Sunday, March 30, 2008

Little Kwik-E-Mart on the Prairie

As I mentioned last week, some Christians take the view that the proper approach to pop culture is to abstain from it altogether. Whether it be television shows like Lost, films like Juno, or music by bands like Death Cab For Cutie, if the subject matter is not wholesome and family-oriented, then it must be the (only other) alternative: destructive.

Some thoughts....

First of all, for those with tender consciences (the modern-day equivalent of those in Paul's day who abstained from eating meat sacrificed to idols) it would seem that the best approach to pop media is to not participate at all. "Happy is the one," says the apostle, "who does not condemn himself in what he allows."

Still, some questions need to be answered. For example, is the purpose of art to edify us in Christ? If so, then Lost or Juno don't exactly do the trick. But if not, then the degree of sanctification a program or film produces is incidental to whether or not it is worth watching. And while we're at it, can something like "sanctification" happen by the medium of film in the first place, or does it happen through the media gratiae, the means of grace? What I'm asking is, is there a tertium quid (third way) besides edification or destruction where pop art may find its purpose?

Further, is "wholesome family values" a proper ruler by which to measure the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of pop art? Have we conflated having nice, wholesome families with God's design for us in Christ, thereby insinuating that Christ died in vain? And if the answer is that art is appropriate when it points us to God's overarching telos for his creation, then does that only happen by citing positive examples, or can it happen negatively by means of counter-examples? In other words, can we "grow" equally by watching The Simpsons as we can from watching Little House on the Prairie? And just because a story is set in a context a hundred years ago, does that means its admittedly more repressed expressions of sin are any less sinful?

Will the Christian Family Bookstores in a century from now be looking back wistfully at such wholesome tokens of Americana as the Griffin family's Quahog, the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, and Colonel Kwik-E-Mart's Kentucky Bourbon?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Some Nineties TV Favs

A brief disclaimer: The inclusion of a program in this list is not an endorsement of all its content (any more than watching a baseball game betrays a tacit approval of “stealing” [of bases or other items]).

1. The X-Files: From the inversion of the traditional gender stereotypes (Mulder being the intuitive one, Scully the scientist) to the fact that it made “alien-human hybrids” a normal topic of conversation in the breakrooms of the mid-nineties, this show, despite it lasting a couple seasons too long, was awesome. Gotta love the Smoking Man.

2. Seinfeld: From “master of my domain” to “yada yada yada,” from “sponge-worthy” to “not that there’s anything wrong with that,” any show that can inspire so many catch-phrases deserves its rightful place in pop culture lore.

3. Space Ghost Coast to Coast: The concept is just brilliant: take old Hannah Barbera cartoon footage and edit it to make it into a talk show on which contemporary celebrities are interviewed. I loved the one where Space Ghost asks Michael Stipe of REM, “Hey Michael, is that you in the corner?” “Yes,” Stipe replies, “that’s me in the corner.” If you don’t get it, just move on.

4. Friends: The chink in the armor was Courtney Cox (she’s way better playing a witch than a nice girl), but the cast as a whole was superb. Chandler became a bit annoying once he fell in love with Monica, and Ross got a bit too goofy for my taste, but it was a great show nonetheless. My favorite line of the series was when Ross, who had moved and now needed to ride the train to work, remarked that he’d “been given the gift of time” to read while commuting. “That’s funny, because last Christmas I was given the gift of space,” Chandler replied. “We should, like, put them together and make a continuum.”

5. Freaks and Geeks: That little Jewish kid’s a riot. I just wish Ellen Page had been old enough to play Lindsey.

6. ER: OK, I get it that Dr. Ross left his day job as a pediatrician to star in movies like Ocean's Eleven and O Brother Where Art Thou?, but he could at least have shown up for Dr. Green's funeral for crying out loud. In all seriousness, this show kept my interest until about five or six years ago. Great cast(s), good character development.

7. Mystery Science Theater 3000: I’m still kicking myself for not coming up with this idea first. Under the right circumstances, the running commentary I provide on horrible films is top-notch. It’s just one of the services I offer.

That's all, folks. Cut me some slack for not listing ten, I was overseas serving the Lord during most of the decade while you all were sitting on the couch watching TV....

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Abstinence, Indulgence, and Speaking the Lizingua Francizzle

Well, I'm a bit bored with Sam Harris, and if the dearth of interaction is any indication, so are you. Ever the one to chameleonically adapt to the whims of the people, I'll take an open-ended haitus from dissecting Letter to a Christian Nation and turn our attention to something that our Friday Features have got me thinking about.

Let's talk about the Christian and pop culture.

There are a few schools of thought with respect to this issue. There are those who see no middle ground between abstinence and abuse. For these folks, any indulgence in secular culture, be it film, television, or music, is threatening and potentially harmful to one's spiritual life. Curiously, this rarely applies to non-Christian books (provided they're old) or sports. But I digress....

Others embrace the whole pop culture thing, often under the guise of what they call "incarnationalism" or "contextualization." By this they mean that since Jesus embodied the gospel in a form that his people could relate to and understand (i.e., that of a Jewish man), we must follow his lead and seek to speak to our culture in its own lingua franca and with its own adopted forms. As long as they're white.

Still others either refrain from pop culture for non-spiritual reasons such as taste, time, or lack of interest, or engage in it for equally non-spiritual reasons such as, well, liking it.

What do you think? Is "this much" too much, or is "too much never enough"? Are certain media acceptable while others out of bounds? How may one's engagement in pop culture, or lack thereof, benefit/harm his spiritual life? Are there discernable and/or distinct trends among evangelicals and the Reformed?

And can we ignore the role our eschatology plays in all this?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Thou Shalt Not Commit [Yawn...] Adultery

In his Letter to a Christian Nation, Sam Harris next turns his sights on the supposed indispensibility of the Decalogue for shaping a nation's moral character. He notes that the first four commandments "have nothing whatsoever to do with morality," but rather forbid all non-Judeo-Christian expressions of worship (on pain of death, he adds). Commandments 5-9 do address morality, Harris concedes, but he then expresses doubt about whether anyone obeys these commands because of the commands themselves, since:
"Admonishments of this kind are found in virtually every culture throughout recorded history.... It seems rather untimely, therefore, that the average American will receive necessary moral instruction by seeing these principles chiseled in marble whenever he enters a courthouse."
Harris then points out that if God exists and is to be taken seriously, then we must admit that we his creatures are not free to only obey the commands we like while disobeying the ones we dislike, nor can he simply relax the penalties he has imposed for our breaking his commands.

A few thoughts:

1. Sam Harris has a greater appreciation for common grace and natural law than many evangelical and Reformed believers today.

2. Though he wouldn't state it in this way, Harris rightly points out that the Decalogue, as such, is not "the moral law," but is a summary of that law covenantally formulated for those to whom it was originally given.

3. Unlike many non-believers, Harris actually sees the law (whose works are hardwired into him) not as suggestions to improve his earthly life while threatening no ill-effects if ignored, but as non-negotiable and inflexible expressions of who God is (if he existed).

4. But like all non-believers, Harris cannot fathom the transition from an obviously broken law to a program of redemption according to which the law's demands are honored, God's justice retained, and yet sinners are pardoned.

So I give Harris a point against the evangelicals for recognizing that a Judeo-Christian ethic is not indispensible for a just society, but the theonomic Reformed fare no better than their fundamentalist counterparts within evangelicalism on this score. Give Sam another point for recognizing the spiritual nature of the law and the serious consequences for breaking it, but as expected, he gets no points for recognizing a gospel he is blinded from seeing anyway.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Ten Killer Albums of the Nineties

For our Friday Feature we will transition from the Eighties to the Nineties. Now I realize that some of you are, well, old, but please try to keep up, mmkay?

1. OK Computer (Radiohead): No need to defend this one I trust. Plus, "Exit Music (For a Film)" is really haunting and beautiful.

2. Urban Hymns (The Verve): What happened to these guys? "And I'm a million different people from one day to the next...", what a great line.

3. Achtung Baby (U2): The best song on this album, which is also the least appreciated, is "So Cruel": "Between the horses of love and lust we are trampled underfoot."

4. Nevermind (Nirvana): I was never a huge grunge guy, but I'd never live down the abuse if I left this one off. Plus, after Kurt sang "here we are now, entertain us!", we all knew that what would never entertain us again was guys in lipstick and spandex.

5. August and Everything After (Counting Crows): Their only really good album. Didn't this guy date, like, all the girls from Friends at one time or another?

6. Jagged Little Pill (Alanis Morrisette): Love her or hate her, Alanis brought a scary dose of girl anger to the airwaves (that guy from Full House is still holed up in a bunker I bet). She paved the way for Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, and all those cool girl singer/songwriters who enjoyed such success until 1998 when someone put on a schoolgirl uniform and went "Hey-yey-yey-yey-yey-yey!"

7. (What's the Story) Morning Glory (Oasis): Long live the fab four redux.

8. No Need to Argue (The Cranberries): Dolores O'Riordon has such a unique voice, and she's pretty fearless. Listen to "Zombies" and you'll see what I mean.

9. Tragic Kingdom (No Doubt): How can I not include these fellow Orange County locals? Who else would immediately recognize the words from the beginning of Track 14 ("Remain seated please. Permanecer sentados por favor") as being from the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland?

10. Third Eye Blind (Third Eye Blind): These guys went way downhill after this one, but their debut's a keeper for sure (for "Semi-Charmed Life" alone, although the whole things great).

Honorable mentions go to Tidal by Fiona Apple, Dookie by Green Day, and Before These Crowded Streets by The Dave Matthews Band.

OK, discuss....

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Sam Harris needs a good, confessional, two-kingdoms suckerpunch (given in the love of Christ, of course). With every page I read of his Letter to a Christian Nation, the more I wish I could spend some time with him to administer that, umm, corrective myself.

The next section of his book deals with ethics. He remarks that "the idea that the Bible is a perfect guide to morality is astounding, given the contents of the book." He then goes on to cite all those verses about parents hitting their kids with rods, Israel chucking rocks at a guy for picking up sticks on the wrong day of the week, and how we should be nice to our slaves (unless, of course, they irritate us). The New Testament, he argues, doesn't offer much by way of improvement (despite the Golden Rule, which Harris likes but points out was somewhat well-worn by the time Jesus came on the scene). He then admits that someone like Martin Luther King is often seen as "the best exemplar of [the Christian] religion." The problem with this view, Harris argues, is that King learned his nonviolence not from Jesus but from Mohandas Gandhi. "The doctrine of Jainism," Harris concludes, "is an objectively better guide for becoming like Martin Luther King Jr. than Christianity is."

Where to begin?

Oh! I know: how about with the fact that Harris has no idea what the point of Christianity actually is?

Now, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he has been spending too much time with those evangeliberals whose entire understanding of Scripture is that it is essentially the same as William Bennett's Book of Virtues, only with a leather cover and those thumb-index thingies.

If I could explain one thing to Harris, as well as to the theonomists, Christian Nationalists, and others who have been fueling his crusade, I would say that the Bible is not intended to be read as a "perfect guide to morality," neither is the aim of Christianity to make the world a kinder, gentler place for our kids to grow up in. In fact, our religion is pretty useless for just about everything short of re-doing what mankind ruined by summoning a new, heavenly city from the ashes of the earthly one.

To put it more simply, I would explain the difference between the law and the gospel, (and hint: neither of them asks, "What Would Martin Luther King Do?").

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Can Harris Habeas the Corpus Christi?

As we continue to consider Sam Harris's attempt to "demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity" in his book Letter to a Christian Nation, we come now to a glaring flaw in his argument. Part of the problem is that Harris is confused about whom he is attacking, as should be apparent when he writes:
"Consider: every devout Muslim has the same reasons for being a Muslim that you have for being a Christian.... The Koran repeatedly declares that it is the perfect word of the creator of the universe. Muslims believe this as fully as you believe the Bible's account of itself."
Harris asks his readers why they don't lose sleep about whether to convert to Islam since they (most likely) cannot prove that Gabriel did not appear to Muhammad in his cave and give him his commission. The burden of proof, he says, is not on you to disprove it, but on them to prove it, which they cannot do. Well, since you know what it's like to be an atheist with respect to Islam, you can now hopefully understand why Harris is one with respect to Christianity, as well as all other religions that rest on an unsubstantiated and unverifiable claim to divine authority.

It is at this point that Harris's confusion becomes apparent. A typical evangelical would have a difficult time responding to this argument since his faith is largely based upon his experience of Jesus not unlike that of the Muslim (or the Mormon for that matter). But if Harris's opponent is, as he claims, someone who believes in Christianity "because it is true" (such as a confessionalist), then this argument presents no problem at all.

I believe the doctrines of Christianity because Jesus rose from the dead, not because he was visited by some angel in his secret bat-cave and then wrote a tell-all book about it later. The resurrection of Christ is something so profound that it has not only not been disproven (even by his enemies immediately afterward, or for 2000 years since), but it immediately, as in a few weeks later, began to alter the course of history.

To put it another way, Christianity, unlike Islam or any other religion, is instantly disproveable. So if Harris can habeas the corpus Christi, then he will have succeeded in his aim of destroying the Christian religion. But even if he can and does, he still will have been wrong that we believed for the same reason that Muqtada al-Sadr does.

Atheists 1, confessionalists 1, evangelicals 0.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Atheists 1, Evangelicals 0

An atheistic friend of mine approached me at a coffeehouse the other day and dropped a book on the table that he had just finished. I glanced at the title and read: Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, a New York Times bestselling author.

Harris's primary purpose for this little volume, he says,
"... is to arm secularists in our society, who believe that religion should be kept out of public policy, against their opponents on the Christian Right.... I have set out to demolish the intellectual and moral pretensions of Christianity in its most committed forms" (viii, ix).
In Chapter One, Harris sets the stage for his case by pointing out, helpfully, that the Christian he is arguing against believes the teachings of the Bible not because they make him feel good, but because he believes they are true. Furthermore, Harris concedes, if these doctrines are indeed true, then he will spend eternity in hell for rejecting them with contempt and encouraging others to do the same: "If the basic tenets of Christianity are true, then there are some very grim surprises in store for nonbelievers like myself."

How's that for honesty?

Before I begin my series of posts interacting with Harris's book, I must point out that this author seems to understand the issues involved in the debate over the Christian faith with more clarity than most evangelicals do. If Christian Smith's study of the religion of American teens is any indication, the adherents of what he calls "moralistic therapeutic deism" would stare blankly through glossed-over eyes at the suggestion that they believe in Christianity "because it is true." Even if "truth" were a valid category to judge a religious faith, it is beside the point, most evangelicals would argue. Jesus makes them happy.

Score 1 for the atheists.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Top Films of the Eighties

In no particular order, here are the best films of the 1980's....

1. Fletch: Chevy at his best. No slapstick, just good ol' fashioned sarcasm. And if your favorite scene is where he dreams he's playing for the Lakers and Chick Hearn says that he's "six-five, with the afro six-nine," then your sense of humor has been weighed and found wanting. Just stick to Vacation....

2. The Untouchables: Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, and Andy Garcia at their finest. 1634 Racine will be forever haunted after that bad guy "brought a knife to a gun fight."

3. Say Anything: The last great film of the decade. The only thing that would have made it better is if Lloyd Dobbler (played by John Cusack) has spoken directly to the camera. Kind of like....

4. Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "'Something-D-O-O economics? Voo-Doo economics." Ben Stein's cameo was worth the price of admission (which was like $3.00 back then).

5. Top Gun: I love it when people's egos write checks their bodies can't cash. I also love it when Maverick says, "That's clasified; I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you."

6. Pretty in Pink: If The Psychedelic Furs perform the theme song of a film by the same title, it's going in my top ten, so just deal with it. Plus, it's directed by John Hughes. As was....

7. The Breakfast Club: Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me" is one of the best songs of the decade, and John Bender's character was pretty unforgettable (which is fitting). The best line of the film was Judd Nelson to Emilio Estevez, who played Andrew the wrestler: "You know, I wanna be just... like... you. I figure, all I need's a labotomy and some tights." And Carl the janitor? He should have his own TV show. (Maybe he does, and it's called Scrubs).

8. The Empire Strikes Back: The best of the six (and the one with which George Lucas had the least to do). Did you know that after Princess Leia told Han Solo, "I love you," that Harrison Ford improvised his response, "I know"?

9. Lethal Weapon II: It's not every day that a sequel beats out its predecessor, but this one did in my view. Martin Riggs's character got way more complex, and the bad guys are just so evil (and racist). I love when Clapton's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" plays after Mertaugh gets shot.

10. Raiders of the Lost Ark: The most powerful line is where Indiana and Marcus are studying the lore surrounding the ark of the covenant, and after seeing an illustration of the wrath of God falling upon his disobedient people, Indy exclaims, "Good God!" His colleague retorts, "That's what the Hebrews thought."

Honorable mention goes to Back to the Future, E.T., and Hoosiers.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

It's All Fun and Games Until the Malediction

Building upon my last post in which I began to consider Romans 7:14-25, I would now like to answer the question, "Why, exactly, did the Mosaic law produce such despair in its subjects?"

The answer, I would argue, is found in the works principle that clings to the entire Old Covenant. I realize that it is not uncommon to hear Reformed theologians muse about "the law" and how it functions in a covenant of works versus in a covenant of grace, but since I understand law as being itself covenantal, I can't help but see "Do this and live" as being part and parcel of the law of Moses as a whole. In short, we cannot wrest the kinder, gentler bits of the Mosaic law from their broader covenantal context.

Stephen Westerholm writes:

The Sinaitic legislation was accompanied by promises and sanctions, and Paul includes these when he speaks of the law. Thus the law offers life to those who perform its commands (Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12; cf. Rom. 2:13, 25; 7:10), while it pronounces a curse on transgressors (Gal. 3:10, 13). When the law has been transgressed, its curse becomes operative, so that the law of God, like sin and death, can be personified as a hostile power from which people need deliverance (Rom. 4:5; cf. 5:20; 7:6).
If I've said it once I've said it, like, eight times, but there's no better way to kill a person's buzz than by threatening to kill him and his family (which is what the law does).

Given the fact that Moses' commands are always accompanied with God's maledictory oath to curse the transgressor, is it any wonder that the subject of Romans 7 is so defeated?

Sunday, March 09, 2008

A Tale of Two Struggles

I just preached on Romans 7:14-25, and it really struck me this past week how different the struggle in this chapter is from the one described in Galatians 5:16-18.

The former is a struggle between who the subject is and who he desires to be. The latter, on the other hand, is a struggle between who the subject is and who he was but is no longer.

In Romans 7, the "wretched man" says the following about himself: he is carnal (v. 14); he is sold as a slave to sin (v. 14); he has been taken captive by indwelling wickedness (v. 23); and he is powerless against temptation (v. 18). In a word, when the war is waged between his will-power to obey the law and his native corruption, the best defense he can muster is the ability to serve God in his head while sinning with his body (v. 25).

The subject of Galatians 5, however, has been "for freedom set free" by Christ (v. 1), is "called to freedom" (v. 13), is "led by the Spirit" and is consequently "not under the law," for he "belongs to Christ Jesus" (v. 24), has "crucified the flesh" (v. 24), "lives by the Spirit" (v. 26), and is therefore called to "walk by the Spirit" (v. 26).

Furthermore, the struggle in Romans 7 is a battle between ego and nomos ("I" and "law"), while the conflict in Galatians 5 is between sarx and pneuma ("flesh" and "Spirit").

And finally, in Romans 6:14 Paul draws the direct connection between being under the Mosaic law and being under sin's dominion. Now if the subject of Romans 7 explicitly claims to be under sin's dominion, we have no choice but to conclude that he is therefore under the Mosaic law. The Galatians, however, are explicitly told that they are not under the law, but rather, they are led by the Spirit.

So yes, two very real struggles are depicted in these texts. But one is from the perspective of a carnal slave who wishes he could be spiritual but can't, while the other is from the standpoint of a Spirit-led son who keeps forgetting who he is, and falling back into what he used to be.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Totally Tubular TV

Fridays are notoriously slow blog days, and yet lo! and behold!, our new Friday feature last week raked in a whopping 42 comments in a single day. Apparently where your treasure is, there your blogging will be also.

That said, I give you, in no specific order, the ten most tubular TV shows of the Eighties:

1. The A-Team: Imprisoned by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit, they promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground where they survive as soldiers of fortune. How they do it is anyone’s guess since they have never succeeded in actually shooting anyone with those guns they carry around.

2. Family Ties: Before they brought in Andy (who grew like four years over the course of a single summer), and before Tina Yothers’s head got really massive, this show was top-notch. Remember A.P.K.’s framed photo of Nixon by his bedside? And the bleeding heart of Steven Keaton cannot but shine as a beacon even still. And Scott Valentine’s Nick will live on for years to come, whispering in our hour of distress, “Hey. Al-lex.”

3. Manimal: Some guy turns into a panther for some reason. ‘Nuff said....

4. Mr. Belvedere: No more drips on the china or drop-kicking your jacket when you come through the door (who does that?), not on Lynn Belvedere’s watch. Brice Beckham really lit up the small screen as Wesley, whose perpetual battle with Mr. Belvedere should forever retain its rightful place in television history.

5. Diff’rent Strokes: Started out great, until Mr. Drummond changed his name to “George,” married some woman named “Ma’am,” and started calling his oddly small adopted black kid “Webster.”

6. Life Goes On: The Cork abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that—knowing Corky’s out there, takin’ her easy for all us sinners.

7. The Master: Lee Van Cleef as John Peter McCallister was just brilliant, with Timothy Van Patton as Max, the apprentice with the shady van complete with hamster and wheel. What is it about Dutch guys and Kung-Fu fighting?

8. The Facts of Life: When the boys you used to hate, you date, I guess you’d best investigate the facts of life (been sayin’ it for years). Remember the pre-Jo Polniaczek days when Tootie wore skates and Molly Ringwald was in the cast? And did you know that Nancy McKeon’s brother played Tommy on Alice?

9. It’s Your Move: Jason Bateman at his finest. A career like his is sort of above scrutiny, but I’m sure we’d all agree that he really hit his stride in those post-Silver Spoons, pre-Valerie days. Gotta love the Dregs of Humanity.

10. Knight Rider: Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless (too bad Zrim couldn't convince him that only Kuyperians believe in helping people and improving society). By the way, anyone remember the pilot where Michael and K.I.T.T. looked different?

Enjoy the nostalgia....

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Overthrow at the End of the Ages?

Let's get back to some theology, shall we?

There has been a good discussion over at Green Baggins about the nature of apostasy under the New Covenant. As you may know, our friends in the Federal Vision love to appeal to Paul's warning in I Corinthians 10 to demonstrate that the Old and New Covenants are virtually the same with respect to our experience of divine grace and the ability to resist temptation.

To the text....

What I find interesting is that, after telling his readers that Israel's "overthrow" in the wilderness is "written down for their instruction," Paul reminds the Corinthians that it is upon them that "the ends of the ages have come" (v. 11). He then warns them against haughtiness, after which he assures them that God will be faithful to his promises to them, not allowing them to be tempted beyond their ability, but with every temptation will provide a means of escape (v. 13). Then in vv. 14ff he starts talking about the Lord's Supper.


There are passages in which Paul highlights continuity exclusively, and there are passages in which he focuses strictly upon discontinuity, but this is one of those texts where he expresses both (with the weight toward the former, to be sure).

But even here, where he draws an analogy between Israel's overthrow and our temptations, the apostle cannot resist mentioning that we are set apart from those who went before us in that the Spirit of the risen Christ has descended upon the New Covenant people of God and has served as a "Helper" in the midst of temptation.

My point is that we can no more easily draw a line straight from the Old Covenant community to ourselves than we can assume, without proving, that the only difference between the subject of Romans 7 and that of Romans 8 is his mood, disposition, or degree of covenant faithfulness.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Review of Kingdom Coming

This review of Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism was published in the most recent issue of Modern Reformation. Sorry for the length....


A self-described secular Jew and ardent urbanite, Michelle Goldberg takes her readers behind the scenes of a movement she has dubbed Christian Nationalism, a “totalistic political ideology” that begins with the idea that “the Bible is absolutely and literally true” and extrapolates from this “a total political program... a conflation of scripture and politics that sees America’s triumphs as confirmation of the truth of the Christian religion, and America’s struggles as part of a cosmic contest between God and the devil.” Christian Nationalism, Goldberg argues, “claims supernatural sanction for its campaign of national renewal and speaks rapturously about vanquishing the millions of Americans who would stand in its way.” The “ultimate goal” of this movement is not fairness but dominion: “The movement is built on a theology that asserts the Christian right to rule. That doesn’t mean that nonbelievers will be forced to convert. They’ll just have to learn their place.”

Although this reviewer’s usual reaction to reading the theologizing of atheists is similar to that of watching the blind juggle (i.e., amusement mixed with horror), I was both surprised and disturbed at the accuracy of Goldberg’s portrayal of Christian Nationalist leaders and the theology that compels them (surprised, because it’s not every day that I come across a Jew who can navigate the labyrinthine relationship between Tim LaHaye’s Dispensationalism, D. James Kennedy’s postmillennialism, and R.J. Rushdoony’s Reconstructionism; and disturbed, because she understands the relationship of eschatology to cultural vision more clearly than most Christians I know. More on this later…).

Among the topics Goldberg examines are Christian homeschooling and its importance for raising up the next generation of faithful conservative politicians and lobbyists, the revisionist history necessary to instill in us the myth of the evangelical piety of our nation’s Founding Fathers, the politics of homophobia, Intelligent Design, the elitism of faith-based initiatives for the poor, and the politics behind abstinence-only education. Goldberg points out the incredible irony of the fact that Christian Nationalism’s closest allies in these cultural battles are none other than Islamic fundamentalists. According to a story from The Washington Post (the headline of which read: “Islamic Bloc, Christian Right Team Up to Lobby U.N.”), “American evangelicals have made common cause with Islamists at the United Nations” to plot strategy on social issues. The lines defining good and evil, it seems, have been redrawn according to cultural, rather than religious, ideals. This is nothing new, of course. If many Protestant denominational distinctives have been sacrificed for the sake of waging a common cultural war, why stop there? Muslims, if anything, are certainly good in a fight.

Though the Jesus of Calvinism has been dubbed “The Transformer of Culture” by H. Richard Niebuhr in his seminal work Christ and Culture, the degree to which the Geneva reformer (or for that matter, the second Person of the Trinity) advocated social transformation as belonging to the church’s mandate is still an open question. What is not open to debate, however, is the Christian Nationalists’ interpretation of Jesus’ Great Commission to his disciples prior to his ascension to the Father’s right hand. Also closed is any discussion about the cultural content of that Commission, let alone the deeper issue of whether it contains such cultural content in the first place.

The Christian Nationalist political agenda, Goldberg points out, is essentially a baptized version of the talking points of the Grand Old Party. Though a robust critique of the movement’s underlying eschatology falls outside Goldberg’s purview or expertise—but she has plenty to say about its politics—it seems, to this reviewer anyway, that the differences between the politicized versions of pre- and postmillennialism pale in comparison to their glaring similarities. Both are consumed with power and the flexing of political muscle, and both are fearful of losing their influence and fading into cultural obscurity.

Throughout Kingdom Coming Goldberg both advocates a return to the rationalistic epistemology of the Enlightenment and assumes, somewhat na├»vely, that such “objective” thinking will forever cure religious mankind of the need to force our cunningly devised fables upon our neighbors. The notion, for instance, that an evangelical scientist can have anything meaningful to say about cosmic origins is absurd in Goldberg’s estimation. An atheist biologist, on the other hand, has no ideological axe to grind, and therefore may speak authoritatively without having to recuse herself due to a conflict of interest.

Aside from the biased nature of Goldberg’s pretended lack of bias, her overall point is certainly well-taken: Christianity has been co-opted and its true aims commandeered for political ends, and narrow ones at that. Conspicuous by its absence from Christian Nationalist rhetoric is any actual defense of their understanding of what a Christianized society would look like. Instead, with a “wink wink” here and a “nudge nudge” there, we are exhorted to elect officials who will restore godliness and Christian virtue to our once-glorious land. “Godliness,” of course, really means unbridled capitalism, and “Christian virtue” is code for maintaining U.S. foreign policy and the War on Terror. But what about those Christians who don’t believe that America is under a national, conditional covenant with God like Israel was in time past? What about the thousands of sincere saints who don’t think the U.S. Constitution belongs in the ark of the covenant along with the tables of the Decalogue and Aaron’s rod that budded? And what about those believers whose eschatology precludes them from identifying the eternal concerns of the kingdom of Christ with the earthly affairs of the kingdom of man?

It is human nature to desire to unite with others of a like mind. What is often lacking is some banner or common cause to measure our like-mindedness and give us a reason to come together. While it is perfectly legitimate for fellow-citizens of the civil sphere to rally together for a social cause, or for brothers and sisters in Christ to celebrate their unity in the gospel, what is altogether illegitimate is to collapse these two kingdoms into one (a mistake Calvin called a “Jewish folly”). When we label our unity “Christian” while defining it by the bullet points of a political party (on either side of the aisle), we sacralize the secular, trivialize the sacred, and misconstrue the nature of Christianity as a civil religion whose first great commandment can be swallowed by the second.

By Jason J. Stellman

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Seattle: A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy?

In a classic case of pots calling kettles "black," the good folks at Forbes Magazine have listed the city of Seattle as one of the worst offenders with respect to those deadly sins of jealousy and greed.

As evidence for the latter, Forbes argues that
"the Puget Sound region is the home to the richest man on the planet, Bill Gates, as well as Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft and's Jeff Bezos."
Plus, lots of cars are apparently stolen, so, you know, jealousy's an issue up here as well.

The damning nature of the evidence notwithstanding (!), I still wonder whether this city is the "wretched hive of scum and villainy" that is is sometimes portrayed as. I mean, this is the city that gained worldwide notoriety for protesting the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in 1999. This is the place where people eat Grape Nuts, live in trees, and worship Ralph Nader. Grunge was invented here for crying out loud.

Still, maybe David Brooks was right, maybe all the alternative and countercultural edginess of Seattle has been blissfully wedded to the tech and espresso industry to form the perfect amalgam of bohemian and bourgeoisie: The "Bobo."

But either way, Seattle is a mirror held up to the rest of the nation, and if this city is greedy, other cities are certainly jealous of that greed (how's that for irony?). Microsoft is here. So is Boeing,, Starbucks, and Costco. When it comes to big business, we certainly can hold a candle to just about anywhere.

But how the citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem is to navigate these earthly waters of Babylon, well, that's another question....