What Am(mmmeeeEEEE) I Missing?

A few more observations about religious journalism after the news that Books & Culture is ending its run next month. A couple of evangelical academics have taken this news about the way that I felt when I heard that Chris Hughes had bought the New Republic and its editorial staff resigned.

According to Alan Jacobs:

For twenty-one years, Books and Culture has been one of the most consistently interesting magazines in the English-speaking world. I have often been surprised at the number and range of people who agree with me about that. Alex Star, a former editor of the New York Times Magazine and now an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, once told me that he read every issue in full. Cullen Murphy, former editor of the Atlantic, told me that John Wilson is the best editor in the business.

Chris Gehrz seconds Jacobs:

… in any event, it’s certainly a good moment to celebrate what John Wilson has been able to accomplish over twenty years of editing B&C — and how much I appreciate that he has gone out of his way to encourage young authors and scholars. Thanks, John, and all those who have made Books & Culture possible these last twenty-one years.

Both authors mention personal ties to John Wilson and my own relations to the magazine no doubt inform my reaction to the news which is a measure of sadness, especially for people who are losing the jobs. But I can’t say I’ll miss B&C because I haven’t subscribed to it for years.

One reason was precisely those young writers that Gehrz believes John Wilson cultivated. For me that was a fault of John Wilson’s powers as gate keeper for what could have been the jewel in intellectual evangelicalism’s crown. If you want to point to the rich treasures of the evangelical mind, why not turn to its intellectual statesmen and make your publication evangelicalism’s go to place for your movement’s most insightful writers? But evangelicalism suffers from an implicit egalitarianism that elevates the ideas and opinions of the novice and untested to the same worth as the tried and true.

This was exactly what Leon Wieseltier refused to do with the New Republic. In the “back of the book” he turned to some of the academy’s best minds (including Mark Noll) and gave them lots of room to explore a range of ideas that — sorry — B&C never approximated.

Maybe it is apples and oranges, but I doubt Jean Bethke Elshtain could have evaluated Hillary Clinton for John Wilson the way she did for Wieseltier:

I am no a family-above-all person. Some families are rotten and the children in those families should be spirited to safety as quickly as possible. But truly rotten families are, thank God, few and far between. More commonly we have good enough families or almost good enough ones. How high do we place the threshhold in assessing good and bad parenting? Whose business is it anyway? Here Clinton makes one of the more lamentable moves in her book. She is dead-on about the importance of being attuned to the needs of infants, feeding them, cuddling them, holding them, but in a discussion of the fact that there is not “substitute for regular, undivided attention from parents” we learn that the “biggest difference” that emerged from a study she cites and endorses, was “in the sheer amount of talking that occurred” in various households. It is no surprise that Clinton favors the chattering classes, but she proceeds to malign poor and working-class parents because they interact less with their children….

Like Clinton, I recoil when I hear a parent shout at a child. I, too, cringe when a parent is curt, abrupt and dismissive. But I recognize that this is not the same thing as neglect, not the same thing as abuse. Perhaps, as the late Christopher Lasch insisted, the working-class or lower-middle-class style aims to instill in children a tough, early recognition that life is not a bowl of cherries, not a world in which everyone is telling you how great you are; that their lives will be carried out in a world in which they tasks they are suited for, the jobs they do, the lives they live, and even the way they talk (or do not talk) will be scrutinized and found wanting by their “betters.” I know that Clinton would argue, in response, that she means no invidious comparison. But the comparison is there and it is invidious. According to her book, the higher the income and education, the better the parenting, all other things being equal….Don’t get me wrong. As a general rule, children shouldn’t have to…[suffer]. And no group of children should be stuck in such a situation as a permanent condition. But life is hard, and its necessities bear down on people. In the light of such recognitions, it is best at times to restrain ourselves and not rush to intervene and fix everything and tell people struggling against enormous odds that they are doing a crummy job. Sometimes Clinton understands this, sometimes she doesn’t.

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What History is Supposed To Do (which is different from blogging)

More thoughts today on the outlook that historical knowledge cultivates.

First comes the pietist version — the past as pointer to what’s true and right:

In the introduction the authors offer five reasons to study church history: 1) It continues to record the history of God’s faithful dealings with his people and it records Christ’s ongoing work in the world. 2) We are told by God to remember what he has done and to make it known to those who follow us. 3) Church history “helps to illuminate and clarify what we believe” and in that way allows us to evaluate our beliefs and practices against historic teaching. 4) It safeguards against error by showing us how Christians have already responded to false teaching. 5) And finally it gives us heroes and mentors to imitate as we live the Christian life. In this way it promotes spiritual growth and maturation.

History as a means of grace? I’m not sure.

Second, history as perplexity:

… we developed an approach we call the “five C’s of historical thinking.” The concepts of change over time, causality, context, complexity, and contingency, we believe, together describe the shared foundations of our discipline. They stand at the heart of the questions historians seek to answer, the arguments we make, and the debates in which we engage. . . .

One of the most successful exercises we have developed for conveying complexity in all of these dimensions is a mock debate on Cherokee Removal. Two features of the exercise account for the richness and depth of understanding that it imparts on students. First, the debate involves multiple parties; the Treaty and Anti-Treaty Parties, Cherokee women, John Marshall, Andrew Jackson, northern missionaries, the State of Georgia, and white settlers each offer a different perspective on the issue. Second, students develop their understanding of their respective positions using the primary sources collected in Cherokee Removal: A Brief History with Documents by Theda Perdue and Michael Green.7 While it can be difficult to assess what students learn from such exercises, we have noted anecdotally that, following the exercise, students seem much less comfortable referring to “American” or “Indian” positions as monolithic identities.

Third, history as empathy:

I hope that the young adults who study history with me find themselves cultivating five interrelated values: comfort with complexity, humility, curiosity, hospitality, and empathy. I don’t think Donald Trump is unusual among Oval Office aspirants in his utter lack of humility (here’s a conservative critique of him on that point), his disinterest in learning (see his recent comments on his reading habits), or his impatience with complication and nuance. But if I’m going to tell my students that historical study exists to a significant extent to help them be more hospitable and empathetic to those of a different culture, ethnicity, religion, ideology, etc., I can hardly stay silent about a candidate who has demonized immigrants and Muslims.

So I think the open letter’s authors are right to characterize the Trump candidacy as an attack not only on the “constructive, evidence-based argumentation” we try to practice in our profession, but on “our values, and the communities we serve.”

What is striking is how even professional historians can make history be what they want it to be.

But why is it that professional historians don’t recognize that the way they frame the historical enterprise winds up making not a scholarly but a political point. If the aim of history is to empathize with others (among other things), where have historians been about developments in Turkey or the real complexity of issues that inform the current discussion of police and crime in the United States? (For some academics, there’s not much complexity about cops shooting people.) I’m sorry, but to be so outspoken about a guy like Trump just doesn’t take all that much insight or courage. Most people who work outside history departments know he is egotistical, bombastic, clownish, and a jumble of assertions and passions. Even supporters see that. Are students so desperate?

Or is it that historians want to present as being on the “right” side?

The thing is, the responsibilities necessary to be president are not the same as the virtues that historical study cultivates. In the case of empathy, a president does need to be empathetic. But that’s not all. Just think back to episode 2, season 4 of West Wing where President Bartlet approves the assassination of a Qumar state official suspected of terrorism. Sometimes prudence trumps empathy. And that’s something that history actually teaches. Or it should. (Why should Aaron Sorkin get all the good lessons?)

To John Fea’s credit, he excerpts Jonathan Zimmerman’s reasons for not signing the letter:

I won’t join Historians Against Trump, which indulges in some of the same polarized, overheated rhetoric used by Trump himself. In a statement released on July 11, the new group warned that Trump’s candidacy represents “an attack on our profession, our values, and the communities we serve.” But that claim is itself a repudiation of our professional values, which enjoin us to understand diverse communities instead of dismissing them as warped or deluded.

I speak, of course, of the millions of people who have cast ballots for Donald Trump. According to the signatories of the statement, there’s only one historically grounded opinion on Trump: their own. By that definition, then, Trump supporters are uninformed. When he accepts the Republican nomination this week, the historians’ statement concludes, the party will have succumbed to “snake oil.”

Of course, there are plenty of ignoramuses and bigots in the Trump camp. But surely there are reasoned, knowledgeable people who back him.

The “lessons of history” — to quote the historians’ manifesto — can be read in different way, by equally informed people. And it strains credulity to imagine that all Trump supporters have had the wool pulled over their eyes.

One consolation in all this: it’s not only Reformed Protestants or social conservatives who traffic in outrage.

Cherry Picking Amendments

I am no fan of the National Rifle Association. Having grown up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, I have no first hand knowledge with weapons — either for self-defense or sport. My own politics tell me that if I am going to support the Second Amendment (and my right to bear arms), I should also be opposed to standing militias. Which I am. Hey now. The way I read the politics of England and British America is that the right to bear arms was part of a citizens militia where ordinary people would fight the battles of the nation — and so they needed guns. If I’m going to fight as an ordinary citizen today, I need either a rocket launcher or a drone. Conceal and carry that.

But I am intrigued by John Piper’s remarks about Jerry Falwell’s remarks on Christians carrying guns and how Piper is being picked up by some evangelical academics. This was a line that caught my attention since it has the ring of 2k to it:

the overwhelming focus and thrust of the New Testament is that Christians are sent into the world — religious and non-religious — “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3)…. exhorting the lambs to carry concealed weapons with which to shoot the wolves does not advance the counter-cultural, self-sacrificing, soul-saving cause of Christ.

I agree.

But then I had to wonder about some of Piper’s recent reflections about race in the United States and all the attention that he received for descrying the real bigotry that exists in this society. Did Piper adopt a spirituality of the church mindset then? Did he call for Christians to act like strangers and aliens or did he aid and abet progressive policy reforms that would make the United States a safer and more equitable place? Here is something the Minneapolis pastor wrote a year ago:

Jesus said that anger is motivationally equivalent to murder (Matthew 5:21–22). But he did not say the outcomes are equivalent. After murder somebody is dead, but not necessarily after anger. According to Romans 13:1–7, God put government in place not to remove the anger, but to keep it from becoming murder. He put the gospel of Christ in place to transform anger into love. This double divine work of government and gospel is also true in regard to lust leading to rape, greed leading to stealing, fear leading to perjury, intrigue leading to treason, and racial prejudice leading to racial injustice.

Laws don’t save souls. But they do save lives and livelihoods. And that matters for those of us who want to reach people with the heart-transforming gospel. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me, and I think that is pretty important, also.”

I wouldn’t but I could well imagine someone making the same point about citizen Christians owning and carrying guns. “Guns don’t save souls. But they do save lives and livelihoods.”

So I am once again left wondering about the selective appropriation of both the spirituality of the church and our nation’s Bill of Rights. Why single out gun owners but not also call American Christians to put no trust in Fourteenth Amendment (which is backed up by officials — some of them Christians — with guns)? Here are a few other places where Piper’s embrace of civil rights and repudiation of gun rights seems off:

Few messages are more needed among American Christians today than 1 Peter 4:12: “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Fiery trials are not strange. And the trials in view are hostilities from unbelievers, as the next verse shows: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” These trials are normal. That may not be American experience, but it is biblical truth.

Peter’s aim for Christians as “sojourners and exiles” on the earth is not that we put our hope in the self-protecting rights of the second amendment, but in the revelation of Jesus Christ in glory (1 Peter 1:7, 13; 4:13; 5:1). His aim is that we suffer well and show that our treasure is in heaven, not in self-preservation.

For Piper that’s a reason for Christians not to have guns, but would he have said that to African-Americans — “you need to suffer more” — who sought and seek equality under the law?

Or let me ask, would Piper say the same as this about civil rights legislation?

I think I can say with complete confidence that the identification of Christian security with concealed weapons will cause no one to ask a reason for the hope that is in us. They will know perfectly well where our hope is. It’s in our pocket.

I don’t think Piper actually puts his hope in the nation’s laws. But has he warned his fans and appropriators about the proximate or relative good of improved race relations in the United States compared to the real hope that animates believers?

And if Piper would not even call the police for the defense of his family from an assailant, why would Piper support laws to protect African-Americans from oppressors?

There is, as I have tried to show, a pervasive thrust in the New Testament pushing us toward blessing and doing good to those who hate, curse, and abuse us (Luke 6:27–28). And there is no direct dealing with the situation of using lethal force to save family and friend, except in regards to police and military. This is remarkable when you think about it, since I cannot help but think this precise situation presented itself, since we read that Saul drug men and women bound to Jerusalem (Acts 9:1–2).

2) Our primary aim in life is to show that Christ is more precious than life. So when presented with this threat to my wife or daughter or friend, my heart should incline toward doing good in a way that would accomplish this great aim. There are hundreds of variables in every crisis that might affect how that happens.

Maybe the problem is that of being the holy pontiff of Minneapolis. Sometimes pastors think they need to comment on everything. Often, even those with a curia behind them, can’t keep up with everything they say. If only every pastor and theologian had a Denzinger.

Who's Afraid of a Secular Faith?

Chris Gerhz is worried about Islamophobia among evangelicals in the United States:

In the 2015 edition of its annual American Values Survey, PRRI asked about a number of topics, but coming a day after multiple Republican candidates proposed that Christian and Muslim refugees be treated differently as they seek asylum in the U.S., this finding stood out:

73% of evangelicals agree that the “values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.”

Kidd, American Christians and IslamNow, a majority of Americans (56%) feel this way, as do majorities in every Christian group. (Non-Christians and nonreligious are more likely to disagree than agree with the statement, and black and Hispanic Americans are evenly divided.) But that 73% number is ten points higher than the next most Islamophobic group (white mainline Protestants).

But he is also worried about secularization as a solution:

I almost don’t know where to start, I’m so appalled by that 73% number.

Probably the best place is to question how much evangelicals or any other Christians ought to worry about sustaining “American values and way of life.” Insofar as there’s such a thing as “national values” and they’re consistent with the values of he who is “the way, the truth, and the life,” then sure, try to uphold them. But this just makes me more concerned about evangelical susceptibility to different kinds of secularization.

One way out of the problem is at least to decouple U.S. and Christian identity. If the U.S. is not a Christian nation, then it should conceivably be open to law abiding people of all faiths. If notions of religious freedom, equality before the law, republicanism, constitutionalism, federalism, are not revealed in holy writ, then we don’t need to attach to them religious meaning or consequence. So if evangelicals abandoned Christian nationalism, if they regarded the church — not the nation — as the locus of Christian identity, they might have a different reaction to Muslims living in the United States.

And isn’t that exactly what secularity is? A recognition that the heavenly city is not bound up with the earthly city? If we can’t identify God’s way with Rome, Geneva, Scotland, or the Netherlands, then Christians should be less invested in the religious identity of civil authorities who are only temporal (read secular), that is, rulers who are provisional and not of eternal or spiritual significance.

In which case, doesn’t that make a secular faith the solution to Islamophobia? (See what I did there?)