Tag Archives: politics

The Spiritual Discipline of Chilling the Hell Out

from xkcd.com

I have recently taken something of a  fast from the media frenzy. Now, that’s not nearly as drastic as it sounds. I’ve just noticed that, in my consumption of media (both 1.o and 2.o), I tend to feel like the little stick guy to the right. Honestly, I was just stressed and overwhelmed, so I decided on one simple policy: I would avoid blogs that ticked me off, would turn off the radio when I felt a story was getting me down, and would generally stay away from my usually frantic pace of media consumption.

So I spent some time away, and now that my life has calmed down, I’ve allowed myself to ease back into some of the things I’ve been avoiding. As I’ve done so, I’ve been struck by something that I’ve always known but never really confronted head on.

People are freaking out. About everything.

Politically, people are freaking out about the economy, about other governments (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea, China, Venezuela, Russia), about their own government (the Supreme Court, the other political party, their own political party, the President being too or not enough liberal), about diseases, potential conflicts, natural disasters, the environment, science, the constitution, education, and health care.

Culturally, people are freaking out about sexuality (either for or against a dozen different varieties), the young, the elderly, cultural changes, violence, business, and the media itself.

And the Christian world is no better. Everyone there seems to be freaking out too; about books being published, people of different theological backgrounds, people of the same background who aren’t similar enough, trends in church culture, trends in church polity, trends in how Christians relate to the church, trends in how non-Christians view the church, our declining cultural influence, our attempts to increase cultural influence, pastors, families, and the list goes on.

Those lists, I’m beginning to realize, have deeply warped my own heart. It’s easy for us to see demagoguery and fear-mongering in the other guy, but none of us have really escaped it. As I’ve dove back into the blogs and news sites, regardless of which ones they are, I feel my blood pressure rising and anxiety setting back in. Continue reading

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Filed under Casting Stones Straight Upward, Unsolicited Advice

Why the Religious Right (and Left) Can’t Succeed

Note: I owe a lot of this thinking to a recent book I picked up which I found helpful in distilling issues of Christianity and culture: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.

With a title like that, I’m sure you’re all expecting me to say something inflammatory.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, as I interact with Christians’ attempts to influence and shape culture (the true aim of both the religious poles – politics is merely an outworking of this), I think there are some fundamental misunderstandings of culture which result in misguided attempts to change it.

Both Christian liberals and conservatives buy into what we might call the “democracy myth” of culture. This myth supposes that culture is just an amalgamation of the beliefs most people share in common – as if everyone votes their worldview, and the one with the most ballots in the box ends up setting the agenda. Thus, engaging in a “culture war” primarily consist of convincing people to think correct things and then live out what they believe.

While I’m all for right thinking and right living, the democracy myth is patently false when it comes to approaching culture. It is much more complicated, in three ways. First, culture is not monolithic. Rather, it is a set of overlapping circles, some closer to the center and some to the fringe. The areas in which they overlap form shared beliefs, values and influences, but no two circles in America share everything in common. Thus, while certain cultural forces are represented in a variety of cultures (i.e. the New York Times, some genres of music), each of these cultural circles also have unique forces at work. Because this is the case, simply being a voice in a part of culture in no way guarantees that your voice will be heard in culture as a whole.

Second, cultures do less to instill specific beliefs than they do to erect plausibility structures – frameworks of thought in which certain beliefs are easier or harder to hold. There is a remarkable diversity of specific convictions within any given culture. Every human being is rife with contradictions. It is not that they live in the culture and wake up one day to discover that they’ve become convinced to change one of those beliefs. Rather, within this diversity, not all beliefs seem created equal. Some make sense to people, and some seem more and more unbelievable. It is this “sensibleness” which culture creates.

Third, culture is shaped by the interaction of cultural conservatism and cultural antagonism. When a voice seeks to speak into or challenge culture, one of two things can happen which could end up keeping the voice from being heard. On the one hand, if the voice is too similar to the dominant culture, the conservative nature of the culture will work to co-opt that voice; to use what it says to reaffirm the values of the culture it is speaking into, even if the voice would vehemently disagree with some of those values. On the other hand, if the voice is too different, it will fail to get a hearing in the culture at all. It will so violate its plausibility structure that it will be rejected out of hand. However, this antagonism doesn’t simply result in the voice being ignored. Rather, since values are defined in part by the other – by what they oppose or what they are not – such extreme voices will actually serve to drive the culture in the opposite direction. Thus, trying to change culture often results in it becoming even more deeply established, either by being used to prop up its views or to serve as the other to those views.

When defined in this way, I think it becomes clear why most Christian attempts to affect culture fail. We might categorize the normal modes of Christian interaction into two groups: opposition from without and relevance from within. Many groups end up using a combination of these two strategies, but they are clearly present – and neither of them can affect how culture actually functions.

The problems with the  “opposition from without” model manifest in all three of the spheres I mentioned above. First, it tends to view culture as something monolithic (and which it is outside). Thus, it often goes after a part of culture as if it was the whole thing, failing to see the complexity and gear its critique toward areas of overlap. Second, and more importantly, it tries to change beliefs without recognizing the plausibility structure in which they function. It doesn’t matter how many arguments you make or laws you change. If cultural forces do not work to make these arguments and laws believable to the people interacting with them, they are doomed to fail. The result of this failure is not just being ineffective, either. Rather, since those opposing culture from without tend to be the voices which culture is antagonistic to, they often become bogeymen used to scare people into going in the opposite direction – to affirm more strongly the very things that Christians want them to change.

However, this is in no way an argument for the “relevance from within” model. It fails on all three counts as well. It tends to be incredibly naive about cultural diversity, and so seeks to speak to “culture” by anchoring itself in one tiny circle, often speaking primarily in the unique areas of that circle rather than in those that overlap. What’s more, it tends to be incredibly naive about how plausibility structures work. It often leaps into such structures thinking that they can be adopted wholesale while still holding the right beliefs, only to discover ten or twenty years later that nobody holds those beliefs anymore because they seem, well, unbelievable. As a result, the relevance paradigm ends up being co-opted and used to make culture even more established, rather than moving it in the direction its proponents desire.

So with all that gloom and doom, we might be wondering, what should we do? I’m going to save that discussion for a post next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is this an adequate view of culture? Is there another paradigm of engagement you can see which addresses these problems?

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Filed under Jesus and the President, Uncategorized

Facebook, “It’s Complicated,” and the Tyranny of Simple Answers

From time to time, I still see them crop up on my Facebook news feeds: relationships described as “It’s complicated.” Sometimes it makes me chuckle. Occasionally (as in the case with certain friends I particularly care about) it makes me feel sad. However, it always elicits one wry response from some sardonic backwater in my brain: whose isn’t?

While I love being married, it’s certainly complicated. I cringe when friends ask me “how’s your marriage going?” – not because its going badly, but simply because I don’t know how to respond. Every day has a hundred moments of success, failure, discovery and frustration. Such is the nature of relationships, because they involve people. Glorious, messy, complicated people. I can give you the definition of the word “profligate.” I can summarize “Anna Karenina.” But I can neither define nor summarize Elizabeth. She is a wife, an employee, a Christian… but also much more. She is light-hearted and expressive… except sometimes when she’s not. And it’s not just her; the same is true for every other person that I know.

It’s not just Facebook and marriage, however. The fact is, life is complicated. The more I read and think about theology and Christian living, the more I think we need to recognize this fact. I own so many books that purport to offer “the” solution. “The” view of culture. “The” position on politics. “The” final answers on doctrine. In almost every case, the singular answer they supply is singularly insufficient to address the problem they confront.

I’m not trying to undermine the existence of truth – or even of Truth, as much as it might frustrate some of you. What I am proposing is that truth is not necessarily simple. In fact, it is necessarily as complex as the thing it is seeking to describe. It exists in propositions, but also in contrasts, tensions, and situations. There are true and false words for a given object, but the final word might sometimes be a sentence or a paragraph, a story or a poem.

Since I’m notoriously abstract, let me offer a concrete example. H. Richard Niebuhr, in his well-known book “Christ and Culture,” gives five different perspectives Christians have toward the broader culture (opposition, affirmation, synthesis, paradox, transformation). Interestingly, he argues that all of these perspectives can, at one time or another, be correct. While I might quibble with details in the book, this is a profound insight. In every culture, there are things Christians should approach in each of these ways.

This is because culture is necessarily a complex thing. It is not geographically consistent. Even within the same place, it comes in different shades and shapes. There are sub-cultures and counter-cultures. There are inconsistencies within cultures. To take one position over against the others is necessarily to belie this complexity, to pretend as if culture were a monolith rather than a mosaic.

The same is true in other areas. We cannot sum up Christian living with a simple purpose statement, because living involves a multiplicity of things. When we try, we either truncate life (as in those who separate secular and sacred vocations, or those for whom “spirituality” is a dimension of life disconnected from everything else) or offer a statement so broad as to be useless in particular application (it is true that I need to glorify God in all of life, but without complex application I still have no idea how to raise my children or what to eat for dinner). We cannot sum up church strategies with a single ministry model. Answering the question of whether to feed the poor, preach the bible, love the sacraments, evangelize the lost, worship God, seek justice or disciple believers with anything less than a “Yes” leads to distortion and error. In a real sense, we cannot even sum up theological truth in such easy propositions. God is holy, just, merciful, loving, angry, Three and One. Christ is our sacrifice, our ransom, our elder brother, our penal substitute, and our victor. While we can look at the relationships between these truths, we must not remove a single one of them or we become something less than Christian.

This point is important because we often live under the tyrrany of simple answers. We feel obliged to make our case for the eye, or the ear, or the foot, and to do so to the detriment of the rest of the body. This reality does not mean we should embrace relativism – if the body has cancer, we should not welcome it but rather cut it out. There are wrong answers to questions of culture, life and theology. But to deny every one of the above statements about God or Jesus is no more an error than to affirm all but one of them.

In practice, this means we need to constantly be on guard against either/or distinctions that pit truths against each other. This has come out a lot in my recent reviews of Brian McLaren’s new book. He constantly offers us the either/or. Either we must stop loving certain doctrines or we will fail to engage with the world. Either we must embrace all religions as equally good or indulge in discrimination, hatred and genocide. However, this is not an error he alone makes. It is rampant in our world, in our churches, and in our own hearts. In the end, this is where the true battle lies. The sort of brazen confidence we crave, the world where we can give our pithy answer and consider the matter settled, simply doesn’t exist. The beautiful thing about the bible is that it doesn’t require such a world. It is a beautifully complex book, looking at God and history from a variety of angles, different times and places, in different eras and through different eyes. It is complicated enough to deal with the complexities of this world, and it should be lived out no other way.

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Everything is Connected

I promise I’ll be writing some pieces on something other than politics and economics, but my interests and the cultural conversation cannot be sidestepped. So, here we go…

As the purveyors of folk wisdom tell us, everyone knows how to raise their neighbor’s kids. It’s easy. The irony, of course, is how miserably everyone does at raising their own. From the outside looking in, any problem seems simple. If we fiddle with A and get rid of B, everything should be set to rights. But on the inside, it’s much more complicated. A and B, it turns out, are part of some irreducibly complex, chaotic web of algebraic functions and symbols that would make Mandelbrot curl up into a fetal ball and cry. The truth about childrearing is that everything is connected. When you take your neighbors’ children out of the sterile context of your backyard and place them into the mess of life, with all the failures of communication, bad days at work, and emotional investments of real life… how the mighty inevitably fall.

This same issue consistently encroaches upon our social discussions. In small-town Nebraska, I grew up with what I lovingly call “diner policy.” If you walked into the local diner around mid-morning, you’d find a group of leather-skinned old farmers sitting around drinking cheap coffee. Between talk of football and crop prices, you would hear these men’s takes on how to solve the world’s problems. “If I were in Washington, I’ll tell you what I’d do…” And what followed would be a bombastic but common-sense solution to war, poverty, education, taxes, and the repair of human nature.

Of course, nobody pays much attention to diner policy. But give these farmers a degree and some grasp of literary composition (or, worse, a spot on cable news or talk radio) and what emerges is something much more nefarious: pundit policy. We get solutions which, while perhaps more insightfully realized or worded, are no less simplistic. One would think that, with such a collection of solutions available, the lion would lay down with the lamb and all would be well. When it isn’t, the blame is laid on politicians or members of another partisan group.

The truth, however, is that pundit policy fails for the same reason you (think you) know how to raise your neighbors’ kids: problems never exist in isolation, and neither do their solutions. Everything is connected.

Let me offer an example. I recently read an article pointing out that the amount of corn used to produce ethanol could feed hundreds of millions of people. Tragic, isn’t it? All those damnable SUVs guzzling up food that could instead feed the world’s hungry? Let’s stop production now!

But consider how we got to this place. Corn is currently a lucrative crop because the federal government subsidizes ethanol. The government took this course because of environmental and political concerns. Thus, the issue of ethanol subsidies are connected with issues including American relations with the Middle East, drilling for oil in nature reserves, the war in Iraq, agricultural and environmental lobbies, scientific study of alternative energy, and a transportation-based economy. When you consider that the decisions made in these other areas were made by politicians who represented an agenda including other issues, this explodes outward even further to accompany debates about taxation, abortion, foreign policy, religion… and I could go on. To be really honest about policy, we have to recognize that our current production of fuel corn is an unintended consequence of a million unrelated choices in every sphere of life. What’s more, any policy change we make to ethanol production will have just as many other effects in just as many other spheres. Everything is connected.

I say this not to recommend a certain course of action on ethanol. That’s beside the point. Instead, I say this because pundit policy never considers these unintended consequences. Their focus is always on one problem: starvation, say, or helping the American farmer. Their solutions usually do an admirable job of solving this problem.  And, unseen by the pundit, thousands of people would starve as a result.

I know this sounds intimidating, but it’s the simple truth. The price of oil effects Supreme Court nominations, and tariffs on sugar effect health care costs. While nobody can forsee all of these consequences (they’re called unintended for a reason), failing to think them through as much as possible is simply irresponsible.

With all that said, let me recommend three conclusions I think stem from this discussion:

  1. We must be humble and realistic about any proposal. We don’t have it all figured out; not even close. In particular, our insistence on thinking that we have all the answers while we haven’t even begun to wrestle with the magnitude of our interconnectedness is silly and repugnant. Chances are good our neighbors’ kids might be cussing because they learned it from ours.
  2. As a corollary, we must think through and introduce social changes slowly and tentatively. The world’s problems often whip us into a panic, but quick decisions out of fear are the most likely to uncontrollably snowball. Far better to fiddle with one knob than mash all the buttons at once.
  3. While I realize this conclusion will be more controversial than the first two, I also think this reality cries for as much localized decision-making as possible. Given the exponential number of variables, keeping decisions and their effects into as small an area as possible helps us see and correct for unintended consequences. In particular, this means that giving individuals all the facts and then allowing them to make up their own minds is more reliable than trying to figure out the answers for everyone at once.

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Missing the Marx

(A note to those interested: I might be blogging a bit this semester after my long hiatus. Stay tuned, but don’t get your hopes up.)

In a recent conversation with several people I go to church with, we ended up talking about the Beatitudes and the priorities of Jesus’ kingdom. In particular, we were discussing what Scripture had to say about the poor. Several things stood out to me in this conversation, and I think their relationship is particularly instructive to Christians wrestling with political issues.

As we talked, some people in the conversation repeatedly said that my position – that Jesus is using such passages to teach the priorities of the Kingdom in that God focuses His concern on and exercises His power through people and things despised and oppressed by the world – was Marxist. I found this ironic on two levels.

First, those of you who know me realize that my political convictions are anything but Marxist. My tendency is rather to sympathize with a Friedman-esque libertarianism that sometimes borders on anarcho-capitalism.

Second, this comparison shows something deeper about the Christian mindset, and this is what I’d like to unpack a little bit. I would argue that the dualism which underlies my friends’ assumptions about this text (it’s about spiritual poverty, it’s about offering the poor “Jesus” in some way detached from their physical needs) actually end up fostering and encouraging the godless, utopian political tyrannies they so despise.

Here’s what I mean. In a robust view of the kingdom it is through the church, indwelt by the Spirit and empowered by Christ’s resurrection, that change comes to the world. Since the church proclaims the gospel, it has the power of God to transform hearts and make the new humanity. Since she worships the God of all creation, this gospel transformation will reach into every sphere of life – experiences, relationships, economics, politics, etc. However, these spheres are all subordinate to Him. I can meaningfully speak into the political sphere because I’m not relying on it to accomplish something. I can long to make it just and equitable and free precisely because I don’t need it to solve all the world’s problems.

When we embrace a dualism that puts the worlds problems outside of God’s concern – when we believe God’s only answer to hunger is that we’ll be fed in heaven and His only answer to injustice is eternal punishment – where do we turn when the brokenness of this world rears its ugly head? If we can’t avail ourselves of the power of Christ, we must make use of idolatrous power instead. This is where Marxism comes back in. It is the dualist who gives license to its claims, because it is the dualist who cannot offer a more excellent way.

I have no need of socialism (or, for that matter, fascism or liberalism or conservatism). The God of Scripture cares for every human need – for spiritual intimacy and forgiveness of sin, but also for hunger and injustice and sex and beauty. None of our petty political deities can compare with Him, and none of their social programs can compete with Him. I still have political convictions, but they are now in proper perspective – as one goal of God’s plan rather than the means to accomplish it.

This is why, in my concern for the poor, I could never advocate Marxism (or any other political -ism). It shares some parts of God’s vision, granted, but it is ultimately unnecessary and counter-productive. God has given us the means, through generosity and love, through the Spirit and worship, and through our possessions and prayers, to address every problem this world faces. Every one of them. The beatitudes teach us that poverty must be addressed, but they also teach us the deeper irony – that the means of healing for poverty will come not from the halls of wealth and power but from what is weak and despised by this world.

A dualistic, “spiritualized” God cannot offer us a better hope than Caesar, but Jesus Christ can.

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Filed under Jesus and the President, Theologia

Not Just Over the Line – In Another Universe

The official blurb from Amazon:

“THE ONE BIBLE THAT SHOWS HOW ‘A LIGHT FROM ABOVE’ SHAPED OUR NATION. Never has a version of the Bible targeted the spiritual needs of those who love our country more than The American Patriot’s Bible. This extremely unique Bible shows how the history of the United States connects the people and events of the Bible to our lives in a modern world. The story of the United States is wonderfully woven into the teachings of the Bible and includes a beautiful full-color family record section, memorable images from our nation’s history and hundreds of enlightening articles which complement the New King James Version Bible text.”

This is just too much. I can’t take it anymore. This sort of patridolatry is inexcusable. If I try to comment on this nationalistic blasphemy, I’m going to have to delete this post, so I’ll just link to a review by Greg Boyd.

If you really want a taste of this baby, check out the promo video.

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Filed under Unsolicited Advice