General Revelation

Why don’t Christians have all the truth? Because non-Christians are smart and attend well to creation. Some highlights of recent revelations from people not explicitly illumined by the Holy Spirit or committed to Reformed Protestant epistemology:

First, a great piece on the films of Whit Stillman which includes this:

Though certainly a contemporary filmmaker and not in any sense a stranded nostalgist, Stillman nevertheless displays qualities that, while once common, are now so rare that they put him in stark relief against nearly all of his contemporaries. Perhaps most pronounced is his distinctive affection for his uniformly well-born characters. If revulsion for bourgeois hypocrisy seems an obligatory quality in American independent filmmaking these days, Stillman will have none of it. He offers instead a gentle satire of his characters’ foibles combined with a frank sympathy for their principles. While quite natural in Austen novels and RKO comedies of the 1930s and ’40s, this is rare today. Thus is it all the more striking that Stillman continues to receive critical acclaim from disparate publications and institutions, from a Vanity Fair photo spread for the 25th anniversary of Metropolitan to a volume of effusive essays from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

Second, the short-sightedness of suburban growth:

Since the end of World War II, our cities and towns have experienced growth using three primary mechanisms:

1. Transfer payments between governments: where the federal or state government makes a direct investment in growth at the local level, such as funding a water or sewer system expansion.

2. Transportation spending: where transportation infrastructure is used to improve access to a site that can then be developed.3

3. Public and private-sector debt: where cities, developers, companies, and individuals take on debt as part of the development process, whether during construction or through the assumption of a mortgage.

In each of these mechanisms, the local unit of government benefits from the enhanced revenues associated with new growth. But it also typically assumes the long-term liability for maintaining the new infrastructure. This exchange — a near-term cash advantage for a long-term financial obligation — is one element of a Ponzi scheme.

The other is the realization that the revenue collected does not come near to covering the costs of maintaining the infrastructure. In America, we have a ticking time bomb of unfunded liability for infrastructure maintenance. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates the cost at $5 trillion — but that’s just for major infrastructure, not the minor streets, curbs, walks, and pipes that serve our homes.

The reason we have this gap is because the public yield from the suburban development pattern — the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed — is ridiculously low.

Last, the folly of an all volunteer military:

When the Gates Commission set up the rationale for the AVF in 1970, it did so at the behest of a president, Richard Nixon, who had come to see the conscript military as a political dagger aimed at his own heart. One could argue that the decision to abolish conscription was a foregone conclusion; the Commission simply provided a rationale for doing it and for volunteerism to replace it.

But whatever we might think of the Commission’s work and Nixon’s motivation, what has happened in the last 16 years—interminable war—was never on the Commission’s radar screen. Like most crises, as Colin Powell used to lament when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this one was unexpected, not planned for, and begs denial as a first reaction.

That said, after 16 years of war it is plain to all but the most recalcitrant that the U.S. cannot afford the AVF—ethically, morally, or fiscally.

Fiscally, the AVF is going to break the bank. The land forces in particular are still having difficulties fielding adequate numbers—even with lowered standards, substituting women for men (from 1.6 percent of the AVF in 1973 to more than 16 percent today), recruitment and reenlistment bonuses totaling tens of millions of dollars, advertising campaigns costing billions, massive recruitment of non-citizens, use of psychotropic drugs to recycle unfit soldiers and Marines to combat zones, and overall pay and allowances that include free world-class health care and excellent retirement plans that are, for the first time in the military’s history, comparable to or even exceeding civilian rates and offerings.

A glaring case in point is the recent recruitment by the Army of 62,000 men and women, its target for fiscal year 2016. To arrive at that objective, the Army needed 9,000 recruiting staff (equivalent to three combat brigades) working full-time. If one does the math, that equates to each of these recruiters gaining one-point-something recruits every two months—an utterly astounding statistic. Additionally, the Army had to resort to taking a small percentage of recruits in Mental Category IV—the lowest category and one that, post-Vietnam, the Army made a silent promise never to resort to again.

Moreover, the recruiting and retention process and rich pay and allowances are consuming one half of the Army’s entire annual budget slice, precluding any sort of affordable increase in its end strength.

All of these pieces relate to the United States’ growth as a world power and the way we pay (or don’t) for it. Stillman’s movie, Barcelona, is an amusing take on the convergence of economic interest and Cold War policy. And none of it will you (nor should you) find in New Horizons.

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The Small Town and Its Defenders

The missus and I were glad to be in Jackson, Michigan, at the Grand River Brewery, for a set of presentations sponsored by The American Conservative. We heard Bill Kauffman, who is arguably conservatism’s funniest voice. Here’s an excerpt:

My hometown, Batavia, New York, population 15,500, has had plenty of Bill Baileys and Hughie Cannons over the years. I don’t mean by that shiftless drunks, daydreaming musicians, guys who stay out all night—they’re okay by me—but rather people who leave town, or who refuse to make a home in the place where they live. They reject Booker T. Washington’s wise injunction to cast down your bucket where you are.

In 2003 I published a book called Dispatches From the Muckdog Gazette, which is, megalomaniacally, a memoir about my repatriation to Batavia, but it’s also about the way that Batavia—and by extension all the Batavias from sea to dimming sea—has struggled to maintain a distinct identity, a character, rather than becoming just another formless wattle on the continental blob.

To the world, Batavia is merely Exit 48 on the New York State Thruway, that hideous gray scar across our green and lovely state, that drab version of the Erie Canal dedicated to that drab man Thomas E. Dewey, who fled his fine little hometown of Owosso, Michigan, which was too small to contain a man of his talent, or ego.

I don’t know how much anyone here knows of Batavia—I’m afraid we keep our little light well hidden under the bushel—but I will skip lightly over the first 160 or so years of our history and say only that it is rich, mythopoeic, beguilingly strange, as befits the cradle of the Anti-Masons, the first third party in American history.

Batavia was a prosperous little city, manufactory of combines and tractors and shotguns. English and Scots and Germans were the early settlers, coexisting uneasily with the late 19th-century polyglot influx of Italians and Poles. I’m a mongrel, a mixture of several of these streams—though my beloved late Italian grandmother insisted that we were “northern Italian—almost Swiss.” So in my book I gave myself license to write freely, even raucously, of the ethnic conflicts that once cleaved Batavia—but also gave it a good deal of its spice.

In some ways we were a typical small American city but in other ways we were “Batavia”—our own place. We did not yet bow down before the new American royalty: Burger King and Dairy Queen.

Then, as Joseph Heller would say, something happened. Urban renewal. My old boss Senator Pat Moynihan once said, when driving through Auburn, New York, which was decimated rather as Batavia was—I would do my Moynihan impression but I’m afraid I teetotaled at the reception—“in the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” (Try to imagine any U.S. senator today saying something one ten-thousandth as perceptive.)

Expiration Date Passed

Apparently Ta-Nehisi Coates’ magic has worn off. Several writers have recently taken issue with his ideas about race relations and whiteness (and white superiority). Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was one of the first black authors to take Coates on, returns for another at bat under with the approval of editors at the New York Times (not the New York Post or the Washington Times). This must be serious.

At the Atlantic though, where Coates writes regularly and achieved some of his fame, his editors still think Coates is brilliant and that they bask in the brilliance by publishing and endorsing his ideas. For instance, on a recent podcast about Charlottesville and the Confederate Monuments, Jeffrey Goldberg described President Trump’s reaction, in which he wondered if taking down Robert E. Lee leads to Jefferson and Washington, in cataclysmic terms:

It is an amazing moment when the president of the United States can’t delineate the difference between the Civil War and the Revolutionary War. I think this is a breakpoint in modern American history.

Hasn’t Goldberg read Coates? Someone well before Trump showed a lack of nuance in describing white supremacy in U.S. history:

For the men who needed to believe themselves white, the bodies were the key to ta social club, and the right to break the bodies was the mark of civilization. “The two great division of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” said the great South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun. “And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.” And there it is — the right to break the black body as the meaning of their sacred equality. And that right has always given them meaning, has always meant that there was someone down in the valley because a mountain is not a mountain if there is nothing below.

You and I, my son, are that “below.” That was true in 1776. It is true today. (Coates, Between the World and Me, 104-105).

So what do the editors at the Atlantic think of a staff writer who cannot tell the difference between the Civil War and Revolutionary War?

Was the NFL the Gateway Drug for Playboy?

I wonder when neurological scientists will study the effects on the brain of watching football on the Lord’s Day. Until then, these conclusions look shaky (even a tad reductionist along materialist lines — but, hey, it’s our reductionism):

We now see the effects of having it “all out there now.” We can see how the constant exposure to pornography is not just eating away at our souls but is quite literally highjacking our brains.

In 2011, Struthers wrote an article for Christian Research Journal that explains the effects of porn on the male brain.

“Because the human brain is the biological anchor of our psychological experience, it is helpful to understand how it operates,” he wrote. “Knowing how it is wired together and where it is sensitive can help us understand why pornography affects people the way it does.”

Here’s a simplified explanation: Sexually explicit material triggers mirror neurons in the brain. These neurons, which are involved with the process for how to mimic a behavior, contain a motor system that correlates to the planning out of a behavior. In the case of pornography, this mirror neuron system triggers the arousal, which leads to sexual tension and a need for an outlet.

“The unfortunate reality is that when he acts out (often by masturbating), this leads to hormonal and neurological consequences, which are designed to bind him to the object he is focusing on,” Struthers wrote. “In God’s plan, this would be his wife, but for many men it is an image on a screen. Pornography thus enslaves the viewer to an image, hijacking the biological response intended to bond a man to his wife and therefore inevitably loosening that bond.” (For more on this see “9 Things You Should Know About Pornography and the Brain.”)

Imagine if neurological scientists tried to measure lust in the heart. And what about those long lasting effects of images of football players kneeling during the National Anthem on a Christian’s loyalty to the God-ordained powers?

The full story has yet to be told.

Speaking of Transformationalizationism

Ken Myers once upon a time took instruction from Meredith Kline about why the idea of Christian culture is wrongheaded:

The experience of human culture in all its diversity is the way we enjoy being human. And enjoy it we must. Being human is the most profound aspect of the creation for which we ought to give thanks. If we can enjoy the beauty of all else in creation, how foolish to resent or ignore the image of the Creator, the pinnacle of creation. It is being human, not being saved — it is the image of God in us, not regeneration — that established the capacity to recognize the distinctions between the beautiful and the ubly, between order and chaos, between the creative and the stultifying.

We were created beings before we were redeemed beings. God’s benediction on creation has not been entirely erased by the Fall. Jesus Himself is not only divine, He is human. Does he enjoy it, or simply endure it? Until our bodies are made new, like the body Jesus now enjoys, our calling is not to escape fleshly existence, nor to sanctify culture (since it is “common,” shared by believer and unbeliever, and cannot be made holy), but to so influence our culture as to make it more consistent with the created nature of man, and to sanctify our own lives, because we are also living in the Spirit, with our minds set on the things that are above.

We acknowledge this distinction between the holy and the common each time we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Every meal I eat, I eat to the glory of God, under the Lordship of Christ. But not every meal I heat has the significance and the power to transform that the Lord’s Supper has. It is a holy meal in a way last week’s visit to Burger King is not. Not everyone is allowed to eat this holy meal, but everyone is allowed to eat at Burger King. If there are deficiencies within the culture that have produced Burger King, the deficiencies are not due to the fact that it is not a holy place, but because it violates or compromises aspects of our experience as human beings. If we believe that to be the case, our goal as Christians would not be to sanctify the Whopper, to make it into a sacrament, but to attempt to influence our culture to make it more fitting for human beings bearing the image of God.

While our culture may not be holy, it should not be inhuman. (All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, 50-51)

Transformationalize This

Michael Oakeshott on culture (from Alan Jacobs):

A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.

And the holy urbanists actually think they are up to taking every thought captive? They may have bought that bridge in Brooklyn.

Red Ribbon

Just removing the cake from the Bundt pan was victory enough for we theologians of the cross. But when the cake entered at the The Most Popular Fair on Earth won second place in the Bundt cake division, the red ribbon was icing on the cake.

Here is the recipe for Mississippi Mud Cake:

Into a bowl sift together 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and a pinch of salt.

In the top of a double boiler set over simmering water heat 1-3/4 cups coffee and 1/4 cup bourbon for 5 minutes. Add 5 ounces unsweetened chocolate and 2 sticks (1 cup) butter, all cut into pieces, and heat the mixture, stirring, until the chocolate and butter are melted and the mixture is smooth.

Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 2 cups sugar. Let the mixture cool for 3 minutes and transfer it to the bowl of an.electric mixer.

Add the flour mixture to the chocolate mixture, 1/2 cup at a time, beating at medium speed, and continue to beat the mixture for 1 minute.

Add 2 eggs, lightly beaten, and 1 teaspoon vanilla and beat the batter until it is smooth.

Butter a 9-inch tube pan, 3-1/2 inches deep, and dust it with cocoa. Pour in the batter and bake the cake in a pre- heated very slow oven (275° F.) for 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the cake comes out clean.

Let the cake cool completely in the pan on a rack and turn it out onto a serving plate. Dust the top with powdered sugar or serve with whipped cream.

The recipe comes from a celebrated blue ribbon winner at Wisconsin county fairs who lives in Chicago and has edited and published a couple of my books.

Fine print: the one time I used butter and cocoa on the pan, the results were not great. The better strategy is to use what works best for your Bundt pan.

How History Makes the World a Better Place

Sometimes even boomers know the score. Take Camille Paglia (via Rod Dreher):

Paglia believes there is a causal connection between young Americans’ ignorance of history and their dim view of present conditions. At a conference in Oxford, Paglia stated again, in response to a student who criticized her and others for telling youths not to be so sensitive and snowflaky, “There is much too much focus on the present.”

Or try Rod Dreher:

Imagine that the US was involved in a major overseas war in which over 11,000 American soldiers died in one year alone (1967). For a point of comparison, fewer than 7,000 US troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 14 years of combat there.

Imagine that 17,000 US soldiers would die in 1968, and 12,000 in 1969 fighting that war

Imagine that you might be drafted to go fight there.

Imagine what it would be like if you were convinced the war was profoundly immoral, and you had to choose between deserting the country and bearing arms in that war.

Imagine that many college campuses had become hotbeds not of snowflakey sit-ins, but of serious violence.

Imagine that domestic bombings by left-wing radicals had become a routine part of American life (e.g., five per day in an 18-month period in the early 1970s).

Imagine that two of the nation’s most prominent political leaders (MLK and RFK) Bobby were gunned down three months apart.

Imagine that your government and military were lying to Congress and to the American people about the war, and had been for years (as was revealed with the 1972 publication of the Pentagon Papers).

Imagine that major American cities were burning in race riots.

Imagine that cops in a major American city staged what was later called “a police riot” outside a political party’s national convention, and beat the hell out of protesters.

Could it be that Rod Dreher had it rougher than Ta-Nehisi Coates?

The mind reels.

Conversations Fifty Years Ago

You think having them today is rough, consider Wendell Berry’s experience:

While at Stanford, Berry witnessed several outdoor meetings called by black students for the purpose of establishing a Black Studies program on campus. In Berry’s recollection, the meetings were what historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has called a “harangue-flagellation” ritual in which the black students condemned the white students and faculty for their racism and the whites in attendance nodded in agreement mixed with occasional applause.[30] In another situation on campus, Berry found himself in the middle of a civil rights protest. When a student in the protest heard Berry ask his companion a question in his Kentucky drawl what was going on, his accent prompted the response, “You damned well better find out!”

Berry thought there was no way for him to speak meaningfully in that context, and so The Hidden Wound is what he would have said had the moment allowed it. He wrote it during the winter break in the Bender Room at Stanford University’s Green Library. The essay was motivated by the feeling that the civil rights milieu at the time was at a stalemate and would stay there if the focus on power eclipsed other possible ends. Though Berry agreed that racism was a moral evil and political problem, he thought the most visible sentiments guiding these events were dangerous. Just as in his writing about agriculture, nature, and land—and in his, “A Statement Against the War in Vietnam,” delivered at the University of Kentucky the winter before—he fought abstractions and the separations that oversimplify: of means and ends, of thought and emotion, intentions and actions.

He wrote that the “speakers and hearers seemed to be in perfect agreement that the whites were absolutely guilty of racism, and that the blacks where absolutely innocent of it. They were thus absolutely divided by their agreement.” In his interview with hooks he said more simply: “I thought guilt and anger were the wrong motives for a conversation about race.” People can be more “dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable.” By arguing that power is a necessary part of the discussion, but no more necessary than love, Berry refused the false dichotomy between structure and personal responsibility. During the demonstrations, in contrast, “one felt the possibility of an agreement of sorts, but nowhere the possibility of the mutual recognition of a common humanity, or the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation, or the possibility of love.”

So why is it that adding Jesus to discussions of racism only heightens a sense of what is deplorable?

Yet, even some activists are willing to listen to Berry:

The Hidden Wound, an extended essay in which Berry traced the grim legacy of slavery and racism in Kentucky, and his family’s role in the perpetuation of these evils, was the result. The book was not widely read on publication in 1970, but it has been granted a second life through republication and the sustained admiration of poet, essayist, and activist bell hooks, another Kentuckian who went to Stanford a decade after Berry and later, partly due to Berry’s influence, returned to Kentucky. Since she returned to Kentucky to teach at Berea College in 2004, hooks has been teaching from The Hidden Wound and wrote a sustained reflection on it in Belonging: A Culture of Place. An interview with Berry follows the reflection.

The Connection between Baptists and Revivals

Charles Hodge explained that Christianity rooted in the covenant favors Presbyterianism and rejects credo-Baptism as well as revival:

. . . what we think is plainly taught in Scripture, what is reasonable in itself, and confirmed by the experience of the church, is, that early, assiduous, and faithful religious culture of the young, especially by believing parents, is the great means of their salvation. A child is born in a Christian family, its parents recognize it as belonging to God and included in his covenant. In full faith that the promise extends to their children as well as to themselves, they dedicate their child to him in baptism. From its earliest infancy it is the object of tender solicitude, and the subject of many believing prayers. The spirit which reigns around it is the spirit, not of the world, but of true religion. The truth concerning God and Christ, the way of salvation and of duty, is inculcated from the beginning, and as fast as it can be comprehended. . . . He is constantly taught that he stands in a peculiar relation to God, as being included in his covenant and baptized in his name; that he has in virtue of that relation a right to claim God as hi Father, Christ as his saviour, and the Holy Ghost as his sanctifier; and assured that God will recognize that claim and receive him as his child, if he is faithful to his baptismal vows. The child thus trained grows up in the fear of God; his earliest experiences are more or less religious; he keeps aloof from open sins; strives to keep his conscience clear in the sight of God, and to make the divine will the guide of his conduct. . . . This is no fancy sketch. Such an experience is not uncommon in actual life.

That kind of covenant religion makes revivals not only superfluous, but a threat to Christian nurture. Revival, in other words, is antithetical to rearing children in the faith:

Does not a theory of religion extensively prevail which leads believing parents to expect their children to grow up very much like other children, unconverted, out of the church, out of covenant with God, and to rely far less on the peculiar promise of God to them and to his blessings on their religious culture, than on other means for their salvation. . . . They look upon conversion as something that can only be effected in a sudden and sensible manner; a work necessarily distinct to the consciousness of its subject and apparent to those around him. This conviction modifies their expectations, their conduct, their language, and their prayers. It affect to a very serious degree both parents and children, and it arises from false, or at least imperfect views of the nature of religion, it of course tends to produce and perpetuate them. We see evidence of this mistake all around us, in every part of the country, and in every denomination of Christians. We see it in the disproportionate reliance placed on the proclamation of the gospel from the pulpit, as almost the only means of conversion; and in the disposition to look upon revivals as the only hope of the church. (Hodge, Bushnell on Christian Nurture)