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

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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.

Millennial Insecurity Runs Washington D.C.

DC has become an Ellis Island for Middle America, drawing in young people who are looking to escape their struggling economies at home and have a shot at a future. As the Washington Post recently described:

Almost all of the District’s population growth between 2000 and 2010 was due to young adults age 20 to 34, whose numbers swelled 23 percent. Though the influx has slowed somewhat, the latest round of census figures showed that half of the District’s population growth between 2010 and 2012 was from Millennials.<

Why this “march of the Millennials”? As the Post explains, “Many of these young people were drawn here by the jobs our relatively protected economy provides, as well as by D.C.’s good and evil twins: ambition and idealism.”

Budget cuts aside, not only does DC enjoy incredibly low unemployment (if you’re white), but within its metro are some of America’s richest counties. And the power is intoxicating. Washington now runs off the fuel of millennial insecurity.

Just take a walk through the halls of Congress to see how this reality plays out. Note the young people running back and forth, the back slaps and heavy-handed compliments. Capitol Hill feels a lot like high school, full of nerds and jocks, prom queens and student presidents who all have a confidence and overeagerness that seems to cover up a gnawing insecurity. Beneath the high school drama and bleary-eyed overachievement lies a realization that these fast-talkers and walkers are completely replaceable.

There are few stable jobs in DC, for one thing. When millennials get one, there’s a tremendous urge to move on to something bigger. After all, so many others seem to do the same. The average tenure seems to be somewhere in the 2 to 3 year range. There’s of course a line of other young ones bucking to take their job.

The only way to keep from sinking is for the millennial to swim harder or dive deeper. The former is easier, the latter is better. Yet if few actually mean to stick around in one place, why invest in anything permanent around them? Young people are considered old for living in DC longer than 5 years.

DC’s young aspire to more greatness than their experience deserves, and employers expect more from their hires than they’re willing to invest in. Move up or move out, they say—what was once a strategy for elevating talent has become more emblematic of a workforce disrupted. Millennials may still enjoy a heady proximity to power in DC, but they sense the deep chasm before them too, dug by circumstances and an ill-fitting education.

It’s as if the currency of millennial talent has been massively devalued and the only thing left to inflate is their ego. Insecurity becomes inseparable from aspiration. Millennials are told they’re special, but really what’s so exceptional about being underpaid and overworked?

Millennials labor in an economy that increasingly values highly-skilled, nonroutine work. For those who are lucky and talented (and the talented know how to make their luck), their prospects are limitless. For nearly every other millennial, their value in the marketplace seems perpetually set beneath the level that they want (or need) to be paid. They are pursuing prosperity that was once available to a wide swath of their parent’s generation, but now is enjoyed mostly by the best of the best.

In DC there’s a hardly a sense of out-and-out entitlement by millennials, just a sense of bewilderment at what happened to their American Dream.

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women

Of all the things that have come as a result of the Church’s gender debates, nothing must excite Christian publishers more than the boom in writing devoted to women finding their place in God’s kingdom. And it’s only beginning. The first generation reared entirely within those debates is coming of age, putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), and telling their stories. This phenomenon became undeniable last October when the controversy surrounding Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood propelled it to the New York Times’ Best Sellers list.  And now, almost exactly a year later, Sarah Bessey offers the latest in this growing genre with her first book, Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women.

Bessey is a blogger, conference speaker, mother of three, and self-described “happy-clappy Jesus lover.” She carries her passion and intimate style into Jesus Feminist, often writing directly to her reader (at times even calling her “luv” and “friend”). In this, Bessey aligns herself not only with the ideology of past social activists like Harriet Beecher Stowe but with their literary style as well—one that evokes empathy and demands ownership of the cause at hand.  Jesus Feminist

Sometimes this personal approach borders on the sentimental, but it is consistent with the purpose of Jesus Feminist. While Evans entered an alternative universe, assuming the roles and characteristics of the fabled “biblical woman,” Bessey stays solidly within her own, making Jesus Feminist less an apologetic for feminist theology than a personal account of how feminism might fit with the faith.

A Bonfire on the Shore

Bessey opens Jesus Feminist with an invitation to “lay down our ideas, our neatly organized Bible verses, our carefully crafted arguments” and join her at a “bonfire on the shore.” She expresses her exhaustion with the gender wars and calls us to stop lobbying for a seat at the “Table”—the word she uses to describe the religious establishment—and instead to identify with the outsiders and seek “unity beyond conformity.”

At one point in the publication process, Jesus Feminist had been subtitled An Invitation to the Kingdom of God Waiting on the Other Side of our Church’s Gender Debates.” While this eventually changed, the emphasis is central to the book. Bessey calls women to participate in the redemptive pulse of the gospel—whether that means fighting human trafficking, supporting educational opportunities for women, or baking a casserole for a shut-in neighbor. In this sense, Bessey’s theology is clearly kingdom-oriented, brimming with themes of progress, justice, and equality. Her rhetoric would be as at home in the abolitionism of the mid-1800s or early 20th-century progressivism as it is in the current post-evangelical landscape.

And yet, Bessey’s passion for ”bringing in the kingdom” does not devolve into naïve optimism.  She acknowledges the challenges, roots her vision solidly in Christ’s resurrection, and paints a vivid portrait of God’s “dreams” for the world. In fact, she does such a good job that even the most curmudgeonly among us will find it hard not to ask “Where do I sign up?” Continue reading

Things I’ve Learned From C.S. Lewis

The world didn’t take much notice of C.S. Lewis on November 22, 1963, the day he died. It was too frenzied by the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy, which occurred in Dallas about an hour after Lewis died in his Oxford home, The Kilns. Every moment of JFK’s assassination aftermath and funeral was watched by the world. His exit of this life had the attention of billions. Lewis departed quietly. Word of his death traveled slowly to many of his friends, and his funeral was poorly attended.

Lewis’ inauspicious end, however, was doubtless for him the most auspicious of beginnings. That day, before all hell broke loose on Dealey Plaza, all heaven broken open for Lewis, and for the first time the longings he so eloquently articulated in life were satiated; the weight of glory made material. On that day, he drank joy from the fountain of joy.

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50 years later, Lewis is still drinking that joy–tasting at the fountainhead that stream of which we can only taste the lower reaches (but even so how intoxicating!). Meanwhile, for us, “the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning.” But we carry on. And at least for me, the carrying on is a whole lot easier because of Lewis.

I’ve learned a lot from the man. His words have played a significant role in my spiritual, intellectual and professional development. Even before I spent a week living at the Kilns, sleeping in the room he slept in, I felt him to be a kindred spirit–a man who gave eloquent expression to my “inconsolable secret” and awareness of Sehnsucht.

The first time I visited Oxford was absolute magic. The “city of dreaming spires” was indeed a dream. One of the unforgettable moments from that first trip was an evening worship service at the University Church of St. Mary as part of the C.S. Lewis Foundation’s Oxbridge 2005 conference. Part of the program was a reading by British actor Joss Ackland of the entire text of “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon delivered by C.S. Lewis in the same church in 1941. It was quite something to hear those words–one of the most eloquent and profound sermons I’ve ever heard–in that church, on a humid summer evening likely similar to the summer night on which Lewis originally delivered the address.

Since then, “The Weight of Glory” has become one of my favorite Lewis works. It manages to capture an amazing amount of truth, beauty and longing in just a few short pages. I’ve read it a dozen or so times, and in re-reading it this week it struck me that there are a few key ideas that have particularly impacted me:

“We are far too easily pleased.”

The first part of “The Weight of Glory” examines desire and debunks the notion that it is wrong to desire too much; rather, argues Lewis, we desire too little:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and to eagerly hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion…is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

This idea rang so true for me. I had sensed, ever since I was a young boy, that my deepest experiences of joy were often intimately tied with longing. I loved reading great books and watching awe-inspiring movies. I loved traveling and camping and exploring the creeks and rivers of my Oklahoma youth. But each of these things only fanned the flames of exploration and the longing in my soul. They whispered of even greater wonders. And that was the joy. It was the realization that what stirred my heart most when I encountered something beautiful was not the thing itself; but the reality that it was only a glimpse of something more. “They are only the scent of a flower we have not found,” wrote Lewis, “the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

“We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.”

One of my favorite sections of “The Weight of Glory” comes when Lewis elaborates on the bittersweet longing we feel when we encounter beauty:

We usually notice it just as the moment of vision dies away, as the music ends, or as the landscape loses the celestial light… For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance. We may go when we please, we may stay if we can, no one cares. Now, a scientist may reply that since most of the things we call beautiful are inanimate it is not very surprising that they take no notice of us. That, of course, is true. It is not the physical objects that I am speaking of, but that indescribable Something of which they become for a moment the messengers. And part of the bitterness which mixes with the sweetness of that message is due to the fact that it so seldom seems to be a message intended for us, but rather something we have overheard. By bitterness I mean pain, not resentment. We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in the universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, the bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.

This section illuminated for me a connection between my faith and my love of art and culture. The longings stirred up within me through a beautiful film or a beautiful sunset were exactly as Lewis describes: unsatisfied desires to not just observe something so beautiful but to be a part of it. And yet there are barriers: “we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see.” For Lewis this is a reflection of the now-but-not-yet nature of glory, which he defines as the fact of being noticed and known by God, more fully than we have ever been known before (1 Corinthians 13:12). There’s a sorrow wrapped up within our present joy because we know the beauty, goodness and truth we touch in this life are only “through a mirror dimly.” But one day we’ll see the glory face to face. Lewis saw the glory 50 years ago today.

“There are no ordinary people.”

For Lewis, the “weight” of glory is the mind-blowing reality that we will one day be in the presence of God and a pleasure to Him, “a real ingredient in the divine happiness … to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son.” This improbable notion is the weight of glory. But weightier still is the reality that every human we’ll ever know–our neighbors, our classmates, our enemies–will either be glory-filled in heaven or gloriously hideous in hell, and “all day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.”

What are the implications of this in our day to day lives? What Lewis says here is truly convicting, especially at a time when it seems so easy to abstract our enemies or wish ill upon the many people we encounter everyday (hundreds on Facebook, for example) who are irksome or difficult to abide:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners – no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

As with much of what I read in Lewis, I pray that I take these words to heart. I pray that I would always seek the “infinite joy that is offered us,” and that I would gladly, gracefully bear the weight of glory as Lewis did.

Evangelical Theology: A Review (of a section)

Michael Bird has written a new single-volume systematic theology titled Evangelical Theology. His publisher, Zondervan, offered complementary volumes in exchange for reviewing one of the book’s sections. That’s the kind of offer that I find difficult to turn down, and, thus, here we are today.

Evangelical Theology Michael Bird

Given the choice of which section to review, I selected Part 3: The Gospel of the Kingdom, thinking that it would contain some address so-called “Christ and Culture” issues. However, this section is actually Bird’s section on eschatology. In fact, Bird never does address the competing political theologies like two kingdoms or transformationalism in this systematic.

After getting past this misunderstanding, I settled in to explore what Bird says about last things. Bird is a respectable mainstream Evangelical on these matters. He makes cracks at the expense of folks who think Ross Perot or Hillary Clinton are the Antichrist and includes the following general disclaimer:

“[T]he unhealthy theological division created by eschatology combined with fantastical books like Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth and Jerry Jenkins and Tom LaHaye’s Left Behind series might make it prudent for us to retreat from the business of eschatology and distance ourselves from the controversy and lunacy that seems to go with the field”

Despite this, Bird believes that it is inappropriate to merely leave it there, say Jesus wins in the end, and call it good. To make this point, Bird borrows a list of seven reasons from Richard Hays:

  1. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to carry Israel’s story forward.
  2. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology for interpreting the cross as a saving event for the world.
  3. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology for the gospel’s political critique of pagan culture.
  4. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to resist ecclesial complacency and triumphalism.
  5. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology in order to affirm the body.
  6. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to ground its mission.
  7. The Church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about death.

Despite making this case for holding a detailed theology of last things, Bird still maintains that these are second order matters of doctrine and disagreements over the details should not be grounds for ending fellowship. In my experience, this position on last things will resonate with most Evangelicals today. In my skimming of the remainder of the book it appears that most of Bird’s positions are similarly broadly held.

Stylistically, Bird’s approach is exhaustive but without becoming boring. He moves quickly past positions he does not embrace, which is an editorial necessity for him to keep the volume under 900 pages.

To illustrate the depth Bird is able to achieve, here is his treatment of the Millennium. He finds the postmillennial view to be “easiest set aside,” as society is manifestly not gradually getting better. He quotes one paragraph from A.A. Hodge and finds it unconvincing. Three pages and six footnotes total. He then moves to amillennialism, which he finds very attractive but unable to sufficiently account for Revelation 20. This also takes him just three pages and six footnotes. Finally, he explains premillennialism and his reasons for holding that position in ten pages and twenty footnotes. Each section is also accompanied with a handy graphic that summarizes the order of events in each millennial view.

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I believe Bird has written a very helpful systematic theology. Perhaps the best description of its eschatology section is that it is unobjectionable. In other words, I believe it achieves precisely what it set out to do. While I am not enough of a connoisseur of systematic theologies to compare Bird’s work to its competitors, Bird’s work strikes me as very competent and accessible. I will keep it on my shelf next to Wayne Grudem’s.

Book Review—Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade

Disclaimer: The author of this book is my father-in-law.

Clarke Forsythe’s Abuse of Discretion is an interesting and compelling examination of the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton Supreme Court decisions of 1973. Although its provocative title betrays an understandably distinct ideological bent given Forsythe’s role as Senior Counsel at Americans United for Life, the book is an exhaustively researched analysis of the decisions’ legal reasoning and social repercussions.Abuse of Discretion

Mr. Forsythe’s 350-page work is divided into two major sections: “Mistakes” and “Unintended Consequences.” In the first half, he recounts the road that led to Roe, examining state and federal court decisions that affected the Justices’ discussions in 1973. He explores several factors that played a role in public perception of abortion leading up to the decision: popular fears of population control, the proliferation of birth control, the persistence of poor data on maternal deaths, the American Law Institute’s ‘Model Abortion Law,’ and the American Medical Association’s endorsement abortion’s legalization.

Of course, the unelected Supreme Court is not supposed to be concerned with opinion polling (even if more recent decisions suggests otherwise). What troubles Mr. Forsythe are the grave errors in legal reasoning and procedure that led to the Roe and Doe decisions. He raises significant questions about the factual record in both cases: in the lower courts, Roe and Doe introduced no evidence and neither involved any witnesses subjected to cross-examination.  Furthermore, due to a 1970 federal statute, no intermediate appellate court conducted the usual screening for these evidentiary shortcomings.

The centerpiece of Mr. Forsythe’s legal argument is the Supreme Court’s “abrupt expansion to viability,” referring to the arbitrary line that the Court created in expanding abortion rights. Viability, the point at which an unborn child can survive outside of the womb, was thought in 1973 to occur around 28 weeks of gestation (children have actually survived after being born at less than 22 weeks).  As it turns out, the Justices were particularly influenced by Judge Jon Newman, a brand new District Court Judge in Connecticut who, months after being sworn into office, struck down a state abortion statute and asserted without citing any law that “the state interest in protecting the life of a fetus capable of living outside the uterus could be shown to be more generally accepted.” Before long, the Justices were parroting this same line to each other and their clerks in internal memos. It is surprising that the Justices would take their cues from a District Court Judge, especially when the Supreme Courts of Texas, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Louisiana, Georgia, and Alabama had all implicitly questioned or explicitly rejected the doctrine of viability before the Supreme Court settled on it in 1973.

Of additional note is the Justices’ medical “data” to support their legal reasoning. Forsythe counts only seven medical articles used in the controlling Roe opinion. These seven sources include a leading abortionist’s personal report from a medical conference in Communist East Germany, two more of the same author’s non-peer reviewed articles (of 2 and 3 pages each), a report of the International Planned Parenthood Federation of London lacking any references to peer-reviewed data, a six-paragraph “letter to the editor” written by a Czech doctor, an article examining abortion in Soviet bloc countries, and a New York City report on the effects of a year-old abortion statute. The inclusion of these questionable sources is all the more troubling to Forsythe given what seems to be the Court’s willingness to overlook clear deficiencies. When a Supreme Court clerk, for example, authored a memo that drew Justice Blackmun’s attention to devastating problems with the New York City report, the Justice scrawled a stylistic correction over the memo’s topic sentence, but elaborated no further on its content.

In an analysis of the social consequences of Roe and Doe, the second part of Mr. Forsythe’s book walks away from legal reasoning and delves into issues of public health, women’s rights, and public perception. Starting with Roe and recounting a daisy-chain of court cases that have combined to eliminate most clinic regulations, Forsythe accuses the Justices of creating a public health vacuum through their ill-informed decision. A better tactic, he asserts, would have been for the Justices to strike down the Texas statute (in Roe) and leave intact the Georgia regulations (in Doe) making sure that abortions could be done with as little risk as possible to the woman.

Forsythe closes his work with an examination of Roe’s consequences in the area of women’s rights: “Has Roe solved the problems it was supposed to solve for women?” The author asserts that this is most emphatically not the case. Ironically, abortion amplifies the coercive power of uncommitted men in romantic relationships:  Forsythe cites research by George Akerlof and Janet Yellen (yes, that Janet Yellen) that concludes “the legalization of abortion reduced women’s ability to withhold premarital sexual favors from men.” In another instance, a series of articles by the Washington Post suggested a link between abortion’s availability and domestic violence. In all, Forsythe suggests that abortion has had a negative impact on gender equality.

Mr. Forsythe makes a persuasive case. His book contains (by my count) 1,061 footnotes that occupy eighty-nine pages, followed by a twenty-one page bibliography. His analysis is thorough and he is unafraid of taking on opposing legal arguments, exploring the details of early English common law on abortion and explaining why arguments for legal distinctions between “quickening” and “viability” make no sense in the 21st century.

But the book is not just about legal arguments. It also explores the non-judicial aspects of the decision—the “unintended consequences”—and traces the social and medical impact of the Judicial edict. It is here, however, that I would lodge my first complaint about the book. Although unafraid of presenting both sides of a legal argument, Mr. Forsythe hardly makes room for opposing social science data. It is not difficult to imagine why: the potential for political taint in such data and the number of ways methodologies can be manipulated mean that social science debates can often devolve into accusations about the deficiencies of small-n studies, selections on the dependent variable, or inadequate control variables. These limitations notwithstanding, I think Forsythe’s argument could have benefited by a brief methodological analysis of some of the data that points to an overall societal benefit from abortion.

Forsythe’s legal background is quite apparent, as the book reads more like an amicus curiae brief than a George R.R. Martin novel: It will convince you, but it will not enthrall you. In most instances, though, Forsythe is conscious of his non-lawyer audience and is careful to explain the nuances of the English common law and the layers of the Federal court system in lay language. But on occasion (and perhaps inescapably), passages become a bit laden with jargon.

This was most apparent in his all-too-brief overview of the basic facts regarding both cases. A brief 3-5 page primer on such facts and the crucial points of the Justices’ decisions would have helped immensely. Who were the plaintiffs? What was the exact nature of the complaint? What were the basic statutes at issue? Although all of these details emerge within the first several chapters of the book, the clarity of the argument throughout could have been enhanced with a very basic opening foreword or even an illustrative chart.

My final complaint is very specific. On two separate occasions, Forsythe claims that “99 percent of abortions are for social reasons alone.” If this is true, the statistic cuts directly against the common refrain that abortion is all about “women’s health.” Unfortunately, this claim has no corresponding footnote pointing to a source—the only time in the book when a reference I wanted was not there.

In all, this book is a good addition to the existing historical literature on the abortion decisions. As a newcomer to this genre and written in time for the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it has the distinct advantage of drawing on forty years of social science data, legal cases, and other scholarship to draw important conclusions about the broad impact that abortion’s near-unlimited legalization has had on American society. Hailed by some as a landmark achievement for equality, the Roe and Doe decisions of 1973 now need to be reexamined on the merits of both their presuppositions and their consequences.

Zac Crippen (@ZacCrippen) is currently pursuing an MPhil in International Relations at the University of Oxford, where he is a Rhodes Scholar. He lives in Oxford with his wife, Sally.

Lost At Sea, in Space, in the Cloud

Two of my favorite films of recent months, Gravity and All is Lost, have more than a few things in common. Both are basically one-man or one-woman shows about individuals trying to survive in an incomprehensibly vast wilderness. Gravity finds Sandra Bullock desperately attempting to return to terra firma after being stranded in space. All is Lost shows Robert Redford (in a mostly silent, yet tour de force performance) lost in the Indian Ocean after his solo yacht venture goes awry. Both films are very much about the visceral, unnerving feeling of alone-ness; both are about the frailty and contingency of man in an often-hostile universe, but also man’s ingenuity, adaptability and cleverness in survival mode. Both are very good films that you should see before they leave theaters.

Another survival-story of sorts: Blockbuster video. The once-dominant video store chain survived the digital revolution (and transition to cloud-based media consumption) longer than many expected. Yet as we knew it would eventually, Blockbuster announced this week that it will soon be closing its final 300 stores and ending its DVD-by-mail service.

The death of Blockbuster, following the death of the record store and the local bookstore (Barnes and Nobles will surely not survive much longer), marks the ongoing transition to a new era in which cultural commerce unfolds no longer in any sort of common, physical Third Place, but in a digital diaspora wherein individuals personally access streams and store (I wouldn’t say “collect”) media for their convenient consumption. And while this iMedia world has its advantages (the ability to access millions of songs and movies on one’s phone with just a few clicks and swipes), it also has severe drawbacks.

all is lostSuch as: Are we losing a sense of common culture? Perhaps that is an outdated question. To the extent that it ever existed (in America for instance) “common culture” has been rapidly dissipating since at least the 1960s. Still, I wonder if the post-Blockbuster world of cloud-based media consumption is making it ever more unlikely that “culture” or “the arts” or “media” will be something that in the future pulls people together in unifying experiences, discussions and debates. After all, we don’t have to talk to anyone anymore (not even a person behind a counter!) when we purchase a movie, an album, a book. From start to finish, our entire experience of pop culture can happen through one little screen and/or one pair of headphones, wholly unique to us and totally tailored to our tastes, preferences and whims.

With everyone becoming their own self-styled curator, commentator, and ala carte consumer, and with the Internet exponentially subdividing niches, genres, and micro-communities for any of a billion interests, it seems implausible that “common” anything will survive the 21st century. As much as the Internet has gotten mileage out of the “connectedness” metaphor, it seems to be more adept at making us isolated consumers with the power to curate consumer pathways and narrative webs entirely on our own timetables and at our own discretion. We are subject to no one and nothing but our “instant” whims and desires; the curatorial power of “gatekeepers” has been diminished; metanarratives have been long deconstructed. We’re on our own, lost in the vast wilderness of the consumptive “cloud.”

Perhaps this is why the theme of “isolation” seems ever more ubiquitous in our cultural narratives. The solo shows of Gravity and All is Lost are not (of course) overt commentaries on 21st century media consumption trends. But I do think the subtext is there. We are alone, navigating our way in a free-for-all space. There’s a freedom in that. But also a terror. It’s a reverse claustrophobia: a fear of too many choices, too many open roads, too few guides and too little guidance.

One sees the isolation elsewhere. Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White are quintessentially American anti-heroes: stubbornly independent, allergic to attachment and subsequently desperately alone. Walt White’s Whitman-esque “Song of Myself” in Breaking Bad–often played out in the vast, unforgiving landscapes of the desert Southwest–illustrates the sobering reality that utter independence often leads to wayward isolation. To a lesser extent, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha conveys a similar, albeit more humorous, sense of freedom as isolation in the character of Frances (Greta Gerwig), a twentysomething hipster whose freewheeling decisions to go to Paris on a whim, for example, or to literally dance in the streets of Manhattan, only deepen her directionless despair. It’s perhaps noteworthy that the free spirit dancing pose of the Frances Ha poster resembles the iconic iPod ads featuring silhouette bodies solo dancing against a bright neon background.

gravityAre these movie and TV narratives reflecting the unforeseen isolation of the iPod age? As we further individualize our mediated and cultured lives and embrace the freedom to dance to whatever cultural beat we like, are we simply left spinning and dizzy? That’s certainly the way I felt after watching Gravity and, to a lesser extent, All is Lost: dizzy, unsteady, destabilized, sea-sick. I was left feeling hungry for ballast, for anchors, for solidity; for something outside of myself to offer orientation.

Because going to Blockbuster on a Friday night used to be overwhelming enough. But at least the options were finite. These days the sheer ubiquity of all that is available, all that is recommended, all that is buzzed about in ceaseless streams of 140-character bursts, leaves me with a bit of vertigo: spinning like Sandra Bullock in Gravity, pulled in a million directions at the mercy of vacuity, untethered and uncertain which way is up.

Nine Ways to Become a More Boring Writer

There is so much advice on being a good writer that it’s impossible for anyone to follow it all.  Indeed, judging by our collective literary output, we could be commended for our ability to ignore it altogether.

So I’ve decided to lower the standards and help you become, like me, a boring writer who only publishes things that will be forgotten as soon as they reach the end of their publishing cycle–ten minutes for a tweet, three days for a blog post, a week for an essay, and right around three months for a book.

If a book with a unique concept or message makes the New York Times bestseller list, copy it.  Here’s one you should try:  ”A Year of  [x].”  It doesn’t matter so much what you fill that [x] in with.  If it’s bizarre enough, you’ll doubtlessly find a publisher interested in performance art masquerading as insight.  Or if you’re a megachurch pastor, this is your time to jump on the “radical” bandwagon.  It doesn’t matter the same basic book has been written a half-dozen times already, more or less.  That’s just proof that the market is still ripe for it.

Read everything your peers write.  There is no better way to sound exactly like everyone else around you than by immersing yourself in their words.  Forget about the fact that you have  conversations with normal people every day, and convince yourself that to be a relevant writer you must be as familiar as possible with what they are writing about.

Spend all your free time consuming “pop culture.”  The logic works the same as the above:  forget about the fact that you’re already immersed in the culture around you, and that saying anything that might sound strange to it demands above all critical distance from it.  You need your words to be relevant, and liberally sprinkling pop culture references throughout will do the trick nicely while ensuring that your words will be forgotten as soon as the show/movie/song is.

Read the people you want to imitate, not the people they learned from.  If you love C.S. Lewis, the best way to ensure that you’ll never come close to writing as well as he did is by focusing exclusively on C.S. Lewis (or his peers).  If you go behind Lewis to George MacDonald, or behind him toward the medievals, you will find yourself learning as Lewis learned and in a better position to do similar things to what he did.

Publish right away.  Did you hear the book is the new business card?  It’s clunky, sure, and people have these new devices called “Kindles” that make it instantly retro (and hence, awesome).  But you’ve got to have one, and now, so you might as well get cracking.  Forget the notion that writing really is revising and that books and essays and, yes, even blog posts need maturing the way good cheeses do.  Your book will help us overcome the critical shortage of words that is imperiling our ability to make it through our world.

Spend all your time on social networks.  It’s always important to know exactly what everyone is talking about so you can make sure you say the exact same thing.

Never miss your chance to chime in on a controversy.  Controversies are God’s gift to mediocre writers; the audience’s attention comes pre-packaged for us, which means we have to do a lot less to keep people reading.  And the pageviews will trick you into thinking that chiming in “made a difference” and maybe, maybe even a little, “changed the world.”  Indulge yourself at every opportunity; your publisher will thank you later.

Be a contrarian.  I said I was a boring writer above.  Did you not believe me?

Always strive to be first.  Remember that it’s partly the nature of the fundamental goods of this world to emerge slowly, and that the wisdom of understanding is plodding.  And we can’t have that if we are to be properly boring.  Be as hasty as possible, particularly in moments of tragedy, where the power and substance of the events is least commensurate with the form of responses that instantish media like twitter and blogs demand.  Don’t wait for words to emerge that might be powerful enough to fit the moment; run with your first instinct, because that’s probably going to get the most attention anyway.

 

GUYS, Some Evangelicals Want a Pullback from the Culture Wars, and the WSJ is ON IT.

This week, Neil King of the Wall Street Journal wrote a front page feature on Russell Moore, “Evangelical Leader Preaches Pullback From Politics, Culture Wars.” Moore has recently been installed as the president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, replacing longtime leader Richard Land. The Journal reports that this generational transition marks the end of an era as the peaceable new tone of Dr. Moore replaces Dr. Land’s stridency and, thus, the Religious Right ends not with a bang, but a whimper.

The opening of the article contrasts Land’s support for a Federal Marriage Amendment with Moore’s opposit…, no, wait… Moore actually supports a Constitutional Amendment as well. King opposes Land’s position to Moore’s call to “Love your Gay and Lesbian neighbors.” I guess that it is possible that Dr. Land opposes Christians loving all of their neighbors, but I would be very surprised.

From that inauspicious beginning, Mr. King proceeds to use the story of Russell Moore’s elevation as an excuse to play the greatest hits of that timeworn genre: “Evangelicals are Surrendering the Culture Wars.”

1. Evangelicals Are Eschewing Strident Language

Mr. Moore wrote [gays and lesbians] “aren’t part of an evil conspiracy”…

Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric…

Here, Dr. Moore is made to sound almost precisely like how the WSJ portrayed Jim Daly as he took the helm at Focus on the Family from James Dobson:

But, Mr. Daly said, he has no use for the sharp personal attacks on politicians employed by Mr. Dobson. “I don’t see evil behind everything,” Mr. Daly said.

Evangelical Group Seeks Broader Tent,” Stephanie Simon, Wall Street Journal, Feb. 6, 2010.

A change of tone may signal something deeper, but is Dr. Moore really advocating for any substantive changes?

2. Evangelicals Want to Avoid Being Subsumed by Politics

Mr. Moore, a 42-year-old political independent and theologian who heads the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says it is time to tone down the rhetoric and pull back from the political fray, given what he calls a “visceral recoil” among younger evangelicals to the culture wars.

“We are involved in the political process, but we must always be wary of being co-opted by it,”

Actually, Evangelicals have always been worried about letting the culture wars define them. Indeed, even back when QB Eagles and Tecmo Bo walked the land, Evangelicals were registering their desire to be less triumphalist in tone.

In this major shift in strategy, these groups have taken on a new tone, less shrill and less righteous than their predecessors, less eager to sweep into politics and take over the Republican Party or the government.

“Religious Right Drops High-Profile Tactics, Works on Local Level,” David Shribman, Wall Street Journal, Sep. 26, 1989.

3. The GOP Establishment Wants Evangelicals to be Quiet

[Dr. Moore's] advice meshes with those in the Republican Party who want the GOP to back off hot-button cultural issues to stress themes such as job creation and education. Party leaders earlier this year released a manifesto calling for the GOP to become more tolerant, welcoming and inclusive.

Again, this story is about as fresh as a New Kids on the Block album:

But some hostility to evangelicals lingers on within the GOP: Former Georgia Republican Chairman John Stuckey argues that “people who have the word and divine direction aren’t really well-fitted emotionally or intellectually” for politics.

“Religious Right Drops High-Profile Tactics, Works on Local Level,” David Shribman, Wall Street Journal, Sep. 26, 1989.

4. Young Evangelicals are Moving Left

Recent polls have found younger evangelicals drifting away from some of the conservative views of their parents and grandparents.

Wait, you’re saying that some Evangelicals support leftist positions. And there’s even a left-leaning group called Sojourners now. This is a brand new development, right?

“Something, they say, is happening among Evangelicals themselves: Evangelicalism is rising on the left. A group now exists called the Sojourners…”

“U.S. Evangelicals Begin to Emerge On the Left,” Suzanne Garment, Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1982.

As I pointed out in this space just two weeks ago, there were some Evangelicals who supported Bill Clinton and Walter Mondale. But this rump Evangelical caucus is not about to fundamentally transform the contours of American politics.

5. Sometimes, Evangelical Leaders Take Left-Approved Positions

[Dr. Moore] has allied with the Roman Catholic Church and other religious groups to make the case that overhauling the U.S. immigration system is a Christian goal.

This move by Dr. Moore would be surprising if Evangelicals were mere shills for the GOP platform. But Evangelicals have always pushed and prodded a GOP establishment that has sometimes been reluctant to adopt Biblically-supported positions. No less than the ur-Evangelical himself has ruffled feathers in this way:

Imagine my surprise when I opened the newspapers this week and discovered that Billy Graham, friend of Richard Nixon and most famous evangelist of all, was going to preach in Moscow. Imagine the further surprise on learning that the occasion of his visit was a conference on nuclear weapons, most definitely an issue of the left. What was going on here?

“U.S. Evangelicals Begin to Emerge On the Left,” Suzanne Garment, Wall Street Journal, May 14, 1982.

______________

I could go on, but it wouldn’t be sporting.

My beef is not with Russell Moore. Since the article appeared, he has explicitly disclaimed the headline as mischaracterizing his position. He is not calling for political abdication, but for Christians to maintain civility in the public discourse and thus heap burning coals on their enemies’ heads (Rom. 12:18-20). I pray that God would prosper his tenure at the ELRC and that his new tone would bear much fruit.

But the article itself is infuriating. The WSJ, like most other newspapers, has a paint-by-numbers article that they pull out every few years announcing the demise of Evangelical political influence and the rise of a kinder, gentler, and less-partisan religious political engagement. Someone wrote it in 1989 when the Moral Majority disbanded. Someone wrote it when Ralph Reed left the Christian Coalition in 1997. Someone wrote it when Ed Dobson and Cal Thomas called for an end of the Culture Wars in 1999 and someone else wrote it when the late David Kuo complained of GOP hypocrisy in 2006. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. It did not matter whether or not Russell Moore believes that he actually represents a sea-change in SBC political engagement compared to the Richard Land era, the template was already in place. Indeed, when Russell Moore retires from the ERLC in 2038, I’ll bet his successor’s “new tone” gets written up as well.

The question is why Evangelicals have been so keen to triangulate away from the way their forebearers did politics? Its easy to say that leaders like Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson were political rubes who earned their reputation as hatemongers (a point Matt made in his New Evangelical Scandal piece). But given the vitriol heaped on their generally irenic successors—folks like Louie Giglio and Al Mohler—could it be that the old guard wasn’t quite as mean-spirited as the narrative portrays them?

It is understandable why a leader replacing someone who has been widely-characterized as hateful and belligerent would try to gain a hearing with critics by saying, “Hey, I’m a nice guy.” But just once, I would love to hear someone say, “Yeah, that guy you didn’t like was awesome, and I hope to be as courageous as him.”

Maybe in 2038.