October 31, 2002

Camassia's latest church visit has shown her that the American evangelical subculture crosses denominational lines and is increasingly influenced by Pentecostalism. You betcha.

She was troubled that a sermon on Luke 14:26 ("If any one comes to me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even himself, he cannot be my disciple") interpreted "hate" as "lesser love." Does Luke's use of miseo ("to hate") support that?

(Warning: I am not a fan of interpretations of Luke that water down its radicalism. I was saved because one night, unchurched and bored, I read Luke and took verses like this one at their face value. Here, finally, I met a Jesus whom I had never met in sermons or Sunday schools, a Jesus I could no longer ignore. Fortunately I was unaware of the widespread homiletical tradition of qualifying and explaining away passages that threaten the suburban social status quo, so I was left with the alternatives Jesus meant his audiences to face: Take it or leave it. Either take me seriously, or go away. Either enter the kingdom, or don't. Just don't waste my time.)

Luke 1:68-71: "Blessed by the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us."
Here hatred stands for centuries of threats against God's people on all sides. Israel is not about to get wiped out by the 'smaller love' of Rome.

Luke 6:22: "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man."
Here hatred is expressed as exclusion and revulsion, not inferior love. When disciples lose their social standing because of their association with Jesus, they are blessed. This quote is the mirror image of the sermon text, where disciples who forsake their social standing in order to associate with Jesus are his only true disciples.

Luke 6:27-28 (par Matt. 5:43): "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you."
Here kindness expresses love and cursing and abuse express hate. This is not greater or lesser love either.

Luke 16:13 (par Matt. 6:24): "No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will cling to the one and scorn the other. You cannot serve God and mammon."
Here love expresses radical preference; not just greater and lesser, but mutual exclusivity.

Luke 19:12-14: "A nobleman went into a far country to receive a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten pounds, and said to them, 'Trade with these till I come.' But his citizens hated him and sent an embassy after him, saying, 'We do not want this man to reign over us.'"
Here the tone is of insubordination and disrespect, not lesser love. These servants refuse to fulfill the obligations of their office, and the nobleman slays them (19:27). Ouch!

Luke 21:17 (par Matt. 10:22, Matt. 24:9, and Mark 13:13): "You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and kinsmen and friends, and some of you they will put to death; you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But not a hair of your head will perish."
Here hatred takes the form of persecution by family. (Ironically, those martyred are not harmed.)

The Christian hatred of family that Luke's Jesus commands is radical allegiance to Jesus that forsakes all other loyalties and bears all social and personal costs. It does this because competing loyalties – and culturally strong family loyalties more than most – distract and disempower the would-be disciple.

In our culture this is easy to misunderstand. In the ancient world, as in many cultures today, a person depends on family to survive. The most powerless are widows and orphans. It is far more important to be a family member than to be a citizen. (Note that in parts of America the opposite is true: People can get along all by themselves, but not without the government. Hmmm....)

In our culture family connotes romantic love, sentimentality, and the like – emotional goods. In ancient cultures, family was a precious material and political asset. Jesus is calling on people to forsake their social security if they are to be his disciple. The kingdom of God is not additive or multiplicative in its power; it does not supplement or complement our other assets. It stands only on its own.

Moreover, since family love comes with strings attached, its asset is sure to become a liability. Jesus prophesies that his disciples will be handed over and persecuted by the very family that once protected their own. Muslims who convert to Christianity in Arab countries find this out all too often. Families pressure their members to look after the family's interests. Widows and orphans, strangers and the poor are other people's problems. To prefer strangers to family is to break social taboos that keep society functioning – and that maintain its structural oppression.

For Jesus to inaugurate a new order of self-sacrificial love for all God's beloved children, Jesus and his disciples will have to confront a world of principalities and powers whose little fiefdoms it threatens. Those principalities scale all the way up to America and the UN, and all the way down to my little young family at the dinner table.

The context of the passage makes all this clear:

Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, "If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even himself, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he [or she] has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, 'This man began to build, and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be his disciple. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill; people throw it away. The one who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Camassia's language of being "imprisoned" isn't far away here. What imprisons sinners is love: not the love by which Jesus endured the cross for the sake of his God and his flock, but lesser loves of family, flag, and fortune. Far from strengthening us, these get in the way. They sap our strength to follow him bearing our own crosses. They turn our grand projects of fidelity into half-built monuments to failure. They are inferior troops for the battle. Only by renouncing these encumbrances, as David renounced Saul's armor, do we affirm and participate in Calvary's victory and find the deepest community of all.

This is not an argument for the clerical celibacy or monasticism of some, for Jesus claims that no one can be his disciple unless he or she renounces every loyalty. Besides, in his community, we are not isolated from each other, but pressed together around a table that brings us together in profound commitment. The Church is not a bunch of hermits; together we are one bride.

What does this text say about culture wars between "pro-family" conservatives and "pro-social" liberals? It proclaims a third way – not splitting the differences, but offering a radical "pro-church" (or better, "pro-kingdom") alternative which alone offers salvation for a world torn apart by party politics. (No wonder everyone abandoned Jesus by the end.)

My family is precious to me, but I am not to rely on or obey it so as to compromise my reliance and obedience on the kingdom. Nor am I called to show lesser love for my mom, my brother and sister, my wife, or my children. I am called to show Christlike love for them – enormous love rooted not in our familial claims on each other but only in Christ's claims on all of us; love that never makes our dinner table an alternative to the communion table, not even a little, but only points the former toward the latter.

Likewise, my country is precious to me, but I refuse to let my temporal dependence on it overshadow my dependence on God. I may not love it with anything less than the love of Christ. And Christ in his love did not become a Zealot to fight alongside his fellow Jews, but became sin and a curse to liberate all peoples, including his fellow Jews, from bondage to enemies and 'friends' alike.

Anything less just wastes his time.

Incidentally, as the sermon series was one on commitment, I suspect the pastor at that church might agree.

8:50 AM

October 30, 2002

Eve Tushnet (bless her heart) thinks a link to this site would bring "extra spice" to the conversation at No War Blog.

There is only one problem: Where have I said that I oppose an American, allied, or UN war against Iraq?

I just think that (a) any such war should be just, and (b) what God has called Christians alone to do to bring the world hope and peace will be confused and frustrated by our fighting in it.

12:59 PM

I am encouraged by the debate now springing up about the likely future shape of Islam. It feels like the beginning of an honest exchange. I hope it continues and thrives, not just among secularists or Christians or Muslims but across all these groups, not just in the weblogs and journals of commentary but in the mainstream media and the school system. (I'd rather the politicians leave it alone. Governments are the last places we should look for honesty about anything.)

Until now the dominant position has been to regard Islam as one flavor of some general thing called "religion." In this view – a very modern one – "religions" are basically interchangeable ideologies of transcendence (or whatever; scholars of religion can't agree).

It follows from this sweeping assumption that if Christianity could be Romanized, Europeanized, reformed, modernized, liberalized, and fundamentalized, then Islam can too. So can Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism (the rest of the Big Five "world religions"). What distinguishes these traditions from each other is rather incidental compared to what unites them. Because they are basically varieties of a common social phenomenon, they are all susceptible to common mutations. (By contrast, what distinguishes "religions" from "non-religious" traditions is all-important.)

This is not the place for me to criticize the presuppositions behind this "generalist" line of reasoning, but it is worth pointing out that there are plenty of persuasive theological, philosophical, and historical ways to do it.

The opposing position is more "particularist". Rather than assuming we know a lot about a tradition simply because we have classified it as a religion, we approach it on its own terms. Sure, it may have common properties or family resemblances with other traditions, and these traditions may or may not be commonly known as religions. But there is nothing necessarily alike about them.

(For an instance of a family resemblance, I think liberal Islam parallels the kind of diluted Deism that reigns in America's political and cultural imagination. Many Muslims plead that Americanism is essentially Islamic, and I think they are right. In fact, the two are closer to each other than either is to premodern Christian faith, early Protestantism, "Anabaptism," Catholicism before the twentieth century, or my own postmodern Christian vision. Most Americans believe in a god of good works who rewards obedience with worldly success. The secular ones buy self-help books, while the "Christian" ones buy The Prayer of Jabez, but both camps share an underlying ideology whose resemblance to Islam goes unnoticed when Islam is partitioned into the category of a constitutionally disestablished "religion".)

Colby Cosh rightly takes John Derbyshire and Damian Penny as generalists, and points out that critical features of Muslim traditions diverge rather than converge with Christian ones. (Cosh could have added James Q. Wilson to his list.) For example, the Quran occupies roughly the same position in Islam as Jesus (not the Bible) does in Christian faith. To Muslims Muhammad is more like the Christian Mary, bearer of the Word, than he is to the Christian Jesus. (Did I come up with that? I wish. I actually learned it from Seyyed Hossein Nasr's marvelous guide to Islam.) So Muslims criticize the Quran about as readily as Christians criticize Jesus. The central conviction of Muslim faith is inlibration, not incarnation. Muslim faith centers on a message ("submit!"), while Christian faith centers on a story ("believe the good news!").

Another critical distinction is that Jesus the politician refused to reach for the sword to inaugurate or defend his politics, whereas, as Cosh tactfully puts it, "Muhammad was a politician and an excellent general." Christianity took shape outside Jewish and Roman institutions of state power; Islam took shape as imperial conquest.

Differences such as these mean that when primitivist Christians have looked back to first century A.D. for inspiration, they have been drawn to a fundamentally different politics than primitive Muslims looking back to the first century A.H.

Wilson's account is not a picture of Christianity returning to its roots, but a picture of its slow and incomplete de-Constantinianization and domestication under the firm hand of modernity. So his parallel is Ataturk's modernization of Turkey. It is not reform in the Christian sense (that would be Wahhabism). It is forceful liberalization and modernization.

Even so, Christian distinctives facilitated the process of Christian modernization rather than standing in its way. Christians found the example of Jesus quite helpful in learning how to stop persecuting and fighting their enemies. Jesus' nonviolence made "neutering" Christianity (Cosh's word, not mine!) an exercise in remembering, not just discovering. Muslims have not been finding Muhammad so helpful as a friend of Muslim modernization.

In one area where the two traditions do look somewhat alike – their struggles against and absorptions of modernity – the outcomes are not encouraging for peace. Liberal Christianity has not fared well as modernity has aged and withered. As the Church explodes around the world, the sectors that are growing are conservative, revivalist, primitivist, charismatic – "fundamentalist." These people are unsatisfied with the compromises European Christians made with their intellectual, political, and cultural context. Likewise, liberal Islam has made few inroads beyond westernized academia. Islam's fastest growing sectors are even more dissatisfied with Islam's briefer encounter with western modernity. They are also conservative, revivalist, primitivist, "fundamentalist" – and more militant. If conservative Christianity is a headache to liberal democratic capitalism, imagine the migraine conservative Islam promises to be.

People who want to draw historical parallels would be better served by analogies between Islam and Judaism, not Islam and contemporary Christianity. Islam and Christianity are both large and evangelistic, but Islam and Judaism have closer notions of politics and law (not least because of the influence of converted rabbis in classical Muslim jurisprudence). Both have glorious histories of temporal rule. Both have quietists, collaborators, mystics, philosophers, judges, hermits, and militants.

Below I compared militant Islam's conflict with the modern West to Zealot Judaism's conflict with ancient Rome. Zealot Judaism lost its mother of all battles, and militant Islam is set to lose its Armageddon. Islam and the rest of the world will find a way to end the conflict and coexist. How, I do not know. Perhaps Muslims will find ways to read the Quran differently. Perhaps they will reverse the old principle of abrogation where later (and more bellicose) texts superseded earlier, more congenial ones. Perhaps they will learn to spiritualize the Quran's overtly political ayat much as the rabbis learned to spiritualize the Torah. Perhaps the Islamic survivors will be varieties resembling today's universalistic Ahmadis, spiritualistic Sufis, peaceful quietists, and synchretistic folk Muslims.

Or perhaps the Muslim faith will simply stop making sense to people, the Quran will stop sounding true, and Islam will stop growing and begin to fade away. After all, traditions do decline and even disappear. There aren't a lot of Zoroastrians around today.

Or perhaps not. There is really no telling, because we have not been here before. Islam is not just another religion, the Quran is not just another book, Muhammad is not just another charismatic leader, Islam's history is not just another trajectory, and the twenty-first century West is not just another civilization.

9:25 AM

Apparently it is just as offensive to criticize Muslim oppression out of expertise as it is out of ignorance. According to Rod Dreher, Bat Yeor is getting the Jerry Falwell treatment from Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others at Georgetown University. (More from me on Yeor and dhimmitude here.) Dreher quotes Walid Phares of Florida Atlantic University:

"After 9/11, and continuing jihadist attacks on Christians around the world, it's very sad that students at a prominent university would try to suppress voices of academics, of researchers who are just trying to shed light on a very difficult issue. History is history, and in the same way Christians have criticized their own history, including the Crusades, it's time for the Muslim intellectuals to start criticizing the Islamic conquests and the jihad."

My time at Stanford was in the mid-eighties, while the Reagan years were making liberals go berserk but before the full-blown heyday of political correctness. Even so, in some programs and departments, and in White Plaza, the left basically owned the conventional wisdom and often controlled the discourse. Once in a while a Stanford Daily editorial by a Hoover fellow would come down like a thunderbolt and leave us speechless. But only rarely. For most of my time there, I went along with the conventional wisdom as a mushy moderate. But in my last quarter I finally reacted against all the accumulated indoctrination and manipulation by concluding that the campus left had something to hide, and became for a while an unreconstructed right winger.

I am still not over the anger and sense of betrayal that my alma mater left me with. (It's a good thing that dorm life and football game halftimes just about compensated for them.) Don't these people realize that they are their own worst enemies? Don't the students, staff, and faculty at America's top universities realize that standing against politically incorrect suffering discredits everything they stand for? Don't top universities realize that when they get in the way of full and honest inquiry, they no longer want to be taken seriously? That they are no longer willing to be top universities?

All this, say Bat Yeor and Littman, shows how the Jews and Christians of Georgetown have embraced a dhimmi mentality, by abasing themselves before the sensibilities of Muslims, whose co-religionists persecute and oppress Jews and Christians abroad. Political correctness demands that Islam be thought of as inherently peaceful and tolerant, and no explorations of its history and doctrines that would lead to a contrary view may be presented.
That's right. Only it is far more than Muslim sensibilities that are offended. Equally offended is campus leftism stressed to the point of psychological pain by evidence of oppression and persecution that doesn't fit their expectations.

The main text in my church history course – at a suburban evangelical university that is not even nationally ranked – is brutally honest about every century of Christian failures. My students, few of whom had ever encountered ancient or medieval Christian history in any significant way before this course, are being initiated into Christian history not with an idealistic or triumphalistic view of our tradition, but with a fair, even occasionally antagonistic one.

I have designed the course this way because I refuse to leave my students open to feeling they have been cheated out of the truth. I want them to have a better education at Azusa Pacific than I had at Stanford. I actually believe the truth of Christian faith can survive fair and honest historical scrutiny. (By the way, my students are handling it, God bless them. They are a great group of men and women.)

Are Georgetown's pouting students and staff really that threatened by a couple of historians?

I've been there, so I'm not surprised. But I do feel sorry for all the young people who are paying a fortune and spending four or more years of their lives in order to gain an "elite education" that needs basic remediating. And I feel even sorrier for the millions of people throughout the world who suffer while the intellectually insecure avert their eyes.

It is to be hoped that the Georgetown debacle may result not in Bat Yeor's voice being silenced by dhimmitized Americans, but amplified by Americans who are tired of the silence on Islamic persecution of dhimmis.
Amen to that.

If years of careful, peer-reviewed scholarship by an Egyptian Jewish woman are not enough to earn this message a fair hearing, then I have an alternative. Campus groups need to find people who have personally suffered persecution as dhimmis – preferably poor women of color – bring them to campus, and have them speak. Let's see how consciously ignorant our "top" campuses are willing to be.


8:52 AM

October 29, 2002

Internet radio has gotten me buying music again. (Are you listening, RIAA? I didn't think so.)

Two Kirk Franklin CDs arrived yesterday: Nu Nation Project and One Nation Crew.

I'm hooked.

12:07 PM

October 27, 2002

Posting will be light for a few days. Two children are sick and, even worse, my wife is sick too. So our family will be in survival mode for a while.

Have a joyful Lord's Day!

12:25 PM

October 26, 2002

It has been two terrible weeks to be either the victim of an Islamist, or a Muslim. October has brought new connotations to the words "Bali", "Maryland", and "Moscow." Everyone now knows of a Mohamed who is a terrorist. (It may be premature to chalk up John Mohamed's killing spree to Islamist-inspired or Islamist-sponsored terrorism, but so far the signs are not good.) An Algerian massacre is so overshadowed by the rest of these that it won't even make a day's worth of headlines.

Weeks like these induce a kind of apocalyptic panic in me. The panic is inappropriate, but the apocalypticism is not. I want to explain why.

Jesus lived in a time of simmering conflict between Rome and Israel. Apocalyptic theology interpreted the ongoing conflict (as it had interpreted earlier conflicts with Babylon, Persia, and Greece) in terms of the promised end-times when God would see Israel through its final tribulation. The conviction that God backed Israel in the conflict left the chosen people, oppressed by a dominant power, that much more tempted to fight back, and that much more willing to take on impossible odds to fight the wars that proved not only futile, but counterproductive. Triumphalist eschatology provoked Israel to take up the sword, and Israel soon politically died by the sword it sought to live by.

Triumphalist Islamism, frustrated by the technological inferiority of Muslim societies, remains sure of God's favor and the inevitability of its victory over the Dar al-Harb ("House of War," the non-Muslim world). Whether it comes through conquest or through persuasion, victory is part of its metanarrative. This is the story Islam has told since the phenomenal conquests of its first few years. Whether it reaches for the sword out of insecurity or overconfidence or both, it reaches from within a tradition that makes sense of its actions.

For this reason, I find the assurances of Muslims that their religion is not really about war and conquest utterly unpersuasive. Of course it is. Naturally the conquest is more elegant when it happens nonviolently. However, the dominant story of the Quran and its community is of divinely intended, approved, and empowered conquest that makes social and personal space for human submission (islam), faith (iman), and virtue (ihsan).

Yet what made first-century Israel so volatile was not that one metanarrative reigned, but that two metanarratives conflicted. Israelite triumphalism threatened Roman triumphalism. The Roman-Israelite conflict from around 200 BC-200 AD was a slow and bloody process of working out a new relationship between the two storied peoples. Rome had to find a way to tolerate a people that could not practice its state religion. Israel had to find a way to tolerate a social context that did not respect its political aspirations. The result was a mutual compromise: Romans ruled Jews with an iron fist. Jews won a Roman concession excepting them from Rome's emperor cult.

Jesus of Nazareth got in the way of all this by presenting an alternative. (Here I am drawing on John Howard Yoder's essay, "The Original Revolution," which you can find in his For the Nations: Essays Public and Evangelical.) Jesus refused simply to side with the Sadducees who were willing to compromise with Rome. He refused simply to side with Zealots who advocated military action. He refused simply to side with Essenes who withdrew communally, or with Pharisees who withdrew spiritually, to a realm unthreatened by the rival narrative. Instead Jesus built a community of disciples that told a different story: The Reign of God has arrived in Jesus' ministry. Into a world committed to violent offense and self-defense, it spreads as a place of divinely intended, approved, and empowered peace among peoples. It is won and protected not by the sword but by the good news of God's forgiveness. At Jesus' table sit Simon the Zealot, Levi the tax-collecting oppressor, and eventually Paul the Pharisee and Cornelius the centurion. Reconciled.

The Jewish and Roman authorities, and even the disciples themselves, were so threatened by this peace that they all rejected it. Pilate offered "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" to the world as an example.

What irony. "'Now is the judgment of the world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.' He said this to show by what death he was to die" (John 12:32-33). In the Father's resurrection of the Son, the world's judgment of Jesus becomes God's judgment of the world. The resurrection, not the sword, creates the true social and personal space for human submission, faith, and virtue.

Today Jesus is just as much in the way of two "new," really old, metanarratives. One is Islamist peace through zealotry. The other is pax Americana. Both win and defend their turf through violence. Both tell stories featuring the persistent theme of war. One of my former teachers, Jim McClendon, quotes Michael Goldberg's Why Should Jews Survive? Looking Past the Holocaust Toward a Jewish Future. Goldberg says the American story

begins with tales about Pilgrims who set out in search of freedom. Later, the story reaches its climax with chronicles of revolutionaries who struggled for their independence. Afterwards, it continues with an epic about a civil war waged to liberate all those within the nation's borders. The American story next moves forward with legends about rugged individualists who pioneered those hard-won liberties in uncharted new frontiers. And throughout the story as a whole, we repeatedly hear of American men and women willing to fight and, if necessary, die to defend their cherished freedoms (8).
I don't like to hear these words, because I am a 'Roman' rather than a 'Zealot,' a proud American rather than a proud Islamist. But the shoe fits.

The American master story really came home to me one night when my family rented a Bugs Bunny video in which Bugs' rabbit-hole is dug up by a construction worker at a high-rise construction site. The boorish worker's dismissive attitude leads to an all-out guerrilla war of wits and improvised weaponry. Bugs takes some hits but ultimately prevails. After an entire trailer lands on the worker, he raises a white flag. The scene closes with a high-rise in which a rabbbit-sized semicircle is carved out. "After all," Bugs comments, "a man's home is his castle."

That cartoon perfectly represents the American story. "Leave us alone," we say. "And if you don't, there will be hell to pay." Over and over, the American story finds itself in conflict with the stories of others. Whether America is the defender or the aggressor, there is hell to pay every time.

That cartoon represents the Muslim story too, doesn't it?

Personally, in this conflict I am much more tempted (and I do mean "tempted") to throw in my lot with Roman America than Zealot Islam. And as I have repeatedly said here, I support America's efforts to defend both those who are dying at the hands of Islamists, and peaceful Muslims who may be scapegoated. There is some Bugs Bunny in me. Nevertheless, I find American assurances that its cause is not really about war and conquest equally unpersuasive. Of course it is. American history books tell America's story as clearly as the Quran tells Islam's.

McClendon seems to feel the same way. No hater of America, he quotes these words in Witness, a theology of culture that concentrates on American culture, music, art, science, philosophy, and religion as fertile soil for the good news to yield a harvest:

I do not belittle the American master story; it has meant life and hope to millions of families including my own. At least on one point, though, it contrasts sharply with the biblical master story just reviewed: In the story Americans tell themselves, every great problem from independence to slavery to totalitarian threats is finally resolved by the ultima ratio of war. ... In surprising contrast, the biblical master story pivots upon a slave people who ran away 'in urgent haste' (Deut. 16:3), upon a Savior who enters the capital city riding on a donkey and who is called the Prince of Peace; today it demands a living witness to that peace.
Thus my apocalyptic nervousness about a world shifting into a replay of the wars between Rome and Israel. Not every Muslim is militant any more than every ancient Jew was a Zealot. Nevertheless, Jews couldn't or wouldn't take the steps necessary to stop their own Zealots. So the conflict finally ended only with Rome taking care of its troubles by forcibly transforming first-century Israel into the demilitarized, passified, quietist rabbinic Judaism that arose in the second century. Romans stripped Jews of their homeland, their throne, and their temple worship. Likewise, America's impatience with Islamism is growing, and it is finding common cause with impatience throughout the world. If Islam cannot take care of its own crusaders, then others will do it for them. Conversely, America is finding Islam as tough a story to domesticate as Rome found Judaism. The 'peace' between Rome and Israel, if the centuries of Jewish subjugation (dare I call it dhimmitude?) could be called 'peace,' ended not in harmony but in Holocaust and homecoming.

Both Muslim and American assurances that we can all get along are either naive or disingenuous. Master stories like these do not just get along. Something will have to give.

When Jesus offered his alternative, both Rome and Israel spurned it, until the resurrection changed a few minds on both sides. Muslims and Americans have adopted a more effective way to reject the way of the cross. Both traditions learned long ago only to appeal to Jesus selectively, self-servingly, and conveniently, Islamizing and Americanizing Jesus, seeking to assimilate him as a champion of their causes. They thus turn their backs on the community he created – whose early achievement, before it was reinfected with (Constantinian) Roman triumphalism, was a just peace between Jews and Romans at a common table of fellowship. They fall back on their own resources, now with God's apparent imprimatur.

As today's conflict works itself out, it is forever changing both Islam and America (and every other storied people who gets involved). The years ahead promise to change us all further. I do not know how Islam and America and the world's other peoples will ultimately be affected by this contest of stories. I know that they will survive it. I also know that they will not be redeemed by it.

Redemption can only come through their trust in another story, in the good news of an undomesticated, crucified and risen, ascended and returning Jesus.

Jesus told his disciples not to lose hope as the world was engulfed in apocalytpic wars, because God's reign was and is at hand. The question is not whether God's favor reigns. It is not whether captives may be free, sins may be forgiven, poverty may find abundance, ignorance may become wisdom, or whether any other blessing may be had. In Christ all promises find their fulfillment. The question is only whether the world's peoples will accept what Christ has achieved when his Holy Spirit offers it to them.

Whether you are a Muslim triumphalist, an American patriot, or a supposedly neutral quietist, I write not as someone who hates you, or (in my less panicked moments) who fears you, but only as a living witness to a story that will always get in your way. It is a story authored by Jesus himself and signed by his resurrection. It is a story neither you nor we can ultimately domesticate to serve other purposes than God's own. It is a story none can silence through intimidation. It is also a story you cannot ultimately ignore, for God in his love has promised that all peoples will hear it.

And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places; all this is the beginning of the birthpangs. Then they will deliver you up to tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name's sake. And then many will fall away, and betray one another, and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because wickedness is multiplied, most people's love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations; and then the end will come (Matt. 24:6-14).
When you hear it, I hope you accept, and find security in the midst of the showdown.

Shabbat shalom.

12:49 PM

October 23, 2002

Sunday's sermon was the first of a series on self-esteem. Uh-oh!

Al Franken's Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live and California's commission to promote self-esteem – parody and self-parody – have conspired to make the concept an object of derision except among the stubbornly touchy-feely (and my generation, "X", is a lot more derisive than touchy-feely already).

Now my pastor, whom I respect immensely even though he is a baby-boomer, starts a series on it that is neither parody nor self-parody, and so I have to take it seriously. So be it.

His timing is actually terrific. Just a few days earlier in The Independent, Howard Jacobson powerfully located western and American self-hatred, concentrated in the left, in "our lack of self-worth" (via Andrew Sullivan):

Utterly obscene, the narrative of guilty causation which now waits on every fresh atrocity – "What else are the dissatisfied to do but kill?" etc – as though dissatisfaction were an automatic detonator, as though Cain were the creation of Abel's will. Obscene in its haste. Obscene in its self-righteousness, mentally permitting others to pay the price of our self-loathing. Obscene in its ignorance – for we should know now how Selbsthass operates, encouraging those who hate us only to hate us more, since we concur in their conviction of our detestableness.

Here is our decadence: not the nightclubs, not the beaches and the sex and the drugs, but our incapacity to believe we have been wronged.

There is a cure for this.

In locating the root of sin in human pride, Augustine brought astonishing clarity to the task of personal and cultural discernment. he helped transform shame cultures into guilt cultures. He created imaginative space in the west for the humility demanded by the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Augustine also created a blind spot. In his wake, the west has long been more adept at identifying self-glorification than self-loathing. In its doctrine of total depravity, Calvinism codified Augustine's insight that sin corrupts all of human life. While right in what it affirms, the doctrine was too easily interpreted as denying any human worth apart from saving grace. This is something it actually does not do; but the Arminian school of Augustinianism nevertheless sensed a problem of imbalance, and so rightly stressed human ability as well as human depravity.

Awareness of depravity without hope of redemption is an awful thing. It haunts Greek and Shakespearean tragedies. It afflicts those whose "Catholic guilt" keeps them away from church rather than drawing them back into the confessional. It is one reason the Calvinist and Lutheran doctrines of predestination are so loathed by all but a few. It tempts a world Jewry struggling to make sense of the Shoah. Now it debilitates a western left wing characterized by a powerful and comprehensive conviction of democratic capitalism's structural injustice. With Marx's labor theory of value discredited, where can hope be found? The powerful are just too powerful. The masses love Big Brother. Capitalism's global conquests promise to extinguish the hope of peoples everywhere. Perhaps desperation is the author of the left's toleration of and alliances with global democratic capitalism's various enemies. Triangulation is all that is left.

Yet the Good News despairs of no people, of no culture. Calvinists and Arminians, Augustinians and Pelagians alike know this, for Jesus himself has promised that the good news must be preached to all peoples (Mark 13:10). Even if I were predestined to damnation, my culture is not.

That is the real ground of social self-esteem. The possibility exists in all cultures – even ours, even our enemies' – of redemption. God has promised grace to restore and perfect nature. Total depravity describes us – the sex and drugs may be problems after all! – but it does not totally describe us. Our people can still be wronged.

Now one's cultural hope does not lie in the Darwinian triumph or even survival of one's own present civilization, but in its crucifixion and resurrection in Christ. This is as true of the west's declared enemies and the conflict's bystanders as it is of the west. All things are being made right and made new in the Kingdom. Cultural self-preservation and renewal are not simply up to us; they are divine commitments. In fact, the Church is empowered by a Holy Spirit who is up to the task. Because Jesus' crucifixion, resurrection, and Pentecost are irreversible achievements,

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ... If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:3-10).
Got a national self-esteem problem? Don't lose hope.

Know someone who does? Don't compound their hopelessness with your derision. Comfort them instead.

11:08 AM

October 22, 2002

As I write I am hearing Koko prophesy over Internet radio. Since I started listening to urban gospel I have noticed that occasionally the black Church's prophetic tradition of speaking in God's name coincides with the black choral tradition of a female lead singer. Here the results are wonderful: God, woman of color, honoring my deathbed Christianity while pleading for more:

You say that you love me, you can't live without me

Then why do you call me only when you need me?

12:49 PM

What about Camassia's contention that the bones of "Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" don't prove much faithwise? It depends on how much of a historical skeptic you have been. Fundamentalists will just shrug their shoulders and say, "We told you so." But for years I have been working in very different circles. A colleague just told me about a fellow biblical scholar who doubts the historicity of everyone before – get this – Origen. Now that's fringe, but it still tells you the dynamics of the guild. I have a hunch that fellow's powers of rationalization are already keenly honed, but this should still give them quite a workout.

More than anything, this discovery blows the doors off of every other extrabiblical attestation of Jesus' life, in both antiquity and proximity. Not just Jesus' mere existence; his life.

For this is the ossuary of the one who by tradition is acknowledged as Jesus' kin, as one of his early critics, and as following Peter as leader of the Church in Jerusalem.

James is not described in the gospels as being a believer before his brother's resurrection. In fact, the gospels generally present Jesus' family and home town as incredulous about what he has become since his baptism (Mark 3:21, 3:31-35). That's an odd enough tradition to be pretty uncontroversial historically. The gospels are not fabricating their unbelief, but explaining it away.

Yet something changes in James. In one of the earliest and most reliable historical narratives we have – a confession Paul learned from the apostles in Jerusalem and transmitted to his churches – we have testimony that the risen Jesus appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7). That testimony is missing from the gospels (whose stories of resurrection appearances diverge anyway), but it explains why, from being out of the loop, James suddenly emerges as a leader of the young Church (Acts 12:17). In fact, it explains the change like nothing else can.

Peter and Paul usually get the lion's share of theological and historical attention, not least because of their associations with Rome. But the first Christian community was in Jerusalem. It was in Jerusalem that the narratives of Jesus' resurrection appearances were collected. It was in Jerusalem – through the influence of James, according to Acts 15 – where it was decided that Gentiles could join the community without being circumcised. Jerusalem is a theological center, even the theological center, of the first-century Church.

In the tradition, James represents the conservative Jewish wing of the early Church. Yet his Aramic-speaking, culturally conservative fellowship seems responsible for the practice of calling on Jesus as "Lord." You can see this in Paul's closing one-word prayer in 1 Cor. 16:22: "Maranatha!" Even though he is speaking to a Greek audience, he leaves the Aramaic prayer untranslated, which means it is a liturgical text like "hallelujah" or "amen" that goes back beyond his own ministry to the common Jewish inheritance of all Christians. (For the same reason, that text in 1 Cor. 15 I already appealed to calls Peter "Cephas," his Aramaic name. That helps confirm its Palestinian rather than Pauline origin.)

The prayer means this: "Lord, come." It is a prayer to Jesus. That's already a stretch for Jews who pray only to God. It calls Jesus "Lord," which for Jews was the circumlocution for the unpronouncable Name YHWH. That's even more of a stretch for a group of Jews who should know better than to associate the invisible God with anything in the heavens, earth, or below. It calls on him to return – meaning to return at the end of the age. In the context of Jesus' own claims, that makes Jesus not just a rabbi or a sage, but the Son of Man of Daniel 7. All of these are indicators that the Jewish Church in Jerusalem, not just the Pauline and Petrine fellowships of Jews and Gentiles elsewhere in the empire, worshipped Jesus as divine. And James, the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus, was its leader.

From growing up with your brother to thinking him a lunatic to praying to him as Lord, all within the frame of a Jewish life, is quite a transformation.

James' fellowship does not break with the Pauline and Petrine fellowships of Jews and Gentiles elsewhere in the Roman empire. After a long and often anti-Semitic tradition of reducing Christianity to a Hellenistic departure from Judaism, this little stone box is a nice reminder of how old, how close to Jesus, and how Jewish is the tradition of worshipping him. It also reminds us of the staggering theological importance of the Church in Jerusalem.

This ossuary tells us that James continued to associate himself with Yeshua as a figure of unusual prominence. It also tells us that the traditions of Jesus' lineage and family are not fabrications of imaginative literary communities isolated from each other. (Wonderful reading on the gospels as intertextual projects of communities in close communication can be found in Richard Bauckham's The Gospels for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences.) That we have the box itself tells us that Church practices of recollecting texts as well as relics of its past are more reliable than sometimes conveniently supposed. Christians are conservators as much as innovators.

This box doesn't establish anything substantial about Christian faith or life that both biblical literalists and sober and fair-minded historical critics didn't already know. But it confirms a lot, both before and after the crucifixion. Remember the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? This is bigger.

UPDATE: Nice wrap-up, as usual, in the CT weblog.

PEDANTIC PROFESSORIAL UPDATE: The hawklike Camassia reminds me that James' bones were not discovered, only the box. That's right – but since an ossuary is made to house the bones of one who has already been dead for a year and exhumed, I am assuming that it was made after James' death, whether or not it was used as intended.

This even crossed my mind when I was about to hit "Post" and I left it anyway. Serves me right!

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: Looks like I spoke too soon. Time is reporting bone fragments at the bottom of the ossuary. The owner has no intention of testing them, however.

11:46 AM

I am not as much of a geek as Camassia thought I would be!

Now that she has a weblog, I can already tell my students will have to wait even longer to get their papers back.

A. Religion as "tricky to define"? You bet. I avoid the word whenever possible. But I do like to use it this sentence: If soccer isn't a world religion, what is?

But science as religion? I think that stretches the meaning of "religion" beyond even its present semi-uselessness. Religion connotes devotion and even worship. Science as belief (in the weak modern sense of the word), yes. Scientists believe that the scientific method works. They may even be devoted to its practice, in the same way that farmers are devoted to agriculture. But we don't call farming a religion (unless we're arguing for federal subsidies).

Many fundamentalists who subsume science into religion do so out of intellectual insecurity. They have already subsumed their own religion into science.

Science as a belief system? In my circles that sounds too much like "science as ideology." Sometimes science is confused with modern ideologies or belief systems on which it sometimes rests today: materialism or empiricism. But scientists need not be materialists or empiricists. Indeed, scientists who are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim historically based their confidence in the fruitfulness of scientific inquiry in the conviction that the universe is the creation of one purposeful god, rather than the chaotic and possibly incoherent effect of a pantheon. "Belief systems" in which science finds its various places are broader than the method itself. Let me put that more accurately: The forms of human life that support scientific inquiry cross confessional and ideological lines. That's wonderful news, because it gives us things to discover together even when we can't appreciate them the same way.

So empiricists who subsume science into ideology tend to do so for the same reasons as fundamentalists: To trade on science's good reputation.

Intelligent Design as science? Well, it's certainly a hypothesis, but not one with much positive explanatory power. Since all it can do is criticize reductionist rival accounts and draw a big phenomenological question mark, there's no reason to dwell on it. It probably rates a few minutes in class, but no more.

B. The Old Testament as the "bad part" of the Bible? [UPDATE: Camassia is only forwarding, not taking, this position.] What gives? It was Jesus' whole Bible, and he never criticized it. If anyone allowed himself to be associated with "the law, the prophets, and the psalms" (Luke 24:45), it was this Jew who took it upon himself to fulfill it. (This might not matter to secular leftists turning anti-Semitic, but it matters to me.)

C. The bones of "Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" not proving much faithwise? That deserves its own post.

D. The historicity of the resurrection? Yeah. The reality of the resurrection? Definitely. More soon on both of these claims, their distinction, and their relationship.

RETENTIVE "CAMASSIA IS WATCHING" UPDATE: I originally said that "Religion connotes devotion and even worship" because I agree with Camassia that religion as commonly defined does not demand devotion, let alone worship. I am working from the term's common use rather than the precise academic use, because scholars of "religion" have never managed to agree on what religion is in the first place. Religion is an essentially contested concept. The term is used for a wide variety of practices with family resemblances, but no clear commonality. These are all good reasons not to use the word too much around me. It's like using the term "warp" around a Trekkie.

I think the word I would prefer here to bridge the gap between "ideology" and "religion" is cosmology. (Many religions, including so-called "pagan" ones, are cosmological, as well as many traditions not commonly called religious.) Is science cosmological? It can be. It does a stunning job of explaining the instrumental causes of the universe, and while I think it is structurally unsuited to explaining whatever first cause there might be, so are many other cosmologies.

Why do I care about making such fine distinctions? Because I think the vocabulary of faith and reason, science and religion is confused and misleading. When Darwinists accept the language of "faith" to describe their confidence in the theory of historical evolution, I think they have conceded too much to creationists. It makes Darwinism sound dogmatic, unscientific – and monopolistic if it does not grant equal time to creationism. It reminds me of my Catholic students who refer to evangelicals but not themselves as "Christians."

Likewise, on "orders of faith": I have confidence in the resurrection of Jesus, but faith goes beyond confidence and even certainty, to trust. Should a scientist ever trust a theory? (These are questions I should be asking my colleagues in science rather than just blogging.)

As you know, because you and I belong to different communities, we use words in somewhat different ways. I also have a habit of using some terms in technical theological senses but others in popular senses, without bothering to identify which is which. Sorry for the inevitable misunderstandings and lengthy "clarifications."

I think the reason fundamentalists fight with science is that they read Genesis 1-3 like pagans.
And so do many scientists. I think the problem is more rooted in cosmological modernism than "paganism" per se. Premodern Canaanite polytheists were actually in a wonderful position to understand Genesis 1-3. Compare it to the Epic of Gilgamesh and its cosmological agenda comes through clearly: the world is not your soap-opera pantheon, but the orderly work of Israel's God.

(Of course, these chapters' ethical lessons also come through clearly to Jewish audiences, their theological anthropology and doctrine of creation to patristic theological audiences, and so on. Why assume it can only have one proper interpretation?)

One last thing, on Jews ashamed of their own Scriptures: It's not as if this is a new thing. Philo, first century Alexandrian Jew, pioneered the use of allegory to interpret passages he found culturally troublesome. For centuries Alexandrian allegorists showed how it was done, and allegorical exegesis still survives all over Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I advise embarrassed Jews to call a rabbi and find out how these things have been addressed for the past 2,000 years. If that's not possible, then just go get a copy of Barry Holtz's extraordinary Back to the Sources: Reading the Classic Jewish Texts.

But allegory is not a license just to scrub away the inconvenient parts of either testament. The God of Jesus Christ does lay down "strict laws (with draconian punishments)" (Matt. 5:17-26) is "a jealous god who wastes whole cities" (Matt. 11:21-24) and favors "the chosen people" then and now (Rom. 11). The Jewish people are not an allegory.

11:16 AM

This is cool.

Really cool.

8:38 AM

I am not happy with the previous post (immediately below) as it stands, and it has bothered me all night.

Oh, I stand by what I have already said. But something is missing. Specifically, hope is missing.

What most concerns me about the intimidation of Islam's critics through the ages is that everyone suffers from it. Punished "sinners," "infidels," and "apostates," (many of whom have been Christians and Jews) obviously suffer. The "orthodox" punishers suffer too, in that they inhabit a dictator's world where sincerity is indistinguishable from hypocrisy, faith indistinguishable from flattery. Silenced bystanders suffer as well, in that they no longer get to see truth prove itself.

Free-speech traditions are not trouble-free either. In the Enlightenment free speech was grounded in the false hope that unaided but properly trained universal human reason could appreciate transcendent truth. As an Augustinian Christian I wouldn't believe that even if postmodernity had not come along to discredit it on additional grounds.

Yet I am not one of those Augustinians who trusts in coercion to do what reason alone cannot. Better ground for Christian toleration of free speech lies in the true hope that the Word of God is alive and active, free and powerful, returning fruitful rather than void. Even human depravity cannot finally withstand its persuasive power. Minds are vulnerable, but the truth is not.

Neither tolerance nor religious (or irreligious) coercion can change this. In the unfolding war between western libertarianism (or is it libertinism?) and Islamist coercion – and here I am drawing a relative distinction rather than an absolute one – I don't believe Christians should be fully sympathetic with either side. Nor should either side's victory cause us to lose hope. For nothing can finally silence the truth of Jesus Christ. To be sure, each poses a considerable threat. But the truth survived a crucifixion, and it will survive these persecutions too. The human freedom that the Good News promises – good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, liberty to the oppressed – will come to all peoples.

In the meantime, people can be forced into a sort of belief or unbelief. There may even be seasons of life when force becomes necessary. Israel's faith centers in a Law that once ruled it penally. My wife and I make our kids say "please," "thank you," "I'm sorry," and "I forgive you." We even make them sound like they mean it. After a few years, they really do.

However, these rules are training wheels. Their point is to empower lives of freedom. Jesus' Pharisee contemporaries, so well intended and so like him in so many ways, nevertheless tended to make the Law an agent of dependency. Sin, Rabbi Paul says, coopts the Law of Moses and makes it an agent of its tyranny. But the Law itself is holy and just and good. It is a tutor to keep us safe until the age of its fulfillment in Christ. Rabbi Jesus made impressive use of the Law in the service of his program of restoring fellowship among God, God's people, and all peoples. He did not come to reassert the Law and prolong humanity's childhood. Nor did he come to abolish the Law and inaugurate a reign of Reason. He came to fulfill the Law and embody it with perfect freedom, so that it could find a new and even more profound place in God's world.

In Jesus' Kingdom, the Law remains, but its old terrors are gone. Here is my favorite example: In confronting persistent Corinthian sin (1 Cor. 5), Paul appeals to Deuteronomy 17:7: "Drive out the evildoer from among you." In the old age the context of this text was the stoning of one who transgressed the covenant. In the new one, it refers to nonviolent excommunication in the hope that such a drastic measure will bring out the sinner's repentance. No new blood need be shed – "for Christ our paschal lamb has been sacrificed" (1 Cor. 5:7).

What is true of the Law as embodied in first-century Asia Minor is also true, though less determinatively, of the culture of all peoples in all ages. Frustrated by their own incapacities and corruptions, all cultures find themselves restored and perfected – not tamed or obliterated – under Christ's reign. Muslim cultures too.

That's not an agenda. It's a promise (Rev. 22:2).

So I am not waging a culture war aganst Islamism, let alone Islam. The triumph of western free speech over Muslim dhimmitude would not be an unqualified victory for the Good News. It would simply replace legal tyranny with libertinism, one set of taboos with another. So would the triumph of enforced Islamic deference to Muhammad over western free speech. In the book of Revelation, libertines and oppressors alike are excluded from the New Jerusalem. The speech of human eternity is perfectly free and perfectly respectful.

Because Jesus already reigns, life can be like that today, not just someday. Jesus did not return insults with curses, but offered forgiveness. There is something profoundly right about western free-speech traditions – and there is also something profoundly right about Sharia too. But apart from Christ's Kingdom, their rules become taboos of piety, patriotism, and political correctness. If Christians respect the reign of Jesus, then we should cultivate "cities of refuge," social spaces in and out of our churches, where God's children can speak freely and consequentially about the things that matter most without fearing for their lives.

If we do so, it will show all the world that Jesus already reigns.

7:34 AM

October 21, 2002

A student in the doctoral program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government writes:

In your weblog post dated October 11, you say:

Civilizations clashed as several innocent Indians were murdered because of fallout after Jerry Falwell called Muhammad a terrorist. I am using Huntington's language because I think this is more than a foolish remark by a foolish person (though it certainly is that). I think it portends the future of western-Muslim relations, and that future is dark.

Since Falwell and Christians in general were apparently inconveniently inaccessible, rioting Muslims targeted Hindus instead. So far five people have been killed and 47 injured.

A few comments:

(a) I am not certain what you mean when you say Hindu-Muslim rioting in India is symptomatic of a Muslim-Western civilisational clash. Even within the (deeply flawed) context of Huntington's theory, Hindus are hardly Western. And furthermore, Indian Muslims (and debatably even Pakistani Muslims, for that matter) are civilisationally and culturally far more South Asian than Muslim, which I have pointed out several times personally to Huntington, though he can be rather deaf when it suits him.

Find another example for your thesis, this one doesn't fit.

Again, what I mean is not that Hindus are western, but that Falwell is western. That clash is between a tradition that permits the criticism of even a sacred figure like Muhammad, and one that has intimidated and executed critics of the Prophet from its beginning. (That latter trait describes south Asian Islam as well as Arab Islam. Capital punishment of Muhammad's critics and of Muslims who convert to other faiths is part of the theological mainstream.)

I am not particularly interested in defending Huntington's or anyone else's precise list of clashing world civilizations. However, I do find quite helpful his characterizations of social groups whose ways and plausibility structures differ intrinsically and so clash naturally. The hard-won western cultural habit of tolerating criticism of figures such as Muhammad and even Jesus is not a Muslim cultural habit. When westerners exercise their habit freely, the consequences often include violence or the threat of violence.

An article on Indian and Kashmiri reactions to Falwell in Pakistan's Dawn reported that "in the south districts of Anantnag and Pulwama people took to the streets shouting 'death to enemies of Islam.'" This is a mild example in the history of Christian-Muslim relations. Do you really want me to supply more to support "my thesis"? They won't be pretty.

(b) Further, the riots in Solapur were not caused by Muslims 'targeting' Hindus. On the contrary, a prominent Muslim organisation called a general strike, as a peaceful method of protest common in India; on the day of the strike, some local supporters of the Hindu fundamentalist party the Shiv Sena were asked why they were not supporting the strike and lashed out at those Muslims asking the question; in the ensuing melee, the police fired at the (mainly Muslim) crowd, killing one; and the subsequent riots were mainly in reaction to this ill-judged firing order by an inexperienced sub-inspector.

Again, you need to find another example.

Thanks for calling my attention to the updated story. Since I wrote on October 11, a new angle has indeed emerged in what happened in India. It sheds a different light on the events in India. However, I think this example still makes my point, in a way whose irony I still find hard to believe. To quote the story:

The police have arrested M D Sheikh, who is president of the Muslim Vikas Parishad (MVP), which had given the call to all Muslim business establishments in the city to down shutters on Friday.

The parishad was protesting the American Baptist minister Jerry Falwell’s reported remarks against Prophet Mohammed on a TV programme recently.

The immediate provocation for the riots, it is learnt, was the use of force by the activists of the MVP on the establishments owned by the majority community. Violence started from Asra Nagar township in Solapur on Friday when local businessman Nagesh Takmoge refused to close his shop after being asked to do so by the MVP.

As news of the violence spread in the minority-dominated area of Vijapur, the decorations for the ongoing Navratri puja were destroyed by arsonists.

In the subsequent police firing, three persons were killed while two died in mob violence.

... The BJP spokesman Prakash Jawdekar said Muslims in other parts of the world did not react violently to the Baptist priest’s remarks.

"Why there was a reaction to Mr Falwell’s statement only in Maharashtra?," he asked and alleged that certain fundamentalist elements were instigating communal trouble in the state.

He blamed the Democratic Front (DF) government for its failure to curb the violence.

So Falwell's remarks are used as the occasion for a strike in which Hindus are "asked" to participate. One Hindu's refusal meets with "the use of force by the activists of the MVP on the establishments owned by the majority community." I assume that you and the Times of India narrate the conflict differently, but even if I were to rely wholly on your account ("supporters of the Hindu fundamentalist party the Shiv Sena were asked why they were not supporting the strike and lashed out at those Muslims asking the question") I would still wonder why "Hindu fundamentalists" are being "asked" to strike against the anti-Muslim remarks of a man the Times charmingly calls a "Baptist priest" half a world away, and what made them "lash out" in response.

Let's say I do grant that Muslims were acting peaceably, Hindus lashed out, people were killed in the shooting that followed. That could still jibe with accounts like this:

The rioters attacked each other with knives and stones during the strike called to protest what Falwell said on CBS television early this month. Muslim organizations said Falwell's remarks were derogatory and blasphemous.
Then how did we get the impression that Falwell's comments were directly responsible for the killings?

Chris Mooney of The American Prospect blames CAIR, the Council for American-Islamic Relations:

I would suggest that a Friday e-mail alert from CAIR, whose subject line read, "ISLAM-INFONET: Deaths Result From Falwell's Comments," is an offense of a different order. CAIR clearly twisted the news in order to put forward the ludicrous – and chilling – suggestion that Falwell's behavior has murderous consequences.

In the body of CAIR's e-lert, which took the form of a bulleted list of news stories with short excerpts of each (sometimes followed by links), the above line about Falwell was repeated but now with attribution to a prominent news source: "DEATHS RESULT FROM FALWELL'S COMMENTS (AP)." Scrolling down, however, revealed no actual link to an AP story bearing such a title. Instead, there was a brief excerpt of a report on violence in the Indian city of Solapur that erupted during a Muslim general strike to protest Falwell's comments. So far the violence has resulted in nine deaths and numerous injuries.

A Nexis search for wire stories about the riots didn't turn up any that ran with nearly so provocative a title as CAIR's. In fact, though Falwell's remarks did prompt the demonstrations, it's hard to argue that he turned them violent. The direct causes of the first five deaths were 1) clashes between Hindu and Muslim protesters wielding knives and stones; and 2) police gunfire, presumably to control the crowd.

Indeed, an Agence-France Presse story on the events in India also observed that "a similar strike called by Muslim bodies in India's financial capital Bombay ended on [sic] peacefully." How could Falwell have had anything to do with the difference between Solapur and Bombay? A general strike devolved into rioting in one place but not the other, and in one instance nationalistic Hindus and police were involved.

Much more temperately than CAIR, The New York Times on Saturday presented the events in India objectively: "5 Die in India During Protests Over Falwell." The Washington Post, in turn, reported, "5 Die in Hindu-Muslim Clashes; Televised Falwell Remark Leads to Further Conflict in India."

Who are the ones drawing a causal connection between Falwell's remarks and dead Indians? CAIR, of all people.

Do the strikers, the rioters, and CAIR represent all American Muslims? Of course not. I never said so. I merely argued that speaking about Muhammad only in terms that respect the sensitivities of "a few hypersensitive Muslims," in order to ensure that no people suffer as a consequence, will amount to western self-censorship that forecloses an honest examination of the life of Muhammad.

I think the history hardly makes this a difficult argument to support. Where Muslims have held political power (whether formally or informally), non-Muslims have generally had to hold their tongues for fear of reprisal over comments taken as insulting or blasphemous to the tradition. Now an American Islamic organization is asking public figures like Falwell to hold their tongues too, and blaming them for the deaths of innocents when they refuse.

More generally, while I approve of your sentiment that Falwell's remarks should not be attacked merely because of their consequences, I must point out that like the shouting fire in a crowded theatre exception to the free-speech rule, when there is a clear chain of causation that should be easy to predict between the remark and deaths there should be some blame apportioned to the maker of the remark. This does not take away from anyone else's guilt at actually going out and rioting or even taking offence, but it is nevertheless there.
Hold on a minute. Having denied that there is "a clear chain of causation that should be easy to predict between the remark and deaths," now you want to blame Falwell for not drawing it? Are we to assume after all that remarks derogatory to Muhammad or Islam will result in deaths? Then I rest my case, and reassert my observation that a few Muslims are holding innocent people hostage to suppress others' speech.


As another point, we hear continually about how marginal clerics in the Muslim world are continually going on and on about the evils of Christianity. I do not hear a chorus of disapproval from the same sources when the three most prominent evangelicals I can think of – Falwell, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson – essentially attack Islam and the Prophet.
Forgive me, but I'm not sure what you mean by "the same sources." Mainstream media? Ted Olsen of Christianity Today's weblog offers a whole range of responses, all of which disapprove in one way or another (scroll down to the end).

Or do you mean Christian organizations? You will indeed find disapproval of Falwell's remarks from leading Christians. Along with it you will find admissions that our disapproval is uncomfortably muted. Certainly hypocrisy has something to do with that asymmetry. But keep in mind several other important reasons for the missing chorus of evangelical disapproval of "attacking Islam and the Prophet":

First, the Inquisition still casts a shadow in the West. It took a while for Christians to come around to the tradition of speaking freely without fearing for one's life, but we have grown to appreciate it. Second, centuries of Christian martyrs who died for "attacking Islam and the Prophet" cast another shadow. There is a holocaust going on in the Sudan that doesn't get much attention outside Christian circles. While the evangelical missionaries I know advise never insulting the sensibilities of those Christ has loved with his own life, they and their flocks still suffer for the occasional, and sometimes systematic, Muslim practice of deeming Christian remarks derogatory and thus punishable. Past and present violence against Christians tend to temper our disapproval of the public figures who actually call attention to Muslim violence, even when they do so insensitively and foolishly. Third, evangelicals have repeatedly been asked to get over our habit of protesting and boycotting films, artistic exhibitions, and books we find insulting and unfair. We are a bit bemused when we are suddenly asked to have the opposite reaction when it is others who feel insulted.

And finally, if you want to see the censorship of the mob at work in the West, try standing in a crowded subway station in NYC and saying loudly "Well, they had it coming." What may be all right in Cambridge MA or on the pages of The Nation is definitely taboo elsewhere in this country.
Actually, if I really want to see the censorship of the mob at work in the West, all I have to do is stand in the crowded square of a college campus in Cambridge MA and shout, "They didn't have it coming!"

Now no strikes or riots follow each new issue of The Nation. No right-wing rioters are using Noam Chomsky's comments as occasions for violent reprisals against leftists. No chorus of editorialists is blaming leftists for inciting them. Yet you are right that western traditions of free speech have their limits. I acknowledged some of them in my post, not least when I recalled both campus political correctness and the "inquisitors" and "blasphemers" who drove honest scrutiny of Jesus and Church underground for centuries. I am happy to add patriotic taboos to religious ones – after all, in the last year I have never held back my criticisms of Christians who put country before God. And I hope I can take your comment to imply that you too are upset by both Muslim and western "censorship of the mob." That was, after all, the point of my original post.

11:44 AM

October 20, 2002

We read a text of terror today in Church: Psalm 139.

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my every thought when far away. You chart the path ahead of me and tell me where to stop and rest. Every moment you know where I am. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. You both precede and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to know! I can never escape from your spirit!

I can never get away from your presence! If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the place of the dead, you are there. If I ride the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the farthest oceans, even there your hand will guide me, and your strength will support me. I could ask the darkness to hide me and the light around me to become night – but even in darkness I cannot hide from you. To you the night shines as bight as day. Darkness and light are both alike to you. You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother's womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous – and how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. How precious are your thouhts about me, O God! They are innumerable! I can't even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up in the morning, you are still with me! O God, if only you would destroy the wicked! Get out of my life, you murderers! They blaspheme you; your enemies take your name in vain. O Lord, shouldn't I hate those who hate you? Shouldn't I despise those who resist you? Yes, I hate them with complete hatred, for your enemies are my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.

Well there's a nice text to read aloud, don't you think? "Welcome to our church, visitors. We only sound like Al Qaeda; actually we're really nice people. Unless you're one of God's enemies."

After everything that has happened since last year, how can we help but hear militancy in this passage? And not just any militancy, but militancy delivered in the now familiar idioms of the Middle East, where after all this passage was born. This meme has replicated itself catastrophically for millennia – in ancient Israel's futile calls for God to destroy its enemies, in the Constantinian Church's oppressions and crusades and inquisitions, in Islam's holy wars and punishments of infidelity, in America's utilitarian "enlightened self interest." This is the meme that so many secularists want to extinguish before it extinguishes them, and the whole world with them.

After 9/11 I wanted to believe that this meme is an Arab thing – "Death to Israel!" – but that comforting illusion was shattered when I read an account of a rally in Israel in which the crowd shouted "Death to Arafat!" The shock of that line, which at first sounded so un-Jewish, suddenly brought me back to piles of biblical texts, which suddenly sounded like they could have come right from Osama's mouth.

The Bible surges with Near Eastern culture – with Semitism. It both draws on and feeds the sensibilities of its original peoples. And those sensibilities, as warped by sin as the sensibilities of any nation, lead their peoples astray. Never mind Jerry Falwell's issues with Muhammad. We have a bigger problem: Is God a terrorist? What do we do with texts that make this kind of speech holy and normative for Christians?

A. We could cut them. The Revised Common Lectionary tends to excise inconvenient passages from the texts read in Church. This approach would keep the happy part, Psalm 139:1-18 and 23-24, and skip the offensive verses.

B. We could find a different passage that is less threatening to our cosmopolitan sensibilities, push the uncomfortable material into modern obscurity, and sniff at the "fundamentalists" who refuse to do the same, presumably because of the hatred in their hearts. (I have run across a "Possibility Thinker's Edition" of the Bible, published by Robert Schuller's organization, in which "positive" verses are highlighted in blue. I don't have it in front of me, but I'd bet serious money that verses 19-22 are not in blue.)

C. We could affirm the passage on its face and shrug our shoulders at its horror. God said it, I believe it, that settles it. We could then sniff at the liberals who refuse to do this since "they don't believe the Bible."

D. We could 'clarify' the passage by throwing pop theology at it. We could interpret it according to the axiom "hate the sin but love the sinner." Nice try, but the text doesn't say to hate the sin. It says to hate the sinner.

I recommend E: none of the above. (Those of you familiar with my schtick will know what's coming next.)

Ask yourself: Why does this section of the psalm seem so out of place in a church service? It apparently did not seem out of place originally. What changed between Ps. 139's "hate your enemies" and Matthew 5's and Romans 12's "love your enemies"?

Here's what changed: The Kingdom came.

The Kingdom did not come to take scissors to Israel's Scriptures. Jesus did not come to sift through the 'good' verses and the 'bad' verses. He came to fulfill all Israel's Scriptures – "everything written about me in the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms" (Luke 24:44).

The inconvenient part of this psalm is actually key to getting the whole thing right. Jesus took on the alienation of sin that has been making us enemies of God and each other, and overcame it through friendship. He identified with this enemy of God, and all the rest of you too, taking our alienation into his very relationships with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, and healing it by the power of his love. He hated me – not just my sin, but my self, twisted by sin, bound by it and a servant to it – by loving me unconditionally and breaking sin's grip.

"Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Jesus' nonviolent love, not jihad or inquisition, is the definitive shape of God's hate.

It was the risen Jesus who "opened [the disciples] minds to understand the scriptures" (Luke 24:45). The happy ending of his story trains us who feel hatred toward the unjust (Ps. 139:19-22) to go on and invite the Holy Spirit's examination of our own hearts (vv. 23). That exam yields the diagnosis that we are among those enemies (v. 24a), and that we need God's leadership if we are to see eternal life (v. 24b).

In fact, when the light of resurrection returns us to Ps. 139, we find that this exam was performed even before we invited it (vv. 1-6), that the diagnosis is unavoidable (vv. 7-12), and that the restoration of our original beauty (vv. 13-15) is a long-planned cure of fellowhip that is already offered us (v. 18). We can trade the hating love that condemns with the loving hate that rehabilitates. "Death to Arafat" – or to whomever – can become prayer for our persecutors. That is the way of Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, the lamb slain for the sins of the world.

Arab peoples need the healing of the gospel, and so do American peoples, and so do the Jewish people. The Good News promises that through Israel all nations (including Israel herself) will someday enjoy the healing of the leaves of the Tree of Life (Rev. 22:2). Then we will discover the full goodness of what it means to be Jewish and Arab and American.

Death to Israel? Death to Palestine? Death to America? Amen! Not through earthly weapons of mass destruction or heavenly showers of fire and brimstone, but through the baptism of God's forgiving judgment and the eternal communion of the Kingdom of God's peace.

5:17 PM

October 19, 2002

Camassia, a friend of mine who just started a blog that promises to be worth one of your shortcuts, thinks teaching fragmentary Christian religion in schools will be distortive:

It was [in public school] that my mother, who was raised unchurched, first heard the Abraham/Isaac story. And it scared the crap out of her. As she saw it, it was a story about a parent who would willingly murder his child under orders from an invisible person. That pretty well put her off Christianity at an early age.

I think of this story when I hear arguments by people who want to bring prayer back into public schools or put the Ten Commandments on the walls and that sort of thing. They tend to assume that by stuffing bits of Christian theory and practice into schools, they're getting bits of morality in too. But as the case with my mother – and, for that matter, Muslims, Jews and Christians – indicates, people will interpret these things according to what they know, or don't know. Christianity is a worldview, a mega-narrative, and unless you're already inside it a lot of things don't make a darn bit of sense.

I basically agree, but I'd like to nuance her point in one (friendly) way.

Outside the metanarrative these fragments of Christian faith can make sense. More precisely, people manage to make sense of them by turning them into fragments of some other metanarrative. Camassia's mother made sense of Abraham as a murderous parent oppressed by a bloodthirsty God. What else was she supposed to do?

That observation applies to everything schools teach. I went through a (private) high school course in "the great books" in which we marveled that every stratum of the western canon was concerned with the basic modern issue of whether the individual or the state has the highest authority. Actually we didn't marvel about that, nor did it even cross our minds, because we failed even to question the assumption that our concerns were the same as theirs. I didn't even think twice about it until a New Republic article in around 1995 drew my attention to it. My class had imposed a twentieth-century political agenda on the entire western world.

Public schools center by definition on the metanarrative of their sponsor, i.e., on the public agenda of the state. Naturally any religious practice, however fragmentary, will be ripped out of its actual context in a community of faith and find a new and artificial place in the curriculum. The Ten Commandments in a courtroom cannot mean what they do in a classroom, a museum, a book on world religions, a synagogue, or a Church. Each context renarrates them according to a different story:

My own conviction is that the Decalogue's ultimate significance lies in its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. So while I acknowledge that many (not all) of these are both rich and appropriate, here is my favorite display of the Ten Commandments:

Where are they? Right there in the middle, nailed to the cross.

This is the metanarrative in which the Ten Commandments truly find their place. The life of Jesus is where we learn what it means to have no Gods but YHWH, to have no image but the Image himself, to respect God's name as it has been entrusted to us, to rest in God's eternal peace, to choose life, to be faithful to God's and our spouses' claims on our bodies, to share what we have rather than taking what we want, to witness with all we are to the Truth who is the Way to the Life, and to be content in God's gracious provision.

Since a public school is forbidden to show this to me or my children, why would I want us confused by a Decalogue turned into something else — reduced to some historical moment in the evolution of American law?

Sure, the consequence is a biblically and theologically illiterate society. The alternative is a biblically and theologically confused one. Take your pick.

11:33 PM

E-mail today from a student who has been missing class a lot lately:

If there is anything I can do to get back into your good graces, let me know. For instance, I could slap those guys who bug you about grading their papers.
I love working at a Christian college!

3:16 PM

Posting has been light for several reasons. (Why does this always happen right after Glenn Reynolds links to me?!)

First, it's crunch time at school, at home, and in computerland. My stack of papers to grade just got a lot thicker. The stress level is rising – meter almost to 'panic'.

Second, a lot has been going through my mind in the last week, but it has been to inchoate to blog. For instance:

I would absolutely love to sit down and compare two visions of the relationship between Good News, Church, and world: First, the Calvinist vision of Abraham Kuyper. Here the absolute transcendence of God means no one institution, practice, community, or 'sphere,' even the Church, can dictate to others how their faithfulness to God should be specifically shaped. Kuyper's vision offers room to all, Christian and non-Christian, to pursue obedience or disobedience in the various ways available to them. It lets farmers farm to the glory of God, appreciating the significance of what they do apart from whether it is put to use in the Church. This scheme operates according to the hard Calvinist distinction between special grace, which brings the elect to eternal salvation, and common grace, which temporally favors all creation, even those elected to damnation. The second vision is an Arminian account of life in the business world by the guest preacher at my church last week, Dale Walker. He described mission as a partnership of 'priests' and 'kings,' those who mediate saving grace and those who supply them. Thus someone in the business world is a 'king' whose efforts raise support for 'priests' in mission fields. (Of course these are soft distinctions; missionaries can support themselves and businesspeople can witness in more than just instrumental ways.) This is a suggestive metaphor, since it is grounded not only in the Israelite institutions of priesthood and kingdom, but in the prophetic, priestly, and royal work of Christ who fulfilled them and extended them to the life of the prophetic, priestly, and royal Church. This scheme depends on the Arminian and Wesleyan refusal to distinguish between saving and non-saving grace. All God's favor is 'common' – offered to all – and all is ordered toward the redemption of all creation. In the space of several days I was offered both these pictures of Gospel, Church, and world. "I do not know which I choose" (Phil. 1:22). In fact, I do not know whether to choose in the first place. As some of you know, I am not particularly happy with the dilemma Calvinism and Arminianism offer their audiences. I think the field of alternatives is broader.

The other thing that has been going through my mind lately was prompted by an essay on engineering method by Steven Den Beste. It prompted me to consider some of the various ways I have been involved in theological thinking and writing: study groups, individual research, seminars, reading circles, lecture delivery, panel discussions. These have various strengths and weaknesses, but perhaps the most rewarding project has taken the shape most like the method his team pursued at Tektronix (in which our group didn't 'code' any final statement for several years, but eventually came up with a satisfying and stable final statement. I wonder whether academic theology, so dedicated to building 'cathedrals' of individual thinking, would find itself spinning its wheels less and debugging its past mistakes if it dedicated more of its efforts to 'bazaars.' Computer people will get my allusion (which is actually rather unfair to the actual tradition of cathedral building), but actually a better illustration of what I'm talking about is from the theological tradition itself: the Church council. What if theologians worked in councils more often than carrels, meeting to brainstorm, to give and receive corrections early and charitably, to shift our egos to the success of the team rather than to our own list of publications? What I have in mind is a lot more than peer-review.

If only I had more time, I could begin developing these two ideas as much as I would like. Oh well!

2:34 PM

October 17, 2002

Yesterday's student quote of the day, after one of my classes learned that I'm not a fan of the Christian music scene (except for urban gospel and my church's incredible worship band):

"You really should listen to more Christian music. I'll rip you a Keith Green CD."

P.S. Cultural indicator of the day, after I pointed out the incongruity of his offer: He's still going to do it.

8:26 AM

October 16, 2002

It was late when I wrote this, and it shows. Apologies in advance.

In their first few centuries Christians were targeted by authorities, mocked by intellectuals, and slandered by popular opinion. Yet through wave after wave of persecution they did not strike back. Moreover they kept praying for their emperor. While sometimes allowing themselves strong words of frustration against their murderers, they remained pacifist and continued to invite their enemies into Christ's peace. In such circumstances they kept their hope and discovered a new level of joy.

Fast forward to last Saturday night, when the bombings in Bali opened up a new chapter as well as a new theater in World War IV. Now public opinion in the UK is turning sharply in favor of British military participation. Rumor (via Instapundit) has it that the French are quietly becoming supporters of American military action (quietly enough to avoid riling their Muslim minorities and markets). Idiotarians abroad are suffering the same self-destruction as their American counterparts did in the weeks and months after 9/11. Islamists have made a whole new set of mortal enemies.

Meanwhile, taking a page out of the Indonesian PR handbook, Bangladeshi politicians are outraged that Time magazine has called attention to the presence of Islamist militants there. Nice timing!

That makes three of the four most populist Muslim countries – Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh (the fourth is India) – fronts in Islamism's war against the West and its sympathizers. It is as hot as ever in the Middle East, east Africa, and north Africa. Amazingly, Iran just managed to vindicate Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Franklin Graham. Al Qaeda is reportedly downsizing and decentralizing. This problem is not going away any time soon.

The pain and bitterness of suffering Australians in weblogs I frequent is both striking and familiar. It is the same pain and bitterness that Americans experienced a year ago (and many others, as the WTC bombs killed a lot of non-Americans). Since this will surely not be the last attack, the cycle is sure to be repeated.

Every time western patience will wear thinner, south Asian or African or Middle Eastern politics will become more precarious, and economic ruin will visit more of the poorest parts of the world. Why?!

Coming across this reaction today (again via Instapundit) took my breath away:

I have many Muslim friends. My girlfriend is Muslim. But I must sadly conclude that the world would be a better place if the entire Islamic faith simply ceased to exist. Anne Coulter caught hell some months back for suggesting that Muslims should be converted to Christianity. I'm coming to believe that she may have had a point. We de-Nazified Germany. What precisely is the difference? Do the Rawlsian math. Weigh the potential suffering of Muslims denied the opportunity to practice their cockeyed faith against the current suffering to others caused by Muslims who do.

I know, I know. I'm being extreme. I'm reacting in anger. I shouldn't say such things. But ---- it, I am angry! If Muslims want understanding and tolerance from me, how about, at a minimum, they stop murdering my ------- friends.

What I find astonishing about that passage is that a man with Muslim friends and even a Muslim girlfriend is saying it, and in writing. A taboo of political correctness is being shattered. That a religion isn't worth the trouble is a sentiment expressed often enough about my own Christian tradition, and even about religion in general, but taking it specifically to Islam is not something I am used to seeing among such people.

I have a confession to make. At times I have had the same thought. I thought it in an Islamic history course when reading about the conquests, the subjugation of Christians and Jews, the annihilation of pre-Muslim cultures, and the Turks' use of Christian slave children as elite military forces. I have lovely Muslim friends and appreciate the beauty and logical power of Islam, yet after spending too much time in historical research or surfing the net after a major disaster like 9/11 or this year's Passover bombing in Israel, the thought crosses my mind: Wouldn't the world just be better without Islam?

In my Church history course, we are presently discussing the Crusades. That nauseating history makes World War IV look tame. But does it make me wonder whether the world would be a better place without Christian faith? Of course not.

One reason for the distinction I draw between Islam and Christianity here is an old-fashioned double standard. Like most people I naturally give "my own" the benefit of the doubt. Of course the world is better with us. That is utterly unchristian: The Church is to judge its own, not outsiders (1 Cor. 5:1-20). The problem is not the double standard itself, but my urge to apply the stricter standard to the wrong group.)

(Incidentally, this means I quite understand why Jews would think that neither Christian nor Muslim faith is worth the trouble it has caused them. In fact, it humiliates me that they who have better grounds to think and say it largely refrain from doing so. Perhaps it is because Judaism gave up its missionary aspirations long ago. Perhaps it is because many Jews are better Christians than I.)

A better reason for my distinction is my greater confidence that the Good News of the Kingdom of God is worth the trouble Christians have made of it. I do not share this radical confidence about the Quran. If I did I would become a Muslim. Since God has not convinced me that Muhammad is God's messenger, I do not know quite what to make of him or his followers. (This does not justify my wondering whether Muslim faith is worth the trouble, but it does explain my not wondering whether Christian faith is worth the trouble.)

Some of my brothers and sisters are more confident. Vatican II's Nostra Aetate ascribes to Islam a positive role in God's plan of salvation. That makes it a good thing. Is that defensible theology, or just wishful sixties liberalism?

Tonight, reading Vincent J. Donovan's wonderful Christianity Rediscovered, about his experiences as a missionary in Tanzania, I found the answer. I hope it will forever stop me from wondering whether Islam is worth it.

The gospel must be brought to the nations in which already resides the possibility of salvation. As I began to ponder the evangelization of the Masai, I had to realize that God enables a people, any people, to reach salvation through their culture and tribal, racial customs and traditions. In this realization would have to rest my whole approach to the evangelization of the Masai.

I had no right to disrupt this body of customs, of traditions. It was the way of salvation for these people, their way to God. It was one of the nations to whom we had to bring the gospel – bring the gospel to it as it was. In those customs lay their possibility of salvation.

... An evangelist, a missionary must respect the culture of a people, not destroy it. The incarnation of the gospel, the flesh and blood which must grow on the gospel is up to the people of a culture.

... The gospel is, after all, not a philosophy or set of doctrines or laws. That is what a culture is. The gospel is essentially a history, at whose center is the God-man born in Bethlehem, risen near Golgotha.

At that moment facing me was that vast, sprawling, all-pervasive complex of customs and traditions and values and dictates of human behavior which was the Masai culture, a nation in the biblical sense, to whom I had to bring the gospel. At this point I had to make the humiliating admission that I did not know what the gospel was. During those days I spent long hours thinking long, difficult thoughts, and sometimes frightening ones, about the momentous task that faced me – the bringing together of a culture and the gospel (30-31).

In the past few years a group of brilliant brothers and sisters – Jim McClendon, Nancey Murphy, Geoffrey Wainwright, George Lindbeck, Stanley Hauerwas, Brad Kallenberg, Jonathan Wilson, Rodney Clapp (to list them in roughly chronological order) – have patiently helped me understand that a culture is a language. It is a people's identity, its way of thinking and communicating all it is. The endless varieties of Indonesian Islam are dialects of languages so impenetrably rich that it would take lifetimes even for natives really to understand them.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is a message that missionaries translate into the languages of the nations. We do it because we know that call to take it to all peoples implicitly promises that translation is always possible. It is a matter of providence. It is a function of God's universality.

Not every detail can be translated right away; the process of embodying the message of God's favor inevitably involves transformation of the medium. As Islam learns the ways of the Kingdom, some things will have to stop: jihad, dhimmitude, and the like. But transformation is not destruction. As the good news takes new forms in its new home, it affirms and rectifies the forms of life that enable its discovery and begin proclaiming it. Even jihad and dhimmitude are perverse expressions of good things. They resemble Israelite institutions that were fulfilled in Jesus' peaceable kingdom. (For instance, Jesus' entry into the Promised Land takes the form of baptism under John; his conquest of Palestine takes the form of a ministry of relief to the poor, sight to the blind, freedom to the captives, liberty to the oppressed; his exodus takes the form of crucifixion and resurrection to eternal life; and his exile takes the form of ascension to the Father's right hand.) In him, and only in him, it's all good.

Islam is worth even the troubles it has lately been bringing the world. God has made communities of Muslims who can hear and re-tell the story of Jesus' world-saving love in distinctive ways. Islam rules the languages spoken by beloved children of a God who wants them to hear his offer of peace. Their lives as Muslims are vocabularies in which God's grace might be articulated, the nations reconciled, and the world healed.

That is, if Christians will bother to share the good news with them in a form they can recognize.

I have a hunch that Donovan's insight is one of the reasons the first Christians put up with all that persecution. They neither fought back nor fled because in the end they really did love and pray for their persecutors. More importantly, they loved the God who loved their persecutors. So the same letter that laments the extermination of Christians (Rev. 6) and condemns Rome as the Beast (Rev. 13) foresees a new world where the kings of the earth will bring their treasure and all nations, Rome included, will find healing (Rev. 22). The first and best Christian martyrs still wanted to hear new songs of praise to the Lamb – songs in tongues they couldn't sing themselves.

My heart goes out to hundreds of grieving families throughout the world. I have not lost anyone yet, so my sympathies probably ring hollow to you. But I know people who have. I also know that in a week or a month or a year, all that could change. My advice to you, and maybe someday to myself, is not to "do the Rawlsian math." As we comfort our victims, let's love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, and we will find the peace our enemies want to deny us. They might even find it too.

11:34 AM

October 11, 2002

Depressing and frustrating news today: Civilizations clashed as several innocent Indians were murdered because of fallout after Jerry Falwell called Muhammad a terrorist. I am using Huntington's language because I think this is more than a foolish remark by a foolish person (though it certainly is that). I think it portends the future of western-Muslim relations, and that future is dark.

Falwell is poorly informed either about the specifics of Muhammad's canonical life or the precise definition of "terrorist." So is Bob Simon, the 60 Minutes reporter who prodded Falwell to answer his incendiary question. Nevertheless, Falwell accepted the terms of the question and gave an honest (and more nuanced) answer. He did not indulge in hate speech. He did what we do in the West: he spoke freely and relatively carefully from within a culture that respects free expression.

Muslims don't like his answer, and I don't blame them. However, for some south Asians Falwell's remarks are not just objectionable. They are not free speech or an exchange of ideas. They are insulting the Prophet, a crime that in Muslim history has traditionally been a quick ticket to capital punishment. In past centuries many Christians met their end by insulting the Prophet. Things have only become worse as Wahhabism has grown powerful. (The notion that Islam before Wahhabism was tolerant of these crimes is historically naive.)

Since Falwell and Christians in general were apparently inconveniently inaccessible, rioting Muslims targeted Hindus instead. So far five people have been killed and 47 injured.

Since September 11 Falwell has returned to international fame by saying stupid, ill-informed, and frankly unchristian things. I do not intend to defend them (though I do defend his assessment of Muhammad as "a man of war"). However, I do not intend to pile on like other conservative and liberal commentators. Falwell spoke his mind. He was not fueling fires of hatred, but pointing out that he considers Muhammad a poor example to imitate. More measured language would not have garnered CBS the publicity it sought, but it wouldn't have satisfed many Muslims either, and certainly not the ones who started the riots. A reporter asked Falwell a question. What was he supposed to say? "No comment"? "Islam is a religion of peace"? Was Falwell just supposed to deliver the answer that a few hypersensitive Muslims demand?

In Muslim countries, Christians – all non-Muslims actually, and many Muslims too, I suspect – walk on eggshells. A careless remark about Muhammad or certain of his relations can be their last. In Pakistan, anyone can be charged with insulting Islam and imprisoned or worse. Muslims who convert to Christianity are often murdered or forced to flee – not so much by their generally secularist rulers, but by their own families. For them Islam is certainly no longer a religion of peace.

By contrast, speech in the west evolved in a fundamentally different way. Christianity's Lord of lords was not a prophet who avenged insults, but a suffering servant to forgave his persecutors. The Constantinianism of Gregory I and others transformed the prince from an autocratic Roman emperor who brooked little dissent to a Christian king, responsible for ruling justly and willing to hear prophetic voices that questioned his decisions. Augustine helped move western society from a shame-culture to a guilt-culture in which innocence mattered more than saving face. Even the mountain of western Christian blasphemies – the crusades, the Inquisition, the Catholic and Protestant burning of witches and heretics, and civil and ecclesiastical corruption, and above all complicity in the Holocaust – failed to arrest the evolution of a culture that prized free and candid speech. (For just one example, think of Erasmus' astonishing sarcasm in The Praise of Folly on the eve of the Reformation, and consider that the man was never excommunicated from the Catholic Church.) Even the exceptions prove the rule. The group censorship of political correctness, though still reigning in some circles, has had its day and is slowly on its way out in the wider culture. Speech on the radio, the Internet, and the African-American barbershop is free and honest. Breaking what taboo carries consequences like insulting the Prophet? Certainly no religious speech, and very little political speech either.

Now a society of free and candid speech is inevitably a society of some stupid, ill-informed, and insulting speech. So the west faces two alternatives: Either give up our tradition of speaking freely about this subject, or give up trying to satisfy the sensibilities of every Muslim in the world. This is a clash of two civilizations. For a variety of reasons, one is basically free to insult even its most sacred figures. For a variety of reasons, the other is not.

Setting up a taboo to give up the possibility of offending gives up reasoning the western way. Many institutions have relied on such taboos for so long that to some academics this seems like the wiser course; but it is one I refuse to take. There are wrong things to say, but to ridicule, punish, or silence students in my classes who sometimes say them chills the classroom, stifles their learning, and teaches them to hide their true thoughts and toe the professorial line. It makes me a propagandist rather than a teacher.

Propagandists are what we become when we pile on Falwell not because he's a fool but because his remarks lead to violence on the other side of the world. We are adopting an attitude of dhimmitude even outside Islam's borders that lets fear of terror chill our honest inquiry. We are moving off the table one of the most urgent questions facing the world today – "What is the significance of the Islamic tradition?"

We face a choice: Either chill our speech about Islam and its Messenger, or accept that innocents will sometimes pay for it with their lives. Today's rioters would teach us to keep certain answers to ourselves and confide only in those we can trust. They are our McCarthys, our Lenins, our Robespierres. They are also the Robespierres of the Muslim world, who keep not only Christians and Jews but doubters and Muslims alike in intellectual dhimmitude.

Ultimately I think they will fail, but at the moment they are enjoying a remarkable degree of success.

It is beyond my ability to rescue the historical Muhammad from his pious protectors. Richard John Neuhaus is partly right: If Muslims want to be renowned in the West for their intellectual integrity and strength rather than their intellectual insecurity and weakness, they will have to find some way to tame the persecutorial tendencies of some of their fellow Muslims and create space for honest inquiry by all. (There is another way to do this. In a replay of the aftermath of Europe's Wars of Religion, governments could intervene – not to rescue Islam's public image, but to keep the civil peace, punish avengers, protect speech, and create a secular order. Over time their coercion will domesticate the tradition, as coercion finally re-trained Christians away from relying on the sword. The price to Islam will be what it has been for Christianity: passivity and uncritical acceptance of a modern order founded on principles hostile to the tradition itself. Muslims will have to accept a corrupt version of their own tradition.)

Until something changes one way or another, western non-Muslims are not going to develop respect for a tradition that hunts down and silences its revisionists or lashes out at innocents when its detractors are out of reach. Westerners, particularly journalists and academics, can play a part in paying as much attention to successful Muslim reforms as we do to atrocities, but the successes themselves will have to be Muslim.

Frankly, given the content of the Quran and the Prophet's Sunna I do not see how Muslims will be able to stop the persecution. It has been difficult enough for Christians to stop our own, despite the fact that Jesus and the first few centuries of Christians commanded and practiced nonretaliation. There are countervailing traditions in Islam, but they are relatively marginal and represent an ideal rather than a requirement. For the foreseeable future, the trade-off between taboo and persecution is all we have. And since the tradition of free speech is as habitual in the West (at least off college campuses) as the offense is in the Muslim world, it looks as if conflicts like today's are unavoidable. We face a clash of civilizations. Fasten your seat belts, everyone.

And if you are so inclined, give thanks to God that Jesus of Nazareth, Paul, and the other apostles didn't insult their persecutors, but commanded love for enemies. They liberated Jesus' followers from having to avenge his honor. Jesus thus paved the way for an ethic that (despite centuries of betrayal by his inquisitors) allows more and more of the world to think and study and speak freely of him as Lord, liar, or lunatic. You think he's a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners, a false prophet, a fool, a demoniac? So be it. The offer still stands: "The peace of Christ be with you."

Shabbat shalom.

10:45 PM

Back in May I ran across an organization called ChristiansForCannabis.com, and blogged a link to it along with what passes for humor on my site.

This week I received an e-mail from that site's proprietor:

I am very careful about the information that I make available on CforC. ... Finding good, scripturally based resources to feed those that have come to CforC is difficult.... I want to send them to places where the primary focus is truth. I would like to direct them to some of the articles that you have available, via link in the ChristiansForCannabis.Com newsletter and on the website.... I firmly believe that they would be a blessing.

Being the home-schooling mother of five, I will definitely be sharing them with my children. The older ones, 15, 13 and 12 have wondered about the Adam and Eve setup themselves... :*)


First of all, let that be a lesson to all of you with stereotypes about what Christian home-schoolers are like.

I must say, reading that message was one of the few moments in my life that has left me speechless. Here I teach at a school where you can't even drink. What would they think of me being theologian of the week at ChristiansForCannabis.com?

Yet this is the web, and I put myself out on the web so that I could be read by people who don't live in seminary libraries and bookstores. The world – Christian and non- – desperately needs quality Christian theology. Most of the good stuff is locked away in copyrighted books and journals that are jargon-laden and targeted at professionals. Don't get me wrong; those vehicles do some real good. I am still happily involved in the world of academic publishing and presentation. But when a Bible study leader or a hurried pastor or just a curious reader googles an issue, what will come back in the search results?

I have a nightmare: On the last day, when Jesus returns and separates the theologians into sheep and goats, and asks the goats, "I was ignorant and you didn't teach me," all I will be able to do is show him my CV. "Nice vita," he will say, "but I don't recognize the name at the top. Bye-bye."

So I am honored that a site like ChristiansForCannabis.com – which is a serious and truly Christian site asking many of the right questions about America's often counterproductive War on Drugs and pointing out the damage it is doing to America's young people – would find my FAQs and articles helpful. Moreover, I invite anyone who comes to TW.net from there or anywhere else to send along your questions, issues, observations, and objections. Perhaps our exchanges can help create FAQs and answers that proclaim the good news of Christ's Kingdom in ways neither of us had thought of before.

And as a parent of only (!) four who is nowhere near having it together enough to home-school, I am in awe!

6:45 AM

October 10, 2002

This is why the world needs more Pentecostals.

7:49 PM

I just got my second call of the day from Old Tom.

Offer to phone companies and ISPs: There's a market for phone numbers and e-mail addresses with a couple of 'check digits' to filter out random connections. I'm willing to pay extra – and I'm cheap.

6:58 PM

There are books I buy (especially when they are half off at the book fair of the annual conference of the American Academy of Religion), take home, put on the shelf, and basically ignore. There are books I buy and find interesting. Then there are books that I buy and admire, that delight and even change me.

As I have been writing lectures for my new course in Church history, over and over I have consulted a little volume of transcribed lectures delivered at Oxford in 1999-2000: Richard Harries & Henry Mayr-Harting, eds., Christianity: Two Thousand Years (Oxford, 2001). It is a little too advanced for an introductory textbook, but its perspectives are wonderful. (Besides, we profs like to hold back some of the good stuff to present ourselves in class.)

Teaching history is all about telling stories right. It doesn't just shove detail after detail into an overloaded timeline, then write a test. It doesn't choose information tendentiously to take apologetic or subversive advantage of an audience's ignorance, then grade them according to how well they have been duped. It weaves just the right observations together into a narrative that is coherent, engaging, honest, humble, insightful, and above all faithful, then measures how well students have caught its vision.

The chapters of this little book do justice to the enterprise of Christian history. My new lectures are much richer for them.

My thanks to the editors for fashioning this text, to OUP for publishing it, and to Fuller Seminary Bookstore for stocking it.

3:34 PM

I have been enjoying a rich correspondence with a friend over Adam, Eve, and the Fall since I posted this FAQ.

How timely!

11:58 AM

Michael J. Pahls of the PCA Peace Church of Mt. Prospect likes VeggieTales, but not VeggieTales merchandise:

I’m probably not the first to make this observation, but this is one of the more glaring instances of self-contradiction in the sea of self-contradictions that is suburban, evangelical America:

A couple of years ago the folks at Big Idea released their Madame Blueberry video to Christian audiences across the land. The plot consisted of Madame Blueberry, a rich, consumer-crazed character, who could not content herself with a life of simplicity and gratitude. The cure for her “blues” was the consumption of more and more stuff. Things go from bad to worse for her, however, when the “Stuff-Mart” arrives in town. Madame Blueberry gorges herself on the multiplicity of goods available to her and quickly accumulates so much stuff that her tree house condo collapses under the weight. The redemptive moment in the story comes when Madame Blueberry learns a lesson in thankfulness from a little girl named Annie. Annie’s parents could not afford a gratuitous birthday present for her but managed to scrape together sufficient resources for an apple pie. Annie’s grateful response is delivered in song:

I thank God for this day,

For the sun in the sky,

For my mom and my dad,

For my piece of apple pie!

For our home on the ground

For His love that's all around

That's why I saw thanks everyday!

Now I am a huge fan of the Veggie Tales, the moral lessons are welcome, the music is cleverly written, and the stories are genuinely entertaining. The problem I have, however, is reconciling the moral lesson of Madame Blueberry, with the obnoxious glut of VeggieTales stuff that fills the local Christian bookstore. With all of the VeggieTales books, music, videos, toys, t-shirts, earrings, lapel pins, pendants, plates, cups, flatware, talking stuffed-vegetables, puzzles, Larry-boy cars, and Larry Cucumber-heads, the average child’s room would collapse under the weight.

I recently discovered that VeggieTales stuff is not only available at Christian bookstores, but that it is now available for purchase at the “Stuff-Mart”. . . er. . . “Wal-Mart” as well. Maybe buying that new “Pirates-Who-Don’t-Do-Anything” Pirate Ship will prove just the thing to chase away my suburban summer blues.

You aren't the first to notice. Several years ago when I was researching my Theology Today article on VeggieTales I came upon an FAQ in the 'for parents' section of Big Idea's website. It made exactly your point and asked whether Big Idea wasn't being just a little bit hypocritical. The company's response was basically (1) that it has to offer such merchandise to stay competitive, and (2) that kids are going to buy that kind of stuff anyway, and many parents would rather have their kids hoarding vegetables than superheroes. (Powers and principalities, anyone?)

Since then the website has been overhauled and I can't find that page; but the company mission does put VeggieJunk in the overall context of Big Idea's philosophy.

In defense of the strategy, at least their videos don't bombard you with ads like the stuff from Disney does. My kids have been given a few items as gifts, but other than that they're oblivious. And the series hits consumerism hard in Madame Blueberry, The Toy that Saved Christmas, and King George and the Ducky. Their attitude resembles "David Letterman apocalypticism": Business is business, but mockery takes precedence.

11:51 AM

October 8, 2002

What about the sanctimonious priest who gets annihilated in the middle of his lame, futile prayer?

(Sorry I'm late on that one. Via Matt Welch.)

8:08 PM

What a week. A major mailing with all sorts of supporting documents; a presentation on Kuyper tomorrow; new lectures Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and about three hundred pages of student papers left to grade. I wish I could turn all the blogosphere's readers into TAs.

So naturally last weekend our family set it all aside to go see VeggieTales' Jonah. My oldest son had been scared of movies ever since he had his ears blasted at a school-sponsored trip to see Fantasia 2000 at an IMAX theater, so we have just said "movie" instead of "video" at home and the kids haven't been the wiser. But it was time to open a new window, and this was a good opportunity. Disney movies are as a rule morally wretched, offering toddlers G-rated versions of the conventional melodramatic lie that bad guys are so purely evil that destruction, not redemption, is their only proper end. Cute or not, that is oppressor theology. My kids need habits of hope, not vengeance, and I do too.

Anyway, VeggieTales tell a different story, and they do it well. Besides, I have written on both Jonah and on VeggieTales, so hey, this is a professional commitment.

My kids weren't disappointed, and neither was I. This is not the most clever or profound of VeggieTales stories (I think that honor belongs to Madame Blueberry), but it does many things beautifully. It re-presents Jonah's narrative of compassion and mercy in a present-day inclusio, nicely teaching biblical hermeneutics rather than just biblical content. The petty, vindictive kids are accompanied by petty, vindictive adults. We meet Jonah as a prophet of banal, even trivial, blessings who is unready and unwilling when the call comes to love his enemies rather than just his friends. Jonah's trial in the fish ends as it should, with an angelic gospel choir announcing that God gives second chances even (especially) to moral failures. They are backed by cross-shaped masts that foreshadow the Christological fulfillment of Jonah's three days below. The king of Ninevah reasons impeccably, if premodernly: YHWH is more powerful than Ninevah's fish-god since the whale spat out Jonah. Here the dialogue hints at the wisdom of missionaries with real experience making the good news intelligible in other religious traditions. The narrative refuses to apologize for Jonah's petulence, ending his story there as abruptly as the Bible does. It correctly reads this as an invitation for readers to take the story with them and end it with their own lives. True to form, the most perceptive character is not one of the story's Jews, but a prophetic worm/caterpillar named Khalil (yes, as in Gibran). When Muslims and killing and enslaving Christians, to have evangelical Christians portraying an Arab prophet where the story requires none shows the same staggering respect for the irony of grace that pervades Jonah and much of the rest of the Bible.

There are all sorts of wonderful touches like these, all in the service of telling the hard story that God wills our enemies to receive his mercy and ours. (At an office where I used to work, we called this "the dark side of grace.") Of course most bicoastal elitists will dismiss the movie out of hand, scoffing at the reflexive hatred and moral simplicity of fundamentalist midwestern Flyover People. Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do. Last weekend's most culturally subversive movie came from a small company of evangelical parents from Illinois.

(Newly baptized in southern California film culture, my eight-year-old went to his second movie the very next day: Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. But that's another story for another post.)

2:05 PM

October 5, 2002

Kathy Shaidle led me to a Wall Street Journal article on Lauren Winner, who is completing her degree at Columbia. The article makes it seem as if Winner has only just come out of the closet about her Christian faith. Nah. I first encountered her wonderful writing in John Wilson, ed., The Best Christian Writing 2000, a terrific anthology sadly out of print, and now succeeded by the 2001 volume. In "Good Shabbess," Winner recounts wrestling with her Jewish heritage after becoming a Christian. I sure hope she has found reconciliation between the two traditions, because each is the eschatological hope of the other, and we Messianic goyim could use help from bilinguals like her.

Winner's bio describes her as a writer for Books & Culture, a staff writer for Christianity Today, and an editor at beliefnet.com. That's not exactly under the radar. After reading her essay, I am looking forward to reading her book. She has also co-authored a study of Protestantism in America with Randall Balmer. Good luck, Ms. – soon to be Dr. – Winner!

5:42 PM

My middle name is "Clemons." I am a distant relative of Samuel Clemens. According to my family, our names are spelled differently because the Clemens family split over slavery. My wing were abolitionists. They broke away, changed their spelling, helped operate the Underground Railroad, and became Republicans. These roots have had a lot to do with determining my family's "conservative" Republican politics. Furthermore, while I did not grow up as an evangelical, when I became one I became part of a tradition vitalized by social reform efforts like abolition and temperance.

So while my enthusiasm for the stated concerns of the modern "liberation theology" movement may seem strange to those who view everything through the tired spectrum of left and right, in fact it is natural both theologically and personally. A right wing pacifist who preaches the Kingdom of God's radical inclusion of the excluded, the marginal, the poor, and the powerless? Yes. Because my advocacy of Christ's liberation is not a function of liberal guilt, nor leftist politics, nor libertarian humanism. It is fidelity to biblical faith that is happily reinforced by streams of my family's story.

Of course this can create friction between me and those who embrace liberation theology for other reasons. One of the reasons for the friction came clear to me this morning for the first time as I read (via Instapundit) a Boston Globe opinion piece by Charles Jacobs of the American Anti-Slavery Group:

It is hard to explain why victims of slavery and slaughter are virtually ignored by American progressives. How can it be that there is no storm of indignation at Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, which, though they rushed to Jenin to investigate false reports of Jews massacring Arabs, care so much less about Arab-occupied Juba, South Sudan's black capital? How can it be that they have not raised the roof about Khartoum's black slaves? Neither has there been a concerted effort by the press to pressure American administrations to intervene. Nor has the socialist left spoken of liberating the slaves or protecting black villages from pogroms, even though Wall Street helps bankroll Khartoum's oil business, which finances the slaughter.

What is this silence about? Surely it is not because we don't care about blacks. Progressives champion oppressed black peoples daily. My hypothesis is this: to predict what the human rights community (and the media) focus on, look not at the oppressed; look instead at the party seen as the oppressor. Imagine the media coverage and the rights groups' reaction if it were ''whites'' enslaving blacks in Sudan. Having the ''right'' oppressor would change everything.

This is a profound observation. I believe the key to explaining it lies in the Marxist heritage of contemporary progressivism.

For Marx, injustice is structured into a political-economic culture. The structure is maintained by those in power. Thus Marxist class analysis focuses on the work of the oppressors.

As Marxism became more comprehensive and less reductionist, other categories of oppressors (whites, males) were conglomerated with class oppressors. Class analysis gives way to something of a sliding scale with rich white males at the "oppressor" pole, poor women of color at the "victim" pole, and lots of people in between. Moral superiority lies in locating oneself as far as possible toward the victim pole, and one's enemies as far as possible toward the oppressor pole. Most liberationists agree on the multivalent character of oppression and the determinative role of the oppressors (even as their various parties squabble over the relative weight of class, race, or gender). However, to subvert a Marxist category, there is now a fatal contradiction in the system. The bright lines Marxists originally drew between owners and workers, and feminists drew between men and women, and Elijah Muhammad drew between black and white, no longer have their old explanatory power. They live on residually and ambiguously in their new gray-shaded context.

When oppression is white-on-black, Jew-on-Arab, male-on-female, rich-on-poor, the paradigm still seems to work, because only one dimension is operating. The left has what looks like a unified theory at hand to diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution. The same is true when violence is black-on-white, Arab-on-Jew, poor-on-rich: these reactions make sense as the reactions of the clearly oppressed to their clear oppressors. "Workers of the world, unite." On the other hand, when the violence is black-on-black, Arab-on-black, or black-on-Arab, the theory no longer gives a clear explanation or recommends an obvious solution. The bright lines that gave it its original persuasive power no longer help. The left's inaction in Sudan and Zimbabwe isn't hypocrisy per se, but paralysis brought on by its own cognitive dissonance.

This much would have been clear without Jacob's article. Where he is so helpful is in pointing out an additional problem not just in the conglomerated race-class-gender paradigm, but in the bright line of each of its components. It focuses attention not on the oppressed but on the oppressor.

This shifts attention consistently toward the oppressor. It radically underdetermines the role of victims in social justice. It makes justice the absence of oppression, rather than something positive in its own right. Once the oppression is lifted, the theory implies that society will function correctly. Remove capitalists and take the means of production, and a workers' paradise will result. Live apart from white Americans, and a just African-American society will result. Justice is a default position, a state of nature, rather than an achievement, a state of grace.

What sometimes poses as "liberation theology" is in fact oppression theology – even oppressor theology. Its postmarxist diagnostic tools keep victims fixated on the others who have caused their problems and unready to receive the divine gift of righteousness that brings true liberation's blessings. (If you are interested, I have devoted some attention to liberation theology's dangerous aporias in "Monday's Coming: Black and Womanist Theology after Liberation" (requires Adobe Acrobat).)

What a contrast with the deliverance that goes on in Israel, Jesus, and Church! These are not constantly obsessing about their sufferings under Pharaoh or Caesar or seeking to settle old scores. They focus on God as savior and on their new lives as free peoples:

A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. Then we cried to the LORD the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Deut. 26:5-9).

Blessed are you, HASHEM, our God, King of the universe, who has chosen us from all nations, exalted us above all tongues, and sanctified us with His commandments. And you, HASHEM, our God, have lovingly given us Sabbaths for rest, appointed times for gladness, feasts and seasons for joy, this Sabbath and this Feast of Matzos, the season of our freedom in love, a holy convocation in memory of the Exodus from Egypt. For you have chosen and sanctified us above all peoples, and the Sabbath and your holy festivals in love and favor, in gladness and joy have you granted us as a heritage. Blessed are you, HASHEM, who sanctifies the Sabbath, Israel, and our festive seasons (Kadesh, Passover Haggadah, trans. Rabbi Nosson Scherman).

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry – let him come and eat! Whoever is needy – let him come and celebrate Passover! Now, we are here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel. Now, we are slaves; next year may we be free! (Maggid, Passover Haggadah)

Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom (Matt. 26:27-29 RSV).

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting (Third Article, Apostles' Creed).

The focus of all of these remembrances of oppression is not the oppressor or even the oppression. It is the Liberator and his liberation.

The film Prince of Egypt really gets this right. In the penultimate scene we hear Pharaoh's anguished cry – "MOSES!" – from the other shore. It is a distant echo of an old and dead life from which God has moved Israel on. In the film's ultimate scene we see Moses bringing commandments that instruct Israel how to live a life of justice – which for Jews is not merely freedom from old oppressors, but new life in God's righteousness. Oppression is structural, all right; but it's structured in sin, not in access to power. Holy memory keeps the oppression alive not as a grudge to be nurtured and avenged but only as a means of glorifying the liberator, celebrating life, resisting sin, and looking forward to more liberation in the future.

By the way, the same is true of Islam. The old idolatries of jahilayya are past. Submission to God is the present and the future. It saddens me to see the Near Eastern habit of nursing grudges and perpetuating cycles of violence afflicting Christian and Jewish as well as Muslim cultures there. It contradicts the deep grammar of all three faiths. Marxist legacies in varieties of "liberation theology," Zionism, and Islamism reinforce the habit and lead these peoples ever further away from lives of peace and justice. I suggest a different approach:

"When you pray, say: 'Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation'" (Luke 11:2-4).
Shabbat shalom!

UPDATE: A nice description of the symptoms, though less perceptive about the underlying causes, is Ron Rosenbaum's "Goodbye, All That: How left Idiocies Drove Me to Flee." I wonder what this exodus is the beginning of....

11:02 AM

October 3, 2002

For those of you disappointed because of your quaint attachment to "some cherished abstract principle like rule of law", why not allow yourself today the distraction of this happy thought?

David Aikman believes China is on its way to becoming a Christian country.

Aikman cites numbers: In 1949, when the People's Republic of China was established, not quite 4 million of 450 million Chinese were Christians. Today, the population is 1.3 billion; Christians are an estimated 80 million, most of them Protestants. At those rates of growth, he says, in a few decades 40 percent of the population will be Christian.
The rate of growth may have slowed since the 1970's, meaning that it might take a little longer to reach that percentage. Either way, a revolution is underway whose effects will surely be longer lasting than the one in 1949.

This is only one (albeit huge) part of "Christianity's new center" in the southern hemisphere. Except that China is in the northern hemisphere....

Because of decades of persecution, Chinese churches (like Roman churches in the first few centuries) are disproportionately small, even house churches. They are not creatures of colonialism, but largely indigenized. They are sympathetic to and influenced by western evangelical theology and practice, but they are often unaffiliated with western denominations. They are "free churches" (which makes them even more alien and invisible to most reporters). Furthermore, they are missionary in ways westerners have trained ourselves not to be:

Such institutions contemplate evangelism within China but also abroad. Aikman reports the belief of many Chinese Christians that they have been called to spread their faith to Muslims. There is talk of sending as many as 100,000 missionaries to the Middle East.
That's not jihad, and it's not McWorld. It's a third metacommunity I have been harping on for over a year: global Christianity. You will hear a lot more about McDonald's in China than culturally Chinese house churches and Christian music conservatories, because only the former fits the ideological expectations of newsrooms and college campuses. So it is encouraging to see some attention in places beyond missionary news outlets like The Atlantic and The Weekly Standard. Keep it coming!

8:53 AM

October 1, 2002

Via Kathy Shaidle, I just discovered the very cool site of Rick McGinnis. Movie reviews, book reviews, attitude, and Catholicism peeking through too. Thanks to both of you.

8:15 PM

Eve Tushnet (a weblogger I admire) and four of her friends are "rock'n'roll conservatives":

We started in very different places, both politically and philosophically: two Objectivists, two secular Jewish liberals, and a relativist punk feminist. We're still in different places philosophically. One of us is an atheist, one is a Gnostic/atheist, one is a Conservative Jew, I'm Catholic, and I don't know what the heck to call Russo. (Deist? Platonist?) Politically, though, we've converged. Here I'll lay out some principles and some practical applications that I think all five of us could sign our names to.
Me too, actually – and maybe you as well, dear reader. So let me include myself (uninvited) into their fold, and ask a question that then comes up: How determinative is Christian faith in these commitments of ours, and how determinative is our wider culture? If we all fall into a common political/cultural/economic "school", do we do so for reasons of our own (theological distinctives like Catholic or Pentecostal theology), or for common reasons (vestigial liberal modernism)?

Tushnet left out "principles" (interesting word, that) and "practical applications" that divide her from her friends – for instance, points of Catholic theology. But can a Christian really do that? Certainly all kinds of people might arrive at common positions on which we can agree at work or over drinks or on election day. But what more should these things be than coincidental coalitions? How do they become principles?

Furthermore, is an incomplete set of principles still a set of principles? Or are these truly principles, on which other things rest, like our faith? If Christian faith is founded in some other wellspring of wisdom (say, empiricism or utilitarianism), then it's not historic Christian faith. (BTW, I'm not a by-the-book Barthian, but I think Barth is right on this one. If he drives you crazy, then I appeal to Lesslie Newbigin instead. No? Then how about Paul in 1 Corinthians 1?)

It is possible that these convictions are grounded in what the Catholic tradition calls "natural theology." But Thomas didn't think that philosophy established Christian faith. I sense here – not just on her but on me as well, and also on the other coalitions of our day – the strong, subtle hand of something else: American ideology. Should it be guiding us Christians so firmly, even while we barely feel its presence?

8:02 PM

"Christlike sex" is a phrase that definitely needs careful unpacking.

The article makes Razib K sick:

This to me is a symptom of what Christianity in America is becoming, both conservative and liberal – man-centered, not God-centered. [1]. Though I'm an atheist, it makes me want to puke. 2,000 years of Christianity, and it's devolving to this level of infantilism?

[1] Religious liberals and conservatives babble about different things, but in the end they are still producing a user-friendly product in the service of McChurch. I'm not talking about all Christians and their denominations, but the general pattern is such in my experience and opinion.

Atheist or not, I like a guy who footnotes his weblog posts. I wonder if he footnotes his e-mails too. He is right to criticize sexual idolatry posing as Christian faith, but there is a fine line here. Even many Christians have missed it. (That is why some of the books mentioned in the article have to do so much rehabilitative work to liberate sex from all kinds of Christian stereotypes.)

The work of Christ and Holy Spirit make the grammar of proper Christianity theocentric in its focus on human relationships. "As you did it to the least of these brothers and sisters, you did it to me" (Matt. 25:31-46). Every human relationship is informed by the good news and subject to the blessings of the Kingdom. There is, then, such a thing as Christlike sex.

There are all kinds of ways to write poor Christian books, articles, and sermons on sex. If you would like to write one, here are some tips:

1. Like Tinkerbell, sprinkle Christian stuff – Bible verses, evangelical jargon, crucifix necklaces, whatever – like magic dust on what you already do.

2. Baptize your subculture. (In the fourth century, that means Platonism. In the nineteenth, it means Victorian prudishness. In the twenty-first, it means either hedonism or midwestern conservatism, depending on your side in the Culture Wars.)

3. Baptize Israelite or Greco-Roman Christian subculture. (Warning to feminists and monogamists: you will need to hold certain practices under the water for an awfully long time.)

4. Write a book of psychological therapy, cross out references to DSM-IV, and substitute Bible verses. You'll need a good concordance.

5. Run away. (Warning: Montanists did that, and there aren't any left.)

6. Ask, "WWJD?" You'll need pretty wide margins to turn this into a book.

Those who would like to do better should rely on rules such as the following:

1. Agape and eros are not nearly as distinct as all those Anders Nygren-inspired sermons led you to believe.

2. Sin corrupts nature in every way.

3. Grace heals and perfects nature in every way.

4. One of the most sacred metaphors of God's relationship with the chosen people is erotic (i.e., marital). (Here's a thought: Maybe people should read "lascivious" passages of Scripture in Church, not just in bed.)

That means Jesus is married – to the Church. So maybe WWJD applies analogically to sex after all. (Emphasis on analogically.)

5. Both marriage and ordination are Catholic and Orthodox sacraments as well as occasions for Protestant celebrations.

6. Both feasting and fasting are holy practices. (Each in its own season, of course. Don't fast on Sundays!)

4. The social implications of, say, Philippians 2:3f extend to sex too: "Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus."

As for the bullet points in that beliefnet article, we're 0 for 3 here in the Work household. Sometimes it's nice not to have been raised in the evangelical subculture.

7:28 PM

If you ever want to make the day of one of your old teachers, just consult the notes you saved from class and ask him or her a follow-up question about them years later.

A former student of mine writes to ask about the Calvinist "TULIP" based on a lecture:

The Marian antiphon as a basis for understanding a new 'tulip' really helped, but was a new thought to me. What does that position do with Calvin's TULIP? Primarily the Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. I find with TULIP, the further I go down the list, the more it doesn't seem philosophically logical. Any paths to help reconcile this?
As it so happens, that lecture is a condensed and simplified form of a chapter in a book I'm working on, which in article form is already published in the Scottish Journal of Theology.

The TULIP is actually quite logical, even airtight. (So is the Arminian scheme.) Because of unconditional election and irresistible grace, only those who are chosen are saved. Grace is so attractive and transformative that it inevitably works, not just at the beginning but right through to the end. Thus the atoning work of the cross must apply only to those who are thus transformed by it. If Jesus died for my sins, then I will be reconciled to God, because nothing can stand in the way of that reconciliation, even me. (Calvinists do not accept the Arminian qualification that my unbelief can stand in the way, because unbelief is a sin and thus it too is healed by the atonement.)

However, this is only consistent when you accept the specifically Calvinistic forms of other doctrines. For instance, "limited atonement" only works if your doctrine of the atonement is fundamentally substitutionary. Other visions of atonement would not work with the TULIP in the same way. For instance, if Jesus' work on the cross is a victory over sin and death, then in a sense it applies universally, reconciling the whole world by condemning all God's enemies.

So the TULIP is internally consistent, but not necessarily externally consistent. But I think its gravest external inconsistency is not with certain forms of other doctrines, but with the worship life of the Church. The TULIP is a turn-off. Or, more accurately, parts of the TULIP are turn-offs, especially limited atonement. So are parts of the five points (i.e., the Remonstrance) of Arminians, especially apostasy. When we gather in Christ's presence, we want to say that Jesus' death and resurrection hold out hope for the whole world. We also want to say that God's healing is so powerful that it can see us through even the impediments we may put in God's way. Like Augustine, we may even have episodes of our lives that prove both claims.

So one of the observations I make in that article is that worshipers commonly pick and choose between the five points of Arminianism and the five points of Calvinism. We want to be able to say yes to things that are apparently inconsistent from the way that debate framed them. This might be wishful thinking on our part, or logical indiscipline. But I think it is also something deeper. In worship, we want to give God more credit – more glory – than either the Arminian or the Calvinist position is able to do.

This would explain the apparent inconsistency of 'Calvinist' texts like Eph. 1, which speaks of our predestination in Christ (glorifying God for the salvation of 'us') with the 'Arminian' 2 Peter 3, which speaks of God's patience in waiting that all might come to repentance (again, glorifying God for the salvation of 'all'). These texts are not really inconsistent when viewed from the perspective of the Church's language of adoration. Bad things are our fault; good things are God's gifts.

At the end of both the lecture and the article, I draft 'five Marian points', drawn from the Magnificat, which try to frame the issues dividing Calvinists and Arminians in a way that honors the concerns of all camps to give God greatest glory. It strives not for the kind of lowest-common-denominator 'ecumenical' theology that stunts our intellectual sanctification and impoverishes our churches, but for an adequate description of the vision of God's extraordinarily wide mercy that all Christ's people gain when they love God and neighbor as Jesus does.

Regardless of the persuasiveness of my specific proposal, I hope the exercise demonstrates that the greatest promise of reconciling the rough edges of predestination lies in discerning the deep grammar of the Church's prayer life. Lex orandi, lex credendi: The law of prayer is the law of belief.

And yes, this really is a conversation between an evangelical nondenominational and a Foursquare Pentecostal about a Marian antiphon. We live in strange and wonderful times!

9:46 AM


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