Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: Bringing Sex Into Focus by Caroline Simon

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"Bringing Sex Into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity" is a new offering from Caroline J. Simon. It is an interesting read on Christian sexuality and a manageable length at less than 200 pages. Simon uses throughout the metaphor of vision -- employing a visit to the optometrist and the various diagnostic lenses they employ in order to allow us to see clearly.

Simon creates a typology of "lenses" through which we view sexuality. These include two Christian lesnses, the covenantal and procreative ones, and four "sexular" ones: expressivist, romantic, power, and plain sex. She is clear throughout that we never use just one lens when viewing sexuality, nor should we. I'm a fan of typologies, although I can understand how some may find them too subjective or ambiguous for ethical work.

Overall, I liked the book quite a bit. Simon comes from an evangelical perspective and not surprisingly ends up further on the conservative side of the spectrum than I personally do. Nonetheless, most of her arguments are cogent and well presented. While I am at times quite critical, especially in my last disagreement, this should not mean I do not recommend the book. I do.

There are three points of contention (perhaps too severe a word?) for me in her work, though. The first is simply on the name "covenantal." Simon uses this throughout as the main Christian but not Catholic lense of sexuality, yet she hardly touches on what the word "covenant" means. She briefly mentions how God made a covenant with the Israelites which was then transfered to Christians (I realize I'm being theologically imprecise right now, but the specifics aren't important). What she DOESN'T mention is that "covenant" means "contract." They are synonyms. To say we have a "contractual lens" when viewing sexuality would sound bizarre indeed. When speaking of marriage, the covenantal lens can prove extra problematic. Not once does Simon touch on the "Biblical view of marriage" (to use a phrase made famous in the Chik-Fil-A debates) as one of a property contract. As I've discussed in my thesis (for the four people who read it -- my committee and my father), marriage in the Hebrew Bible was strictly a property exchange between father-of-the-bride and groom. So to invoke a "contract lens" with marriage is certainly not in keeping with 21st century Christian ethics. Granted, I am not saying this is what Simon means when she mentions a covenantal lens, but she did not spend any ink on the topic.

My second issue with the book is her reliance on the untenable axiom "abstinence in singleness, fidelity in marriage." This may have made sense long ago when the average age of marriage for women was menarche, but with record high ages upon first marriage in the US, it has now become a false dilemma. Where in this axiom do those graduate students who have been in long-term relationships with their partners for 6 years fit? I would argue that they are neither single nor married. Yet surely they are closer to married than single! What about the couple that has been married for 20 years but is waiting until their youngest child graduates high school to divorce? This axiom also places an unneeded emphasis on genitals. Does abstinence mean no coitus? Does it mean no genital contact? What about "second base"? How about phone sex in a committed yet long distance relationship? With all of these contemporary issues that are neither coitus nor hand-holding along with the false dilemma of single vs. married, Christian sexual ethics needs a lot of conversation about these in-betweens, not simply a regurgitation of a hackneyed axiom.

Lastly and most significantly, Simon presents these six lenses almost as value-free. She certainly makes it clear that she prefers the covenantal lens, but also argues (and rightly so) that civil discourse calls for us to listen to ALL perspectives, including the secular views. This does not mean, however, that we should accept them uncritically as "valid." Yet she does just this in the chapter on homosexuality. In taking another philosopher to task on the label of "connubial bigot" for those who oppose same sex marriage, she points out that the procreative lens views all sex that cannot possibly result in conception to be sinful. That means coitus is the only ticket in town. Sorry to the homosexuals. This is simply appalling. The first and only lens that matters is the lens of justice. When considering the procreative lens through the lens of justice, it becomes obviously clear that those who view the orthodox Catholic teaching on sex to be on the opposite side of justice. Simon argues, however, that those who view homosexual activity as sinful are not bigots, but merely are consistent in their views on sexuality. I wonder if Simon would argue that the Christians that argued that slavery was theologically just or that denying the franchise to women was morally accepted would be simply "consistent" as opposed to racist and misogynist.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Martin Luther's "The Freedom of a Christian" and "The Sermon On the Mount"

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This is a long 10 page book review that I did on one of Luther's short treatises (yet exceptionally important) and his writings on the Sermon on the Mount. Both come from Luther's Works.

I'm making the font very small in order to take up less room. Feel free to copy and paste into a word processor and increase the font size.

The Freedom of a Christian” and “The Sermon on the Mount

by Martin Luther

            In 1520 Martin Luther composed three brief treatises that would become important to the early period of the Protestant Reformation. Written at times as a reflection or reaction to Luther's debates with John Eck, these Three Treatises are also important due to the papal bull written the same year that gave Luther sixty days to recant or face excommunication. “The Freedom of a Christian” begins with a conciliatory letter by Luther to Pope Leo X which Luther included on the urging of several of Luther's friends to reconcile the rift created by the posting of the 95 Theses (262). In this, the last of the treatises, Luther lays down in a very concise manner his case for sola fide and the relation of faith to “good works.” “The Freedom of a Christian” remains an easily accessible work on this most central of Lutheran beliefs and can be read in just a few casual sittings.

            In his collection of lectures on Matthew 5-7, Luther provides a richly detailed insight into his views on the relation of Christianity to society. Written and revised over the course of several years, these lectures were first published in 1532 and serve as an introduction to Luther's doctrine of the Two Kingdoms and how Jesus's commands in the Sermon on the Mount should be interpreted. A much larger work than the treatise, these lectures are a bit less accessible for the “everyday Lutheran” who might benefit from reading “The Freedom of a Christian.”

            At the heart of “Freedom” is the admittedly paradoxical two-part assertion by Luther that “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all” (277). The entirety of this treatise could easily be plotted back to these two propositions. Luther's first explanation of this seeming contradiction begins with a return to the body/mind dualism of Greek philosophy. The first proposition is in line with the spiritual nature of Man while the second proposition is in line with the bodily nature of Man. While our post-modern society may not completely discard this Aristotelian view, it certainly perks its ears up at the mention of body/mind dualism and seeks a crack in its logic. Luckily, Luther does not rely solely on this explanation for his defense of Man's being completely free and completely bound.

            Immediately tied into this exposition, Luther exposes the reader to the centrality of sola fide in his doctrine. As an attack against the works-based righteousness he was rebelling against, Luther points out that even wicked people can do good works (279). The cause of justification is none other than the Word of God, which Luther identifies solely with faith. In this explanation, Luther does not only pit works and faith against each other, he makes them mutually exclusive with statements such as “faith cannot exist in connection with works” (280). While he softens his approach in the second half of this treatise, his disdain for works-based righteousness is clear. Given the Sitz im Leben of Luther's work, it is not surprising that he would have such reactionary views to the concept of “works” that was popular at the time.

            This raises the question of what, exactly, Luther means the various times he uses “works,” “law,” and “commandment” in relation to justification. In laying out the relation of works and law, Luther states “a Christian has all that he needs in faith and needs no work to justify him; and if he has no need of works, he has no need of the law; and if he has no need of the law, surely he is free from the law” (284). It is for statements like this that Luther was long viewed as an antinomian. Yet immediately preceding this statement, Luther points out the importance of divine law as a measuring stick for Christians to judge themselves and their inherent unrighteousness (282). Luther's use of “law,” then, must not be referring to the entirety of the law or a piece of the law, such as the Decalogue. It seems possible that when Luther refers to “works” that he has specifically in mind those works, both in 16th century Catholicism and Biblical Judaism, that serve as ritual performances that render righteousness—such as temple sacrifices, pilgrimages, rosaries, etc. If this is true, it would easily explain Luther's use of “works” in both a positive and negative light. Taking into account the way Luther relates works to the law, it is also possible that when Luther uses “law” or “commandment,” he is referring specifically to the mitzvot that relate to ritual cleanliness/holiness and not those that relate to God or social interaction. Using these demarcations increases the complexity of interpreting Luther, as the reader must decide which definition Luther is most likely using, but it also makes the message much simpler. There is, however, always the danger of deciding against Luther's intent.

            So in the above quote where Luther relates faith to freedom, if the concept of works and law refers primarily to ritual works, he is stating that a Christian who has faith is free from any of these ritual actions which are, in fact, mundane and is free to live a life in faith. He lists this as the “first power” of faith—that the Christian is free. The second power of faith is that the Christian places their complete trust in God. Faith “does not doubt that he who is true, just, and wise will do, dispose, and provide all things well” for the Christian (285). The last power of faith is justification. Luther explains this through the unity the Christian gains with Christ, whose sins are “swallowed up by him” so that Christ shares in the sins of the faithful and the faithful share in the righteousness of Christ (287). Through this deft use of theologically sound syllogisms, Luther arrives at the heart of sola fide doctrine. In placing so much emphasis on faith, however, Luther is in danger of living up to his antinomian reputation and producing a church full of libertines. Realizing this, the second half of his treatise discusses the proper place of works and their relation to faith.

            When Luther is speaking of works in a negative light, the majority of the time he is commenting on the relation of works to salvation—no one is saved through works. When not speaking in regard to salvation, however, Luther is almost always positive in his attitude towards works. What is important for Luther is the order in which the Christian approaches faith and works. He states that the Christian who has faith will automatically fulfill the first commandment (to worship one God), and “he who fulfills the First Commandment has no difficulty in fulfilling all the rest” (288). Again, the question is raised what Luther means by “all the rest.” Does he mean the nine remaining commandments of the Decalogue? The 612 remaining mitzvot? The non-ritual mitzvot? While he never explicitly answers these questions, Luther goes on to say that “the works themselves do not justify [a Christian] before God, but he does the works out of spontaneous love in obedience to God” (295). Luther has an obvious love of good works, yet his relegation of works to a spontaneous reaction to faith may not be as simple in practice as it is in theory. It is easy to doubt just how simple it is to fulfill other commandments solely on the worship of God.

            Luther later goes on to divide “true” good-works into two categories: those that serve to discipline the bodily nature of Man, and those that serve the neighbor (308). He now provides an easy to follow plan for the discernment of good works. The first category, in many ways, harkens back to philosophers such as Maimonides (if not even Aristotle) who viewed the law as a tool towards achieving a higher contemplative life. The law is not inherently bad if it is used to control the bodily appetites of Man with a goal of greater knowledge of God, in the case of Maimonides, or faith, in the case of Luther. Luther spends a good deal of time talking about the duty of a Christian to work for the neighbor and bear the neighbor’s burdens, but the reader is often left pondering how well Luther followed his own advice. While this treatise is not as polemical as the “Sermon” lectures that I will address now, Luther’s use of less-than-conciliatory language to refer to his detractors raises the question of “practicing what you preach.”

            An example of this questionable use of language is present immediately in Luther’s preface to “Sermon” when he states “this fifth chapter has fallen into the hands of the vulgar pigs and asses, the jurists and sophists, the right hand of the jackass of a pope and of his mamelukes” (3). While 16th century German undoubtedly had different traditions than present-day political correctness could imagine, such a direct and polemical word choice could hardly have been interpreted as anything less than doctrinal warfare by Luther’s readers. He is also quick to point out the theological spectrum at this time in the Reformation—the papists were on one end while the “schismatic” Anabaptists were on another. Luther places himself firmly in the middle. This three-way power play is a frequent character in the plot that Luther presents throughout “Sermon.”

            Throughout these Lectures, there are several layers to Luther’s commentary. Practical advice, polemic, and foundational doctrine are three of these. Perhaps the strongest and most timeless of these is Luther’s practical advice to Christians. Given the ethical nature of the Sermon on the Mount, Luther finds ample opportunity to provide everyday advice for his followers on everything from dealing with greed and avoiding gossip to being happy with what God has given. If one were simply to follow this worldly advice, surely they would find positive effects in it. And without having read “Freedom” beforehand, reading only “Sermon” one might also miss the sola fide accent of Luther’s teachings entirely. Luther predicts this oversight and devotes an entire postscript to reconciling the works-based nature of “Sermon” with justification through faith.

            The most important contribution “Sermon” offers to foundational Lutheran doctrine is his exposition on the Two Kingdoms. While it is hinted at in the body/mind dualism of “Freedom,” here Luther explicitly lays out the importance of discerning between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the World. We first see this distinction in Luther’s differentiation between a person and their office. Here he points out that he has “often said that we must sharply distinguish between these two, the office and the person. The man who is called Hans or Martin is a man quite different from the one who is called elector or doctor or preacher” (23). While this concept is key to Luther’s Two Kingdoms, I believe it also leads to dangerous errors in interpreting the role of a Christian in society. It is Luther’s assertion that the person, while Christian and bound to follow the laws that Jesus lays out in the Sermon on the Mount, must follow a different set of rules than the office, which is not Christian but rather secular and is not bound by either Jesus’s commands or the Decalogue.

           This concept has resurfaced in contemporary Lutheran ethics in the discussion of homosexuality in the church. Many contend that the primary identity of a Christian should be “Christian” while the secondary identity should be “homo/heterosexual.” One should refer to themselves as a “homosexual Christian” and not a “Christian homosexual” (see Faithful Conversations). This difference in priority seems to make sense and fall in line with Jesus’s teachings—we are “Christians first.” Yet in Luther’s discussion of person vs. office, we do not always see a focus on being a Christian. Luther implies that a “judge who is Christian” is able to rule in such a way that he contradicts the rule of Jesus because he is simply fulfilling his office. We are left to imagine how a “Christian who is a judge” might rule differently. As Luther goes on to state explicitly, “a prince can be Christian, but he must not rule as a Christian; and insofar as he does rule, his name is not ‘Christian’ but ‘prince’” (170). While sola fide is the doctrine upon which Luther built the church, the Two Kingdoms is a lesser but still central doctrine to Luther theology. Luther is not as successful in using scripture to justify his Two Kingdoms concept as he is in establishing sola fide. In fact, he is left most often citing Romans and its pro-government verses in order to defend the secular position of a Christian. At best, this leaves room for debate and at worst is a dangerous interpretation of the Kingdom of God on earth.

            In placing himself between the liberal papists and the conservative schismatics, Luther occupies a Goldilocks-type “just right” middle that at times lacks a methodology. He states that the teaching of the Catholic Church in relation to Jesus’s commandments in the Sermon on the Mount is too liberal. The Catholic view that these stronger commandments are supererogatory is dismissed as too light a yoke. He also, however, believes that the Anabaptist view that these new commandments should be interpreted literally and acted upon in their entirety is delusional. It is through the Two Kingdoms doctrine that Luther bridges the gap. Yet central to this middle ground is the issue of discernment. How does Luther decide at what point commandments become supererogatory or delusional? Which commandments apply only to people and not to their position in the secular Kingdom? These answers are easily found when considering the issues present in 16th century Germany as Luther enumerates them specifically, but problems arise when attempting to read Luther’s methodology, or lack thereof, onto 21st century issues. Without a clear-cut process for arriving at these answers, one is forced to guess what Luther may have decided in regards to contemporary issues. Luther did not provide for a proper framework to routinize his discernment process so that modern Lutheran ethics could adequately draw upon his doctrine for contemporary issues. Luther decides on issues often in seeming contradiction to what one would predict and almost seems to include an arbitrary element to his process. The result is a church structure that constantly turns to Luther for discernment as opposed to having a framework for corporate discernment. This, ironically enough, leads to a similar situation to what Luther was fighting against in the pope’s position as “Discerner in Chief.”

            Most obvious in these questions of discernment is Luther’s use of exceptions. He often starts an exposition of a verse by saying that this command should be taken literally. Eventually, however, he almost always arrives at a point where there is an exception to this position. For instance, when expounding upon Matthew 6:14-15 Luther praises the importance of forgiving our neighbor’s sin. He spends several pages espousing the importance of this command and calling on Christians to freely forgive those who have wronged them. Before ending, however, he raises the exception: “if someone refuses to acknowledge the sin and to stop it, but persists in it, you cannot forgive him” (153). It is the exceptions to the rules that seem the most arbitrary in Luther’s methodology. While always tied to his doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, this concept seems to be used in a manner that is not uniform from case to case.

            An underlying implication throughout “Sermon” is that both the papists and schismatics are disillusioned and produce false teachings. Luther, on the other hand, is the only one able to see and teach the will of God accurately. This “I’m right, they’re wrong” mentality appears in the exposition of almost every verse and is not supported with much more than Luther’s appeal to his own authority. While Luther always points to the word of God as the basis of his authority, his arguments are sometimes less than strong. While Jesus did say that the path was narrow and sparsely populated, Luther uses this as proof that those who have many detractors must have some added authenticity to their teachings. When speaking of how he has doubted himself when considering the multitude of those who disagree with him, Luther says:

          I myself have choked on it and thought: “We are such a tiny and poor little flock, despised and condemned by everything high and great on earth. Do we have a right to defy the whole world, to boast that our cause is right, and to pronounce the judgment on all of them that the pope and the bishops and all their supporters belong to the devil?” But we must overcome this and conclude: “I know that my cause is right, though the whole world may say otherwise.” (243)

The reader is left with the impression that Luther feels he is the only one not affected by an ideology in much the same way that Niebuhr points out that the Marxists view themselves in the same way.

            Two important and lasting contributions to Lutheran theology contained in both “Sermon” and “Freedom” are the ideas of the priesthood of all believers and the unimportance of one’s station in society. In “Freedom,” Luther uses the analogy of the Christian’s marriage to Christ as proof of universal priesthood. In swallowing up our sins, we are justified as well as gain Christ’s priesthood. This accounts for Luther’s anti-monastic vows—monks are no greater Christians than farmers or servants, for all are equally justified in Christ. This is an important concept that has done much to advance an “egalitarianism of righteousness” that was lacking in the 16th century church. Similar to the priesthood of all believers is the pronouncement that regardless of what one’s occupation is, it is how one approaches and performs that occupation that makes it holy. This concept was central to Weber’s connection of the Protestant work ethic to capitalism. In expounding upon the concept of one’s station in life, Luther says:

Every pious husband, servant, maid or faithful worker, therefore, must be said to have a station that is excellent, high, and godly. If we could evaluate all occupations and stations correctly on the basis of the Word, then everyone could teach and live correctly, and everything would go along just fine. The proper stations then would be those which God has created and ordained and with which He is pleased. And if God made it possible for us to get to the point that one city would have many such pious citizens . . . we would have the kingdom of heaven on earth. (257)

In this excerpt not only does Luther provide an elegant justification for the occupation of everyone from the highest to the lowest, but he also alludes to a Third Kingdom—one that is lacking from his doctrine of Two Kingdoms. It is this “kingdom of heaven on earth” that is perhaps the most important kingdom that Jesus preaches but is not given anywhere near the amount of ink due it in “Freedom” or “Sermon.”

            This Third Kingdom, luckily, is not forgotten by those who have followed in Luther’s footsteps. With roots in Lutheran theology, the Social Gospel movement as well as Liberation Theology would later pick up what Luther hinted at and look to unify the Two Kingdoms into one by realizing the Kingdom of God here on earth. It would be possible, then, to use the ethics laid out by Luther in these two short works as a building block, but not as a foundation. Using them as a foundation for a “Lutheran ethics” could easily lead to a system that does not bear good fruit—a test on which Luther places much emphasis. If the fruit is bad, the tree must be bad and vice versa. Whether Luther’s doctrine as he provides it produces good fruit or not is likely a hot topic, but in using Luther’s ethics as a building block or stepping stone, many of the proponents of the Social Gospel and Liberation Theology have been able to take many of Luther’s key concepts and put them into practice that produces good fruit.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Book Review: Michel Foucault's "The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Volume I"

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I've read bits and pieces of this from readers as well as excerpts for courses. This is the first I've read it from beginning to end. Overall, Foucault attempts to make three very broad points. The first is that there was never any sexual repression in the Victorian age to present. In fact, the exact opposite happened. Instead of forcing various sexualities underground to the point of non-existence, Victorian culture produced these sexualities through discourse. They talked about what hadn't before been talked about: "If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression" (6). Within this broad argument against repression, Foucault lays out three inner arguments:
One can raise three serious doubts concerning what I shall term the ‘repressive hypothesis.’ First doubt: Is sexual repression truly an established historical fact? . . . Second doubt: Do the workings of power, and in particular those mechanisms that are brought into play in societies such as ours, really belong primarily to the category of repression? . . . A third and final doubt: Did the critical discourse that addresses itself to repression come to act as a roadblock to a power mechanism that had operated unchallenged up to that point, or is it not in fact part of the same historical network as the thing it denounces (and doubtless misrepresents) by calling it ‘repression’? (10)
The first two he answers in the negative. A perfect example of the social construction of sexuality, as opposed to the social repression of an already existent sexuality, can be found in the medicalization of sex. Here is a perfect example of how physicians and psychiatrists helped to "expose" what had before not even existed:
So too were all those minor perverts . . . entomologized by giving them strange baptismal names: there were Krafft-Ebing’s zoophiles, and zooerasts, Rohleder’s auto-monosexualists; and later, mixoscopophiles, gynecomasts, presbyophiles, sexoesthetic inverts, and dyspareunist women. These fine names for heresies referred to a nature that was overlooked by the law, but not so neglectful of itself that it did not go on producing more species, even where there was no order to fir them into. The machinery of power that focused on this whole alien strain did not aim to suppress it, but rather to give it an analytical, visible, and permanent reality . . . (43)
Foucault spends a good deal of time focusing on confession and penance within the Christian traditional as an important discursive act that constituted sexuality in the 17th-19th centuries. It is through this pivot that Foucault shifts to his second major exploration -- that of power. Confession and power are intimately linked, as he shows by stating that "the confession is a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile . . . (61-62). For me, it is the section on power that is the most interesting. For Foucault, power is not something that is possessed and disposed of. It is something that exists in relationships. All parties can act out power, but there is often a dissymmetry of power. When that dissymmetry is consistently lop-sided, oppression results. It is also on power where Foucault is most easily understood. A series of aphorisms prove the point:
Power’s condition of possibility . . . must not be sought in the primary existence of a central point, in a unique source of sovereignty . . .

[What makes power possible is] the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power, but the latter are always local and unstable.

[Power] is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society (93).

Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared, something that one holds on to or allows to slip away; power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations. Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations), but are immanent in the latter; they are the immediate effects of the divisions, inequalities, and disequilibriums which occur in the latter, and conversely they are the internal conditions of these differentiations; relations of power are not in superstructural positions, with merely a role of prohibition or accompaniment; they have a directly productive role, wherever they come into play.

Power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix—no such duality extending from the top down and reacting on more and more limited groups to the very depths of the social body (94).
What is also important about discourse in power is that the hegemonic theme can often be turned against it. Power often has an amorphous motivation which can easily flip and become counter-hegemonic. Foucault illustrates the repression of homosexuality as an example:
There is no question that the appearance in nineteenth-century psychiatry, jurisprudence, and literature of a whole series of discourses on the species and subspecies of homosexuality, inversion, pederasty, and ‘psychic hermaphrodism’ made possible a strong advance of social controls into this area of ‘perversity’; but it also made possible the formation of a ‘reverse’ discourse: homosexuality began to speak in its own behalf, to demand that its legitimacy or ‘naturality’ be acknowledged, often in the same vocabulary, using the same categories by which it was medically disqualified (101).
Last of Foucault's major point is an abstract exploration of what he would come to call bio-politics. Here he refers to sex not for its desire or passion, but rather for its reproductive and economic ends. The state came to view reproduction as an economic technique. From this comes to focus on demography as well as the attempt to confine sex to reproductive ends. For more on this side of sexuality, I highly recommend the College de France lecture series "The Birth of Biopolitics."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Helping Our Brother's and Sister's

I'm sure my readership is in the single digits, but every little bit helps. Please check out this link and share.

Thoughts From Jeff: Bee's Needs

Book Review: The Theology of Martin Luther by Paul Althaus

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This is a long read (400+ pages), but you end up with a very good understanding of Luther's theology. Althaus cites Luther so much, both in the text and in footnotes, that it reads almost as a primary source. Imagine giving someone the task of reading all of Luther's Works and then distilling that into 450 pages. Althaus is more than up to the task.

I found the chapter on the community of saints to be particularly interesting along with being needed at the present time. The church catholic should focus on the community of saints and on the corporate nature of worship and faith. Luther's words on this prove helpful.

The common thread throughout this work is, not surprisingly, justification through faith. There are some very interesting tangents and corrolaries that at first don't seem like they have much to do with sola fide, but in the end are directly related. Luther's christology is one example.

Unfortunately, I discovered that Althaus was a supporter of Hitler. That opens up a whole 'nother can of worms. I'm not sure what to do with that information, but it certainly needs addressed.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What Does "Liberal Christian" Mean?

Is a liberal Christian simply a Christian who is politically left-leaning? Is it more than that? Which is more important to the person -- that they're liberal or that they're Christian? Or to frame it in Andrea Dworkin's term -- what is they're "identity of primary emergency"?

I can only answer for myself. But having communicated with and read work by others who either explicitly or implicitly bear the title of "liberal Christian," I think my personal answer can be readily generalized.

While I try not to identify my political stance with any party, I am certainly politically liberal. In many ways, however, my political stance derives from my theology. I am not liberal in one sphere and Christian in another (you can tell I'm Lutheran, huh?). Rather, I am liberal BECAUSE I am Christian. So to answer one of the questions above, my identity of primary emergency is Christian.

Another question above, however, is still unanswered. Am I a liberal Christian simply because my politics are left-leaning? No. Ignoring politics, I am still a liberal Christian. Liberal here points to much more than politics. It points to my theology as well. To illustrate this, it may be important to examine the liberal/conservative dichotomy through a different, non-political lens.

In many situations, "conservative" refers to a desire to either maintain the status quo or to return to a past model (either historical or imagined). "Liberal" refers to the desire to change the status quo to a model yet to be realized. It is through this dichotomy that I identify my theology as Christian. I am not comfortable with a Christianity where homosexuals are damned, all sex is limited to marriage, war as crusade is justified, the poor are oppressed by an ethos that views their failure as the desert for their effort, etc.

My theology is forward looking in the same way that Jesus's ministry on Earth was. I am a liberal Christian because I believe our current world is not good enough. We can change it for the better by aiming for a target that is in the distance. On the horizon. A target on the border between the present and the future.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Book Review: Christian Social Teachings by George Forell

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It just came to my attention that this book is going to see the light of day again in a newly updated edition by Forell and James Childs. The original version obviously doesn't have the newer material in it which should make for a great reason to buy the new version.

It also happens that this was the first book I had to read for an independent study I did on Christian Ethics. I had to write a 10 page book review on it. So this is going to get a bit long . . . but it might be interesting to SOMEONE (or not). Here it is.

     In this extensive collection of excerpts, Forell attempts to trace the development of Christian ethics from scripture through various primary sources drawn mainly from Christian theologians. With a brief preface by the author and introduction by Franklin H. Littell, this book consists almost entirely of these primary sources with minimal commentary by Forell. The bulk of work went into selecting and organizing these sources. Organization is accomplished by separating excerpts by historical period or common location (with titles such as “The Alexandrian School” or “Monasticism”) as well as by author (Tertullian, Augustine, Luther and Niebuhr for instance all have their own chapters). Considering Forell's intention to produce a reader, his minimal commentary is understandable. There are times, however, when the reader wishes Forell would do more to “connect the dots” or guide the reader through thematic similarities across time frames. Because these excerpts are organized by historical period and author, it can be difficult to recognize similarities or differences in thought between, for example, Augustine and Pope John XXIII. There are several ways Forell attempted to find threads running throughout this book and also some that I suggest may have proven beneficial as well.
            Forell begins by pointing to the relationship Christianity has had to society by establishing three separate paradigms: separation, domination, and integration (ix). The movement from one of these paradigms to the next coincides with the development of Christianity among a hostile population to its acceptance by the ruling power and finally the establishment of liberal democracy. While these three paradigms mirror the development of the relationship between church and state, they continue to appear in authors writing after the historical period of their popularity. Forell believes that the integration paradigm is perhaps the most difficult in which to realize Christian ethics. As he says “[w]hether this integration can be accomplished successfully without abandoning Christianity in the process is the ethical problem of our time” (xi). This focus on how religion interacts with society is also a common theme throughout the selections with different emphases placed on specific relations.
            With these specific forms of interaction in mind, it is helpful in identifying cross-historical similarities and differences by identifying several binary opposites whose ideas continue to appear in these selections. Among these are faith vs. practice, private economics vs. communal economics, and just war vs. pacifism. In viewing the selections with these pairs in mind, certain excerpts that may prove to be dated can become applicable in contemporary ethical discussions. Exhortations against slavery or Luther's condemnation of indulgence sales can easily strike contemporary readers as dull topics in our egalitarian times, but when considering the abolition of slavery as part of the just war vs. pacifism pair or the sale of indulgences as fitting into the faith vs. action dialectic, these topics can continue to inform.
Action vs. Belief
            With this in mind, I offer some highlights from the selections that speak to these sets of opposites, hoping to show that they both were important to the early church as well as continue to be important to the modern church.  The dyad of orthodoxy vs. orthopraxy has been an issue within the church long before the Protestant Reformation. Even before Jesus's Sermon on the Mount, the Old Testament addressed the issue of action and its motivation in belief. It is in three chapters of Matthew that Christian scripture first speaks of the importance of action. Jesus's imagery of the light shining for the world and the city on a hill are foundational for Christian ethics (16). This call to action is repeated in various excerpts from epistles, although the absence of any selection from James is interesting—especially considering its influence on later selections. Justin the Martyr continues the emphasis on action by stating that “[t]hose who are found not living as he taught should know that they are not really Christians, even if his teachings are on their lips. . .” (37).
            Soon after these early exhortations to action, however, Forell's selections offer a contrary perspective. Clement argues that it is not the act that is important, but the mind's intent which carries the virtue. In comparing the ascetic Christian life to that of the Pagan world, Clement argues that ascetics whose motivation comes from outside of a Christian life are at times doing more mental harm than good, while the Christian ascetic, along with renouncing worldy possessions, is also renouncing the worldly passions that accompany them. He states that, for the non-Christian ascetic, “after having unburdened himself of his property, [he remains] continually absorbed and occupied in the desire and longing for it” (55). Here, the act is not virtuous unless accompanied by the proper belief. This concept reappears in City of God when Augustine discusses the great leaders of the Roman Empire who performed deeds on behalf of the people and shunned greed in order to expand the coffers of the empire. The motivation for these seemingly selfless acts, however, was the glory and honor of the people. Augustine does not spare words when he says to “those who seem to do good that they may receive glory from men, the Lord also says, 'Verily I say unto you, they have received their reward'” (72). Informed not only by Augustine but also Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas arrived at the conclusion that, while the active life has its merit, “the contemplative life is generically of greater merit than the active life” (143). In the Aristotelianism of the late Middle Ages, the idea that the contemplative life can better inform the active life was widespread. In referring to Aquinas, Meister Eckhart points out that “what we plant in the soil of contemplation we shall reap in the harvest of action” (108). Eckhart is also notable for one of the few uses of feminine imagery throughout Forell’s selections. By using Mary as an analog for the contemplative life (as she sat at Jesus's feet listening) and Martha for that of the active life (as she served the disciples), he comments that the contemplative life is “good,” but the active life is “necessary” (108).
            Within the realm of rationalism there appears some of the strongest arguments yet against orthopraxy. In the long standing tradition in ethics of using extremes for arguments, John Locke invokes the “heathen philosophers” who visited the temples so that their priests could perform the appropriate ritual sacrifices. Locke's conclusion remains true for many religions that still place an emphasis on ritual over belief—the priests were adept at sacrifices, services and observing the proper feasts and solemnities, but they “made it not their business to teach [the laity] virtue” (244). Surprisingly, the excerpts selected from Luther show no focus on sola fide.
            One of the strongest proponents of putting faith into action included in this work is Johnathan Edwards. He counters the argument that doing good deeds will make one lazy from “resting on one's laurels” by pointing out that the reward for doing a good deed is the desire to continue doing good deeds. Throughout his exhortation, Edwards often invokes James—that same author left out of the selection process by Forell. Edwards is also perhaps the best arguer for social action based on Christian faith. Considering Edwards motivation for action, however, one must question if his method could not be improved. Calling upon the fires of hell as a motivator for right action seems incongruous. Could Edwards message have gotten even more traction among the people had he changed his motivation to the love of God as reward? Behavioral psychology tells us that positive reinforcement is a stronger method for modeling behavior than punishment. While many of these primary sources speak for themselves, this book may have been improved by soliciting essays expounding upon tangents such as these to help tie the selections together into the “big picture” as well as establishing ties between selections.
Private Economics vs. Communal Economics
            This dyad of economics also has its roots in the Christian scripture and has remained a contentious issue throughout the centuries. Along with the well-known excerpts from Acts (which Forell did not include), Justin the Martyr is again at the vanguard of early church leaders who spoke out regarding economics issues. For Justin, early Christians lived out a past life without Christ and a new life in Christ. Speaking about these new Chrisitians, Justin says “we who once took most pleasure in the means of increasing our wealth and property now bring what we have into a common fund and share with everyone in need” (35). The idea of communal property obviously did not end with Acts. Tertullian makes use of economics in The Apology but with a decidedly free market flair. By emphasizing the good that Christians do for the Roman economy, Tertullian makes no mention of communal property or the evils of private property. His is a pragmatic approach to economics which almost relegates it to a means without a central end for the Christian. While many theologians disagree over economics, Tertullian is one of the few to speak about it without granting it much importance.
            In Gerald Stanley's anti-monarchical treatise, Forell offers a view of communal economics neither tied to the ideal outlined in Acts or Justin's apology nor to the class revolt of the later Marxist thinkers. For Stanley, communism and strict egalitarianism are reactions to the political upheavals of 17th century England. Stanley offers an idealistic view of Christian ethics. His communist egalitarianism is possible because of the faith of its citizens. This idea of making the impossible possible will become a central concept to later ethicists who do not consider pragmatic idealism an oxymoron.
            About a century after Stanley, England saw a new theologian with an economical message that would resonate until the present. John Wesley's three-part personal finance plan of “gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can” is still at the heart of the Euro-American ethos. While many in modernity subscribe to the first tenet while gradually ignoring the remainder, Wesley was clear that the first two steps were means to the end of giving. The gain all you can mantra was advice tied to a warning from Wesley. He explicitly states that “to gain money, we must not lose our souls” (277). Wesley also warns that “we are . . . to gain all we can, without hurting our neighbor” (277). But is this even possible? Is it possible to create wealth from nothing? Can wealth be created without inducing suffering at some point? If the world is sinful and wealth is of this world, is it possible to gain all you can without magnifying sin at the same time? These are questions that Wesley does not address but are central to the legacy of his economic teaching. In a later excerpt, Wesley admits that economic inequality can lead to social inequality. Yet he never proposes that his own teaching to “gain all you can” might be contributing to this unequal distribution. Wesley's legacy finds an ally in American minister William Lawrence whose mantra was “Godliness is in league with riches” (331). Lawrence's rationale often comes straight from the playbook that Marx would later attack. Lawrence plays down the extremely rich as being anything to worry about. These multi-millionaires “are simply  trustees of a fraction of the national property” (332).  His assertion that “it is only to the man of morality that wealth comes” was surely well received by his affluent Massachusetts congregation, but may be a little less than accurate. Contemporary feminist theologians and environmental ethicists would also have a field day dissecting Lawrence's quasi-sexual imagery when referring to Nature's being “conquered “ by the strength of mankind which will also “open up her resources, and harness them to his service” (330). The fact that such arguments and imagery persist to the present attests to the power of the legacy of Wesley and Lawrence.
            The unfortunate either this or that argument was eventually reconciled with the middle road doctrine of the encyclicals of Pope John XXXIII. These writings were able to benefit not only from the centuries of Christian economical ethics that came before it, but also advances in economic theory that occurred in the early and mid-20th century. As an example of this practical reconciliation of diverse economic theories, the Pope realized that, because of its necessity, the product of agriculture must be priced at a level that all citizens can afford. An unwelcome result of this is that farmers tend to become perpetually poor due to low prices. Because the free market would not be able to support both low prices and reasonable wages for farmers, Pope John XXXIII points out that society must step in and play a role in the economy (458). The distrust in the Invisible Hand to solve all economic problems is tacit. Because of the shift in paradigms from domination to integration, the church is no longer the central power in society. The Pope's message implies that Catholics must be willing to accept their orders from their government as well as from the church, having trust that the government’s law are for the greater good.
Just War vs. Pacifism
            The debate over a Christian’s involvement in violence has been an issue for Christian ethics for centuries every bit as much as action/belief and economics have. From the “eye for an eye” of the Old Testament to the “resist not the evil doer” of the new, Christian thought has continually swayed from one side to the other. In Origen’s Against Celsus we see an argument for pacifism that presages the Reformation’s priesthood of all believers. Citing the military disinvolvement of the priests of pagan temples, Origen states “[d]o not those who are priests at certain shrines . . . keep their hands free from blood, that they may with hands unstained and free from human blood offer the appointed sacrifices to your gods” (57). He furthers his argument by pointing out that the priests time is better spent praying for the state than physically fighting for it (58). These are both timeless arguments for the Christian rejection of violence. They are soon, however, met with Augustine’s rejection of pacifism. Drawing upon the feast parable in Luke, Augustine views the “compel them to come in” verse as justification for the forced confession of heretics and non-believers (83). The hope was that, after compulsion, the wayward Christian would freely eat of the feast laid out for them. For those who refused coercion, however, the result was a bit more ultimate. Augustine’s greatest protégé Thomas Aquinas built upon the compulsion doctrine to determine that “if a man be dangerous or infectious to the community . . . it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good” (131). For Aquinas, Paul’s verse “a little leaven corrupts the whole lump” is taken to its extreme and Jesus’s command to “resist not the evil doer” is ignored. This bias towards punishment over rehabilitation is seen in Luther’s letter concerning his book on the peasant’s revolt. In it, Luther restates that those peasants who are hardened and refuse to submit should be punished through violent acts such as hewing, stabbing, slaying, and laying about them as though among mad dogs (165).
            The Anabaptist wing of the Protestant Reformation is the first school represented in Forell’s selections that witnesses a rebirth of the pacifist ideal. In the Schleitheim Confession of Faith the Swiss Brethren express the interest to shun evil and command sinners to “sin no more,”
 but to withhold bodily punishment, for Christians should reject “devilish weapons of force . . . by virtue of Christ, Resist not [him that is] evil” (185).  When addressing the question of using violence to protect the innocent, the Confession states “such an attitude [against the use of violence] we ought to take completely” (186). The Anabaptists were not universal, however, in their rejection of violence. In his Sermon Before the Princes, Thomas Munzer calls on the civil leaders to “get [evil doers] out of the way and eliminate them, unless you want to be ministers of the devil rather than of God” (189).
            The use of force on behalf of justice finds a clearly codified theory of just war in the Jesuit tradition. Suarez’s Disputation XIII: On Charity lists the three principles of just war as: 1) the need for the war to be prosecuted by a legitimate power, 2) the cause for war must be just, and 3) the method of prosecuting the war must be just (213). Here Suarez provides a use of violence for the sake of justice that must meet conditions that stands in contrast to the 16th century calls for unconditional force. This concept is repeated in Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum where “it is the duty of the public authority to prevent and to punish injury” (342). While this encyclical speaks largely of social order as opposed to war, the delegating to the government of the duty of punishing injustice is in keeping with Suarez’s ideas.
            Conditional war contributed largely to the development of just war theory in the 20th century. Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich are both represented as supporters of just war. Niebuhr espouses the benefits of the development of the hydrogen bomb, while stating that the military should not rely solely on the threat of its use (404) while Tillich believes pacifism has “theological shortcomings” and that armed revolt is the surest way to social change (416). Both Niebuhr and Tillich seem to fall into the fallacy of “pacifism equals passivism.” They believe that non-violence must also mean inaction. Given the publication date of 1966, it is questionable why Forell did not include any selections from pacifist movements that were successful in promoting social change. While Gandhi’s movement may not have been Christian, the influence on it of Leo Tolstoy’s Christian pacifism is well documented. Yet no excerpts from The Kingdom of God is Within You or What I Believe appear in this work. The rise of non-violent resistance in the Civil Rights movement is not represented either, even though its culmination in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” precedes Forell’s publication by two years.
            The extent to which the Second World War influenced Christian theology and ethics also raises the question “did WWII influence Christian thought too much?” If WWII could be imagined as an exercise in statistics, would the data gathered from it be so deviant that it overly influenced the average upon which we base our ethics? If WWII is viewed as an event that deviates from the “historical norm” too greatly, is it worth considering it as an exception that should not dictate a new rule? Much of post-WWII just war theory assumes the inevitability of the rise of Nazism and points to the horrors of the Holocaust and the huge number of lives lost across the globe. These assumptions do much to justify a theory of violence for the sake of justice, but if they are incorrect assumptions (was the rise of Nazism truly inevitable without the use of force?) then such strong support for just war over pacifism is damaged. If we accept the rule to be every war other than WWII and WWII to be the exception, how much would this change Christian theology and ethics from the end of WWII to the present?
            While Christian Social Teachings provides a concise yet broad overview of primary sources in Christian ethics, it could be vastly improved with a second edition. The inclusion of more excerpts from mid-20th century thinkers (perhaps while cutting back or eliminating the number of excerpts from the Monasticism and Romanticism chapters), as well as the soliciting of scholarly essays to help tie together the excerpts thematically could greatly improve this already excellent work. The bulk of Forell’s time undoubtedly went into selecting and organizing excerpts. The time spent on a second edition could take up where the first edition left off and complement the “reader” concept without adding too much to the number of pages. 

Book Review: Moral Man and Immoral Society by Reinhold Niebuhr

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I'm reading a couple things in order to add an extra angle to my previous Foucault/financial-meltdown paper. Robert Benne's The Ethics of Democratic Capitalism provides an interesting framework from which to analyze business/economics from a Christian standpoint. His framework uses Niebuhr and John Rawls as the two primary thinkers. Niebuhr's primary work on the relation of the Christian to society is find in Moral man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics.

In some ways, this work is similar to a movie whose trailer tells you the whole story. The title itself basically lays out the thesis -- individuals are much more likely to behave morally than groups. Even though groups are made of a individuals, something happens within that interaction that enables groups to do things the individual members would never approve of. The larger the group, the bigger the difference in morals as well. Niebuhr links this to an innate will-to-power related to his vision of Original Sin. The theological background for much of his ethical concepts can be found in The Nature and Destiny of Man which I have sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. Suffice it to say that Niebuhr views pride as a sin of idolatry. It is difficult if not impossible to shed this as an individual, but impossible to shed as a society.

Those interested in this book but shy away from it's length (277 pages) would not miss much if they skip some of the chapters in the middle. In my opinion, chapters 5-8 can be skipped without missing much. These chapters offer somewhat dated analyses of class struggle and a very-much-dated capitalist/socialist dichotomy which can become a bit burdensome. This isn't to blame Niebuhr -- at the time it was written, these issues were front page news. I wouldn't expect him to predict the fall of communism and the rise of oligarchic capitalism which has in many ways replaced socialism as the "second in line" to traditional capitalism. The question no longer is capitalist or socialist as much as it is unfettered capitalist or regulated capitalist. I think Niebuhr would laugh at some of the common sense regulations which get labeled capitalist these days.

While Niebuhr's work is definitely located in its time period, I'll close by pointing out one amazingly prescient paragraph. Niebuhr was obviously an influence on Martin Luther King, Jr., but Niebuhr's almost uncanny prediction of the civil rights movement is startling:

The technique of non-violence will not eliminate all these perils [discrimination]. But it will reduce them. It will, if persisted in with the same patience and discipline attained by Mr. Gandhi and his followers, achieve a degree of justice which neither pure moral suasion nor violence could gain. Boycotts against banks which discriminate against Negroes in granting credit, against stores which refuse to employ Negroes while serving Negro trade, and against public service corporations which practice racial discrimination, would undoubtedly be crowned with some measure of success.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Thesis Now Available Online

For those extremely bored, my thesis, Just Sex: Sexual Ethics for Twentyfirst Century Christians, is now available online through digital commons. Here is the abstract:

This thesis addressed nonmarital sex from a Christian perspective. It questioned the traditional rule of “no sex before marriage” and attempted to define a broader guideline for moral sex that is not dependent on one's marital status. It drew upon five sources for ethical reflection: Scripture, tradition, secular knowledge, experience, and moral discernment. By examining the Biblical commandments concerning sex, this thesis found that the inspiration behind many of the commandments limiting sex to marriage is androcentric and patriarchal. Because of this, the commandments should no longer be accepted with little reflection. Drawing on James Nelson's work, the importance of mutuality and proportionality in relationships was developed. Proportionality presumes that the level of sexual activity in a relationship is commensurate with the level of commitment. Mutuality combined with proportionality provide the foundation for an ethic that allows for nonmarital sex so long as these two concepts are present.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Romanticizing Outliers

So I've been watching a lot of How I Met Your Mother since Christmas break started. Netflix streaming has revolutionized watching TV. How else could you watch an entire 6 seasons worth of TV in a couple weeks? (Well OK, my wife watched 6 seasons of Bones in about 1 week -- but she made it a full time job. She doesn't read my blog so I can say that :)).

I love the show. Very funny. Neil Patrick Harris is great. But here's the problem: these people drink a ton and have a lot of sex. And I just said NPH is great -- he has the most sex. As an adult, I watch the program and I realize how silly those parts of it are. But at times while I stream it my teenage stepsons watch with me. And it occurs to me: do they think this is what REAL adults do? Are they going to think that people like Barney really are cool? Or that drinking a lot everyday is normal? That kind of scares me.

Surely there are people that drink that much and have that many sexual partners, but they're outside of the bell curve. They're outliers. Does the curve shift, though, if the bell thinks those outliers are "normal"? Some research shows it does. Market studies on sex on campus are an example (see Premarital Sex in America and here). But if we don't romanticize outliers, who are we going to romanticize? Life inside the bell simply isn't exciting enough, now is it? ;)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Book Review: Blessed to Follow by Martha E. Stortz

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I have run across Stortz's writing before in The Promise of Lutheran Ethics and Faithful Conversations. Her contributions to both were among my favorite essays in each collection. So I added Blessed to Follow: The Beatitudes as a Compass for Discipleship to my Christmas list. Not only did I like Stortz from what I had read previously, but the Sermon on the Mount is central to my faith.

This book is from the Lutheran Voices series which offers shorter, easy to read, and easy to use in group study resources for congregations and individuals. It's also priced right. Of the 10 chapters in this book, three stood out for me. The Introduction is an excellent introduction to Lutheran theology and cites Luther quite a bit given it few pages it takes up. The chapter on "blessed are those who mourn" and "blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake" stand out as well not only for their theological insights, but for the personal narratives Stortz weaves into her writing. In many ways, she reminds me of Dorothee Soelle who is able to draw upon medieval poetry and 60s folk music in the same paragraph.

There was one glaring omission. In the "blessed are the peacemakers" chapter, Stortz avoids war and peacemaking almost entirely, deciding instead to focus on interpersonal peace. This is certainly important and central to discipleship, but peace on the national and international level is equally important. I suppose the literature already available on pacifism and peacemaking is already substantial, but a nod to these works could have been sufficient to note how important the cessation of war is to this beatitude.

This subject also raises a few interesting questions for me. Is Jesus's salvific power found in his life or in his death and resurrection? Should we focus on his 3 years of earthly ministry or on his 3 days in death's bondage? I admit this is probably a false dilemma. After all, as Bonhoeffer points out, following the Sermon on the Mount inevitably leads to the cross. But where should our focus be: on attempting as best we can to place our faith in Jesus's message -- the one that preaches the beatitudes, or attempting to place our faith in the cross? I imagine a well-developed personal spirituality would resolve the apparent dichotomy. But I wouldn't know -- I'm developing as opposed to developed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review: Diary of a Player by Brad Paisley and David Wild

Just like his songs, this book is a great read. Laugh. Cry. Think. It's all there. And as much as they would like you to think that the main thread running through this book is the guitar, it's not. This is a love story pure and simple. Sure, one of the love interests is the guitar. But there's much more.

Before going on, however, I need to disclose how much I love Brad Paisley. And much like the story he tells in the book, it's his songwriting that speaks to me the most. I've said before that Paisley is the artist with the greatest number of songs that make me cry. Then. Waitin on a Woman. He Didn't Have to Be. Letter to Me. Anything Like Me. Then there's the songs that make me laugh. Online. Ticks. Toilet Song. Mr. Policeman. I'm Gonna Miss Her. Both lists are extremely long for an artist only a decade in his career.

Now back to the book. This book is a love story about a boy and his Papaw. Doesn't sound like a best seller, but this is country music. It's a story about a love for music. And a guitar. About staying up late trying to figure out, note for note, what some old geezer is playing on an old tune that only other old geezers listen to. It's about a teenager playing on a big stage with a bunch of old dudes but not letting it go to his head. It's about a love for tradition -- in both music and values. There's a love interest in songwriting itself and the process one goes through in crafting a tune. There's a love story about his wife Kim. That actually doesn't make up too big of a piece of the pie, though. There's the love of being a father. There's the love for Nashville -- all the people that make up the country music family both musicians and fans. There's a great story about the H20 tour and the Nashville floods. Lastly, there's a beautiful story about a Martin guitar.

This book is crafted in a way very similar to Paisley's songs. The only difference is Wild takes the place of Brad's songwriting partners. The result is equally emotional. Equally old-fashioned wholesome goodness. And equally country.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

There's No Such Thing as "Judeo-Christian"

It's a pet peeve of mine. The use of "Judeo-Christian" as if a Jewish ethos and a Christian ethos could be combined. As if any Jewish or Christian ethos were monolithic to begin with. Besides, usually when people say "Judeo-Christian," what they mean is "Christian." The "Judeo" part is usually added for political purposes.

The best counter to the Judeo-Christian myth that I've seen is by Steven Katz in his very hard to find book Jewish Ideas and Concepts: The Building Blocks of the Jewish Intellectual Tradition (and here). This is an excellent book and provides a concise chance for a Christian to get accurate info on the Jewish rabbinical tradition without the danger of Christian Zionists' poisoning the well.

Katz makes it clear when he says "the 'Judeo-Christian tradition' is . . . a 'myth,' and realistically speaking, from the Jewish side at least, there is little on which such a tradition could be built" (ix). Katz first refutes the myth by pointing out that viewing each religion as monotheistic is itself problematic -- particularly to Jews. While Christians view themselves as monotheists, any Jewish attempt to explain the Trinity as monotheism would require some theological gymnastics. Therefore, "it seems accurate to note that Jews and Christians cannot both be correct" (ix). So any Judeo-Christian tradition which attempts to be built on the monotheism of both religions runs into problems off the bat.

He goes on to point out that, while Jews and Christians share the Hebrew bible as canon, Christians read these books specifically through the lens of Christ's salvific power. The story of Creation is read with Jesus being present. Adam is a prototype for Christ, etc. The fallenness of humanity is also a requirement of Christianity if Christ's suffering is going to be needed to redeem us. There is nothing of this sort in Judaism. There may be the need for repairing the world, but humanity itself is not condemned to original sin in the same way as in Christianity. This anthropological difference also makes any attempt at a Judeo-Christian tradition difficult.

The Christian and Jewish concepts of "messiah" are also greatly different. As Katz says, "it is important to state that Judaism and Christianity can never reach any theological rapprochement over this crucial issue because the concepts of 'Messiah' and 'messianism' mean something different in the two religions" (xi). Later he states that "the clearest and most important example of this difference is found in the fact that the personal soteriological function which is at the very center of Christian messianism, i.e., 'Jesus died for our sins,' is totally absent from Jewish messianism, which accords the Messiah no role in the drama of personal salvation and judgement. This is a central refutation to the Christian Zionism so loudly proclaimed by preachers such as John Hagee.

Simply put, Judaism and Christianity share no tradition. Historically, the two have been at odds since Acts. There is no shared historical tradition. There is no shared liturgical tradition. There is a nominal shared tradition in secular philosophy and the arts. There is also a similar moral standard between the two. This gives rise to the "Judeo-Christian values" variant. While slightly more accurate, its reflection of the "Judeo-Christian tradition" myth still makes it fall a bit flat. The only thing truly shared between Judaism and Christianity is the Hebrew bible/Old Testament. But as mentioned above, both traditions read these books from a different perspective.

More important than anything else, this myth of a shared tradition -- especially a shared theological tradition -- can be extremely dangerous when found in the violence prone variant of Christianity manifest in Christian Zionism. As mentioned earlier, Hagee and his ilk being at the center of that apostasy. Simply put, there is not one single shred of Scriptural theology in Hagee's work. I don't care how many verses he puts up on the multi-thousand dollar LED screen behind him.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Book Review: A Concise Economic History of the World from Paleolithic Times to the Present

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I don't always have an inspiration for something to blog about. But I AM always reading. So I might as well offer my casual impression of books as I finish them. It's win/win. Whatever that means.

Just finished A Concise Economic History of the World: From Paleolithic Times to the Present by Rondo Cameron. The third edition takes us to the formation of the EU. I only skimmed the last chapter on 1989-1997 anyway so reading the fourth edition wouldn't have made much of a difference.

Overall, this was a very good book. Initially, I was hoping for more of a history of economic theory. More names like Smith, Marx, Kaynes, Friedman along with how their trains of thought progressed and evolved. While that's not what I got, I still enjoyed it. This would best be described as a history of the world through the lens of economics. Definitely more numbers in this book than theory. I definitely could use the info, though, as it has been years since I've had any coursework on world history.

One beef I have is with the title. This is DEFINITELY not a history of world economics. This is a history of European economics (re: "Western") with attention paid to other countries and regions only when their trajectories intersect the West's. It's also Not a history from Paleolithic times to the present. Cameron spends only a couple pages on the economic history from Paleolithic times to the ancient world. With that said, this book would be MUCH larger, if not a multi-volume work, had Cameron actually covered the entirety of the globe along with a full range of 12,000 years of history. In the end, my beef ends up being focused on his title and not the content of the book. A more accurate title would downplay the global as well as time period.

On Goodreads, I gave this book 3 out of 5 stars. The beef described above was -1 star. The fact that it didn't blow my mind would have given it 4 out of 5. Definitely worth reading. If you decide to, try and get the fourth edition. Let me know what's been added. ;)