Friday, June 10, 2011

There Is No Specter Haunting America

Before I get too far along in this post, I have to make some amends. I have been intellectually lazy, far too hasty at times in making claims and assigning labels - something I assiduously avoid, and claim never to do - rather than being far more careful in both my thinking and my writing. For these reasons, I am very sorry.

Why the mea culpa? When I am in less of a hurry, given more than a few minutes to think through what I actually believe, I write things like this:
In the summer of 2009, as the Tea Party began to coalesce around opposition to the proposed health care reform legislation, there was quite a bit of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the liberal world over all those horrible folks showing up at various Town Hall events, speaking out against the bill. I, for one, supported it, and still do. I remember quite distinctly writing that more participation in the political process is always a good thing.
I still believe that. Were I less lazy, more thorough, and perhaps had a commenter or two who would call me on it, I would recognize that I frequently fall from this far more basic, and honest, belief:
Tea Party Republicans Dis American Troops Fighting Wars They Support

Since even the leader of the Tea Party - an alleged populist uprising against elites - is now publicly stating that people without property (which, I would guess, constitutes a significant portion of Tea Party supporters) should not be allowed to vote, the final scrap has been stripped away and it is clear (as if it ever were murky) that there is now not even a pretense of support for the general welfare, real fiscal responsibility, concern for the economic stability of the country, or supporting the policies most understand will actually drag the country out of the doldrums.

This yearning for simplicity, this primitivism, this fear which expresses itself in a rage against the Other, against those forces that push and pull us in ways we neither understand nor like, is certainly much of the attraction of the Tea Party and its candidates.

Has the right lost its mind on the Cordoba House? Seriously. These same Tea Party conservatives who insist they sleep with the Constitution under their pillows at night seem to forget that freedom of religion includes Muslims (of course, they also want to get rid of the constitutional clause that allows for birthright citizenship and simply repeal the 14th Amendment outright).
I am sorry for statements like this. The reality is this - not only do I support Tea Party Republicans organizing around issues vital to their perceived interests, I find much of the abuse hurled at them more disgusting than anything they have actually done.

Furthermore, I think it is safe to say that some, at least, of the Tea Party-supported candidates have not supported a Tea Party agenda. Scott Brown in Massachusetts is probably the best-known example. I would even venture to say that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for all he plays the right notes of the Tea Party song, in fact has an agenda far different from Tea Party faithful.

I say all this because I read this blog post over at New Politics, and I find its measured, careful consideration both of the Tea Party and the mouth-foaming liberal reaction to it a sober corrective to far too much political commentary these days. I don't agree with everything in the article, to be sure. All the same, it zeroes in on the fact that liberal hysteria over the Tea Party mirrors, in large measure, Establishment disdain for popular movements of any stripe. By tarring the Tea Party with the broad brush of such sins as racism and proto-fascism, the real grievances they represent - the protest over neo-liberal economic and social policies that many on the left used to voice pretty regularly - liberals and self-identified leftists such as Melissa Harris-Perry (mentioned in the article) become co-opted in ridding the land of those pesky citizens organizing around issues of common concern. That Tea Partiers are regularly derided as ignorant yahoos - lumped together with such fringe elements as birthers, for example - misses the point that there really is a Tea Party agenda with real targets.

The accusation of racism, which crops up again and again, and which Sunkara analyzes in detail, is an example of the kind of demands for silence from the polloi that are just too frequent to ignore. Are some Tea Partiers racist? Probably. So are some leftists. The Tea Party agenda, however, is concerned with the size and scope of government intrusion in to the market, as well as matters relating to tax policy, as well as support for the recent redefinition of second amendment rights as personal, rather than referring to the states and the organization of state militias. The Tea Party is not a group organized around race or one that uses racial animus as a driving force (except, perhaps, in its more breathless denunciations of the rise of undocumented immigrants and the economic threats they pose).

All in all, Sunkara's article is a nice corrective to the brow-furrowing and tut-tutting of far too many liberals, snickering behind their hands at the silly, ignorant Tea Partiers. That I have done some of this myself is something of which I am not proud. I have to be careful in the future not to be dismissive of either the Tea Party or its agenda, not painting with a broad-brush, but rather considering their positions, and considering the very real grievances they have. Political differences aside, Tea Partiers are Americans, and deserve at the very least a hearing on the merits. This does not exempt them from criticism. It just means they should not be de-legitimized through careless, and often evidence-free, accusations of racism and fascism. We would all be better served if we did as Sunkara has done, rather than I have done far too often in the past.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Wrong Again And Always

Back when I was a wee little undergraduate, I took a class on America in the 1920's. I did my research paper on the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the course of researching both the event and its aftermath, I found abundant sources from biologists refuting in detail each and every claim creationists make against the theory of evolution by natural selection. Some of those claims are ridiculous. Some sound good. All of them, over and over, have been addressed by real scientists doing real science.

So, now, it seems they have to do stuff like this.
On Wednesday, Right Wing Watch flagged a recent interview Barton gave with an evangelical talk show, in which he argues that the Founding Fathers had explicitly rejected Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. Yes, that Darwin. The one whose seminal work, On the Origin of Species, wasn't even published until 1859. Barton declared, "As far as the Founding Fathers were concerned, they'd already had the entire debate over creation and evolution, and you get Thomas Paine, who is the least religious Founding Father, saying you've got to teach Creation science in the classroom. Scientific method demands that!" Paine died in 1809, the same year Darwin was born.
This is so astoundingly bad, so wretchedly awful, yet so humorous, I just couldn't help but read the whole thing. Any time some conservative whines about education in America, this is the kind of thing that needs to be brought up. Early and often.

Along with "no fossil record of evolution!" and "no record of the evolution of the eye!", there is my personal favorite - the bumble bee. The claim lives on despite being refuted decades ago, and subject to various experimental tests for details. Like every other creationist claim that is factually erroneous, I am quite sure the whole, "The Founding Fathers rejected Darwin!" argument will live on.

People who actually know stuff will always have stuff at which to laugh.

No Blues For Summertime

Moriah had her Promotion ceremony, moving from junior high to high school, on Tuesday night. With that, another school year came to a close and we embark on that marvelous invention - the summer hiatus from life. Each season has its virtues, and with the heat, humidity, mosquitoes, invasions by various animals in to our house, comes also that sense of relaxation and peace, anticipation of moments of fun and family togetherness that make summers, well, summers.

I've probably posted this song way too many times, but it is among my favorite songs, and aptly titled.

The Coming of Dawn - Kansas
Uf Dem Anger (Carmina Burana) - Carl Orff
Hitch a Ride - Boston
Scarred - Dream Theater
No One Cares - Wakeman With Wakeman
Wesley: Psalm 96 - Choir of King's College
The Music Never Stopped (Live, 1975) - Grateful Dead
Concerto in C for Flute & Harp, Movement 1 - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Clap Hands - Tom Waits
Blood and Fire - Indigo Girls

Heresy? But I love the guitar solo and have for over 30 years!

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Death Of The Mind

predicate (v. cate; n - kit)- 1. orig. - to proclaim, affirm. 2. a) to declare to be a quality, attribute, or proptery of something [tp predicate the honesty of his motives] bz0 Logic to put forth as a pdedicate in a proposition 3. to base (something) on or upon facts, condition, etc. [the decisions of the courts are predicated upon the Constitution] 5. to imply or connote. -n. 1. the word or words that say something about the subject of a sentence or clause: a predicate may be a verb, a ver and adverb, a verb and its object, or a linking verb and its complement; 2. Logic something that is said to be true or denied about the subject of a proposition.
Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, Students Edition

We Americans don't do education well. Not primary education. Not secondary education. Higher education? Well, our graduate schools are filled with folks from all over the world, to be sure. Does that mean we do higher education well, or does that mean we have Universities with really good marketing departments?

Apart from the nonsensical mumbo-jumbo of all our "talk" about "education" and the need for "reform" (which usually boils down to two sides - the status-quo folks and the anti-teacher/anti-teacher union folks - shouting at one another about trivia), the reality is simple enough - we don't do education well because we can't agree what education is, or what it should exist for, what it should be about. Is it giving bare facts, rote memorization to be regurgitated on test day, then forgotten? Is it to be given enough information and understanding to move through life and the world without stumbling too badly when we apply for a job, get married, apply for that first car loan/mortgage? Is it cultivating the habit (in the Latinate usage of a practice) of critical thinking and engagement in order to expand human knowledge and understanding?

The short answer is that "education" is whatever a society deems it should be. In the United States, we have a muddled understanding of who we are, muddled even further by powerful lobbying from various industries and interests who wish to cultivate workers with enough knowledge to do their jobs without pushing the limits of their assigned stations. We wish to cultivate good citizens without cultivating critical citizenship. We wish to insist that education is a good in and for itself yet frequently pepper our "education needs no defense" arguments with all sorts of defensive ideas about how education makes us better workers, better citizens, better human beings. Precisely because we have no clear idea what the goal of education is, we have no idea how to talk about what education should be.

All this is by way of introduction. Checking out what's new on my favorite websites, I came across a "shorter" at Sadly, No! that took aim at libertarian economist Walter Williams. Usually, I avoid Williams for any number of reasons. This time, I clicked over and was rewarded with a mass of nonsense that does what should be impossible; it is the literary, or perhaps "intellectual" equivalent of a black hole, the internal contradictions and nonsensical drivel add up to a power that, in the end, sucks the entire column in to nothingness, at least should one take the time to set forth what Williams says in logical form. Here's a sample of the hilarity:
There are a lot of things, large and small, that irk me. One of them is our tendency to evaluate a presidential candidate based on his intelligence or academic credentials.
Let us consider these first two sentences, shall we? It "irks" Professor Williams that human beings do things like take such matters as intelligence and educational background in to consideration when we consider candidates for the highest office in the land. It irks him. He is, as he says, irked that some people might think it somewhat important, be a qualification among many for the job of Chief Executive of the United States, that he or she be at least somewhat intelligent, and have a certain amount of education.

He doesn't say why he is irked, or why this state of affairs is irksome. He just is, and it is.

Continuing a bit further down.
By contrast, the intellectual elite and mainstream media people see Sarah Palin as stupid, a loose cannon and not to be trusted with our nuclear arsenal. There was another presidential candidate who was also held to be stupid and not to be trusted with our nuclear arsenal who ultimately became president -- Ronald Reagan. I don't put much stock into whether a political leader is smart or not because, as George Orwell explained, "Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them."
First of all, I haven't heard the whole "nuclear aresenal" argument. Second, Mrs. Palin has yet to indicate, through word or deed, that she has any comprehension of anything beyond the kind of bland, conservative boiler-plate one could get at an American Legion conference. When she does make factual claims, as I noted a few days back, they are usually wrong. It isn't a question of "intellectual elite" questioning her bona fides. She manages to undermine any claim she might make to something most people refer to as intellectual heft all on her own.

Now, Mr. Williams is surely welcome to favor Mrs. Palin as a candidate, although I don't think that is his argument, or the basis for it. All the same, we should clearly understand that Sarah Palin is made the butt of stupid jokes for a very simple reason - she is.

Furthermore, before we venture further through Professor Williams cornucopia of nonsense, what, pray tell, does he do for a living? Oh, that's right - Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics. So, he's . . . an intellectual, by definition.

There are less important things that irk me. One of them is teleological explanations. I've listened to TV weather reports and heard the weatherman say, "There will be morning clouds, but the sun will try to come out later in the day." Often, the weatherman's predication is wrong, and it remains cloudy all day. Would the weatherman explain that the day remained cloudy because the sun didn't try hard enough?
Huh? I read this paragraph three or four times, and was struck by the dumb, as it were. "Often, the weatherman's predication is wrong" appears to look like a sentence, but "predication"? I have no idea what is "predicated" in the weatherman's statement. It's the kind of bland chatter that is understood by both speaker and listener to mean something entirely different, even apposite, any literal interpretation. Being irked by this kind of thing makes me wonder why people say liberals take small things much too seriously. Furthermore, as he spends quite a bit of time complaining about poor grammar -
Another mini-irk is to hear someone say something such as "Dave and myself went shopping." My question might be that if Dave hadn't come along, how would you describe what you did? Would you say, "Myself went shopping?" Grammar lesson: Myself is a reflexive pronoun. As such, it must be preceded by a pronoun to which it refers, namely its antecedent, within the same sentence. For example: "I, myself, wrote this column."

Another grammatical irritant is a statement such as "John is taller than me." Hearing such a grammatical error, Dr. Martin Rosenberg, my high school English teacher, would pitch a fit, sarcastically asking, "Do you mean John is taller than me am?" He'd explain that am is the elliptical, or understood, verb in the sentence, and the subject of any verb must be in the nominative case; therefore, the sentence should be, "John is taller than I."
- it might be nice if Williams displayed a bit of grammatical understanding himself.


So, we have on display an instance, in short, of, "Doctor, heal thyself." A tenured professor of economics at a University complaining that people expect our Presidents to be smart, putting part of the blame on intellectuals, of whom Dr. Williams is one. Furthermore, we have said intellectual creating muddled sentences, logically incoherent claims, using really bad word choice.

On a more serious note, Crooked Timber has a nice post taking Martha Nussbaum to task for writing a book purportedly in defense of the humanities, but filled with the kind of bland bureaucratic pabulum that usually is reserved for use by University administrators. One comment, by Chris Bertram, is pertinent for me:
[T]he central idea of the book, that receipt of a certain type of humanities education is necessary for people to acquire the capacities for empathic imagination that (according to MN) are necessary virtues of democratic (and indeed global) citizenship strikes me as (a) obviously false and (b) insulting to those of her fellow citizens who haven’t been the beneficiaries of such courses. Those given a more technical education are described as “useful machines” as early as p.2.
I, too, find much of the kinds of things Nussbaum says ridiculous on the face of things. For example, I have yet to meet "a citizen of the world", although I assume fore the ubiquity of the claim such creatures must exist somewhere. While it may well be important for human beings to inculcate understandings of difference, this in no way implies, let alone demands, that we set aside our local or national loyalties for the nonexistent status of world-citizen. In fact, it doesn't take "education", let alone humanities education, to build up a virtue of human empathy and understanding. One can defend the role of education in the humanities for any number of reasons related to citizenship and participation in our public life. This, however, is not one of them

As I stated at the beginning, we do not know what education is because we don't really know what we want education to be. For this reason, we have a muddle of a column, including insults hurled at intellectuals by an intellectual. Said intellectual displays a lack of self-awareness, not to mention silliness, in the midst of misusing words and praising our public dolt for her love for the Constitution, one of many virtues she has yet to display adequately for most people in America. On the other hand, we have the bland, cliche-ridden prose of another intellectual who can't seem to say anything that hasn't been said before without saying it exactly as others have said it.

Thus does the American mind continue to wither on the vine.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Weiner A-Go-Go

I hope that what follows is the only comment I have to make on the ridiculous Anthony Weiner nonsense.

I couldn't care less that he took a picture of his penis and sent it to someone, or perhaps several someones. It might have been nice if he'd manned up and showed what he'd snapped a picture of and come clean last week, shrugging his shoulders after telling reporters it was his business.

For those who believe I am being hypocritical because I have made fun at the expense of Newt Gingrich for his own marital lapses, I wish to be clear. Anthony Weiner, to my knowledge, has not spent the better part of his public career lecturing other people how to live, touting himself as “defender of civilization, a teacher of the rules of civilization, arouser of those who form civilization ... and leader ‘possibly’ of the civilizing forces”. A serial monogamist cum adulterer, Gingrich is a ridiculous figure to most people not New Gingrich. Making fun of him is easy enough. This doesn't mean I believe his various peccadilloes and extra-marital dalliances matter all that much. They don't, not really. Nor did Bill Clinton's. Henry Hyde? Nah, not really. John Ensign? He should have told people to leave him and his private life alone.

In the case of Rep. Weiner, there is the added prurience that there might be penis pictures. Which, of course, no one in the media will publish, but certainly when Andrew Breitbart publishes them, he will be defended. Like Monica's stained blue dress, this is all about little kids all excited because naughty-bits are involved.

Weiner didn't do anything millions of Americans don't do. If you don't believe me, just check out the various photo sharing websites. Some of them have "adults only" areas, others do not have such areas and ban nudity; none of that would be necessary if there wasn't a ready market for people sending pictures of their sexual organs for others to gape at (or laugh at). Is what he did intelligent, thoughtful, mature? Obviously not. Is what he did some sign from which we can understand his public life as a legislator? Of course not.

Leave Weiner and his namesake alone, for God's sake. The world is falling apart, pay attention to something big and important, which neither Weiner nor that which is in his photo are.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Sluts And Baptism - Reappropriation

Preoccupied with other things, I haven't really been paying attention to the growing attraction of a new phenomenon - the Slutwalk. Unlike the unfortunate "Take Back The Night" marches of a couple decades ago, the Slutwalk are far less earnest, far more confrontational, yet centered on the same thing - women demanding respect and freedom in the face of violence visited upon them. Unlike the "Night" walks, which seem so "Kum-Bay-Ya"-ish to me, the Slutwalks are more along the lines of a glorious middle-finger to the powers that be, insisting that violence against women no longer be linked in any manner, fashion, or form to the alleged appearance of the victim.

What is so striking, of course, and attracted all the attention is the use of the word "slut". As Jessica Valenti noted in her Outlook piece in yesterday's The Washington Post, the Slutwalk movement is not without its feminist critics:
Some feminist critics think that by attempting to reclaim the word “slut,” the organizers are turning a blind eye to the many women who don’t want to salvage what they see as an irredeemable term. As Harsha Walia wrote at the Canadian site Rabble: “I personally don’t feel the whole ‘reclaim slut’ thing. I find that the term disproportionately impacts women of color and poor women to reinforce their status as inherently dirty and second-class.”

Anti-pornography activist Gail Dines argued, along with victims rights advocate Wendy Murphy, that the SlutWalk organizers are playing into patriarchal hands. They say the protesters “celebrating” the word “slut” and dressing in risque clothing are embracing a pornified consumer sexuality. Frankly, I don’t think any of these women will be posing for the “Girls Gone Wild” cameras anytime soon. Yes, some protesters have worn lingerie, but others have worn jeans and T-shirts. Organizers encourage marchers to wear whatever they want because the point is that no matter what women wear, they have a right not to be raped. And if someone were to attack them, they have a right not to be blamed for it.(italics added)
It is the highlighted section that is the nub of the argument for organizers and participants. Rape is not about sex, but violence and control. Rooted in rage, it is the desire to dominate and control, not any sexual urge. Rapists will attack women regardless of how they dress, they're age, or anything else. The attire women choose to wear is not a trigger.

Is it right for young women to take back the word "slut" and all its assorted connotations in order to make the point that they should not be considered fodder for violence because of their appearance? I have no opinion on this matter, to be honest. "Slut" is certainly a slippery term, used by men to degrade and denigrate women, objectify them as being of less concern because they are free with their sexual favors. How one dresses like a slut is a matter of opinion, I think. All the same, there is something empowering in young women insisting they should be free to dress in ways others find inappropriate or provocative because they want to, or because it makes them feel attractive or sexy without the fear of being attacked and raped, then being told they somehow were partially responsible because of their appearance.

Reappropriating images and words that have negative connotations has a long history, particularly in the United States. African-Americans took back the word "black" from racists. Taking from one's oppressors the power to name is an important part of standing on one's own, becoming fully human in the face of all efforts to deny that humanity.

Yet, it isn't just words that can be reappropriated. Symbols, too, can become redefined as a way of giving them life-giving power. Christians did this with a long-time symbol of evil, the realm of evil spirits, the place of the dead - water. It is never explicitly stated in either Testament, yet bodies of water are the abode of evil and death. In Job, Leviathan, the dweller of the deep, is more than just a whale or large fish, but a creature of violence and destruction. When Jonah is swallowed by the fish, this is more than just Jonah becoming part of the food chain; when Jesus speaks of "the sign of Jonah" both he and the readers of that Gospel would have understood exactly what was meant - he was talking about death.

It was not for nothing that some of the disciples of Jesus were fishermen. As the scenes of the storms on the Sea of Galilee, as well as Jesus telling people to take a coin from a fish taken from the Sea to pay their taxes make clear, the sea is the dwelling place of death. When Jesus casts out the demons in to the herd of pigs, they rush to the sea and drown; that is because the sea is where the demons dwell.

Even rivers are not excluded. Passing over Jordan has long been understood as a code for death and dying. When the children of Israel cross the parted Jordan River in to the Promised Land in a recall of passing through the Red Sea, both events are about passing through the place of death.

As the initiation rite of the Christian Church, baptism takes this symbol of death and gives it new meaning, new power - the power of new life. In the New Creation, water will no longer be a dwelling place of monsters and demons, it will no longer bring fear. When the catechete is lowered in to the water, it is in to the death of Jesus; brought back out, the new Christian is reborn in to the resurrection. Water, once a source of fear, is now a symbol of new birth, new life.

My guess is some folks didn't take kindly to the way Christians did baptism. Of course, it wasn't unheard of. John was baptizing people in the Jordan before Jesus even started his ministry, yet this was not the baptism we receive. By taking a symbol of evil and death and giving it the power of new life and rebirth, I have little doubt that many were as offended as are some who think taking back the word "slut" may not be such a hot idea. Yet, it is empowering to stand in the face of fear, in the presence of that which is dangerous, perhaps even understood as evil, and refuse to be dominated by it. Water, a name some think is bad, a device used for torture and execution - all these things have been reimagined by groups who insist they are not afraid of how others use them. To these groups, in making their own meaning they are already making clear they are not afraid anymore.

Sunday, June 05, 2011


1 When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. 2 As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, 3 explaining and proving that the Christ[a] had to suffer and rise from the dead. “This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ,[b]” he said. 4 Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

5 But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd.[c] 6 But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, 7 and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.” 8 When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown in
. 9 Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.
Acts 17:1-9 (NIV)
After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they
came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And
Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with
them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary
for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, "This is
the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you." Some of them
were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout
Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became
jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they
formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching
for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked
Jason's house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and
some believers before the city authorities, shouting, "These people who
have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and
Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to
the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named
Jesus." The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard
this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let
them go. (NRSV)
This was the text from which Lisa preached today, reading the NRSV translation with the word "ruffians". That made me giggle. In fact, I scribbled the words "rapscallions" and "scalawags" on my bulletin. It got me thinking, though. When was the last time you heard of a preacher pissing off so many people they actually went and cooked up a riot to stop the preacher from preaching? When was the last time you heard any part of the Christian Church, at least in North America, considered a seditious threat to the very fabric of society?

Wouldn't it be cool if this actually happened? Maybe not every Sunday, but once in a while might be nice.

How far have we as Christians fallen that we are far more concerned about stuff like attendance and cultural relevance and far less concerned about preaching the gospel in a way that makes the powers-that-be so furious they are willing to create a riot, then blame us? Can't step on any toes, or offend anyone sitting in the pews or chairs, now, can we!

Except, we should. We should be in the business of stirring up trouble. We should be in the habit of ticking off the right people. Every once in a while it would be nice if a bishop or some other denominational leader got on TV and insisted that a congregation somewhere was nothing but trouble, perhaps even a danger to the very fabric of America as we know it.

Just once, before I'm too old to appreciate it, I want someone, somewhere, to refer to some congregation of some mainline denomination to be called "a gang of ruffians". Then, I'll know the Gospel has been preached.

Love Wins: A Review

"All theology is prolegomenna," said Karl Barth. He also said that all theology is just sermon preparation. In both cases, he was correct, by and large. What we have in Rob Bell's Love Wins is little more than a series of topical sermons on matters that would seem to indicate serious theological reflection and study, deep Biblical exegesis, and an attention to pastoral concerns flowing from the heart of one deeply committed to the life of his congregation.

Except, they don't indicate those things.

In matters of style, the book - around 200 pages of widely-spaced text - is organized in much the way sermon notes would be. The chapters seemed designed for preaching. There is an ebullience in the phrasing, a joy in stringing together words that show on paper a little of the power Bell has as a speaker.

In matters of content, there is little in these chapters that is either surprising, nothing that is new, and much for solace for the heart troubled by what Bell feels is the distortion of the Gospel message. While hardly revolutionary, and even less heretical, in a context where adherence to certain doctrinal developments is deemed necessary both for salvation and for being considered truly "Christian", Bell does the most dangerous, revolutionary thing possible - he sidesteps doctrinal rigidity, is insouciant toward matters some within what is known as the evangelical community consider both right and true, and offers a vision of the Christian life rooted in God's love rather than fear of eternal separation and torment.

In this sense, the book is laudatory. Bell neither denies the existence of hell, nor of God's judgment, nor of human sinfulness. Bell's vision of what it means to be a Christian hints, at least, at the reality that it isn't about us at all, but rather about God, God's glory, God's justice, God's desire for communion and relationship with us. In this sense, there are areas where Bell just doesn't go far enough.

There are problems, however. Several critics, both friendly and hostile, have noted that Bell's use of Scriptural citation is bad. They are right. He will give a book title and chapter, but not verse. His treatment of some Biblical themes seems superficial at best; I am forced to agree with one hostile reviewer that, in skipping over the more difficult passages in the Revelation to St. John in his rush to the end, he misses an opportunity to talk about the vision of God's ongoing struggle with what St. Paul called the powers and principalities. It isn't just the vision of the New Jerusalem, gates wide open, no more tears or pain, illuminated by the love of God present again in the New Temple that is the source of solace. It is the very fact that the book details the reality of persecution, violence, and death so many Christians face from the powers of the world Bell describes in other parts of his book (in their contemporary form) always with the reassurance of Divine presence in the midst of that turmoil. One should not skip over the ten-crowned beast or the Whore on Babylon riding the Dragon from the Sea just because it is hard, or because these texts have been distorted out of any recognizable shape by people who try to relate them without really understanding them. Nothing comes easy, and getting to the New Jerusalem without going through the tribulation and violence is a cheat. Bell, trained at Wheaton College and Fuller Theological Seminary, should know that.

Furthermore, I have serious issues with the structure of the work. The subject - the triumph of God's grace over human sin and evil - needs some kind of foundation. Bell begins his book with two chapters, the first on heaven, the second on hell, which, to my mind, should have been combined and saved for the end. In other words, by and large, the books is structured in reverse. What Bell has to say about personal eschatology needs a grounding in what he says about who God is, who Jesus is, what we are called to be as Christians, the life of the Holy Spirit. Bell works backwards, a frustrating way to build something. While I realize this isn't a work of theology, the overall effect might have been better had Bell worked from the ground up, rather than the top down.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in ideas that are challenging, to small groups looking to think through questions of the meaning of grace and salvation, the Christian life and worship, and who God is and what this God wants for this creation God called "very good" once it was all done. I also would recommend some of the hostile reviews I wrote about yesterday, as a way of understanding the context within which Bell is writing. This isn't an earth-shattering, revolutionary work. It isn't a great book. It is, however, for all its flaws of presentation, a good book that has already provoked a reaction far beyond either its content or intention. In that way, it is surely in a line stretching back to St. Paul, who managed to stir up the entire city of Thessolonica simply by proclaiming Jesus Christ as the Messiah.

Virtual Tin Cup

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