Thu, 29 Jul 2004

New Links

It has just been way too long since I have updated my links. I have pared down and added both on my blogroll and my links page.

I don't have one of those super-blogrolls that some people do, and I don't think I ever will. But at least it's no longer out of date.

By the way, per yesterday's post I am looking for thoughtful and consistently self-critical conservatives – think Mickey Kaus or Jill Stewart but on the right. If you know of any, please feel free to let me know. I would appreciate it.

13:10 (file under /topics/general)


Sgt. Stryker has a fertile screed, with very thoughtful comments, on how the War on Terror has turned into a conventional political horse race, with consequences that will be measured in fatalities more than votes. Excerpt:

Do you want to know why I'm an independent? It's because you conservatives and liberals are a stupid and silly people. You bicker and posture as if we have all the time in the world to defeat international terrorism. You say we're at war and things need to be done right now when it's politically convenient for you to do so, but you carry-on as if we're still at peace. We have Americans dying overseas while they're obstensibly trying to protect you, but all you can do is paint them as either untouchable heroes or pathetic victims. You can't seriously debate the course of this war because for you, this isn't a war against international terrorism, this is a war about personalities, specifically one personality: George W. Bush. For you, this isn't a real war with real consequences, this is just another phoney war of opinion. You aren't conservatives and liberals, you're Phobos and Deimos: Fear and Panic.

But "God did not give us a spirit of cowardice but a spirit of power and love and self-control" (2 Tim. 1:7).

That should make a difference. That does make a difference. If the world isn't seeing it in us, then we aren't being faithful. We aren't being true independents. We aren't representing a Christ who freed his followers from fear and panic. "For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of sonship" (Rom. 8:15).

More details to come, in that sermon I promised you.

Hat tip: Donald Sensing, whose post and comments are also worth reading.

12:31 (file under /topics/wot)

Wed, 28 Jul 2004

Political Eye Care

One of my favorite bloggers is Mickey Kaus. And not just because he is from L.A.! Beyond the amazing writing, one of Kaus' most endearing qualities is that he usually picks on Democrats even though he is a neoliberal Democrat himself. Once someone asked him why, if he was a Democrat, he complained about his own party so much and tended to leave Republicans alone. "I think Democrats are redeemable," he replied. That made an impression on me. Kaus' endorsement of Kerry, in view of the fact that he complains about Kerry so much, really means something.

Since its heyday when its title included the misspelled "Wittenburg," The Door has done the same thing, skewering evangelicals from within evangelicalism. A recent book that caught my eye last fall, Adventures in Missing the Point by Brian McLaren and Tono Campolo, works out of the same spirit. It identifies longstanding weaknesses of evangelical theology not by labeling them accommodations to liberalism or some other plague from outside the camp, but by diagnosing them as failures from within.

I wish many more of us had that spirit. In fact, I wish I had that spirit more than I do. Perhaps more people do, and I just haven't noticed. The sociological dynamics of complaining mainly about political, ideological, or theological outsiders get unhealthy fast. Naturally, the theological dynamics do too.

Kaus is helping his own people take the beams out of their eyes first, and then get the specks out of others'. That's the right order. There is a time to criticize others: after we have thoroughly and properly criticized ourselves. This isn't weakness or selling out. It isn't inconsistency or hypocrisy. It isn't self-hatred. It's faithful leadership inspired by confidence in the intrinsic strength of one's own tradition.

Now is the time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)
12:10 (file under /topics/method)

Tue, 27 Jul 2004

Who Am I in This Picture?

This week's South Coast Beacon featured this editorial cartoon from Daryl Cagle, a syndicated columnist who lives nearby and thinks the college mistreats its neighbors:

The cartoon's factual errors prompted me to write a letter to the editor, but the cartoon itself prompted further thinking, particularly on the matter of stereotypes and we who create them.

Seeing my school (and as I teach theology here, my own self) personified as an ugly seventeenth-century Bible-toting Puritan is informative. It shows how a person gifted in portraying the world he sees chooses to see us. In a broader sense it can help us all understand how we choose to see both others and ourselves.

When I was studying Islamics at Duke, my professor Vincent Cornell started off the course by passing around a cartoon from the early 1990's. It portrayed Saddam Hussein in the military garb he favored back then ... and a veiled wife on either side of him. Then he showed us a photo of the Hussein family. What was different? he asked. Lots of things, it turned out. Saddam only had one wife, not two. And there were no veils in the whole picture. "This is a rigorously secularist regime," Cornell told us. "Saddam tells his people that when they kneel for prayers, they should just count to fifteen." (This was a year or two before Saddam started wrapping himself in the Quran by building nationalist mosques and commissioning editions with ink containing his own blood.)

That cartoonist had fused two incompatible and factually exclusive images in his cartoon. Very few American readers would have had the perceptive abilities to notice the juxtaposition, let alone the background to criticize it. As a convert to Islam from an Anglo-American background, Cornell had the eyes to see it. He presented it in professorial style, excited at the teaching opportunity, but I wonder how much it actually hurt him.

Where did this muddled image of the Middle East come from? Not just from the cartoonist; after all, our roomful of college students didn't sense the discrepancies until Cornell pointed them out. It came from our collective critical imagination.

Stereotypes serve an editorial function. They keep our world manageable. But manageability comes at a cost. In the case of the Westmont cartoon, the cost exceeded the benefit. The real point of Cagle's cartoon is the (debatable) argument in the third frame over whether Westmont is a good neighbor. However, to support that claim Cagle used claims in the first two frames that are false. They are not sheer fabrications, but inaccurate, outdated, and unfair representations. At the same time, they are culturally plausible to Cagle and many of his readers – so plausible that Cagle apparently didn't feel he needed to check them to see if they were true.

I am treating Cagle here as representative, not singling him out. We all operate this way. Observation is theory-laden. Our expectations influence our experiences and vice versa in a circular fashion. The circle can be virtuous or vicious in any discipline, from science to history to theology, but the circularity everywhere is unavoidable.

So this probably is Cagle's Westmont, as well as the Westmont of some of his readers. His cartoon is a chance to get inside his world, so to speak, and see things from within his hermeneutical circle. That is a gift that we should dare to accept whether or not we like what we see.

My first reaction is disappointment. Maybe I am naive; maybe my own background in journalism keeps my expectations high; but I still expect a nationally syndicated cartoonist at Slate to make sure basic claims are right before he sets pen to paper. If he doesn't bother, why should I bother trusting him? Why should I entertain his images when they are coming from distorted premises and lazy reasoning?

Well, I shouldn't. This is one more reason to tune out, and one more symptom of the malaise of contemporary journalism. Click!

But I don't want to tune out just yet. For all its flaws, I still think this cartoon is a gift. Dwelling inside Cagle's world for a while is an invaluable opportunity to cross cultures for a moment and see the world in a new way.

Cagle's Puritan personification of us is not as egregious as Saddam with two veiled wives. Westmont is in a theological tradition with roots in Puritanism. But so are almost all other American Protestant institutions, including Unitarian Universalism on the other theological extreme from fundamentalism. Unitarians have brought up their Calvinist history in every one of the several UU services I have ever attended. In fact, you can make an impressive argument that UU is one true heir of Puritanism. (For those who care, it would be a triumph of Calvin's doctrine of irresistible grace over his doctrine of limited atonement.) So why are we the seventeenth-century ones?

It's not because California evangelicals are more conscious or respectful of American Church history! Most of my students come from formally nondenominational churches that prefer the first century and the latest century to any other. Almost all of them have internalized thoroughly modern, if not postmodern, presuppositions. They roll their eyes at fifty-year-old hymns! It can be a real chore to get them to treat the faith historically. It is the mainline liberal Protestant denominations that are more conscious and deferential to their theological pasts, even if they do so revisionistically.

It's not because California evangelicals are the only ones who are suspicious of Catholicism. If anything, the last couple of decades have seen a reversal from historical patterns, with evangelicals more rather than less comfortable with and respectful of Rome. We aren't the ones buying millions of copies of The da Vinci Code and thinking it's all true. A few (usually first-year) students do misunderstand, misrepresent, and even respect my Catholic students, but their attitudes usually change without much effort on my part. Much more often my non-Catholic students really enjoy hearing my Catholic students' perspectives and treat them with respect, and they like the Catholic books I require.

It's not because evangelicals – at least California evangelicals – are still pop-culture separationists who treat dancing as "worldly." Sure, in some circles the old attitude persists. But dancing is as ancient a controversy as card playing. Today the boundaries are shifting around practices such as body piercing (allowed at Westmont, but not respected by all students) and free premarital sex (not allowed at Westmont, but not disrespected by all students). But all communities have similar boundaries of one kind or another. Moreover, it is evangelicals, not liberal Protestants, who are working hard to craft specifically Christian embraces of popular culture – and as much for outreach as for self-protection. Anyone paying attention to the Christian music scene already understands this.

It's not because Cagle is imagining evangelical distinctiveness out of thin air. Instead, it is – at least partially – that like the Middle Easterners in that cartoon about Iraq, American evangelicals actually have an identity that is different enough from the wider cultural norm to support a stereotype. We are theologically and ethically committed to our tradition. We are critical in how we appropriate practices from other traditions and the wider culture. We can be located in an American religious heritage because we still draw from it in recognizable ways.

Not only am I grateful for these distinct aspects of evangelicalism, but I owe my life to them. They attracted me to vital Christian faith out of a background in nominal liberal Protestantism that didn't really support Cagle's brand of stereotyping.

This cartoon has been a reminder, and I am thankful for that.

However, what his hermeneutical circle does to distinctiveness is less encouraging. When I look at the picture as a whole, I see here a world of distance – a depressingly distant world where otherness is allowed and invited to harden into caricature.

Look away from the sneering Puritan in the cartoon and toward the other figures. The Catholic is a regular guy, I suppose, but he's hideous. The dancer is an anorexic ditz. By contrast, the neighbor is the most normal one in the whole picture – a good natured, casual Californian. In fact, a little googling reveals that he is Daryl Cagle! The most normal figure in the picture is the cartoonist himself.

As the Church Lady would say, How con-veen-ient!

Now this would be the conventional time for me to score some cheap rhetorical points. But I cannot do that. For one thing, I might be reading too much into the picture. I don't know Cagle's motives in portraying each of these types as he has, and don't intend to question them. It may just be that he needs to portray himself realistically so that he is recognizable to the few readers who would know what he looks like. It may be that he wants those few readers to know Westmont's neighbors are real, flesh-and-blood people. These explanations are still puzzling – isn't a person still supposed to be recognizable through the caricature? aren't the other figures in this cartoon real people too? – but there may be some other explanation I haven't thought of. Besides, Duke taught me to look at texts not mainly as a means of reading the author's mind, but mainly as worlds that invite us in. So Cagle's authorial intent isn't where my interpretation lodges.

The real reason I couldn't point fingers even if I wanted to is that I don't hold moral high ground here anyway. While at the obvious level I am the Puritan in the cartoon, what disturbs me so much is that at a deeper level and in a much more accurate sense I am the cartoonist. I live in a socially constructed world in which I alone am the normal one.

This perceptual world belongs to everyone who intuitively understands its iconography. Cagle didn't invent the form, and he didn't have to train us in how to read it. We all inherited it (along with original sin's other manifestations, I suppose). I have no drawing talent whatsoever, but I can caricature. And I generally spare my self image the brutality with which I render others.

"But caricaturing is what cartoons do!" "But this is what makes them interesting!" Yeah, I know. My mental cartooning turns the world into a freak show I find immensely entertaining. Yet in the end it is a lonely, bitter, dead place.

I don't like the part of me that desires and chooses to see others this way. I am tired of living according to its perceptions. I don't like it when I teach my children, my students, and my readers to make themselves the norm at others' expense. You and I aren't the norm, Jesus is.

I want this part of me healed, not reinforced. I wouldn't mind learning how to draw, but I want to forget how to caricature. I want to stop putting everyone else at eye's length.

(That means professional journalists too, whom I realize I have been picking on a lot lately.)

This kind of thing has been on my mind for a while. It features in the chapter on "your will be done" in my Lord's Prayer book. I just delivered a sermon on how Christ paid the price to free us from the distance we impose on others in order to defend and assert ourselves, whether through politics or otherwise. (Wait for the link in the next few weeks. I am still refining it.)

That chapter and that sermon proclaim the good news that God has lifted us out of a world of distance and opposition into a community of fellowship and freedom. The gift of the Holy Spirit is freedom from caricaturing our God, our neighbors, and ourselves, as well as hope that sees us through the suffering of being on the receiving end of others' caricatures. Hallelujah!

Hey, I guess all this makes me a Bible-toting Puritan!

If Cagle's reasoning had been sound, his gift could have been greater. He might have identified more areas in which I, Westmont, and evangelicalism in general need to repent. But even in the absence of that opportunity I am thankful. I intend to keep Cagle's cartoon on my office door. I want my students to learn to take pride in the features that make them genuinely different. I want them to learn existentially a taste of what it must be like for Muslims to see themselves portrayed as terrorists and veiled belly dancers, for Jews to see themselves portrayed as hook-nosed Shylocks, for non-evangelicals to hear themselves slandered and misunderstood by evangelicals in the name of Truth, and for every other historical cultural American minority to discover itself distorted and objectified. I want them to discern the truth and the falsehood of others' caricatures and take lessons from both. I want them to identify opportunities for correction and enlightenment on all sides. And I want them to understand that we all need and are offered freedom from our own worlds of caricature.

15:58 (file under /topics/westmont)

Fri, 23 Jul 2004

Rock of Aged

An article that emerged out of my blogging has just been published in Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Theology. It is called Rock of Aged. Here is a taste:

As youth ministry increasingly surrenders to youth culture, we need to make something clear to all, especially our young people. Christianity is a religion for old people.

Yes, I really believe that. (I also really believe that God is black. But that's a topic for a different day.)

Anyway, here is the article. It is also published on the journal's own website here. Shabbat shalom!

14:24 (file under /topics/publishing)

Mon, 19 Jul 2004

Not Ready for Prime Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14:02 (file under /topics/politics)

Thu, 15 Jul 2004

Put a Little Fall in Your Summer

I have finalized my textbook choices for next semester's classes at Westmont and Fuller Seminary's Santa Barbara extension. As usual, I like 'em!

If students want to get a jump on purchasing textbooks for Christian Doctrine, Doctrine of God, or Patristic Theology, or if parents or others want to purchase copies so you can read along, now you can.

If you want to read ahead, you will probably want to get in touch with me for a sense of which texts will come first, or else wait until the course schedules are ready. I won't be putting those together until close to the beginning of the semester.

13:33 (file under /topics/westmont/classes)

White Is Really Every Color in the Spectrum

I took this test to gauge how "red state" or "blue state" my mentality is. This is what happens when one doesn't know much about either culture:

Do I contain multitudes, or am I just colorless? No need to answer....

11:58 (file under /topics/general)

Wed, 14 Jul 2004

Washington Post: Click

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

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

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

Froomkin's "answer" boils down to this:

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

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

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

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

14:52 (file under /topics/politics)

Wed, 07 Jul 2004

Bye, GoLive

So after converting my whole site to GoLive, I discovered that the software is so buggy on my machine that I couldn't type a paragraph without crashing the application and losing my work.

After the usual diagnostics, I am back on an updated version of DreamWeaver that supports WebDAV.

Of course now I have to convert my site back again so the template dependencies are fixed. Joy!

Still beats packing up a house, though.

14:10 (file under /topics/general)

Old Dogs, New Tricks

I hate writer's block!

Anyway, a former student, now in youth ministry, e-mailed me about the friction that comes when he exposes his students to some of the ideas he has been learning lately. While he has found Brian McLaren and other spokespeople for the 'emerging church' invigorating for his faith and refreshing for his career, they are controversial among his students and their parents. That is a common problem that McLaren wisely addresses in his books right alongside the new material. I answered my former student's question in this theological FAQ.


10:22 (file under /topics/westmont)
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