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Tuesday, October 23, 2012, 6:24 PM
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.
More disturbing, however, is LSU’s scrubbing of photos that included small crosses. The editors, apparently, did not want to offend people by mixing sports and religion. This is dumbfounding, of course, since LSU plays in the SEC and SEC football is easily the most followed sabbatarian religion of the American South. Then again, big-time higher education has used Photoshop before in ways that reflect other anxieties in academe.
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.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012, 3:53 PM
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).
Friday, September 14, 2012, 8:45 AM
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.
Thursday, September 6, 2012, 2:58 PM
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…)
Thursday, August 23, 2012, 10:43 PM
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…)
Sunday, August 19, 2012, 10:41 PM
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…)
Monday, July 23, 2012, 11:41 AM
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.”
Monday, June 11, 2012, 11:50 AM
One of my guilty pleasures is The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom about a group of socially inept science geniuses. Having walked the halls of academe for over two decades, I can associate friends with the primary characters. One scene caught my eye recently, where a main character plays a theremin, the quirky synthesizer that made the ethereal soundtrack for much early science fiction, including the theme song to the original Star Trek series.
I noted that the character was singing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” trying to sound out the notes to the ancient spiritual and he sang, “nobody knows my sorrows,” rather than “nobody knows but Jesus.” From the bit of research I’ve done, it’s unclear which line is the original, but for Christians, the second version is much more consonant with the rest of the lyrics. Without “but Jesus,” the song ceases to be a spiritual and becomes a solipsistic yawp at the universe not unlike much of modernist and naturalist art that complains that we are alone in an uncaring universe. Stephen Crane, the novelist of “The Red Badge of Courage,” once wrote a brief poem that summarizes the thoughts that the pre-conversion T. S. Eliot expanded on in “The Wasteland”:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
A quotation that often is attributed to C. S. Lewis is “We read to know that we are not alone.” Lewis meant that art, particularly literature, connects us in ways that are an antidote to the loneliness of our times. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus once remarked, “Misery loves company,” which seemed to mean not only that misery is contagious but that miserable people tend to hang together and wallow in their troubles. The reality, though, is that misery tends to lead individuals to become detached and isolated. At some point, misery tends to eschew company, which leads to the most destructive form of egotism and self-isolation. Perhaps this is what we should expect, though, when we decide that no one knows the troubles we’ve seen and that Jesus is not an option. After all, if He is our friend, He might soon become our Lord, and then where will our misery be?
Wednesday, March 28, 2012, 5:46 PM
As a literature professor, one of the challenges I face is helping students to see that “fiction” and “falsehood” are not interchangeable terms. Just because something is fictional does not mean that it is, per se, untrue; fiction is imaginative prose that may or may not be journalistically or historically true.
Typically, fiction makes no claim on historicity or journalistic probity, though there certainly are exceptions to this. Some writers of historical fiction create imaginative characters who function in historically accurate settings (think Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sobering Uncle Tom’s Cabin), even as some fiction writers place actual historical persons into imaginative settings (think Seth Grahame-Smith’s surreal Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Some writers arrange historical tidbits into fictional tales that masquerade as factual truth. Perhaps the most notorious of these writers is Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame, who opened that novel with three assertions of fact, the third being that “all descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents, and secret rituals in this novel are accurate” (1).
I often tell my students that they have only to shop at a bookstore (brick and mortar stores in particular) and inspect the non-fiction section to see that “non-fiction” emphatically does not mean “true.” The inverse may be true as well: “fiction” does not mean “untrue.”
Not long ago I gave a lecture on citizen journalism to a course in media and everyone wanted to talk about Mike Daisey’s expose on NPR’s This American Life, which was a scathing indictment of the working conditions of Apple’s factories in China. Daisey’s episode had, apparently, become the most downloaded in the show’s history. The students were very interested in how this one man seemed poised to change corporate human rights perceptions among a generation of Westerners who were navigating their own culpability in Apple’s alleged abuses. Since that lecture, however, Daisey’s report has unraveled and NPR has taken the unusual step of retracting the episode.
Daisey’s defense, however, has been that his report was not journalistically accurate but was “artistic truth.” He says that the essence of the story, not the facts themselves, create a representation of truth that is, well, true. Apparently, students in a journalism course at Seton Hall agreed with Daisey, with the instructor saying that for the students, “the idea that there might be different versions of the truth — a larger truth, or an emotional truth — . . . seemed OK.”
Troubling on so many levels.
Here’s my bottom line, though: when we allow truth to be mixed with error, we give quarter to those who would abuse the truth in service to self. If the police trump up charges to press for a conviction of a man who is guilty of an actual crime, the criminal may escape his due punishment. Worse, we may commit an atrocity of law that can only be viewed as some sort of karmic justice (see for instance, William Faulkner’s character Popeye in the brutal novel Sanctuary, who is hanged for a crime that he couldn’t have committed because at the time he was committing another capital crime, which he could not use as an alibi in the convicting court).
One of the most frustrating things that I have do deal with in my secular contexts is the ease with which Christians pass along rumors that masquerade as fact. Yes, we may find a particular party or organization wicked, but we are not, then, entitled to mix truth with error in a vain quest for “ethical truth” or “virtual power.” In doing this, we succeed not in destroying those who may be guilty of egregious wrong but rather of looking foolish and allowing the (other) wrong-doers to escape the veracity of their actual malfeasance.
When Pontius Pilate asked the iconic question “What is truth?” (John 18:38) he was voicing the overarching question of unbelievers everywhere. If Christians are not clear in their use of both truth and Truth, we cannot overcome the eye-rolling response that occurs all too often.
Thursday, February 9, 2012, 2:43 PM
When I was in doctoral work, I enjoyed taking courses from professors who smoked because they took longer breaks (our seminars met once per week, with a break about halfway through the session). This was the time when we got to know our classmates, which greatly enhanced class discussions.
One particular evening, a classmate sidled up to me and looked around as if to indicate that he had a secret to confide in me. “Gene,” he whispered, “I have heard that you are a Christian. Is that true?” I looked around, matching his opening gesture and leaning to whisper back, “Yes, I’m a Christian.” His eyes grew large and he said, “But honestly, you don’t seem mentally ill? I’m just shocked that you even admit that you are a Christian. I mean, you seem like a pretty bright guy.”
He was genuine in his inquiry, not hostile at all. His reaction was that of one who had learned that the moon was not, in fact, made of cheese. This was my third graduate degree and I was amply sure that his thoughts were the product of too much Freud (religion being a psychosis) fertilized with Marx (religion being an opiate) and not of a particular animus toward me whatsoever. In fact, I’d had a similar conversation with a professor about that same time.
I couldn’t help but think about that incident this week as I read two bits of news. First, in the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on California’s Proposition 8, the majority opinion ruled that the initiative failed the “rational basis standard,” meaning it was based on irrational thought, rooted, apparently, in religious irrationality in particular. Second, in a transcript of an exchange at Vanderbilt, the chief academic officer of the institution scolded students who wished to allow their religious faith to influence their decision-making:
Now let me give you another example, and this would affect all of you. I’m Catholic. What if my faith beliefs guided all of the decisions I make from day to day? (more…)
Tuesday, January 3, 2012, 1:31 PM
Over the holidays, my wife and I saw two movies, both on the recommendations of trusted friends: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Hugo.
I was, pre-children, a pretty hard-core film buff. One week in college I cut an entire week of classes for a science fiction film festival, something like 17 films in one week. How I avoided becoming a film major is still something of a mystery to me. Post-children, movies are a rare treat, especially ones that don’t involve talking animals or treacle-heavy plots.
I was looking forward to Sherlock Holmes because I love the character and I think Robert Downey Jr. is one of the great actors of our age. The film was more like a video game than a movie, with undeveloped characters and a plot of little consequence to the movie itself. The theater, moreover, was filthy and the previews were jaw-droppingly offensive; the screen that proclaimed that the following preview had been rated for all audiences was embarrassingly inaccurate. When I left the theater, I had been entertained somewhat but was less than satisfied. At least I wasn’t mad or felt cheated, which has been my sense at the end of way too many movies over the past few years. What passes for good in Hollywood these days is ennui and nihilism, neither of which is an emotion worthy of the magic of the silver screen.
Hugo, on the other hand, was more of an accidental pleasure. (more…)
Monday, December 19, 2011, 5:13 PM
I’m a bit out of my depth when it comes to international affairs, but the convergence of two deaths over the weekend bears commentary. North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il and former Czech president Vaclav Havel both passed the bar into eternity and their leadership could not have been more of a contrast in worldviews.
Kim’s creation of a bubble around his people has led them to poverty, starvation, and isolation. His bubble has become rather famous for its ability to insulate visitors from the reality of the nation’s conditions, or, rather, for its ability to insulate its people from visitors who can point out the reality of the conditions. The most visually stunning documentation of this is a snapshot of the Korean night sky from a satellite: bright in the South and dark in the North.
Havel, on the other hand, knew the power of the arts to demonstrate that the emperor (the Soviets) had no clothes (“power” over “the powerless,” as he called it). While Havel was not per se a believer, his philosophy was laden with the fruits of Christian thought, from the dignity of all persons to the importance of balances that check the fallen nature of leaders. His motto was, according to some sources, “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.” James Sire, best known for the classic study in worldviews “The Universe Next Door,” produced one of the signature studies of Havel, “Vaclav Havel: the Intellectual Conscience of International Politics” (IVP 2001), which is helpful reading for anyone who travels in Eastern Europe or wants to understand post-Christian Europe.
We live in dizzying times. The former dictators are passing at a startling clip: Gaddafi, Kim, and many others. So too, however, are some of our other leaders like Havel who turned selflessless into an artform (literally in his case). I am grateful, in such times, for passages such as Isaiah 6:1: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, and His robe filled the temple.” God is not an emperor who lacks for clothes, and we are not a people who lack for a loving King.
Friday, November 18, 2011, 4:43 PM
The horrifying news out of Penn State has many of us talking about ethics lately, especially those of us who work in academe as I do. One of the terms I’ve heard mentioned the most is “loyalty,” as many commentators have observed that a misplaced sense of loyalty in the circumstances surrounding misdeeds often enables the accused and delays justice for all parties in the case.
If loyalty is a virtue, it’s one that I relish. Indeed, I’m trying to cultivate it in my children, because loyalty, rightly understood, is a form of grace. It overlooks the flaws in others and allows us to sustain relationships in spite of our failings and those of others.
But, loyalty, like all of the other virtues, is not a thing unto itself. It is always subordinate to an overarching integrity that is rooted in righteousness. Once it becomes primary, it ceases to be a virtue. Loyalty detached from justice is a particularly perverse vice; however, loyalty that sustains justice is demanding, in that it calls us to use our relationships to inspire confession and repentance in the pursuit of righteousness.
I interviewed for a job many years ago where I asked the prospective boss what virtue he valued most of all in his team. He focused on loyalty: “I not only expect loyalty, I demand it. Without utter loyalty, nothing progresses in this organization.” A few years later, I found out that he had been embezzling funds from the company and that his assistant managers had been involved. It’s amazing how quickly virtuous “loyalty” morphs into wicked “conspiracy.”
Charles Colson tells a story that is illustrative in How Now Shall We Live? After addressing some two thousand Marines, Colson was asked by a master sergeant, “Which is more important—loyalty or integrity?” The Marine creed is, of course, semper fi, “always faithful,” but Colson, understanding very personally the stakes of unfettered loyalty, responded, “’Integrity comes first.’ Loyalty, no matter how admirable, can be dangerous if it is invested in an unworthy cause.” (p. 379).
As a leader, I expect of my colleagues professional loyalty, but I expect it to be conditional loyalty: it goes only as far as my integrity and righteousness allow. When I fail in either instance, I have broken whatever covenant for loyalty I have entered into with my colleagues. To be loyal to me in such a circumstance would be to supplant loyalty with its perverted cousin, conspiracy.
Conspiracy goes way back in human history, all the way back to Eden, when Adam and Eve exchanged their righteousness for corrupted loyalty toward one another, entering into a thin conspiracy to cover their loss of righteousness. Sinfulness never changes, does it?
Friday, October 7, 2011, 12:48 PM
Many years ago, I overheard a mother talking about graduation announcements with her teenaged child in a restaurant where I was eating. Apparently they were going over a list of folks who would receive announcements and the child started asking who most of the people were. The mother explained that they were co-workers of one or another of the parents, were “old friends,” or were even “extended family” members who had never met the child or had not seen him since infancy.
I have to admit that I felt a bit like I was listening to a couple of Internet phishing experts planning out their next round of extortion of the kindly. What the mother was doing was helping her child to expand the haul of graduation gifts by casting as large a net as possible.
This sort of crassness really plucks my nerves, though it hardly surprises me that these sorts of things happen. They’ve been a part of human culture forever, as kinship always has included social obligations like gifts and material support. What really drives me batty, though, is when Christians do the same thing, commodifying fellow persons as cash cows for financial support.
Perhaps the most extreme case I know of happened to a life-long friend. She had fallen out of her church for a particular reason and had not attended in over twenty years. While she still was on the mailing list and received her weekly newsletter, at no time had anyone from the church visited her to see what had happened. There were no calls from the pastor or the deacons. No calls from a Sunday school teacher. Nothing. Zip. Nada. She just fell off the earth as far as that congregation was concerned.
Until an ambitious building campaign came along.
Suddenly a team of deacons arrived at her door with a slick packet of information, asking her to fill out a pledge card and commit to gifts over and above her tithes. You can imagine what her reaction was. As a churchman, I was horrified and genuinely embarrassed. They didn’t care about her soul, apparently, merely her checkbook.
I wish I could say that these occurrences were rare; however, I never cease to be amazed at how often I hear from people I haven’t seen in twenty years – not a call, an email, or a poke on Facebook – who have sent solicitations for their upcoming mission trip, shown up selling wrapping paper for their Christian school, or sent a form letter that offered up some sort of veiled threat to the eternal security of my soul if I did not support whatever cause they have taken on themselves. (more…)
Saturday, September 10, 2011, 5:30 PM
On Graceful Writing
Rachel Toor has a fine essay at The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Problem Is: You Write Too Well” (full text for subscribers only), which outlines a complaint that is heard with amazing frequency: your writing is too easy to read. As Toor states,
“People on my dissertation committee,” explained several young scholars, “said that I write too well.”
I personally had one of these experiences. One of my professors met with me about a seminar paper and he gave me what I thought was going to be a compliment. He complimented my writing and then told me to stop writing so well. He said something like this:
“Gene, your writing style is very clear and concise. Very muscular. But it is not academic writing. It is popular writing. If you persist in writing clear prose, you will never get far in academic writing. Academic writing must be turgid and convoluted. You must force your reader to read your sentences four and five times before she can understand what you are trying to say. You must obscure the concepts that just anyone can understand. You must, as literally as possible, grab your reader by the throat and pull her face into the text, holding her captive until she can escape by understanding the essay in full after struggling and wrestling with your words.”
You can imagine my thoughts as I received this comment. This advice ran contrary to everything I had been taught by previous professors and contradicted the advice I gave to my own students in composition classes. I was really confused and brought it up to someone else in the department who clued me in.
“Oh, he’s a total Marxist, through and through. You have to understand, Marxists do not like consumerism. And he believes that writing that is too easy to read is complicit in passive consumerism. What he is doing is criticizing the larger culture of consumerism. He wants your prose to fight passive consumption. And if you write like that, you will signal to other Marxists that you are in their club. At their hearts, Marxists are actually elitists who thrive within a private club populated by self-referencing winkers.”
When my next paper came due, I anticipated his concerns and wrote a painfully complicated essay which he liked very much. After all, I’m a big believer in the concept of audience and wanted to communicate effectively with him, my sole audience for that paper. But after that course, I went back to what I believed to be a superior rhetorical style. I believed, and still do, that effective communication is an attempt to overcome the brokenness of language that is the result of fallenness. In this way, clear writing is a foretaste of grace, that wonderful concept that reminds us that something must bridge the gap between us and perfection, the gap that divides us from other persons as well as God.
Worldview affects everything, doesn’t it? Even the way we approach our writing.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011, 12:25 PM
My academic training is in poetry but I love stout fiction, the kind Faulkner and Joyce wrote. The kind that clothes life-like characters with carefully interwoven abstraction and emotional chaos. Nothing emulates reality quite like these kinds of stories. About a year ago I read Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Pantheon Books).
Since the book asserts the failures of the classical arguments for a supreme deity, I found it particularly ironic that the press is “Pantheon Books” (“all of the gods,” referring to the Roman gallery of the supernatural figures); that would be a bit like John Piper publishing a book with the “Arminius Publishing Group.”
Nevertheless, as an evangelical, how could I not like a book like Goldstein’s, which includes this cover blurb from Christopher Hitchens: “You do not have to perpetrate an act of faith to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing. It is faith itself that consists of nothing. Rebecca Goldstein, on the other hand, is quite something”?
The novel is marvelous, philosophical and sardonic all at the same time. It is, in some ways, the antidote to the smiling preacher treacle that fills so much of the Christian subculture, though not in the way that Goldstein, perhaps, proposes. (more…)
Monday, August 1, 2011, 4:34 PM
While riding on a bus in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a group I was with skirted Harvard Yard, ground zero for American higher education. The Harvard seal is ubiquitous there (the letters VE-RI-TAS imposed on open books), on t-shirts, signs, and buildings as far as the eye can see.
“Does anybody know what veritas is?” a rider said.
“I’ve been wondering that myself,” someone else chimed in. “I know it’s not Latin for Harvard. Does anybody know Latin?”
Another rider spoke up, “I saw it everywhere and got curious so I googled it. It means ‘truth.’ And it’s kind of cool that its letters are printed over open books.”
I finally inserted myself into the conversation.
“Veritas is the Harvard motto, and it does mean “truth” but technically the full motto is “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae. ‘Truth for Christ and the Church.’ There are a few places around campus that still have this, including over the doors of the Widener Library. And it’s not just any open books; the way I’ve heard it, one book is the Bible, one represents the great learning of the past in written form, and in some versions, the third book is face down, representing the necessity of God’s self-revelation beyond human reasoning that may be found in books. In fact, Emerson Hall, which houses the department of philosophy, has a biblical inscription over the doors that reads ‘What Is Man that Thou Art Mindful of Him?’, which is in the Psalms.” [Ps. 8:4].
Stunned silence followed. Finally one person said, “Well, that’s pretty amazing. I guess they don’t follow that any more, do they?” Everyone chuckled nervously.
I kept pondering the question that originally caught my attention: “Does anybody know what vertitas is?”
Visitors to Harvard Yard tend to have their photos made in front of the Statue of the Three Lies, which is among the most photographed sculptures in America. It’s supposed to be a representation of John Harvard, the college namesake but the figure is that of a model (lie #1), the inscribed term “founder” is likewise wrong (lie #2), and the date inscribed for the founding of the college is erroneous (lie #3). I could not help but note the irony that the motto is “veritas” but the most influential image of campus is not the library but rather the “lying” statue. Indeed, the motto of not just Harvard but perhaps for most of American higher education is more aptly illusio, Latin for “irony, deceit, or mockery,” the root word for “illusion.”
The funny thing about truth is that it exists apart from human understanding. It’s the ultimate question of “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” It mistakes the human part of the phenomenon for the ultimate test of reality. The truth is (more…)
Tuesday, July 5, 2011, 3:41 PM
Apparently it’s open season on the value of the liberal arts in contemporary higher education. From new studies that reveal the paucity of financial rewards for humanities majors to complaints about the ideological insurgency that some see underway in the traditional study of arts and sciences, a fusillade of complaints and proposals is raining down in the media. Clearly there are bared teeth aplenty surrounding the tribe of liberal arts proponents.
In a recent essay for salon.com, Kim Brooks asks, “Is it time to kill the liberal arts degree?” She holds an MFA in creative writing and has had the typical post-graduation experience of many liberal arts graduates:
I floundered. I worked as a restaurant hostess and tutored English-as-a-second-language . . . . I mooched off friends and boyfriends and slept on couches. One dreary night in San Francisco, I went on an interview to tend bar at a strip club, but left demoralized when I realized I’d have to walk around in stilettos. I went back to school to complete the pre-medical requirements I’d shunned the first time through, then a week into physics, I applied to nursing school, then withdrew from that program after a month . . . . I landed a $12-an-hour job as a paralegal at an asbestos-related litigation firm. I got an MFA in fiction.
Depending on how you look at it, I either spent a long time finding myself, or wasted seven years.
Her story is hardly an exception to the rule. I could recount numerous tales of friends, loved ones, and even my own experiences in affirmation of the rootlessness that sometimes seems to be spawned by liberal arts studies.
Part of the problem, of course, is that contemporary liberal arts education steers students toward a self-centered worldview that is founded on a belief that the world is meaningless. The seeds of this worldview were fertilized significantly by the rise of both modernism and postmodernism in the twentieth century. When T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” becomes your guiding text, it’s hard to avoid such a perspective. And most folks who deal with surviving in the “real” world just don’t see this as a viable worldview. It’s too impractical, too detached from reality.
Contemporary liberal arts education tends to harvest the fruit of the classical liberal arts and ferment it into an intoxicating, and even deadly, elixir, even as it tries to dig out the roots of the tradition and burn them, making a future harvest impossible. (more…)
Thursday, June 2, 2011, 12:42 PM
Many of our readers are interested in the question of how Christian colleges and universities evaluate and document their identity. We can talk about curricula, hiring principles, governance, and many other factors.
A ruling this week from the National Labor Relations Board has declared that St. Xavier University in Illinois is too “secular” to claim a religious exemption from certain laws and rules governing the unionization of adjuncts. As one official noted,
There is no evidence that the university would discipline or fire faculty if they did not hold to Catholic values,” he wrote. “A faculty member’s religious values, or lack thereof, play no role in their hiring or retention at the university and are not a subject of their evaluations” or judgments of their suitability for promotion. The university’s mission, he said, is “to educate men and women irrespective of their religious beliefs.
The NLRB report further observed a
lack of any reference to religion in Xavier’s articles of incorporation; the presence of only five members of its founding religious order, the Sisters of Mercy, among the 24 voting members on its Board of Trustees; its reliance on the Catholic Church for only a small portion of its funds; and its lack of any requirements that students take courses in Roman Catholicism.
I personally don’t think it’s the right of any governmental agency or authority to start evaluating the religiosity of an institution; that’s a sword that could cut in a number of different ways that clearly run afoul of the First Amendment.
Having said that, while I have no knowledge of St. Xavier or their internal representations of their identity (and would prefer to consider the larger question here, not the specifics of that institution), I do think that this works at a problem that is endemic to religious higher education. In politics, there are “RINO”s (“Republicans In Name Only”); “Christian” higher education has plenty of those kinds of places too: “CINO”s. We need more, and stronger, institutions of higher education that propagate the Christian Intellectual Tradition, not fewer, but the question constantly comes back to the working definition of what it means to be “Christian.”
If the word “Christ” doesn’t appear in the hiring principles, the curricula, the governance policies, or student outcomes, when how exactly is an education “Christian”? If the words “Scripture” or “Church” likewise are absent, then I have a hard time seeing exactly what is “Christian” about the identity. If the historical creeds are absent from any sort of voice in defining the identity, when what is “Christian” about it?
To some extent, this is a question of lexicography: how does one define “Christian”? The American Heritage Dictionary (3rd edition) has this as its first definition: “Professing belief in Jesus as Christ or following the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus.” I think that most of our readers would be able to embrace that definition as a starting point at least, a bare minimum.
Too many “Christian” organizations, however, have adopted the fifth and final definition: “showing a loving concern for others; humane.” That is not a definition of “Christian” but is a synonym for “kind.” By that definition, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or an atheist can be a “Christian” as long as s/he is good-hearted. It’s a basic logical observation: All Christians should be kind but not all kind persons are Christian. In lexicography, the first definition is prescriptive; the latter is descriptive. Ideally, the two terms should be consonant, but the reality is that the latter definition is not enough; if we follow only the latter definition, we are quickly in contradiction to the first (and primary) definition.
Indeed, this matches the problem we have with defining the Gospel: is the Gospel that Christ has risen and has dealt fulsomely with the Curse or is the Gospel that we are supposed to be nice to one another? One is a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:23) and the other is a kindergarten lesson in ethics.
The NLRB ruling raises a question that I’ve heard many a preacher invoke on a Sunday: if you were to stand trial for your faith, would there be enough evidence to convict you? I don’t like the judge in this case, but I do like the question.
Tuesday, May 10, 2011, 3:30 PM
How nice it is to be able to type that title without the slightest tinge of irony. The May 9 New York Times has a wonderful profile of the relief work of the Southern Baptist Convention. As the story notes, the SBC is the third largest private disaster relief orgainzation in the United States, counting 95,000 trained volunteers, one of the most well-organized cohorts of chain saw crews in the world, and mobile command centers that can swing into action with only a few hours’ notice.
As a former resident of New Orleans, I can attest to the incredible intervention that the yellow-jacketed horde brought to the post-Katrina chaos. My aunt who still lives there told me that many residents of South Louisiana openly have asked, “If it hadn’t been for the Baptists, where would we have been, especially in the first months following the hurricane?”
The Times story goes on to note the work of the Mennonites, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, and other denominational groups and while it fails to note the religious history of the Red Cross and the outright denominational status of the Salvation Army (the #1 and 2 organizations), one cannot help but be proud to read about selfless, tangible things that are done in the name of Christ and His mercy.
I wish we could read more stories like this in such a prominent setting; of course, perhaps that should be a challenge to us all to DO more that is worthy of such media coverage. As Bill Lane once said, “Excellence should be our protest.”
Tuesday, April 5, 2011, 1:42 PM
The inimitable Russ Moore spoke at chapel on my campus (Union University) last week. He preached from Deut. 24: 14-22, making a fascinating link between caring for the least among us and the local church, using orphans / adoption as the illustrating framework for his message.
As I pondered the verses, my eyes kept falling on this repeated phrase:
“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (vv. 18 & 22).
The link between doing justice and its memorial value, that we never forget that once we longed for justice, was startling to me as I kept repeating the words to myself.
Forgetfulness is one of the fiercest enemies of the Gospel. We forget that we once were helpless on our own (Rom. 5:6), and, more than that, we were enemies to the Gospel (Rom. 5:10). We forget that grace is not of ourselves (Eph. 2:8-10). We forget that we once were slaves to our sin (Rom. 6:17). We just forget.
Rick Stearns wrote a pretty popular book, “The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?” (Thomas Nelson 2010), that reminds Christ-followers that ministering to the poor and the downtrodden is central to our mission in this world. It’s funny, isn’t it, just how quickly we seem to forget about the poor and the downtrodden? The widow and the orphan? And then, all too often, when we start to minister to them, we find ourselves forgetting about the Gospel itself and the very reason that we are to be about such business: we once were slaves.
One of the reasons I often pontificate about the power of liberal learning in the Christian context is because it helps us to understand history and how important it genuinely is. History keeps us from being foolish. It ought to keep us from being forgetful too. That’s why I see the power of testimony as crucial to life in Christian community. It’s why I like to hear people tell the story of how they came to faith in Christ. When we tell these stories, we are reminded that we once were slaves. But we were rescued by a Redeemer who bought our freedom with His blood.
Monday, March 28, 2011, 6:15 PM
In the most recent issue of First Things, Gerald McDermott writes about “Evangelicals Divided,” which explores current trends in evangelical life relative to what he describes as a struggle between traditionalists (who tend to be Reformed) and Meliorists (who tend to be Arminian).
A line that caught my eye, though, was not about this conflict but about the tendency evangelical thinkers have to seek the approval of the academy:
“. . . evangelical theologians, like other orthodox thinkers, are susceptible to the peculiarly academic sort of ambition that seeks acceptance and recognition by their liberal colleagues. We want the academy’s approval, and so we are tempted to write and teach a theology that will be consistent with its moral and theological sensibilities” (49).
I heard almost the exact same line at the Making Men Moral conference my campus hosted in 2009, celebrating the anniversary of Robert P. George’s book by that title. It was a warning that came from thinkers who held important posts at important universities (just check out that speakers’ list!) and resonated with many of those in attendance. Cultural affirmation is a fickle goddess that never satisfies for very long. (more…)
Monday, February 28, 2011, 3:23 PM
Few people write about the intellectual core of the pro-life movement quite like Robert P. George of Princeton. He is a comely figure, whose spirit always impresses foes even as his keen intellect often shames them by exposing the flaws in their logic. When my students seem to be allowing their pietistic impulses to supplant their rational abilities, I often will point them to his writings as an illustration of someone who successfully (and correctly) joins the two in the pursuit of godliness.
His essays always are insightful, but his recent posting at Public Affairs, a publication of the Witherspoon Institute, is quite moving. It’s a tribute to recently deceased Bernard Nathanson, the abortionist who helped to push us into Roe v. Wade but then had a change of mind and heart on the issue and began to campaign against the culture of death that was ushered in by that court decision. It’s hard to read Nathanson’s story and not be struck by its parallels to Saul’s incredible conversion in Acts.
Nathanson admitted that he lied frequently in the defense of abortion, but asserted that he would never lie in the other direction:
“You said that I was converted to the cause of life; and that’s true. But you must remember that I was converted to the cause of life only because I was converted to the cause of truth. That’s why I wouldn’t lie, even in a good cause.”
Amazing words to ponder.
Thursday, February 24, 2011, 12:05 PM
Recently I was in a meeting on the top floor of one of Nashville’s tallest buildings. The view was marvelous and, honestly, quite a distraction from the day’s agenda. As the landscape rolled toward the suburbs, I became struck by how many steeples I could see poking out like white onion grass through the wintry grey canopy of trees. There were, it seemed, hundreds of them.
As I drove through town that evening, I passed the campus of Vanderbilt University, which stands opposite the beautiful Parthenon in Centennial Park. The West End is filled with beautiful churches and temples, and the busy road creeps along toward the toney Belle Meade area. The steeples on some of the churches are marvelous. One in particular always catches my eye: Vine Street Christian Church. The spire is enormous, towering over the area before ending in a beautifully delicate cross. Not too far away is the Woodmont Christian Church with its impossibly thin uprising that reaches marvelous heights.
As I continued driving, I was struck by the beauty and craftsmanship of so many of these structures. Almost all of them were capped by a cross, even the ones that are attached to congregations that many evangelicals would barely recognize as being theologically faithful to traditional Christianity. Indeed, many of the crosses have likely entered into the realm of visual “white noise” (is that possible?) that goes un-noticed by inured passersby. Who has time to look at a steeple, after all, when there are texts to send while sitting at a red light? Who has time to look up when our eyes are so busy focusing on what is just in front of us?
My favorite steeple is in Port Gibson, Mississippi, at the First Presbyterian Church. It ends not in a cross but in beefy gold-leafed hand that points the way to God. It’s not a cross, but it’s a testimony at least. (more…)
Saturday, February 5, 2011, 10:03 PM
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Today is the anniversary of the most difficult day of my life, February 5, 2008. On that date, an EF-4 tornado tore a jagged slice through the very middle of the campus of Union University, where I teach. I will never forget seeing the funnel cloud crossing the highway a few hundred yards away and initially thinking we had been spared, only to exit the back of the main administration building (with our president, David Dockery, and one of my best friends, Greg Thornbury) and slowly see the devastation revealed by the flashes of lightning.
As a professor, I can tell you that there is nothing quite like grabbing your own blood-covered students and trying to direct them to the triage station our nursing faculty had set up. As a father, I can tell you that there is nothing at all like feeling the fingers of young people touching your sleeve because you are the closest thing to their own fathers that they can find in the middle of a disaster. As a man, I can tell you that there is little in life that can prepare you for the frustration that comes from realizing that you cannot solve the problem that stands at your feet, as you helplessly listen to the muffled voices of young men trapped beneath rubble.
I will never forget the smell of the raw sewage pouring out of pipes that no longer led to dormitories. I can no longer hear sirens or generators or the sound of trucks backing up without finding my pulse racing or my breath tightening. When I finally got home that night, all I can remember is breaking down and crying with my wife. No one had been killed, which was no small miracle at all, and only a few of the injured remained in the hospital. By midnight, all of the students had been taken to local homes while we tried to figure out what to do next.
We had nothing but questions that night. Would we reopen? Ever? Did I still have a job?
Just after the tragedy, someone created this video to articulate how we all felt. I have to admit that I have never actually watched it all the way through. I can’t: I lived it. (more…)