Engagement is Discipleship

Matthew Loftus is a family doctor who lives with his wife Maggie and his daughter Naomi in Baltimore , where they are blessed to be a part of New Song Community Church. He aspires to finish his novel and to teach medicine overseas. You may follow him on Twitter @matthew_loftus if you’d like.

As Christians face more direct opposition from cultural powers, we should consider Rod Dreher’s recent discussions of the Benedict Option and the Jeremiah Option. The former represents a more “separatist” approach to cultural or political engagement and the latter embraces “assimilation” as a means of cultural survival. The struggle to maintain our Christian identity against a cultural onslaught that delights to seduce us into impotence has never been easy. However, it is crucial to recognize that engagement is an element of discipleship and the immanence of our witness is part of our obedience. If the Benedict Option is to represent a faithful community, it must be a witnessing and serving presence that bears the cost of following Christ.

Counterfeit, culturally acceptable Christianity is more dangerous to true faith than active and virulent persecution. This point is not disputed among most thoughtful Benedict Option supporters (indeed, Rod’s post about it is one of the best), but it is important to take up first because isolation from the world is not only unfaithful but poisonous to faith. Heeding James’ command to not be “polluted by the world” will often protect us from the seductive lies of the Satan, but it can also just as easily seduce us into Pharasaism. Most of us have read or met former Christians who have been inoculated against the faith by harsh, legalistic religiosity. In these cases, misapplication of the principle behind the Benedict Option has done harm to souls because of the inherent danger in isolation. Increasing the distance from a world in need proportionately threatens both individuals and communities; we need to intimately know the lost people and broken communities we are called to love in order to temper and strengthen our witness to them.

If we look to the Bible, we see that this is because God’s commands to evangelize and disciple are consistently linked with our prosperity as the people of God, from The Great Commission to the Kingdom parables or God’s instruction to the church in Philadelphia. Our faithfulness to doctrine is inseparable from our engagement with the world; as Jesus’ power was so great that the touch of the bleeding woman made her clean rather than Him unclean, so our interactions with the fallen world participate in God’s redemption of it. This is not a call to passively consume cultural products or merely imitate trendy practices, for a facile familiarity with other perspectives will only breed more ignorance. Instead, we need to spend time listening carefully to people whom we know and speaking boldly once we have demonstrated our commitment to them.

A community that is consistently interacting with lost neighbors and taking our stand at the gates of Hell must also hunker down regularly for the sort of intense reflection and spiritual isolation that the Benedict Option cherishes. This is where the Benedict Option apologists are most insightful: it is in contemplation, rest, and tightly-knit community that we are primarily given what God entrusts us to give away in turn. However, without a constant inflow of both needy souls to bless and lost opponents to challenge us, our faith will become as atrophied and grotesque as an athlete who eats the 10,000-calorie Olympic diet but never competes in a race. Just as our questions and doubts are shaped by the ends to which we ask them, so our rest and retreat are shaped by the ends for which we undertake them. Continue reading

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Respectability and the Plausibility of Orthodoxy

One point that deserves special mention with the ongoing conversation about “respectable” Christianity concerns the plausibility of “orthodoxy” in the minds of many of our non-Christian neighbors. One of the unique challenges facing Christianity in the coming years is that the very notion of religious orthodoxy doesn’t really make sense to many contemporary Americans.

We understand the idea of orthodoxy in some spheres, particularly in politics. Most Americans would find it quite odd if, for example, a gun-loving libertarian wanted to run for the Senate as a Democrat. We recognize that in politics certain beliefs tend to belong to certain groups. So if you favor a single payer healthcare system, that’s fine, but you probably should hang out with the Democrats rather than the Republicans. But we generally don’t have a similar understanding of this when it comes to religious identity.

Part of the issue, no doubt, is that many strands of American Christianity have defined themselves more in terms of methods and techniques for doing ministry rather than well-defined theological creeds. As a result, many Christian young people have grown up in the church without developing a robust understanding of Christian theology or why we do the things we do.

A related issue is the problem of how many churches have tended to fall back on business jargon as a way of talking about church life, which merely makes explicit the sense that Christian faith isn’t really about articles of belief so much as it is about achieving certain results for yourself and your community. This is one of the troubling under-currents to the ongoing Mark Driscoll saga, for instance, as Doug Wilson wisely noted in his post on the issue last week.

Continue reading

Which Generous Spaciousness for Gay Christians?

It’s been five years since Andrew Marin published his widely read Love is an Orientation, and the need which Marin’s book attempted to fill has grown at a rapid pace.  While there has been no shortage of discussion among evangelicals about the moral and political status of homosexuality, few rigorously theological and pastorally sensitive resources have been developed for churches and pastors to learn best how to welcome gay into their communal and individual lives.  Instead, vague exhortations about how Christians need to be more loving and improve their image abound.

generous spaciousnessWendy VanderWal-Gritter’s Generous Spaciousness:  Responding to Gay Christians in the Church is not, alas, the book we have been waiting for.  As the director of New Directions Ministry, a Canadian organization that was a part of Exodus International until it pivoted in 2007 toward building bridges between Christians and the LGBT communities, VanderWal-Gritter has a wealth of practical and personal experience to draw from.  She aims in Generous Spaciousness to “model a posture” for individuals, churches, and organizations that is not “just a wishy-washy, weak compromise” on the questions surrounding homosexuality, but that orients us toward hospitality and faithful discipleship for LGBT people within the church. That is a commendable goal, no doubt, and her book has occasional moments of insight and the occasional bit of wise council for pastors and parishioners. But by repeatedly presenting the progressive position at its best and responding to ‘conservative’ theology at its worst, VanderWal-Gritter creates a caricature of the demands of “unity” that claims the moral high ground for those who wish to push doctrine to the side. Her concept of ‘generous spaciousness’ is no “wishy-wash, weak compromise”: it is an outright abdication on the possibility of moral knowledge and its role within the church.

Her book is pervaded by trendy jargon that obscures as much as it clarifies, and that sometimes borders on the sort of de-Scripturalized, therapeutic discourse that has marked the “ex-gay” community at its worst.  (As she notes, VanderWal-Gritter notes that “many ex-gay ministries espouse a variety of psychoanalytic theories in the development of ministry interventions.”  While she doesn’t endorse such an approach, it’s clear from her own work that she hasn’t quite escaped it.) Terms like honesty, authenticity, openness, vulnerable, acceptance, and the inescapable journey get their power from their vagueness, even if they seem to be for her the central virtues of the spiritual and moral life.

Such terms sometimes also function asymmetrically, so that those who are doubting and questioning their convictions and the traditional teaching of the church on the morality of same-sex sexual practices end up with a privileged insights into key portions of Scripture.  In her defense that Christians should interact with each other on questions of same-sex sexuality as though it were a “disputable matter,” and hence akin to how Paul exhorts the Romans to behave with respect to food ethics in Romans 14, VanderWal-Gritter offers the following jaw-dropping analysis:

“One has to wonder if the process of wrestling with a particular question personally is the foundation from which one can internalize Paul’s teaching in Romans 14 of not getting in the way of someone else’s choices and making life more difficult for them. For when you get on your knees at the side of your bed night after night pleading with God to take away your same-sex attractions, you experience solidarity with others who have had the same experience….And out of this very real and personal place arises the kind of mutuality and preference for the other that Paul speaks of.  The truth is straight people will never be able to fully enter that space—because straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places.”

Even if we thought that Scripture put same-sex sexual activity on the same moral plane as food sacrificed to idols such that it is a “disputed matter”—and there is lots of reason to doubt that is the case—this sort of argument actually would work against the case.  If Romans 14 did require people to internally wrestle with the particular question, then only those with same-sex attraction could have the “generous spaciousness” that VanderWal-Gritter ostensibly wants.  That would be a bizarre basis for a Biblical exhortation, however.  What’s more, VanderWal-Gritter’s claim that “straight people have never wrestled in those particular personal and deep places” strikes me as false to the point of incoherent.  Many straight people who have taken Jesus’s exhortations about lust in Matthew 5 seriously have spent wakeful nights pleading with God to remove temptations from them, even temptations that if known or acted upon would bring them great shame from their community. To think otherwise would be to single out same-sex desire as uniquely troubling to the individuals who experience it—a claim I suspect many in her audience will be fast to reject.

While VanderWal-Gritter wants to avoid arguing directly about the moral questions surrounding this debate, she ends up simply presupposing a moral outlook that many conservative evangelicals object to.  In her exhortation to help same-sex attracted individuals cultivate a “positive vision for the future,” she suggests that some will begin to dream of a same-sex marriage.  “Where this dream is grounded in the confidence of the unconditional love and embrace of God,” she writes, “such a dream can be a vibrant part of a person’s ongoing spiritual journey, particularly when it is based on careful study, reflection, prayer, waiting, and listening to Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and trusted mentors.”  In perhaps the worst sentences in the book, she encourages us to welcome those who might dream of a same-sex relationship by pointing out that “It is important to remember that love is love. And love is of God.”  Nevermind that the content or shape of “love” within the sphere of human sexuality is precisely what is in question. “Love,” whatever else it might be, is not the amorphous, empty concept that her tautology indicates. While she protests that her view is not a “call for a watered-down discipleship,” her unwillingness to specify the terms under which sexual “love” no longer is from God suggests that is precisely what is on offer.

This kind of slant structures the entire book, so that it is questionable whether VanderWal-Gritter’s understanding of “generous spaciousness” is separable from it.  For instance, in discussing the role that spiritual fruit among Christians has played in her own life, she writes, “A closed system necessarily finds ways to discount such fruit as appearing to be authentic but actually being counterfeit.  But I could not justify such an ultimately subjective, selfish, and spiritually violent evaluation. As far as I knew, the fruit that I was seeing and experiencing was the real deal—and if it wasn’t, that could only be God’s call.”  I leave aside the question of “fruit” within the Christian life only to point out that being “closed” is not necessarily the negative feature of a “system” that VanderWal-Gritter presupposes.  If a system has no way of discerning when someone is self-deceived or when the fruits they are demonstrating have been disconnected from other crucial moral aspects of their lives which may erode them over a long period of time, then so much the worse for the system.

There are all sorts of people in this world who demonstrate qualities that seem to be similar to the fruits of the Spirit.  VanderWal-Gritter privileges our ability to discern when someone’s life demonstrates “fruit.”  As she goes on to say, “It seems incredibly audacious to me that anyone would consider sitting in the seat of judgment regarding the authenticity of faith of those who demonstrate good fruit in their lives.” But rather than accept the “tension” and the “mystery” that some people might have “fruit” while engaging in practices that Scripture is opposed to, she instead wishes us to embrace the tension and mystery at the heart of Scripture’s teachings about human sexuality, where she sees only complexity and disagreement.  It’s not at all clear, though, why we should be more confident in the meaning of our own lives and the quality of our own spiritual fruit and hesitating and uncertain about the meaning of Scripture, especially when the parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-9) opens the possibility that we are all self-deceived.

My point is not necessarily to drag VanderWal-Gritter into the very moral questions that she thinks have been so harmful for the church’s witness.  Rather, it is simply to point out that it may be the case that how we go about inculcating a view of “generous spaciousness” in the church may itself depend upon the answers we come to with those moral questions.  If the “space” of the church is going to be anything more than an empty void, a black hole where anything (literally) goes in the realm of human sexuality, save those actions which do not result in “fruit,” then we must identify and understand its boundaries, and that invariably means drawing lines.  While it may be the case, as VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly points out, that conservative evangelicals have been overly focused on such boundary-maintainence and have sometimes operated based on fear, without boundaries there can be no “inclusion.”

To make the point sharper, if we can substitute the language of polyamory and polygamy for homosexuality and gay marriage, without a significant alteration to the argument, then something is clearly awry. If there are “polyamorous Christians” who demonstrate the kind of “fruit” that gives us pause and who can similarly problematize Scripture’s teaching (where there is even some positive evidence for polygamy in the Old Testament), then ought we treat the question as a “disputed matter”?  My only point is that the language of morality is more useful for understanding what sort of spaciousness we should have in the church, and what kind of generosity we are called to.

It similarly helps no one if the presupposition is that those who are theologically conservative have not worked through the “hard questions”, and so only hold their view because of tradition or for other reasons.  VanderWal-Gritter repeatedly objects to an emphasis on truth, orthodoxy, and certainty as being driven “more by fear and anxiety than by love.”  The book is written for those for whom “simplistic, black and white answers on these questions will not suffice.”  Doubtlessly such people exist.  But there is nothing simplistic about the answers Christians have traditionally given on these questions, and there is nothing easy about accepting them. Working from such caricatures—VanderWal-Gritter at one point uses an anonymous comment on YouTube!—is simply not helpful, though. It may be that a conservative theological approach to inclusion has not been found wanting, so much as left untried altogether.  Trying to circumvent doctrinal claims and genuine moral knowledge for the sake of unity simply presupposes that the two can be disconnected—which is simply not a proposition that conservative evangelicals can or will get behind.

All this is a missed opportunity, as evangelicals need to articulate how the message of the Gospel can be embedded in our local church communities in a way that is more hospitable to those whose form of lives we disagree with.  We need generous spaciousness.  Of that I have no doubt.  But not this one.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book for review. 

“Glitter Grenade: a review of Aaron Belz’s Glitter Bomb”

(Reviewer’s note: I don’t know much about Aaron or about poetry. You can click here for samples and a quick check on Aaron’s background. Or you could go to Costco, then hire a licensed private investigator. Just depends on what kind of samples and background check you want.)

 

One book of poetry, two days of pleasure (mixed with confusion) for the reader.

The author rarely swings and misses at that third strike. Never metaphor at a five-‘n’-dime

he couldn’t flip to readers and leave ‘em at sixes and sevens.

 

Does

blank verse shoot lead or

blanks? Does this poetry earn

blank stares?

Does Glitter Bomb? Answer left

blank. (For an atom-split second, just wait.)

Was the bomb dropped? Diffused? Answer right

now: all the Belz, most of the whistles. Almost all flowers, just a few thistles.

Do not ask for whom the Belz beguiles. His toll fare is fair, for his free verse brings smiles.

 

In some, low overhead, genius-saturated. In 1/2 of 1/2, my crazy culture much-exegeted.

In sum: 1/2 genius, 1/2 cultural saturation craziness that’s over my lowly head. (Epexegetical much?)

 

The first poem feels like a second chance, rising on the third day, sallying forth, a ship’s captain—my captain—and a fifth of gin.

Can intoxicated poems deep-six the seven seas of reader’s regret for my overly prosaic sins? Spoiler alert: yes.

Do the lines lumber, like a rusty Olds eighty-eight?

Spoiler alert: nein

Behold, young poems that glitter. Light and shiny as tin,

ever-new, wise like an elf,

riffing—even rhyming—until the clock Belz strikes twelve.

 

I’m Cinderella, these poems are glass slippers. They once were Lost, these 4 8 15 16 23 42 61 poems and now I am found. Amazingly gracious, and glittery ever after.

 

At least until I return to the Inhumanities to read, idk, Collected Essays or Assays into Collectivism.

 

But while you watch me careening back down my academic cliff,

Spent like a beer at Cheers falling from the cleft chin of Cliff

Note:

some will want CliffsNotes, a treble clef on which to transpose

Belz’s ringing, confusing,

pleasing notes.

But they’re not so much

de-noted as detonated. Not so much

composed as decomposed like fertilizer that fuels the

bomb, man. Just try transposing that.

 

I did, and I’m all blown up, not at all composed.

It’s totes my faults the Glitter earthquake exposed.

 

Jason volleys great riffs from the Great Rift Valley in East Africa. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook if you dig lepidoptera. His latest book is Imitating God in Christ.

3 Thoughts on Kindle Unlimited

Kindle_Paperwhite_3GI have a roundup on Amazon’s latest innovation over at Mere O Notes so if you’re wanting to learn more about Kindle Unlimited, start there.

I. Our Technocratic Libertarianism

While Mark Lilla is basically correct in saying that we live in a libertarian era, that term is not without its problems. (Ross Douthat made this point quite well in a recent blog post.) Despite our libertarian tendencies, we are still creatures bearing the image of God and living in a world as creatures made by that God. So both the essence of our humanity and the nature of our creaturely existence constrains our ability to function as completely autonomous beings. But when you have a society dedicated to such stark libertarianism to the cost of all non-coercive forms of community, this necessarily leaves only the coercive forces of big business and big government as the coherent social bodies able to shape communal life.

Thus we have services like Netflix and now Kindle Unlimited, both of which are premised on giving the user a seemingly infinite amount of choice, yet all of the choices available are defined by the business providing the service. So our experience of the service might seem libertarian because there are so many choices and there’s nothing stopping us from choosing anything on offer.

Yet the choices available to our libertarian will are themselves defined and handed down by the only viable social bodies left to us. We just don’t notice them as much these days because Amazon and Netflix have so completely blended into the fabric of our lives that we seldom look beyond them when looking for a movie or book. This is particularly troubling with Amazon given their current spat with Hachette and their history of questionable behavior regarding Kindle books.  Continue reading

A Ministry of Answers: A Review of Craig and Gorra’s “A Reasonable Response”

Chances are that, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve heard of William Lane Craig. But Joe Gorra is the hardest working genius you’ve never heard of in evangelicalism. Among other things, Gorra has worked with Craig as a research assistant for a long time now, and together they have produced a really excellent book, A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity, and the Bible (Moody Publishers, 2013), that goes beyond the traditional handbook of Christian apologetics in important and interesting ways.

A Reasonable Response has three interdependent parts that work together to create a book that is more than their sum. There is, first, the selection of questions that people have submitted to Craig’s website for a number of years. Together with Craig’s answers to them–that’s the second interdependent part–these questions have been reprinted in the book. The third essential part is Gorra’s editorial work in organizing the book, drawing attention to important features of Craig’s answers, and writing a substantial introduction and appendices. Gorra’s introduction is worth the price of the book alone and worth discussing in some detail.

More than anything, I believe Gorra’s introduction provides a blueprint for taking twentieth-century Christian apologetics into the future at the levels of both the pastor/scholar and the layman. A paradigm work of Christian apologetics in the twentieth century is Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter, and it is tempting to think that twenty-first century evangelicalism has outgrown the need for such things, especially in its more cultured circles. Gorra’s introduction not only suggests otherwise but also shows how the work of the traditional apologist will always be central to serving the kingdom of God.29409155542b76db78cdf05d20475d3a

The title of the introduction is “A Meditation on the Practice and Ministry of Answering Questions,” which summarizes how Gorra thinks about the central task of the Christian apologist. The apologist ministers to others primarily by answering questions well. There are, of course, other types of Christian ministers needed today; one thinks in particular of the ministry of Christian counselors, therapists, and spiritual directors. But the need to provide clear answers to pressing questions about the nature of God and his kingdom remains. Is God real? Can I trust the Bible? Any serious investigation of the Christian faith has to address those central questions, and the answers have to be fairly deep and clear if they’re going to sustain a lifetime of Christian commitment.

We are, of course, thankful to Matt Anderson for his book on the questioning life, to which Gorra refers. In particular, Anderson’s final chapter is a contemplative and poetic reflection on how to live now with the questions we have about all that is important in life. One way to think of Gorra’s introduction is as the practical correlate of Anderson’s more contemplative conclusion. In particular, Gorra argues that it is possible–even necessary!–for an apologist to be a genuine, authentic Christian who can clearly and directly respond to important and specific questions about the Christian faith. If Anderson has shown us what the questioning life looks like, Gorra has outlined what the answering life looks like.

If the latter seems difficult to conceive, it’s important to be clear about what an answer is: it is an informative reply to a question. It is not, as both Anderson and Gorra point out, a conversation stopper. A good answer provides opportunity for more questions. A vague or otherwise bad answer often stops conversations more than a clear and direct one. Indeed, as readers of A Reasonable Response can see, Craig’s clear and direct answers are often invitations for further questions.

Gorra also points out that becoming a genuine, authentic minister of answers is only possible if one’s entire life is devoted to Christ. Gorra points out that Craig, whatever one thinks of his theological and philosophical views, “believes that by virtue of the witness of his work . . . can bring the name of God either praise or blame by how he conducts himself.” The answers Craig provides in the book demonstrate his attention to and care for the questioner. To have a ministry of answers is not to be a minister of glib responses.

After the introduction, the book is organized into six main parts, not counting the three appendices. The six parts are “Questions on Knowing and Believing What Is Real,” “Questions about God,” “Questions about the Origins and the Meaning of Life,” “Questions about the Afterlife and Evil,” “Questions about Jesus Christ and Being His Disciple,” and “Questions about Issues of Christian Practice.” If you have followed Craig’s work over the years, most of the material in these six parts will be familiar. There are, for example, questions and answers concerning the reliability of the New Testament gospels, the orthodoxy of Trinity monotheism, the kalam cosmological argument, and the problem of evil.

To take one example of a question-answer exchange from the book, consider the question about the justification of one of the premises in the moral argument for the existence of God. The question, from someone named Corey, runs to about a page, and this is both typical and helpful: The questions that Craig answers are from real people who couch their questions in all sorts of assumptions and idiosyncrasies. Craig demonstrates real patience in understanding what the questioner is asking, answering the question, and then, usually, reformulating the question more precisely and answering it more thoroughly. The question and answer about the moral argument concerns the second premise:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

The questioner wants to know what the justification for the second premise is. Craig’s answer, developed at length, is, in brief, that our moral experience provides the justification for the second premise. What follows in the chapter is a clear account of this.

Throughout the book, Gorra has included notes that draw attention to important aspects of Craig’s answers. In this chapter, Gorra highlights Craig’s point that “moral skepticism fails to attend to our direct acquaintance with reality even though this is how our moral experience encounters objective moral values and duties.” A thoughtful reader would, I think, find a lot to ruminate on in that insight. The remainder of the book is similarly helpful, and this is due to the combination of Craig’s experience in answering questions and Gorra’s editorial skill.

If you’d like to read a sample of the book, Moody is graciously offering samples right now.

Creaturehood and Contingency Explored: Reflections on James Smith’s “Who’s Afraid of Relativism?”

North American Christianity has a problem. Actually, it has the problem — the sin of Adam that led to his dismal fall. He has heard the temptation “ye shall be like gods” and ate of its fruit in modern form. According to James Smith in his latest work Who’s Afraid of Relativism? the pursuit of objective and absolute truth amounts to a denial of the creaturehood and contingency acknowledged by any who submit to a biblical account of philosophy.

Professor Smith thinks this distinctly modern error characterizes most of contemporary christian apologetics and philosophy. We are so preoccupied with finding objective reasons independent from our communities and social practices that we forget that God created us to function as contingent and finite creatures. As a result, anyone who gives countenance to relativism will be subject to “philosophical McCarthyism” of old school “Is ‘there are no objective truths’ an objective truth?”-style apologetics. How has Christian philosophy come such a long way from its biblical origins? More specifically, why does the desire for absolute truth signify a hubristic denial of creaturehood (the most serious offence one can be accused of in the Judeo-Christian tradition, by the way)? Smith is more concerned with the second question, leaving the first relatively unexplored. His argument uses three major philosophers to support his main ideas. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and Robert Brandom each deny absolutist views and offer their own formulations of a way of life without objectivity."Who's Afraid of Relativism" by James Smith

The book is the final installment in Baker Academic’s series titled “The Church and Postmodern Culture.” As a piece of writing, it can be difficult to understand at times. The tantalizing “use” of “unnecessary” quotations and italics often confuse the “meaning” (i.e. clarity) of his argument, and the semi-continental abundance of countered name dropping critically resurrects a quasi-Žižekian penumbra matched only by David Bentley Hart. I tease. It’s not that bad. Even still, many readers will find this frustrating. In what follows, I will try to briefly summarize Smith’s main points.

Underlying absolutist views is an epistemology called “referentialism” (the unforgivable philosophy, according to Smith), which says that language and truth are claims about real things in the world and meaning is the correlation between a word and its corresponding thing. Wittgenstein explains the referentialist account with a metaphor.

I send someone shopping. I give him a slip marked “five red apples.” He takes the slip to the shopkeeper, who opens the drawer marked “apples”; then he looks up the word “red” in a table and finds a colour sample opposite it; then he says the series of cardinal numbers — I assume that he knows them by heart — up to the word “five” and for each number he takes an apple of the same colour as the sample out of the drawer. (Philosophical Investigations, 1)

But this theory does not adequately represent how humans use language. Smith explains

There’s a little chink in the armor of the representationalist account here: it is the challenge of number. Is “five” a thing? Just what “thing” is referred to by the word “five?”… So Wittgenstein now has us wondering: Does language always work by referring?” (42)

It turns out on Wittgenstein’s account that language does not operate by reference, but by use. Continue reading

Faith, Family, and the Dangers of Capitalism

Do Hobby Lobby’s day-to-day practices contravene many conservative values? That was Patrick Deneen’s thesis in “Even If Hobby Lobby Wins, We All Lose”, wherein Deneen managed to articulate a fairly important thesis (even though it was denigrated for sputtering quite meaninglessly at the physical structures that modern capitalism has wrought.) This critique shares in common many of the objections that most careful readings of Wendell Berry usually yield from skeptical readers: paleoconservatism or agrarianism dreams up fanciful monsters created by modern industrialism that can only be fought by an equally fanciful retreat to the countryside. I think that we can apply some of what we have learned from Berry, Deneen, and other wild-eyed idealists while not falling off the proverbial cart (or blowing up the proverbial tractor.)

The benefits of industrial capitalism are enormous, even if they may be frequently overstated. Much of the economic stability, improved health outcomes, and general well-being that we experience now as compared to 200 years ago can be traced to the technological developments and their widespread industrial applications that humans have been applying with ferocious aptitude to the various agricultural, medical, and economic problems that we have faced for millennia. Unsurprisingly, these applications and their developments also disrupted many of the sociological structures that had been carefully formed over the millennia as well. Whether it was moving the locus of economic production out from the home and into the factory or office, increasing the dependence of any producer of goods upon ever-distant producers, or simply scaling up the amount of ecological and personal destruction that any one action could produce, it was usually local knowledge, smaller institutions, and more marginalized groups that ceded power to centralized forces. One of the common examples repeated over the years in Christian worldview classes is that of hormonal contraception; here a technology clearly meant for a good purpose helped fuel the sexual revolution as the natural intent of procreation was artificially divorced from sexual relations. Similarly, technological applications in warfare fueled greater and greater destructive powers with consequences not only for the people who were killed or maimed directly by weapons but their offspring who drank the water poisoned by the same weapons. One could even argue that given how much power has shifted away from the God-given institutions of church and family with an incommensurate rise in the powers of state and capital, the industrial revolution has taken a far greater toll on Christendom than the sexual revolution has.

This is not to say that an idyllic era of thrift and family values preceded the industrial revolution. Children were still overworked and even enslaved prior to the existence of factories, but factories allowed children to be mistreated in greater numbers by people without relationships or structures of accountability. Farmers mistreated animals long before the age of the factory farm, but the advent of modern chemistry, machinery, and even genomics have allowed far more animals to be mistreated– and thus be consumed by people whose bodies were never prepared to eat that much meat. Technology, in flattening various natural barriers, not only allows us to live without fear of many random destructive happenstances, but also removes the natural limits to human power that kept us from doing harm to one another and to the earth for centuries. The damage that has been done to physical ecology is analogous the the damage done to our moral ecologies; just as technology allows to eat without any regard for where our food comes from or at what (often federally subsidized) cost it was extracted, so technology also gives us the power to live more autonomously in the pursuit of our stubborn sinfulness.

Many of the serious battles that fought against these newly realized powers of destruction were fought in the Progressive Era, when it was clear that industrial capitalism was allowing a few to prosper at the expense of many others. However, since the entities of oppression had already grown more powerful than any previously existing small institution had the power to reckon with, new intermediaries and social compacts formed to deal with these oppressors. Many of them, of course, appealed to the government: whether it was labor laws or temperance movements, it became clear that the most expedient and effective way to enact justice or prevent exploitation was through the law. While there were many different contributions to the rise of governmental power during this era, it is foolhardy to ignore the role that the rising power of industrialism played.

This unyielding cycle of increasing human power and further appeals to governmental authority has continued to spin out over the last several decades. Continue reading

Noah: A Theological-Aesthetic Rorschach Test

Last week saw the premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, and with it a (predictable) storm of controversy from the evangelical community. Reviews have ranged from predictably critical to outright disdain to hostile readings, and from strongly (though not unreservedly) positive to more restrained affirmation of the film on aesthetic and spiritual grounds to especially measured theological and artistic engagement. In short, the responses spanned exactly the range one would expect from the evangelical community, which is itself deeply divided on the purpose, value, and meaning of the arts—decades of conversation on the topic notwithstanding. Noah[1] works as a sort of theological-artistic Rorschach test. We seem to find it in what we expect given its origins and our disposition.Noah_film

Rather than offer another review (which would add nothing to the conversation at this point), or decry once again the predictable evangelical response to the arts, or even critique reviews with which I disagreed, I thought it might be useful instead to ask where we stand today and point to a few places we might grow from this. Continue reading

On Living Fast

Sometimes it seems like our minds race to keep up with the pace of technology, that the flood of information overwhelms us. The reality, argues Tom Vanderbilt, is the reverse: technology is actually racing to keep up with us.

Our senses are voracious, taking in and processing the world at a rapid clip. It takes only 25 milliseconds for a flash of recognition to light up our brains and a quarter-second to understand what we’ve seen. That is the pace at which we experience life. Recent studies show that we enjoy running at the speed of mind. When the information we receive through our senses and the tools that deliver them are keeping pace with our brain, we experience a certain degree of pleasure. We’re in a groove.

So when, say, movies speed up their delivery of visual stimuli, we seem to quite like it, which translates into greater demand. And our wish is Hollywood’s command. Movies have steadily and relentlessly offered up quicker scenes, moving from a ten-second average in film’s mid-century “golden era” to today’s five-second scene (or the 1.7 second bludgeoning of Quantum of Solace). That is why action films like The Bourne Ultimatum seem to have a more visceral quality; their frenetic pace is moving more in step with our minds.

Yet for this we pay a price. Our brains are less able to weave these strings of rapid-fire stimuli into sustained experiences that linger in our memory. We then beg for more technologies that allow us to enjoy experiences and our rapid paces. Or, Instagram. Here’s Vanderbilt:

The “technical” acceleration of being able to send and receive more emails, at any time, to anyone in the world, is matched by a “social” acceleration in which people are expected to be able to send and receive emails at any time, in any place. The desire to keep up with this acceleration in the pace of life thus begets a call for faster technologies to stem the tide. And faced with a scarcity of time (either real or perceived), we react with a “compression of episodes of action”—doing more things, faster, or multitasking. This increasingly dense collection of smaller, decontextualized events bump up against each other, but lack overall connection or meaning. What is the temporal experience of reading several hundred Tweets versus one article, and what is remembered afterwards?

Vanderbilt’s essay isn’t about answers, but instead offering the sort of clarity that begs further questions. It seems undeniably good that Google is able to offer search results at precisely the speed with which our brains demand it—less than 300 milliseconds. Or that our desire for communication and connection is no longer frustrated by the tools we’ve created. We can refresh our Twitter feed with a long drag and a “pop” of release. Like an itch being instantly scratched. It feels good. We want more. Now.

Perhaps this is also why we sense withdrawal when we’ve been away from technology’s instant gratification for too long, or feel frustrated when other devices (or people) in our lives don’t offer the same immediacy.

Do we need to carve out time to refresh and reboot ourselves? Do we go cold turkey or slap on a patch to satiate our desire for speed?

Today’s speed is useful, no doubt. Our brain enjoys it and longs for it. Yet we must remain mindful of what may be lost: the deep remembrance that our soul desires.