Just say no?

It’s probably because of the Oscar season, but John Fitzgerald grouses about the Evangelical approach to culture.

It’s foolish to imagine everything is equal when it comes to pop culture. But evangelicals have to stop stunting their intellectual and spiritual maturity by sheltering themselves from bad words, fake blood, and the tantalizing sight of skin.

It is perhaps unfair to park this solely at the feet of the evangelical, though, inviting targets that they sometimes can be. Christian practice through the ages has shown a fairly consistent theme of suspicion about popular entertainments, from the early church’s rejection of the circuses to the Puritan rejection of Christmas, to the very sober-mindedness of the 19th C Presbyterians and Methodists. This is not a new thing.

That said, Evangelicals today often have a more ambiguous relationship to pop or mass culture, generally a “cultural-lite” sort of approach. Like the easy embrace of pop culture, this approach still accepts the fundamentals of the cultural context. This is a kind of Constantinianism. What we could use more of is the nurturing of alternate viewpoints, coupled with the robust interrogation of culture in our theology and our practice.

Culture buildling as a political act

Matthew Lee Anderson takes stock of the election,

What people want is not handwringing when things don’t go “our way,” but hope.  And a sober and serious assessment of how things look along with something like a strategy to turn them around that stays true to our principles.  Or maybe I speak too broadly.  So let me narrow the scope:  that is what want from an evangelical leadership, not the sort of handwringing that we are currently experiencing.

Still, it’s not as if Evangelicals will abandon the Republican Party. The first reactions are less about policy than they are about disappointment and real grief. And in understanding  that this still part of a grieving process, several points come to mind.

As political scientists will remind us, political identity is rather stable; culturally evangelicals will continue to be a part of the Republican coalition, particularly in the South. That cultural identity is a trap as to the real transformational goals of the faith community (and this is what I hear you struggling towards). In this light, Evangelicals face something of a choice whether to reinforce this cultural and political identity, that is to take part as a political community, or to take part in something akin to culture-making.

I would opt for the culture making approach.

Evangelicals in the last election voted more intensely GOP than in 2008. If there is an electoral failure, it is not for their not trying. What is missing is their ability to find allies in the center. Here, the deep cultural identity as a wing of the GOP played against them, particularly in the polarized electorate and an election framed as a cultural war, a war the Right lost (per Jonathan Chait).

To advance a transformational approach will it seem, call for different approaches than those previously advanced. At the least, as you suggest, it calls for something like a cheerful engagement. I would suggest that you especially pay attention to Peter Leithart’s concern for justice; a second place to turn would be the sober approach of Alan Jacobs’ thinking on information deficits and global warming.

And Leithart is right in this also: culture making can only take place in the context of a deep faith in the sovereign God who claims our lives at the Cross. Sovereignty and sacrifice walk together, indeed are the proper fuel for hope. But if such hope were easy, we would have it already, wouldn’t we?

The language of churches

Keith Miller brings an interesting take on church architecture. Who needs, since the congregation that builds it defects?

Permanent edifices like church buildings belong to particular institutions which are not guaranteed (or even very likely) to maintain their fidelity to the pure Gospel. Therefore, since tomorrow’s true Christians may be forced to abandon the First Church of Centerburg for less Spirit-quenching climes, buildings whose usefulness is measured in decades rather than centuries are a better bet.

Let’s just say that this raises a point, but one that perhaps misses a few truths.

First, there is the problem of history. Evangelical churches too often have a  dissonance between their claim of historic orthodoxy and the use of space that seems altogether modern. The present tense of the reuseable and repurposed can be expressive of the moment and its convictions, but we are also people who travel through time. The spaces we inhabit pick up the imprint of memory. The humblest gym becomes sacred because of our worship and lives. Our buildings make a claim about our relation to the past and the stories we care.

Second, this evangelical worship space of Miller’s forgets the link between functionality and theology. Our spaces where we gather express a sort of theology as to what we consider proper to worship. The shape of the room, where and how we enter, the rhythm of spaces as we enter, the arrangement of the chairs ( In a circle or front to back?), the way we honor preaching in this space (pulpit, screens?), all these and more express our operating theology. We do not need to speak of aesthetics, simply the place and shape of things tells the story.

Here the primary critique of evangelical building comes to mind: it too often is simply indifferent to this space, any will do. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Continue reading “The language of churches”

Greed and Capitalism, Part 2

[This is the second of two essay-notes on Greg Foster’s article  at The Gospel Coalition}

Paul VanderKlay highlights the same paragraph noted in the previous post:

Capitalism has not flourished most where there was a spirit of greed. It has flourished most where there was a spirit of stewardship—a sense that we are responsible to make the world a better place. That—not greed—is what produces a capitalism that thrives.

As far as I can tell, Foster  is actually arguing for something close to an “Optimal Capitalism”, a capitalism that works best. From his viewpoint, when capitalism has worked best it has done so by being grounded in a moral viewpoint. The utilitarianism that governs the transactional side (that is, the self-interest of the actors) rests on pre-existing moral assumptions. This is obviously not a stable relationship. Indeed, the historical difficulty is that the very nature of utilitarianism tends to erode this set of moral assumptions (religious or otherwise), as one can read in the hesitation of Christians throughout the 19th Century on the role of money and enterprise, Christians both leading enterprises and those in the Church.

But if the author is arguing for an Optimal Capitalism then he is likewise advancing a moral critique of current practices, assuming that present work is not especially optimal. Now an interesting question underway would be what determines this optimal outcome. What well-being are we striving for? Again, the business of utilitarianism and the “doctrinal” neutrality of business practices seems to recreate the conflict. Can moral precepts function as a boundary to capitalist endeavors? Is there some set of moral bright lines that ought not be crossed?

That is, if we assume the following, what then is our critique? How do we put boundaries on this behavior? What cultural or moral truths are evading?

Our political system has adopted many policies and practices that incentivize materialism, exploitation, and crony capitalism.

Lastly, I found that there was a certain drift to optimism that would be experientially unwarranted. The underlying notion of most market economies is that they are self regulating through competition. Yet at the same time we also find two sets of easily observed phenomena: the regular collusion among the actors led by their own self interest; and secondly the distribution of success along Pareto’s lines (the so-called 80-20 rule, where 20 percent do 80 percent of the business). Both limit the effective role of competition as self-regulation. Cooperation and co-option seem more the order of the day.

Whither Education?

Alicia Pickett at the Evangelical Outpost what might be the best form of education. A certain sort of price sensibility captures her thinking.

Academic vs. vocational. Should we train high school and college students in history, philosophy, and biology or in industrial arts, computers, and accounting. I’m not the most practical person in the world (and proud of it). But, in this case, it’s a lot of money and policy invested in one direction or the other. I’ve got to go practical. No choice.
Which is why I recommend academic education over vocational.

Price sensitivity aside, in an era of great economic inequalities (and their justifications) other thoughts come to mind.

For one, I should think that part of the push on vocational education results from a certain class divide. Traditionally, the academic education is not about a job, but about (how shall we put this?) ruling. thus its overwhelming bias towards the professional career. I think this may further explain some of the recent thinking of Charles Murray on the same topic.

For the Christian things get a bit more awkward, since the notion of gift is deeply subversive of these social distinctions. In a deep way, we can then understand the notion of Christian education (primary through college) as a kind of protest against the vocational thrust. And just to be clear, it also raises the skeptical eye at the notion of the “classically educated” dearly beloved of the Academic (there’s an ideology at work there, too).

The Rhetoric of Joking

Verbal fun has its place yet often we use it to hide our own thoughts. In the context of conflict, such fun can create problems, particularly when if goes into ridicule.

In a follow-up to the previous post, What and How We Say It, Alstair Roberts comments

Pastor Wilson has a sort of playful detachment from the whole conflict, a detachment that his opponents do not. He is not really peddling serious outrage in his post, but ridicule. While the outraged individuals are intense and serious in their exaggerations, Pastor Wilson is just purposefully getting a rise out of people. It isn’t about serious arguments for him, because he doesn’t seem to think that his opponents are making serious arguments.
The question of the jocular style and ridicule has several dimensions.
On the contrast between the Rev. Wilson and the feminists: it is simply easier to be jocular, “playful” when one has relatively little skin in the game. Part of the emotional heat can be attributed to a discrepancy in age and life setting. The questions of negotiating relationships are far more serious for a 25- or 30-year old than for a grandfather nearing 60; add to this the setting in a major urban area, as opposed to Idaho.
As to the jocular, playful style — I would offer five observations on such ridicule:

  1. We use the style as a form of group identity. The mutual playfulness and ridicule is part of our belonging. You can see this with sports fans and their happy trash-talking of the other side;
  2. A playful style is often the stuff of long relationships, such as between spouses or debating partners. Again, we enter into the jocular style because of a mutuality;
  3. When directed outward, when the playfulness is focused unilaterally on another as ridicule, it functions as an assertion of social position, status, or “lording it over” the other in biblical terms. Benignly as parent to a child’s tantrum, but the same mocking voice also becomes the word of put-down as any high schooler will tell you. The assertion of ‘fun’ — “I was just joking” — becomes the excuse we tell ourselves. When expressed towards the weak, such fun easily wounds. This use of ridicule in particular lies in substantial tension with the call to servanthood;
  4. The jocular, ridiculing tone in blogging/arguments strikes me as especially gendered; it’s something guys do. See point one in the sports bar; and
  5. This jocular,  scornful style is something for the young. And that’s fairly reasonable: the jibe is easier to execute than the analysis. Our humor moves from the superficial and external to the humane, Mel Brooks, perhaps, excepted.

Taken together, the jocular style is a way of holding people at a distance rather than engaging — I suspect this is one reason by Benedict’s Rule counseled against laughter. Or, to return the question to the Rev. Wilson: having spoken “playfully”, has he spoken wisely?

What and how we say it

Over at Alstair Roberts’ Alstair Adversaria there continues to be a long discussion on the post first of Jared Wilson (see ), and then this latest follow up from Doug Wilson.

The language is troubling. But then again it’s not the first I’ve encountered this postured Valiant-for-Truth rhetorical style.

Perhaps because I deal with rhetoric a fair amount, in school and in marketing, that I found a certain irony in the Rev. Wilson’s response. It strikes me as a wee bit odd to decry the feminists as bed wetters with their manufactured offense — a matter of rhetorical persona as it were — while delivering it in a style that is itself more than a little rhetorically overblown. It’s easy once having assumed a highly manner style to fall into the necessity of continuing that same style. We become prisoner to our own outrage. In short, the Rev. Wilson did not strike me as particularly helping his own cause, or the broader one of faithful living.

Roberts adds this comment:

We must go to whatever lengths we can to protect the vulnerable and the weak from genuine spiritual or psychological harm, while seeking to present those employing the human shield to tyrannize their opponents and get their way in the debate for what they are. This demands far more careful, measured, and guarded rhetorical approaches than Pastor Wilson is giving us.