Sun, 30 Jan 2005

Vinegar in the Honey

Yesterday Kim and I went to UCSB to see Sweet Honey in the Rock, "a Grammy Award-winning African American female a cappella ensemble with deep musical roots in the sacred music of the black church – spirituals, hymns, gospel – as well as jazz and blues." The mood was firmly early-90's African-American feminist. The group is amazingly accomplished musically, with a commanding presence on stage. They established an immediate repoire with the audience, teaching us an African round for everyone to sing at the outset, and keeping the show conversational throughout.

I found the conversation rather revealing, especially in the ways I was not welcomed to join it.

The political correctness of the whole event was of course impeccable. I came expecting that, and it didn't really bother me. (Nineties nostalgia and all.) The extent to which the Christian heritage of the black musical tradition had been submerged into an all-inclusive whole-earth spiritualism did surprise me a bit, and it disappointed me even more. But as an urban gospel music fan I think my expectations were probably unrealistic.

What really shocked me was something else.

Early in the set, Ysaye Maria Barnwell reminded everyone that a deep strength of the Civil Rights movement was its commitment to nonviolence and sang "Let us Rise in Love," a composition of hers written after September 11. This Christian pacifist agreed, and sang along.

Then came the next song, an encouragement of the political activism in which the group is truly rooted. Carol Maillard (I think) introduced it by praising the protesters who had courageously gathered "when the Republicans invaded New York," her home town. A touch of bitterness in her inflection; appreciative laughter from the audience.

So much for diversity, inclusiveness, and love!

Barnwell's line got me thinking of these words from Peter Gabriel:

There's safety in numbers
when you learn how to divide
How can we be in
if there is no outside
All shades of opinion
feed an open mind
But your values are twisted
let us help you unwind
You may look like we do
talk like we do
but you know how it is
You're not one of us.

Tired of conservative bloggers' harping about the insularity and the double standard on today's left? I am. But I'm a lot more tired of the insularity and the double standard. Love for Al Qaeda and a lockout for half of America – the ugly hypocrisy of her comment still stuns me. This woman, whose parents must have suffered under segregation, doesn't want busloads of her mayor's fellow Republicans at her town's lunch counters. And her "diverse" Santa Barbara audience, few of whom suffered under segregation, finally agrees with standing ovations.

This former Republican is now fighting the temptation to re-join the party as an act of solidarity.

"But look at how Republicans have treated her people!" True enough. And I want that to change much more than it already has. Is turning the GOP into "invaders" going to facilitate that change? Isn't it just for the satisfaction of bashing outsiders in a room safely full of insiders?

The last couple of numbers were freedom songs. I sang along, not feeling the triumphalist vibe emanating from the rest of the room, yet finding all the company I needed in the words themselves.

I sang along, not rooting for the bland "change" these progressives envisioned but awaiting the Christ-won freedom at the real heart of the black church tradition.

I sang along, thinking not so much of the expanded health care the group had advocated, but of the coming election in Iraq – a small sign of coming freedom that none of these daughters of the Jim Crow era had thought to mention. (Do these people know how pathetic this looks? Radical-chic nostalgia at $40 per ticket when halfway around the world millions of women and men are risking their lives to vote for the first time? Do you really think the moment would have been passed over in silence if it had happened under a Democratic administration? Even if you think the U.S. is an evil occupying force, wouldn't a successful election be a great step in getting out from under that occupation? In fact, wasn't that once a conviction of America's Civil Rights movement?)

I sang along, wondering how long it will be before our college campuses are intellectually loving, inclusive, diverse, serious, or even free.

I sang along, because I am as susceptible as everyone else to the sociological deafness that distorts and silences other people, and I need deliverance from that evil just as much as the ones who sing to me and hear only their own voices echoing back. I try to be more hospitable in class than they were in concert, but am I really so different? What do I say that I cannot hear, or choose not to reflect upon, or immediately forget?

I sang along, because despite the ambiguity of the group's theology I assume they are my sisters in Christ, and that means we belong together.

I sang along, because Jesus' most scathing words were not reserved for Romans but his cousins the Pharisees, and while he was more welcoming of them into his circles than this audience was of "red America," he was also more critical.

I sang along, thinking of some of the careless remarks I have heard in church over the years that left others feeling even more angry as I felt at that moment, and hoping for freedom there too.

I sang along, because my college's president recently reminded all of us in chapel that Jesus' Golden Rule is the sum of the law and the prophets. We disciples have a lot of work to do just to bring a single standard back to the way we treat each other, and the work can start as soon as someone notices the work order.

I sang along. But I won't be singing along next time, because I'm not interested in going again. There are better songs to sing, or at least better ways to sing these.

If the American Church, let alone America, is ever going to get past idolatry, condescension, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, and red or blue political correctness, we will all need to change our tune. Anyone want to join me in singing that round?

15:03 (file under /topics/politics)

Mon, 01 Nov 2004

Game Almost Over

I went to the pet store for hamster supplies a few days ago. After the checkout person thanked me for coming, I replied, "You're welcome. And whomever you vote for, or don't vote for...."

She froze, tensed up, and waited for me to finish the precarious sentence I had started.

"... have a good evening." She looked at me with incredulous relief, as if I had said something in another language.

I had, in a way. After all, no one is voting for King of Kings tomorrow! Infinity more years!

Remember: we can afford to be as generous to everyone, from loved ones to neighbors to strangers to enemies, as God has been to us.

Still, it will be nice when this contest is over. In the middle of the playoffs it always seems as if the future of the world depends on my team winning the series, the game, the play. Afterwards, the groupthink fades, perspective returns, and life goes on.

Many of your loved ones, neighbors, strangers, and enemies need that generosity now. Don't wait until the election is over; don't wait until normal perspective is already returning; offer yours right away.

Then, since the game isn't quite over yet, here is my favorite Bush endorsement, and here is my favorite Kerry endorsement. (Both come via Instapundit, though I read both blogs regularly anyway. Unlike big media, who lost this campaign for both my interest and my loyalty.)

Life goes on, not just after the election but already. Whoever you are, may the risen Son's peace be with you today, tomorrow, and forever.

19:25 (file under /topics/politics)

Wed, 27 Oct 2004

Don't Vote?

Somebody still reads this blog! A message arrived from my non-voting colleague, Jonathan Wilson of Acadia Divinity College: "Don't vote! ... Not because the parties are compromised but because the system is. Big money, entrenched, self-interested power decides whom the people get to vote for."

Jonathan isn't objecting to voting in any modern nation-state; he tells me he will vote in Canada if and when he is qualified. (The country that produced its current Liberal Party is better? Hmmm.)

As usual, Jonathan and I agree even as we disagree; the theological assumptions we share inform the political assumptions we don't, to produce interesting results and fruitful discussions. (So you will never find the two of us facing each other on "Hardball.")

Political theorists have shown that no voting system can be truly neutral. The peculiar dynamics of America's federalism, its first-past-the-post (winner take all, rather than proportional representation) system, and its constitutional balance of powers produce peculiar results. Incidentally, I prefer this system over Canada's Westminster model. A different system would produce a different variety of favoritism. Perhaps it would be a better one; perhaps not. As a conservative I approach reform with a built-in skepticism: how would the players of the old system rig the new system to favor them? What unintended consequences would accompany, distort, or reverse the intended ones? The McCain-Feingold campaign finance "reform" whose effects are being felt in this year's 527s is a good example of why I would rather not tamper with what has produced workable results in the United States for two hundred years.

It's true that "big money, entrenched, self-interested power" has a disproportionate say in selecting candidates. Yet the Democratic Party's incoherence and the Republican Party's weakness did too. I don't go for the "tweedle-dee and tweedle-dum" marxist account of American politics where the stakes in one party or the other winning are inconsequential because the same powers survive every change of administrations. Trial lawyers, teachers' unions, big labor, African-America, and the extremely rich want Kerry to win because the stakes are high for them. Likewise for Bush's supporters among Chambers of Commerce, the moderately well off, the less populous Rocky Mountain states, the Christian right, the military, and so on. We face two uninspiring candidates who are struggling for 51% not because they are so similar that they are indistinguishable, but because they have had to work so hard to create a winnable coalition that they have exposed the fractures in their own diverse bases. In European politics, coalition-building follows voting; in American politics, it's more the other way around. At one level I am voting for Bush because, while I find the Republican coalition incoherent and mildly offputting, I find the Democratic coalition fundamentally self-contradictory and extremely offputting.

Yet at a deeper level (and loyal readers of this blog can look back to my posts last summer for evidence of my convictions), I am voting against the candidate of big journalism. I refuse to reward the disgusting behavior of our country's (really our world's) journalists. The traditions of honest journalism are a huge countervailing force to the big money and entrenched, self-interested power behind the American political process. This year more than ever, it seems, they have decided to hold their tongues and mete out misleading "coverage" until their man gets elected.

If they had the courage to use it, journalists would have the prophetic power that puts truth-tellers "over nations and kingdoms" (Jeremiah 1:10). Instead, they have settled for false prophesying: "'every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, "Peace, peace," when there is no peace'" (Jeremiah 6:13-14). The past few months have seen the spirit of false prophecy spread and flourish even after unprecedented misbehavior (The New York Times, CBS News) and criticism. "Were they ashamed when they committed abomination? No, they were not at all ashamed; they did not know how to blush" (6:15a). Today's journalists don't know how to blush, do they?

As powers and principalities struggle for dominance through both parties, and as (mainly) Democrats resort to disenfranchisement-by-lawsuit and outright voter fraud to prevail in this election even at the price of the good faith of the world's oldest democracy, I still view journalists' false prophesying as the greatest compromise of the formal and informal system by which America is governed. My vote against Kerry is an admittedly imperfect sign that "'therefore they shall fall among those who fall; at the time that I punish them, they shall be overthrown,' says YHWH" (6:15b).

That day may not come in 2004, but it will come. This disillusioned former journalist is looking forward to it, and rejoicing already.

09:40 (file under /topics/politics)

Mon, 25 Oct 2004

My Mind Is Made Up

I finally made up my mind about what to do politically this year.

First, I registered nonpartisan ("decline to state").

Coming from a Republican family, I feel a twinge of familial guilt when I think about this. This does not trouble me; moving away from one's family traditions should produce anxiety and even guilt, if the family is a good one – and mine definitely is. But ever since I read in college of a Jesus who calls his followers to leave everything and follow him, I have become accustomed at least to the idea of feeling that loss. The gain is better – a hundredfold better – but that doesn't mean the loss isn't real. I remain proud of my family's politics – and I even still think my "Now More Than Ever" button from 1972 is cool, especially in the effect it has on people without a sense of irony (e.g., many liberals and, alas, a few conservatives too).

Why nonpartisan? I have several reasons:

A. I am increasingly convinced that the logic of political parties is a bad idea for Christians. I am still comfortable with Christians voting – that is, with our being free to respond when the country consults our judgment about what courses to follow. I have at least one colleague who refuses to vote on the ground that they would be complicit in the acts of a compromised power, but I tend to see voting in terms of Joseph serving under Pharaoh or Daniel under Nebuchadnezzar. We are gifted with the Spirit of truth-telling, and voting is a limited but effective way of it. However, a political party is something else: a coalition of people whose group identity becomes too determinative and too centered on power for its own good. The sociological dynamics of "Republicans," "Democrats," "Libertarians," "Greens," etc. are not healthy. And that is to say that they are sinful. The corrupting influence they have on those who are attracted to them is something I want to discourage.

If it is not obvious to you that patriotism and partisanship are both out of hand among this country's Christians ...

... perhaps it is now.

I will be happy to vote in open primaries, if California gets them this November, but not closed ones.

B. I don't think America's two significant parties are serving it or the world well right now, and refusing to join them is a way of saying so. As a shopper, I believe it is fine to leave a store, even a restaurant, without purchasing anything. It sends just as real a signal to the marketplace as buying or selling. In 2002 crowds of people who rarely go to movies went to see "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" on the word-of-mouth advice of friends, showing that a huge market was going underserved by the usual Hollywood garbage. This seems a good time to tell our political parties that we don't like what we see. Last October California recalled Gray Davis and elected Arnold Schwarzenegger in a convulsion from the "none of the above" vote finally being offered something it wanted. The California legislature has begun to realize it cannot ignore that signal and survive.

While I have until now identified with Republicans, I am not happy about their spending habits in Congress, their demagoguery with the FMA, their aloofness and refusal to talk straight to the American people, or their readiness to embrace statist means to promote their constituents' economic and social interests. Yes, I know: they want to rule, and doing these things helps them do it. It also makes them less appropriate rulers. I understand the strategy; I just don't believe Christians should identify themselves with these kinds of compromises.

I am even less happy with Democrats, whose teachers' unions are destroying schools for my children and especially other people's children, whose paradigm of racial reconciliation is a counterproductive relic of the sixties, whose systematic incoherence over the War on Terror is downright dangerous, and whose spokespeople's elitism, arrogance, and judgmentalism I am simply unable to stomach.

Even if I thought parties were okay for Christians to join, I wouldn't want to send a supportive signal to either of these two. I am thrifty when I shop, and I'm going to be thrifty when I vote. If they want my vote, they can come and get it. Mine won't come cheap.

What about single issues many Christians regard as having overriding importance – for instance, abortion? My feeling is that vices like abortion and substance abuse will decline in America not when they are made illegal, but when they are made unacceptable. Despite the rhetoric from both sides, I sense that Republicans are closer than Democrats to resonating with that vision. Nevertheless, patient, loving, noncoercive Christian witness to the way of Jesus Christ is the only real resource for truly making that happen. Success does require group dynamics and distinctive politics. They worked in ancient Rome and they can work again here. But the appropriate 'party' in which they will work is not the state or its political institutions, but the Church that lives them out regardless of their popularity.

C. Evangelicals' growing identification with the Republican Party and desertion of the Democratic Party may be understandable, but it is perilous. I quote from one of my courses' textbooks, Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Eerdmans, 1989), page 138:

Adrian Hastings in his history of English Christianity in the present [twentieth] century has reminded us that for the first two decades of this period the Christianity of the English Free Churches was interpreted as almost necessarily involving support for the Liberal Party. When the Liberal Party destroyed itself, the Free Churches suffered a blow, a loss of identity, from which they have hardly begun to recover (A History of English Christianity: 1920-1985, 1986). It does not require much knowledge of history to recognize that, with all its grievous sins of compromise, cowardice, and apostasy, the Church outlasts all these movements in which so much passionate faith has been invested. In their time each of these movements seems to provide a sense of direction, a credible goal for the human project. The slogans of these movements become sacred words which glow with ultimate authority. But they do not endure. None of them in fact embodies the true end, the real goal of history. That has been embodied once for all in the events which form the substance of the gospel and which – remembered, rehearsed, and reenacted in teaching and liturgy – form the inner core of the Church's being.

Liberal Protestant churches are not surviving the collapse of the liberal consensus of the mid-twentieth century. Even if the Republican Party is becoming a majority party (I think it probably is), it is not going to last. Do we want evangelical Christianity to go down with it?

So much for party affiliation. What about the current election?

In California's wacky state politics there are lots of propositions to say 'no' to and a few to say 'yes' to. But those matters are for another post, which I will certainly not get around to writing.

Nothing in the past months, or years, has changed my mind about the presidential election. Just about every issue I have with the Democratic Party played a part in its choice of John Kerry for president. It is trying to rule by being centrist and leftist at the same time, a prescription for disaster. Its economics look backward to stasism rather than forward to the dynamism which, whether we like it or not, will be characterizing the world economy for the foreseeable future. Kerry's vision of diplomatic and military leadership, if he even has one, reflects the thinking of his party's defeatist wing, which in the present context probably portends setbacks in Iraq, U.S. retreats, emboldened Islamists, an even less just Islamic world, and more terrorism worldwide. His campaign's cynical and transparently incompetent use of military imagery grates even on me, a pacifist and lifelong civilian! The Democrats still can't stop thinking of Europe more as America's future than as a dead end America turned decisively away from in 1980. While less opportunistic than Republican economic policies, their own policies tend to suffer from unintended consequences that hurt the poor, greedy constituencies that tax and regulate themselves into comfort, and dreams detached from reality.

This country's left has always had a "healthy" self-image as the hope of the world. Since the late 1960s it has also had a deeply unserious side. I tired of both these character traits even before I was out of college, and since then my tolerance for them has risen little. The left could do America a lot of good, but first it needs strong dose of humility and reality. Its thought police need to rise to the robust practical and intellectual challenges they have been ignoring for decades. Its hegemons need a generation of youngsters to reject its axioms. Its statists need to discover that compassion does not rely on coercion. Its perennial critics of the west need to discover the good in their enemies and acknowledge the evil in their friends. Its intellectuals need to learn that they aren't right just because no one they know disagrees with them. Its advocates need to stop resorting to caricature, vilification, intimidation, censorship, fraud, and the presumption of moral superiority. (This seems to be a larger problem on the left right now than on the right.) Finally, the left's many good, thoughtful, and faithful people need to take it back from the people who have ruined it.

Electing Kerry president will not deliver that medicine. It will only advance the disease. The Democratic Party had its Tony Blair moment after the 1994 congressional elections when Bill Clinton shifted it to the center and created the most successful Democratic era in presidential politics since the 1960s. When Al Gore campaigned from the populist (and arrogant) left, he betrayed that legacy, squandered the Democrats' best position in decades, divided the party, and lost the election all at the same time. America needed a vital but responsible opposition party after September 11. Instead, it was stuck with Tom Daschle, Nancy Pelosi, Michael Moore – and now John Kerry.

Kerry is no Tony Blair. He is not the man to lead a recovery in the Democratic Party. Under him and without George W. Bush on whom to fixate, Democrats' papered-over fissures would only worsen. Kerry's administration would be structurally unable to satisfy its constituents and America would be caught in-between for four pretty important years. The unserious left would interpret its win over George W. Bush as a vindication of both its goals and its Machiavellian methods, with probably disastrous results. Democrats need more time in the political wilderness to sort out their identity and vision for the country. Maybe this will take four more years, perhaps eight. It will take at least two years just to become worthy as an opposition party. It will also take someone else than John Kerry to lead it into that better place.

I haven't said much positive about George W. Bush, have I? No, I haven't. W is a better president than I could ever be, especially in these very challenging times, and despite his weaknesses he is still not as mediocre as Kerry. But he has been "just OK" as a president, which is to say he has been a disappointment. I have already lodged some complaints about this administration and the party that created it, and my liberal colleagues here at Westmont have lodged further substantial complaints about Bush, his administration, his policies, the way he has been waging this war, and the Republican Party he is creating. As long as those criticisms are responsible, fair, and free from the hyperbole and paranoia that now characterize a lot of language from the left, I grant the force of many of those criticisms. I don't blame people for wanting a president besides George W. Bush.

But I will vote for W – more than anything as a vote against John Kerry. Kerry is a complete zero. If Republicans are implicated in Bush's mediocrity, then the party that nominated Kerry is implicated in his nothingness. Not only have the Democrats not sold me, they have pushed me farther away than ever.

As you (the Americans among you, anyway) make up your own minds this week, may God bless you.

10:12 (file under /topics/politics)

Tue, 14 Sep 2004

Feeling a Little Better

My cold is easing, but more importantly, I feel better about the CBS situation now that The Washington Post has done the right thing and caught up its readers to where the blogosphere was three days ago, even doing some of the kind of reporting that only old-line news media are capable of. I'm relieved.

Of course, I'm still waiting for The New York Times, which is being dragged kicking and screaming to the reality of this story. How and when will they truly come clean? I wonder.

How fortuitous that I should just have received a solicitation from the NYT asking me to distribute little index-card subscription ads to my students. Get a load of the copy:

Sometimes it's easy to see the world in black and white. But as your students become more aware and delve deeper into issues, they may come to realize that the world is really made up of shades of gray.

Good Grief.

And for the first time in their lives, they're not just reading about a presidential election – they're a vital part of the process.
Bringing The New York Times into your classrooms every day will give your students a chance to see history as it unfolds.

Actually it will give them a chance to see history a little later, a little further removed, sanitized for bicoastal sensibilities, and made a little more predictable and ideologically consistent.

Exploring issues from many different perspectives will help them think more critically about things that affect their lives and our country. ...

It would, if the NYT offered many different perspectives. But as its own 'public editor' acknowledges, it doesn't.

Anyway, here is the response I e-mailed the college marketing director who signed the copy:

I would not have minded receiving your pitch to solicit subscriptions from my students if my respect for your publication had not plummeted in the past three years.
Of national newspapers, the Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal still have my respect. Yours does not. I want my students educated, not indoctrinated. Showing them news.google.com exposes them to a far wider variety of sources, for free. Recommending high-quality monthlies like the Atlantic exposes them to depth and originality of thought, for an affordable price. Introducing them to weblogs moves them days, and sometimes months, ahead of the big-media curve, for free, and without the pretense.
Please take this not as an attack but as freely offered market research. I invite you to send it to your management as a leading indicator of where your market is going. It may be that the NYT can reinvent its product and become attractive again to those of us who have lost our respect. But it will take such a reinvention to bring us back – and it will take an even more radical reinvention to bring on board my twenty-year-old students, who inhabit a different information universe than the one in which you and I were raised.
Our world needs what you can provide. America is governed by a ruling party that cannot tell the truth without losing power and an opposition party that cannot even articulate a position without splitting apart. We don't need more shades of gray from the Gray Lady; we need black and white. We don't need more false prophecy; we need authentic prophecy. If you want to offer it, then you will find the only audience that finally matters. If you don't, then someone else will.
In the meantime, I hope while you deliberate, I have called and asked to be removed from your mailing list.
Sincerely yours, Telford Work

A little melodramatic, I know. But that's my style. And I care about this stuff.

The tag line on the solicitation letter reads, "Prepare yourself and your students for what comes next." That's just what we're trying to do. I hope the NYT gets serious about helping.

09:30 (file under /topics/politics)

Mon, 13 Sep 2004

Stunned

I spent the weekend in shock. It wasn't really because I was remembering 9/11; my remembrance of the event was basically limited to gratitude that we have had a pretty safe three years here in the States, far safer than we dared to hope for in the weeks after the attacks. Thanks be to God.

No, what kept me reeling all weekend (besides a cold) were several interrelated factors:

First, the actions of CBS News in its original reporting and in its reactions to the forged Killian memos. They're guilty; they're acting guilty; and they don't know how not to act guilty. This from the very people who taught the country to recognize the signs of all three. Amazing. More than anything, it has disturbed me because I still respect professional journalism – perhaps out of family loyalty, perhaps out of my own past career in journalism and journalism education. In fact, I apparently respect it more than it deserves. I learned long ago that journalists (not every single one, but as a group) are biased, insular, subcultural, cynical, and ill-prepared. But I learned even further back that journalists are diligent, curious, public-minded, idealistic, and careful. I still trust both judgments, but this story is a gut-punch that has left me shaken.

Second, the tepid and unprofessional responses from others at CBS and especially other news organizations in the five days since the story broke. There has been some competent coverage and a lot of incompetent (uneducated, credulous, shallow, unfair) coverage. C'mon, people! Your future is hanging in the balance right now. This is a time for the profession to police itself. Journalism has done so successfully in the past. Not always, but sometimes. We will know in a couple of weeks whether it is doing so now. I wish I could be confident in its success, but I'm not.

Third, the talent, qualifications, distributed intelligence, quality and speed of networking, and self-policing of the bloggers and other new media. As others had noted, blogger triumphalism has been around ever since blogging. This is the most obvious case in which the self-congratulation is apparently warranted, especially in the cases of Instapundit, PowerLine, Roger L. Simon, Little Green Footballs (a site I had ignored for a year because of the meanness of its commenters), and Hugh Hewitt, and especially their readers, have performed at an extraordinary level. Honorable mention goes to ABC News' The Note and Mickey Kaus (whom I wish I was hearing more from right now).

Fourth, the disappointing reactions of other middlers and neo-libs I admire, for instance Jeff Jarvis. Their reticence has been almost as surprising as the achievements of the major movers on the story. Clearly the blogosphere's talents are issue-specific rather than all-around. People will rise and fall in relevance depending on the story and their expertise. I think we should expect to get used to these kinds of shifts in the future.

Fifth, the reluctance, even refusal, of some (many?) on the left to acknowledge what to the rest of us is obvious: that these are fakes. This is perhaps the most stunning thing of all – to see people so blinded by their own presuppositions. In the story of the emperor who had no clothes, all it takes is one child to wake up the crowd. That fable now seems charmingly naive. Modern absolutism – the conviction that the universality of reason makes it possible to convince anyone of any fact, unless he or she is crazy, stupid, or evil – is not what we're seeing here. Nor are we seeing modern relativism – the conviction that because truth is constructed, it doesn't extend beyond individual opinion – because these documents are changing some minds. What we are seeing is what Alasdair MacIntyre called "the rationalit[ies] of traditions," or what Wittgenstein called "the rough ground" of human epistemology: we see as our communities teach us to see in order to live; and the commonality of our life produces commonality of understanding that makes social mediators such as practices, language, and truth possible, sustainable, and sustaining. This is not as neat as either absolutism or relativism; that's why traditions succeed and fail. This story is showing and causing the success and failure of different traditions. The failures are as spectacular as the successes.

Sixth, the refusal among some to distinguish the issue of forgery from the issue of Bush's record. By all means, we need careful digging into the histories of the men who want to be President. Both are vulnerable, and both have things to hide. However, some reporters and commentators are so inured to horse-race mode that everything comes down to its effect on the Bush-Kerry race. Well, it doesn't. Life is bigger than American federal politics. Truth is not a function of power. People who won't see or admit this are simply not to be trusted.

Seventh, the applicability of all these insights to the tradition I care most about: the Christian faith. Our own tradition fails as well as succeeds. It overlooks as well as investigates. It hides as well as explores. It misleads as well as guides. It subjugates truth to power as well as vice versa. The crisis at CBS News and wider journalism is an object lesson for every tradition that wants to be and remain adequate, strong, honest, fair, self-critical, and properly confident about its message. The lessons are all the more stark where the message concerns God, God's world, and God's good news.

I don't want to be a Christian Dan Rather, or Christ's holy Church to be a Christian CBS News or Boston Globe, or theology to be a Christian conspiracy theory or power play. Our tradition has the vices to make all of these nightmares come true. However, we also have the gifts to make these and other nightmares no more than dark memories that fade with the bright light of day. Thanks to the Holy Spirit given to us, the happy outcome of the contest between these two is both certain, and up to us.

11:40 (file under /topics/politics)

Mon, 16 Aug 2004

A Biblical Worldview? No Thanks

Joe Carter at the evangelical outpost has a helpful criticism of the "biblical worldview test" (and marketing device) from the folks at "Worldview Weekend".

Carter quotes Jack Heller, an evangelical professor who got a higher score as a fictitious conservative non-believer than as himself (read the whole thing, it's marvelous), then concludes that "the makers of the test appear to confuse having a 'moderate biblical worldview' with having a 'moderate Republican worldview.'" Yep (except that that condemnation gives 'Republican' a bad name). Still, I prefer Heller's own conclusion:

If a person can deny the resurrection of Christ and still appear to have a Christian worldview, if a Christian in Asia could not take a Christian worldview test and pass it, then these tests are not a valid assessment of whether a person has a Christian worldview. The tests may assess how well an American agrees with the religious right, but if that is their purpose, then it is deceptive to call them Christian worldview tests. I cannot imagine the previous generation of thinkers about worldview – people such as Carl Henry, James Sire, Arthur Holmes, Francis Schaeffer – approving of these tests. As the tests idolize politics, what is cause for concern is how many significant evangelical leaders, people who really should know better, are associated with them. The point of my criticisms is not to help refine the tests. ... To suggest that all that would be needed is a statement rewritten to include the resurrection of the body would not address the assumptions underlying the structural flaw of these tests. It is quite impossible to create a test for the Christian worldview.

My own criticisms go in a different and more radical direction.

The test questions are a mishmash of canards of federalism, American political mythology, fundamentalist litmus tests, and au courant conservative causes. It is not a random conflagration, however. In fact, it nicely illustrates how American evangelicals have taken to using the term "biblical" to refer not to things the term meant for most of the Christian or even the Protestant era, but to something much more specific: what Ann Monroe called "something vaguer – a mutually accepted amalgam of teaching, culture, and instinct that they call biblical faith." (The Word: Imagining the Gospel in Modern America, p. 117.)

Incidentally, even though I have a high view of Scripture, an orthodox theology, and rather conservative politics, I am still not all that 'biblical' according to the popular criteria, as my score on the test illustrates:

Am I jealous? Not even. Worried? Yes, but not the way the people at Worldview Weekend want me to be.

The dominance of this cultural amalgam in evangelicalism marks the extent to which evangelicalism is not only a term of sociological self-identification or convenience, but an actual tradition, as well as a "Christian subculture." Now a coherent subculture and a transformed wider culture are things many evangelicals work very hard for. But the existence and popularity of a tradition whose authorities equate commitment to federalism, philosophical foundationalism, anti-evolution, etc. with commitment to Jesus Christ makes me think we need to be a lot more demanding about the subculture we want to create. The definite article in Worldview Weekend's "the Christian worldview" is hazardous, but so is the indefinite article in the often-heard phrase "a Christian culture" or "a biblical worldview." In different ways, both constructions leave the goals too amorphous – too simultaneously underdetermined and overdetermined – for their own good.

It is not that these other things are all bad; hey, I'm a federalist. It is not that a synthetic Christian culture is necessarily a bad thing; the absence of one would be perilous, and the right one could be an exceedingly good thing. However, many evangelicals' habit of driving these particular strands together and wrapping them up tightly as "biblical" is a combination of naivete, laziness, disingenuousness, manipulation, narcissism, sloppiness, and intolerance.

I really mean these words to be as strong as they are.

Heller is right that worldview-testing is futile. But the underlying confusion is in the tradition, not just the instrument. There are so many mistakes just in the assumptions of the test questions, which match mistakes in the assumptions of the tradition, that it is impossible even to know where to start unraveling the mess, let alone correcting them.

That's why I recommend the following alternative strategy to improving "the evangelical biblical worldview":

First, I call for a moratorium on evangelical use of the word "worldview." The more I hear us using the term, the more I dislike it. There is way too much nineteenth century German idealism in it. Weltenschauung was bad to begin with, and we're only making it worse.
I would suggest "paradigm" as a substitute if I were not so afraid that we would ruin it.
Second, let's make Church history a requirement for Christian cultural literacy. (Note: the history of the Church does not leap from the first century to the sixteenth or twentieth, nor from the Middle East to Britain's colonies in America.)
Third, anyone want to sponsor Monday-through-Friday seminars for Worldview Weekend staffers where they study the Bible and worship with Christian leaders from other countries?

That's just for starters.

Fortunately, it can be just for starters. There are a lot of healthy and realistic steps we evangelicals can take. This is because one of the best qualities of my evangelical tradition is that it is a tradition, and a powerful one at that. Sometimes it is a pretty poor one, but its robustness is something to be grateful for – and also something to put to use in improving it.

17:58 (file under /topics/politics)

Mon, 19 Jul 2004

Not Ready for Prime Time

My wife Kim went to Occidental College, where a thoroughly depressing story has been unfolding over the past academic year. The gory details are here (and make sure you follow all the links). In a nutshell, a leader in student politics made shameful, outrageous statements about the administration and his political opponents on his campus radio "shock jock" program. His program director refused to take the show off the air. This apparently prompted students to respond with a defamatory recall campaign and – this is the real shocker – the administration to dissolve the student government and take administration of students' dues to campus programs out of students' hands. FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), the ACLU, and other civil liberties organizations have taken up the fight. The administration responded to their queries with intimidating and inaccurate responses from the general counsel. The issue only just recently hit some of the weblogs I read (it is worth your while to check out the comments on that entry from Joanne Jacobs, including one from an Occidental student).

What a circus! Unbelievable. And yet totally believable. While it is extreme, at the same time it is symptomatic of American educators' failure to train generations of young people simply in how to live as adults. Now earlier ill-trained generations are in charge, and passing on their ignorance. Students are raised in an atmosphere of political correctness and reactionary political incorrectness that is orders of magnitude worse than the already suffocating and polarizing atmosphere I hated in college back in the early eighties. The campus majority thinks it can just oppress away those who disagree with its vision of the world. The campus minority thinks "conservative" shock-radio-style venom is an appropriate response just because it is legal. The administration, who most of all should know better and show the way, has forgotten or never learned that the First Amendment still applies even on college campuses, and chooses to take actions that are not only stupid and short-sighted but unconstitutional. Even the general counsel! Even the president! And yet another "teachable moment" for students just to grow up is wasted.

This at an elite liberal arts college which has marketed itself for decades as leading the way in multicultural education!

I actually sympathize with all parties. Who would stand for being slurred with unprintable epithets over campus radio, especially after being convinced that it is unacceptable and sanctionable harassment? What administrator would sit by and allow the college's name to be associated with such programs? What self-respecting student officer would let recall proponents defame his character with lazy and false accusations of "racism" and all the rest of the terms that come so quickly to a twenty-year-old tongue, and then let the campus administration try to make it all go away by chilling speech and dissolving the student government?

Some of this comes down to sheer competence. Dissolving the student association? Tendentious, misleading, and false letters from the school's general counsel? What is that supposed to teach students? These things call for administrative apologies and remedies at the very least.

Yet our culture's political habits led directly to the debacle. Moreover, they left all of these parties unable to identify a way out once things started going wrong. You can see these kinds of things coming from a mile away. The problem isn't just personal, it's also structural.

Tom Wolfe says he is writing a new novel about academia. I can't wait to read it. He'll have the same problem he always does: reality is always outdoing our novelists' imagination. Or, as he puts it himself:

America is a wonderful country! I mean it! No honest writer would challenge that statement! The human comedy never runs out of material! It never lets you down! (Wolfe 2000, 104).

Well, American greatness notwithstanding, it is past time to push the RESET button on college campuses and re-think responsibility, tolerance, legality, education, and especially leadership.

Now I don't think what happened at Occidental would happen at Westmont. I am grateful that we have a "sectarian" institutional mission that, unlike the missions of modern secular higher education, can be coherent. We have callings and stndards that surpass mere legality. We have catholicity, which is far superior to diversity. But I don't want to rest on that conclusion until I am proven even partially wrong. I wrote a while back that the bitterness of the culture wars has already infected Westmont's relationships and communications too. Other schools pose lessons for us – and our own campus has plenty of successes as well as failures we can keep learning from.

First of all, administrators, faculty, and students all need to know the law.

Second, we all need to break the widespread attitude that colleges are above the law. This applies to free speech, equal rights, alcohol and drug use, cheating, copyright infringement, harassment, and all the rest. We are not gods; we are scholars, citizens, and guests.

Third, a little representative democracy 101 is in order, since high-school civics classes have apparently dropped that ball. Specifically, we all need remedial work in how to treat minorities – and we need to understand that a muckraking libertarian white Jewish male might qualify as one. At least he did in this case.

Fourth, schools – all of us, really – need to cultivate virtues rather than just accumulate power and protect rights.

Fifth, campuses have to get real in more ways than this. Our artificiality, self-righteousness, and stubborn utopianism have made us so insular that we are often no longer meaningfully connected with, or sometimes even aware of, the habits necessary to flourish in the truly diverse society that is the contemporary United States, let alone many of the world's other cultures. Duke was affectionately known as "the Gothic wonderland," and not just for the architecture. Many graduates practically have to be re-educated in how to live outside "the ivory tower."

A couple years in "the real world" usually does the trick. Yet "the real world" is what produced shock-jock radio and illiberal radicalism! America in 2004 is not a multicultural paradise either, even if it is often a more harmonious place than college campuses. So....

Sixth (here comes the sermon), we need to cultivate communities where these kinds of impasses are overcome by reconciliation through the grace of Jesus Christ.

I don't mean this as a platitude; I am firmly convinced that the order that self-destructed at Oxy last year is the world that is passing away with the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

Specifically, we disciples need to resist the politicization of identity and difference with the catholicity of the Holy Spirit. I am reading a nice project by Craig M. Gay, The Way of the (Modern) World: Or, Why It's Tempting to Live as If God Doesn't Exist, which claims that

a modern society is one in which it is assumed that all problems lend themselves to politically calculable solutions, for the assumption underlying so much of modern political life is that it is the responsibility of governments to distribute the material, and even spiritual benefits of modernity to their citizens. The state has thus become the focus of a great deal of attention in modern times (49).

With only minor adjustments this nicely captures the spirit of most modern college campuses, doesn't it?

One of my classes this coming semester will be reading excerpts of Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace, a profound theological treatment of the way out of this and related dilemmas. This topic makes me all the more eager to re-read it with my students.

All this effort comes down to education, and education requires educators. We who enjoy the responsibilities and privileges of leadership have to learn ourselves, remind each other of, and teach our students the habits we want everyone to have as members and graduates of our communities. From the moment they apply for admission we need to treat them as potential trustees. Because each one already is, in a way, a trustee of the institution and the wider society from that moment onward. We in Christian education are trustees of much more than that: of the Holy Spirit, of the name of Christ, of the signs of the Kingdom, and of the gospel of peace.

Sagas like this one show us that too much of our guild is not presently up to those tasks. Moreover, our competence seems to be deteriorating rather than improving. But we had better make ourselves ready, if we want our trustors and constituents to let colleges and universities survive in their present forms. Right now I don't think we very often deserve their good faith.

14:02 (file under /topics/politics)

Wed, 14 Jul 2004

Washington Post: Click

A while back I offered an amen to Jeff Jarvis' and others' pleas to re-take responsible discourse, and told you I was tuning out the media who are "dupes or, worse, coconspirators."

Well, Dan Froomkin, The Washington Post's White House briefing correspondent, is tuning out something else: complaints from nonpartisan readers about the structural unfairness of presidential news coverage. An e-mailer asks a long question that boils down to this:

My basic problem is that the initial hysterical rants get front page play, but the later facts get glossed over in the mainstream media.

Froomkin's "answer" boils down to this:

... it is the job of the press to be skeptical of the actions of the man in that [Oval] office, whoever he is. Not rude, not partisan, not so cynical that we skew the facts – but skeptical. Every action he takes, and the effect of those actions, merits – and demands – to be examined from every angle.
And the president, again, by virtue of his office, accrues enormous credit for all the good things the country and the government stand for and accomplish. But I think that the buck stops there, too. I think the president bears the ultimate responsibility for everything he says and does.
Don't you?

There is nothing to disagree with in Froomkin's thesis there, except that it doesn't address the question. It is as if Froomkin's eyes skipped from the e-mailer's specific complaints to an entirely different question: "Is the press too hard on the Bush Administration?" It is as if his guild's boilerplate answer is telling Froomkin what the question is. Aren't journalists, especially Washington Post journalists who edit briefs from the White House, supposed to be good at reading things carefully?

You're making me work too hard, Mr. Froomkin. You're making me do your jobs, Washington Post editorial staff. Read the questions; select the questions to answer; answer them; check and double-check to make sure you have it right. That's what is supposed to happen in a "Live Online discussion" at a major national newspaper.

Until you all start thinking beyond the boilerplate, I am tuning you out. Click!

14:52 (file under /topics/politics)

Wed, 30 Jun 2004

Demagoguery: Click

Amen to Jeff Jarvis' and others' pleas to marginalize the extremists, left and right, who are taking over responsible discourse in the west.

It's time to treat Michael Moore as the extremist that he is. Simple-minded, simplistic, mean, venemous, a hate-monger who does nothing to advance the debate and aims instead to divide. Add your nominees on the left.

And the same goes for Rush and Jerry Falwell and others who spew their hate and half-facts and bile and intolerance. Add your nominees on the right.

They are extremists.

We're not.

And media are their dupes or, worse, coconspirators.

Do you want to defend, overlook, or adopt Michael Moore's tactics because you want to oppose the Bush Administration or the war on terror? Go ahead. Someday, if you're lucky, you'll be ashamed of yourself. In the meantime, I just tuned you out. Click!

Do you want to quash, overlook, or distort legitimately bad news because you want to support the Bush Administration or the war on terror? Go ahead. I hope you regret it sooner rather than later. Until then, click!

I am tuning out a lot nowadays. I stayed up late June 28 to watch Nightline on the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq. What I saw was a template, not a story. Click. They've lost me, just as the American auto industry lost me in the seventies. Twenty-five years later, I drive a Honda. If Ford or ABC News wants to win me back, they're going to have to work hard for it – and be very, very patient.

This upsets me. We all need responsible reporting and responsible commentary, and we aren't getting much of it. My diet of news is not a very healthy one, and it continues to shrink, because it is hard to find a place where the signal-to-noise ratio is good enough to be worth investing my time. There are millions of people like me who also have better things to do than sift through and deconstruct all the stuff out there. This is what editors were for, remember? Well, most editors aren't doing their jobs. They're failing at network news divisions, at big-city papers, at small-city papers, and on cable. The amateur editors and pundits in the blogosphere compensate somewhat, but they aren't up to the job, either. They weren't supposed to have to be!

Believe me, I don't want to be ignorant about current events. But thanks to the demagogues and their dupes and coconspirators, the alternative just isn't worth the trouble.

Do you remember the conservative pro-war crowd lamenting the hyperbole among the anti-war crowd a year and a half ago, and calling for better quality arguments against the effort? Whether or not they really meant it, they were right. There were good anti-war arguments out there, but they were usually drowned out by the din of the poor ones. Similar things can be said of the pro-war side, which hid its true (and more persuasive) motives too much behind WMD scare tactics. The anti-war side – at least the part that was listening – needed to hear better pro-war arguments, and there were good arguments out there, but they too were rarely heard. Our sloppiness then got us to where we are now, each side demonizing the other and wallowing in its own propaganda to feel confirmed.

(Despite the balanced treatment here, I still think today as in the eighties the problem is worse on the left, just as the problem was worse on the right during the Clinton/Gingrich years. There is something about being out of power that makes the temptation harder to resist. Conversely, there is something about being in power that makes succumbing to the temptation harder to excuse.)

A similar dynamic has afflicted the Church for decades. There is too much noise and not enough signal in Christian rhetoric. Irresponsible revisionism, naive (if not dishonest) apologetics, and self-indulgent devotional literature dominate the bookshelves at both mainstream secular and evangelical Christian bookstores. The problem seems even worse from pulpits and 'Christian' electronic media. As a result, thoughtful and busy people are practically forced to tune it all out.

I don't want the world to be ignorant of the good news. Maybe most non-believers don't want to be ignorant either. But thanks to the demagogues, many consider the alternative more trouble than it's worth. Click.

It's time for opinion leaders – and above all church leaders – to take seriously our responsibilities as researchers, writers, editors, and publishers of truth. If we don't, we go from being the demagogues' dupes to being coconspirators. And this won't just embarrass us someday; it will judge us.

14:33 (file under /topics/politics)

Fri, 25 Jun 2004

Fear Not

In the past few weeks I have had a series of conversations with people deeply worried about the election. Some of these are conservatives panicking at the prospect of a Kerry victory that will mark a retreat, then a surrender, on the war against Al Qaeda and militant Islamism. More of them are liberals panicking at the prospect of a Bush victory that will cement the transformation of the United States into a fascist dictatorship. (Many in both camps will be all the more stressed after this weekend when they indulge in Michael Moore's latest propaganda.)

Here is why I think both camps need to relax:

Not because there is nothing to worry about. A lot of terrible stuff could happen both domestically and abroad in the next four years.

Not because there is little at stake in November. Much is at stake – not least how America will officially respond to the crises that will inevitably come.

Not because the two candidates are "Tweedledum and Tweedledee," as radicals like to claim. The two candidates' constituencies, policies, visions, and personalities are quite distinct (though the policy differences will be minimized as both move to the center between now and November).

Rather, first, because the hyperbole from both sides is designed to scare – to scare people into buying a paper, staying tuned, joining a constituency, supporting a candidate, and voting. I remember a conversation from almost fifteen years ago at a journalism event I was attending. "What have you been doing lately?" someone asked an L.A. television journalist. "Same old thing," he replied, "just scaring the hell out of people." He spoke for his whole industry. Are you letting opinion-leaders and their audiences petrify you about the possible future? Then you're playing into their hands.

Second, because the leaders on both sides of the issues are more competent than either side can probably imagine. I'm not talking here about the crowds of people who casually follow current events (er, like me); we may be catastrophically wrong about all sorts of things. But the folks who end up in charge generally do their homework, follow the issues, make judgments, and take actions that flow out of a wellspring of experience and practical wisdom. Yes, some are more experienced than others. Sure, some of these actions inevitably turn out to be wrong. Moreover, some camps are practically and philosophically equipped to do better than others – and here is where we want the best camps to be in position when those times come. Nevertheless, our own perspectives invariably blind us as truly as they give us eyes to see: and what they blind us to most profoundly is often the insights and possibilities that other perspectives afford. The hardest thing to see from where you are is something that can only be seen from somewhere else. Here is some advice for riding out the campaign: Think of someone whose knowledge, wisdom, and judgment you deeply respect who still backs the candidate you fear. When you hear a claim that strikes you as preposterously false or a proposal that seems horribly counterproductive, ask yourself how that other person might interpret it. You will probably discover reasons for doubting that Bush is nearly as evil or Kerry nearly as opportunistic as you are tempted to think. This is not philosophical or moral relativism; people are flawed and err all the time. It is humility, for we are flawed and prone to error too.

Third, because cultures are much more stable than we usually think. Things have a way of grinding on in ways that make four-year election cycles less than epochal. I have just finished a wonderful book, Walter Russell Mead's Special Providence, which charts four dominant schools of American foreign policy back to the origins of the republic. The centuries have seen them gain and lose, not rise and fall. Their constituencies shrink and grow; their visions perceive and misinterpret; their powers wax and wane. They adjust, not unlike a market adjusts, to new conditions. Mead's book was released before September 11, 2001 but a revised edition includes an epilogue that confirms a reconfiguration of these schools in the months since rather than a revolution. The long view looks surprisingly constant and surprisingly good (at least from the conventional American perspective, which is the one usually in view during election seasons).

Finally, because the conventional American perspective, as bright as it probably is, is not the best perspective. Thomas Merton once commented that one sin has more destructive power than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We should remember that the converse is all the more true: one saint has more re-creative power than a world of sinners. The Father's will is done; the Son is risen; the Spirit is among us. When, despite all the horrible evil of their ages, Jesus and his angels said not to fear, they understood why that advice is no empty consolation, but the height of faith. Want to calm down? Then remember the victory that outlasts every defeat.

Shabbat shalom.

17:38 (file under /topics/politics)
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