Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Kingdom of Priests: A Reformation Day Reflection

Fresh off my return from Luther Bowl, I am struck how appropriate the event was for this, the weekend of Reformation Day (for all you non-Lutherans out there, we celebrate today the anniversary of Martin Luther's nailing of the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517). This year's was a very UN-Luther Bowl, as only half the schools descended from the German Reformation, while three Presbyterian seminaries seemed to think this was the Calvin Bowl, and Trinity Episcopal managed to hand us our only loss in the tournament. It was a truly Protestant event, short only Anabaptists to make it a full deck of Reformation traditions. Even as we came together as one body to compete together, we yet remained divided and in competition - a sobering reminder that the gifts and prophetic challenges of the 16th century came at the expense of heavy damage to the third article of the Apostle's Creed, "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church."

Its quite fashionable in post-liberal theological circles to scapegoat the Reformation as the source of all of modernity's ills - and often, rightly so. However, blogging for First Things, Peter Leithart reminds us that the many foibles of the movement need not become an excuse to write off the significant blessings it has bestowed on the church as a whole, especially a renewed focus on the biblical truth of the "priesthood of all believers." Leithart laments that the renewal of a sense of the priestly call given each believer in Baptism has led many to abandon the church in favor of private and personal spiritual self-sufficiency, a kind of "get out of church free" card (a perpetual temptation, especially in the new wave of emergent churches who seek to practice a "Sunday-less" Christianity). However, he reminds us that

We are all stationed as guardians of God’s holy house, now identical to the holy people, called to distinguish between holy and unclean and to maintain the purity of God’s household. All believers offer the sacrifice of praise through Jesus, the Bread of God. Every Christian offers the incense of prayer in the holy place of God’s house, and through practices of forbearance and forgiveness we keep God’s house clean. Through using the gifts given by the Spirit, each member of Christ’s body contributes to the edification of the whole.

In the old order, priestly service was housekeeping. In the new order, all are priests, called to the ministry of bodybuilding.

The rest of Leithart's article provides a helpful background into the Biblical contours of the abundant life of serving as Christ's priests, building up the body of Christ, and acting on the truth that “Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another.” SDG.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Travelogue

As I'll be headed up to Gettysburg with the LTSS Fighting Doves to compete for the flag football crown in the annual Luther Bowl, I won't be posting for a few days. However, here's a map of the previous week's itinerary through the blogosphere for your reading pleasure.

Ezra Klein's helpful comments on blogging led me to re-engage my own web writing practice. I got down to business as I introduced the good news of philospher Stanley Cavell via a portrait of him in the Chronicle Review, and in light of his concept of acknowledgment read comments by a Catholic theologian on multiculturalism as a challenge to the easy "diversity" of the ELCA. I also presented a hopeful view of the church and a charitable view of bohemian-hipster Christianity by Ben McNutt, while also meditating on reconciliation via a recommendation of the music of the band Storyhill and a reflection on a recent pastoral experience in the South.

Turning to theology, I offered an introduction to Finnish re-visioning of Martin Luther's concept of justification in terms of union with Christ in anticipation of lectures by Finnish scholars at LTSS. I then offered pirated advice on vocational discernment from Nate Lee to remind me why I should not get sucked back into graduate school by the incredibly fascinating lectures the Finns would offer on the theology of the gift, and on which I would report, bringing the week to a close.

Go Doves!

Finn Watch ctd: Logic, Love and Gifts from Helsinki

As promised, here's a brief report on two fascinating lectures exploring the implications of the logic of gift-giving for Lutheran theology by Finnish Luther scholars Risto Saarinen and Olli-Pekka Vainio, given yesterday at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. Dr. Saarinen reminded us several times that while he has already published a book on these matters, the material he presented is hot off the bench of his theological workshop, and is still in development. Therefore, I'll only share some highlights, while eagerly anticipating the finn-ished product.

Dr. Vainio laid the groundwork for Dr. Saarinen's constructive proposal by surveying recent philosophical developments in the phenomenology of gift giving. At one extreme stands Nietzsche, declaring that all giving is inherently an act of utter self-interest, an act of power and assertion of the will that seeks to enslave the recipient in the individual's quest to become a great soul. The state of suspicion under which all giving is placed prompted an equally extreme reaction represented in Derrida, who in seeking utter disinterestedness in giving declared that a gift given is no gift at all. Vainio rejected this postmodern polarity, offering a very Lutheran invitation to accept the fact that all acts of giving are necessarily a mixture of self-interest and disinterestedness, and urged us to reject the grounding narrative of ontological violence which ultimately excludes both personhood and the possibility of goodness, lest we be tempted into the typical Lutheran quagmire of passivity before God's gift of grace, and thus also, towards our growth in love flowering forth in the creation of relationships with our neighbors. Vainio argued that gifts can only be given in a context of personhood and desire, and that not even God gives disinterestedly or "unconditionally," since God desires to establish us as persons who can enter into life-giving relationship with Godself. This is where the Finnish Luther comes in. The union offered in justification between person and Trinity removes the sinner from slavery to debt and power and sets them within a reality where interested love without debt is possible.

Dr. Saarinen continued this train of thought, drawing on recent linguistic research into the semantic range of the word "gift," urging us to look at the phenomenon of giving not from the perspective of the recipient, but rather the giver - in this case, the Trinity. Such a move, while not unproblematic given Nietzsche's suspicions, brings into theological focus in which giving has priority over receiving. Simple as it may sound to emphasize that it is GOD who gives, this basic move, consonant with Barthian and post-liberal concerns, opens up the nature of the gift given by focusing on the identity of the giver, and thus the kind of relationship established between giver and recipient. When the recipient is primary, too often, she becomes merely a passive receptacle for the gift - indeed, we do not say "I give a book to a shelf," but only "I set a book on the shelf." Only a person can receive a gift, which can only be given by a person in relationship.

This epistemic framework grounds Saarinen's constructive proposal for a way forward in Lutheran theology beyond certain gaps and lacunae which exist due to the incompleteness of the church's confessional documents. While some still view the confessions as exhaustive, Saarinen rather views them as "stem cells" or seends from which can be grown rich new varieties and further developments in theology in response to contemporary challenges, using the theology of the gift. Delving into the etymology of various biblical formulations such as "handing on of doctrine" or "proclamation," Saarinen notes that words have their root in the Greek verb "to give." Various categories can be divided into either "economic" or "donative" gifts, the former of which entails an exchange, while the latter is an act of charity. Ultimately, no theological concept is a "pure gift," but is an admixture of economy and donation. Only God gives pure gifts, with clarity and depth of purpose. Theology needs to grow forth from an understanding of God's pure gift of love, and even as it is differentiated into primarily economic or donative aspects, must always recall its roots in this purity, while never forgetting its admixture.

Thus, while we might for example imagine that a social-program ought to be merely donative, giving aid to the needy without requirement, remembering that God's love includes within it but is not exhausted by its economic aspects might lead us to reconsider whether our ethic of charity is not also seeking domination, and also challenges us to give gifts in such a way as to create relationships of exchange between persons. I take this to mean that pretending to offer "unconditional gifts" to the poor is an incomplete witness to God; rather, when possible, gifts are offered so as to establish relationship. It may be the difference between simply giving someone spare change, or inviting them to share a cup of coffee, only to discover that your personhood is tied up with the recognition and acknowledgment of theirs. (The image I have included of St. Vincent de Paul and the beggar exemplifies this for me in its blurring of the distinction between giver and recipient, begging the question of who is Christ to who, and offering a vision of mutuality and exchange, where my salvation is bound up with that of my new friend.)

For Lutheran theology, this is particularly important, since it blurs the edges between merits and gifts, focusing less on the recipient's passive acceptance of the gift and more on the ontology, that is, the vision of reality, that is established by the Giver. Saarinen argued that this Trinitarian, gift-giving ontology incorporates traditional notions of transcendentals, things like truth, goodness, beauty, and love. The Christian life can be mapped as a pilgrimage which, having recognized the Giver as the One who gives Himself in love, initiates a life of seeking after and journeying towards God. Renunciation of sin and hypocrisy is not the substance of the Christian life, but merely its initiation, and while pursuit of one transcendental, such as Truth, might tempt us to focus away from Goodness, life becomes less an "ordo salutis" and more a series of biographical stations which enables lived narratives of creative variety in relationship with and growth towards the God who has first given God-self to us. Passivity is replaced not with a system of merit, but rather, an intimate dance of relationship.

I see this as a welcome corrective to 20th-century Lutheran theology, which has followed Reformation polemics in associating such approaches with works-righteousness and obsession with merits. In this view, exemplified by Forde and others, life becomes merely an exercise in continual repentance and renunciation of our own goodness, an endless repetition of the Gospel of justification, which explodes into our lives, leaving a crater of emptiness behind to be filled by God's grace. But we remain empty (thanks to David Yeago for offering this image). My STM work at LTSS is precisely to reconceive of holiness and sanctification in the Lutheran tradition along more catholic and Augustinian lines, in which the life of faith is akin to a marriage, in which faithfulness means growth in relationship leading to acts of desire and devotion, and pours forth in creativity, which is a form of improvising with and being led in the dance by the music of the Holy Spirit. I also believe that the Finns' approach provides a kind of post-liberal Lutheranism that would interface quite nicely with the Hauerwasian focus on the communal character of the Church's witness. Indeed, it provides a corrective, able to integrate the subjective relationship with Christ into the more objective reality of the Church, the former of which Hauerwas and much of post-liberalism has repeatedly downplayed. And, most importantly, I think these insights provide pastoral resources for breaking the cycle of endless sermons about the already of justification, creating conditions to speak of the adventure, the discovery, and the delight of a life lived in relationship with the Christ dwelling in our hearts, and in the hearts of others.

While Dr. Saarinen's project remains incomplete and awaits further development, yesterday's lectures inspired me with new hope in the possibilities for Lutheran theology, as well as for the life of faith. I'll be waiting eagerly to see what new rich varieties of crops can be grown from the fertile soil of Finnish studies, and am thankful for their sharing the fruits of their labors, as well as planting new seeds in Southern soil, with us at LTSS.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Vocational Discernment...

Perhaps this is God's sick way of affirming my sense of call to ordained ministry rather than pursuing an academic career in theology and literature. Thanks to the Rev. Nate Lee for passing this along:

Finn Watch: Luther and Divinization

On Thursday morning, LTSS will host two lights of the "Finnish School of Luther Interpretation," founded and flourishing in the theology department of the University of Helsinki. Dr. Risto Saarinen will lecture on "Gift as the Heart of Lutheran Theology," and Dr. Olli-Pekka Vainio will talk about "Logic and Love of the Gift." It should be a fascinating session from one of the more exciting and creative theological movements in the church today.

Birthed via a series of regional ecumenical dialogues between the Finnish Lutheran Church and the Russian Orthodox, the Finnish Lutheran scholars have challenged the Kantian-Ritschlian foundations of much of 20th-century Luther reconstruction (see my teacher Michael Root's elaboration here), along with its anti-Catholic bias and its focus on forensic justification. In contrast to the latter view, which holds that in Baptism God's righteousness is merely credited or imputed to an individual, the Finns have exhaustively shown in dissertation after dissertation that, at least in the early Luther, we ought more properly focus on a very real "union with Christ," wherein God communicates God's own qualities and nature to the believer. The founder of the school, Tuomo Mannermaa, captures this Lutheran notion of the classic Christian doctrine of theosis, or, divinization, in the title of his treatise, "Christ Present in Faith." God does not merely look upon a broken sinner as righteous, but rather enters into that sinner, indwelling him or her in an intimate union by which that person, in the words of St. Peter, becomes a "partaker in the divine nature" and is subsequently transformed ontologically into a new creation. As Mannermaa summarizes,

The notion of the presence of Christ as favor and gift is the essence of Luther's concept of justification. At least on the level of terminology, the distinction drawn in later Lutheranism between justification as forgiveness and sanctification as divine indwelling is alien to the Reformer. Forgiveness and indwelling of God are inseperable in the person of Christ, who is present in faith In that sense, in Luther's theology, justification and theosis as participation in God are also inseperable. (in Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. ed. Braaten and Jenson. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, 38)

When Luther, in On Christian Liberty, speaks of us becoming "Christs to one another," he thus means it quite literally. After the Finns, it becomes difficult to read this work, which Luther himself considered a compendium of his thought, or passages like these, without hearing echoes from the East:

No good work can rely upon the Word of God or live in the soul, for faith alone and the Word of God rule in the soul. Just as the heated iron glows like fire because of the union of fire with it, so the Word imparts its qualities to the soul. It is clear, then, that a Christian has all that he needs in faith...(trans. Lambert, W.A. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, 15)

The third incomparable benefit of faith is that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride is united with her bridegroom. By this mystery, as the Apostle teaches, Christ and the soul become one flesh. And if they are one flesh ad there is between them a true follows that everything they have they hold in common, he good as well as the evil...(ibid 18-19)

Here Luther merely uses language common to spiritual theologians throughout the history of the church, from St. Augustine, St. Bernard and Nicolas Cabasilas to St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.

The Finns' re-visionary account holds great promise for ecumenical theology by positing a Luther engaged in broader catholic debates about ontology, theosis, and participation. In this sense, he belongs less to Protestant partisan politics and polemics, and can speak constructively as a teacher of the church - albeit, a radical, idiosyncratic, and by no means unproblematic pedagogue.

(For those interested in learning more, Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson's collection of lectures by Mannermaa and his circle, Union with Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther, is highly recommended as an introduction.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Reconciliation on Story Hill

A friend at LTSS recently introduced me to the folk duo Storyhill by passing along their latest album, Shade of the Trees. I haven't listened to another disc since. Montana natives Chris Cunningham and John Hermanson channel the Americana simplicity of Simon and Garfunkel, recording live around a single mic to weave hauntingly wrought tales of heartbreak and human frailty, reaching deep into the Jungian shadows of the nation's collective unconscious. On the harrowing "Caught in a Mess," for example, the duo reflects on the disillusionment with the American Dream following the economic and political turmoil of the past decade through the lens of the ending of a relationship, singing "the power you used to heal/can harm."

But the tune that has stayed with me is "Better Angels:"

The lyrics are a meditation on the dying words of Stonewall Jackson, recorded in 1863 by Dr. Hunter McGuire, who also amputated the general's arm, as follows:
A few moments before he died he cried out in his delirium, "Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front rapidly! Tell Major Hawks"—then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Presently a smile of ineffable sweetness spread itself over his pale face, and he said quietly, and with an expression, as if of relief, "Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees."

The man who once advised "always mystify, mislead and surprise the enemy" is himself mystified by the possibility of peace beyond the relentlessness of war, and Storyhill juxtaposes this revelation with the famous words of Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural Address, which closes with mystification of its own by appealing to that place over the river in all of us:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

It strikes me that Storyhill's bringing together the words of the legends of each side of the American Civil conflict is itself a performative of the kind of reconciliation we ardently hope for and desperately desire, especially in this time approaching what looks to be a bitter midterm election. Here are the full lyrics:

Better Angels, of our Nature
stay awake now, you're in danger
The coming night is dark and deep
Cross over the river and rest, in the shade of the trees

Keep going forward, 100 abreast,
the horses are thirsty, they will protest
Tonight we will water them, in Tennessee
Crossover the river and rest in the shade of the trees

They outnumber, but we're at our best
As willing we stumble, into their bullets blessed
Hold the line, stay close to me
lets cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.

Better Angels of our nature
stay awake now, you're in danger


Recently I've had the pleasure of drinking a foretaste of the sweetness that can only come through striving of a different kind than the times sung here. Having signed up as a supply preacher and organist for the ELCA South Carolina Synod, I was invited to fill the pulpit at a rural parish about an hour outside of Columbia. Having been warned by a member of the church to keep mum on my identity as a Northerner, the first thing my eyes could not help but notice as we pulled up was the vast church graveyard filled with tombstones resting under the shadows of gently waving Confederate flags. Sad to say, I found my indignance at such prejudice met with stereotypes and judgments of my own. Luckily, my wife, who is always quicker to charity than I, reminded me that the better angels of my nature were in danger, and needed to "stay awake now." I think another charitable One once urged his followers to do the same (Mk 13.24f)

Only later, after being warmly greeted and invited to Sunday supper at a church member's home, did I learn that these were these stars and bars marked the graves of family members who had died fighting for the CSA, that the roots of this little country church reached far deeper than any I had known in my Yankee suburban existence, and that they represented far more to their descendants than simply slavery, states rights, rebellion, or anything else the history books and media would use to lull us into the slumber of hypocrisy. I'm not ready to go for BBQ at Maurice's yet, and I'm certainly not willing to start talking about the "War of Northern Aggression" or agree with the flag at the capitol building downtown. But sharing pot roast, sweet potatoes, and stories, watching joyfully as relations in the faith I never knew I had took my daughter for tractor rides to pick us fresh pears from their roadside orchard, reminded me that, over the river, in the cool shade of the country trees, we can indeed rest in presence of our enemies, reconciled by a power far greater than America, or the forces that have divided her. These folk helped revive a better angel in my own nature, and I'm thankful there are voices like Storyhill whose words point, perhaps unknowingly, to an angelic light, glowing dimly in the shadows.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Charity for Hipsters

My former classmate and co-conspirator Ben McNutt has written a few pieces for Duke Divinity's Faith and Leadership site. Like James K.A. Smith, Ben dislikes McCracken's overly simplistic take on "Christian cool," and favors the increasingly common nuanced distinction between "bohemians" (the real deal) and "posers" (he recently sent me an article from that makes this move far more helpfully then Smith, which is worth reading). His belief in the movement's potential should continue to provide insights into the promise of the former group for the church's future.

In the meantime, I commend his recent portrait of a promising "hipster" community, Trinity Grace Church-Brooklyn, as a glimpse of that promise's potential. Refusing the missional church's current addiction to church growth strategies, evangelistic gimmicks, and shallow appropriations of ancient practices, Pastor Caleb Clardy and his community have pursued a "parish-based" approach, claiming " you don’t get to choose who’s in your parish. You worship with your neighbor, in the community where you live." They've taken a bottom up approach to liturgical worship which hypridizes traditional and contemporary currents to create what the Clardy calls a "homiletical mash-up" and McNutt likens to

a bizarre glimpse into the eschaton -- an apocalyptic vision where Mozart and the Wesley brothers meet Johnny Cash and Coldplay, and they all rock out in some boutique-music venue in the East Village of heaven. It’s a departure from the monotony of the three-chord, two-phrase P&W songs, diluted of musicality and theological richness.

For those who worshipped while I was music pastor at Abundant Life United Methodist Church, you know this is right up my alley.

McNutt concludes the article reflecting on the church's grounding of its identity of "giving ourselves to this story." While on the surface parts of the following description may sound disturbing to liturgical purists, in it I think we catch a glimpse of fresh hope for churches like the ELCA whose future is by no means guaranteed:

On Easter Sunday, Clardy preached about the stories that envelop our lives. “Mostly, we live in small stories that are just about us. But are we willing to give our lives to a greater story, where we’re united with what we were created to be and with the people we were meant to be with? Let’s give ourselves to this story, because other stories are kind of lame. They don’t have the power of this story -- the power to take us to death and then beyond.”

New York flaunts its own story. Unlike the church’s story, it is flashy, filled with false hopes of independent success and fueled by a vapid desire for cool. Compared with the story told through the sacraments, it is hard to imagine that story co-opting such power for some fleeting end.

The opposite is more likely. Perhaps in a small borough in modern Ephesus, a few 20-somethings will stumble into a storefront church. They’ll eat some bread and drink some wine and maybe think they’re pretty cultured crossing themselves. And without knowing it, they will have been gathered up into something more beautiful than their Broadway dreams.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Hearing Hispanic Voices

Peter J. Casarella, director of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology at DePaul and brilliant Von Balthasar scholar, offered an interesting critique of "multiculturalism" movements in the church and theology:

At a conference at the Catholic University of America in the late 1970s, prominent Latino theologian Orlando Espin, now at the University of San Diego, objected in no uncertain terms to the appellation “multicultural church.” He said, “Latinos don’t need this. Latinos don’t want this. We’d rather think in terms of catholicity.” A more radical commitment to cultural diversity could come to fruition by taking the presence of Christ more seriously -- as one who unifies different cultures.

Recognition is a category that does more work than multiculturalism in my judgment. Recognition asks not just who is at the table, but what agency do these individuals have? I still think that there is a place for group rights or group identity, even though I’ve come out rather strongly against identity policy. But whether you’re in a student life office, a parish or some kind of multicultural office, the bottom line is what kind of agency is given to the underrepresented groups? How can their agency be promoted?

Every time I flip through the various new "multicultural" settings in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) book or hear someone talk of doing a world music service incorporating African American spirituals or Spanish language hymns, I struggle. Why do we not incorporate such settings and hymnody into worship on a regular basis, along with what many would call "more serious, theologically rich" selections? Why do we relegate such voices and expressions to isolated worship events like "Holy Spirit" day, rather than allowing them to teach and enrich us as we submit to them on a regular, ordinary basis?

During last year's controversial ELCA Churchwide assembly, several representatives from Hispanic, African-American, and Asian-American parishes came forward to voice their legitimate concerns about the implications the ELCA's actions held for the integrity of Scripture. They were almost entirely ignored, ironically, by an assembly championing diversity and touting itself as progressive. I wonder what happened to their agency - they certainly were not recognized as equals in the debate or within a church supposedly founded on its commitment to justice and the Gospel. In Cavell's parlance, recognition, or, what he calls "acknowledgement" would mean a confession on our own behalf that we have too long been negligent in backing up our language with our actions. Multiculturalism becomes one more proxy term - ironically and disturbingly, promoted not by the conservative but by so-called liberal and progressive leaders and bishops - masking a latent disregard for the agency and interests of our brothers and sisters in Christ whose views and contexts disqueit, unsettle, and ultimately, expose us.

I am thankful that the voices of homosexual Christians are finally being given the opportunity for agency and being heard that is theirs by baptism. I pray their justice will not come at the expense of others whose justice has yet to be legitimately pursued - on Gospel terms, not ours. These, at least, seem to be the terms their voices will not let us forget.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Other Stanley: Introducing Cavell

While procrastinating in the LTSS library, I noticed that The Chronicle Review had done a cover piece on philosopher Stanley Cavell. I referenced Cavell's work on Wittgenstein and language learning n an earlier post (er, web article?) - the one with the dinosaurs - and had the wonderful opportunity of studying him along with Wittgenstein and Austin with the fabulous Toril Moi during my last semester at Duke. Despite teaching at Harvard, where he is Walter M. Cabot Professor Emeritus of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value (like I said, Harvard), Cavell is an inspiration to me for the ways he manages to combine the study of philosophy and literature, bridging the unnecessary disciplinary gap to the great benefit of both sides. Few thinkers have challenged me more to look at the world, my self, and others with renewed wonder and fresh questions, while taking seriously the tragic reality of human limitations, and the even more tragic attempt to be more than human in the effort to escape, by our own skeptical efforts, those limits which make us the creatures that we are.

Despite his appreciation for Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard, and his challenging yet ultimately friendly reflections on theology, Cavell remains largely unknown and underappreciated in the theological world. The Chronicle Review article, is a splendid and accessible introduction to his major concerns and works. Dukies may find it particularly interesting for the ways the author, the Dean of the Honors College at Baylor, situates Cavell with MacIntyre and Charles Taylor in his criticisms of the fragmentation of the disciplines in modern universities. I offer the following excerpts by way of introducing the Other Stanley:

In Cavell's view, philosophy will never be able to successfully model itself on the sciences, because it never really makes progress. Not just in moments of intellectual crisis, but at all times, philosophy circles back to its own assumptions and puts them in question and, even when it does not revise them, tries to see them in a new and enriched light. Cavell speaks repeatedly, in the course of describing his intellectual journey, of the need to "begin again," to revisit and re-examine assumptions and purported conclusions that have gone untested.

Cavell explores films in which ordinary characters leading ordinary lives make the discovery that the ordinary is the extraordinary. For him that is a theme straight out of Wittgenstein, who once described his own philosophical writing as consisting of a series of "observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes." The recovery of the ordinary is Cavell's way of responding to the dilemma of modern philosophy, which finds itself vacillating between peremptory certitude and despairing skepticism.

Succinctitude, or, Ezra Klein on Blogging

Sean Larsen recently convinced me of the need to stay informed about the upcoming election and attendant political happenings, and in so doing turned me on to browsing various blogs. Ezra Klein had a fascinating reflection on the distinction between "blog posts" and "web articles," in which he concludes:
"Of these two, blogging is the more derided medium, but it's unquestionably superior for conveying information. You can give a reader much more on a blog than in an article. But for all that, I'm fiercely committed to articles, because they make sure I'm writing in a way that's accessible to people who don't read the blog -- which is, let's face it, the vast, vast majority of the world."

I just learned how to make block quotes, which shows you where I am at in terms of blogging savy. As this blog has shown, I tend to enjoy writing articles as opposed to "blog posts." However, for the sake of more frequent posting, I'm going to take more frequent stabs at posting, with the prayer that the patron saint of succintitude might take pity and offer up intercessory prayers on my behalf. Your prayers are welcome too, by the way.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Mean Chrisianity

I've been doing my procrastination thing and sitting on a post on Brett McCracken's recent book, Hipster Christianity. However, I've been called from my dogmatic slumber (literally, here in class...) by a friend who brought to my attention a review of the book written by James K.A. Smith written for, to which I've appended a comment.

In brief, Smith wants McCracken to further differentiate his use of "hispter" to include two further categories: "poser" and "bohemian." The posers are those Christians who are, essentially, jealous of the bohemians, the latter are, in Smith's parlance, "educated evangelicals" who are less concerned with smoking and drinking than they are with collective salvation, social justice, and shopping at Goodwill for the right reasons. According to Smith,

"In contrast to the Christian bohemian commitment to a good life that reflects the shape of kingdom flourishing, McCracken’s concluding chapters read like a naive, slightly whiny appeal to protect Jesus-in-your-heart evangelical pieties—which, of course, can sit perfectly well with the systemic injustice that characterize “normal” American life...So “how can we go on living like we did before once we have become Christians? And how can we possibly live like everyone else in the world when something so radical and transformative has happened in our lives?” (212) Yes, Mr. McCracken, that is indeed the question. And that’s exactly why my Christian bohemian friends refuse to live like all of those American evangelicals who have just appended a domesticated Jesus to the status quo of the so-called American Dream."

Wonderful points from the professor, all with which I can agree and to which I can aspire. Unfortunately for his case, however, Smith continues:

"Whereas it turns out you’re just worried that young Christians might be (gasp!) smoking and drinking a bit too much and have not sufficiently considered injunctions about dress in 1 Peter 3. Well, yes, indeed: those do seem like quite pressing matters for Christian witness in our postsecular world. By all means, let’s get our personal pieties in line. For as McCracken sums it up, “the Christian hipster lifestyle has become far too accommodating and accepting of sin” (200)—and by this, he means a pretty standard litany of evangelical taboos (did I mention sex?). It’s funny: my Christian hipster friends think conservative evangelicals have also become too accommodating and accepting of sin, but they tend to have a different inventory in mind—things like the Christian endorsement of torture and wars of aggression, evangelical energies devoted to policies of fiscal selfishness, and lifestyles of persistent, banal greed."

I am constantly amazed and baffled as to why personal and communal holiness need to be seen as necessarily locked in mortal combat. Last time I checked, Micah 6:8 said to love justice AND walk humbly with your God. I would think that personal and communal holiness would simply be the other side of the coin from living lives of radical discipleship in the pursuit of social transformation and progressiveness. I always thought that was just part of being a witness and disciple of Christ. More on that another time.

What really disappointed me about Smith's response, however, was the mean-spiritedness of it, a spirit which refuses to seek out and hear even the most meager and ill-expressed kernel of truth in those he disdains. Any academic who reads McCracken's book would have an east time ripping it apart. But its not an academic book. For all of its generalizations and failed attempts, Hipster Christianity must have struck a nerve with many so-called hipsters who have devoted much of their characteristic cynicism and ire to hating it. In doing so, they prove that, despite many ill-conceived volleys, some of McCracken's arrows have hit close to the heart of his target.

The problem that many of us have with "hipster" Christianity is not their clothing, or their cultural engagement, or their causes; its their basic mean-ness. Too often, cloaked beneath a smooth veneer of concerned activism, bohemian artistry, and academic savy is the same, tired anti-evangelicalism and intellectual-elitism in which we already live and breathe as Christians today, both within and without the walls of the church. It's sad that a movement of such gifted, talented and craeteive individuals, like James KA Smith, would rather emulate the elitism and cynicism of the culture than the patience, kindness, and acceptance of the Savior who we all claim to serve. I hope the transformation of which the professor speaks will manifest itself soon, for the sake of the church, the culture, and the world. Otherwise, the latter might just keep on winning. As I say in my comment,

"I am as thankful as anyone that contemporary Christians have figured out what Dante, Chaucer, Blake, Dostoevsky, and artful Christians of all ages already knew, and didn't need Paste to tell them - that loving the beautiful and making good art are the truest acts of a poetic disciple of Christ. I don't think Smith's way of articulating his criticisms was good, true, or beautiful. Just as McCracken may potentially fall into his alleged role of poser, Smtih seems to be suffering from a similar struggle - the cool kid who doesn't want anyone crowding in on his scene, and who makes fun of those on the outside, rather than extending hospitality and welcome to the outcast. There is a lot of Christ-talk in Smith's article, but not much of the love of Christ."