Welcome to America…

David Bentley Hart with a prophetic critique of America in a recent NYT column (HT to Richard Beck for pointing it out):

“America — with its decaying infrastructure, its third-world public transit, its shrinking labor market, its evaporating middle class, its expanding gulf between rich and poor, its heartless health insurance system, its mindless indifference to a dying ecology, its predatory credit agencies, its looming Social Security collapse, its interminable war, its metastasizing national debt and all the social pathologies that gave it a degenerate imbecile and child-abducting sadist as its president — remains the only developed economy in the world that believes it wrong to use civic wealth for civic goods. Its absurdly engorged military budget diverts hundreds of billions of dollars a year from the public weal to those who profit from the military-industrial complex. Its plutocratic policies and libertarian ethos are immune to all appeals of human solidarity. It towers over the world, but promises secure shelter only to the fortunate few.”

–David Bentley Hart, “The New York Yankees Are a Moral Abomination”

Zahnd: Christianity vs. Biblicism

I attended the Water to Wine Gathering at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, MO a couple weekends ago. WOLC’s pastor Brian Zahnd included in one of his talks some discussion of the dangers of biblicism. I had hoped to summarize that talk in a blog post, but happily Zahnd has published a post of his own doing just that. (It’s actually the preface to an upcoming book, but he shared it on his blog.) I find his thinking very helpful in how we approach and interpret the Bible.

I particularly enjoy his opening metaphor:

As modern Christians we are children of a broken home. Five centuries ago the Western church went through a bitter divorce that divided European Christians and their heirs into estranged Catholic and Protestant families. The reality that the Renaissance church was in desperate need of reformation doesn’t change the fact that along with a reformation there also came an ugly split that divided the church’s children between a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. In the divorce settlement (to push the metaphor a bit further) Catholic Mom got a long history, a rich tradition, and a unified church, but all Protestant Dad got was the Bible. Without history, tradition, or a magisterium, the Bible had to be everything for Protestant Dad — and Protestants have made the most of it.

He goes on to liken the Bible to rich soil out of which grows the tree that is the Christian faith. The Christian faith is rooted in and draws nourishment from the Bible, but Christianity and the Bible are not synonymous. To approach it this way, says Zahnd,

…is both conservative and progressive. Conservative in that it recognizes the inviolability of Scripture. Progressive in that it makes a vital distinction between the living faith and the historic text.

I probably have some readers getting very nervous at this point, but if so I would really recommend reading the whole thing. Zahnd and others like him are pointing the way to embrace Scripture while at the same time moving past reading it in a flat, biblicistic way.

Finished reading: 2018, part four

What I’ve read the past month or so:

Head On by John Scalzi
A sequel in Scalzi’s series from the near future where some humans are afflicted by a disease that causes “lock in”, where their bodies are vegetative but their minds are able to interact with the outside world via a neural interface and proxy robot-like bodies. An entertaining read.

The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott
Interesting to read a biography of Merton written by someone other than himself. (While The Seven Storey Mountain is well worth a read, it’s clearly pretty one-sided.) Merton remains a fascinating character to me.

Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution by Kenneth Miller
I found Miller’s name when looking at biology textbooks – he’s the author of a very popular one used by our public high school. Turns out he’s a professing Christian who has spent a bunch of time thinking and writing about how he makes sense of his faith in light of his life-long study of evolution. I found the book thoughtful and very reasonable. Worth a read.

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior
This one isn’t out yet, but I snagged a review copy and will write a full post later. Prior uses each chapter in this book to highlight a virtue and a great book that illustrates the virtue. I now have a bunch more books on my list that I’ve somehow failed to read thus far.

How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Light-hearted fluff… perfect for reading on vacation next to a swimming pool… which was exactly what I did.

Warning Light by David Ricciardi
Highly forgettable spy thriller. Something about a guy who may or may not have been spying on an Iranian nuclear site and then is trying to escape. Yawn.

The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: The Improbable Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire by Alan Kreider
Now this was a good one. Kreider was a Professor of Church History at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. He spends most of this volume examining primary sources from the first few centuries A.D. (basically 1st century up through Constantine) and looking at what those Christians viewed as important. Notably important: patience and longsuffering. It becomes clear reading Kreider how much the tenor of the early church changed when Constantine brought them out of the

Bed and Board: Plain Talk About Marriage by Robert Farrar Capon
This one was in urban legend status for a while – an old, out-of-print title from a beloved (if somewhat niche) author that supposedly was very good. And hey, it got reprinted, and it’s not even that expensive! Capon is his familiar crusty self, and honestly the chapters on marriage fell a little short in my mind. But the chapter on Things and our approach to them was golden. Completely worth the price of the book. Merits a blog post later.

Eisenhower vs. Warren: The Battle for Civil Rights and Liberties by James F. Simon
A nice overview of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and President Dwight Eisenhower and how they interacted specifically around civil rights issues in the 1950s. Most striking to me was how different a time it was politically – Warren and Eisenhower were centrist and courted as presidential candidates by both political parties. We could use some more of that today. Warren particularly was an interesting story to me. Second-generation European immigrant, son of blue-collar parents just scraping by, had fairness as an overriding political objective, and championed both social programs and fiscal responsibility, and somehow made it all work as governor of California.

The Greatest Show pointing to the greatest story

Whatever you want to say about The Greatest Showman, it’s not subtle. I know I’m late to the party discussing this movie musical. Hugh Jackman reminds us he can sing and dance while telling a story that in all likelihood bears little resemblance to the actual life of P.T. Barnum. What’s striking to me after watching it a couple times, though, is how the songwriters, performers, and director are expressing some very Christian themes.

Barnum is unashamedly putting together his “circus” (a critic’s derogatory term that Barnum chooses to embrace) of oddities and “freaks”. There’s the very tall man, the very short man, the very fat man, the very tattooed man, the trapeze artists, and (most notably in the show) the bearded lady. They are living in the shadows, mocked for their differences by the people around them.

I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one will love you as you are
But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious

What makes these people receptive to Barnum’s invitation to perform, though, is that he doesn’t see them as freaks or mistakes but as people who need to be seen and loved and appreciated for who they are.

As a follower of Jesus I can affirm and need to be reminded of this attitude. Each person I encounter, even (especially?) if unseemly, is glorious, because they are a human who bears God’s image. They are deserving of love and embrace, not in spite of who they are but because of who they are.

The movie goes on a fairly predictable story arc from there – Barnum’s ambition drives him to pursue greater and greater success. His desire for the approval of the wealthy and elite drives him to be ashamed of his family of misfits. He chases high culture and leaves his wife and children behind to tour the country with a prima donna. He has his moment of realization, heads back home to try to reconcile with his wife and circus family, loses everything in a fire, and is finally brought back from despair by his circus family who have been there all along.

It’s all very on the nose. There are no real surprises. But it rings true, maybe not in a “that’s realistically how it could’ve happened” sense, but more in a “this is what the redemption arc should look like” sense.

And the gospel themes are present even right there in the finale. As Hugh Jackman is belting out the message that he has learned his lesson and will not, in the future, be blinded by the bright lights of fame, the circus performers have their own hopeful chorus in response.

And we will come back home
And we will come back home
Home again!

And there is the cry of every heart, though it manifests in diverse ways: a cry for redemption and for restoration. A cry that we could be home, loved for who we are, embraced by a family.

There’s no obvious sign that The Greatest Showman was intended to bring any sort of Christian message. But it highlights to me how direct and relevant the message of Jesus is, even for those who may not be looking for it: that God is love, that we are created gloriously in His image, that He is working in our brokenness for redemption, and that He calls us to follow Jesus and be a part of that restoration.

This is the greatest story.

Christ has made our hearts glad… and is waiting for our politics to catch up

Matthew Lee Anderson has published over on Medium a transcription of a great little talk he gave recently at the Evangelical Theological Society. [Aside: I cringe every time I see good authors publishing stuff at Medium… it’s not hard to own your own words on a site of your own, come on, folks!]

Anderson makes the point that, as much as anything, it’s evangelicals’ attitude that needs to change – an approach that Andrew Wilson, picking up from Anderson and riffing off Rod Dreher, describes as The Taylor Swift Option:

[T]he conservative evangelical political witness has been fueled by a narrative of decline and of its own precarious position in the world. This narrative, that to be an evangelical means to be an embattled minority fighting the dark forces of an oppressive secularism lurking in every public school and in every corner of Hollywood, empowered evangelicals to be adept users of the grievance politics we are now so familiar with from other communities…

Every response by evangelicals to contemporary events happens against this backdrop, whether we like it or not, or were responsible for it or not. Regardless of our intentions, our denunciations of the spirit of our age invariably take on the atmosphere of fear, anxiety, and resentment that has suffused evangelicalism’s political life for the past 30 years. The first task, then, is to purge ourselves of such affections and passions and establish the evangelical political witness on a new foundation. Such fear and resentment cannot be simply verbally repudiated; they must be expunged, rooted out and replaced by a hope that is less spoken of directly and more felt, a hope that we do not name but that permeates and suffuses our response to culture war conflicts. Such good cheer must be hearty, for Christ hath made our hearts glad—and he is waiting for our political discourse to someday catch up.

Second, with this gladness I would commend a deflationary attitude toward those grand narratives of decline and to the day-to-day disputes and dramas that we think embody them. If the West is dying….so? If we are all going to be bigots, well, we might as well get on with it and become likeable bigots. If “marginalization” or “dhimmitude” are the new form of persecution, I for one will happily take it over many of the alternatives. The sooner we turn such instruments of stigma into pieces of art, the sooner we will begin actually resisting the very ideology we claim to be. As the prophet Taylor Swift hath said unto us, “haters gonna hate, hate, hate….you just gotta shake, shake, shake…”

I’m not much for claiming the evangelical label myself these days, but I think Matt’s put his finger on changes that have to be made if the evangelical church is ever to regain its witness in America.

I’m reminded of the subtle dig thrown by Metropolitan Tikhon Mollard in the statement from the Orthodox church after the Obergefell ruling back in 2015. His opening paragraph:

The recent ruling by the US Supreme Court on the legality of “same-sex marriages” has received much press coverage and has already caused some consternation about its implications and ramifications. But we Orthodox Christians must rest assured that the teaching of our Holy Church on the Mystery of Marriage remains the same as it has been for millennia.

“Eh, what’s that, a “recent ruling”? The church has been around for millennia. We’ll survive this. ”

Regardless of your feelings about Obergefell, this is the sort of attitude the evangelical church should be taking more often.

Now if I could just get that Taylor Swift song out of my head…

Albert Mohler, the SBC, and #MeToo

I’ve been chewing on Dr. Albert Mohler’s post on The Humiliation of the Southern Baptist Convention for the past several days. If you’re interested in the topic of the #MeToo movement and the evangelical church, it’s worth a read. In it Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, recognizes the rot of sexual misconduct and misogyny that is being brought to light in the Southern Baptist Church and more broadly in evangelicalism, and does what looks like some soul-searching for answers why.

Is the problem theological? Has the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention come to this? Is this what thousands of Southern Baptists were hoping for when they worked so hard to see this denomination returned to its theological convictions, its seminaries return to teaching the inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures, its ministries solidly established on the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Did we win confessional integrity only to sacrifice our moral integrity?

This is exactly what those who opposed the Conservative Resurgence warned would happen. They claimed that the effort to recover the denomination theologically was just a disguised move to capture the denomination for a new set of power-hungry leaders. I know that was not true. I must insist that this was not true. But, it sure looks like their prophecies had some merit after all.

On one hand, this is a pretty stunning bit of realization for Mohler. But on the other hand, I don’t think he really goes far enough. Because he doesn’t have any particular change to propose, other than “people should stop doing that stuff, and we should stop covering it up”. As Jake Meador says in his brilliant piece on this topic, “I can’t help wondering: Where do Mohler and a few other prominent evangelical leaders go from here?”

A few cautious words of critique…

It feels like Mohler gets this close to having a more eye-opening realization, but just can’t get there. Sure, people warned that this patriarchal complementarian theology would lend itself toward such abuses. And those warnings “had some merit”. But… that can’t possibly mean that those people were right, can it?

Though it sounds like a jest, I’ve frequently said quite seriously that I imagine at least 20% of my theological beliefs are wrong… I just don’t know which 20% those are. And so while I clearly think my current beliefs are correct (because if they weren’t, I’d change them), I remind myself to try to have the humility to realize that unquestionably some of them are wrong.

I’ll allow that for someone as erudite as Dr. Mohler we might lower his likely percent-wrong-ness to something smaller than my own – 10%? Single digits? But it’s still folly to suggest that it approaches 0%. What I wish we would see from Mohler is that next step to acknowledge even just the hint of a possibility that patriarchalism/complementarianism might be in that small percentage he could admit might be up for grabs – not to full-up change his position on it, but just to admit that maybe it’s worth some open discussion.

An alternate approach

I really appreciated Richard Beck’s analysis of the situation today. (I almost just linked to it instead of writing this post…)

I appreciate [Mohler’s] both/and balancing act here, trying to keep the complementarian structure yet speak a strong word for protecting the abused. And yet, this is the exact same balancing act that evangelicals and the SBC have been preaching and attempting for generations. And by Mohler’s own admission, it has brought the judgment of God down upon them.

In short, Mohler seems genuinely anguished and searching for answers, but he can’t offer an accurate diagnosis of what went wrong. He seems legitimately perplexed. He says nothing beyond the same old, same old: Men are in charge, but they shouldn’t abuse the women under their leadership.

But clearly, that’s been a disaster.

And it’s not really hard to see why. I think the problem evangelicals are having here is the same problem they always have. They only look at the Bible and they ignore human experience. Evangelicals always make man serve the Sabbath, rather than having the Sabbath serve man. In this instance, the Sabbath is “God’s plan for marriage and the church,” and men and women must conform to that plan. Come hell or high water. Well, they’ve found hell and high water.

Beck goes on to make the case that the Scripture is not conclusive as to either complementarianism or egalitarianism, and that with freedom in where we land on the question, we should consider the results of the positions as we look for a landing place. Egalitarianism, Beck argues, provides more concrete, structural ways of protecting women. (It’s worth reading Beck’s whole piece – I’ve summarized about 6 paragraphs of his here.)

Time to wrap this up…

The position and argument that Beck describes is more or less where I find myself these days. While I know and respect many who would disagree (on both ends of the spectrum!), I think there’s plenty of room to argue the topic, and I don’t think it’s essential to the gospel message. I think it is reasonable and helpful to look at the fruit these positions have produced over the past few decades, too. And I pray that, regardless of where churches and pastors land on complementarianism / egalitarianism, concrete, structural safeguards are in place to ensure that women are not just protected but lifted up as equals and co-heirs of the Kingdom.

Finished reading: 2018, part three

Books I’ve read the past couple months:

Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis C. Chen

A fun little sci-fi story I discovered on the library shelf. A sort of space-based adventure / mystery story where the main character has a special ability that comes in quite handy at times.

Traitor by Jonathan de Shalit

A not-so-memorable spy novel.

Immeasurable: Reflections on the Soul of Ministry in the Age of Church, Inc. by Skye Jethani

A hit-and-miss collection of essays. When Jethani is on, his insight into the issues in evangelicalism are really good.

Kangaroo Too by Curtis C. Chen

Hey, I liked the first book in the series… The second one was pretty good, too.

The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblatt

An overview of the various historical perspectives on Adam and Eve. Easy to read, fairly interesting.

City of Endless Night by Douglas Preston

I have always enjoyed the Agent Pendergast series from Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. This one was no exception.

What Are We Doing Here? by Marilynne Robinson

I typically love Robinson’s essays, but this book left me a bit cold. Its themes are more repetitive than her previous books of essays – perhaps because they’re condensed from various talks she’s given?

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

A fascinating account of growing up as an unschooled Mormon survivalist in Idaho and the journey out to the real world. And it has some really great cover art.

Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith by Richard J. Foster

Foster reviews key contributions to the Christian faith from various Christian traditions. Encouraging precisely because it recognizes first that these truly are all strands of the Christian faith (an angle that too many in my current flavor of evangelicalism would dispute) and second, that they provide rich value to believers.

The Night Trade by Barry Eisler

Eisler knows how to write a thriller.

The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World by Catherine Nixey

I picked this one up from the library against my better judgment, but thought the topic was interesting and that I’d go into it with an open mind. The author admits in the preface that she is telling a one-sided story, and then she grinds that axe for the entire book. Sure, Christianity has a checkered history, but to hear Nixey tell it the world would be a rich nirvana of love and learning were it not for centuries of hateful narrow-minded Christians.

The Deceivers by Alex Berenson

I’d never read Berenson before. This one’s a passable spy thriller adopting a ripped-from-the-headlines plot of Russian interference in a US presidential election. They just don’t make spy novels anymore like Tom Clancy used to.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

Following my sad pattern of being prompted to read famous authors after hearing of their deaths, I picked this one up after Tom Wolfe passed away last week. Now I’m gonna have to go find some of his other books. While the story of the test pilots who became the first round of US astronauts in the late 1950s is interesting enough on its own, what’s truly memorable is Wolfe’s voice and style.

Positive politics: health care

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve written something on positive politics. Let’s dive in to another completely non-controversial topic: health care.

I’m tempted a little bit to say “just read everything Matthew Loftus has written on the topic” and leave it at that. But that would be cheating, so I’ll leave that as a secondary recommendation.

Maybe this’ll be easier if I just state some positions first, then I’ll try to justify them.

  • A modern, first-world society should have among its goals that its people have the ability to get health care, including medical and mental health.
  • This ability should largely be independent of a person’s individual income level.
  • The only practical way this will happen is via government involvement including taxation and funding for care.
  • Provision of some sort of universal coverage would benefit the American people and society in measures other than just physical health.

OK, let’s dig in.

A modern, first-world society should have among its goals that its people have the ability to get health care, including medical and mental health

This seems like it should be almost self-evident. Government should exist to promote human flourishing. And humans will flourish much more when they have access to medical and mental care than when they don’t.

The ability to get health care should largely be independent of a person’s individual income level.

Again, because it encourages flourishing. Because poor people are currently forced to make bad choices about health care because they don’t have the income to make better choices.

Preventive care isn’t freely available, so treatable issues get ignored until they become emergencies. Emergency care gets used and abused for all sorts of inappropriate situations because it’s legally more available to the poor.

Health issues snowball and drive other societal issues. Lack of basic preventive care leads to more serious health issues. Which can lead to lack of employment, which makes it even harder to afford any care. Repeated or chronic health issues can lead to self-medicating with tobacco, alcohol, and drugs. Which leads to other health issues, and to deterioration of social relationships, and to crime.

There’s no just reason that only wealthy people should have medical care. And poor people might find it easier to work their way up the ladder if they had health care available to them.

The only practical way this will happen is via government involvement including taxation and funding for care.

I’ve heard lots of arguments for why this isn’t the case.

A lot of right-wing Christians will say that the church should provide for these needs. To which I say great, but that solution doesn’t scale. There are by rough estimates about 350,000 churches or other religious communities in America. American health care spending is roughly $3.5 trillion per year. That means each church in America would need to put $10 million per year toward health care. It doesn’t scale.

Update: a friend pointed out that church giving might only need cover the gaps, not the whole medical cost for the country – an excellent point that I missed here. But in 2016, per the Census Bureau, about 9% of the country was without health insurance coverage. So maybe the cost of the gap is only $1M per church instead of $10M… still doesn’t scale.

But there are other collaborative ways that people can band together to fund medical care! I know people who have been in faith-based health care cooperatives where everyone sends in their bills and the costs are split among all members. Great as far as it goes, but at the macro level it still fails the care-for-neighbor test.

Over the past few years we’ve seen a proliferation of social media campaigns for health care help. Donate to this GoFundMe to pay for my uncle’s kidney transplant! Or my sister’s cancer treatment! Or my friend’s medical expenses from his car accident! Seeing successful responses to campaigns can be heartwarming, but how many are there that go unfilled and wither in quiet desperation?

Provision of some sort of universal coverage would benefit the American people and society in measures other than just physical health.

This is closely tied to the point about coverage not being tied to income. How many people would take an entrepreneurial plunge or feel freedom to pursue some other dream if they didn’t have to worry about keeping a standard job at a corporation just so their family could keep health insurance?

How many people would have their mental, social, and community lives significantly enhanced simply by being healthier? How many people’s lives would improve from eliminating the mental stress associated with wondering how a loved one will get care?

But isn’t this gonna cost a lot? And isn’t the government super-inefficient at managing things?

Well, yeah, it’s gonna cost a lot. But the current system isn’t cheap or super-efficient, either. Multiple levels of for-profit for corporations involved ensure that everyone involved gets a cut. It doesn’t take much more than looking through a single hospital bill detailing hundred-dollar Tylenol, thousand-dollar titanium screws, billed costs vs. negotiated costs, and on and on, to recognize that the current system has significant issues.

I know it’s not a simple problem to solve, but the rest of the first world has found ways to address it, and America should too.

Evaluation

So let’s evaluate these against the five-principle framework.

1. Is it good for the poor?

Yes.

2. Is it good for the planet?

I don’t know that it affects the planet one way or another.

3. Does it promote peace?

More broadly available health care should, in the end, help promote peace, since healthier people will be happier and more stable people.

4. Does it challenge the powerful?

If more equality in this area challenges the powerful, then yes.

5. Does it let the marginalized have a seat at the table to speak for themselves?

Indirectly, more available health care would help the marginalized be in a better place to be able to speak for themselves.

Bruenig: Dignity in work, dignity in rest

Washington Post columnist Elizabeth Bruenig makes an important point today when she says that we should consider not only the dignity and virtue of having a job and working hard, but also the virtue of having time for rest and pursuit of one’s own interests.

There’s a balance to be struck where it comes to work and rest, but in the United States, values and laws are already slanted drastically in favor of work. I would advise those concerned about Americans’ dignity, freedom and independence to not focus on compelling work for benefits or otherwise trying to marshal people into jobs when what they really need are health care, housing assistance, unemployment benefits and so forth. Instead, we should focus more of our political energies on making sure that American workers have the dignity of rest, the freedom to enjoy their lives outside of labor and independence from the whims of their employers.

Worth a read.


America is obsessed with the virtue of work. What about the virtue of rest?