Mon, 07 Aug 2006
A few eager-beaver students are asking about next semester's syllabi. I am sure it is because they love learning and not just that they want to pick up deals on amazon.com. At any rate, I have finalized my textbook choices for next semester's classes. There are more than ever! Woo-hoo!
Here are my booklists for Christian Doctrine and Doctrine of Reconciliation. I encourage parents and others who want to purchase copies so you can read along. Doctrine students: Note that there is an in-course honors track for those of you who are eligible. It has some of the same readings and some different ones. A new aspect to the course will be one text that you will choose from a list to read with other students.
Alas, if you want to read ahead you will have to wait until I post the reading schedules. Those will be 'under construction' until nearly the beginning of the semester.
22:30 (file under /topics/westmont/classes)
Tue, 27 Jul 2004
This week's South Coast Beacon featured this editorial cartoon from Daryl Cagle, a syndicated columnist who lives nearby and thinks the college mistreats its neighbors:
The cartoon's factual errors prompted me to write a letter to the editor, but the cartoon itself prompted further thinking, particularly on the matter of stereotypes and we who create them.
Seeing my school (and as I teach theology here, my own self) personified as an ugly seventeenth-century Bible-toting Puritan is informative. It shows how a person gifted in portraying the world he sees chooses to see us. In a broader sense it can help us all understand how we choose to see both others and ourselves.
When I was studying Islamics at Duke, my professor Vincent Cornell started off the course by passing around a cartoon from the early 1990's. It portrayed Saddam Hussein in the military garb he favored back then ... and a veiled wife on either side of him. Then he showed us a photo of the Hussein family. What was different? he asked. Lots of things, it turned out. Saddam only had one wife, not two. And there were no veils in the whole picture. "This is a rigorously secularist regime," Cornell told us. "Saddam tells his people that when they kneel for prayers, they should just count to fifteen." (This was a year or two before Saddam started wrapping himself in the Quran by building nationalist mosques and commissioning editions with ink containing his own blood.)
That cartoonist had fused two incompatible and factually exclusive images in his cartoon. Very few American readers would have had the perceptive abilities to notice the juxtaposition, let alone the background to criticize it. As a convert to Islam from an Anglo-American background, Cornell had the eyes to see it. He presented it in professorial style, excited at the teaching opportunity, but I wonder how much it actually hurt him.
Where did this muddled image of the Middle East come from? Not just from the cartoonist; after all, our roomful of college students didn't sense the discrepancies until Cornell pointed them out. It came from our collective critical imagination.
Stereotypes serve an editorial function. They keep our world manageable. But manageability comes at a cost. In the case of the Westmont cartoon, the cost exceeded the benefit. The real point of Cagle's cartoon is the (debatable) argument in the third frame over whether Westmont is a good neighbor. However, to support that claim Cagle used claims in the first two frames that are false. They are not sheer fabrications, but inaccurate, outdated, and unfair representations. At the same time, they are culturally plausible to Cagle and many of his readers so plausible that Cagle apparently didn't feel he needed to check them to see if they were true.
I am treating Cagle here as representative, not singling him out. We all operate this way. Observation is theory-laden. Our expectations influence our experiences and vice versa in a circular fashion. The circle can be virtuous or vicious in any discipline, from science to history to theology, but the circularity everywhere is unavoidable.
So this probably is Cagle's Westmont, as well as the Westmont of some of his readers. His cartoon is a chance to get inside his world, so to speak, and see things from within his hermeneutical circle. That is a gift that we should dare to accept whether or not we like what we see.
My first reaction is disappointment. Maybe I am naive; maybe my own background in journalism keeps my expectations high; but I still expect a nationally syndicated cartoonist at Slate to make sure basic claims are right before he sets pen to paper. If he doesn't bother, why should I bother trusting him? Why should I entertain his images when they are coming from distorted premises and lazy reasoning?
Well, I shouldn't. This is one more reason to tune out, and one more symptom of the malaise of contemporary journalism. Click!
But I don't want to tune out just yet. For all its flaws, I still think this cartoon is a gift. Dwelling inside Cagle's world for a while is an invaluable opportunity to cross cultures for a moment and see the world in a new way.
Cagle's Puritan personification of us is not as egregious as Saddam with two veiled wives. Westmont is in a theological tradition with roots in Puritanism. But so are almost all other American Protestant institutions, including Unitarian Universalism on the other theological extreme from fundamentalism. Unitarians have brought up their Calvinist history in every one of the several UU services I have ever attended. In fact, you can make an impressive argument that UU is one true heir of Puritanism. (For those who care, it would be a triumph of Calvin's doctrine of irresistible grace over his doctrine of limited atonement.) So why are we the seventeenth-century ones?
It's not because California evangelicals are more conscious or respectful of American Church history! Most of my students come from formally nondenominational churches that prefer the first century and the latest century to any other. Almost all of them have internalized thoroughly modern, if not postmodern, presuppositions. They roll their eyes at fifty-year-old hymns! It can be a real chore to get them to treat the faith historically. It is the mainline liberal Protestant denominations that are more conscious and deferential to their theological pasts, even if they do so revisionistically.
It's not because California evangelicals are the only ones who are suspicious of Catholicism. If anything, the last couple of decades have seen a reversal from historical patterns, with evangelicals more rather than less comfortable with and respectful of Rome. We aren't the ones buying millions of copies of The da Vinci Code and thinking it's all true. A few (usually first-year) students do misunderstand, misrepresent, and even respect my Catholic students, but their attitudes usually change without much effort on my part. Much more often my non-Catholic students really enjoy hearing my Catholic students' perspectives and treat them with respect, and they like the Catholic books I require.
It's not because evangelicals at least California evangelicals are still pop-culture separationists who treat dancing as "worldly." Sure, in some circles the old attitude persists. But dancing is as ancient a controversy as card playing. Today the boundaries are shifting around practices such as body piercing (allowed at Westmont, but not respected by all students) and free premarital sex (not allowed at Westmont, but not disrespected by all students). But all communities have similar boundaries of one kind or another. Moreover, it is evangelicals, not liberal Protestants, who are working hard to craft specifically Christian embraces of popular culture and as much for outreach as for self-protection. Anyone paying attention to the Christian music scene already understands this.
It's not because Cagle is imagining evangelical distinctiveness out of thin air. Instead, it is at least partially that like the Middle Easterners in that cartoon about Iraq, American evangelicals actually have an identity that is different enough from the wider cultural norm to support a stereotype. We are theologically and ethically committed to our tradition. We are critical in how we appropriate practices from other traditions and the wider culture. We can be located in an American religious heritage because we still draw from it in recognizable ways.
Not only am I grateful for these distinct aspects of evangelicalism, but I owe my life to them. They attracted me to vital Christian faith out of a background in nominal liberal Protestantism that didn't really support Cagle's brand of stereotyping.
This cartoon has been a reminder, and I am thankful for that.
However, what his hermeneutical circle does to distinctiveness is less encouraging. When I look at the picture as a whole, I see here a world of distance a depressingly distant world where otherness is allowed and invited to harden into caricature.
Look away from the sneering Puritan in the cartoon and toward the other figures. The Catholic is a regular guy, I suppose, but he's hideous. The dancer is an anorexic ditz. By contrast, the neighbor is the most normal one in the whole picture a good natured, casual Californian. In fact, a little googling reveals that he is Daryl Cagle! The most normal figure in the picture is the cartoonist himself.
As the Church Lady would say, How con-veen-ient!
Now this would be the conventional time for me to score some cheap rhetorical points. But I cannot do that. For one thing, I might be reading too much into the picture. I don't know Cagle's motives in portraying each of these types as he has, and don't intend to question them. It may just be that he needs to portray himself realistically so that he is recognizable to the few readers who would know what he looks like. It may be that he wants those few readers to know Westmont's neighbors are real, flesh-and-blood people. These explanations are still puzzling isn't a person still supposed to be recognizable through the caricature? aren't the other figures in this cartoon real people too? but there may be some other explanation I haven't thought of. Besides, Duke taught me to look at texts not mainly as a means of reading the author's mind, but mainly as worlds that invite us in. So Cagle's authorial intent isn't where my interpretation lodges.
The real reason I couldn't point fingers even if I wanted to is that I don't hold moral high ground here anyway. While at the obvious level I am the Puritan in the cartoon, what disturbs me so much is that at a deeper level and in a much more accurate sense I am the cartoonist. I live in a socially constructed world in which I alone am the normal one.
This perceptual world belongs to everyone who intuitively understands its iconography. Cagle didn't invent the form, and he didn't have to train us in how to read it. We all inherited it (along with original sin's other manifestations, I suppose). I have no drawing talent whatsoever, but I can caricature. And I generally spare my self image the brutality with which I render others.
"But caricaturing is what cartoons do!" "But this is what makes them interesting!" Yeah, I know. My mental cartooning turns the world into a freak show I find immensely entertaining. Yet in the end it is a lonely, bitter, dead place.
I don't like the part of me that desires and chooses to see others this way. I am tired of living according to its perceptions. I don't like it when I teach my children, my students, and my readers to make themselves the norm at others' expense. You and I aren't the norm, Jesus is.
I want this part of me healed, not reinforced. I wouldn't mind learning how to draw, but I want to forget how to caricature. I want to stop putting everyone else at eye's length.
(That means professional journalists too, whom I realize I have been picking on a lot lately.)
This kind of thing has been on my mind for a while. It features in the chapter on "your will be done" in my Lord's Prayer book. I just delivered a sermon on how Christ paid the price to free us from the distance we impose on others in order to defend and assert ourselves, whether through politics or otherwise. (Wait for the link in the next few weeks. I am still refining it.)
That chapter and that sermon proclaim the good news that God has lifted us out of a world of distance and opposition into a community of fellowship and freedom. The gift of the Holy Spirit is freedom from caricaturing our God, our neighbors, and ourselves, as well as hope that sees us through the suffering of being on the receiving end of others' caricatures. Hallelujah!
Hey, I guess all this makes me a Bible-toting Puritan!
If Cagle's reasoning had been sound, his gift could have been greater. He might have identified more areas in which I, Westmont, and evangelicalism in general need to repent. But even in the absence of that opportunity I am thankful. I intend to keep Cagle's cartoon on my office door. I want my students to learn to take pride in the features that make them genuinely different. I want them to learn existentially a taste of what it must be like for Muslims to see themselves portrayed as terrorists and veiled belly dancers, for Jews to see themselves portrayed as hook-nosed Shylocks, for non-evangelicals to hear themselves slandered and misunderstood by evangelicals in the name of Truth, and for every other historical cultural American minority to discover itself distorted and objectified. I want them to discern the truth and the falsehood of others' caricatures and take lessons from both. I want them to identify opportunities for correction and enlightenment on all sides. And I want them to understand that we all need and are offered freedom from our own worlds of caricature.
15:58 (file under /topics/westmont)
Thu, 15 Jul 2004
I have finalized my textbook choices for next semester's classes at Westmont and Fuller Seminary's Santa Barbara extension. As usual, I like 'em!
If students want to get a jump on purchasing textbooks for Christian Doctrine, Doctrine of God, or Patristic Theology, or if parents or others want to purchase copies so you can read along, now you can.
If you want to read ahead, you will probably want to get in touch with me for a sense of which texts will come first, or else wait until the course schedules are ready. I won't be putting those together until close to the beginning of the semester.
13:33 (file under /topics/westmont/classes)
Wed, 07 Jul 2004
I hate writer's block!
Anyway, a former student, now in youth ministry, e-mailed me about the friction that comes when he exposes his students to some of the ideas he has been learning lately. While he has found Brian McLaren and other spokespeople for the 'emerging church' invigorating for his faith and refreshing for his career, they are controversial among his students and their parents. That is a common problem that McLaren wisely addresses in his books right alongside the new material. I answered my former student's question in this theological FAQ.
10:22 (file under /topics/westmont)
Mon, 21 Jun 2004
A few weekends back I had the pleasure of speaking at the Santa Barbara Community Church men's retreat. The overall topic was calling. I took the opportunity to compare and (mainly) contrast the traditional Christian notion of calling with the way we throw the word around in America nowadays. In sum, we have turned 'calling' into glorified language for communal and personal self-centeredness. In the church we have done the same thing, but wrapped it in spiritual sounding language. Imagine that!
Among other things, blogging will continue to be light this summer as I am spending most of my literary energy writing a book on the Lord's Prayer. The chapter on "your will be done" is currently underway. I hope it sees the light of day.
11:22 (file under /topics/westmont)
Thu, 10 Jun 2004
This is the post I tried to post a month ago.
It's graduation weekend. Congratulations, class of 2004! You rock!
I have been honored with the invitation to deliver Westmont's baccalaureate address tonight. For posterity's sake, my remarks are here in Adobe Acrobat.
16:12 (file under /topics/westmont)