapter 8, "Temple not Program," addresses worship. This is the chapter Morgan particularly invited me to comment on, but I have relatively little to say here, because I agree with it pretty much in its entirety! But I do wonder how Morgan's endorsement of the idea of "temple" as a paradigm for Christian worship fits with his hostile attitude to the idea of "sacrifice" and ritual purity in chap. 2. Temples, after all, are sacred spaces set apart by ritual purity regulations. They are traditionally places where sacrifices happen. Morgan describes at some length the experience of attending Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. This is his primary example of "temple" worship. But of course, at these same Masses people are expected not to receive communion unless they are Catholics who have been to confession; only men may serve as priests; and so on. I don't bring this up to endorse all Catholic "purity" practices, but to suggest that we might need to think carefully before throwing overboard the notion of "sacrifice" altogether, as Morgan seemed to suggest in chap. 2.

Chap. 9, "Solidarity not Sanctimony," argues that Christians should respond to sin by showing solidarity with sinners, rather than condemning them for not following the "rules." Morgan provides some very thoughtful and helpful reflections on what that solidarity looks like. He points out, for instance, that Jesus shows solidarity even with sinners whose sin oppresses others (such as tax collectors). But then he qualifies his position a bit by saying that the rest of us shouldn't necessarily "emulate Jesus' tactics here," but simply shouldn't "unfriend or judge" people who do "dine with rich scoundrels." A couple of pages earlier, he says that we should show solidarity with sinners and with the victims of their sin, but when there is a conflict we should side with the person who has the least power. Morgan's desire to qualify his statement about Jesus showing solidarity with rich, oppressive sinners is understandable. Obviously one could take Jesus' dining with tax collectors as an excuse for not challenging sin and oppression in powerful places, and clearly that would be a disastrously wrong interpretation. But I think Morgan's hesitancy and haziness about how to apply Jesus' dining with tax collectors illustrates the problems with his "X not Y" approach, and in general with the "progressive" tendency to approach morality in terms of picking an "oppressed party" to have "solidarity" with, rather than by following "rules." The freedom of having "rules"--moral principles that tell you that certain behavior is sinful--is that you don't have to tie yourself into knots holding together solidarity with sinners and solidarity with the oppressed. Accepting the traditional and now much-despised maxim "hate the sin and love the sinner" (which is not the same thing as repeating it glibly as if just saying it solved everything) allows us to show solidarity with sinners and their victims, because "solidarity" is not set over against "having moral rules and judging behavior by them." In other words, I don't think the principle of "solidarity with victims" gives an out to the problems posed by rejecting the view that there are moral principles, accessible either to reason or faith, which allow us to distinguish certain behavior as sinful. One of the most fundamental moral principles is that we shouldn't abuse or oppress one another, and that includes the abuse and oppression that hide under the mantle of "condemning sin." So as usual, I'm not sure Morgan and I are too far apart, and I find much of what he writes in this chapter extremely valuable.

Chapter 10, "Outsiders not Insiders," continues the themes raised in the previous chapter. Morgan writes eloquently about the Gospel call to identify with the outsiders. He follows John Howard Yoder's argument that "taking up your cross" means standing against the powers of the world on behalf of the marginalized rather than just enduring discomfort patiently. As Morgan puts it, we have "domesticated" the Cross. The most moving story in the chapter--perhaps in the whole book, is Morgan's "conversion story" telling how he found emotional stability and renewed faith through the ministry of a church made up mostly of gay people. This leads into Morgan's brief discussion (as he says, he's gone into it in more detail on his blog) of "queer" issues generally. Morgan argues that "queer" people are God's gift to the Church to save us from our "friendship with the world." This, of course, upends the way conservatives typically put the issue--and that's deliberate. For Morgan, the true "worldliness" and "compromise" is the way Christians have bought into a hierarchical picture of the world which has supported colonialism, slavery, the oppression of women, and so on. It's a powerful argument. He may well be right. It's one of the reasons all conservative Christians should read this book. But as in the previous chapter, I have questions about the intrinsic relativism of making "outsiders vs. insiders" the primary category. Identifying with certain outsiders may actually blind one to others. Las Casas, with whom Morgan begins the chapter, is a really good example. Unquestionably he was one of the most admirable figures--one of the few admirable figures--in the sorry mess of Christian colonialism. He was a man of wisdom and conscience. And yet he was guilty of suggesting the importation of African slaves in order to slow the genocide of Native Americans. Again, an absolute rule like "chattel slavery is always wrong" may actually be more liberating than a relative principle of "find the most marginalized people and side with them." Another example: I know a Methodist pastor, a good and compassionate man, who is a blind supporter of Israel because of his quite proper sense of how badly Christians have failed to defend Jews in the past. For him, to criticize Israel is to continue the Christian legacy of anti-Semitism. He doesn't seem capable of seeing it any other way. Thus, while I find Morgan's basic spiritual teaching in this chapter to be powerful and convicting, I'm once again unconvinced that this is a formula that will reliably "detoxify" Christianity.

Chap. 11, "Servanthood not Leadership," is largely a meditation on the temptation of Jesus. I have little to disagree with in this chapter except perhaps its rejection of the use of the "shepherd" metaphor for Christian clergy--"pastor" is a pretty venerable term and I wouldn't want to throw it overboard altogether.

Chap. 12, "Kingdom not Stadium," is one of the book's finest chapters. I particularly like the section called "stadium envy," which addresses the common problem of mainline congregations worrying about their numerical decline and wondering what the neighboring megachurches are doing right. In Morgan's words: "those dying mainline churches are where I found the gospel that saved me." This final chapter is an exhortation to be faithful and to view the Christian faith as a pilgrimage rather than a "stadium" that we try to fill with converts. It is an appropriate summing up of the message of the book as a whole.

I've focused on points where I disagree with Morgan throughout this summary of the twelve chapters, both because I'm that kind of guy and because I want to make it clear that my enthusiastic recommendation of the book doesn't depend on agreeing with everything in it. I think Morgan does fall into what I would see as some typical progressive cliches. I agree with Derek Rishmawy that the "X not Y" format of the book often forces Morgan into unnecessary dichotomies. (I also get why Morgan wrote the book that way, and I'm not necessarily saying he was wrong to make that choice. But every choice comes with some costs.)

But in the end, what matters is that this book "convicts" me, to use the language of my Holiness heritage. Or, in the language Morgan uses from Acts 2, it "cuts me to the heart." It fills me with a desire to be holy. I will never be quite the same person, I think, after reading this book. Perhaps the message of the book can be summarized best in a passage from the conclusion of the book. (The first sentence is, by the way, a paraphrase of one of the constantly repeated themes of Martin Luther's early work.)


To be a true Christian is to expect a lifetime of personal repentance. It means admitting over and over again how wrong we are and being liberated over time from the slavish defensiveness of needing to be always right. . . . it's not enough to go through the exhibitionist humility of talking about what horrible sinners we are and how unworthy we are of God's grace. . . . . The goal is to lose ourselves so thoroughly in the freely given love of an extravagantly generous God that we become vessels by which this love can be shared with others.

Morgan writes as someone who has known this repentance, and continues to practice it. And in this gracious and challenging little book he invites us all to do the same.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review of Morgan Guyton, How Jesus Saves the World from Us (part 1)

Christianity does not have a good reputation among non-Christians in contemporary America and Western Europe. For that reason, a large number of Christians find it hard to describe themselves as Christians without disclaimers: "I'm not one of those Christians"--those people for whom a "Christian worldview" is identical with right-wing Republican politics, for whom Christian morality primarily means disapproving of other people's sex lives, and for whom "salvation" means a private legal transaction with Jesus which enables one to escape hell. These disclaimers sometimes take the form of books explaining how to rescue "true" Christianity from its corruptions. This project, of course, goes back far beyond the problems of contemporary Western Christianity. Indeed, ever since the Reformation the genre of "finally getting it right" has become central to Protestantism. Books claiming to straighten Christianity out, when written by people of a "progressive" way of thinking, tend to cover certain predictable bases, attacking penal substitution, Biblical inerrancy, and the conservative Christian condemnation of homosexuality, among others.

 Morgan Guyton's How Jesus Saves the World from Us obviously falls into the progressive sub-genre of the "fixing Christianity" genre, as the subtitle indicates: Twelve Antidotes for Toxic Christianity. But at the same time, this book manages to transcend its genre. If you read one "progressive Christianity" book, read this one. If you hate "progressive Christianity" books, read this one. If you've read a bunch of them and are tired of them, read this one. And if you have read them and are happy that they have delivered you for toxic Christianity already and you aren't like those nasty conservatives any more--then by all means read this one. 

Morgan's choice of title, and his choice to relegate the "toxic Christianity" theme to the subtitle, are significant. When he says "how Jesus saves the world from us," he really means it. When he says "us" he really means it. This book does indeed cover the typical "progressive" bases. But it is far more than yet another attack on the distortions of conservative Protestantism, and the Christianity it offers should challenge anyone who thinks that "progressive Christianity" is just a watered-down, culturally accommodated version of the real thing. This is a winsome, beautifully written, passionate presentation of the central truths of Christianity. This book preaches the Gospel.

 This quickly becomes evident in the first of the twelve chapters, which presents the doctrine of justification by faith in a way that is both psychologically cogent and theologically orthodox. (I particularly appreciate the prominent role Henry Nouwen plays in this chapter--Morgan draws on a Catholic author to elucidate a key Protestant concept.) Morgan diagnoses the human condition as one in which we are trapped by the need to "perform" for other people or even for God. Acceptance of God's unconditional grace--"becoming the Beloved" in Nouwen's terms--frees us to live lives of joyful abandon. This is perhaps my favorite of the chapters and the one that spoke to me most personally. The conventional accounts of justification by faith don't do much for me, because I never thought of God as an arbitrary judge who would expect me to earn merit in some legally defined way. My Holiness upbringing did incline me, however, to think of God as a demanding perfectionist who was always checking up on me to see if I was doing the right thing for the right motive. My problem has always been a problem of identity--defining myself by my sins rather than by God's grace. Morgan's account of God's grace was freeing and empowering for me, and I think it's a great gateway to the book as a whole.

 The title of the second chapter, "Mercy Not Sacrifice," is the same as the title of Morgan's blog, and was I think one of the titles originally considered for the whole book. My friends who are OT scholars would, I think, take issue a bit with Morgan's characterization of "sacrifice." There is a long debate within Christianity about just how the OT sacrifices should be regarded. Morgan's position, like that of many other progressive Christians, seems to be that sacrifice as a concept has little value. He deals with Rene Girard's theories about sacrifice briefly in a later chapter ("Communion not Correctness"). Morgan's own primary understanding of Jesus' sacrifice is that Jesus dies for us to free us from our need for sacrifice. I'm not sure I find this convincing. However, a great deal of this chapter is still clearly true and powerful. Morgan discusses Peter's sermon in Acts which resulted in the hearers being "cut to the heart," and argues that this is what it is like to be moved by God's love so that we accept mercy. He also argues that when Jesus cites the Hosea passage about "mercy not sacrifice," he is changing the context--originally God was asking people to show him covenant love, whereas Jesus makes the passage be about showing mercy to others. (I'm not entirely convinced that Hosea wasn't also talking about our treatment of others, but it's an interesting point.) We show God covenant love, in other words, by showing mercy to other people. Thus, even when I'm not sure I agree with everything Morgan's saying, he still has plenty to say that challenges me. There's a lot to chew on in every chapter of this book.

 The third chapter, "Empty not clean," contrasts two different models of Christian holiness--one in which we try to get rid of things that violate some sense of ritual purity, and another in which we clear out the "clutter" that keeps us from being filled with God's love. I basically agree with what Morgan's trying to say here, but I question whether the metaphorical dichotomy works. Contemporary Americans are, it seems to me, often very concerned with "clutter," and a house freed from clutter is often a sterile space in which no real living actually happens. But that's a concern more with the style than the basic message.

 "Breath, not Meat" is a fresh and powerful discussion of holiness, building on the previous chapter and addressing sex, food, and money. The title is Morgan's re-translation of "spirit not flesh," arguing that when Paul uses that language he's not contrasting physical and spiritual but two different ways of living an embodied life. This is another chapter that transcends conservative/progressive disagreements altogether to provide a simply stated but theologically rich meditation on a central Christian truth.

 "Honor not terror" addresses the concept of "fear of God." Here I think there's a certain tension between two different things Morgan wants to say: one is that the "fear of God" is about acknowledging God's "wildness." (He quotes Jonathan Martin to say that monsters, according to the Bible, are God's "pets.") The other is that the fear of God is about moral behavior--being faithful to standards of truth and goodness even when it's radically inconvenient to do so. I agree that both of these are part of the fear of God, but I'm not sure Morgan really brings them together successfully. I also wince a bit at his closing peroration about what the fear of God means for him, because it starts to sound like the concept of holiness I grew up with, in contrast to the first chapter's insistence that God is not like a demanding coach who requires perfection. I have always been more worried about "disappointing" God than about being punished by Him. Perhaps I don't respond to this chapter as much as some people might because I was fortunate enough not to grow up with a religion that primarily emphasized "fire and brimstone." That being said, Morgan is spot on in most of what he says here, and I particularly like his acknowledgment that secular people can show "fear of God"--that scientists, for instance (secular or religious), fear God when they pursue honest inquiry into natural causes, and that Huck Finn feared God when he chose to "go to hell" rather than betray his friend Jim. 

"Poetry not Math" hits one of those standard "progressive" talking points--the need to read the Bible in a more "poetic" way rather than treating it as a cut-and-dried set of rules. Horace Bushnell, in the preface to his book "God in Christ," provided the classic statement of this idea, and I largely agree both with Bushnell and with Morgan. I think Derek Rishmawy has a good point that both here and elsewhere in the book Morgan tends to create overly sharp dichotomies. I believe in doctrinal boundaries, and I believe that they need to be based on Scripture. But again, I basically agree with Morgan's overall point. I particularly like the point that math is something we conquer, while poetry conquers us (maybe that's a bit unfair to math lovers, to be sure).

 (Summaries of the last six chapters, plus my closing thoughts, will follow in another post.)

Monday, March 21, 2016

Is the falsifiability of Christian claims a conclusive argument for Christianity?

This article argues that it is, but I think the argument is pretty much bunk. Christians do indeed make specific historical claims, but that's only proof of Christianity if you start with the premise that religions should do that. It isn't true that Buddhism is non-falsifiable. Buddhism claims to be a means leading to peace of mind and freedom from the inner suffering that arises from selfish desire. If you practice the Buddhist way for a period of time and find yourself more and more miserable and torn apart by conflicting desires, then a good case can be made that Buddhism has been falsified, at least for you. He's assuming from the start that other religions should make the kinds of claims Christianity makes and then faulting them for not doing so, and that's just ridiculous. Furthermore, it isn't really true that Christianity is falsifiable, at least now. We don't have a time machine. We aren't in a position to check the New Testament's claims by direct observation. Yes, when first made the claims might have been falsifiable, but again, we don't know enough about the circumstances under which they were made to be too sure about this. And the fact that Christians put so much time and energy into apologetics isn't necessarily a point in favor of Christianity. A case can be made that these efforts are necessary because Christians insist on pinning their faith to very contingent historical claims, against which in many cases there is a good bit of prima facie evidence that has to be explained away. From a certain point of view, this is a massive waste of intellectual and spiritual energy. I myself find apologetics to be, in most cases, spiritually arid. In fact, Muslims do engage in a lot of apologetics as well--most of it even worse than standard Christian apologetics, in my limited experience. To be clear: I believe that the historical evidence on the whole supports the claim that Jesus rose again, and I believe that there are very good reasons why Christianity makes contingent historical claims. I glory in belonging to a religion that makes such claims. But I think it's silly to use the fact that other religions don't make such claims as an argument against them.