My Podcast Ministry

Just when you thought you heard enough from mmmmeeeeEEEEE, along comes another interview. Adam Holland of The Daily Brew was kind enough to invite me to chat about The Lost Soul of American Protestantism under the heading of pietism and revivalism. I think I showed restraint.

The main reason for engaging in such self-promotion is that I did tell Adam I would mention the podcast here at Old Life. Not to worry, I won’t be heading down the trail of weekly lists of the ten most popular posts.

Enough.

Who Paved the Way for Trump?

It was not Jerry Falwell (or his son).

It was the gatekeepers who decided gates were simply mental constructions and who celebrated those who ran with the new freedom.

Want to know where fake news came from? Looks like it was Harvard not Liberty University (thanks to one of our many southern correspondents):

Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.

For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power.

These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.

From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

Casey Williams argues that the populist right has abused postmodernism.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.

One might object that Trump’s disregard for the truth is nothing new. American presidents have always twisted facts to fit their agenda and have always dismissed truths that threatened to sink them. Even George Washington’s great claim to honesty — that he ’fessed up to felling a cherry tree — was a deception. One could also argue that Trump is more Machiavellian than Foucauldian and that he doesn’t actually believe what he says: He propagates misinformation strategically, to excite his base and smear his opponents.

Not to be missed is what happens when other celebrities flout conventions. Then it becomes art and poignant. And so Lena Dunham is prescient (while Trump is so ordinary when he is not despicable):

The romance between this newspaper and the HBO show “Girls” is somewhat legendary. Between its debut in 2012 and its finale last Sunday, according to some exhaustive data journalism from The Awl, The New York Times published 37 articles about the show, its fans, its creator and star, Lena Dunham, plus her co-stars’ clothes and paintings and workout routines and exotic pets.

Except, fact-check: I made up the exotic pets, and The Awl’s list unaccountably failed to include my own contribution to The Times’s Dunham-mania, a love letter to the show’s flirtations with cultural reaction.

Was some of this coverage excessive? Well, let’s concede that the ratio of thinkpieces (all over the web, not just in this newspaper) to actual viewers was considerably higher for “Girls” than for, say, “Game of Thrones.” Let’s concede that the media loved to talk about the show in part because it was set among young white people in Brooklyn, a demographic just possibly overrepresented among the people who write about pop culture for a living. Let’s concede that Dunham’s peculiar role in electoral politics, as one of the most visible and, um, creative millennial-generation surrogates for Barack Obama and then Hillary Clinton, played some role in the press’s fascination with her show.

But now that we have the show in full, I think the scale of coverage actually holds up quite well — my own small part in it very much included. Indeed, I suspect that “Girls” will be remembered as the most interesting and important television show of the years in which it ran, to which cultural critics will inevitably return when they argue about art and society in the now-vanished era of Obama.

I know it’s hard to seem to be upholding the status quo. Baby boomers would rather have an edge, be a little deviant, and resist being part of the establishment.

But at some point you grow up, or you find no rationale for opposing a man (now president) who has been simply floating along with the decline of standards.

Real or Fake Spin

Sarah Pulliam Bailey reports that hipster-urban church planting may be responsible for Donald Trump:

In recent decades, white evangelical leaders made the American city their mission field. If you wanted to change hearts and minds, you had to go to cultural centers of power, such as New York City or Washington, where the population was growing. Now some evangelicals are wondering if that shift has caused them to overlook the needs and concerns of their counterparts in rural America.

Donald Trump’s victory put the spotlight on white, rural voters, many of them evangelicals, who were drawn to his “Make America Great Again” message. Even as exit polls suggested that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, some evangelicals in urban and suburban areas said they didn’t personally know other evangelicals who vocally supported the president-elect. Although three-quarters of evangelicals are white and lean heavily Republican, they are a huge and diverse group, accounting for a close to a quarter of all Americans, with Latinos making up the fastest-growing segment.

Trump carried nearly 93 percent of rural, mostly white evangelical counties, according to political scientist Ryan Burge.

So does she interview the guru of The City Company of Pastors, aka Tim Keller? You bet:

Ahead of the election, Keller, who leads Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, said that, aside from best-selling author Eric Metaxas, he did not know one evangelical openly supporting Trump.

Keller made his own shift from a rural church to eventually lead one in the country’s largest city and a global church-planting network called City to City.

“Cities have a cool factor, a starry-eyed cool factor,” he said. “Young evangelicals are not motivated to go to places that are not very desirable places to live.”

Keller said young pastors could learn quite a bit by starting at a small-town church in rural America. Pastors at larger churches in big cities tend to specialize in areas such as ministries to women or children, while rural pastors usually do a little bit of everything, he said.

So now Keller has even more credibility because he started as a country pastor? Why are religion reporters so naive?

Why are readers more discerning that religion reporters?

I like Keller, but his thoughts in this are completely self-serving. How is the church failing rural parts of America? Simple: millennials.

No mention that he has spent the better part of a decade saying that we need to focus on cities, that cities are where you change the world, that cities are the fulcrums of culture, that cities are where you find the most people and get the best harvest, that God wants you to love cities, that God is asking, ‘Why aren’t you moving there?’

Does Ms. Bailey think Keller won’t return her calls if she writes a critical story? Surely, a pastor would not be that vindictive. Or perhaps sanctified celebrity carries the same afflictions as unredeemed celebrity.

The Trump Will Set You Free

Free to criticize that is.

In 2014 when Charles Marsh’s highly acclaimed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer came out, the author avoided taking on Eric Metaxas. In an interview with John Fea, this is the worst he could do:

I’m pleased that Eric Metaxas has inspired such a spirited and intense conversation on Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy. Nevertheless, I wanted to tell the story anew by relying primarily on a treasure of recent archival and scholarly discoveries, on letters, journals, and other documents, as well as my own interviews. I spent a lovely afternoon in the home of Eberhard Bethge, shortly before his death, talking candidly about aspects of Bonhoeffer’s character that had been largely ignored. Metaxas’s book also offered me a cautionary tale on the political misuses of biographical writing; had I not been able to see what havoc his own heavy-handed political agenda wreaked on the telling of Bonhoeffer’s life I might have been inclined to tweak it in the direction of my partisan biases.

In his review of Marsh’s book for the Wall Street Journal, Christian Wiman even faults Marsh for failing to correct Eric Metaxas’ popular biography of Bonhoeffer:

Mr. Marsh does not even mention the Metaxas book or the enormous attention it brought to Bonhoeffer. He is a scholar, and Mr. Metaxas is a popular biographer, and it’s possible that Mr. Marsh found no new information in the Metaxas book that he needed for “Strange Glory.” Still, though Mr. Marsh deals quite well with the intractable contradictions of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and actions, he misses the chance to situate the theologian and his ideas more clearly within the contemporary context. A simple preface would have helped.

That is why Marsh’s recent post about Metaxas was a surprise:

WRITTEN WITH BUT the slightest familiarity with German theology and history, Metaxas’s best-selling Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy was published by Thomas Nelson in the spring of 2010 and launched at the Young Republicans Club of New York City. Christians in the United States needed to learn some very important lessons from Bonhoeffer’s story, and Eric Metaxas, who some followers call “the American Bonhoeffer,” had been called by God to deliver these lessons in our own hour of decision: It is not the role of the state to take care of people. America is the greatest nation in the world. People can take care of themselves; small government is the best government. Germans turned to Hitler to do the things that other people ought to be doing, and we in America are in danger of the same mistake. People who like big government don’t believe in God; they’re secularists and can be compared to the Nazis. We need Bonhoeffer’s voice today—Metaxas told an interviewer—“especially in view of the big government ethos of the Obama administration.”

With a literary background that includes a popular biography of the abolitionist William Wilberforce and the VeggieTales children’s series, Metaxas said that his purpose in writing the book was to save Bonhoeffer from the liberals, from the globalists, the humanists, and the pacifists. His Bonhoeffer was a born-again Christian who espoused traditional family values.

This is complete nonsense.

What explains the change? Metaxas has endorsed Trump and Marsh disapproves. The Trump will set you free.

But the editors at Religion & Politics and Dr. Fea should remember that just because Marsh is agreeable about Trump, it doesn’t make him right about Bonhoeffer. In fact, both Marsh and Metaxas may reflect their own “American” perspective. Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, a German biographer of Bonhoeffer, sure thought so:

Marsh and Metaxas have dragged Bonhoeffer into cultural and political disputes that belong in a U.S. context. The issues did not present themselves in the same way in Germany in Bonhoeffer’s time, and the way they are debated in Germany today differs greatly from that in the States. Metaxas has focused on the fight between right and left in the United States and has made Bonhoeffer into a likeable arch-conservative without theological insights and convictions of his own; Marsh concentrates on the conflict between the Conservatives and the gay rights’ movement. Both approaches are equally misguided and are used to make Bonhoeffer interesting and relevant to American society. Bonhoeffer does not need this and it certainly distorts the facts.

Years ago Charles Marsh described his Bonhoeffer biography project. This reviewer remembers a passage about him wanting to approach the topic in a more ‘writerly’ way than Bethge, using a talent for storytelling for which the Southern States are famous. It is true that his book surpasses that of Bethge in terms of writerly skill, but is has become ‘A Life of Bonhoeffer’ that never existed in this form. A number of mistakes found in Marsh’s book have been referred to above. There are more, but I have deliberately concentrated on those that do most to distort the picture of Bonhoeffer.

I have no doubt that Schlingensiepen would disapprove of Trump. I do doubt he would let his view of Trump inform his understanding of the past.

How the World Might Have Changed if the Apostles Had Religious Liberty

I don’t want to deny that it’s a tough world out there for believers. Have to worry about the flesh, the devil, and the world. So having also to keep an eye on California state legislators can make Christian piety a real challenge.

Still, the U.S. Christian tendency to play the persecution card doesn’t make sense of the greatness of American society (no need for Trump). In case Old Life readers did not know, the California legislature was proposing to expand the rights of LBGT students in ways that would have compromised restrictions that Christian institutions placed on their students, faculty, and staff.

And now the good great news. Enough people in California and elsewhere lobbied the California legislature to remove the controversial provisions of the bill:

Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) is removing a provision of his bill that sought to take away the exemption of religious schools to anti-discrimination laws. Instead, he will press forward with the amended bill that would still require such schools to disclose if they have an exemption and report to the state when students are expelled for violating morality codes.

“The goal for me has always been to shed the light on the appalling and unacceptable discrimination against LGBT students at these private religious institutions throughout California,” Lara said.

“I don’t want to just rush a bill that’s going to have unintended consequences so I want to take a break to really study this issue further,” the senator said. He said the requirement for schools to report expulsions based on morality codes to the state Commission on Student Aid will give him information on how common such cases are.

The senator said he will pursue other legislation next year, possibly including the provision dropped Wednesday.

Lara’s decision came after a half-dozen universities formed a new committee called the Assn. of Faith Based Institutions and contributed $350,000.

The group has flooded the districts of members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee, including Chairwoman Lorena S. Gonzalez (D-San Diego), with mailers saying the bill violates religious freedoms and urging voters to contact their Assembly person.

“Stop state control of private education,” says one mailer to Gonzalez’s constituents. Her committee is scheduled to vote on the bill Thursday.

The institutions include Azusa Pacific University, Point Loma Nazarene University and William Jessup University.

After Lara’s announcement, the universities released a letter to the Senator that said “Pending review of this new language, we are pleased to change our position on this legislation from “oppose unless amended” to `support.’ “

What makes democracy great is that it can reverse falling sky.

If It's Obvious It Can't Be True

So what is up with the Trumpophobia? This post made me think about posting about Donald Trump. Lots of people are trying to figure out how serious Christians who self-identify as evangelical could support a politician as raucous, impolitic, and self-important as Trump. I too sometimes wonder about it.

But when you connect Trump to Calvinism you’ve gone a bridge too far:

In the mind of the populist Calvinist, then, Trump is one of God’s “elect,” a billionaire because he is one of God’s great men on earth.

You’ll find echoes of this idea in the theology of the group known as “The Family” or “The Fellowship,” which sponsors the annual National Prayer Breakfast, and supports some of the most corrupt dictators on the planet. (Jeff Sharlet’s outstanding reporting exposed the group’s influence on Capitol Hill.)

For the record, let me say that the Pentecostal tradition to which Palin belongs is antithetical in many ways to traditional Calvinism. Yet, through the influence of the philosophy of Christian Reconstructionism (which theologized both capitalism and segregation along Calvinist thought lines) throughout the religious right, it’s fair to say that Calvin’s big-man theory of redemption holds sway in that religious universe.

Add to that the veneration of patriarchy and the strains of authoritarianism that characterize the religious right, and it begins to dawn on one just why Trump so appeals to the self-appointed guardians of the so-called “real America.”

Since when did American politics become so all darned polite, virtuous, and civil? Maybe it should be those things. But ever since we went down the road of partisanship (read two parties), politicians have splattered a lot of mud. Don’t forget that democracy itself is no picnic.

Democracy is that system of government under which people, having 60,000,000 native-born adults to choose from, including thousands who are handsome and many who are wise, pick out a Coolidge to be head of state. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies. (H. L. Mencken)

It’s as if everyone following politics has turned into classical music snobs and considers Trump the equivalent of Sinatra compared to Pavarotti or Enrico Caruso when in fact we are all used to casting our votes for Jay Z or Lil Wayne. Just yesterday I heard a quotation from Hillary Clinton where she described the options for the United States as among going backward, maintaining the status quo, and moving forward. Guess which one she is. Seriously?

I’m not opposed to making arguments against Trump. I have some myself. I simply wish that all the opposition didn’t begin with “yuck.” That so reminds me of the girls from junior high.

Does Anyone Remember Claudette Colvin?

That’s Colvin, not Calvin.

She was the fifteen-year old African-American girl who could have been Rosa Parks.

Other African-Americans had previously refused to give their seats to white passengers, says Hoose. “What was without precedent, though, is Colvin wanted to get a lawyer and she wanted to fight,” he says.

The lawyer she chose was Fred Gray, one of two African-American lawyers in Montgomery at the time. After speaking with Colvin, Gray says, he was prepared to file a civil rights lawsuit to contest segregation on buses in Montgomery. But after discussing Colvin’s incident with other local African-American community leaders, the community decided to wait, he says.

Colvin was just 15 and did not have civil rights training. Gray says the community was not quite prepared for Colvin’s situation.

“Later I had a child born out of wedlock; I became pregnant when I was 16,” Colvin says. “And I didn’t fit the image either, of, you know, someone they would want to show off.”

Nine months later, Rosa Parks did the exact same thing as Colvin. She was 42 years old, a professional and an officer in the NAACP. Hoose says Parks was the symbol that civil rights leaders were looking for.

The reason for bringing Colvin up is to calm the outrage over stories about the press’ coverage of Kim Davis, the Rowan County clerk in Kentucky who was refusing to give marriage licenses to gay couples. Now it comes out that she herself in addition to being a Christian is a three-time divorcee and so not necessarily the poster woman for religious freedom among the sanctified defenders of hetero marriage. Molly Hemingway does note in her wonderfully contrarian way that Davis’ conversion to Christian came after her prior divorces. So she is a little upset with the press’ slut shaming. Others have other thoughts about the matter.

Still, why don’t religious conservatives fighting the culture wars worry about style points? Why don’t they pick victims that are more squeaky clean than others? Why not understand that hypocrisy comes with the territory of headlines? If civil rights attorneys had to pick the right person to be the emblem of their cause, why don’t Christians have to make the same calculation?

It’s not like this is a problem that only believers face.