Friday, December 31, 2010

Favorite Short Stories in 2010

As with almost all of these categories, it's tough to narrow down to just five favorites, but here goes:

5. Thomas Wolfe, "The Lost Boy," in The American Short Story, ed. Thomas K. Parkes. I've got a big soft spot for Thomas Wolfe, so it's difficult for me to be objective. This story presages the death of the older brother in Look Homeward, Angel and shows the flashes of energy and passion that characterize Wolfe's later corpus.

4. Alice Munro, "Corrie," New Yorker (October 11, 2010). A Saskatchewan affair, but with a Joyce-Carol-Oatesish twist at the end.

3. Jonathan Safran Foer, "How We Aren't, So Quickly," in the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" series. 2 pages of second-person, chronological fireworks on a marriage. Fabulous. Gave me new respect for Foer.

And I have to award a tie for the number 1 spot:

1. Carson McCullers, "A Tree, A Rock, A Cloud," in The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories. Here is one of the tiny treasures of American short fiction--a compressed little hymn to love, sort of Evelyn Waugh with a southern accent, but without his snobbishness or verbosity. What McCullers accomplishes here in about 1700 words took Walker Percy an entire novel. Consider just this little snippet as the old man begins to explain his "science" (starts to make Walker Percy look derivative, doesn't it?):

"It is this. And listen carefully. I meditated on love and reasoned it out. I realized what is wrong with us. Men fall in love for the first time. And what do they fall in love with?"

The boy's soft mouth was partly open and he did not answer.

"A woman," the old man said. "Without science, with nothing to go by, they undertake the most dangerous and sacred experience in God's earth. They fall in love with a woman. Is that correct, Son?"

"Yeah," the boy said faintly.

"They start at the wrong end of love. They begin at the climax. Can you wonder it is so miserable? Do you know how men should love?"

The old man reached over and grasped the boy by the collar of his leather jacket. He gave him a gentle little shake and his green eyes gazed down unblinking and grave.

"Son, do you know how love should be begun?"

The boy sat small and listening and still. Slowly he shook his head. The old man leaned closer and whispered:

"A tree. A rock. A cloud."

It was still raining outside in the street: a mild, gray, endless rain. The mill whistle blew for the six o'clock shift and the three spinners paid and went away. There was no one in the café but Leo, the old man, and the little paper boy.

I dream of writing a story that could even be a shadow of McCuller's accomplishment.

1. David Foster Wallace, "Good Old Neon," in Oblivion. In.cred.i.ble. Not sure what else to say. It seems to me that this story is at the core of DFW's entire corpus and gets at some of the philosophical and literary problems that occupied Wallace over his entire writing career. Here we get the classic stream-of-consciousness reflections of a recent suicide--the proverbial "final thoughts" in which your life flashes before your eyes, but which now seem to come to us as a postmortem missive. Thus Wallace both appropriates and deconstructs the cliche--a common strategy throughout his work. So "Good Old Neon" is a story that is constantly aware of the seeming impossibility of telling one's story, what the narrator describes as a "paradox":

This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person's life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn't even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by, and they have so little relation to the sort of linear, one-word-after-another-word English we all communicate with each other with that it could easily take a whole lifetime just to spell out the contents of one slit-second's flash of thoughts and connections, etc.--and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English (or whatever language our native country happens to use, it goes without saying) to try to convey to other people what we're thinking and to find out what they're thinking, when in fact deep down everybody knows it's a charade and they're just going through the motions. What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant.

But maybe that's just enough.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Favorite Reads in 2010

As per my custom over the last several years, I'll spend the next week recounting some of my reading highlights from 2010. I used to do this over at What I'm Reading, but having effectively abandoned that blog, I'll incorporate the tradition here at Fors Clavigera.

I will choose five favorites from four different genres: short stories, poetry, non-fiction, and novels. Only a few of these will be works published in 2010; instead I'm focusing on some of the works that I read in 2010. Watch for them over the next few days.

Super Sad True Love Story

I've never tried posting a review from GoodReads, so thought I'd try a little experiment here:

Super Sad True Love StorySuper Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quirky, prescient story set in the not-too-distant future. Comprised of the diary of Lenny Ambramov, interspersed with the "GlobalTeens" (aka Facebook?) communications of his girlfriend, Eunice Park, the book extrapolates from our current cultural trends to imagine the future dystopia of what will be left of the United States, or more specifically, New York City. It is a world where people are publicly identified by their Credit Ranking, where nation-states have been replaced by corporations (compare Atwood's Year of the Flood, and where the United States has become entirely enfolded into China (with sections parceled out to Norway).

Shteyngart's social commentary is oblique and allusive, again projecting from our current cultural habits into an imagined future. One might describe it as the ubiquitization of a Facebook sensibility, where everything is made public--our Credit Rankings are displayed on "credit poles" that line the street; our emotions and thoughts are made public on äppäräts dangling from our necks; and nothing is left to the imagination as all the young women are wearing transparent "onionskin" jeans.

The story also tackles the identity issues of the 1.5 immigrant generation: Lenny the child of Russian Jews but raised on Long Island; Eunice the daughter of Korean Christians, raised in southern California, transplanted to New Jersey. And in the midst of all of this, Lenny works for a company that is sorting out the science of immortality. Fertile soil for philosophical and theological reflection.

The novel combines strong narrative force with exquisite attention to detail. There are a couple of mechanical moves late in the book that I found lazy and a bit disappointing from a formal standpoint, but these don't obscure its strengths. I hope to write much more on the novel elsewhere.

View all my reviews

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Answers to Questions about the New Calvinism

'Tis the season for JKAS videos, I guess. Some might recall that Brazos offered a little giveaway on their Facebook page, soliciting questions in connections with Letters to a Young Calvinist. We recorded short video responses to four questions, and the first two are now available.

Q from Ben Dodd: Are there 1 or 2 things you would like to see the New Calvinist movement in North America learn from the growing Pentecostal movement in the Non-western world? How might they influence one another for the better?

Q: from Rodney A. Thomas Jr.: In terms of ecclesiology, could you address the role that Calvinist theology, the New Calvinists and Neo-Calvinism can play in working to create a more racially inclusive church here in the United States?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Politics of the (New) Unconscious

While I've been critical of Mark Lilla in the past, his article in last week's New York Times Magazine, "The President and the Passions," hits the nail on the head. In a way reminiscent of Charles Taylor's critique of "intellectualist" philosophies of action, Lilla notes that Obama's failures might stem from his over-estimation of the role of ideas and information. Commenting on Obama's diagnosis of the landslide defeat in November, which Obama chalked up to the inability of the populace to get their facts straight, Lilla suggests:

If this is the way the president and his party think about human psychology, it’s little wonder they’ve taken such a beating. Their assumption seems to be that we are basically rational creatures who, left to our own devices, have little trouble discerning what our interests are and how to serve them. It’s only when our passions get the better of us, when we are angry or fearful or exuberant, that we make bad decisions. That’s really what’s the matter with Kansas, and with the Tea Party activists. So the administration has to work harder to “get the message out” and “sell” its program; to calm people it needs to give them clearer, more complete and more attractively packaged information about how it is working in their interests. Bring in the pie charts, by all means, but print them on glossier paper.

Thus Lilla takes Obama to task for a misguided psychology or what we might call a mistaken philosophical anthropology. As Lilla continues,
The wisdom of [Obama's] approach depends on whether the underlying assumption about human nature is right. But is it? Not, at least, according to virtually every Western philosopher and theologian from antiquity to the 18th-century. From Plato to St. Augustine to Thomas Hobbes, the shared assumption was that human beings are fundamentally passionate creatures and that reason alone is too weak to contain our drives.
The proper response to this is not to lapse into the rationalist whine about people being governed by their passions and keep hoping they'll be be "rational" like us (we're not). Rather, the point is to harness, direct, and channel the passions. Indeed, if you just paint the passions as "irrational," you've already lost. Thus Lilla concludes: "The lesson to be drawn is that the art of politics must be the art of engaging the passions, first by exciting them, then by moderating and directing them to a worthy end, one that reason may reveal but cannot achieve."

Might the art of worship or the art of discipleship be the same?

Lilla closes with an elliptical little story:
George Plimpton used to tell the story of Muhammad Ali going to Harvard one year to give an address. At the end of his speech, someone called out to him, “Give us a poem!” He paused, stretched out his arms to the audience and delivered what Plimpton said was the shortest poem in the English language:

ME [pause]


The students would have followed him anywhere.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Video excerpts from U of Ottawa lecture

David Robinson, maestro behind The House, the Anglican campus ministry at the University of Ottawa, alerted me to a few clips from my recent lecture, "Beyond A/Theism: Postmodernity and the Future of Religion." A DVD of the entire lecture is available from their website.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ethnography and Theology

"Practical theology," in our still-Schleiermacherian theological curricula, has always been a bit of a stepchild in the seminary--an appendix to the "serious" work of systematic theology and biblical studies, the place in the curriculum for a few tips and tricks about how to conduct a funeral or do hospital visits, the "touchy-feely" enclave down the hall.

Fortunately, this is changing. Indeed, I think "practical theology" is poised to become one of the most interesting and important fields in theology, precisely because the old divisions of labor are eroding. We are rightly beginning to realize (a) that all theology should be "practical" and that "systematic" theology is often a project well lost; and (b) that practical theology has its own rigor which is now beginning to flourish. In a similar way, liturgical theology is no longer just the baroque ornamentation of theology; instead, we are beginning to understand how and why it should be the center of the curriculum. There have been enough developments in this direction that we're already beginning to see backlash and critique, which I take to be a good sign.

One of the most interesting developments in practical theology over the last several years has been an emerging conversation between theology and ethnography--taking the engagement between theology and social science in new directions, with more finely tuned nuances. I think this is a necessary engagement particularly for those who would make a certain ecclesiology central to both the theological task and Christian formation. We simply can't shrink from the fact that, as theologians, we are also making empirical claims about the shape of communities and the effects of practices. That means we're also, in some sense, accountable for those claims--otherwise critics can justly charge us with a kind of idealism and abstraction of which we are sometimes guilty.

I was pressed in this direction by the work of Christian Scharen, first in his book, Public Worship and Public Work--a helpful critique of roughly "Hauerwasian" tendencies to make ecclesiological claims about formation without being accountable to whether those really show up on the ground. His suggestions for a necessary engagement between ecclesiology and ethnography also shows up in an important (appreciative) critique of Milbank, "'Judicious Narratives,' or Ecclesiology as Ethnography," (pdf) published a few years back in the Scottish Journal of Theology. This article is an excellent crystallization of the issues and the parameters of debate. One can also see this intersection of ecclesiology and ethnography in Mary McClintock Fulkerson's book, Places of Redemption: Theology for a Worldly Church.

I don't mean to suggest that we should just baptize ethnography; nor would I claim that this dialogue between ecclesiology and ethnography is without problems. It can still easily head in the direction of a kind of "Chicago school" (e.g., Don Browning) social-science-foundationalism. But it need not do so. Instead, I see it as a promising trajectory for research.

So I was glad to see that Practical Matters, the online journal in practical theology at Emory, has devoted an entire issue to "Ethnography & Theology"--a great way for newcomers to wade into this growing conversation.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Whence & Whither American Presbyterianism? On Hart and Muether's History

There's a lot at play just in the title of D.G. Hart and John R. Muether's Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Presbyterianism. The title itself is a double entendre. On the one hand, it is a backhanded critique of what they discern as a key failure of American Presbyterianism: its assimilation to American civil religion, making the Presbyterian church little more than a chaplain to either left or right wing versions of Americanism. "Presbyterian cultural warriors," as they summarize, "share the assumption that the role of the church is to maintain and defend American civil religion (of either a conservative or liberal expression)" (247). In short, the "country" that American Presbyterianism became devoted to is the United States of America, and that commitment entailed the dilution of the Reformed identity of the denomination(s).

In contrast, Hart and Muether extol a version of American Presbyterianism that eschews such a confusion of church and state, preserving a commitment to the "spirituality" of the church, and thus seeking that "better country" which is a heavenly city (Hebrews 11:16). Only some American Presbyterians, as the story goes, are really committed to the better "better country."

For this reason, I think the subtitle could have perhaps offered a little more truth in advertising. I can imagine at least a couple that would have clearly delineated the book's argument: "A 'Two Kingdoms' History of American Presbyterianism" captures it; or perhaps: "The Orthodox Presbyterian Church as the Faithful Remnant in American Presbyterianism." But I'm guessing that would have narrowed the audience just a bit.

That said, I came to the book with interest and quite a bit of sympathy for their concerns and critique, though I might not sign up for their implied prescriptions. The tone is decidedly not hagiographic (except for the portrayals of Machen and the OPC); indeed, by the end of the book the authors have told such a woeful tale that they have to look for "silver linings" to lighten the jeremiad with some shred of hope. In the course of the story, there are several themes that emerge that have significant contemporary relevance.

The Long March of Americanization. At the very opening, Hart and Muether set for themselves a puzzle: "why a Protestant communion with doctrinal tenets (i.e., Calvinism) running directly contrary to American ideals of freedom and self-sufficiency became attractive to so many successful Americans" (2). This is a constant thread in the story as they note the gradual and fervent assimilation of American Presbyterianism to "Americanism" and the ideals of political liberalism inherited from Locke. This assimilation takes on new intensity in the Revolutionary era, indicating "an unhealthy identification with and disproportionate allegiance to the United States that would haunt the Presbyterian Church, especially during the Civil War" (82). Akin to what sociologist Stephen Warner calls the "de facto congregationalism" of American Christianity, Hart & Muether note that "Presbyterians in the United States could not escape the anomalies inherent in a voluntary church" (88). Their analysis helps to understand what might be a counter-intuitive notion: that the liberalization of the PCUSA in the 1960s & 70s was actually an expression of the same assimilation (246-247).

Here is where I think their "two kingdom" (2K) sympathies provide a perspectival advantage: it enables them to see the long history of what we might have called American Presbyterianism's "Constantinianism" (before Peter Leithart went and complicated that short-hand use of the term!). Ironically, here 2Kers, Anabaptists, and "Reformed Hauerwasians" like me (believe me, it's a small club) share a similar diagnosis, with very different prescriptions. I think this "blend" can also be seen in many of James Davison Hunter's criticisms in To Change the World.

Liberalism and Evangelicalism Amount to the Same Thing. It's hard for Hart & Muether to cloak their disdain for American revivalism and "New School" Presbyterianism. The descriptions of Whitfield and Finney drip with revulsion. But to their credit, this is not just a matter of taste. Rather, I think one of the real cautionary tales of the book is the way in which "evangelical" ecumenism was just as responsible for the dilution of Reformed theology and identity as "modernism" and liberalism. This sort of analysis was broached earlier in Hart's excellent and under-appreciated book, Deconstructing Evangelicalism--a book that plays a big role in my own discomfort with "evangelicalism" as a descriptor for either a church or a theology. "Evangelicals" in mainline denominations often target the "liberals" or modernists in their midst as the threat to true faith, but then seek to retreat to a kind of pan-conservative, parachurch vagueness as the stand-in for orthodoxy. In Seeking a Better Country, Hart & Muether demonstrate, through historical episodes, how vague appeals to defend "conservative" positions entail losses on the same order as "liberal" agendas for "updating" the faith. Same dilution, different pile.

It's on this score that I think Seeking a Better Country would be instructive reading for those of us in the historically Continental (Dutch) stream of the Reformed tradition, particularly brothers and sisters in the CRC and RCA. Here, too, are heirs of the Reformation that are variously tugged between bland liberal Protestantism and parachurch evangelical pietism. Into this mix, Hart & Muether introduce an important distinction:
In coming to terms with this story, therefore, it is necessary to distinguish between the pietists and confessional conservatives. Two groups were at odds in the Presbyterian controversy. The Presbyterians who were either uncomfortable with or opposed to the external forms that made Presbyterianism distinct included evangelicals such as Speer and Erdman, who stressed conversion over doctrine, and liberals such as Coffin, who emphasized religious experience over creeds and confessions (203-204).
Confessional conservatives, on this accounting, represent a third way that, from the perspective of the other parties, are easily confused with their nemeses.

The Challenges of Confessional Subscription. The fragmentation of American Presbyterianism, with the rise of "sectarian" denominations such as the OPC, later hinged on matters of confessional subscription and the status of the Westminster standards (217-218). This reflected earlier distinctions between "New School" and "Old School" Presbyterianisms. But by the end of the book, where OPC strict confessional subscription is implicitly endorsed, Hart & Muether seem to have forgotten a sobering lesson from earlier in the story. In the midst of the New/Old School controversies, the Old School party secured a strict confessional requirement for ordained ministers. But as the case of Samuel Hemphill demonstrated, confessional subscription on its own did not guarantee what it sought to secure, namely, confessional orthodoxy. "Despite unanimity on Hemphill's errors, the case did raise questions about the effectiveness of creedal subscription as a means of maintaining the purity of the church. After all, the wayward pastor had subscribed to the Westminster Standards when ordained in Northern Ireland. Then when admitted to the Synod of Philadelphia he reassured his future pastoral colleagues that he had no reservations about the Westminster Confession and Catechisms" (53). This is a sobering vignette for those of us in denominations and institutions that mean to take confessional subscription seriously; but it also seems to be a lesson lost in later in the book.

I have other quibbles and disagreements with the book. The most significant, and unsurprising, will be my skepticism about their valorizaton of "two kingdoms" theology and the constant talk of the "spirituality" of the church. We're not going to settle that here (it's a focus of some of my forthcoming publications). I would only register that Hart & Muether seem to assume a false dichotomy: that somehow concern for "cultural" witness entails aversion to concern for a "thick" ecclesiology and careful attention to liturgical form and theological specificity. I simply think this is a straw man, which explains why I am often very sympathetic to the 2K focus on the specifics of Reformed liturgical theology but demur from their notion that the church is therefore "spiritual" and a-political.

Related to this is a second concern with the book, namely its portrayal of Southern Presbyterianism. In this telling, Southern Presbyterians represent, for a long while at least, the Old School holdouts within American Presbyterianism. But that "orthodox" Presbyterianism was attended by defenses of slavery and segregation along the way. Hart & Muether's 2K sympathies lead them to constantly criticize "activist" versions of Presbyterianism, whether left or right. The result is a picture of the "spiritual" church that seems to be almost "neutral" with respect to the evils and injustices of "this world." Thus they can describe the "activism" that began to beset Southern Presbyterianism as once again a compromise of the "spirituality" of the church. But in doing so, it's hard to see how this doesn't come off as some kind of aversion to questions of slavery and, later, segregation. Thus Hart & Muether can comment:
A modified Calvinism meant a reexamination of the spirituality of the church. In 1935 the General Assembly redefined the doctrine to expand the church's social witness. The Assembly reasoned that the church could not fulfill its "spiritual function" unless it "deals with those actual evils in the individual life, and in the social order, which threaten man's moral and spiritual development." A socially active church in the South, in turn, could not ignore the problem of race (232).
But given that they have consistently criticized a "socially active church" (as compromising its "spiritual" calling), it's hard not to conclude that they would have thought it virtuous to "ignore" the problem of race. This, it seems to me, is one of the serious outcomes of 2K theologies: a big theological justification for the status quo. (What would a 2K approach have meant for apartheid in South Africa?)

Even with those concerns in mind, I commend the book, perhaps especially to non-Presbyterians. I especially think that my confreres in the CRC and RCA might find in this story a bit of a mirror, and thus a cautionary tale.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

On Flash Mobs and Secular Liturgies

A number of folks have been sending me links to the various viral videos that document "flash mob" performances of Handel's Messiah in mall food courts and department stores. Here's a sample:

These are coming to me, I'm guessing, because Desiring the Kingdom opens with an extensive analysis of the "liturgy" of the mall--outlining how the visceral, affective rituals of the mall constitute the worship practices of the consumer gospel, training and forming our desires and longings, and thus actually shaping our identities.

I also criticize North American evangelicalism, particularly in many of its megachurch versions, for unwittingly reducing Jesus to one more commodity precisely because, in the name of "relevance," they've adopted a worship "style" that simply mimics the mall. Since I think the form/content distinction is specious, you can't simply take Gospel "content" and drop it into the "form" of the mall's worship because that form is already loaded and primed to another end or telos. This doesn't make the the church relevant; it reduces Jesus to a commodity.

So what to make of these irruptions of the Messiah in the food court? How should we think about these insertions of the church's music in the mall? Does this represent a little "redemption" of the mall, a reorientation of the mall's liturgies?

I don't think so. For at least a couple of reasons.

First, while we might associate this with "liturgical," high-churchy music, in these flash mob performances it only functions as an event. Liturgies are formative precisely because they are repetitive, shaping us over time within the context of the Christian story as it is "carried" in the practices of worship. Too much of North American evangelicalism already thinks of worship as merely an expressive event, and these flash mob events do nothing to displace that.

Second, these irruptive events do nothing to counter the formative effects and disordered telos of the mall's consumerism. Indeed if anything, they provide comfort to such practices--injecting a little dose of transcendence into the frantic pursuit for stuff, thus leaving the shoppers to happily continue on their way after the event.

The church's worship cannot be reduced to--and should not be confused with--a flash mob. (I'm tempted to make a jab at Barthian notions of revelation as an "event" here, but will resist.) If the liturgies of the mall are going to be countered, it will take the plodding, faithful presence of the Spirit in practices that will never be exciting enough to go viral on YouTube.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Letter to a Young Baptist

Dear Baptist Reviewer,

Thanks very much for your interest in Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition--and for taking the time to read my little tome of missives. I really appreciate that you're willing to engage the book. In many ways, it was written with you in mind. I know we don't cross paths all that often: I inhabit a Reformed world that doesn't tend to intersect with your corner of "Reformedom." I knew the book was a bit of a risk and a wager in that regard: an attempt to build bridges where they either don't exist, or at least strengthen collaboration where such bridges remain rather ramshackle, precarious rope-and-sticks connections.

So I really do appreciate your review, and I'm grateful for the positive things you have to say about the book, despite our obvious differences. I tried hard to write the book in a pastoral tone, with an intentional concern about pedagogy: that's why the letters are arranged in a way to bring the reader slowly through what constitutes a cumulative argument about the shape of the Reformed tradition.

And as you rightly note, there is an argument there: I am admittedly pushing back a bit on the so-called "resurgence of Reformed theology," pressing the issue of just what counts as "Reformed." But please note, I'm not doing so in order to call in the "truly Reformed" police force, but because I genuinely think there are aspects of the Reformed theological heritage that have been underappreciated by the young Baptist crowd enthusiastic about TULIP. Reformed theology is a many-splendored thing, and my goal is not to draw new boundaries and issue official "Reformed identity" cards. (Believe me, if the "truly Reformed" police get called in, you and I are both getting thrown in the paddy wagon.) Rather, my hope was that, by showing you new and unfamiliar sides of the Reformed tradition, you might find treasures that were buried still deeper than the TULIP bulbs.

As I said, this is the argument of the book. And if I had one wish, it would be that your review might have treated the book as an argument. As it stands, your review tends to simply treat this as a matter of taste, a matter of preference. So rather than criticizing the argument, you tend to simply point out where, "as a Baptist," you "disagree." Or you simply signal for your readers where I "cross the line," or where I diverge from what "counts" as Reformed in your orbit.

But let me just say, for the future, that what would be most helpful is not simply pointing out where you disagree--since that's no surprise and doesn't really advance the conversation. What would be interesting to hear is how and why you disagree--and, more importantly, how you would begin to refute the argument the book is trying to make. I would welcome that , not because I love polemics (well, I do a little bit, but I'm not proud of the fact. ;-) but because I think you'll better serve our readers--both of your review and my book--by engaging the argument rather than simply naming "positions."

My hope is that Letters to a Young Calvinist could be the beginning of a conversation, rather than a conversation stopper. And so I write with that goal in mind. I hope you'll receive this letter in that spirit.

Advent blessings, in hope,

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Win a copy of "Letters to a Young Calvinist"

The good folks at Brazos Press are hosting a little contest. Here's the deal:

1. Visit their Facebook page and "like" Brazos Press.

2. Submit a question that you'd like to ask me about the "new Calvinism" and the resurgence of Reformed theology amongst the young, restless, and Reformed crowd.

3. They'll then choose 3 questions for me to answer, I'll answer the questions in a little video next week, and those three "questioners" will receive a free copy of Letters to a Young Calvinist.

Let the games begin!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Local "Letters to a Young Calvinist" Events

For those in the vicinity, just a reminder of a couple of upcoming events this week in connection with my new book, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition.

Friday, December 3, 7:30pm: Talk & book signing at Baker Book House

Saturday, December 4, 10am-12pm: Book signing at the Calvin College Campus Store

Hope to see you there!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Secularization of Thanksgiving and the Sacralization of the Military

I have a deep ambivalence about Thanksgiving as a holiday. For example, it's not properly part of the (transnational) church's liturgical year, and it tends to be easily conflated with American civil religion--while also tending to paper over the history of colonialism. But while the "official" holiday is at least questionable, certainly gratitude and thanksgiving are central to the Christian life. Indeed, in the organization of the Heidelberg Catechism, the entirety of the Christian life is encompassed under the rubric of gratitude.

So, ambivalence aside, it doesn't take much coaxing for me to take a day to enjoy a feast and football with family and friends (even if that means having to watch the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys). But my friend, Mark, and I both commented again this year on how puzzling it was to see the incessant military references and images on the Thanksgiving broadcasts. It was like the NFL was somehow broadcasting on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Why would Thanksgiving be so interconnected with the armed forces?

But I think I've discerned the logic to this. I know I've noted (complained!) about this before, but I think I've further crystallized the linkage. For some reason, broadcast television always feels compelled to secularize religious and quasi-religious holidays; this is, in some ways, part and parcel of other secularizing currents in commercial culture. But when Thanksgiving is secularized, what's lost is precisely the Object to whom we would render gratitude. In other words, we end up being thankful for "gifts" without being able to recognize the Giver.

So we come up with a substitute Giver, which is something like the idea of "America"--the land of the free. And while there are alternative conceptual histories that would actually honor how much the United States was conceptually forged--that the U.S. is really the experimental product of ideas--our current anti-intellectual climate would rather think of "America" as the product of force and might (as the national anthem prefers). So if we are thankful for America, we're thankful to the military who, proverbially, "protect our freedom, " "keep us free," "make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom," etc. Soldiers are thus revered as the warrior-priests of freedom.

And what are we free for? Well, to shop. And so the best expression of thanksgiving is precisely Black Friday, that Dionysian display of consumerist passion when people literally die in the frantic pursuit of consumer goods.

In sum, the secularization of thanksgiving leads to the sacralization of the military as the guardians of consumer freedom. Such secularization, then, is not a-religious but otherwise-religious. Thus a secularized thanksgiving yields a uniquely American idolatry.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"Secular" Liberal Arts Education? Or Still "Secularist?"

Over at the Immanent Frame today, Jonathon Kahn offers some reflections that grow out of the Teagle-funded initiative, "Secularity and the Liberal Arts." Kahn's post, "Reconceiving the secular and the practice of the liberal arts," is essential reading for anyone involved in higher education--whether at public universities or Christian colleges. The very fact that such a conversation could take place is a testament to shifting paradigms fostered by so much good work sponsored by the Social Science Research Council's program, "Religion and the Public Sphere." It is also an indicator that important work by Charles Taylor, Jeffrey Stout, Nicholas Wolterstorff, William Connolly, George Marsden, and others is beginning to trickle-down into wider conversations amongst practitioners.

The context for the project is the demise of secularism (and the death of the secularization thesis) coupled with Charles Taylor's account of "the secular" not as some neutral, unbiased, universal space, but rather as the fact of contestability. To say we live in "a secular age" is not to claim that we live in an a-religious age but rather to recognize that we inhabit pluralistic cultures where no one set of plausibility structures is universal or axiomatic. Whereas secularism represented the doctrinaire imposition of one perspective as if it were not a perspective, the "secular" (in this new sense) names this contestable, pluralist environment in which we find ourselves in late modernity. (In ways that I've already noted elsewhere, Kahn notes that this Taylorian definition of "the secular" overlaps with Stout's redefinition of "secularization" in Democracy and Tradition as the state of affairs in which we cannot take for granted that our interlocutors share our fundamental starting points.)

In sum, while secularism is well lost, this does not hail the return of theocracy or Christendom: rather, it requires that we recognize we live in a "secular" age, a pluralist space. Secularism is dead; long live "the secular."

The "Secularity and the Liberal Arts" project sought to explore some implications of this for higher education. In particular, what does the end of secularism mean for those liberal arts colleges that proudly describe themselves as "secular?" As Kahn puts it,

Our “Secularity and the Liberal Arts” group wondered whether, or how, these theoretical moves had made their way onto our campuses. Did the practices and ways of liberal arts life reflect the theoretical work that has been done of late on the secular? We suspected that life on liberal arts campuses, both in and out of class, did not reflect this profound eclipse of the secularization thesis. Our institutions have long valued a notion of the secular that limits and restricts religious expression in order, ostensibly, to promote tolerance and critical thought, to sustain democratic institutions, and to foster civic engagement.

So what would it mean for "secular" liberal arts colleges to jettison their commitment to secularism while still constructing the college as a "secular" space? Could liberal arts education be post-secularist? Kahn summarizes the possibilities:

On these terms, secular institutions such as liberal arts campuses would excel at anticipating and navigating differences among their citizens. What Stout means by “secular, not secularist,” we suggest, is just this. A secularist seeks to rid democratically and pedagogically orientated spaces (e.g., campuses and classrooms) of religious commitments in the pursuit of arrogating authoritative forms of knowledge. Someone who possesses a revalued understanding of the secular as a discursive condition and practice seeks knowledge that helps us, as Stanley Hauerwas describes, “to act wisely in a context of conflict, ambiguity, and change.” When the authority of knowledge is less important than the things that can be done with knowledge (i.e., explicate its logic, argue with it, follow its implications, explore motivations for holding it, and reflect on how it shapes moral formation), the secular becomes a discussion between religious and non-religious citizens who are acutely aware that the demands of secularized democratic life require an extraordinary balance between cherishing one’s own convictions and holding to the awareness that these same cherished convictions are contestable, and that they may at times act as a bludgeon against other democratic citizens.

I want to go on record and say how encouraging it is to see this being articulated. In some ways, the shape of the conversation is getting very close to the sort imagined by George Marsden in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. Such "secular" liberal arts colleges would be post-secularist in the best sense, making room for ideas, theories and perspectives rooted in religious and confessional traditions--though it also (rightly) requires religious believers to recognize that we live in a "secular" age--that our religious beliefs are not axiomatic, but contested and contestable.

My question is: would such "secular" liberal arts colleges really provide an education? My concern is this: the revisioned "secular" liberal arts college makes room for religious "views." Indeed, according to Kahn, this (post)"secular" liberal arts college "encourages the expression of views guided or governed by religious commitments." But when you look a little closer, you'll recognize that all of this pluralism is marshaled for something like the task of "critical thinking"--the task of helping students ask the proverbial "big questions." As Kahn observes,

For liberal arts colleges, the stakes of this question are important. The mission of liberal arts education is not simply the conveyance of certain bodies of information or technical skills that are useful in a market economy. Liberal arts colleges understand themselves as places that promote education as a way for students to consider larger questions of meaning and value. Liberal arts colleges are places where students are not thought naïve to ask so-called big questions: “What is the meaning of my life?” “How do I understand death?” “Does evil exist?” “What are my obligations to my neighbor, my country, my world?” And finally, “How might my education—in whatever field I study—help me assimilate these questions?” We were struck by the way that considerations of the secular had the profound effect of renewing discussions of what might be called the deeper purposes of liberal arts education.
But here we see that even such "secular" liberal arts colleges would not be willing to relinquish a lingering aspect of the Enlightenment liberalism that informed secularism--namely, the sacred autonomy of the student. In short, while I would applaud the move to this sort of "secular" liberal arts education, such a model still refuses to think about education as formation. It's willing to make room for a variety of "views" and "perspectives" to help students ask "the big questions"--giving them lots of options to consider. But this is largely training them to be spectators and refuses to tell them what they ought to think. Indeed, even the new "secular" liberal arts college will remain committed to a persistent aspect of liberal Enlightenment orthodoxy: an allergy to paideia, to the thick task of formation that constitutes inculcation in a tradition, habituation to a particular vision of the good. (See Alasdair MacIntyre on "The End of Education.") Even a "secular" liberal arts college remains secularist just to the extent that it remains allergic to the notion of education as formation.

Such a vision of education as formation--not just equipping students with a buffet of perspectives, views, and positions, but rather aiming to shape them into certain kinds of people--that is precisely the more holistic educational project envisioned by the Christian liberal arts college in a "secular" age.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Farewell Facebook: My Short-Lived Experiment

Today I deactivated my Facebook account and submitted the request for its deletion (to stave off any temptation from second thoughts later on). After being a Facebook user for about 3 months, I have decided to leave the FB world. I'll be sad to be "disconnected" from some of my "friends," but I'm feeling very good about the decision. So "Farewell, Facebook!"

In the spirit of George Costanza, I want to say, "It's not you, it's me." But I do think it's at least partly you.

There are multiple factors in this decision. For instance, I finally joined Facebook to stay connected with my son who left for college. But now everything I know about him through Facebook I wish I didn't! I also find that Facebook has taken away from what blogging I did--and I think blogging is a much better exercise for a writer than dashing off status updates.

But it's mostly me. Facebook plays into all of my vices: my pride and arrogance, my self-centeredness, my penchant for vainglory. Most of all, Facebook feeds and fuels my addictive personality, especially when it comes to communication. My wife can attest that I was addicted to snail mail before email was even a staple of my life. I have vivid memories of living in our first apartment, waiting to hear the clink of the mail slot, eager to see what would arrive. Indeed, sometimes my lack of patience became so ridiculous I would go to the front of the house and check the box over and over again--not yet? By now? Where's the mail? And then of course, once the mail was actually delivered, I'd have a kind of postpartum funk for the next few hours. Sad.

This fixation, of course, was completely irrational--most of what came in the mail was, well, not exactly bad news, but also not a check from the lottery either. Nonetheless, I've always had an irrationally hopeful attitude toward mail: who knows what opportunity might come through the slot?

Email, as you can imagine, took this to ridiculous new levels, precisely because email can arrive 24 hours a day. You can guess what this does to someone who's already addictively fixated on snail mail that arrives just once a day. Facebook, of course, just added another layer of fixation on such "connection," while also creating a quick and easy outlet for expression that is always a veiled cry for attention.

What's at issue here is precisely the fact that Facebook is an environment of practice which inculcates in us certain habits which then shape our orientation to the world--indeed, they make our worlds. So, in the spirit of Desiring the Kingdom, I started to take a "practices audit" of my Facebook patterns. The results weren't pretty.

All of this came to a head last night while reading Zadie Smith's recent review of the movie, "Facebook" alongside Jarod Lanier's manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget. As Smith notes, in language strikingly similar to my argument in DTK:
We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us?
This was the final nail in the coffin of my concerns about Facebook. I realized what it was doing to me, and so bid, "Adieu."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Semper aggiornamento? On "Always Reforming"

There are strains of the Reformed tradition which like to emphasize that they are "always reforming," invoking the Latin semper reformanda as a motto. But if one analyzes when and how this is invoked, one will notice something very slippery: that under the banner of "reforming" what we get is really just an agenda for "updating" the faith. And such an "updating" project is far from what was envisioned by the Reformers.

Indeed, such "updating" is more like the mid-century stream of aggiornamento advocated by Catholic theologians who were trying to get the church to "go modern"--to "update" the faith by conforming it to the new regnant standards of what counted as rational, true and just. But such a project of "updating" is ultimately correlationist (as I use the term in Introducing Radical Orthodoxy): it locates the standards for what we ought to believe outside the faith--in the supposedly neutral, objective findings of economics or sociology or evolutionary psychology. This puts Christian faith back on its heels, in a stance of deference to the canons of extra-Scriptural authorities.

But such "updating" is not reform; or, to put it more starkly, to be "always updating" is not the equivalent of semper reformanda. To be sure, Christian faith pushes us to value careful attention to empirical realities and thus requires us to grapple with our unfolding knowledge of our material and social world. Without question. In equal measure, the church, in order to be faithful, is called to be always reforming, not sitting on its laurels as if it has arrived at the truth. Since such a pursuit is an eternal vocation, it would seem odd to think we've arrived.

However, the call to be always reforming is not simply a matter of "updating" the faith according to current trends and fads; nor is it even a matter of "correlating" the faith with the supposedly secure findings of other authorities. To be "always reforming" is to be engaged in the hard work of being a tradition, which includes the difficult labor of arguing about what constitutes a faithful extension of the tradition (I have something like Alasdair MacIntyre's account of "tradition" in mind here). This difficult work of reform differs from "updating" because it retains the center of gravity in the tradition (which, of course, includes and prioritizes the "founding document" of the tradition--in this case, Scripture).

This is merely a sketch to watch the "codes" at work when "always reforming" is invoked, and to urge a kind of semantic caution that under the banner of "reforming" language what we often get is a progressivism that is animated by a chronological snobbery which is a far cry from the task of reform, let alone the Reformers.

[Perhaps a word about the image above is in order: I was looking for something that captured the sense of "spiraling forward," which is how I envision this dynamic of reforming a tradition: returning to the sources in order to discern how to faithfully extend and move forward. This image doesn't quite get it, but it's better than yet another mugshot of a bearded Reformer.]

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Barna Report on the "New Calvinism"

The Barna Group's report, "Is there a 'Reformed' Movement in American Churches?" seems to be getting a lot more discussion than it deserves (see, for instance, Scot McKnight's post at Jesus Creed). I'm leery about contributing to that attention, but also feel compelled to point out the weaknesses and shoddy social science behind this "report."

The context, of course, is relatively clear: over the past several years there's been a fair amount of journalistic buzz about the growth and importance of the "New Calvinists," or the young, restless and Reformed crowd, as described by Collin Hansen--to the point that it was hailed as one of the 10 ideas changing the world by Time magazine, also receiving attention from outlets like the New York Times and the Economist. And a casual observer can't help but notice an uptick in self-identifying Reformed voices in places like Christianity Today, or the significant attention garnered by figures such as Albert Moehler in the Southern Baptist Convention, or Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, or Mark Driscoll in Seattle.

The Barna Report is thus offered as a bubble-buster: a purported deflator of the hype armed with the "statistics" to prove that this perception is an illusion--that, in fact, things haven't changed in a decade. There are no more Calvinists around now then there were 10 years ago, and thus there's no discernible "Reformed movement" despite appearances to the contrary.

Now, let me first clarify that I don't really have a dog in this fight. A part of my argument in Letters to a Young Calvinist is that a lot of those who identify themselves as "Reformed" are not fully so--rather, they just mean they subscribe to a particular soteriology or doctrine of salvation with a particular understanding of election and predestination, etc. But I try to show that being "Reformed" is more fully-orbed than that--it involves particular ecclesiological and liturgical commitments, and also involves a theology of culture often absent from those who might identify with "the new Calvinism." So while I'm sympathetic to aspects of this movement, I don't have a stake in defending it, nor do I have any investment in defending claims about its growth.

So, with that said, let me offer several criticisms of this so-called "report" from the Barna Group:

1. The reports claims to evaluate "whether Reformed churches are growing." There are already a host of problems just in that claim, so much so I don't even know where to start. Let's point out a few:

(a) I can't think of anyone who has suggested that the growth of "the new Calvinism" entails a claim that "Reformed churches" are growing. Indeed, one of the sort of paradoxes is that this brand of Calvinism is flourishing outside of "Reformed churches"--amongst Southern Baptists and nondenominational evangelicals.

(b) No where does the report or study define "Reformed churches." Instead it queries pastors and clergy about how they would define "their" churches (as either Wesleyan/Arminian or Calvinist/Reformed). It then leaves it up to the pastors to define the terms (claiming that this is standard practice in social science--believe me, it's not). In addition to being clericalist (the pastor defines a congregation?! Not very Reformed!), by framing the binary choice in this way the poll already skews the definition of Reformed and Calvinist along certain lines; in other words, it loads the dice. In particular, this report is misguided by an overly narrow fixation on "Reformed" being reduced to a particular, personal soteriology.

And this lack of definition can explain other oddities. For instance, the report seems surprised that 31% of pastors who lead churches "within traditional charismatic and Pentecostal denominations" would describe themselves as "Reformed." They are puzzled by this because Pentecostalism is "generally viewed as stemming from Wesleyan or Holiness traditions" (i.e., "Arminian" traditions). But this is theologically naive precisely because it doesn't realize the significant theological issue that separates the Assemblies of God from, say, the Church of God-Cleveland (a Wesleyan Pentecostal denomination): that issue is sanctification, and the A/G affirms what it describes as a "Reformed" understanding of sanctification precisely because they reject the "perfectionism" of the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition. So if you ask a Pentecostal if they are "Reformed" or "Wesleyan," they are going to think you're talking about the doctrine of sanctification, not election and salvation. More would define themselves as "Reformed" because more Pentecostals are A/G.

(c) Why on earth would one have to rely on self-definition by pastors to determine whether a church is Reformed? A church is Reformed if it is an heir of, and identifies with, Reformed creeds and confessions. In other words, it's not a secret whether a church is "Reformed" or not. The Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Presbyterian Church in America, and a host of others are "Reformed" churches. If you want the statistics, you don't have to "ask the pastor." Such a methodology already betrays a kind of nondenominational evangelical bias. But also please note, once again, that almost all observers of the "new Calvinism" has noted its growth outside "Reformed churches." So not only does the Barna group have a naive, misguided methodology, they're also measuring the wrong thing.

2. We are not given any information about the relevant samples here, except a few hand-waving notes at the end of the report which claim to have secured a "representative" sample through 600 phone calls. This is not social scientific data that would ever pass muster in the scholarly field of sociology of religion (as represented, for instance, by work done in the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion). Indeed, I find it hard not to find this almost laughable in its methodological naivete and anecdotal nature.

3. Finally, this report is utterly naive about what constitutes cultural significance. It falls prey to what James Davison Hunter has criticized as the "grassroots" naivete of evangelicalism: the idea that there's power in numbers. So if "the numbers" don't show growth, then there's no signficant shift--there's no significant "Reformed movement." But as Hunter shows, it's not populist numbers that change culture: it's the leadership power of "elites." So even if there weren't a groundswell of "new Calvinists" in the pews, there only has to be an upsurge of Calvinists in strategic positions of influence and leadership in order for it to make an impact on American evangelicalism. The Barna Report comes nowhere close to being able to measure something like that.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Revolution in Grading

While it is the very height of bourgeois whining, one doesn't have to spend too much time around professors before you begin to hear complaints about grading. Used to our tenured autonomy, and generally enjoying discussion of ideas and texts in class, "grading" is the one drudgery that we have to do. It also comes with some sense of urgency and tends to coagulate around certain times. Around mid-October and early December, I'm pretty sure my wife has taken to slipping Prozac in my tea--which is then exacerbated but my own uptake in whiskey consumption at these points in the semester.

But then this afternoon I hit upon this revolutionary idea while grading papers for my Congregational & Ministry Studies class, "Interpreting Church Practices": what if I assigned projects that I'd actually like to read? Then the time spent grading would actually be a pleasure (all things considered, of course--that is, as long as you can count on students producing decently readable papers).

That was my experience this afternoon. As part of a course focused on practices of marriage, family, and singleness, I assigned students the task of excavating and articulating the normative visions of marriage, family and sexuality implicit in cultural artifacts such as TV sitcoms, dramas, reality TV, films, and novels. So I just spent an afternoon reading some really thoughtful analyses of television shows like Desperate Housewives, Mad Men, and Gilmore Girls and films that included Paper Heart, Elizabethtown, and Away We Go. It was almost like not working--which is the way professors feel the rest of the time! This isn't going to help with the proverbial "blue books," but it's got me thinking about more creative assignments for papers and projects.

Monday, November 08, 2010

An Appendix to "Desiring the Kingdom"

I'm starting to experiment with using Scribd a bit, and just uploaded my first paper. Entitled "Worldview, Sphere Sovereignty, and DTK: A Guide for (Perplexed) Reformed Folk," this was a paper I presented last week at the ARIHE Symposium, a gathering of presidents, administrators, and educators from Reformed colleges and universities. One could think of it as a sort of "appendix" to Desiring the Kingdom, specifically addressed to Kuyperian worries about my argument and proposal.

Worldview, Sphere Sovereignty, and DTK: A Guide for (Perplexed) Reformed Folk

Monday, November 01, 2010

Charles Matthewes on "Narrow" Audiences

While browsing in the Eerdmans booth at the American Academy of Religion meeting, I got sucked into Charles Matthewes new book, The Republic of Grace: Augustinian Thoughts for Dark Times. While it's not absolutely central to the theme of the book, this comment in the Introduction stuck with me:

It may seem oddly limiting to write a book primarily addressed to Christians; that may seem a strangely narrow audience. But the appearance of narrowness deceives. It is ironic that explicit appeals to Christians are all-too-easily labeled "narrow" or "sectarian" when there are roughly 250 million Christians--of quite diverse flavors, of course--in the United States today, and more than 2 billion around the world. How "broad," in comparison, would be an argument addressed to readers of the New York Review of Books?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Interviews on the Interwebs

A couple of interviews that might be of interest:

First, I was interviewed by Kenneth Sheppard for Patrol Magazine on "Philosophy, Culture, and Communication"--a conversation about academic life, public scholarship, and how Christian scholars serve the church.

Second, I was interviewed for Inner Compass, Calvin College's PBS program on religion and culture. That is now archived online; you can watch it below.

Defining "The Good Life" - Inner Compass from Calvin College on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Danto on Philosophy and/as/of Literature

Arthur Danto's contribution to the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Literature is not exactly worth the price of the book (it's $200!), but it would certainly be worth the bus fare to the library. His quarry in "Philosophy and/as/of Literature" is the literary nature of philosophical writing and what that means for philosophical reading today, given the professionalization of philosophy and the dominance of a certain genre of philosophical writing. There's a history to be told here, and Danto notes a significant shift:

For a period roughly coeval with that in which philosophy attained professionalization, the canonical literary format has been the professional philosophy paper. Our practice as philosophers consists in reading and writing such papers; in training our students to read and write them; in inviting others to come read us a paper, to which we respond by posing questions which in effect are editorial recommendations, typically incorporated and acknowledged in the first or last footnote of the paper, in which we are exempted from such errors and infelicities as may remain and thanked for our helpful suggestions (p. 54).

Yep, that about nails it. I think non-academics, or even scholars from other disciplines, are sometimes astounded to learn that a philosophy "speaker" is really just a reader: s/he stands up at the podium and reads a manuscript, head-down, and rattles through the material.

Danto goes on to analyze this in Kuhnian terms: this is "normal science" in philosophy. "Mastery of the literary form is the key to success in the form of life." It comes with tangible benefits (tenure, recognition, invitations to go read more papers). "These practical benefits aside, no one could conceivably be interested in participating in the form of life defined by this literary form, were it not believed that this is the avenue to philosophical truth." But then Danto can't resist lodging a bit of skepticism about this paradigm: "It is less obviously a matter of agreement that philosophical truth is defined by this being believed to be the way to find it."

What Danto observes is the significant gap between "normal science" in philosophical writing and the range of creative genres that constitute the history of philosophy. And he starts to wonder whether that means we might not be very good readers, precisely because of the way we've learned to write:
Much of what I have read on Plato reads much as though he, to whom the whole of subsequent philosophy is said to be so many footnotes, were in effect a footnote to himself and were being coached to get a paper accepted by the Philosophical Review. And a good bit of the writing on Descartes is by way of chivying his argumentation into notations we are certain he would have adopted had he lived to appreciate their advantages, since it is now so clear where he went wrong. But in both case it might at least have been asked whether what either writer was up to can that easily be separated from forms of presentation that may have seemed inevitable, so that the dialogue or meditation flattened into conventional periodical prose might not in the process have lost something central to those ways of writing (p. 55).

It is exactly this concern about the irreducibility of form and the worry about what's lost in translation that is dominating my thinking about volume 2 of "Cultural Liturgies." But it's also generally why I continue to resist certain hegemonies in professional philosophy, and even within my own department. Sure, Emmanuel Levinas' Totality and Infinity does not have any formalized syllogisms or logical notation--but in that incredible book Levinas is performing something that cannot be teased out in "summaries of the argument." Indeed, such summaries and translations and formalization do an injustice to the kind of philosophical truth embodied in such works. This is why Danto ultimately worries about how we read:
The form in which the truth as [Plato and Descartes] understood it must be grasped just might require a form of reading, hence a kind of relationship to those texts, altogether different from that appropriate to a paper, or to what we sometimes refer as a "contribution." And this is because something is intended to happen to the reader other than and in addition to being informed (p. 55).

Friday, October 22, 2010

Theology and Race: A "Duke School?"

When I read J. Kameron Carter's commanding Race: A Theological Account, I had just a twinge of concern that his senior colleague at Duke, Willie James Jennings, had been "scooped" just a bit. Jennings began work along these lines back in the early 1990s, but then he got swept up into administrative duties at Duke Divinity School which then sidetracked him from his original research. But I have often come back, for instance, to his 1996 Modern Theology essay, "'He Became Truly Human': Incarnation, Emancipation, and Authentic Humanity" as a touchstone for starting conversations about theology and race. And Carter himself tips his hat to Jennings' pioneering work.

So I am thrilled to see Jennings' work has finally culminated in his new book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale UP, 2010). While its argument echoes Carter's narrative about race and theology in Western thought, it looks like Jennings' work also makes unique contributions. I'm eager to read it.

I also wonder whether we're not seeing the emergence of a kind of "Duke school" on theology and race. As further evidence, consider Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice's contributions along these lines as well (for example in their co-authored more popular book, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing). Or consider Brian Bantum's new book, originally a Duke dissertation: Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor UP, 2010).

In suggesting an emerging "Duke school," I don't mean to attribute to them some imperial program for a "school of thought." Nor do I mean to attribute to them some concern to formulate a "party line." Nonetheless, one can detect a similar sensibility in the work of Carter, Jennings, Katongole, and Bantum: a theological engagement with race that is "post-liberationist," one might say: not because they're somehow in favor of "oppression," but rather because, having come through liberationist paradigms, they have also seen the problems with such an approach (in particular, the way in which it still remains mired in modern categories that are at the root of the problem). It requires a certain courage to articulate this sort of position, since (as I've seen with my students), it can sometimes be mistaken for a 'color-blind' approach, or could appear to give comfort to those who would pretend to "transcend" race. But they are decidedly not advocating either. It's just that our imagination on these issues tends to remain binary and simplistic, whereas they are inviting us beyond such simple oppositions. Indeed, to use Bantum's term, they might be inviting us to a more "hybrid" theology.

I'm encouraged by this development, mainly because I have students who are so interested in working through these issues with rigor and nuance. I'm grateful to be able to point them to the Duke school, so to speak.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Letters to a Young Calvinist Facebook Page

We've set up a Facebook page for Letters to a Young Calvinist at, surprisingly enough,

Since the book really aims to be a primer and invitation to a wider conversation, we'll use this Facebook page as a way to highlight other resources, point to relevant conversations, and hopefully host some discussion of the book and related themes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Kuyper for Piper: "Letters to a Young Calvinist" now available

Letters to a Young Calvinist has now been released and should be available at booksellers near you. I received my copies a couple of weeks ago and was jazzed to see it in print. Brazos has done a great job creating a cool little book that is accessible and approachable in its format and presentation. It's certainly my most "popular," accessible book to date.

Now my hope is that it finds its audience: there are all sorts of folks who I hope will read it, but I'm especially hoping it might be received by a younger generation who, like my younger self, were awakened to thoughtful Christianity by a certain stream of Reformed theology. Letters to a Young Calvinist is an invitation to see other streams of the Reformed tradition--to value the complex richness of the Reformed voices across the spectrum.

Sometimes I describe this little book as "Kuyper for Piper." The goal is to build on the young, restless, Reformed interest in the doctrines of grace by also celebrating other core themes of the Reformed tradition: creation, culture, covenant, and catholicity, with a special concern for appreciating the ecclesiology of the Reformers. In the process, however, there's also some internal critique of Kuyperianism as well.

As with any book, one sends it out into the world like a child: with some trepidation and angst, with much hope and gratitude. Watch for news about events related to the book, as well as a Facebook page that's in the works.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Academic Conference Rules

A great New Yorker cartoon that well captures the posturing of Q&A at academic conferences.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Room for Theology in "Theory": New Signs in SAQ

A few years back, Eugene McCarraher's review of Terry Eagleton's After Theory posed the question: "After Theory, Theology?" It was a brilliant review of an excellent book and got to the heart of matters in the current state of "theory" (that strange, amorphous mix of continental philosophy marshaled across a range of disciplines in order to do "critique"). Both Eagleton and McCarraher suggested that a thorough, consistent "postmodern" critique of Enlightenment rationality--theory's bread and butter--should ultimately open the door for religious perspectives to get a hearing in a genuinely pluralist academy. (George Marsden made similar claims in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, but without all the sexy, pomo references.)

Not everyone got the memo, however, and in some ways the university remains the last bastion of a pretty strident secularism. However, there have been pockets of theoretical conversations across the disciplines which have begun to absorb this point. As a case in point, consider the latest issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly, one of the iconic "theory" journals, currently edited by Michael Hardt and published by Duke University Press. (Ever since I knew what "theory" was, I had always sort of dreamed of getting to publish in SAQ.) The Fall 2010 issue, guest edited by two anthropologists, Matthew Engelke (London School of Economics) and Joel Robbins (UC San Diego), is devoted to the theme, "Global Christianity, Global Critique." But such a title might hide the fact that this issue is actually pressing the implications of something like the Eagleton/McCarraher thesis: that perhaps theory not only needs to consider religion, but that theory might even be "religious"--and that perhaps an anthropology of religion might be well-informed by theology without giving up its critical capacities. In his contribution to the volume, Simon Coleman describes this as a "committed anthropology." (My own contribution is something I wouldn't have dreamed could appear in SAQ: "'The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets': Global Pentecostalism and the Re-enchantment of Critique.")

There's no consensus represented by the contributors, but there is a set of shared intuitions and sensibilities. I think the issue signals a new day in both theory and the social sciences.

Here's the full Table of Contents so you can see other contributions:

Joel Robbins and Matthew Engelke

Joel Robbins
Anthropology, Pentecostalism, and the New Paul: Conversion, Event, and Social Transformation

Elizabeth A. Castelli
The Philosophers' Paul in the Frame of the Global: Some Reflections

James K. A. Smith
"The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets": Global Pentecostalism and the Re-enchantment of Critique

Jon Bialecki
Angels and Grass: Church, Revival, and the Neo-Pauline Turn

C. J. C. Pickstock
Liturgy and the Senses

Birgit Meyer
Aesthetics of Persuasion: Global Christianity and Pentecostalism's Sensational Forms

Brian Goldstone and Stanley Hauerwas
Disciplined Seeing: Forms of Christianity and Forms of Life

Simon Coleman
An Anthropological Apologetics

Matthew Engelke
Number and the Imagination of Global Christianity; or, Mediation and Immediacy in the Work of Alain Badiou