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Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Man in the High Castle: some thoughts from a reader of the book who hasn't seen the series

This article about the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle makes me want to watch the series, but also provokes some reflections on ways in which the series appears to differ from the book (which is one of my favorite sci-fi novels, indeed one of my favorite modern novels period).
1. In the book, the metaphysical speculations about alternative reality are front and center. The book does not feel, to me at least, primarily about "what would the world be like if the Nazis had won" but more about living in a tragic world with faith and hope. I found it striking that the article says that Tagomi's sections are "slow." I think I may have reacted that way on the first reading too, but I now find Tagomi to be the real heart of the book. Similarly, it sounds as if the I Ching, which is a central device in the novel, is absent from the series. High Castle is Dick's greatest book precisely because it balances incisive alternate-history sci-fie with the metaphysical and religious themes that would come to dominate his later books.
2. At least one of the worlds envisioned by Tagomi, as well as the world described by Amundsen, does not actually appear to be our world. The book is not so much about imagining a dystopian world in contrast to our (presumably better) world, but rather about parallels between the nightmare "primary world" of the novel and our own somewhat less nightmarish but still quite awful world. The capacity to imagine a better world than the one we live in is, in the novel, a key part of being a virtuous person capable of resisting the evil in which we live. It's not so much "how wonderful it is that we live in a world in which the Nazis didn't win" but "whatever evil exists in our world is not inevitable and should be opposed with imagination and compassion." Fundamentally, it's a novel about contingency and free will.
3. In the book, Amundsen is a novelist. I see why one might turn the novel into film footage for a TV series, but I'm not sure it works as well. Again, in the book the messages from the "other world" come through visions and imagination, mediated in many cases by the Chinese divination manual the I Ching. The big reveal about Amundsen at the end of the novel is that he actually wrote his alternate-history novel (depicting an Allied victory) by consulting the I Ching for every plot point. Thus, the novel is a kind of divine revelation. It looks as if the series turns this into a more conventional kind of alternate history.
4. The article says that the Japanese characters are WWII tropes. In the novel, they are somewhat culturally stereotypical, but they read much more like Japanese people as Westerners encounter or imagine them in the modern, post-WWII world. That is to say, there is actually little trace of imperialistic arrogance in them and they behave in conquered America essentially as Japanese tourists do in our world. This is very funny (and, in fact, quite stereotyping), but actually lets the historical WWII Japanese off the hook, I think. The Japanese in High Castle are fairly clearly the "good guys," mostly because the Japanese person we see most of is Tagomi, who is the most virtuous and compassionate character in the novel. So I'd fault the novel for its white-washing of the Japanese record. But, again, in the novel this is partly about challenging our assumptions about good guys and bad guys. Characters in the novel casually refer to the terrible atrocities committed by the Allies, especially the British. In a world in which the Axis won, it is conceivable that the Japanese might have developed into a relatively benign civilization and might have sought to cover over their past atrocities, while of course the atrocities committed by the Allies would not have been excused or covered over as they often have been in our world. If we take the point-of-view characters in Dick's novel to be entirely reliable, then the book gives a very naive picture of the Japanese. But the novel uses a limited third-person point of view (from the perspective of multiple characters) precisely, I think, in order to force us to think through the differences between their perception of the world they live in and the reality, and then to apply that same critical thinking to our own perceptions of our own world.
In summary, I hope to see this series at some point, but I would strongly urge people to read the book, which is one of the greatest sci-fi novels (and probably the single greatest alternate history novel) ever written.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Uncircumcised in heart and ears: St. Stephen's Practical Guide to Making Yourself Obnoxious and Disliked

The 1979 Episcopal BCP's lectionary reading for today excerpts St. Stephen's long sermon in Acts 7 so as to read: "Then the high priest asked him, 'Are these things so?' And Stephen replied, 'Brothers and fathers, listen to me. You are forever resisting the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do."

This misses out the long historical summary in which Stephen details all the ways in which the ancient Israelites had resisted the Holy Spirit, culminating in the denunciation: "You stiffnecked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears." But the lectionary, by cutting as it does, makes crystal clear just how the first Christian martyr got himself killed.

When I used to teach Religions of the World at Huntington University, I took my students to a Conservative Jewish synagogue, where (on one occasion) one of the members gave us a lecture about Judaism including a summary of the Exodus and the wandering in the wilderness. One of the students commented to me afterward that this lecture differed from the standard Christian narrative in that it didn't highlight the sins and failures of the Israelites.

Thanks to Stephen's sermon and other early Christian texts, we have a tradition of reading the OT primarily as a story of God's people messing up. Unfortunately, Christians have often read this as "the Jews messing up." The only way to redeem our narrative from the implications of anti-Judaism (and the only way to read it that is healthy for our own souls) is to read it as a narrative about our messing up.

One of the healthiest impulses in Christianity is the impulse toward self-criticism, which comes out of the basic structure of the Biblical narrative. Unfortunately, when Christianity is turned into an ideology, the basis for "Western Civilization," an instrument to make our ethnic or political group feel good, then we begin rewriting the narrative to be about a holy remnant under pressure from external enemies. And we can get that narrative from the Bible too. Stephen's persecutors thought they were the holy remnant. They thought he was a traitor.

They killed Stephen because he subverted a narrative that they thought was supposed to be about triumphalism and turned it into a narrative about the failure of God's people to be God's people. And it is our duty as Christians to walk in Stephen's footsteps, challenging the self-serving narratives that "our" group (whatever that may be) comes up with--and resisting the demonic temptation to turn Stephen's sermon into a narrative about some other group's failures.

Of course there is a huge spiritual danger here. Our "prophetic witness" against "our" group's misdeeds may easily turn into a self-righteous rant in which we imagine ourselves to be standing over and above the group. But there is no avoiding spiritual dangers.

Furthermore, at some point the group will decide that we aren't really part of it any more. And this may be reasonable given our actions. That is a difficulty that I face, myself, with regard to evangelicalism--but I'll write more about that another time.

Monday, December 26, 2016

No place for sadness

Rince Priebus got himself in trouble today by sending out a message referring to "the good news of a new King," which many people thought was a comparison of Trump to Jesus. The RNC denies this, and perhaps the people who got upset really were reading too much into a simple Christmas message.

What matters is that when we celebrate the birth of Jesus we are, in fact, celebrating the "good news of a new King"--a king whose kingdom remains perpetually  new, perpetually different from all the "kings" who vie for our allegiance, whatever their political orientation.

I've been extremely upset since Nov. 8 and extremely focused on politics. I intend to go on thinking and writing and speaking out about what I believe is a very troubling turn in the public life of the country in which I live. But Christmas reminds me that politics is not ultimate. The rulers of this world are not the powers that really matter.

Pope Leo the Great, in his famous Christmas homily, put it this way:

Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fullness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered.

There is, of course, a place for sadness at Christmas. People who have lost loved ones or who suffer from depression shouldn't be made to feel that they are somehow offending against the holiday. It's important to affirm that many people experience a "blue Christmas."

But barring some such deeply personal reason, I think Pope Leo's words should be taken to heart.

Nothing that we fear in our own lives or in the public life of our society can trump (yes, bad joke) the Incarnation. God has become human. God has placed at the heart of our broken world an endless fountain of life and joy. Let us drink deeply of that fountain in the days to come and share it with our thirsty world. Let us fight evil joyfully and merrily, not angrily or in despair. And above all, let us love our enemies and remember that, in Leo's words, "No one is kept from sharing in this happiness."

One of my favorite "eucatastrophe" moments at the end of It's a Wonderful Life comes when George Bailey runs past Mr. Potter's office, looks in the window, and shouts, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter!" It is at that moment that you know that, whether he goes to jail or not, George Bailey has won.

So Merry Christmas to all! God bless us every one.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Guest post for a friend on the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Check out this piece I wrote for my friend Joe Martyn Ricke's website, a meditation on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.

Advent in Jerusalem

I ate lunch in Jerusalem twice this Advent.

Not, alas, Jerusalem the city, but Jerusalem the excellent new Middle Eastern restaurant in my town, right up the road from the other Middle Eastern restaurant, which is called Babylon. So you can walk from Jerusalem to Babylon in about two minutes. Babylon is owned by an Iraqi, and Jerusalem by a Palestinian. I like them both, but I'm coming to like Jerusalem better. It may just be the cult of the new. Or maybe it's the name. After all, medieval Christians longed for Jerusalem so much that they made an armed pilgrimage there and slaughtered thousands of the inhabitants. If my love of this restaurant is rooted in sentimentality, at least it's a less lethal form.

It's so hard for us to deal with the "other" in terms that aren't distorted in some way by our fantasy (in the negative, medieval sense of the term, or the sense in which the Romantics would distinguish "fancy" from "imagination"). I walk into Jerusalem already feeling virtuous because I'm counteracting the election of Donald Trump just by being there. I genuinely love the food, but the fact that I love the food makes me feel both sophisticated and tolerant. And, of course, I know that all of this is silly.

I go into the restaurant with some idea of asking the proprietor if he's had any harassment since the election. But then, I don't actually know that he's a Muslim in the first place (though the sort of goons who would harass Muslims would no doubt assume he was). I know he's from Ramallah, a Palestinian city with a large Christian population. I can't very well ask him "are you a Christian or a Muslim." So I sit there and eat my tabbouleh and my stuffed falafel (utterly delicious), and I wonder what to say, and in the end I say nothing.

I see the young man who helps behind the counter and think involuntarily, "what if it turned out that he really was a terrorist? It's statistically improbable, but it's possible." Then I feel ashamed for thinking it, of course. Then, much later, I think what I should have thought first--what a burden it must be for a young man who looks "Middle Eastern," to walk around in American society knowing that people are looking at him and thinking (even just for an instant), "he looks like a terrorist."

And then I think about how he must see me. What do I look like to him? What does it mean for a Palestinian to set up a restaurant in a community where so many of the churches preach unqualified support for Israel? What does it mean to go to work every day and serve people food knowing that they may fear you just because of the way you look and the accent with which you speak?

In the peaceable kingdom for which we long, we will be able to see the other in all his difference without self-consciousness, without the difference clouding our perception of the other as a person. There is no "color-blindedness." There is no "just seeing people as people." None of us are just people. We all drag around with us a cloud of associations and echoes and resonances. We can't experience each other, or anything else, without such associations. And in the redeemed Creation they will, like the wounds of Christ, be an occasion of glory and no longer of shame. As Chesterton put it, the lion will lie down with the lamb without losing his kingly ferocity.

But here, in this valley of tears, we have to deal with the fact that we are all, in that terrifying Roman proverb, "wolves to each other." We cannot pretend that we do not fear each other, or that we do not sometimes have reason to fear. What we can do is reach out to each other anyway, eat each other's food, speak each other's language, defend each other from injustice, hold each other in the howling darkness. We cannot get wholly rid of the prejudiced associations and assumptions that get in the way of seeing the other in glory as God's good creature. But we can keep moving through the fog toward the dimly seen form of the other instead of sitting down and letting the toxic mist of our own prejudices isolate us from each other.

Oh come, thou radiance from on high,
And cheer us by thy drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death's dark shadows put to flight.

Next year in Jerusalem.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Am I a conservative?

In a Facebook conversation a while ago, somebody linked to this 2012 piece by Conor Friedersdorf listing 21 things that Americans sometimes mean by the word "conservatism." It's a helpful checklist for me, because I think of myself as a conservative more often than not, but often don't fit other people's definition of one. So here's how I stack up against Friedersdorf's list:

An aversion to rapid change; a belief that tradition and prevailing social norms often contain within them handed down wisdom; and mistrust of attempts to remake society so that it conforms to an abstract account of what would be just or efficient.  
By this definition I am mostly conservative, though I have a revolutionary/idealistic side as well.

A desire to preserve the political philosophy and rules of government articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
I respect this kind of conservatism and think it's fine in an American context, though not being an American citizen I can't get myself to care deeply about it, and I am bothered by the religious fervor with which many Americans embrace it. I worry about this particularly in the case of Christians (and let's face it, most American "conservatives" are Christians), since the U.S. founding documents often seem to be treated as equal to Scripture and superior to other traditional Christian sources of authority such as the Creeds.

A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, through cultural norms. 
Yes, with several caveats:
1) "traditional" morality can mean a lot of things, all of them to be taken seriously but some of them to be rejected on the basis of the Gospel:
2) the Gospel (the Christian message) is not simply identical with what is "articulated in the Bible," though the Bible is overwhelmingly the most important source; and
3) while I would like cultural norms to reflect the Gospel, I expect that the Gospel will always be to some extent "counter-cultural."

  • A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, using cultural norms and the power of the state.

  • More misgivings about this, due to the third concern mentioned under the previous point. Governments rightly use their coercive power for the common good. The Gospel provides important light on what the common good is. But as even St. Thomas Aquinas (no libertarian or Anabaptist) recognized, not every evil can or should be prohibited by governmental authority.

    An embrace of free-market capitalism, and a belief in the legitimacy of market outcomes. 

    No. I think there are some powerful arguments in favor of "economic freedom" as an expression of the Christian view of human dignity. But as a Christian, I believe that "libertarian freedom" is not ultimate freedom, and that in this fallen world exchanges among human persons are never entirely free or untainted by coercion and manipulation. So I don't believe in "the legitimacy of market outcomes."

    A belief that America is an exceptional nation, a shining city on a hill, whose rightful role is leader of the free world.

    Absolutely not. It's certainly a remarkable country, but I find American exceptionalism to be both foolish and idolatrous.

    A belief that America should export its brand of democracy through force of arms.

    Certainly not.

    The conviction that government should undertake, on behalf of the American polity, grand projects that advance our "national greatness" and ennoble our characters.
    Probably not, but this is really vague.

    An embrace of localism, community and family ties, human scale, and a responsibility to the future.
    Yes--this is the primary sense in which I would describe myself as a political/social conservative.

    A belief that America shouldn't intervene in the affairs of other nations except to defend ourselves from aggression and enforce contracts and treaties.
    I wouldn't go that far, but I certainly think that military intervention should be severely limited and that humanitarian action should generally be non-coercive. I wouldn't rule out the use of military force to defend oppressed people in principle, but in most circumstances it seems to do more harm than good.

    A desire to return to the way things once were.
    I definitely feel that desire very strongly, though I'm also critical of it and wouldn't embrace it explicitly as part of my ideology. I'm sure it shapes many of my beliefs, though, and I'm OK with that.

    Affinity for, identification with, or embrace of Red America's various cultural cues. (For example, gun ownership, a preference for single-family homes oriented around highways rather than urban enclaves organized around public transit, embrace of country music, disdain for arugula and fancy mustard, etc.)
    Definitely not, though I rather like country music

    Disdain for American liberalism, multiculturalism, identity politics, affirmative action, welfare, European-style social policies, and the left and its ideas generally.
    No. I don't feel that disdain or regard it with much respect (does disdain ever deserve respect? maybe sometimes, when it's disdain for something truly evil).

    A desire to be left alone by government, often coupled with a belief that being left alone is a natural right. 
    I desire to be left alone by government, but I wouldn't call it a natural right.

    A principled belief in federalism.
    Yes, though I think justice and the common good are more important.

    The belief that taxes should be lower and government smaller.
    To paraphrase Einstein, I think that taxes should be as low and government as small as possible, but no lower and no smaller.

    The belief that the national debt and deficits put America in peril.
    Maybe not to the extent some think, but I don't think they are good things.

    The belief that whenever possible, government budgets should be balanced.
    With the caveat "whenever possible," yes I would agree with this.

    Consciousness of the fallibility of man, and an awareness of the value of skepticism, doubt and humility.
    Yes, definitely I'm a conservative in this sense.

    Realism in foreign policy.
    No, not by the normal definition of "realism," which seems to mean "cynical, ruthless pragmatism."

    Non-interventionism in foreign policy.
    Generally yes, especially if we are talking about military intervention.

    Obviously this is a miscellaneous grab-bag of definitions, but precisely for that reason it's a starting point to think more rationally about how we use the terms "conservative" and "liberal."

    And if someone says, "we should just drop the terms altogether"--well, I have thoughts on that too and will share them in another post.

    Monday, December 12, 2016

    Donald Trump and the triumph of right-wing postmodernism

    When I was in grad school, involved in the graduate chapter of InterVarsity at Duke, we spent a lot of our time worry about how Christians should respond to "postmodernism." 20th-century evangelicalism had invested itself pretty heavily in a kind of Enlightenment rationalism, and in the 90s many evangelical intellectuals were realizing that it was time for a course correction. And Duke in the 90s was a center of postmodernism. You couldn't walk down the corridor without hearing someone say "Derrida" or "Foucault." Meanwhile, out in popular conservative Christian culture, "post-modern" was a deadly slur. Good Christians were supposed to believe in absolute, unchanging truth.

    That rhetoric is still with us, of course, but "postmodern" has more and more come to be merely a slur used by conservatives with little understanding of its meaning. When I taught at Huntington University, one parent wrote to the religion department asking us how we interpreted Genesis 1 (with the strong implication that he would not be sending his remaining ten homeschooled children to our institution if we gave the wrong answer). In the correspondence that ensued, what struck me about this gentleman was his apparent conviction that belief in theistic evolution was "postmodern." I tried to explain to him that I believed in evolution precisely because I believe in facts and evidence and that science reveals truth about the world--not very postmodern beliefs at all.

    Creationism is, in fact, a good example of a growing phenomenon that I think needs to be labeled "right-wing postmodernism." When I visited the Creation Museum in northern Kentucky a few years ago, I was struck by the combination of technological wizardry and utter cynicism about science. While the museum claims to present evidence, most of it is designed to work on people's emotions and imaginations and to tear down their confidence in the scientific method. The Creation Museum rests on the assumption that there is indeed absolute truth, found in the Bible, and that merely "human" methods cannot give that truth. Thus, they should always be treated with skepticism.

    And of course it's true that all human methods are fallible. There's a lot of truth to postmodern challenges to Enlightenment ideas of science--I've been very influenced by Thomas Kuhn, myself. But the rhetoric of radical postmodernism, as it's filtered down into pop culture, gives the impression that all truth claims are nothing more than rhetoric serving some ulterior purpose. And this turns out to be a point of view that actually fosters firm beliefs that are immune to rational inquiry. The acid of universal relativism eats away at the tentative, carefully formulated beliefs of critical reason far faster and deeper than at the firm dogmas of fundamentalist religion.

    The election of Donald Trump represents the triumph of right-wing postmodernism. Millions of Americans who think of themselves as conservatives and claim to believe in absolute truth have voted for a "post-truth" political agenda. Trump's flagrant falsehoods are defended as rhetorical excesses, and any criticism of him is dismissed via the genetic fallacy. Over and over again, Trump supporters move the discussion from evidence and issues to the corrupt power structures that allegedly lie behind any opposition to Trump. There are some exceptions who try to make rational arguments for Trump (Dave Armstrong, for instance), but even they speak loudly about the need for facts and evidence only to discount any evidence that they don't like. I hear, even from Dave, a lot more denunciations of the other side's lack of attention to the evidence than I do any actual treatment of the evidence.

    I get that none of this is new, and certainly one can find examples on all sides of the spectrum of people unwilling to listen to evidence that doesn't fit their biases. But the extent to which self-proclaimed conservatives are willing to disregard any serious engagement with evidence and reason strikes me as new. And frankly I think a lot of the blame rests on the shoulders of the "real" postmodernists--the sophisticated academics who sneered for years at the idea of objective truth. Conservatives have, effectively, chosen to take them at their word. And they are playing the game more ruthlessly and effectively than the liberals ever did.

    Tuesday, November 15, 2016

    For the President-Elect: A Hallelujah

    They say there was a secret chord
    That Leonard played, and it pleased the Lord,
    But you don't really care for music, do you?
    Well, now that your election's won,
    You can play your games and have your fun,
    While all the righteous sing their hallelujah.

    You saw her standing in the waves,
    A beckoning torch for broken slaves,
    You saw her, and you knew she saw right through you.
    So you tied the Lady to a chair,
    You pared her nails and you shaved her hair,
    And from her lips you drew your hallelujah.

    We've been here many times before,
    We've borne the burden of this war,
    We've seen tyrants fall long, long before we knew you.
    So build your wall and rear your tower,
    But freedom's not a Ring of Power,
    It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah.

    Well, maybe there's a God above,
    But all you've ever learned from love
    Is how to grab whatever looks good to you.
    But it is a cry that you hear at night,
    It's the people who've seen the Lady's light,
    It's the huddled masses singing Hallelujah.

    You'll do your worst, and it won't be much,
    You can't feel, so you'll try to touch,
    I didn't come to flatter or to fool you.
    But even if it all goes wrong,
    We'll stand before the Lord of song
    With nothing on our tongues but Hallelujah.