A lot that traffics under the banner of “Christian” public theology has little to do with the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our imaginations have been sufficiently disciplined by the assumptions of liberalism to be uncomfortable and embarrassed by forthrightly Christian hopes for temporal government.
What, then, to make of Augustine’s encomium for the emperor Theodosius who “was more glad to be a member of that Church than to be ruler of the world” (City of God, 5.26). Augustine celebrates not primarily his power or accomplishments but rather his Christ-like humility:
Nothing could be more wonderful than the religious humility he showed after the grievous crime committed by the people of Thessalonica. On the intercession of the bishops he had promised a pardon; but then the clamour of certain of his close supporters drove him to avenge the crime. But he was constrained by the discipline of the Church to do penance in such a fashion that the people of Thessalonica, as they prayed for him, wept at seeing the imperial highness thus prostrate, with an emotion stronger than their fears of the emperor’s wrath at their offense.
Our allegedly “Christian” public theologies appeal to creation order and natural law, invoking norms restricted to general revelation and the dictates of “reason.” But where does reason dictate penance? And where does the natural law commend forgiveness and mercy? Did creation order ever drive us to our knees in a passionate prayer of confession? And are not such practices and virtues germane to the image-bearing task of governing?
This scene from the City of God suggests a more integral link between the church and politics without simply conflating or identifying them. It suggests that the practices of the church as an outpost of the heavenly city are integral to the political goods of even the earthly city—that the liturgy of the body of Christ bears up those worshipers who are then sent to take up the vocation of earthly rule. This suggests a Christian political theology that is rooted in the substance of the Gospel and the specific practices of the cruciform community that is the church. The public task of the church is not just to remind the world of what it (allegedly) already knows (by “natural” reason), but to proclaim what it couldn’t otherwise know—and to do so as a public service for the sake of the common good.
This vision is one of the key contributions of British theologian Oliver O’Donovan. In contrast to the various political deisms on offer, O’Donovan articulates a properly evangelical political theology. Rejecting the moral minimalism of the “natural law” project as a sub-Christian expression of political theology, O’Donovan also has important lessons to teach those of us Kuyperians whose “Christian” public theology too often settles for “creation order.”
Social collapse, always a long time coming, usually owes as much to good intentions gone terribly wrong as to malevolent design. The rot creeps in through weak seams and unattended fissures. It insidiously spreads and corrodes, thanks to humanity’s usual admixture of hubris, fecklessness, and evil. Once conditions are beyond repair, the manifold causes of the damage are readily apparent—say, the lead sutures in ancient Rome’s water pipes, the vacillation of good men, the determination of bad ones—but singly, or even in aggregate, they rarely seem sufficient to account for the scale of the catastrophe. In the end, trite as it sounds, a society’s breakdown is inexplicable.
And so last August experts and advocates, journalists and politicians, most seeking the truth and not a few trying to conceal it, offered up institutional pettiness, bureaucratic shortsightedness, official negligence, and political correctness as some of the factors that had contributed to an enormity: the systematic sexual grooming, rape, and trafficking of more than 2,000 pre-teen and teenage girls, white and overwhelmingly working class, by gangs of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Afghan men in England’s industrial (or post-industrial) North and Midlands—largely Sheffield and its environs, including, most notoriously, the Borough of Rotherham—from 1997 to 2013.
Certainly the explanations propounded last summer help account for the state’s failure to stop these crimes, as did the blind eye of a significant portion of the largely self-segregated Muslim population in Britain’s North. And certainly these crimes emerged from facets of that population’s peculiar sexual culture. But that these horrors were visited upon so many underage victims who were presumably under the care of others, that the crimes were so widespread and spanned so many years (all evidence, by the way, suggests that similar crimes are being perpetrated today), and that virtually all these girls had been left adrift—unmoored from and unprotected by the guidance, love, and authority of their families and community, which left them wholly exposed to predation at once brazen and methodical—reveals a wrecked society that has failed in its most essential purpose.
Angel the concierge stands behind a lobby desk at a luxe apartment building in downtown San Francisco, and describes the residents of this imperial, 37-story tower. “Ubers, Squares, a few Twitters,” she says. “A lot of work-from-homers.”
And by late afternoon on a Tuesday, they’re striding into the lobby at a just-get-me-home-goddammit clip, some with laptop bags slung over their shoulders, others carrying swank leather satchels. At the same time a second, temporary population streams into the building: the app-based meal delivery people hoisting thermal carrier bags and sacks. Green means Sprig. A huge M means Munchery. Down in the basement, Amazon Prime delivery people check in packages with the porter. The Instacart groceries are plunked straight into a walk-in fridge.
This is a familiar scene. Five months ago I moved into a spartan apartment a few blocks away, where dozens of startups and thousands of tech workers live. Outside my building there’s always a phalanx of befuddled delivery guys who seem relieved when you walk out, so they can get in. Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring: Amazon Prime boxes sitting outside doors, evidence of the tangible, quotidian needs that are being serviced by the web. The humans who live there, though, I mostly never see. And even when I do, there seems to be a tacit agreement among residents to not talk to one another. I floated a few “hi’s” in the elevator when I first moved in, but in return I got the monosyllabic, no-eye-contact mumble. It was clear:Lady, this is not that kind of building.
Near the end of last year, several photos and videos of Vladimir Guerrero’s 15-year-old son Vlad Jr. began to appear on the internet.
The photos were picked up by several prominent baseball websites, whose write-ups marveled at the fact that Guerrero—who has not played since 2011 and only officially retired last year—not only had a son of that age, but had a son who appeared to be a tremendous prospect. In fact, Vlad Jr. looked like an exact copy of his father. He was big and broad and took long, powerful hacks at the plate.
The videos hit every nostalgic nerve of baseball fans who missed the wild-swinging Guerrero, a cult hero for the reckless way in which he played the game. Vlad would swing at everything and hit everything—and who couldn’t admire, and even, envy someone with that philosophy? If only we were all so bold as to spend our lives swinging at every pitch. Vlad did that and mounted a career worthy of, at the very least, Hall of Fame consideration.
And now, here were videos—highly trafficked videos—showing that another Vlad existed. There was hope. Where did this glimmer of hope come from?
The majority of photos and videos were posted on Twitter by someone named Matt Hall, who in his bio said he worked for the Guerrero Baseball Academy. From the looks of it, Hall was a white American kid in his 20s, more or less the last person you’d expect to be working for the Guerrero family in the Dominican Republic. Club representatives were equally confused, trying to figure out who exactly was this kid posting these videos. Where had he come from?
When the Senate issued its report on CIA torture in December of 2014, the House Intelligence Committee chairman—Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan—questioned the wisdom of releasing the report, warning that the report’s release would have dire consequences for the United States. Moving forward, he suggested that politicians needed to help the CIA talk differently about its activities. “For this particular report about something that happened seven, eight, nine, ten years ago, we forget to talk about all the fantastic work that these very dedicated men and women have been doing, day in and day out, without the ability, or with the ability to follow the law and do it appropriately,” Rogers said. “We should talk about that. We should tell those stories about what they’re doing to keep America safe. I think it’ll make America feel better about who they are and what they’re doing.”
Making America feel better is, I think, the key to understanding both the CIA’s torture program and the reaction to the report about the program.
A fun interview with the former star of Friday Night Lights:
“What would you do with two hours to see Austin?” I ask Kyle Chandler as I turn off my tape recorder.
It’s half past three on the first Thursday of February, and we seem to have exhausted Chandler’s enthusiasm for talking about himself. We’ve been on the topic for the better part of two hours, ever since he blew into The Driskill hotel and suggested we bag our lunch plans and head to the bar: “You didn’t want to eat, did ya?”
“Nah,” I lie, trailing him through the palatial lobby, past a mounted longhorn head and a couple of cowboy-booted patrons who turn as he passes by.
A bartender fills our glasses with a “nice, heavy cab,” Chandler’s request, as we talk at length about his role as Coach Taylor on Friday Night Lights — with which he is so closely associated, you find yourself wondering where Taylor ends and Chandler begins — and his long-awaited decision to return to television with a decidedly darker part in Netflix’s Bloodline, which debuts March 20. This is the point at which we’re supposed to say our goodbyes, but Chandler, a 49-year-old with impeccable manners and a mischievous disposition, wants to be sure I’m as enchanted by the Lone Star State as he is — even if it requires that he play tour guide for the afternoon.
“Lemme think,” he says, pulling an iPhone from his wrinkled khakis. He tries a local dive he’s hoping has live music. “Not ’til 6:30,” says a voice on the other end of the line. That this is my first time in Austin, where he, his wife, Kathryn, and their two teenage daughters settled six years earlier, adds pressure. He runs his hands through his thick black hair, still thinking, and then he’s got it. “How’s this,” he says, his Southern drawl tippling with excitement: “We go to Perla’s for some oysters and a beer, then we stop by The Continental Club for a quick shot, then I’ll take you to the airport.”
The Koryo Hotel does pretty well on TripAdvisor, all things considered. The Internet never—and I mean never—works. The towels are “thin,” the sheet thread count low, and the milk powdered. Watch out for the “giant mutant cockroach snake hybrid“ in the shower. Guests even have to pay for the pool.
Still, the Koryo, a pair of dull beige towers connected near the top by a sky bridge, is the number-one-rated hotel on TripAdvisor for Pyongyang, North Korea. Despite its many faults, it garners three and a half out of five “bubbles,” in TripAdvisor parlance (so as not to be confused with the star systems that signify quality in hotels and restaurants), across nearly 90 reviews.
Perhaps this is no surprise. People come expecting the worst, and with expectations so dismally calibrated, something like hot water starts to sound pretty amazing. Reviewers carefully note that many of the hotel’s quirks—you can’t walk out the front door unaccompanied, for instance—are out of the manager’s hands. (You’ll have to take that up with the Supreme Leader.) It may not be the Ritz-Carlton, the sentiment goes, but considering the fact that you are staying in the marquee property in the showcase capital of the world’s most repressive regime, it may be best to, as one reviewer counseled, “just chill out, have some beers, some expired Oreos from the gift shop and make friends with the other tourists.”
This is fun for Mad Men fans:
Don Draper lived on hard drives for half a decade before anybody paid him any notice. In 1999,Matthew Weiner, then an unfulfilled writer on CBS’ Ted Danson sitcom Becker, spent his every off-hour doing research on the 1960s: what people wore, how they decorated their offices, what they ate and drank (and smoked, and drank some more). Then, over six days in the spring of 2001, he sketched out his vision for a show about the staff of a boutique advertising agency — Sterling Cooper — and its stylishly debauched head pitchman. Nobody bought the script, but it landed Weiner a 45-minute call from David Chase, who hired him as a writer on HBO’s The Sopranos.
Weiner’s Madison Avenue opus sat in a drawer for another three years — until a cable network with zero experience in original scripted programming (formerly American Movie Classics) stepped in and self-financed a pilot. Today, nine years later, Mad Men, which on April 5 begins its final seven episodes, is a pop cultural phenomenon that not only has made stars out of its cast of unknowns — Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, Vincent Kartheiser, Elisabeth Moss and John Slattery — but also transformed AMC into one of the most influential networks on the dial and set off cable TV’s gold rush for scripted dramas.
It’s March 25, the day that the ring was cast into Mount Doom. So that means it’s Tolkien Reading Day. Tolkien, of course, chose that day for the destruction of the ring because March 25 was traditionally marked as the date of Christ’s crucifixion in old English traditions.
The path climbed on. Soon it bent again and. with a last eastward course passed in a cutting along the face of the cone and came to the dark door in the Mountain’s side, the door of the Sammath Naur. Far away now rising towards the South the sun, piercing the smokes and haze, burned ominous, a dull bleared disc of red; but all Mordor lay about the Mountain like a dead land, silent, shadow-folded, waiting for some dreadful stroke.
Sam came to the gaping mouth and peered in. It was dark and hot, and a deep rumbling shook the air. ‘Frodo! Master!’ he called. There was no answer. For a moment he stood, his heart beating with wild fears, and then he plunged in. A shadow followed him.
At first he could see nothing. In his great need he drew out once more the phial of Galadriel, but it was pale and cold in his trembling hand and threw no light into that stifling dark. He was come to the heart of the realm of Sauron and the forges of his ancient might, greatest in Middle-earth; all other powers were here subdued. Fearfully he took a few uncertain steps in the dark, and then all at once there came a flash of red that leaped upward, and smote the high black roof. Then Sam saw that he was in a long cave or tunnel that bored into the Mountain’s smoking cone. But only a short way ahead its floor and the walls on either side were cloven by a great fissure, out of which the red glare came, now leaping up, now dying down into darkness; and all the while far below there was a rumour and a trouble as of great engines throbbing and labouring.
The light sprang up again, and there on the brink of the chasm, at the very Crack of Doom, stood Frodo, black against the glare, tense, erect, but still as if he had been turned to stone.
‘Master!’ cried Sam.
Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice, indeed with a voice clearer and more powerful than Sam had ever heard him use, and it rose above the throb and turmoil of Mount Doom, ringing in the roof and walls.
‘I have come,’ he said. ‘But I do not choose now to do what I came to do. I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!’ And suddenly, as he set it on his finger, he vanished from Sam’s sight. Sam gasped, but he had no chance to cry out, for at that moment many things happened.
Something struck Sam violently in the back, his legs were knocked from under him and he was flung aside, striking his head against the stony floor, as a dark shape sprang over him. He lay still and for a moment all went black.
And far away, as Frodo put on the Ring and claimed it for his own, even in Sammath Naur the very heart of his realm, the Power in Barad-dûr was shaken, and the Tower trembled from its foundations to its proud and bitter crown. The Dark Lord was suddenly aware of him, and his Eye piercing all shadows looked across the plain to the door that he had made; and the magnitude of his own folly was revealed to him in a blinding flash, and all the devices of his enemies were at last laid bare. Then his wrath blazed in consuming flame, but his fear rose like a vast black smoke to choke him. For he knew his deadly peril and the thread upon which his doom now hung.
From all his policies and webs of fear and treachery, from all his stratagems and wars his mind shook free; and throughout his realm a tremor ran, his slaves quailed, and his armies halted, and his captains suddenly steerless, bereft of will, wavered and despaired. For they were forgotten. The whole mind and purpose of the Power that wielded them was now bent with overwhelming force upon the Mountain. At his summons, wheeling with a rending cry, in a last desperate race there flew, faster than the winds, the Nazgûl the Ringwraiths, and with a storm of wings they hurtled southwards to Mount Doom.
Sam got up. He was dazed, and blood streaming from his head dripped in his eyes. He groped forward, and then he saw a strange and terrible thing. Gollum on the edge of the abyss was fighting like a mad thing with an unseen foe. To and fro he swayed, now so near the brink that almost he tumbled in, now dragging back, falling to the ground, rising, and falling again. And all the while he hissed but spoke no words.
The fires below awoke in anger, the red light blazed, and all the cavern was filled with a great glare and heat. Suddenly Sam saw Gollum’s long hands draw upwards to his mouth; his white fangs gleamed, and then snapped as they bit. Frodo gave a cry, and there he was, fallen upon his knees at the chasm’s edge. But Gollum, dancing like a mad thing, held aloft the ring, a finger still thrust within its circle. It shone now as if verily it was wrought of living fire.
‘Precious, precious, precious!’ Gollum cried. ‘My Precious! O my Precious!’ And with that, even as his eyes were lifted up to gloat on his prize, he stepped too far, toppled, wavered for a moment on the brink, and then with a shriek he fell. Out of the depths came his last wail Precious, and he was gone.
There was a roar and a great confusion of noise. Fires leaped up and licked the roof. The throbbing grew to a great tumult, and the Mountain shook. Sam ran to Frodo and picked him up and carried him. out to the door. And there upon the dark threshold of the Sammath Naur, high above the plains of Mordor, such wonder and terror came on him that he stood still forgetting all else, and gazed as one turned to stone.
A brief vision he had of swirling cloud, and in the midst of it towers and battlements, tall as hills, founded upon a mighty mountain-throne above immeasurable pits; great courts and dungeons, eyeless prisons sheer as cliffs, and gaping gates of steel and adamant: and then all passed. Towers fell and mountains slid; walls crumbled and melted, crashing down; vast spires of smoke and spouting steams went billowing up, up, until they toppled like an overwhelming wave, and its wild crest curled and came foaming down upon the land. And then at last over the miles between there came a rumble, rising to a deafening crash and roar; the earth shook, the plain heaved and cracked, and Orodruin reeled. Fire belched from its riven summit. The skies burst into thunder seared with lightning. Down like lashing whips fell a torrent of black rain. And into the heart of the storm, with a cry that pierced all other sounds, tearing the clouds asunder, the Nazgûl came, shooting like flaming bolts, as caught in the fiery ruin of hill and sky they crackled, withered, and went out.
‘Well, this is the end, Sam Gamgee,’ said a voice by his side. And there was Frodo, pale and worn, and yet himself again; and in his eyes there was peace now, neither strain of will, nor madness, nor any fear. His burden was taken away. There was the dear master of the sweet days in the Shire.
‘Master!’ cried Sam. and fell upon his knees. In all that ruin of the world for the moment he felt only joy, great joy. The burden was gone. His master had been saved; he was himself again, he was free. And then Sam caught sight of the maimed and bleeding hand.
‘Your poor hand!’ he said. ‘And I have nothing to bind it with, or comfort it. I would have spared him a whole hand of mine rather. But he’s gone now beyond recall, gone for ever.’
‘Yes,’ said Frodo. ‘But do you remember Gandalf’s words: Even Gollum may have something yet to do? But for him, Sam, I could not have destroyed the Ring. The Quest would have been in vain, even at the bitter end. So let us forgive him! For the Quest is achieved, and now all is over. I am glad you are here with me. Here at the end of all things, Sam.’
ALMOST OVERNIGHT, the Islamic State sent its enemies reeling—and turned U.S. policy in the Middle East upside down. Islamic State forces carved out a haven in Syria and, in June 2014, routed the Iraqi army, capturing large swathes of territory and prompting the Obama administration to overcome its long-standing aversion to a bigger U.S. military role in Iraq and Syria. Even in many Arab countries where the Islamic State does not have a strong presence, its rise is radicalizing those countries’ populations, fomenting sectarianism and making a bad region even worse.
But there is one person for whom the Islamic State’s rise is even more frightening: Ayman al-Zawahiri. Although the Al Qaeda leader might be expected to rejoice at the emergence of a strong jihadist group that delights in beheading Americans (among other horrors), in reality the Islamic State’s rise risks Al Qaeda’s demise. When Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi rejected Al Qaeda’s authority and later declared a caliphate, he split the fractious jihadist movement. The two are now competing for more than the leadership of the jihadist movement: they are competing for its soul.
Who will emerge triumphant is not clear. However, the implications of one side’s victory or of continuing division are profound for the Middle East and for the United States, shaping the likely targets of the jihadist movement, its ability to achieve its goals and the overall stability of the Middle East. The United States can exploit this split, both to decrease the threat and to weaken the movement as a whole. Washington must also adjust its counterterrorism policies to recognize the implications of this rivalry.