House of Cards vs. Game of Thrones

Lots of discussion lately about watching sin in movies and television series.  The reason appears to be the new season of Game of Thrones.  That genre interests me not at all so I haven’t seen any of it, and I’ve only watched one episode of House of Cards (more of the original).  Too many episodes of West Wing and Friday Night Lights still to see. (And now there’s Hinterland.)

After watching last night with colleagues and students in the German literature department Run Lola Run, I started wondering again about viewing sin on the screen.  Kevin DeYoung and Nick Batzig argue for caution when watching movies with nudity and sex.  Even Katelyn Beaty finds her inner Nashville Statement when it comes to watching programs that include rape scenes.

But what about Lola and Manni from Run Lola Run? Here we have a guy entangled with drug dealers (likely) needing to pay them their money after having lost it on a subway.  And we have his girlfriend who robs a bank to help her man.  And we have a viewer (me) rooting them on.  Should I have worried about breaking the ninth commandment?

And is it more heinous to watch a movie that portrays violations of the seventh commandment compared to one that depicts breaking the ninth commandment?

Is the Larger Catechism of any help?

Q. 150. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
A. All transgressions of the law are not equally heinous; but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

Q. 151. What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous than others?
A. Sins receive their aggravations,
1. From the persons offending; if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.
2. From the parties offended: if immediately against God, his attributes, and worship; against Christ, and his grace; the Holy Spirit, his witness, and workings; against superiors, men of eminency, and such as we stand especially related and engaged unto; against any of the saints, particularly weak brethren, the souls of them, or any other, and the common good of all or many.
3. From the nature and quality of the offence: if it be against the express letter of the law, break many commandments, contain in it many sins: if not only conceived in the heart, but breaks forth in words and actions, scandalize others, and admit of no reparation: if against means, mercies, judgments, light of nature, conviction of conscience, public or private admonition, censures of the church, civil punishments; and our prayers, purposes, promises, vows, covenants, and engagements to God or men: if done deliberately, willfully, presumptuously, impudently, boastingly, maliciously, frequently, obstinately, with delight, continuance, or relapsing after repentance.
4. From circumstances of time, and place: if on the Lord’s day, or other times of divine worship; or immediately before or after these, or other helps to prevent or remedy such miscarriages: if in public, or in the presence of others, who are thereby likely to be provoked or defiled.

It looks like what qualifies as more aggravating than something else has a lot to do with the person offended and the time of the offense. Watching a show of a disreputable nature on the Lord’s Day might be worse than seeing it on Wednesday night (as long as your not skipping prayer meeting, of course). And if you watch something the king thinks you shouldn’t see, that carries more weight than — sorry Kevin — your PCA pastor.

But what about point three — the nature of the offense? There it sure looks like stealing from a bank to pay your re-election campaign staff is more heinous than simply stealing from a bank. But maybe I’m wrong. I also see nothing from the catechism to suggest that sexual sins are more heinous than fiscal or false words.

If that’s true, it looks like a lot of people obsess about what is simply looking at entertainment serious art. Whatever might these people make of Michelangelo’s David? A fig leaf, please!!

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Thankful for Trump

I rarely see eye-to-eye with Michael Novak, but m(mmmmeeeeEEE)y reaction to the election was similar to his in the sense that I dreaded four more years of progressivism at that center of American life and felt a sense of relief when news came that Hillary Clinton did not win.

But a better expression of my thoughts comes from Damon Linker who recognizes, as few do inside the bubble of progressivism, that the United States includes more than elite institutions and their unofficial establishment:

The urge toward exclusion is a perennial possibility of politics. That’s because politics takes place on two levels. On one level is the back and forth of partisan conflict, involving persuasion, argument, electoral battles, triumphs, and defeats. On this level, pretty much anything goes as long as it abides by the rules of the political game. But there’s also a second, more fundamental level of politics that involves a competition over who gets to set the rules, the boundaries of what is publicly acceptable, in the first place — and precisely where those boundaries will be positioned.

The most obvious example of second-order politics in the American system is the judiciary, and especially the Supreme Court. Until the Obergefell decision in 2015, for example, the American people were engaging in a free-flowing debate about same-sex marriage, with some people in favor of allowing it and others opposed, and public opinion shifting rapidly in the “pro” direction. That was politics conducted on the first level. But then the Supreme Court stepped in to declare gay marriage a constitutional right. That was second-order politics in action: Suddenly the rules were changed, with the “pro” side summarily declared the winner throughout the nation and the “anti” side driven — and permanently excluded — from the political battlefield going forward.

But second-order politics isn’t only found in the formal strictures of a Supreme Court ruling. It comes into play when prominent institutions in civil society (such as mainstream media outlets, universities, corporations, movie studios, and other arms of the entertainment industry) informally unite in deciding that an issue, or a specific position on an issue, is simply unacceptable because it crosses a moral line that leading members of these institutions consider inviolable. Over the past several decades, a range of positions on immigration, crime, gender, and the costs and benefits of some forms of diversity have been relegated to the categories of “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “white supremacy,” or “white nationalism,” and therefore excluded from first-order political debate.

I’m not going to cry for progressives. They still have elite journalism, Hollywood, the most exclusive colleges and universities, and lots of agencies related directly and indirectly to the federal government. They just don’t have the White House for the next four years. Let’s see Aaron Sorkin make a television show about that.

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.

Did President Obama Throw Malcolm X Under the Bus?

Now that the missus and I are three seasons into West Wing, I understand that the nation’s presidents cannot say whatever is on their mind. They need to spin for so many different reasons. It’s almost like watching Tom Reagan in Millers’ Crossing.

Even so, President Obama seems to have once again provided a cliched account of Islam in the United States that “makes the rough places plain” so to speak:

Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.

Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” (Applause.)

Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (Applause.) So this is not a new thing.

Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation. They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants. They built America’s first mosque, surprisingly enough, in North Dakota. (Laughter.) America’s oldest surviving mosque is in Iowa. The first Islamic center in New York City was built in the 1890s. Muslim Americans worked on Henry Ford’s assembly line, cranking out cars. A Muslim American designed the skyscrapers of Chicago.

In 1957, when dedicating the Islamic center in Washington, D.C., President Eisenhower said, “I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution … and in American hearts…this place of worship, is just as welcome…as any other religion.” (Applause.)

And perhaps the most pertinent fact, Muslim Americans enrich our lives today in every way. They’re our neighbors, the teachers who inspire our children, the doctors who trust us with our health — future doctors like Sabah. They’re scientists who win Nobel Prizes, young entrepreneurs who are creating new technologies that we use all the time. They’re the sports heroes we cheer for -— like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon. And by the way, when Team USA marches into the next Olympics, one of the Americans waving the red, white and blue — (applause) — will a fencing champion, wearing her hijab, Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is here today. Stand up. (Applause.) I told her to bring home the gold. (Laughter.) Not to put any pressure on you. (Laughter.)

Muslim Americans keep us safe. They’re our police and our firefighters. They’re in homeland security, in our intelligence community. They serve honorably in our armed forces — meaning they fight and bleed and die for our freedom. Some rest in Arlington National Cemetery. (Applause.)

So Muslim Americans are some of the most resilient and patriotic Americans you’ll ever meet.

In many ways I salute the president for trying to make Islam part of the American narrative but I worry that his story line is one that suits Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce better than a president who ran and won in part because he is African-American. For blacks in the 1950s and 1960s, people that the president’s in-laws would well know (and possibly were), Islam looked more like a way to dissent from the nation’s racism and segregation than it did an on-ramp to the American mainstream. The tension between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. was all about the dilemmas that integration posed for blacks who wanted a separate identity from the one King was cultivating:

“You don’t integrate with a sinking ship.” This was Malcolm X’s curt explanation of why he did not favor integration of blacks with whites in the United States. As the chief spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim organization led by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X argued that America was too racist in its institutions and people to offer hope to blacks. The solution proposed by the Nation of Islam was a separate nation for blacks to develop themselves apart from what they considered to be a corrupt white nation destined for divine destruction.

In contrast with Malcolm X’s black separatism, Martin Luther King, Jr. offered what he considered “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest” as a means of building an integrated community of blacks and whites in America. He rejected what he called “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist,” believing that the fate of black Americans was “tied up with America’s destiny.” Despite the enslavement and segregation of blacks throughout American history, King had faith that “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God” could reform white America through the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.

Of course, the experience of most Muslims in the U.S. — namely, immigrants from the Middle East — is distinct from that of descendants of American slaves (like Michelle Obama). But a reminder about Islam’s plausible appeal to black separatists seems necessary for doing justice to both the history of Islam and African-American life in the U.S.

Update: And what would President Obama say to Muhammad Ali, a Baptist turned Muslim, who said this about the U.S. military when refusing to serve in Vietnam?

But who is this white man, no older than me, appointed by another white man, all the way to the white man in the White House? Who is he to tell me to go to Asia, Africa, or anywhere else in the world to fight people who never threw a rock at me or America? Who is this descendant of slave masters to order a descendant of slaves to fight other people in their own country?