Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Social Justice and Political Ideology

If the criticisms of progressive Christians are true, the evangelical church, preoccupied with the salvation of individuals, doesn't give a crap about the social implications of the gospel. Now, I've been frank in my criticism of American evangelicalism, but to me this rings false, both from years growing up in the evangelical church and from the well-documented fact that religiosity and political conservatism make one likelier to give to charities and to volunteer. These are probably the best measures available of how much people "care" about social justice. Despite the pernicious influence of this idiot, who is not even a Christian, it seems that evangelicals are doing as well as anyone in addressing the social aspects of the gospel, which is not to say that we cannot all do much, much better.

I doubt that most of the people leveling the charge of evangelical apathy have looked extensively at these stats, but I don't think that this knowledge would change their view. This is because what really riles the progressives is that evangelicals do not share their political vision of justice, and they regard this vision as self-evidently correct. If political philosophy is easy to reason through, then reasonably intelligent people who do not reach the correct political conclusions are not merely wrong, but evil or dishonest. Therefore, in the progressives' view, evangelicals, who tend to be politically conservative, do not hold a defensible, rival conception of social justice; they don't care about it. Politically conservative Christians are equally guilty of this sort of reasoning; I've heard people question whether politically liberal Christians were fit for service in the church. Political philosophy, however, is a very difficult subject, and many well-intentioned, intelligent persons will part company along their journey through it. Our political preferences arise from a complex interplay of factors: upbringing, cleverness, social environment, personal morality and emotional makeup. If I see my political ideas and my neighbor's ideas as arising in this way, I can be his friend and think him a decent fellow even if I oppose his political ideas.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

If CS Lewis Were a Filmmaker...

Well, that is a silly proposition to begin with, because of all the great modern fantasists, Lewis's writing is probably the least cinematic. He gives his opinions of his characters directly, he addresses the reader and he secludes most of the physical action in the background. Filming Narnia is difficult, and the folks who made the first two Narnia films did a particularly bad job of it. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe's faults were mostly mistakes in emphasis and casting, Prince Caspian was both a bad film and a bad interpretation, completely ignoring the primary theme of modern man's descent into a kind of superstitious materialism. I don't plan on seeing The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and I am very glad that Dr. Lewis doesn't have to.

But if CS Lewis had made a film, I think that it might have looked very much like Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. The similarities between Pan's Labyrinth and Narnia are manifold - the wartime setting, the fantastical experiences of a young girl, elders who mock the reality of these experiences, and its willingness to mix mythologies. And indeed it is the outlook on mythology that Lewis and del Toro seem to share. For the protagonist Ofelia, the world of myth is both a place of escape, and a lens that provides a stark moral view of the common world, a place where she comes to recognize the horror of her father's greed and violence.

Moreover, the fantasy world of Pan Labyrinth is not merely story, it is, from my view, a coexistent reality (I have heard arguments that the fantasy adventures are merely Ofelia's imaginings). Perhaps the most original of Lewis's ideas was his claim that Christianity was "myth become fact," the historical incarnation of ageless redemption stories. This idea is certainly present in Pan's Labyrinth. The film's mythology is not explicitly Christian, but it is highly suggestive of the Christian narrative. Without giving away plot details, it includes a spiritual being taking on human flesh, sacrificial blood as a source of redemption, and restoration to right standing before one's father and king. Interesting, del Toro claims that his film was intended to subvert Catholic dogma; a Catholic friend of his called it a "deeply Catholic film". It surely offers much better spiritual food than the newest Narnia blockbuster.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Politics of Bible Study

Children are guileless readers and hearers of stories. They don't tease apart narrative structures or ponder the historical forces that shaped a work or question authorship. They listen, they enjoy, they often fixate on inconsequential details. We grow older and we learn to read for instruction, for analysis, and quite often, for political purposes. There is a strange kinship between academic literary scholars and some conservative Christians in that they place a strong emphasis on political reading. "One ought to read and laud only those works that are likely to reaffirm values that one already holds, so as to reinforce them, and make oneself a better soldier in the good political fight."

Now, there is some validity to this instruction with respect to the Bible, a book that Christians regard as authoritative on all matters of faith and practice, and that ought to be personally transforming. The problem is that a strong emphasis on the instructional aspects of Bible study often brings bad consequences: a reduction of a literary text to a series of propositions, bad exegesis from a failure to understand the literary aspects of the text, and a discarding of parts of the text whose personal value isn't immediately apparent.

I recently reread the patriarchal narrative of Genesis, which, for my money, is the most satisfying narrative in the Bible. As I read through Robert Alter's translation, I was dumbfounded by Jacob's character arc. I saw a man of cunning and physical means deceived into a marriage he did not want, raise a family whose violent honor he could not control, lose his dearest son, and an old man stripped of his smarts and virility left to cries of self-pity, and die in a land that was not his own. What is the practical purpose of this story's inclusion in the Bible? How can it be a cautionary tale, when its events are so dependent on specific details? Is it a theological treatise? There is theology, but it is buried. No, it is an account of Israel's history, of a unique family whose particular method of unhappiness is difficult to replicate, and of God's faithfulness in using such a family to father His chosen people. What value is that to me? The fact that I still ask the question means that I still harbor suspicion of apolitical reading.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Christmas Shoes and the Social Gospel

The intermittently insightful Patrol Magazine has published a fine flaming of what is perhaps the pinnacle of Christian kitsch, the song "The Christmas Shoes." On the song's aesthetics, there's not much else to say, and yet the article barely touches upon what the song's gravest fault. At the song's conclusion, the narrator, having purchased a pair of garish shoes for a poor child's dying mother, claims that God has sent this child "to remind me just what Christmas is all about."

What Christmas is really all about, it seems, is a one-off act of cheap charity to a grotesque pathetic enough to melt the hearts of a multinational bank of Scrooges. Americans love this. We love to complain about the commercialization of the holiday, we love to complain about the shopping season that begins earlier each year, we love to talk about the comparative blessedness of giving and receiving. Our complaints are valid, and also convenient ways to deemphasize what Christmas really is all about - Jesus coming to Earth as both God and man.

Mark Driscoll has pointed out that we cannot fashion an earthly analogy appropriate for the humility of the incarnation, because any such analogy compares two created things, while Jesus becoming a human is an uncreated being taking on the identity of a created being. The Christmas story is about prophecies fulfilled, mythologies thwarted, enemies defeated, sinners redeemed, and love for enemies as much as for cute children. These things, our true cause for celebration and charity, are not the stuff of Christmas easy listening.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I'm always a little perplexed by the lay atheists who are really into their atheism, and who spend countless hours expounding upon their atheism. If I were an atheist, I'd be too busy working at a hedge fund*, drinking and chasing women to think much about my atheism. But tonight, my purpose is not to talk about atheism, but to talk about Christian morality. My hypothetical remark gets at a very important question - is religious restriction all that stands between religious people and brazen immorality?

Let's look at my case. If I had entered college an atheist, I would not have had any strong moral objections to the dominant campus social culture, which consisted of drinking oneself into a stupor, promiscuity, and training for the pursuit of wealth for its own sake. In all likelihood, I would have adopted that culture as my own, and would probably have continued in a similar lifestyle for another decade. Having adopted that culture, I would be a fundamentally different person than I am now, one whose view of goodness would be an adolescent hedonism.

As it stands, I entered college a Christian, resisted the dominant culture, and became a person who genuinely believes that greed, binge drinking and cheap sex really do not have a part in a good and happy life. The question posed earlier derives from what I think is a misunderstanding of Christian morality, one that Christians have sometimes perpetuated. It is the idea that Christian morality is designed to restrict and diminish pleasure in order that one may demonstrate one's obedience to God. Of course, Christian morality does place restrictions on pleasurable behavior, but when it does so, it does it toward the end of securing deeper and more lasting pleasure. The Bible condemns adultery - this is to secure the love that can only be found in lifelong marriage. The Bible condemns drunkenness - this is to prevent the foolish behavior in which very drunk people engage. It condemns greed, because greed is destructive to self and to others. And beyond these, it tends to condemn behaviors that are hardly pleasurable to anyone.

Now, this is not to say that I do not want things that are sinful - quite the opposite. But when I recognize them as sin, I recognize that having them would not really contribute to my deepest well-being, and this thought sometimes leads me to reject them, though far, far less often than it should. The point is that Christian morality is not like an invisible fence keeping sheep from the open pasture. To me, it is more like a good teacher, whose pupils leave his classroom not only knowing more, but as different people who want different things.

*There are many fine people who work in finance because they enjoy the challenge of investing. At the same time, there are few professions better suited to the avaricious.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Brief Theory of Modern Church Music

The most common criticism levied at traditional church music is that it is entirely disconnected from the realities of modern life. It is too careful, too remote, too complicated and passionless to ignite the spiritual desires of modern man. It establishes a dualism between life in and out of the church building. What the church needs instead is simple, accessible, welcoming music that does not break with the day-to-day rhythms of the congregation. The continuity of sound will, at its best, inspire continuity of practice inside and outside of the church service.

There is some credibility to this argument. The language and harmonies of Psalms and hymns now sound archaic, and popular taste seems to make the window of what is contemporary smaller every year. Very well then. Historically the rhythms of American popular music have been those of everyday life: on horses, next to the train tracks, at work in the factory. Let us write church music in a style that mimics and then transcends the lives of church patrons.

Unfortunately, art imitates the monotonous suburban life in which everything is clean but nothing is elegant, where there is no terror and no beauty. What we are left with is music with none of the unbearable grandeur of God enthroned, and none of the bloody indignity of God on the cross. One of my favorite films is O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whose soundtrack is probably more popular than the film itself. The soundtrack is filled with traditional American songs of praise and worship, songs that retain their truth and power far outside their time and place of writing, rugged and dirty tunes that captured the intersection of the present and the eternal. This is what contemporary church music writers ought to strive for.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Selfless Love, Selfish Purity

Two outlooks on Christian decision-making: In the first, one sees the good that might be done, and the abilities one has to realize that good. One acts to maximize the good. In the second, one looks at the corruption and blemish that one might incur by following different courses of action. One acts to minimize the bad.

How this might play out*: Parents are choosing where to send their bright and talented son to high school. They are considering a top-rated public school where their son will meet a racially, economically and intellectually diverse group of students, take challenging courses and have the opportunity to participate in a wide range of activities. There are not many Christian students or teachers at the school, and there is substantial drug use and promiscuity. Alternatively, they consider a small church-affiliated high school where their son will easily be a top student, all students and teachers will be white Christians and there will be few extracurricular opportunities. Parents with the first outlook would most likely focus on the benefits of the challenging environment and choose the public school. Parents with the second outlook would most likely see the potential bad influences of public school students and choose the Christian school.

Reasons why the first outlook is best: There is no precedent among the early apostles for the Christian isolationism that inevitably results from the second outlook; rather, their work carried great risk of physical and spiritual harm. The greatest moral commands are to love God and to love others, not to preserve one's own purity. Finally, the beauty and terror of creation and the bloody facts of the incarnation demonstrate that God himself will permit and suffer great evil in order to bring about great good.

Now, this does not mean that we should chase after every idea we have for doing good. It is, as unfortunate experience has taught me, foolish to date someone with the hope of evangelizing that person, or to attend anonymous lewd parties with the hope that one's mere Christian presence will impart a magical transformation on the place. We cannot calculate odds, but we must act with clear, important objects that have a reasonable chance of succeeding. The alternatives are foolish indulgence, and selfish fear of sins already cleansed.

*This scenario is fictional. The correct decision would obviously depend on the details of schools and people.