The Politics of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Dialogue with Chris Schaefer

An old high school friend tweeted: “It’s a Wonderful Life has be the most anti-Tea Party movie ever.” I rakishly tweeted back: “False.” Rather than attempting to hash out this disagreement within the confines of 140 characters, we resolved to do a Gladwell vs. Simmons sort of thing, exchanging long-winded emails to see if we could hash it out.

My friend, Chris Schaefer, has led a peripatetic life ranging from Oklahoma to Morocco. As of late, he seems to have settled in Paris. We agreed to let him have the first word:

Chris: I was being a good American and doing my annual Christmas-time viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life when I had this moment. It was one of those eyebrow-scrunching, lip-twisting, just-wait-a-second-there moments: Conservative Americans cherish Frank Capra’s classic, and yet important parts of the film don’t seem terribly conservative. I wondered if conservatives’ appreciation for family, faith, and community in the movie doesn’t cause them to miss echoes that the original audience would have picked up on immediately.

It's a Wonderful Life It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946 right as the United States was exiting an extremely difficult decade and a half. There’s a reason why Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Two of the greatest challenges that animate the film are bank runs and lack of affordable home ownership–the difficulties of The Greatest Generation in Bedford Falls as it were. These two issues play out in significant ways. George Bailey doesn’t go on his own honeymoon because he has to use his own personal savings to pay his clients who are caught up in the uncertainty of a bank run. And the entire business concept of the Bailey Building and Loan was based on providing home ownership for the poor of Bedford Falls, which was not so much a business as a non-profit social organization if we can take Potter’s critique and the bank-examiner’s presence as any indication.

So what happened between the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the end of World War II in 1945? The New Deal. And in the New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the creation of two organizations that addressed both of these issues. The Banking Act of 1933 created the FDIC (whose sticker you will inevitably find on your bank’s window), guaranteeing deposits up to a certain amount. The bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life happened just before its creation, and so for viewers in 1946 it served as a scary reminder of how things used to be before the Democrats pushed through the New Deal.

In 1938, Fannie Mae was also created at Roosevelt’s behest in order to increase home ownership and make housing more affordable. Both of these programs were pushed through against Republican opposition, and both would have benefited the residents of Bedford Falls–those who did “most of the working and paying and living and dying” in the community, as George so passionately put it. George’s support for the poor on these issues would have recalled the Democratic rhetoric, while Potter’s heartless commentary on the plight of Bedford Falls’ poor would have echoed the anti-New Deal Republicans.

Don’t take my word for it, though: these leftist echoes scared the FBI. A 1947 FBI memo (pdf, pg. 14) indicated concern that the screenwriters were closet Communists and that the portrayal of bankers and rich people was highly suspect. Now, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wasn’t always the most level-headed of organizations, but the fact that they were concerned about the leftist tones of It’s a Wonderful Life means that some aspects of the film resonate in different ways today.

So what’s your call, Keith? Am I missing something? Or, in their deep appreciation for the film, do conservatives today ignore the historical and political context of It’s a Wonderful Life?

Keith: I am one of those conservatives who loves It’s a Wonderful Life and actually believe that the film encapsulates a lot of my small government, pro-family political philosophy. While I’m glad to have my presumptions challenged, I think that you’re wrong to say that this movie is anti-capitalist.

I will grant your presumption that we should consider the historical situation at the time of this movie’s release to help us understand how certain scenes would be understood. Like Scalia at the movies, we should consider the original public meaning, right? But we’re not merely asking a purely historical question, right? I’m not particularly interested if some FBI agents struggled to separate the idea of a bad banker from the idea that all bankers are bad. I’m similarly nonplussed by the question of whether Republican identifiers would have been torqued by watching the film in 1946.

Political coalitions have shifted quite a bit in the last two-thirds of a century. Back then, it was not unusual to be for both higher government spending and traditional family values. Indeed, as both parties were rather conservative on social issues, the economic divergences played a larger role in determining voting behavior. Today’s political fault lines obscure these differences. Now, if one is for traditional family values, that identity tends to dominate and make differences of economic regulation seem comparatively minute. All that is to say, that it could be that the folks who wrote this film were both “conservative on social issues” in some sense that we can recognize, while still advocating for leftist solutions to some of the economic issues of the day.

However, I don’t actually see how the movie supports left-leaning economic policy. The movie exults in the way the Bailey Building & Loan helps Mr. Martini escape Potter’s rental slums. You suggest that scene would be a comeuppance to those dastardly anti-New Deal Republicans who opposed the enactment of Fannie Mae. Actually, I bet those Republicans supported the end of the policy–getting folks into their own homes–and merely objected to the efficiency or constitutionality of the means. To see it your way is like maintaining that today’s GOP is against children eating lunch and that a movie showing a non-governmental actor providing lunch to hungry kids would be a real dig against conservatives.

On the contrary, when I see the Bailey Building & Loan helping folks escape the slums, I see a for-profit company improving the lives of its customers. When I see George foregoing his honeymoon and keeping the Building & Loan afloat through the bank run, I see the entrepreneurial genius benefiting everyone around him. When I see George providing private charity to Violet (or even the otherwise unemployable Uncle Billy), I see a demonstration of how a freer market with less of a public safety net would actually work.

Who needs Fannie Mae, the FDIC, or even Social Security when you’ve got George Bailey?

But beyond these incidental plot twists, don’t you see how the actual thrust of the movie is conservative? George Bailey denies himself and his desire for freedom and travel, and ties himself again and again to the small town and community. He was derogatory of his “not much a businessman” father, but eventually became his father and, in doing so, blessed everyone in Bedford Falls. Isn’t that conservative? Continue reading

Mere Fidelity: Atonement

What shape should the atonement take as a doctrine?  Is penal substitutionary atonement an appropriate account of the doctrine?  Derek and I are joined by not one, but two guests for a conversation about the doctrine of the atonement.

Adam Johnson is a professor at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute (my alma mater), and is the author of God’s Being in Reconciliation and The Atonement: A Guide for the Perplexed (forthcoming). He also gave this interesting lecture on angels and the atonement, for those who are interested.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is (among other things) a writer and cultural critic.  He writes regularly at Patheos and has a column at The Week as well (which I highly recommend).

During the show, we talked a little about this post by Pascal.  See his follow-up as well.  And if you’re looking for a post that’s way too long on the subject, check out this missive by Derek.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow Derek for more tweet-sized brilliance.

Can Christians be gay? An Inquiry

Some conservative evangelicals have been revisiting whether it’s permissible to be gay and a Christian recently. I generally try to steer clear of that discussion, as I find it often reinforces notions of ‘identity’ that are too underdeveloped to be helpful. “Identity” language is a virus in the church that addles the brains of otherwise very intelligent people.* The old forgotten terminology of virtues, character, acts, and so on was much clearer and did not have the incantatory effect ‘identity’ clearly does within the evangelical world, and if I had my way we’d all return to it.

World MagazineThis latest round of discussion was prompted by Julie Roys’ article at World about Julie Rodgers, a chaplain at Wheaton who identifies as gay while being staunchly committed to traditional Christian norms of chastity and celibacy.** This is a position that has become identified with the excellent blog “Spiritual Friendship,” which my friends Ron Belgau and Wesley Hill have run. But according to Roys, this way of dividing things up is unorthodox. Or as Owen Strachan puts it, evangelicals who take this stance are “playing with theological fire.” While I agree with Strachan up to this point, I’d add that so are those who reject it: to think theologically at all is to play with fire.  The only question is whether we shall all be sanctified by the process of such thinking, or burned to ashes and left in a heap.

Having noted my general reluctance to taking up this issue, though, allow me to wade in more directly on the question, as to this point I’m not at all persuaded by Roys or Strachan that conservative Christians should be Really Worried about Rodgers’ view. Strachan laid out ten theses on the subject in order to pursue some desperately needed clarity, including definitions of the contested terms ‘orientation,’ ‘temptation’, and ‘desire.’ Of course, definitions can be used in a lot of ways, and Strachan loads the dice against Rodgers in a way that is simply not helpful. He suggests that ‘orientation’ is a pattern of desires “oriented toward an end,” which in this case is same-sex sexual activity. I say it’s not helpful because if that’s what an orientation is then I doubt Rodgers (or Wesley Hill or Ron Belgau: hereafter Rodgers and co.) thinks, in the final analysis, that it would be compatible with the traditional Christian teaching on human sexuality, teaching which they clearly affirm.*** Let me put it this way: while Michael Hannon wants to destroy the ‘orientation’ regime altogether, Rodgers and co. want to reform it by untethering the term ‘gay’ from its common association with sex acts or the desires that may lead them. They have inflationary aims for the term: they want to fill it in with lots of other content that is morally commendable, even while they recognize that their usage may be idiosyncratic given its common associations.

Now, there are aspects of this approach that are entirely commendable and seem to me to be far more psychologically palatable than the negation-focused strategy of ‘identity curation’ that Roys and Strachan seem to be endorsing. The good has its own internal power, and growth and expansion is its inner law. This is the basic rule which C.S. Lewis famously alluded to in suggesting that we sin not because our desires are too strong, but because they are too weak: we go on “making mud pies in a slum because [we] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” By orienting ourselves wholeheartedly toward goods, we can crowd out—or severely diminish—the strength that wrongs have over us. By attending to and focusing on what is lovely, true, and worthy of affirmation within the cluster of thoughts and desires that come with occasionally or frequently experiencing same-sex attraction—being ‘gay’—while simultaneously affirming the order which God has established, gay Christians are attempting to establish the very conditions which Roys and Strachan would want to affirm, namely the possibility that disordered desires would fade away. If nothing else, the gay Christian strategy (of the Rodgers and co. variety) is at least biblical in this respect: it takes Paul’s admonition to attend carefully to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…excellent or praiseworthy.”

But Strachan’s article goes on, and unfortunately it does not get better. Strachan lays down his definitions in order to pursue clarity, but then in a key passage introduces more terms that leave his position at best ambiguous, and at worst a confused muddle. I quote in full:

    1. But here we must be careful: attraction or interest is not the same thing as sinful desire. It is right for a man to want one-flesh union with a woman, and vice versa. But there is only [one] person with whom such love may be consummated (Genesis 2: Matthew 19:3-6). All who are not our spouse, therefore, must be treated like a brother or a sister. We might be oriented to be attracted to the opposite sex (this is God’s creational purpose, after all), but this does not mean that we desire in an actional way all women. In fact, regeneration means that we actively fight our desire for all members of the opposite sex who are not our spouse.

      So here we see the distinction that must be drawn between heterosexual attraction or interest and homosexual attraction or interest. Heterosexual interest is God-glorifying. It is right in terms of God’s creational purposes for men, in general, to have an interest in women–to be drawn to them in some way. This interest must be bounded, though, by Paul’s admonition to treat all non-spousal members of the opposite sex as “sisters” or brothers with absolute purity (1 Timothy 5:2). So there is an appropriate outlet for heterosexual interest, which is not necessarily wrong but must be directed toward a God-glorifying end.

      Heterosexual attraction or interest is not by nature wrong. But when we cross over the “treat women or men as sisters or brothers” line, then such morally praiseworthy interest has become sinful. A man may find his sister pretty, for example, but he is never able to sexually desire her. The same is not true for homosexual interest; there is nothing creationally right about it. The woman was made for the man, as Genesis 2:18 shows. There is no appropriate outlet for homosexual interest. It is not morally praiseworthy by its nature. A man who desires another man, for example, is morally complicit. Of course, a man might find another man to be handsome, but this is not the same thing as desiring him; it is by definition not SSA or “gayness.” The presence of desire, which is the very nature of SSA and “gayness,” indicates that we have crossed the line into sinful behavior.

Strachan introduces new terms here, ‘attraction’ and ‘interest’, which he had not previously defined. Those terms allow him to create an asymmetry between “heterosexual attraction” and “homosexual attraction” in a way that I don’t think is justified. For Strachan, ‘attraction’ seems to be functioning in a proto-sexual kind of way: men are ‘attracted to’ women as a class of people, even if they might sexually desire individuals. Now, that may be true of men “in general”, or as a general class. But it’s hard to know what it means for any particular male to be ‘attracted to’ women as a general class of people, especially if that ‘attraction’ is not yet a sexual attraction or desire. Strachan never says in what way it is right for a male to be drawn to a woman, but his mention of sibling-relationships creates a real problem for what I take to be his view. If the ‘attraction’ is proto-sexual, then it’s hard to see how having an attraction to one’s sister is permissible. If the attraction is not-sexual at all, though, such that a male can have this ‘attraction’ to his sister in a way that’s licit, then it’s not obvious to me why the same man might not have a similar attraction to a member of the same sex. Strachan seems to intuitively recognize that the ‘attraction’ and ‘interest’ terms don’t quite get him where he wants to go:  he slips back into the category of desire in speaking about same-sex ‘interest’. For heterosexuals the two categories are held apart, but for gay people they are collapsed together.

Similarly, Strachan’s notion that there is an appropriate ‘outlet’ for this interest—namely, treating each other as siblings—raises the same question about whether or why the same ‘outlet’ could not be appropriate for the interest in the same-sex. Again, if this ‘interest’ is tied to sexual desire, then it seems like the appropriate “outlet” of it would be the marriage of a single woman. I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to tie the norms of ‘siblinghood’ to this proto-sexual ‘interest.’

If anything, the imagery of siblinghood works against such a conjunct: even today, there are strong taboos against anything hinting of sexual attraction between siblings. But then again I’m left wondering, if these ‘interests’ or ‘attractions’ are not sexual (or, as I’ve been calling them, proto-sexual) then it’s not clear why they cannot be had between the sexes licitly, or why the norm governing them for members of the same-sex would not also be siblinghood.

Allow me to try to tease out what I think Strachan is trying to get at in a scenario that I present in far too attenuated form here. In the first, a young man sits in a coffee shop reading David Copperfield while listening to music. He is, by all external appearances, lost to the world. Yet as often happens in coffee shops, the door opens and he glances up to see a woman he does not know, but who he finds unspeakably beautiful, walk in. After she orders, she sits at the armchair across from him and opens up a copy of Bleak House and begins to read. From this point on, we might say he is lost to the world: he has noticed her, and feels as though he can’t help but attend to her, so taken he is by her charm and by her literary interests. He wishes, above all, to speak to her and find out her name and to understand what her interest in Bleak House is. Yet being of the bashful sort, he suppresses any thought of saying ‘hello’ and continues in vain to read the same page over and over.

Now, it’s just in such an experience that we might say there is some kind of ‘attraction.’ Is it sexual? The thought is almost offensive: it is a strong interest, one which the fact of her beauty doubtlessly plays a role in and which may be converted to a sexual desire under the right conditions, but there is no reason to think that it is at this point. Is it benign? Not necessarily: it is an asymmetrical, non-reciprocal interest at this point, which may actually be unwelcome and has not been invited. And he may be in the conditions where its development into a sexual desire would be imprudent, and so if he recognizes that he is eager for it to become a sexual desire, he may wish to avoid conversation altogether. But ‘potent’ is not the same as ‘morally wrong,’ and there is no reason yet to think that such an attraction is wrong. Does it change the moral analysis if the person across the table is the same-sex, and our young man identifies as ‘gay’ and sometimes or frequently experiences same-sex sexual desires? It seems to me the answer is clearly not: this kind of magnetic interest (call it ‘chemistry) seems to be able to be untethered from sexual desires rather easily, even if this kind of experience happens more frequently with the same sex among those who are ‘gay’ than those who are not.  The only way in which it does become morally problematic is if all such moments are inherently ordered toward sexual fulfillment: but there is a vast continuum of ‘attractions’ and ‘interests’ before the pursuit of sexual activity comes on the table, and it is just this continuum which Rodgers and co. seem to (rightly) want to draw our attention to.

And there are good reasons for them wanting to. If a young man who identified as gay experienced this kind of magnetic attentiveness with members of the same-sex on a regular basis, he might be aware of certain dynamics within same-sex relationships that those who do not so experience it are not. He may not necessarily have a ‘privileged insight’ into friendship that heterosexual people lack: but then, I’ve learned as much about the structure of marriage from a man who was single his whole life as I have anyone else, so it’s not clear to me that ‘experience’ of any sort necessarily provides privileged access. Our capacity for empathetic imagination and our ability to understand each other is much greater than we realize. But even if his access into (say) the structure of friendship isn’t necessarily privileged by virtue of this regular occurrence, he may have an acute sensitivity or awareness of its structure that others lack. The absence of any threat of sexual attraction in a relationship may actually have a dulling effect on its possibilities or its dangers: paradoxically, the person who never experiences same-sex attraction at all may more easily presume that they understand friendship in a way that someone who must be constantly vigilant about the possibility of eros arising cannot be. And in this way, the gay Christian might remind other Christians of certain aspects or possibilities of non-sexual relationships that we may be prone to forget otherwise. That is, at least, my reformulation of the kind of ‘gay Christianity’ that I see Rodgers and co. advancing at its best.

The unhappy fact from the point of the theorist is that sexual desires emerge in us along within a whole cluster of thoughts, sentiments, anxieties, fears, intentions, and other psychological apparatus. Strachan is right that we need more clarity in our concepts as we unravel all of these, but I don’t think he’s delivered on it. (Until I put together my own etiology of sexual desire, which I’ve wanted to do for years, readers should read Roger Scruton’s book.)

Either way, Rodgers and co. are on the side of the angels, and conservative evangelicals would do well to listen attentively to their experiences and theorize and reflect along with them. No, I’m quite serious: they are literally on the side of the angels, for they all are all working within their own lives to point toward the resurrection, when we “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” It may sound strange to the evangelical ear that their resolute commitment to the norms of chastity can sit side-by-side with a term that is associated with desires and acts that we have moral objections to. And no, Rodgers and co. are not above critique: I myself have wondered (in private correspondence) whether other terms might serve their ‘reclamation ends’ better than a term already as loaded as ‘gay’, if only because reclaiming terms is hard and making new ones is easy. But at the same time, had they taken my path I suspect that we would not be having this discussion. And how to think about sexual desire is a discussion evangelicals still need to have.

 

*Yes, if you search the archives you will quickly discover that the ferocity of my judgment is rooted in the severity of my own penitence for my culpability in the crime.

** I don’t know Julie Roys, but I have been on her show a few times and have enjoyed it immensely. I don’t know Julie Rodgers either, but based on her writings she seems very smart and kind.

*** I’m making my claim here based on reading them. I may be wrong, though, and would be happy to be corrected.

The Expansion of the Good: On the Moral Universe of Prudence

“There may be many ways to do wrong in this world, but there are also many paths to the right; those governed by prudence are willing to at least admit the possibility.”

That’s from my recent article at Comment Magazine, a subscription to which would make an excellent Christmas gift to the thoughtful Christian reader in your life.  I sent them a piece that was wreckage, and they graciously helped me work through my intuitions.  I write to learn, sometimes, and this was one of those cases.

Still, I want to say one or two more words about this above line, as the thought beneath it has been rattling around upstairs for a while.  It is tempting to think of ‘prudence’ as virtue which is perpetually guarding against a nearly limitless number of wrongs, which make any action perilous at all. Aristotle famously sums up the intuition by suggesting that “there are many ways to be in error…but there is only one way to be correct.”  Beneath this lies the Pythagorean notion that the bad is boundless and undetermined, but the good has a kind of limited and determined nature: whereas the wrongs are infinite, the good is finite and bounded.*

Now, I am half disposed to grant that this is not merely true, but obviously so:  in evaluating a particular situation, it’s easy to think that the wrongs can multiply, as every husband frantically attempting to find a Christmas gift for his wife will unhappily attest to. From the standpoint of the person who is just or courageous, there may only be one path through certain difficulties, where the goods involved are obscured or limited by the magnitude of the moral dangers and wrongs that such a situation involves. There may be no apparent good to a pregnant woman with cancer who is deliberating about her course: or if there are, it certainly seems like the number and gravity of potential wrongs vastly exceeds them.

But if we remove ourselves from deliberating about the tragic situation, things seem different: it is, in the course of our normal life, the goods that are boundless and infinite and under-specified and the wrongs limit and constrain us. Consider all the goods which might be undertaken in the time it takes to read these musings:  you might enjoy a cup of tea, or donate some money to a charity, or buy a Christmas gift on Amazon, or write a note to your loved ones.  Or perhaps you might undertake a few moments of prayer, or reflect on your own path, or comfort a friend who is in sorrow. There are so many goods in this world that we can fulfill: to consider the opportunities to do good even within a single life is almost immobilizing.  Determining which goods to pursue is at least as difficult as discerning which wrongs to avoid.

I have vague, inarticulate suspicions that the moral atmosphere generated by each of these two outlooks will be very different, and that they matter for what form we imagine the virtue of prudence to take. Asking about the goods I might participate in is a generative question: it is a question which expands our imaginations and turns our attention away from the wrongs which might beset us toward the opportunities to partake in the growing goodness of the world that we have been given. “Let us not become weary in doing good” is a bit of psychological counsel that has deep metaphysical roots: it is tempting to allow lassitude about the goods before us to take over, and to allow our entire spiritual and moral horizons to be overwhelmed by avoiding the sheer volume of potential wrongs before us.

George MacDonald’s little novel sums up the danger in a way that has haunted me since I first read it:

‘I didn’t mean to do any harm, ma’am. I didn’t think of its being yours.’

‘Ah, Curdie! If it weren’t mine, what would become of it now?’ she returned. ‘You say you didn’t mean any harm: did you mean any good, Curdie?’

‘No,’ answered Curdie.

‘Remember, then, that whoever does not mean good is always in danger of harm. But I try to give everybody fair play; and those that are in the wrong are in far more need of it always than those who are in the right: they can afford to do without it. Therefore I say for you that when you shot that arrow you did not know what a pigeon is. Now that you do know, you are sorry. It is very dangerous to do things you don’t know about.’

“Did you mean any good, Curdie?”  It is the good which is boundless, which is infinite, and which if we participate in is a source of endless youth and renewal and joy.  Prudence must, first and foremost, be an activity of mind which turns toward the goods within a particular situation and determines which of them should be undertaken.  And if we will so direct our minds, I suspect we will discover a more varied and colorful universe, full of possibilities for action and imagination, than we had previously known.

*Aristotle is considering the nature of virtue, which is an agent-centered concern and may explain why he is interested in a more limited form of the good.

Mere Fidelity: Teens and Sexting

Hanna Rosin’s recent article at The Atlantic on teens and sexting is a long, disturbing look at a widespread trend. It’s definitely worth a read, though that isn’t necessary to listen to our conversation about it.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.

Sacred Loneliness and Sacred Comfort: A Review of Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Lila’

Jonathan McGregor is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he’s writing about twentieth-century American literary intellectuals and Christian social thought. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

There’s a moment in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2005) when the old preacher John Ames nearly loses control of his storytelling voice to a torrential repetition of the word “just”:

I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed…. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness…. (emphasis in original)

This passage epitomizes Robinson’s aesthetic. She shows us how all things exist in excess of themselves, if we pay them the proper attention. You can feel her exerting that same restraint to keep from using “just” in every sentence, even when she’s not writing in Ames’ voice.lila_0

But “just” does find its way into the first sentence of her new novel, Lila (2014), which gives us the backstory of Ames’ mysterious second wife. It opens: “The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping.” Unlike Ames’ anecdote of purity and lavishness, the scene here is of dirt and privation. Robinson sets Lila’s sheer “mystery of existence,” to use a phrase that she acquires from John Ames later in the book, against the meanness of her circumstances. The girl is just there, a commonplace miracle amid squalor.

Lila sitting on the steps of a house, or a house of God—perched uneasily on the edge of community, family, or faith—is an image we meet throughout the book. It’s an image that captures Lila’s dogged but radiant individuality. Robinson must be one of the only living writers who can exalt philosophical individualism and make it sound beautiful and compelling. In this book, every person is an orphan before they are a daughter or a son—or a wife, or a worker, or a preacher. And we carry our indelible orphanhood with us into whatever family, community, or vocation eventually takes us in. Late in the book, Lila thinks of her infant son:

She was glad she had seen the boy brand new, red as fire, without a tear to give to the world, no ties to the world at all, just that knot on his belly. […] That orphan he was first he always would be, no matter how they loved him. He’d be no child of hers, otherwise.

I can’t remember reading a book so dominated by the word “loneliness.” Nor can I recall a novel where loneliness is so sweet and yet so terrible. Sometimes Lila fears to be left alone; sometimes solitude is her only solace. At the low point of the book, stranded in a St. Louis brothel, Lila descends into the coal cellar “to be quiet with herself.” After giving all she has—even her one inheritance, a well-honed knife—to her madame, Lila discovers in the solitary darkness that her only durable possession is her self.

For Robinson, to be alone is a religious experience, a simultaneously harrowing and comforting encounter with the divine in the self. The constant, unmediated presence of God in human inwardness, which Robinson traces back to the doctrine of the imago dei, is the theological sine qua non of her art. (Sometimes, she presses this emphasis so hard as to almost conflate God and the self.) In Lila, the feeling of human loneliness comes paradoxically to signify divine presence, even when it is not explicitly glossed as such.

Loneliness may be a constant theme of Lila, but it’s hardly the end of the story. That child on the stoop is soon swept up into the arms of Doll, a wild and resourceful old woman with a marked face and a wicked blade, who shepherds Lila into young adulthood the best she can. “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Robinson renders their hard life together as migrant farm workers, new territory from her previous domestic fictions, convincingly. Their sense of time is defined by sun and seasons, their sense of space “a whole world of weedy, sunny, raggedy fields with no names to them. Only that one name, the United States of America.” Lila and Doll’s intense bond blurs the distinction between self and other. In the solitude of the brothel coal cellar, Lila converses with her memory of the dead Doll. To be with Doll is to be with her self.

Lila loses Doll, but she gains the “beautiful old man,” John Ames. That gain assuages, but cannot replace, her loss. The consolation of their marriage is a difficult grace for either John or Lila to accept. Nevertheless, the outcome of their courtship is never in doubt; even for those who haven’t read Gilead, we learn early in Lila that the pair are married in the book’s present. The drama of their love story, then, is one of personal transformation: How did that abandoned child on the stoop become Lila Ames, wife of an elderly preacher and mother of a little boy?

As Lila’s acquaintance with John grows, so too does her acquaintance with Christianity. Her dramatic encounter with the Bible is one of the most remarkable parts of the book. Lila steals a Bible from John’s church and buys a notebook and pencils with her small income. She copies biblical passages into her notebook wholesale. She has a knack for finding the difficult parts; she’s especially enamored of Ezekiel. But it’s just those hard sayings, which cause John to stumble, that draw Lila in. “It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth,” she muses, as a tornado touches earth.

Lila never shies from the difficult parts of Scripture, and she never hesitates to ask John hard theological questions, either. Her attraction to the wild things of the Bible does not lead her to embrace of the doctrine of hell, for example, and she can’t imagine wanting a Heaven without Doll in it. When Lila puts the question of eternal fate to John, the preacher dodges and qualifies and finally falls back on the mystery of God’s grace. Despite John’s often faltering answers, Lila insists that the language she learns from John has allowed her to name parts of her life that before were nameless, and even to think new thoughts:

Could she have these thoughts if she had never learned the word [existence]? “The mystery of existence.” From hearing him preach. He must have mentioned it at least once a week. She wished she’d known about it sooner, or at least known there was a name for it. She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who couldn’t make sense of things.

Like most married couples, Lila and John spend a lot of time talking past each other, misunderstanding each other, wounding and forgiving each other (though they have wider gaps in age and life experience to overcome than most). A fantastic and frangible, if hard-won, skein of trust holds them together. Lila’s tie to Christianity is like that, too—a baptism she once tried to wash off, an unrelenting attraction to the Bible, an acknowledgment that the vocabulary of mystery meets a human need that it also discovers.

Lila marries the style and themes of Robinson’s earlier novels. The third-person narration of Home (2008) was a departure for Robinson, and it sometimes fell flat. Lila, however, is light on its feet. The novel’s free indirect discourse moves with great suppleness into and out of passages more thickly textured with Lila’s dialect. This style gives us intimacy with Lila’s perspective without presuming on her interior voice. Lila’s life, first with Doll and then with John, brings the concerns of Housekeeping (1980)—wilderness and feminine community, abandonment and consolation—together with those of Gilead—theological language and its limitations, perception and grace. For readers looking for a way in to Robinson’s corpus, this makes Lila the new best place to start.

Like the Ames’ marriage, though, these stylistic and conceptual bonds are uneasy and tentative, even when they’re graceful. If marrying John forces Lila to make her peace with community and its consolations, it also forces him to do justice to her freedom. If John’s theology gives Lila words for old impressions and new thoughts, her questions force him out of his complacency to reckon with her razor-edged experience. Robinson would remind us that tradition needs untamed experience to keep it sharp, and community needs wild individuals to keep it alive. Likewise, she would remind us that tradition expands the mind; it does not restrict it. And if loneliness is sacred, then so is comfort, which we can only give each other when we’re together.

The Marriage Pledge and the Libertarian Solution to the Marriage Debate

Over at First Things the Revs. Christopher Seitz and Ephraim Radner have published a document called The Marriage Pledge. The gist of it can be summed up as follows:

Therefore, in our roles as Christian ministers, we, the undersigned, commit ourselves to disengaging civil and Christian marriage in the performance of our pastoral duties. We will no longer serve as agents of the state in marriage. We will no longer sign government-provided marriage certificates. We will ask couples to seek civil marriage separately from their church-related vows and blessings. We will preside only at those weddings that seek to establish a Christian marriage in accord with the principles ­articulated and lived out from the beginning of the Church’s life.

You can read the whole thing and see a list of signers, which includes Peter Leithart, here. Tristyn Bloom reported on the pledge for the Daily Caller and you can read her piece on it here.

There’s a sense in which this move is understandable. CS Lewis after all had very similar thoughts 60 years ago in the post-war years in Britain when he proposed a similar solution in Mere Christianity:

Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is quite the different question-how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws. A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for every one. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mohammedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognize that the majority of the British people are not Christian and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.

It’s perhaps also worth noting that both Revs Seitz and Radner are currently living in Canada, which on matters of sex ethics has been far more hostile thus far to orthodox Christians than the United States. So this move may not simply be a form of protest against the current order, but also an attempt to put a bit of distance between the church and the public square so as to protect the church from possible legal consequences for maintaining an orthodox view on sexuality and marriage.

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Mere Fidelity: Theosis and the Warning Passages (Ask Us Anything, vl. 2)

In this episode we consider the role the warning passages play in Scripture and the question of theosis.  The conversation takes a hand-brake turn at 16:30, so if you’re only interested in one of those subjects then that’s the place to go.

We mentioned this article by J. Todd Billings, so go read that.  If you’re interested in more, you can read Letham’s Union with ChristHorton on the same theme, and J. Todd Billings again.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.

 

An Accurate Parody: On Andrew Wilson and Matthew Vines

Editor’s note:  Samuel James is a writer based in Louisville, Kentucky. He earned a BA in apologetics from Boyce College. He blogs regularly at Patheos and tweets regularly at @samwisejams.

Did Andrew Wilson’s parody misrepresent Matthew Vines?

Last week Andrew Wilson posted a brilliant and (in many minds) effective satire called “The Case for Idolatry.” The piece parodied many of the arguments used by progressive evangelicals advocating for a departure from traditional Christian teaching about homosexuality. Wilson opened his piece this way:

For many years, I was taught that idolatry was sinful. As a good Christian, I fought the desire to commit idolatry, and repented when I got it wrong. But the desire to worship idols never went away.

I wanted it to, but it didn’t.

So it has been such a blessing to discover that worshipping one God, and him alone, isn’t for everyone. There are thousands of Christians out there who have found faithful, loving ways of expressing worship both to God and to idols, without compromising either their faith or their view of Scripture.

god and the gay christianWhat makes Wilson’s piece so good is that anyone who is familiar with the rhetoric from the “LGBT-affirming” wing of evangelicalism will immediately notice that the only significant alteration Wilson has made to the standard talking points is to replace the word “Gay” with “idolater.” By doing so, Wilson illustrates the untenability of the logical progressions often utilized when advocating for Christian revisionism. Many (including myself) found the piece clever and well-written.

Matthew Vines, the author of God and the Gay Christian, disagrees. In fact, he disagrees so much that he thinks Wilson is “profoundly disrespectful and degrading to LGBT people,” and that his “mockery isn’t Christ-like.”

Vines went further, saying that the piece was a “caricature” that didn’t accurately represent the arguments he has made in God and the Gay Christian.

Now, Vines is welcome to believe that Wilson is mean and hates LGBT people and wants to demean them. That seems to be an uncharitable and demonstrably false claim, but Vines is entitled to that view. What Vines isn’t welcome to, however, is the statement that Wilson’s satire misrepresents Vines’s arguments. He isn’t welcome to that opinion for one very simple reason: He’s factually wrong.

Vines complains that Wilson is not qualified to write such a piece because he hasn’t read God and the Gay Christian. That’s a dubious claim at best, but let’s roll with it. As it happens, yours truly has in fact read and owns a copy of Vines’s book. Taking a very brief foray into the depths of God and the Gay Christian reveals almost immediately that Wilson’s satire was indeed accurate.

Before I dive into the quotes, a couple comments about parody are in order. The point of parody is not to produce a point-by-point rebuttal of someone’s claims. Instead of explicitly refuting the arguments of LGBT-affirming evangelicals, Wilson’s parody intends to expose the fragile underlying logical framework of LGBT-affirming rhetoric. If an absurd claim (in this case, that open idolatry is consistent with Christian belief and practice) can be supported using the same logical progression used by LGBT-affirming evangelicals like Vines, it is fair to question whether that logical progression is valid.

Secondly, let’s get the elephant out of the room: Yes, homosexuality and idolatry are different things that require particular responses. To understand Wilson’s piece we have to grasp what parody is: A genre that illustrates rather than explicates. Wilson is not saying that idolatry and homosexuality are basically interchangeable and whatever can be said of the one can be said of the other (at least, I don’t read him as saying that). The point of using “idolatry” in this case is that it is a practice that both Wilson and Vines would agree is sinful for essentially the same reasons (testimony of Scripture). If we agree with Wilson about the sinfulness of idolatry, and we find that applying the language of God and the Gay Christian to idolatry creates an argument very similar to what we have heard from Vines, we should pause and ask if Vines is using a valid theological approach.

Without further ado, let’s compare passages from Wilson’s piece to those from Vines’s book, and see if the two sound alike:

#1. Wilson writes:

But from childhood until today, my heart has been drawn to idolatry. In fact, if I’m honest, one of the defining features of my identity has been my desire to put something else – popularity, money, influence, sex, success – in place of God.

That’s just who I am.

The integration of idolatry into a person’s fundamental, unchangeable identity is obviously parodical to us because we identify the act of idolatry as necessarily sinful. Idolatry, we would say, is surely something we are drawn to in our sinful state, but nowhere does Scripture endorse our idolatrous feelings based on their integration into our identities.

This parody works because it is exactly the approach to sexuality that Vines exhibits in God and the Gay Christian. On page 5, Vines begins his personal narrative with two things: The realization that he is gay, and the effort he makes afterwards to convert his parents to his theology. At no point in God and the Gay Christian does Vines record a sort of questioning of his own feelings. He knows he is gay and has known for a long time. It’s who he is. On page 8, Vines says:

My parents nurtured a faith in Jesus in me and my sister, give us a moral and spiritual anchor as we grew up. Just as importantly, Mom and Dad lived out their faith in loving and authentic ways, daily confirming for us the value of placing Christ at the center of our lives. So even though I was now facing up to the fact of my sexual orientation, my faith in God was not in jeopardy. (emphasis added)

Vines refers to his “faith” in God and the “fact” of his sexual orientation. His feelings and desires are absolute and settled, and not once does he record any challenge to them. It’s part of his identity, and that is an unquestionable tenet of his theology.

VERDICT: Parody is fair.

#2. Wilson writes:

So it has been such a blessing to discover that worshipping one God, and him alone, isn’t for everyone. There are thousands of Christians out there who have found faithful, loving ways of expressing worship both to God and to idols, without compromising either their faith or their view of Scripture. In recent years, I have finally summoned the courage to admit that I am one of them. Let me give you a few reasons why I believe that idolatry and Christianity are compatible.

Wilson parodies the arguments of affirming evangelicals by using the same kind of ethical pragmatism to talk about idolatry. Idolatry may sound like it is sinful, Wilson says, but actually there are many Christians who have discovered the love and joy of an idolatrous life. Wilson here intends to parody the approach used by many pro-homosexuality Christians: We should never condemn sexual behavior that is mutual, loving, and committed, no matter how much church teaching or Scripture might suggest otherwise.

Is this similar to what Vines does in God and the Gay Christian? Yes it is. For example:

But as I became more aware of same-sex relationships, I couldn’t understand why they were supposed to be sinful, or why the Bible apparently condemned them. With most sins, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the damage they cause. Adultery violates a commitment to your spouse. Lust objectifies others. Gossip degrades people. But committed same-sex relationships didn’t fit this pattern. Not only were they not harmful to anyone, they were characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self-sacrifice. (pg. 12)

Later on, Vines rips several biblical narratives out of their contexts in order to argue for an outcome-based metric of theology. His argument reaches a crescendo on pages 15 and 16: “Today, we are still responsible for testing our beliefs in light of their outcomes—a duty in line with Jesus’s teaching about trees and fruit.”

This is a particularly devastating parody by Wilson. It exposes the pandora’s box created by Vines’s theology of outcome. Because no earthly evidence of harm can be seen from either idolatry or homosexuality, the church should strongly reconsider its teachings on both. If people can bear the “good fruit” of faithfulness, love, mutuality and friendship while they are worshiping idols, then surely Jesus would have us encourage this good fruit, wouldn’t he?

VERDICT: Parody is fair.

#3. Wilson writes:

Firstly, the vast majority of references to idols and idolatry in the Bible come in the Old Testament – the same Old Testament that tells us we can’t eat shellfish or gather sticks on Saturdays. When advocates of monolatry eat bacon sandwiches and drive cars at the weekend, they indicate that we should move beyond Old Testament commandments in the new covenant, and rightly so.

To its credit, God and the Gay Christian isn’t this abrupt in dismissing the witness of the Old Testament. However, Wilson’s parody here is fair. On page 11, Vines writes:

Even become coming to terms with my sexual orientation, I had been studying the Bible’s references to same-sex behavior and discussing the issue with Christian friends. Some of what I learned seemed to undermine the traditional interpretation of those passages. For instance, Leviticus prohibits male same-sex relations, but it uses similar language to prohibit the eating of shellfish. And while Paul did describe same-sex relations as “unnatural,” he also wrote that for men to wear their hair long was contrary to “nature.” Yet Christians no longer regard eating shellfish or men having long hair as sinful. A more comprehensive exploration of Scripture was in order.

Vines continues this strategy later on. On page 83, he argues that since Christians don’t practice levirate marriage or see sexual intercourse during menstruation as sinful, it is unlikely that the sexual laws of the Old Testament should be seen as qualitatively more serious than the ceremonial laws. “All this is to say that not all Old Testament sexual norms carry over to Christians,” he concludes on page 84. Vines argument is again essentially pragmatic: Since Christians don’t practice laws B and C, the odds that law A is binding are pretty low.

VERDICT: Parody is fair.

#4 Wilson writes:

With all of these preliminary ideas in place, we can finally turn to Paul, who has sadly been used as a judgmental battering ram by monolaters for centuries. When we do, what immediately strikes us is that in the ultimate “clobber passage”, namely Romans 1, the problem isn’t really idol-worship at all! The problem, as Paul puts it, is not that people worship idols, but that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23). Paul isn’t talking about people who are idolatrous by nature. He is talking about people who were naturally worshippers of Israel’s God, and exchanged it for the worship of idols. What else could the word “exchange” here possibly mean?

Not only that, but none of his references apply to idolatry as we know it today: putting something above God in our affections. Paul, as a Hellenistic Roman citizen, simply would not have had a category for that kind of thing. In his world, idolatry meant physically bowing down to tribal or household deities – statues and images made of bronze or wood or stone – and as such, the worship of power or money or sex or popularity had nothing to do with his prohibitions…

In other words, when Paul talks about idolatry, he is not talking about the worship of idols as we know it today. As a Christ-follower, he would be just as horrified as Jesus if he saw the way his words have been twisted to exclude modern idolaters like me, and like many friends of mine. For centuries, the church has silenced the voice of idolaters (just like it has silenced the voice of slaves, and women), and it is about time we recognised that neither Jesus, nor Paul, had any problem with idolatry.

I have saved this passage for last because those who have read Vines’s book will recognize it most clearly here. Wilson’s parody employs a simple argument: The idolatry prohibited by the Bible is of such a particular kind that that the authors of the Bible merely intended to address a species of it that was common in biblical culture. Therefore, not only is the Bible indefinite about idolatrous actions, it cannot possibly be talking about what we are talking about when we mention idolatry today.

I am truly clueless how Vines can claim with a straight face that Wilson’s parody misrepresents God and the Gay Christian. Not only is this exactly the argument that Vines makes, it is the central assertion on which his thesis hangs. It’s so central that Vines asserts it in multiple locations, such as:

Page 43: “The understanding that homosexuality is a fixed sexual orientation is a recent development. Prior the twentieth century, Christians didn’t write about same-sex orientation, so we don’ thave longstanding church tradition to guide us in this matter.”

Page 103: “Gay people cannot chose to follow opposite-sex attractions, because they have no opposite-sex attractions to follow…So, some might ask, does that mean Paul was wrong and the Bible is in error? No. We have to remember: what Paul was describing is fundamentally different from what we are discussing.”

Page 114: “For Paul, same-sex desire did not characterize a small minority of people who were subject to special classification—and condemnation—on that basis. Rather, it represented an innate potential for excess within all of fallen humanity. When that potential was acted upon, it became “unnatural” in the sense that it subverted conventional, patriachial gender norms.”

Page 130: “The bottom line is this: The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of same-sex orientation—or the expression of that orientation. While its six references to same-sex behavior are negative, the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation.”

What makes Wilson’s parody effective is that it exposes the hermeneutical sleight-of-hand that Vines executes in order to make his point. How would Vines respond to Wilson’s parody? Given the fact that Vines has established in his discussion of homosexuality that the authors of Scripture wrote misleadingly about topics beyond their intellectual caliber, how could Vines object to an argument for idolatry based on the cultural distance between the idols of the biblical culture, and the ones of 21st century Western culture? On Vines’s own standards, he must prove—without using Scripture, since the authors were pre-modern—that idolatry is sinful even if it looks nothing like what the Bible prohibits.

VERDICT: Parody is fair.

As I mentioned at the outset, Wilson’s parody is not a comprehensive rebuttal to Vines or any other author’s arguments in favor of homosexuality. Rather, it simply uses the same arguments to create a reduction ad absurdum, in which something that is obviously wrong actually fits the theological framework created by Vines’s arguments. When falsity can be supported so well by a hermeneutical approach, the merits of that approach should be called into question.

Vines is welcome to his personal opinion on Wilson or others who disagree with him. He is not, however, entitled to falsely accuse anyone of misrepresenting him.

Mere Fidelity: The Bible and Dr. Peter Enns

The backstory:  Andrew Wilson reviewed Dr. Peter Enns’s new book.  Dr. Peter Enns responded to said review.  We talked about it (above), and we scheduled it in a hurry so we didn’t get Dr. Enns on.  Our bad.  We’d love to have him join us.  Really.  Then Andrew responded to Dr. Enns.

Confused yet?  Listen in.  It will help everything.

Special thanks to MK Creative Arts for the audio editing.

If you enjoyed the show (AND ONLY IF), leave us a review at iTunes.  If you didn’t enjoy the show, let us know and we’ll work to make it better.  Or we’ll ignore you.  And if you want to subscribe by RSS, you can do that here.

Finally, as always, follow DerekAlastair, and Andrew for more tweet-sized brilliance.