The Possibilities of Power

51+0F7fKcdLOne of my newer summer traditions is to take on a substantial reading project.  Last year I read through the published chronological volumes of the Oxford History of the United States.  This time around, the summer months were dominated by one man: Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The project in question is called The Years of Lyndon Johnson.  Now running four volumes, author Robert Caro has been working on the more than 3000-page project for over thirty years.  Even more notable is that in all those pages he has still only progressed to 1964.  Considering that Johnson was President until 1969 and lived until 1973, there remains plenty for Caro to detail in the next installment.lyndon-b-johnson-color

The project is a relatively well-known and audacious one, and its sheer magnitude drew me in as an historian.  To spend the bulk of one’s life researching and writing about the life and times of one man is a bold and risky undertaking.  In reading Caro’s work, though, it seems the gamble has paid off.

Lyndon Johnson was not, we might say, a particularly moral man.  But then that’s not the point.  The point is that he was a complex man living in complex times that defined him and which he himself helped define.  His bullish personality, use of power, political skill, and the contradictions johnson2in his character all paint a picture that is as compelling as it is at grotesque.

Caro’s third volume Master of the Senate is perhaps the most popular, for it details Johnson at the height of his pre-Presidential political power as he guided the course of legislation by sheer force of will and political deftness.  Two additional sections amongst the four volumes stand out as worth the price of admission: one that describes the life of the citizens of Johnson’s homeland in the Texas Hill Country in the days before 1930s-era electrification and another that lays out the deep history of the United States Senate as an institution.  I well consider both of these worthwhile stand-alone essays on their subjects.

The most notable element in The Years of Lyndon Johnson, however, is Caro’s reflection on power: “Although the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals.”  Power shows, in other words, who a person really is.  For Johnson, this might be said to be a mixed bag.lbj_civil-rights-leaders  Power revealed him to be a domineering bully and a man of hubris eventually brought low by Vietnam.  But–and this is important–it also revealed him as a vital proponent of civil rights.  The landmark legislation he pushed through as President showed many in America who he was.  The fact that he had grown up in Texas in the first half of the 20th century and built his power base on oil money and southern Senators make his actions all the more surprising.  But then that’s how power works: it reveals.  

If Caro is right, there are questions to be asked about what power reveals in so many throughout history…and what it might even reveal in us.  Not just–or even necessarily–corruption, but perhaps something else entirely.  Who, after all, would we prove to be when faced with the possibilities of power?

A Return to Form

capaldiWith the beginning of the academic year here at Northwest University, I once again return to my traditional habit of reflection via blog.  It is something I have attempted to make a regularity during the months in which I teach.  During the fall semester, this has been a fairly firm practice; in the spring semester, things have tended to be a bit dicier.

It has been more than six months since I last sat to write an entry, and what a six months it has been.  Though the world remains the same broken place it has always been, the passage of time that has marked the immediate past year has, for me at least, been particularly troubling. 

A missing passenger plane.  Russian incursion and meddling in the Ukraine.  Another plane shot down.  Open warfare between Israel and Hamas.  Race riots and police actions in Ferguson.  ISIS running rampant through Iraq and parts of Syria.  The public beheading of a journalist.  The emerging narrative of a potentially moribund presidency.  The suicide of one of our nation’s most beloved comic actors.

There’s likely more I’m not recalling at the moment.  More to alternately sadden and concern us.  I realize that all of this makes me a bit of a bad news harbinger, and I’m sorry about that. There is good in the world–in ways both big and small–and I do believe that God is in sovereign.  It is simply that there has been so much…else going on this past half year.

And so, as I turn in the coming days and weeks to reflect upon, pray, and work through such issues (and much more) I hope that you’ll join me in this journey.  We may not always agree.  We may not see things from the same perspective.  But let’s do walk through this life with our eyes open, minds working, and hands ready, prepared to be not just fellow travelers but active citizens in a world on fire.

On Homophobia

I’ve been thinking recently about the word “homophobia.”  As our society has been rapidly–and very publicly–sorting through its feelings and perspectives regarding LGBT issues, the term has emerged with increasing frequency.  Broadly conceived, it is often used to refer to the feelings of those who take issue with, criticize, or attack homosexuality.  Considering the actual construction of the word, though, I have increasingly felt that it is not a helpful one for the national conversations in which we are engaged.

indexI took to Facebook yesterday to ask friends to “define homophobia.”  In response I received a number of thoughtful and respectful answers.  Also this Simpsons cartoon (I’ll let it speak for itself.).  Two responses stand out: one from a friend involved in counseling who noted that in 1972 one Weinberg “defined it as meaning ‘the dread of being in close quarters with homosexuals.’  More recently, both in gender theory and the mental health field, homophobia is understood to be “any negative attitude, belief, or action directed against homosexual persons (Hudson & Rickets, Journal of Homosexuality, 1980).”  Another friend (a lawyer), defined homophobia as “The position that lgbtq individuals are less human than you, and/or are not entitled to equal protection of the law, and/or are objects if scorn due to their lgbtq status.”

I think that all three definitions encompass part of what is often meant by the term.  Strictly speaking, “homophobia” would refer to a kind of fear related to homosexuals.  Much like agoraphobia (the fear of open spaces) and claustrophobia (the fear of enclosed ones), “the fear of gay people” would seem to be the narrowest definition of the word.  Often, though, the term is applied more broadly than this and is connected with those who seek to deny the LGBT community certain rights or heap scorn upon them in word or deed.  Even more expansive is the idea that homophobia can be “any negative attitude, belief, or action directed against homosexual persons.”homophobia11-10

While I fully admit that there are many in our country who interact in fear over issues of homosexuality, I would also assert that fear is not the only motivating emotion or perspective that defines their actions.  To say that everyone who opposes gay marriage or holds a certain religious or societal position is motivated solely out of a fear seems a bit unfortunate.  To use homophobia to refer to their position does not represent the full range of beliefs actually held, and it does not help in conversation.  After all, some people aren’t afraid; they just have a different opinion.  And then, of course, some people aren’t afraid; they’re just jerks.

This said, I do admit that for some who are opposed to homosexuality and its various implications, fear is a real part of their perspective.  Fear is insidious in that way and can masquerade itself as many things.  I also admit that regardless of what motivates anti-homosexual rhetoric and actions, a lot of the things that are said and done can come across as hurtful or hate-filled to those who are affected.  This isn’t helpful either.  But saying, in essence, that because someone disagrees with you they are afraid of you is probably also not the best approach.

In light of this, I think it might be wise for us as a society to invent a different term to use.  Different terms.  I consider the plural here because it is one thing to engage iRacism sexism and homophobia are not permitted in this arean hate-filled actions and/or dehumanizing rhetoric against fellow human beings that are homosexual, another thing to refuse them basic civil rights, and still another to have a certain religious opinion about homosexuality.  While I certainly don’t deny that each of these things can be felt and experienced as attacks by the LGBT community, simply labeling all of them as “homophobia” is too broad and-at least etymologically speaking–inaccurate.  Because even if the meaning of the word has moved on from its roots, the idea of fear is never separate from it.

So then: I’m sure that in just a few hundred words I have not adequately expressed myself.  In the process I’ve probably made a few assumptions that need correction or nuance.  I myself need to think more about what alternate terms would be helpful.  There is a lot of confusion, anger, hate, misinformation, doubt, sadness, reluctance, prejudice, oppression, and fear out there…and it is complicated.  I welcome your thoughts and invite you to consider what I’ve shared–agree or disagree–and suggest possible alternatives for our culture as we discuss such issues.

Super Bowl Thoughts

boeing-painted-a-new-747-in-seahawks-colors-to-root-on-seattle-in-the-super-bowlThe “big game” has come and gone.  In the wake of last night’s truly American experience, a few thoughts:

  1. Seattle: It was quite an exciting experience for me to watch the game at a party full of enthusiastic Seahawks fans.  As you can imagine, they had a blast watching their team demolish the Broncos.  The fandom here in the Pacific Northwest has been nothing short of pandemonium these past few weeks…and though I purposed in my heart not to be a bandwagon jumper, this game sorely tempted me to betray my loyalties.
  2. Denver: I cannot help but feel bad for Peyton Manning.  Here ysuper-bowl-xlviii-safety-seattle-seahawks-1.jpg w=600&h=425ou have the greatest offense in the history of the NFL with a veteran quarterback–and a bit of a comeback story–at the helm.  They were facing the league’s best defense in what, on paper, was sure to be an exciting and engaging matchup.  So much for that.  It seemed as if the whole Broncos team simply could do nothing right.  They were, for the most part, bizarrely bad.  This is not the game for which football fans had hoped.
  3. Bruno Mars:  Say what you what about the content of his lyrics, but admit all the same that this was one entertaining performance.  A live band, fun songsbruno-mars-superbowl-650-430, retro dancing and outfits–Mars had it all.  As he had a blast on stage, so too did we at home.  His brief minutes in the spotlight were just about everything a Super Bowl halftime show ought to be.  It still makes me get up and want to dance.  The Red Hot Chili Peppers, by comparison, made me feel awkward and embarrassed.  Sometimes you’re just too old for…whatever it was they were doing.  The fact that Bruno Mars was so good only made their awkward shirtless antics more unfortunate.
  4. Commercials:  Plenty of websites are rating and reviewing commercials today, but I’ll simply say this: as opposed to what I’ve seen in the past, this year’s slate of ads was much less sexually titillating and provocative.  To be sure, Scarlett Johansson and John Stamos did turn the heat up a bit, but even then we were miles away from some of the unfortunate antics of years past.  Even GoDaddy managed to avoid the Screen_Shot_2014-02-02_at_7.26.04_PM_large_verge_medium_landscapeobligatory provocative pandering it had been up to for the past years.  Especially when it comes to the exploitation, oversexualization, and fetishization of the female members of our society, this is a good step in the right direction.  I had fully expected to be writing a somewhat different post on the topic this week and am glad to have been surprised.
  5. U2: As advertised in one of the commercials last night, they’ve got a new song out.  While I don’t think it is their best, it does augur a few changes.  Let’s see what they can do with a new album this year.

Soul Meets Body

priscilla-catacombs3Each year our school runs its own “Faith in Humanities” conference in which students and faculty members present and discuss topics related to the integration of faith and various academic disciplines.  Recently I was asked if I would consider sharing something that I’m currently working on or thinking about, and after reflection I have decided I will.  It will be just a short 10-minute talk, with time for one or two questions afterwards.

I’m still pondering the mechanics of it all, but am planning on sharing some thoughts I’ve been having in my new course “The Church in Contemporary Society.”  Recently a question came up about how we might anchor our discussion of the Christian’s role in our society.  In response my mind went (not surprisingly) to the history of Christianity.  Specifically, a 2nd or 3rd century text called The Epistle to Diognetus.

Written at a time when Christianity was a minority faith in a pagan Roman world, the document contains some passages that helpfully frame the issue.  In some ways this is best represented by the following quotation:agapefeast05ql3

What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world.

I’ve tried this quotation out in two different forums.  Some feedback has been positive, while others have been a little concerned that the model as laid out draws too sharp a distinction been soul and body.  Dualism and the utter denigration of the flesh has, after all, often been a temptation in Christianity.

While I accept this criticism and have been thinking a bit about the implications, I also know that I like the picture being painted by this ancient text.  Plus, I think that what I mean has more to do with the fact that just like the soul belongs in the body and has a vital function it, so to the Church’s role in society is meant to be a positive and constitutive one.  I like 44363bfc6318d003490f6a7067008fafthinking about the role of Christians in the world not as one of domination or control, but rather witness and conscience.  All of this, of course, not of ourselves but from God.

As Christians we live in and throughout the world and yet look elsewhere for our final home.  We have a different horizon, even while looking from the same vantage point.  Our operating principles are different. We are called to speak to truth, love, and justice despite what prevailing wisdom may say.  And, as Jesus tells us in Matthew, we exist as light and seasoning in a world that needs it.  Even when it doesn’t want it.

If we can, as the Epistle suggests, consider our interactions with civil society in these ways and stop selling ourselves short by wholesale alignment with political projects (liberal and conservative) not of our own design, I think we can then speak with more authority and authenticity. I think it is then we can begin to be the “soul” we are called to be.

Review: “Bad Religion” (Part II)

1101480308_400In Bad Religion, Ross Douthat manages to be exactly the kind of figure that he decries exists no longer: the public religious intellectual akin to Reinhold Niebuhr or Will Herberg.  Though not a theologian proper, Douthat does offer some trenchant observations in a readable and winsome fashion.

The second half of his book focuses upon the heresies he sees infecting modern American Christianity.  From Douthat’s perspective, “the waning of Christian orthodoxy has led to the spread of Christian heresy rather than to the disappearance of religion altogether” (145).  Among these maladies are: 1) the rise of a “do-it-yourself” biblical approach in the mold of Dan Brown and the supposedly secret and revelatory Gnostic Christian texts, 2) the infectious power of money, prosperity, and the temptation to ally Christianity with success by the world’s standards, 3) the elevation of pseudo-spirituality and the “God within” in addition to the rise of largely therapeutic forms of 1101960408_400Christianity, and 4) the heresy of American nationalism that, depending on which party is in power can manifest itself pessimistically (apocalyptic) or optimistically (messianic).  His discussion of this fourth problem alone is worth the price of admission.

For Douthat, each of these heresies are ugly aberrations from the true faith that rob us of the power of orthodoxy and more.  It is worth noting that heretical thinking can affect both liberals and conservatives.  Hear his perspective, then, on the right place of Christian teaching:

The way orthodoxy synthesizes the New Testament’s complexities has forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post-sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well.

ralph_reed-the-right-hand-of-God-240x320This is wisdom for our time.  While not all of our American heresies may necessarily be represented, Bad Religion does a good job laying out the scope and stakes of the problem at hand.  Christianity–still a pervasive force within the United States–that does not embrace its birthright has little prophetic or helpful to say to the world at large.

In answer to the difficulties facing the Church in our society, Douthat proposes that a return to Christian orthodoxy would involve politics without partisanship, being ecumenical but still confessional, moralistic yet holistic, and inhabit the qualities of sanctity and beauty.  Holding onto these tensions is important.

Though probably a longer conversation than I want to have here, a not insignificant amount of this perspective is probably derived from Douthat’s Catholicism.  Protestants would be wise to listen.  It is no surprise, I think, that Pope Francis may be becoming exactly the kind of prophetic figure who inhabits these qualities.

Ultimately, Bad Religion is worth reading for its thoughtful reflections on the state of American faith and culture.  I cannot say I time-pope-francisagree 100% with everything he says, but the kind of wisdom and reflection he exudes here is desperately needed in a religious society with our problems.   Christians especially will benefit from his observations about the role of orthodoxy and heresy vis-a-vis the temptations of worldly wisdom.

Whether his critiques will lead to a revival of Christianity and any kind of return to a 1950s settlement is an open question (he does not guarantee it, and I have doubts on at least the latter possibility).  Nevertheless, naming and analyzing such heresies are valuable, even if only for the state of our own souls.  In this I am thankful for one of the final things he says in the book: “To make any difference in our common life, Christianity must be lived, not as a means to social cohesion or national renewal, but as an end unto itself” (293).  What happens after this?  Well, we’ll see what comes next.

Review: “Bad Religion” (Part I)

Bad-ReligionI’ve just finished reading a fascinating book assigned for one of my new classes.  It is called Bad Religion, and is written by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat.

In essence, the book is a look at the interplay between American Christianity and American society in modern times, with special emphasis on what he considers the rather depressed and malformed state of the former.

The subtitle of Bad Religion is this: “How We Became a Nation of Heretics.”  Borrowing Alistair McGrath’s definition of heresy as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith,” Douthat attempts to show how American Christianity has lost its orthodox prophetic edge in the United States.

To do so, Douthat spends the first half of his book analyzing how we arrived at our current state.  Beginning in the middle of the 20th century, he looks to figures like theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, BOOK-articleInlineevangelist Billy Graham, television personality and Roman Catholic bishop Fulton Sheen, and civil rights activist, pastor and theologian Martin Luther King, Jr.  For Douthat, each of these represent American Christianity at its height, exuding what he calls “confidence” (53) and an ability to transcend borders and boundaries.

Following this, he charts the decades that followed–the “locust years,” as he calls them.  During this era–beset with emerging concerns (he lists political polarization, the sexual revolution, global perspectives, the problem of wealth, and class), American Christianity began to decline and fracture.  Numbers declined in previously robust mainline and Roman Catholic churches, and with it some of the influential positions they had previously held.

In response, many mainline denominations headed down the path of liberal accommodation, finding along the way that this was not the answer to their losses.  Other churches (notably evangelical denominations and, increasingly, segments of Roman Catholicism) chose resistance to the changing times.  Though especially in evangelical circles this time period did lead to growth, the last few decades have also marred Catholics with the shameful sex abuse scandal and evangelicals with too close association with the militarism, missteps, and mistakes of the George W. Bush era.

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTSAll of this connects with the specific heresies Douthat feels we have inherited in our contemporary age.  (More on that tomorrow.)

For now, I’ll simply say that I find much to admire in Douthat’s thought, prose, and ability to synthesize and articulate a wide range of materials.  I felt as if I were reliving the entirely of my PhD candidacy (American Church History) all over again during the reading of this book…and in a good way!  It is a monograph I wish I had written myself.  Though as an historian I may question some of the claims he is making here (especially–as is often done–a temptation towards the pseudo-sanctification of the 1950s as the height of all things), his footnotes reveal that he has done his homework.

Douthat’s argument does remind us billy-graham-70that things were different in mid-century America.  Individuals with wide influence like Niebuhr, Graham, Sheen, and–especially–MLK bestrode America like Colossi.  The pervasiveness of this “consensus Christianity” was important, even as it probably covered over the differences that eventually disrupted it in the years that followed.  (Or was it perhaps–somewhat less dramatically–just simply apathy or custom that led American to be so “Christian” in the 1950s and early 1960s?)

In any case, Bad Religion‘s read of accommodation vs. resistance makes sense, and anticipates Douthat’s discussion of heresy.  The move from a  “both/and” to “either/or”  approach is one of these haunting developments, as is the emergence of optimistic utopianism…for once again, he asserts, we have confused the City of God with the City of Man.

(to be continued)