Three years ago this month First Things launched this blog to provide a space for a broad range of evangelical viewpoints. We’ve had dozens of contributors, more than 1,500 posts, and nearly 20,000 comments. But today it’s time for us to say goodbye.
Group blogs that have numerous contributors tend to have a short lifespan. Within a few years they either morph into full-blown web magazines, downsize until only a few dedicated bloggers remain, or fade away due to inattention. Evangel has been losing readers and contributors over the last year—in October 2009 we had 152 posts; in October 2012 we had 8—so it appears to be time to move on. While the archives will remain open indefinitely, this will be the last post.
Almost all of our contributors continue to write for other blogs (a few have even agreed to join FT’s main blog, First Thoughts), so I hope you’ll seek out and follow your favorites. I believe I speak for all of our contributors when I say that we’ve appreciated those who have read and commented over the past few years.
A fairly predictable Huffington Post publishes an equally predictable opinion piece by Marilyn Sewell, titled Saying Goodbye to Tolerance. It seems Sewell has had a change of heart, as she recounts below:
I am a Unitarian Universalist, and we consider ourselves the most tolerant of faiths. In the 19th century Universalist churches were known for opening their doors to dissenters of all varieties, and our modern-day UU churches have continued to provide space for those who cannot find a welcome mat elsewhere: atheists and agnostics, religious humanists, political dissidents. We UUs see ourselves as “broadminded,” and so tend to say things like, “There is truth in every religious tradition. We respect all religious beliefs.” In one of our services, you might hear a reading from the Bible, but just as likely from the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk. However, in spite of our long history and tradition of tolerance, I am finding myself increasingly intolerant — specifically, of the theology and practice of many evangelical Christians.
Mind you, Sewell has not come to a particularly startling conclusion. It’s all been said before — many times, in fact. Yet it does underscore, once again, the inevitable divide between a religion that recognizes an authority outside of our own individual wills and one that affirms a vague spirituality eclectically embracing, well, whatever happens to appeal to us at the moment. As it turns out, an eclectic spirituality, indiscriminately drawing on a diversity of incompatible traditions, cannot tolerate a genuine religion claiming that God has revealed himself in specific ways to specific communities. The central issue is precisely one of authority. Do we accept an authority transcending our contemporary ethos and cultural prejudices, or are we in effect the authors of our own spirituality, borrowing what we approve and rejecting what we do not approve within these competing authorities?
It is fashionable these days to claim to be spiritual but not religious. And why not? The dictionary tells us that the word religion stems from two Latin roots re + ligare, the latter of which means to bind, to tie up. To be religious means to bind oneself to a particular body of beliefs of which one is not the author. It means to accept that one is personally bound to a way of life and faith to which one submits or, more scandalously, to which one has been committed by others, most notably by one’s parents or sponsors at baptism.
This binding character of religion is difficult for our contemporaries to make sense of, given the modern predilection for attaching personal obligations to the voluntary principle and the concomitant suspicion of all duties we have not freely assumed. We would prefer to go up to the spiritual smorgasbord, sampling a little of “the Quran, Black Elk, Lao-tse or Starhawk” without actually becoming a committed Muslim, Native Spiritist, Taoist or earth goddess worshipper. Many of us like to dabble in exotic spiritualities without having to identify with any one of them.
Sewell in no way breaks new ground with her newly discovered penchant for intolerance. Dabblers are compelled by their very dabbling to disdain those who will not dabble and who persist in believing the truth claims of one particular religion. Believing Christians, for example, read the Bible, not as one source of wisdom amongst many others, but as a single story of creation, fall, redemption and ultimate consummation in Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God. Taken on its own terms, this biblical story makes a claim on our lives that we dare not relativize for the sake of conforming to the contemporary canons of tolerance. Such purveyors of “tolerance” as Sewell are actually in the grip of an alternate redemptive narrative whose claims are just as exclusive as those of biblical Christianity and whose tiny communities are even more parochial.
Nevertheless, eclectic spirituality ultimately fails to satisfy, precisely because we are not autonomous. We inevitably submit ourselves to some authority because this is what we are created to do. If it is not to the God who has saved us through Jesus Christ, it will be to some other god of our own devising. Yet because this god is as fickle as our own protean personal preferences, it will not ultimately bring the rest that our restless hearts crave.
In my historical linguistics class, we talk about the influence of culture on circumlocutions, the strategy of saying something indirect so as not to offend. One of the classic examples is that of the refusal of some Victorians to say the word “bull” because it referred to that most virile of creatures. One circumlocution was “gentleman cow.”
The same linguistic impulse of avoiding offense was extended even to furniture making, it seems, where some Victorians on our side of the Atlantic developed little skirts to attach to chairs to hide the upper parts of the chair legs, lest someone become tantalized by the carved shapes. While this fashion artifact has come to some argument, there is ample attestation that the word “leg” was verboten, while the word “limb” was acceptable. This quirky anxiety toward things carnal led to the rather infamous title of a BBC comedy in the 70’s, “No Sex Please, We’re British,” which has become a snowclone for loads of other cultural riffs.
The new anxiety over religion in the U.S. has reached a number of points of absurdity thanks to the new Victorianism of the secularists, who are afraid of the temptations that might strike the unwitting. This is, at least partially, behind the rationale of the judge in New York who refused to allow a couple to change their surname to “ChristIsLord,” because folks might be offended. Worse yet, some persons might accidentally utter their name and find themselves among the redeemed; I am fairly certain that the afterlife will not be littered with miserable, unsuspecting folks who accidentally uttered such a phrase as mere appellation.
Trying to rid our culture of all references to religion out of deference to the secularists would fulfill the wildest fantasies of Orwellian NewSpeak I suppose, but it would be hopelessly invasive. I am mindful of one of my graduate school professors, a Northerner who sniffed at all things religious in my home state of Mississippi. Noting the presence of the town of Philadelphia in Neshoba County, he once asked me with a perfectly genuine curiosity about when and for what purpose Greek immigrants had arrived in Neshoba County. I replied, dumbfounded, that the state was settled by Christians, not Greeks, and that he might wish to consult a New Testament to answer his own question. Scrubbing the map of all references to religion would leave us with an impoverished map indeed, but it would be the same sort of cultural cleansing that would be unthinkable for place names in Native American tongues.
I continue to be amazed to find that the so-called defenders of artistic and ideological transgressions are so onion-skinned when it comes to matters of faith. Perhaps they are afraid that they cannot stand up to truth. Or light.
I don’t believe this book is really about biblical womanhood, or biblical anything. YWB is a book about the Bible and how we read it. To fulfill her objective to live out this year of biblical womanhood and prove that there lacks a complete of consensus on what it is, Evans employs a feminist hermeneutic of suspicion that begins with the assumption that instances of female submission in Scripture and as applied by the evangelical biblical womanhood movement are cultural artifacts rooted in the male pursuit of power and domination. But her fallacious methodology casts a shadow of mock and ridicule on a movement of men and women who seek alignment with the character of God in all manner of living.
The Bible isn’t an answer book. It isn’t a self-help manual. It isn’t a flat, perspicuous list of rules and regulations that we can interpret objectively and apply unilaterally to our lives. (294)
And yet, amazingly, scripture is clear enough to Evans that she can determine it has been misread and misapplied by the evangelicals who advocate for a biblical view of manhood and womanhood.
This is just one of many fallacies in YWB. It’s just not true that evangelical advocates for biblical womanhood view the Bible as merely a self-help manual or a list of rules and regulations. This sort of misrepresentation is foundational to YWB, but it needs to be clarified that as evangelicals, we do believe the Bible contains helps and rules in the form of principles and precepts found within the various scriptural genres.
The Education Minister of Ontario, Canada — a professing Catholic who sends her children to Catholic schools — declared October 10 that the province’s publicly funded Catholic schools may not teach students that abortion is wrong because such teaching amounts to “misogyny,” which is prohibited in schools under a controversial anti-bullying law. “Taking away a woman’s right to choose could arguably be considered one of the most misogynistic actions that one could take,” Laurel Broten said during a press conference. “Bill 13,” she asserted, “is about tackling misogyny.”
Three comments are in order. First, a provincial education minister lacks the authority to dictate to a church organization what its teachings should be. That authority belongs to the ecclesiastical office-holders themselves. Given that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms explicitly claims to guarantee “freedom of conscience and religion,” a government official is duty bound to refrain from interfering in such matters.
Second, if one has to resort to name-calling in setting forth one’s position, it amounts to a tacit admission that one’s arguments in its favour are weak and not easily defended in open debate. Broten again: “That debate [over a woman's right to choose] is over, it has ended and it should stay that way.” That may indeed be her view of the matter, but simply pronouncing a subject closed does not necessarily make it so. Campaign Life Coalition and ProWomanProLife among many others would definitely disagree with her assessment.
Third, and perhaps most basically, Broten seems to be defining a woman’s identity as a mere assertion of autonomy, that is, the right to choose apart from any “thick” conception of the human person obviously dependent on norms not of our own making. If a woman wishes to harm her own body or the foetal life growing within her, it is her decision to make, whatever its impact on herself, her loved ones and the larger social fabric. Broten is, of course, entitled to her viewpoint, but why she feels entitled to impose it as unquestioned dogma on everyone else is far from clear.
From the Pew Forum’s report “‘Nones’ on the Rise: One-in-Five Adults Have No Religious Affiliation” (PDF), released this morning:
In the last five years alone, the [religiously] unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%)….
However… many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say the often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious (37%) and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.
No comment for now, except to say that God is at work regardless, and this is another good reminder to pray for our neighbors.
Is America becoming the next France? Is our political system becoming as polarized as that of the French Third and Fourth Republics?
According to the late British political scientist, Sir Bernard Crick, politics is the art of conciliating diversity peacefully in a given unit of rule. Some political systems have done this better than others. The U.S. is among the more successful in enabling people of varying interests and viewpoints to get along within a common constitutional framework commanding near universal loyalty.
Until recently the political parties themselves played a role similar to that of the system as a whole. Yes, Democrats and Republicans were opponents, but each party was a broad-based coalition of citizens with a variety of commonalities — some economic, and some ideological, regional and religious in character. Progressives and conservatives found a place in both parties, coexisting willingly, if not always enthusiastically. Southerners tended to vote Democratic, while northerners voted Republican. Different Christian denominations were at home in each party as well: Catholics and Southern Baptists supported the Democrats, and northern mainline and evangelical Protestants the Republicans.
Edward Alfred Goerner was longtime professor of Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, and I was privileged to have him as my PhD supervisor more than 25 years ago.
The first thing one noticed about Goerner was his flair for the dramatic in both mannerism and dress. He was born in Brooklyn, but his speech was closer to the now fading Mid-Atlantic English once associated with Hollywood and the New York stage. Many Domers will recall seeing him regularly walking from his home just south of campus to his office or to Sacred Heart Church, wearing a cape rather than the usual overcoat. When he read the scripture lesson in the liturgy with his distinctive resonating voice, he brought something of the Shakespearean theatre to the task at hand.
Goerner was the consummate undergraduate teacher, whose dynamic paedagogy had an inevitable impact on my own. He began each class session with the same prayer: “Send us, O Lord, your Holy Spirit, among whose gifts are wisdom and understanding.” He would then proceed to lecture on the finer points of mediaeval political theory or on the three books he would assign to his introductory undergraduate students: Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s Social Contract and Plato’s Republic. I owe my own respect for these classic texts to his teaching, and I have tried in some fashion to pass this respect along to my own students.
Goerner did not publish as prolifically as some of his colleagues. His written works included Peter and Caesar and two edited volumes. There was also his two-part essay in Political Theory weighing whether Thomas Aquinas’ was a natural virtue or natural law thinker. (My own sense is that he was both, but that’s something for another post.) Yet he had a considerable influence on the people he taught, myself included. I have my own students reading primary sources in political theory, as did Goerner, reflecting his obvious debt to the late Leo Strauss, under whom he had studied at the University of Chicago.
Although I cannot say that I was personally close to him, I found him most encouraging of my academic interests, especially the comparison of Roman Catholic social and political teachings with their Kuyperian Calvinist counterparts, a subject that found its way into the final chapters of my own Political Visions and Illusions. I had not seen him in over two decades, but I would occasionally hear from him in the intervening years. A few years ago he wrote to recommend Rémi Brague’s The Law of God, which I promptly purchased and read, agreeing with his assessment of its significance. Most recently he had written me after seeing my name on this document, which had been spearheaded by one of my former Redeemer students.
I was further privileged to pass along to him another of my former students, whose dissertation on John Rawls he would supervise. We thus managed to share in the education of a future Christian scholar in political science.
May Edward Alfred Goerner rest in peace until the resurrection.
When the U. S. Army started employing a marketing motto “An Army of One” in 2001, my friends in the military howled that such a slogan was antithetical to the entire concept of martial teamwork. An officer noted that an army of one was more like a vigilante than a soldier.
I thought of that when I read about last spring’s meeting of the Jesus Seminar (yes, apparently they still meet), which discussed whether or not Jesus was literate. The logical gymnastics they enjoyed while arriving at the decision that he was not are interesting in their own right, but what caught my eye was this nugget about re-imagining almost everything theological or scriptural: a leader, Bernard Scott of Phillips Theological Seminary,
at one point suggested to the audience of 40 mostly elderly participants to “make up your own canon” of scripture. “I would trade the book of Revelation for Hamlet any day,” Scott announced, adding that he would swap the Pastoral Epistles for any two Emily Dickinson poems. “We’d be way better off.”
As a literary critic myself, I tried to re-imagine myself standing before a Shakespeare Seminar and saying, “Re-imagine Shakespeare! I would trade two Faulkner novels for Hamlet any day and I would swap the sonnets for a sheaf of Browning poems without hesitation.” I suppose my comments would be thought a bit on the odd side and few would join me in such a quest.
According to the Jesus Seminar story, though, the leaders complained about the predominance of evangelical thought that held to the text and “the failure of liberal religious thought to gain widespread traction.”
I suppose it’s hard to gain such traction, however, when we pander to our own idiosyncratic imaginations and inclinations. How do we create a movement of “one” when we have created theological vigilantes who stand not merely apart from but contrary to broader conversations and communities of faith that are defined by scriptural or doctrinal coherence? How do we create a respectable theological movement when we have deleted “theo” and substituted “ego”, along with exchanging divine “logos” for literature? It seems like it would be hard to get much momentum behind an egological literary movement.
Perhaps a reading of Romans 1:25 might be in order: “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served something created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen.” But such a view would subordinate human “logic” to divine revelation, and most of us at our hearts share the viewpoint of the infamous Duke in Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess”: “I choose never to stoop” (line 42).
Matthew Sleeth: Thanks for reading the book and interviewing me.
GT: You write, “The meaning of rest to the hungry is food.” What do you mean by this?
MS: I think the bigger question is “What is rest?” and that definition has changed. It means different things to different peoples. For instance, if I took somebody that was following Moses out of Egypt who had been a slave all of their lives and told them that they could come to our day and age. That they could rest by relaxing and getting on Spandex, and going out in August, and running five kilometers for fun. They would say “I do not know that I want too much of that rest.”
If we said, “You could come to our day and age and work.” We took them to a modern office. Somebody was quietly sitting in front of a computer screen tapping a few keys. We said that was work, they would say, “Give me some of that work.” That was to drive home the point that change is as good as a rest. (more…)
Public Discourse has posted Michael Hannon’s review of Nathan Harden’s book “God and Sex and God at Yale,” which explores academe’s obsession with the glorification of sex in Ivy League settings. The essay, like the book, is frank, so be forewarned. The descriptions of not only behaviors but also the material culture of a campus life that has been overtaken by bacchanalia is hardly exceptional; unfortunately, there is little that is groundbreaking here other than the documentation of obsessions that continue to roll apace. For parents of older teenagers, it is sobering stuff. Certainly Clark Kerr, the legendary chancellor of the University of California a half century ago, was understated in his observation that “the three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty.”
I took a number of archeology courses in my undergraduate days (Indiana Jones being all the rage at the time), and I was trained to think about culture in terms of its material artifacts. We learn a lot about people by what remains well after they are gone. On the first day of class in the introductory course, our professor showed us a replica of the very ancient Venus of Willendorf. The Venus is a classic archeological piece, a rotund female shape that is all bosom and thighs.
He asked us, “What is this?”
Classmates offered all sorts of ideas, including one cheeky fellow who said, “It’s the earliest piece of pornography known to man. It’s pocket porn!”
The professor finally said, somewhat dismissively, “It’s a goddess. We believe it’s a fertility totem based on the parts of the body that are emphasized. Look at the way the female form has been objectified. Male forms are common too in these cultures, by the way. It was all about reproduction: children meant new workers and a new generation for the culture. Agricultural success meant reproductive success. Totems like this help us to know what was valued by this culture. They worshipped through sex and their culture was sustained by sex.”
Something like that, anyway; we all nodded with “deep” understanding, ignoring, as freshmen, the fact that there was no way to corroborate the professor’s theological claim since the Willendorfian folks are all long-since dead. Perhaps it really was merely a piece of pornography fashioned by a lonely huntsman.
The difference between the theological and the pornographic might be hard to discern in a fertility cult, where the two may merge into a strange sort of blurred reality. After all, such a cult was obsessed with the notion that culture genuinely was extended through the passing on of that culture via childbirth and agricultural success. Even human sacrifice, oddly, was typically viewed as a form of fertility.
When I teach excerpts from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I remind my students that “WWJD” would mean something entirely different if the “J” were “Jove” instead of “Jesus.” When my campus (we’re an evangelical college that takes our mission quite seriously) ponders ways to improve our careful integration of faith and learning, it is quite different than the way that a campus in Ovid’s times might have thought of it. For them, the integration of “sex and learning” might have been quite interchangeable terms for “faith and learning.”
Which brings me back to Hannon’s essay. For the better part of academe, the emphasis is on the integration of sex and learning, from Freud to the various “liberated” viewpoints that detach behaviors from consequences. In fact, higher education seems to have created an infertility cult, something history has not seen previously in large numbers, and for good reason. Cults of infertility, such as the Shakers, ultimately extinguish themselves; it’s a classic failure to understand how the real world works.
The sewers of cultic temples in Roman culture were filled with the bones of infants, usually boys who were flushed because they were less valuable as cultic prostitutes. The early Christian church, in fact, made a name for itself by adopting many of these children who were doomed for death; this was an incredibly powerful counter-cultural act that defied the objectification and commodification of human beings. Now we have technologies for prevention, methodologies for remediation, and moral sensibilities that place us above any sort of reproach. Indeed, we are significantly higher, morally, than either the fertility cults that objectified the female form or repressive cultures that closeted it.
At least that’s what we’d like to think.
Ideas, like actions, have consequences, regardless of what we might think.
Once upon a time the Democratic and Republican Parties were big-tent organizations, trying to appeal to as wide a swath of public opinion as they could manage. Although the Republicans were generally conservative and the Democrats generally liberal, there was a huge area of overlap between them. They were divided, not so much by governing philosophies, as by somewhat divergent interest groups along with their pet issues. Big business tended to support the Republicans, while big labour was onside of the Democrats.
In those days there were conservative Democrats, many from the south, who championed the rights of the states over what they saw as an excessively intrusive federal government. Senator Strom Thurmond and Alabama Governor George Wallace exemplified this group. There were also liberal Republicans, such as the late Illinois Senator Charles Percy, who introduced legislation to encourage the building of affordable housing for low-income families. After the US Supreme Court legalized abortion on demand in 1973, the two parties were internally divided on the issue, with pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats sharing the political landscape with pro-life Republicans and pro-choice Democrats. Even Senator Edward Kennedy initially considered himself pro-life.
When I started teaching a quarter of a century ago, this was still largely the lay of the land, but no longer. In recent years the two parties have become increasingly polarized. Although there is still a dwindling number of pro-life Democrats, the party leadership has deliberately marginalized them. Those who persist in maintaining their convictions on this issue find themselves unable to advance within its ranks. Even Democrats for Life America is compelled to pose this question on its website: “Can you be pro-life in a pro-choice party?” Although Catholics and Southern Baptists were once integral components of the Democratic coalition, the current secularizing leadership has pulled the party in a direction that would have been unthinkable to Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.
Sensing that the Democratic Party was moving away from the American mainstream, the Republican Party successfully reached out to these two core groups in the 1980s, thereby adding the so-called “Reagan Democrats” to its own support base. The Republicans looked set to establish their own dynasty for years to come, capitalizing on the missteps of the opposition. With the current administration’s attack on the religious freedom of faith-based organizations, this should be the Republicans’ year. But things may not turn out that way.
Although the libertarian component had always been part of the Republican coalition, it has gained more visibility with the Tea Party in recent years. As Mitt Romney was poised to become his party’s standard bearer last month, he chose as his vice-presidential candidate Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has Tea Party support. Ryan once professed to be heavily influenced by Russian-American author Ayn Rand, who wrote a book called The Virtue of Selfishness. An atheist and avowed opponent of altruism, she championed the individual over the community, as seen in her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which have a cult following amongst North American libertarians. Rand’s preferred social ethic would see a minimal state at best, along with a strict laissez-faire economy. From her perspective, the welfare state is not just ineffective and expensive; it is immoral.
Sad to say, polarization has brought out the worst elements in both parties. The Democrats seem to be controlled by those who misunderstand the comprehensive claims of religious faith, narrowing freedom of religion to a mere freedom of worship. The Republicans appear to be flirting with social Darwinists who believe in survival of the fittest. Not a pretty picture.
Yet there is more here than meets the eye. Both parties accept the historic liberal preference for individualism and voluntarism. One defends the right of individuals to follow their own personal and sexual preferences, even at the expense of institutions with stricter internal membership standards. The other believes the individual should pursue his or her own economic goals, even at the expense of the commons. If Democrats and Republicans are indeed polarized, it is not, after all, over basic principles; it is over who has rightful title to those principles.
I will not presume to predict a winner in November, but I will predict that there will be no happily ever after.
The non-believing intelligentsia’s obsession with scripture seems sadly comical. Watching and listening to the so-called New Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris makes one think that these public intellectuals are convinced of the utter lack of substance of the Bible and biblical thought. Many of these New Atheists, though, have found fame and fortune in their attacks on Christianity.
As Christian apologists have noted, though, an entire library could be built that would be filled with the treatises, lectures, and books that attack the veracity of the Bible. We would fill shelf after shelf, cabinet after cabinet, row after row, wing after wing, all radiating out from the central podium that could prop up the single book that has generated so much antagonism, all of the texts as a group seeking to overturn the truthfulness of that one rather slim text that stands alone in the central part of the library.
And still it stands.
For a group of thinkers who like to position themselves as intellectual elephants to the gnat of Christianity, their bazooka blasts never seem to hit much of a mark in terms of history.
And perhaps we could invert this image a bit. If we began to build a library of books that were influenced by the Bible, and in the English tradition by the King James Bible, well, to quote what John 21:25 says about the life of Christ, “I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” An argument could be made, in fact, that virtually the entire Library of Congress is a collection of works inspired by, or reacting against, God’s revelation of Himself (more…)
Although Poland as a whole did not embrace the Reformation in the 16th century, the country nevertheless managed to produce a metrical psalter of high quality that is virtually unknown by outsiders. This is the Psałterz Dawidów, or David’s Psalter, consisting of 150 metrical texts by the great Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski set to tunes by Mikołaj Gomółka. So highly esteemed was this collection by Poles that it has reputedly been used liturgically by both Catholics and protestants. Midi files of the tunes can be found here: Melodie na Psałterz Polski and pdf files of the scores here.
More than a century ago, Englishman Henry Alexander Glass happened upon an old copy of the Tate and Brady metrical psalter dated 1771 in an old book stall. By the 1880s metrical psalters, while still in use in Scotland, had long ceased to be used liturgically in England, so Glass, curious about the volume he had discovered and unable to locate a general history of metrical psalters, decided to write one himself. The result is the highly readable The story of the psalters: a history of the metrical versions of Great Britain and America from 1549 to 1885, published in 1888 and well worth reading even today.
Glass, about whom I have found next to nothing via a google search, had a good ear for the witty turn of phrase, as evidenced throughout the first two chapters. On p. 8 we read that “George Buchanan rhymed the Psalms in Latin,” followed by a parenthetical bit of dry humour: “for whose convenience perhaps scholars can tell” (8). We read also of George Wither, whose psalter appears not to have been highly esteemed, especially by his peers, and who found himself imprisoned during the English Civil War. He was not alone: “When he was afterwards taken prisoner during the Civil Wars by the Cavaliers, Sir John Denham, himself afterwards to be enrolled in the list of versifiers, desired his Majesty not to hang [Wither], ‘because that, as long as Wither lives, I shall not be accounted the worst poet in England’” (33). As for the authors of the Sternhold & Hopkins psalter, their “piety was better than their poetry,” and with respect to the Bay Psalm Book of the New England Puritans, “[q]uotations from it have afforded amusement to almost all writers on metrical psalmody” (34). (more…)
Joseph Knippenberg raised a serious concern at First Thoughts last week about the way University of Central Florida professor Charles Negy reacted to students arguing for the validity of Christianity. Professor Negy sent a sharply worded email to some 500 students, complaining about the “bigotry” demonstrated by Christians who had “argued the validity of Christianity” in his classroom.
Last Spring semester at the university I teach at, an incident occurred in my cross-cultural psychology class related to my discussion of religious bigotry in society. The incident prompted me to send an email to my students later that evening that ended up “going viral” and initially was posted on Reddit and more recently (August 16) was posted on the Huffington Post. My message to students in that email addressed various issues — issues that I will be blogging on in the upcoming weeks. For now, I want to comment on the issue that was addressed pertaining to the purpose of a university because so many professors nationwide have emailed me indicating that they plan on reading my email to their students on the first day of classes in order to orient them to the role of a university and their roles as students.
“So many professors” are planning to read his email to their students. The mere fact is amazing. It’s bad enough that Professor Negy missed seeing his own multiple contradictions and ironies, but for “so many professors” also to have overlooked them speaks poorly for higher education.
Professor Negy’s blog post settles one question, though. Mr. Knippenberg had wondered what kind of behavior it was that provoked the email. One has to question whether one is getting enough of the story from a message like that. Now it appears we have an authoritative answer to that question. The professor gives every indication in this blog post that he approves of other faculty members reading it to their classes sans context. If that’s the case, that means he believes the email stands on its own. It is what it is.
And its message is clear. Professor Negy’s chief complaint seems to have been with Christians “arguing that Christianity is the most valid religion.” Though he himself seems not to consider context very important, it’s worth noting that the words “most valid” seem to fit better with (at least an attempt toward) reasoned discussion than a lecture-disrupting rant. Have you ever heard anyone ranting, ”My view is the most valid!”?
“So many professors” across the country, then, are echoing Professor Negy’s instruction these first days of school: Feel free to examine ideas and think critically, but for you who are Christians, don’t even think of arguing in favor of your beliefs.
Among the shining experiences of my doctoral work was a genuinely transformational course: “Seminar in William Faulkner,” shepherded by Dr. Noel Polk, one of the world’s pre-eminent scholars, who passed away this past weekend.
Non-Mississippians cannot fully understand how my home state feels about its writers. It’s hard to swing a dead cat in most places without hitting a writer of some repute, which means there is a neighborliness toward local writers that does not exist in many other places. Before her death, it was hardly newsworthy to stand behind Eudora Welty in line at the Jitney-Jungle (a grocery chain). I was in line at the local dry cleaners once and realized that I was sandwiched between two bestselling mystery writers, Nevada Barr and Terri Blackstock; between the three of us, we had sold something like 10.001 million books. ;-)
Noel was a fellow Mississippian, from the town of Picayune, where he had been raised in the local Baptist church and had believed that God was calling him to be a preacher. He attended the flagship Baptist college in the state and soon discovered the siren call of literature. One of his classmates was Barry Hannah, another prominent Mississippi writer whom I eulogized on this site a few years ago.
Noel once told me that he started his walk away from Christianity in that context; graduate school finalized that journey and when I came to know him, he was a massively articulate, Bible-steeped skeptic with little taste for the cultural Christianity that characterized all too much of the deep South. I highly recommend his memoir about growing up in Picayune, “Outside the Southern Myth” (Mississippi University Press) for those who wish to understand the unresolved nature of the era that “The Help” explored in an overly slick way. For those of us from the deep South, it is easy to read Polk’s memoir and wonder how anyone from that era was able to stomach remaining in the faith after witnessing so much hatred and ignorance.
As a scholar, Polk had gained access to Faulkner’s carbon typescripts for the major works; these were, effectively, keystroke logs of the author’s original manuscripts, and Polk compared these with the published texts to return the prose to Faulkner’s original intentions (these are the “corrected text editions” published by Vintage). As you can imagine, Polk’s attention to detail was a dominant characteristic of his work; this is ironic, given that the word “picayune” (his birthplace) means “tiny” or “trivial.”
The seminar was breathtaking; we read only two novels the entire term: The Sound and the Fury and Absalom! Absalom! Yes, you read that correctly, two novels in an entire doctoral seminar. But it was brutal. (more…)
When I sat for oral examinations in my master’s degree in English, where I concentrated in creative writing, one of the questions was about how I approach foreshadowing in my short stories. Foreshadowing is the way that writers hint about upcoming events or twists in a story. For the careful reader, foreshadowing creates a particularly effective form of engagement, ultimately moving into the territory of dramatic irony, where the reader knows more than the characters in the story. In Oedipus Rex, for example, Sophocles plays on the knowledge the audience has that Oedipus has committed a sin that he has not yet figured out, which heightens our horror and sense of catharsis.
Foreshadowing is particularly compelling when the reader re-reads a text (the same is true for other narrative formats, such as film), having then the ultimate knowledge of the story’s whole. The second and subsequent times through the text, the reader finds all sorts of nuggets that can be very satisfying in terms of realizing just how carefully the story was crafted.
In my book on narrative, “God as Author: A Biblical Approach to Narrative” (B & H Academic), I propose that one of the reasons authors are so prone to addiction and depression is because they function as little gods in the worlds of their stories. Authors can move events, generate conflicts, frustrate hope, create new characters, and even provide for rescue when all hope has been lost. In tales with happy endings, the author is a kind of savior-facilitator who rescues the protagonist. In sad tales, the author is a kind of despot-sadist who leaves us yearning for something more meaningful. In the world of the story, the author is ultimately in control, to some extent anyway. But then the pen must cease moving or the fingers typing, and authors must return to reality, where bills must be paid, garbage must be removed, and spouses attended to. It’s hard to remain sober when you no longer are divine. (more…)
The Internet has made it easier than ever before to catch and correct misinformation. Dan Rather’s false reporting on George W. Bush’s National Guard experience was exposed by a blogger. On my own blog earlier today, with the help of some Facebook friends, I had a quick answer to an atheist’s false claims about philosophers’ beliefs.
That question has been bothering me especially this week, as David Barton’s errors have been brought into morepubliclight. My experience blogging has taught me that if I don’t know what I’m talking about I’d better not talk about it. Someone will challenge me and I’ll have to yield. It has its value as a learning experience but it doesn’t do much for my credibility.
From the other side, the Internet is overrun with writers saying that Christians who accept the injunctions in Leviticus against homosexuality should stone their daughter if she’s not a virgin on her wedding night. Here’s a sample search for you. This misinformation persists even Christians (also appearing on that same Google search) show its purveyors that they don’t understand the Bible as well as they think they do. I could share a thousand more examples like this one.
Confirmation bias is a well established psychological phenomenon. We tend to see that which we agree with more clearly and more openly than that which we disagree with. Atheists, believers, and everyone in between are all subject to it. I find that when I’m reading complex material, if I agree with where the author is taking it I can understand it much more easily than if it’s something I disagree with—even if the two are equally challenging, on a neutral, objective standard. I’m pretty sure that contributes to bias.
Sometimes we pursue “facts” that we want to be true, whether they are indeed factual or not. Many Christians, especially politically conservative Christians, have done this with David Barton. Presumably, though, most of us would much rather pursue what’s actually true. I commend to you a simple three step plan for topic areas on which you may need to form an opinion:
1. If you know what you’re talking about—if you have expertise in the subject area—then go for it.
2. If not, then use caution. Do some research. Don’t jump to conclusions. Find out who disagrees with whom, and why.
3. Having done that research, speak according to what you know.
(For topics on which you don’t really need to form an opinion, “I don’t know” works just as well.)
Someone asked me a couple months ago what I thought about David Barton. I said, “I’ve heard him speak, I know pretty much what his themes are, I’ve heard others raise concerns about his accuracy, I haven’t studied it enough to know what to make of those concerns, so I’m taking a cautious stance.” Now, with a lot more information available, I’m more convinced he’s been guilty of stretching facts (to put it charitably).
The same principle would ease tensions in the young earth-old earth debate. Whatever the topic, it would have the virtue of preventing a lot of us from speaking more than we know.
Meanwhile errors will persist on the Internet and beyond, because too many of us think we know more than we actually know, and we’re not listening to the other side. To suppose there could be any other outcome would be foolishly idealistic.
Do Americans expect too much of the president of the United States, and do presidential candidates themselves unwisely encourage such unrealistic expectations in voters? Read the complete article here.
One of the drawbacks of versified psalmody is that it may reflect too much the prejudices of the versifier and not enough the biblical text. I came across an interesting example of this in Henry Alexander Glass’s fascinating and witty book, The Story of the Psalters. Some Reformed Christians believe that liturgical song should use the human voice alone and that musical instruments do not belong in church. The 18th-century hymn writer and psalm versifier, James Maxwell, followed this belief, which he incorporated into his paraphrase of Psalm 150:
As did with instruments the Jews
His praises high proclaim,
Let us our hearts and voices use
To magnify His Name.
As they with minstrels in the dance,
And instruments well-strung,
Prais’d God, let us His praise advance
With well-tuned heart and tongue.
Like cymbals let our cheerful tongues
His praises sound on high:
And let our sweet harmonious songs
Transcend the lofty sky.
In Glass’s words, “Finding it impossible to keep out the instruments in Psalm cl., [Maxwell] ingeniously lays the responsibility of his compelled references on the Jews.” Although I myself do not adhere to this prohibition of musical instruments in worship, there is something to be said in its favour. But first the other side:
One can hardly get around the explicit biblical commands to praise God with musical instruments. The notion that worshipping with such instruments belongs only to the old covenant does not take seriously enough the continuities between the old and new covenants. Most significant is the lack of an explicit prohibition in the New Testament itself. As far as I can see, there is no credible biblical warrant for keeping musical instruments out of the church’s liturgy.
On the other hand, there is nothing sweeter than the sound of a cappella voices joined in praise of God. In fact, the very phrase a cappella means in Italian “in the manner of the church or chapel.” There is a very ancient tradition, particularly in the eastern churches, of exclusive a cappella singing in the liturgy.
Then there are the praise bands, which have become ubiquitous in protestant churches in recent years. Although in principle I have no confessional or theological difficulties with the use of drums, or even electric guitars and the like, they do have a tendency to drown out congregations and discourage their participation in the liturgy, which becomes thereby a form of what can only be called litur-tainment. Perhaps it’s time to bring back a cappella worship in church, not in legalistic fashion, but in recognition that the psalms and canticles are supposed to be, well, sung. And singing requires voices intoning words, which is something no trumpet or drum can manage to do.
One of my rock-ribbed beliefs is that we are to learn from academic pursuits, not merely about them. Since I teach literature, I tell my students that we are to learn from our stories and apply those lessons to their lives. Because college-educated persons have the responsibility and the duty to be leaders in their communities and their churches, I emphasize many lessons about leadership in my classes. From Shakespeare, we learn about Mark Anthony and how his fleshly pursuit of Cleopatra led to battles and deaths, even as we learn about Prospero’s misplaced devotion to his books allows a harsh ruler to usurp his rightful rule. From Gilagmesh, we learn about how a leader who believes that he is a god causes his people to suffer terribly. From Beowulf, we see how a leader who has abandoned his role as protector of the people invites chaos into his citadel. From Chaucer we learn about how articulated holiness is a tool that can be used to harvest funds and, eventually, credibility from the faithful. In the end, fallen leaders face their own fates, but their followers often face punishments and difficulties that pay the price for the leader’s arrogance. We call this the “mirror for magistrates” tradition, where literature provides a mirror by which leaders may examine their own lives for transgressions and lessons.
The jaw-dropping scandal at Penn State is a real-life example of this. Today’s penalties from the NCAA indicate that the university’s liabilities will continue apace and I will not be surprised if the total lawsuits end up approaching the billion-dollar mark, especially if the early indications and evidences are accurate.
I feel terrible, however, for the players who knew nothing about this and for the students and alumni who have watched their alma mater emerge as the utter inversion of what everyone had thought about the institution’s reputation for near sterling character in a context that is worse than tarnished. I love college sports but it’s clear that something has to change. Those who are leaders must be vigilant and diligent, for the consequences are real and affect the futures of everyone attached to the institutions.
Because I am deeply committed to the life of the local church, I cannot help but draw parallels between the Penn State situation and that of many local churches / ministries and their leaders. A pastor or two allegedly decides to break into houses and the churches suffer. A pastor pursues a sexual dalliance and a generation of members becomes cynical about the moral authority of the pulpit. A leader succumbs to financial temptation and a ministry collapses. What’s left in the wake of these things is a group of followers who pay the price.
For me, this is a humbling proposition: leaders carry particular burdens of responsibility. If that doesn’t drive you to your knees, well, something must be amiss. And if something is amiss, I share the words of Numbers 32:23, in the King James for added gravity: “behold, ye have sinned against the Lord: and be sure your sin will find you out.”