Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rambling Thoughts on the Connecticut Tragedy

In case you haven't heard, yesterday there was a terrible shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in which 26 people were killed. I happened to have spent all of yesterday (~10:30am-4:00pm) sitting in a service station waiting room while our car was being worked on. The lone TV was tuned to CNN, and since there were other people in the room who clearly wanted to watch it, I couldn't change the channel, even when the depths of my disgust were truly and fully plumbed. I got the bulk of the mainstream media coverage, whether I wanted it or not. These are a few scattered thoughts I had yesterday that I thought worthy of jotting down, if only for reasons of catharsis.*

Thought 1 (~1 hour into the coverage): For the love of God don't turn this into a media circus.

Since I don't really watch much TV anymore I suppose I don't know if it's representative of other major media outlets (though I suspect it is), but CNN's coverage of the shooting was truly despicable. When I first sat down and saw the news (this was in the first hour of coverage -when obviously there was no information available other than that another school shooting had happened) they had a local Connecticut reporter on the phone and were trying to get some information about the community. The CNN anchor (I'll be generous and assume that she was being fed questions and not coming up with them herself) kept up a steady stream of questions along these lines:

  • Is this not the worst tragedy you could possibly imagine?
  • You have a child in school, don't you? Is this kind of thing terrible for you to think about? 
  • How awful is this for that small community?
After a few minutes of this the interviewee fell off the line. He may have just lost the connection, but I like to think his basic human decency took over and he hung up. 
Look, I understand that one very important function of the media involves telling us what is happening, including on an emotional and psychological level (when those things are relevant, at any rate). And I further understand that it may very well have been that this anchor was just trying to process this herself (and failing miserably on national television), and wasn't really thinking about what was coming out of her mouth. 
But there comes a point when we have to remember that maybe the news carries its own emotional weight without us needing it rubbed in our faces- even a point when we have to wonder whether the presentation is more concerned with drumming up viewers through sensationalism than it is with telling us what happened. After all, tragedy gets more people to flip on their televisions than anything else. Would it really have cost them that many viewers to have said "we have no information at this point, so we're not going to throw up a bunch of melodramatic adjectives until we know more"?  

All of this without even asking whether this sort of lurid format actually gets in the way. Certainly it doesn't do any favors for the local community to have hordes of reporters descending on their town as they're in the middle of trying to sort through what's going on. Obviously, some information has to be conveyed if only to keep crazy rumors from floating around the internet (you know  "ENTIRE SCHOOL MASSACRED" would have made the Facebook rounds). Yet, there's also something to be said for giving the police and the school the chance to do their job without the feeling that 300 million people are breathing down their necks while the media shouts loaded questions in voice-overs. 

I don't have a solution to this. We have a free press, and it may be that sensationalism and the marketing of human emotions is simply one price we have to pay for that. It doesn't mean I have to be comfortable with it.

Thought 2 (~2 hours into the coverage) For the love of God don't make this political

So you hate guns? Fine, lobby to overturn the Second Amendment. 
So you love guns? Also fine, buy them up while you can before someone overturns the Second Amendment.
So you use dead children to push your agenda? Shame on you. No, that's really not strong enough. But since I try to maintain some level of decency on this blog, I won't say the words that I thought when the CNN anchor (a different one from before) suggested that a different gun policy (whether more control or less I won't say- frankly it doesn't matter) would have prevented this tragedy. Slightly less disgusting have been the social media posts and updates floating around arguing that if guns were outlawed/if guns were everywhere the shooting would have happened. I say "slightly" less disgusting because there has been at least some space of time to give people a bit to process. It's still disgusting, just less so. 

Thought 3 (~4 hours into the coverage) Well done President Obama

There's been some discussion over whether the tears were real. I don't know; I don't care. What matters is that he did his job and he did it well. He made his statement after things were settled in Connecticut (so minimal disruption of police business there); he kept it non-political; and he kept it short. Which does actually matter, since as president the longer you talk the more you send the message that you matter more than whatever it is you're talking about. And the American president for all his power is not as important as 26 citizens. 

Thought 4 (~5 1/2 hours into the coverage) I don't even want to look at Facebook tonight

I love social media. Not all of it, of course. But Facebook is a great opportunity to engage with others, find out how people's lives are going, and stay in touch with people across huge distances. While getting my car worked on I didn't have my computer (which is fine- I'm no technology addict), but the thought of having to face a day's worth of political posts, prayers, and photoshopped soundbytes after listening to news coverage of the shooting for five and a half hours straight was daunting. 

Thought 5 (on the drive home) Our response ends up being the least helpful thing possible

I am a Christian, and follow several different Christian writers. Many of these over the past two days have been writing various theological explanations and consolations intended to help believers and unbelievers alike understand how a tragedy on this scale fits into any kind of bigger picture. The general theme has been that as Christians, we all believe that events like this are sad, but understandable given that we are all sinners at heart. And while I think we see that reality on stark display in a terrible event like this, I think we also see it woven into a culture that: 1) facilitates a media circus that feeds on such tragedy; 2) allows (even encourages) people to take something this awful and twist it to their own political ends; 3) elevates the question of how deeply the President does or does not actually care over the actual events; and 4) uses social media like Facebook (and personal blogs -don't think I'm leaving myself out here) to enhance an already bad situation.

Again, I have no solutions, just random thoughts.

*I'm not entirely sure that "catharsis" is quite the right word, since that usually applies to letting go of sadness or happiness, and that's not quite where I'm coming from. As no doubt comes out in this post, it's more a wide-ranging disgust with modern American culture that I'm trying to let flow in a healthy way.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Review of "The Birth of Tragedy" by Friedrich Nietzsche

Oedipus at Colonus

This is my second go at reading The Birth of Tragedy. The first time was a few years ago when I had just started teaching. I had read and enjoyed Hegel's Philosophy of Art (or, to use the title he gave it rather than the title Barnes and Noble gave it, The Science of Aesthetics), and thought I would give Nietzsche a go. Unfortunately, the bulk of my "free" reading time was while riding the Metro, and this is a book which really requires a level of peace, quiet, and the ability to take notes that public transportation just can't provide. So after getting about halfway through the book, I set it aside with the intention of returning to it at a later date.
Which is probably more personal back-story than is really necessary, on to the review!

If the spirit behind Nietzsche's thought were to be made into a movie, Nietzsche would face off against the hulking knight of Western Civilization, feint to the left and punch it in the kidneys. While it soils itself, he would then stab it in the back; and while it died he would cut his own throat and let his corpse fall on top of the dead knight. And if that seems too gross, crude, and violent, well, welcome to Nietzsche's world.

This was Nietzsche's first published work. Because of that (at least, according to his "Attempt at Self-Criticism" written later and published as a forward to this edition), he intentionally restrained himself from expositing  his true objective: the refutation of Christianity. More on that in a second.

According to Nietzsche, there are three forces at work in the world. The first is the fundamental nature of existence itself. All things exist in an essential unity and connection with each other, this unity and connection is will, and appears to us as aesthetics. That is, what connects man with other men, and mankind with nature, in one unified whole is the will of existence to exist. Moreover, this existence is aesthetic in nature. That which connects all people and all creation on a fundamental level is the will, and it is a beautiful will. Nietzsche calls this "force" (though force is a crude term for what he discusses) "Dionysian." When this force is seen or felt, the unity and beauty of everything with everything is apparent.
And yet, that unity is on some level horrifying as well as beautiful. We rebel against this unity because it challenges our identity as individuals. None of us want to be told that we are essentially the same thing as a tree or a car or -even worse- something actively ugly and awful. This reveals the second force at work in the world: the individuation of this unified existence into separate individuals. When we rebel against the Dionysian unity of existence, we break creation into individual categories and intuitively impose order and structure on the world (the "intuitive" part is essential- this is not something we do by means of reason). Nietzsche calls this process of cutting the unity of existence into individual parts "Apollonian."

These two forces continually rise in opposition to each other. First, we see the beauty of Dionysian unity, then we rebel against it in horror and impose Apollonian individuality to the unity of existence, but then a vision of Dionysian unity breaks through the individualization and reveals itself again. This becomes the cycle of existence that gradually balances itself out. This balance between unity and individuality in existence achieved near perfection, according to Nietzsche, in Greek tragedy. In fact, the tension between these two forces lead to the birth of tragedy itself. Greek tragedy (specifically that of Aeschylus and Sophocles, as well as the "unknown" Greek tragedians) is, according to Nietzsche, the nearest human beings have come to understanding the true nature of existence. It is the place where Apollo and Dionysus exist in harmony with each other, and the aesthetic will that unites all things is most on display.

Unfortunately, at this point in human history (~4th century BC) a third force comes into play that wrecks everything, puts tragedy to death, and establishes an intellectual tyranny that exists down to this day and is only now (in the mid-to-late 19th century AD) beginning to be thrown off. This "force" is anticipated in Euripides and springs into being in Socrates: human reason. With the rise of Socratic thought, we no longer experience existence in its primal aesthetic nature, we rather impose our reason on it and try to force it into an artificial mold that conforms not to reality, but to our own intellects. The result is the death of tragedy and the alienation of human beings from each other and from, well, everything else. We've built an entire civilization dedicated to imposing the intellectual logical constructions of the rational mind onto existence. As a result, but Apollo and Dionysus have given way to Socrates, and we no longer truly understand ourselves or the world.

This is where, according to Nietzsche, he held himself back. He should have (he argues in the Preface) gone on to point out that later Christianity would replace even Socratic reason with empty moralism and ethics dedicated solely to preserving the power of those who define the ethics, thus at the same time creating a system of slavery in the name of morality and keeping people isolated from and unaware of the true nature of existence.

But, good news! In recent years Western civilization has begun to see its own limitations. Especially with the work of Kant, Schopenhauer, and Wagner, the limitations of logic and reason have begun to make themselves clear, and people are beginning to feel an inarticulate discontent with the rational and moral claims of the Socratic (and Christian) explanations of reality. We are beginning to sense a deeper aesthetic at work in the world. It may very well be that the German people are getting ready for a rebirth of tragedy with the throwing off of... uh... "foreign elements"... and (with maybe less ominous overtones) the reconnection of the German people with the primal forces of existence (Apollo and Dionysus) that the Greeks knew so well before Socrates came along and ruined everything. We are standing on the edge of the return of the balance between Apollo and Dionysus, and consequently the return of an unmediated and personal connection with the universe and with other human beings.

And that's really only scratching the surface of this short work. I didn't even mention the place of myth, the claim that the only justification for existence is aesthetic, or the place of actual tragedy (as in the plays themselves) in all of this.

Obviously, I very much enjoyed reading Nietzsche's first work. I have regularly found him to be articulate, witty, and frankly the only atheist philosopher really worth my time. He fully well realizes that it's not enough to challenge the surface assumptions, if you're going to go after an intellectual system you've got to go for the jugular.

And you can't stop until it's dead.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche fires the first round of what would go on to become a full-on assault on the mores of Western Civilization, the beliefs of Christianity, and every warm and fuzzy thing that has ever lived. In doing so, he challenges us to think closely about our beliefs and assumptions and demands that we leave aside the externals and go to the root of the matter. And frankly, I appreciate that kind of candor. Nietzsche is perfectly willing to draw his conclusions out to their bitter, logical end, and then rejoice when he's devastated everything and everyone. And while I don't agree with his conclusions, I like to think that by going along with him a ways I have a better understanding of what a world without God might look like.

That said, this probably isn't the place to start if you've never read any Nietzsche. It is a bit more technical than some of his other works, and not nearly as easy to follow. (I recommend Beyond Good and Evil as the easiest and shortest place to begin.)

Nonetheless, this book is also well worth your time. If nothing else, it has been a useful addition to that slowly-building "philosophy of aesthetics" class I hope to teach some day.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review of "Exhortation to the Heathen" by Clement of Alexandria

[Note: This work is a part of Volume 2 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, which I am working my way through on some sort of masochistic 20-year plan. This work seemed good enough to merit some consideration on its own.]

If you're anything like me and have been slogging your way through the church Fathers in some kind of loosely-chronological order, then this monograph by Clement of Alexandria is your reward. It is witty, thoughtful, scathing, and magnanimous all at the same time. In it, he exhorts the heathen (appropriately enough) to recognize the limitations and evils of paganism and see the truth and hope offered through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He walks through several aspects of pagan life -poetry, philosophy, art, and so on- and shows how each of these are on the one hand corrupted by human sin and twisted into instruments of our destruction, and on the other hand are lived rightly in Christ and become pictures of God's mercy to and sovereignty over the world.
For example, Clement discusses how music has been used in the service of myth and fable to lead individuals astray into sin (171-172). For the Christian, however:
Not such is my song, which has come to loose, and that speedily, the bitter bondage of tyrannizing demons; and leading us back to the mild and loving yoke of piety, recalls to heaven those that had been cast prostrate to the earth. (172)
Art, likewise, has been corrupted by being used to create idols. For the Christian, the universe is God's art, which we picture when we create out of the material he has made. How awful it is then for us to take God's art and use it in rebellion against Him! (189-190)

Philosophy and poetry also have been used to rebel against God. The small bit of truth available to philosophers and poets has done them no good, and indeed has simply revealed how deep the need for the true philosophy and poetry of the living Word runs in the world:
For I think it has now become evident to all that those who do or speak aught without the Word of truth are like people compelled to walk without feet. (193)
 Even custom itself has become a source of sin. Giving up the good things custom has prepared for us (citizenship, family inheritance, social respectability) in the name of Christ simply means we get the benefits of those things returned to us in their better and proper form. We become citizens of heaven, receive the inheritance of the children of God, and the social respectability of living a life of true virtue and obedience. All of these are given not by conforming to the customs of the world, but by living the life of faith.

In addition to making all of these important points, this particular work is exceptionally well-written. I don't know if credit for that goes to the translator, to Clement himself, or to some combination of the two, but in many ways this has been the most delightful of the ante-Nicene fathers to read so far.

A sampler of quotes:
Do not play the tyrant, O man, over beauty... Be king over beauty, not its tyrant. Remain free, and then I shall acknowledge thy beauty, because thou hast kept its image pure: then I will worship that true Beauty which is the archetype of all who are beautiful. (185)
 O the prodigious folly of being ashamed of the Lord! He offers freedom, you flee into bondage; He bestows salvation, you sink down into destruction; He confers everlasting life, you wait for punishment, and prefer the fire which the Lord 'has prepared for the devils and his angels.' (195)
 The union of many in one, issuing in the production of divine harmony out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony following one choir-leader and teacher, the Word, reaching and resting in the same truth and crying Abba, Father. (197)
 For man has been otherwise constituted by nature, so as to have fellowship with God... placing our finger on what is man's peculiar and distinguishing characteristic above other creatures, we invite him -born, as he is, for the contemplation of heaven, and being, as he is, a truly heavenly plant- to the knowledge of God, counselling him to furnish himself with what is his sufficient provision for eternity, namely piety. Practise husbandry, we say, if you are a husbandman; but while you till your fields, know God. Sail the sea, you who are devoted to navigation, yet call the whilst on the heavenly Pilot. (200)
For in us, buried in darkness, shut up in the shadow of death, light has shone forth from heaven, purer than the sun, sweeter than life here below. That light is eternal life; and whatever partakes of it lives.... He hath changed the sunset into sunrise, and through the cross brought death to life; and having wrenched man from destruction, He hath raised him to the skies, transplanting mortality into immortality, and translating earth to heaven. (203)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Book Review: "Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker" by F.C. Copleston

I don't know if it takes a dull person to want to study Aquinas, or if the study of Aquinas makes one a dull person. Which is in many ways unfortunate, because Aquinas has interesting things to say about interesting topics. This is my second foray into the Doctor's thought, and the second time I've come away slightly smarter, slightly more informed about philosophy and Medieval theology, and quite a bit disappointed in the prose style of everyone involved.
In this short book (~270 pages), F.C. Copleston engages many of the philosophical topics in Aquinas of greatest interest to modern readers. Metaphysics, apologetics, anthropology, ethics, sociology, and cosmology are all explained with brevity (relative to Aquinas himself) and elegance, if not in a way that is particularly engaging.

The big philosophical take-away from this is the two-sided approach Aquinas takes to philosophy: it is to be grounded upon the common experience of the common man, and it is to be explored by means of common sense. So, for example, if we want to ask the question "is there a God?" The philosophical approach will be to begin with what we all know and experience in everyday life, and then reflect upon that knowledge. As one example, we all know that an object in motion requires the influence of another object to start it moving. Yet, we also all know that these chains of motion (I use a pool cue on the cue ball, the cue ball strikes the 8 ball, which strikes another, and so on) are not infinite in nature. That is, there was a starting point. Therefore, common sense tells us that there must be a "first mover." The other arguments follow similar paths, which I have to admit was not something I picked up on the first few times I was exposed to Aquinas' thought. While I've been taught his five arguments for the existence of God several times, I've never been taught that he draws them (and all of his philosophy) from common experience. Of course, had I actually done the assigned reading at the time I may have picked up on that...
This method carries over into all of his thought- what is a law? Well, we know from common experience. What is the nature of existence? Why do we talk about people as having both a body and a soul? And so on.

I should point out that Copleston's book focuses mainly on Aquinas' philosophy. If you want his theology, you'll have to look elsewhere.

Like I said, this book is fairly interesting in its substance. It's just the writing that drags it down a bit (but not much, certainly not as much as a goodly number of other philosophical works out there). Yet, I'm not unhappy I took a couple of weeks to read this. It was well worth the time and effort and will undoubtedly work its way into my lectures on Aquinas.

So, if you're going to study Aquinas and just can't force yourself through the Summas, this is a good place to go. (I've also been told that Peter Kreeft's Summa of the Summa is good, as is his Shorter Summa.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Book Review: "Bold as Love" by Bob Roberts, Jr.

Bob Roberts, Jr. has two points in this short book:

  1. Christians shouldn't be jerks to non-Christians.
  2. I did it, and you can too.
(Of course, Christians probably shouldn't be jerks to other Christians either, but that's not the point of this book.)
In broad strokes, Roberts points out that it's easier to evangelize if we befriend people first and work towards common civic goals than if we scream at them in the street, condemn them to hell, and are generally driven by hate. More, he says it's not just easier, it's actually Biblical- though he spends much less time on the "Biblical" bit. 
Most of the book is composed of personal anecdotes, where he describes meetings he has had with diplomats, international leaders (including the government of Vietnam and a Prince of Saudi Arabia), and community members which have all resulted in deep and abiding friendships and given him opportunities to share the Gospel. 

Which shows us the two problems with the book.
But before I point out the issues, let me state for the record that this book is fine. Not great, not even really good, but fine. Roberts is a competent writer and seems to be sound enough theologically (even if it did take him 120 pages out of a 180 page book to actually get to any doctrine), but the overall sense I was left with was pretty much a sense of... meh. Then again, I tend to think already that Christians shouldn't be jerks. I mean, if there's a Christian out there who is a jerk and picks up this book and reads it and is convinced not to be one anymore, then I suppose Roberts' work is done. Of course, if you are a jerk you're not likely to pick up a book that's trying to convince you not to be. If you're already not a jerk, well, there are better books to read than this one. And if you're the kind of jerk that I am, it involves not so much a hatred of other religions as a general cynicism about human nature in general, in which case the book is equally ineffective. 

So the two big problems I had with the book:

First, the Bible doesn't really have anything to say about friendship. As others have pointed out, it's a category that's pretty much absent from Scripture. The Bible divides people into two groups: those who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb (the church) and those who are not (the world). Within the church, we are to have fellowship (which is not quite the same thing as friendship, and which there isn't time to go into here- should you have the time and inclination, here's a talk on the subject, and here's a sermon that touches on it, and here's a more meaty theological work on it). Between the church and the world, we are to be witnesses who share the Gospel by explaining it to others and model the Gospel by living it in our own lives. How are we to share it? Well, verbally, certainly. That's the thing we see people doing most in the New Testament. But beyond that, we're really not given a whole lot. Which suggests that we have some flexibility in doing so, which further suggests that we are free to be friends with nonbelievers with the ultimate goal of sharing the Gospel with them. 
Hopefully it's clear why I'm going to want to hesitate a bit before endorsing Roberts method. We are free to be friends with the world, and we certainly should be kind to the world, whether we do that while being friends or not. But to walk through the Biblical process of evangelization is not quite the same thing as to jump to the end and say "just be nice to everybody so that they'll believe in Jesus." One of the ways we share the Gospel with others is by befriending non-believers (and I do believe it's an important way), but the friendship itself is not the ultimate goal of the interaction. (Roberts doesn't say that it is, but he trumpets it enough that it starts to sound like he leans in that direction.)
If I'm not being clear, here's the short version: there is no Biblical category of "friendship", so I'm not entirely comfortable to have a pastor be telling me to be friends with people. Which isn't to say it's not a good thing to do, it just needs to be in its proper context.

Second, Roberts clearly has access to individuals and circles that you and I will just never have. Not just because he lives in an urban center (many Christians live in the suburbs or rural communities, where interactions with minorities or global cultures will be much less common), but because he seems to meet people on the highest levels. "I was visiting Prince Turki al-Faisal... the founder of Saudi Arabia's modern intelligence service... We both served on a think tank established by the United Nations under the Alliance of Civilizations" (4). Which is fine, but you and I will likely never meet the Prince of anything. Our reaching out to others is going to be on a personal and local level in any case-- which of course is how it should be. We are called to love our neighbor, not the guy around the world but the guy who lives next to us. This doesn't mean that we hate the people around the world, it just means that our primary concern is going to be for those we actually interact with in a personal and regular way. The growth of a global society is having some impact on that, but at the end of the day my primary field of evangelization is to be with the people I actuall am with, not the people I am not. The "inspirational" stories in this book weren't terribly helpful in that sense, and occasionally felt more like a litany of all the important people Roberts is friends with. (Again, not that he's explicit about that, it just felt that way sometimes.)

And with all of that said, I should also point out that Roberts runs in slightly different geographical and cultural circles than I do. I grew up in a part of America which is not overtly religious, and now live in a place which is equally not overtly religious, so I've never really be surrounded by the kind of Christian... unease? Even hatred? that he writes about. (I didn't watch "Christian" TV growing up, so I was never exposed to the various infamous anti-Islam rants on certain programs...) So maybe this book offers a corrective that there's more need for than I am aware of. Certainly Christians should never, never engage with others from a position of hatred. We should always remember that we are sinners saved by grace and to be a display of God's love to the world, working without rancor and from the deep desire to see others repent and believe in the Gospel.

As a final disclaimer, as I was reading through the book I thought I was going to have a problem with the word he kept throwing around: multifaith. That... sounded suspicious to me. By the end, he'd sold me if not on the use of the word or the idea being a good one, at least on it not being an actively bad one. Basically, it means that we should all agree on the things we agree on and use those to work for the common good of civil society. And while he goes a bit farther in some places than I think wise (praying in a Mosque, for example, can be a bit touchy as it implies things to Muslims that he may not quite want to imply), by and large he's right- we certainly should work with others in areas where we agree. Just as we should work with feminists on ending sexual slavery and environmentalists on caring well for nature, so we can work with other faiths to advance common causes. We just have to be careful that we're maintaining appropriate boundaries and being clear that "working for civic goals" does not mean the same as "we endorse your beliefs as legitimate." Which, to his credit, Roberts is clear on. 

So, overall this book is, well fine. There are lots of better ones out there, but then again, there are lots of worse ones too.

Disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher on the condition that I review it- I was not required to give it a positive review.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Two centuries of difference

Today we have an election that probably matters more to us than it will to any future generation (which I suspect is true of most elections).
Just for fun, here is a side-by-side comparison of today's election with the election of 1812:

The Incumbent
James Madison (Democratic-Republican Party: Now the Democrat Party)
Barack Obama (Democrat Party)
The Challenger
DeWitt Clinton (Federalist Party)
Mitt Romney (Republican Party)
The #1 Issue of the Day
War with England
Number of States/Electoral Votes
Religious Affiliation of President/VP
United Church Of Christ/Catholic
Religious Affiliation of Challenger/VP
Presidential Claim to Fame Prior to Election
Author of American Constitution
“Community Organizer”
Challenger Claim to Fame Prior to Candidacy
Author of the Erie Canal
Made lots of money

What does all of this mean? I'm not entirely sure... I'll leave that to the political history guys.

Friday, November 2, 2012

So you've lost the election...

Imagine for a minute that it's Wednesday, November 7 and the other guy -the one who will most assuredly bring about the downfall of all that is good and right in the world and lead us at a frantic sprint into a new Dark Age- has won. Frankly, you don't even want to get out of bed, because after all what's the point? All your energy and all your passion poured into the last few months (heck, who are you kidding: years) has been for naught. Not that you would ever think the word "naught", because it's not the 1920s... How can you possibly face a future under the dictatorial fist of that guy? Fear not, good citizen, for I have news that will hopefully add a little ray of sunshine to your overcast political world.

This doesn't have to be true.
You live in America.

Now, before you think I'm going all jingoistic on you and about to bang the "America=God's beloved child" drum, hear me out. I am not saying that you should be cheerful because you live in some sort of holy promised land. I'm not even saying that you should be cheerful because you live in a nation that enjoys a good deal of material prosperity- though of course that second point is something that we should all remember. Whoever wins on November 6, we will still likely have food on the table on November 7 (I suppose excluding those who hunger strike in protest). But there is another much more political reason you should be encouraged:

The American political system is designed for you, the loser.

I'll say that again because it is worth repeating:
the American political system is designed for those who lose elections.

It's like America is looking into a mirror.

Let me hit you with some knowledge. The Constitutional Convention was called in 1787 to amend the Articles of Confederation. Instead, the delegates scrapped the Articles and replaced them with a new governing document: the Constitution. But why did they do that? What your high school history textbook will tell you is that it was because the national government provided for by the Articles was too weak and did not include an executive or judiciary. Which is true, but which does not tell you why that mattered. After all, it's not as if there was no government in the nation- we hadn't quite progressed to the "Thunderdome" stage of civilizational decline. There were thirteen functioning and stable governments spread from New Hampshire to Georgia (fourteen if we count the Vermont Republic), all of which were as close to pure democracies as the nation has seen before or since. Even more than that, the economy was booming, the undesirables (Royalists) were leaving the nation in droves and the "good" kind of immigration (skilled, educated labor) was at an all time high. Why on earth did people freak out and write -to say nothing of accept- a completely new form of government?

The answer is found in a less-famous part of Madison's famous Federalist 10, where he points out that in a pure democracy:
A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. 
In other words, the problem with a democracy is that the majority will always eventually trample on the rights of the minority or even of the individual.
Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.
Democracies quickly destroy property rights, personal security, public peace, and, ultimately, themselves. The majority will trample on the minority until society itself crumbles and falls.

Try to be on Denzel's side when this happens. Trust me on this.

The point of the Constitution is to offset this tendency. The American system is designed in such a way that no single faction -not even a majority- can utterly dominate the others.

Which is all well and good, but here's the real kicker- you have a part to play in keeping the winner of the election from steamrolling you. The authors of the Constitution did not expect the majority to exercise self-restraint and not trample the minority because someone said "pretty-please don't do it," instead, they applied the idea of checks-and-balances.

Again, your high school civics book would have talked some about this, what it wouldn't have mentioned is how revolutionary an idea this was for the time. What everyone believed in during the 18th century was separation of powers. There's an executive power, a legislative power, and some other kind of power (probably judicial, maybe something called "federative" to deal with foreign relations, but no one was really sure), and none of these powers of government should be allowed to overlap. That way, the argument went, the executive can't pass laws and the legislature can't enforce them, therefore no single person (executive) or group of persons (legislature) could ever gather together all political power in society.

The judicial branch was less of a threat for obvious reasons.
The Constitution (inspired by the Framers' reading of an obscure Frenchman named Montesquieu) tore down several of these "walls of separation" between the branches of government and enable them to "check" and "balance" each other. That is, they gave executive and judicial powers to the legislature (confirming cabinet members and establishing courts and jurisdiction, as examples); legislative and judicial powers to the executive (the veto and the ability to appoint judges); and, well, they didn't think much about the judicial branch, but you get the point. This enabled each branch of government to use the powers it had been given from the other branch to act as a check and balance if it thought that other branch was going to far. So Andrew Johnson pardons the whole South after the Civil War? Not on Congress's watch: boom! Impeachment. The Supreme Court keeps shooting down FDR's New Deal programs? He appoints judges that agree with him. And so on. Each branch of government has the ability not only to be a royal pain the rear to the other branch, but to slow down or stop the entire political process, depending on how opposed they really are.

And if all of that isn't enough, the Federalist conclusion to this process of being able to oppose someone even though they have more power than you: this act of opposition is what actually makes good policy.

The source of all that is right and good in America.
If the President could just step into office and get whatever policy he wanted passed the result would be the will of the majority, but not necessarily the best policy- and it would ignore all of those who are in the minority. Which of course was the whole problem with the Articles of Confederation in the first place. To fix this, the system is designed so that a very small number of people in any one of the branches of government can throw a wrench into the whole works. The result of their doing so is a better policy than the mere will of the majority. Federalist 52 says:
The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others... This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. 
 When minority factions exercise their ability to gum up the works, what happens is that the blind spots and defects of the majority faction are balanced out, and a better policy than either side could have ever thought of by itself becomes the law of the land. So when the Republicans filibuster Obama's healthcare plan or the Democrats vote against Bush's, well, whatever (sorry, it's been a few years), the result is that the majority faction gets less than it originally wanted, the minority faction gets more than it could ever get in a pure democracy, and the nation as a whole benefits since a solution that neither side would have settled for on its own is reached.

This runs pretty counter to the way we tend to think as Americans. We want our guy to get into office and kick butt and take names while riding his white horse into the glorious implementation of the tax cuts/defeat of our enemies/education reform.
Not pictured: Education Reform
We don't like to think that maybe one person's or even one party's plan (especially our own) may not be the best for the nation. How else can we explain the frustration with Presidents Bush and Obama, who all told (though Obama has only had four years at this point) managed to get only a very small number of the programs and laws they had promised actually put in place. Partially, of course, this is a result of campaign promises being unrealistic in any case. But in much larger sense as long as there is one Congressman, one Senator, one Supreme Court Justice, who differs ideologically from the President (to say nothing of being in a different party), the President will never get everything he wants, and that minority ideology/party/faction will never be completely overrun by the majority. The same is true for Congress and the Supreme Court. In America the opposing (i.e. the losing) faction is given power out of proportion to its numbers. This is not an accident, it is built into the very nature of our system.

The point of this lengthy post is just to say that whoever wins next Tuesday does not automatically become the King of America for four years. In fact, it just defines our various roles within the system. If Romney wins, then the Democrats are obligated to throw every wrench they can find into his policy proposals with full confidence that they are doing exactly what they should be doing. Likewise if Obama wins a second term, Republicans should continue to do everything they can to torpedo his policies and slow the whole system down. The American system is designed to protect and empower losers, which means that come what may next week gloom and doom should not be your worldview- you should be ready to take up the Constitutional role prepared for you.

The short version: this man will always be able to screw things up for everyone.

Seeking together

Dear reader, whenever you are as certain about something as I am go forward with me; whenever you hesitate, seek with me; whenever you discover that you have gone wrong come back to me; or if I have gone wrong, call me back to you. in this way we will travel along the street of love together as we make our way toward him of whom it is said "seek his face always" (Psalm 105:4)
-Augustine, The Trinity, I.3.5.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Best of the Best: Political Ads IV

[Disclaimer: Language and Crudity]
I'm pretty sure I would vote for this guy, but maybe not for school board.
"They wouldn't hire me as a teacher, so who better to shoot ya straight?"
"I'm just like you, I like

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The truth is out there, and now available on DVD

Every couple of weeks, the domestic harpy goes off to small group and leaves me with ample time to expand my horizons. For the past couple of months, I've been working my way through this masterpiece:

Okay, so it's actually not bad. Especially given the fact that it is a set of History/A&E shows from the 90s, and the CGI was still finding its feet. Cheesy graphics aside, this was a moderately interesting set (well worth the $4 at Costco I shelled out). If nothing else, it's worth remembering that there are large numbers of people out there who believe in aliens, despite never having seen one and there being exactly no evidence of any kind (physical or otherwise) that stands up to anyone's reasonable definition of evidence.
The most interesting episode was IM-not-so-HO the one on UFO Cults. The Heaven's Gate Cult had just done its thing, and they spent a good deal of time going over that. They even managed to interview both a member of the Cult (NOT a former member- he didn't kill himself, but only because the police managed to stop him in time) and this guy, who I don't know much about but who has filled the shoes of Walter Martin, for whom I do have a healthy dose of respect.

All in all, worthwhile if you've got any interest in fringe movements. Otherwise, I'm sure there's better stuff available on aliens (though I couldn't tell you what).

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Best of the Best: Political Ads III

I know this isn't a real ad, but if you'll look back to the first post in this series you'll see that the criteria is that I like it. Not that it be meaningful or based in reality. Therefore:

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Best of the Best: Political Ads II

I... still don't know what to think of this one. It was definitely a surprise when I first saw it in 2000. And I'm not entirely sure what I think about it. On the one hand, it's a bit politically incorrect. And as you all know, it is my goal to be as totally politically correct as possible. I wake up every morning and ask myself "how can I be a little more sensitive today?" Nonetheless, this ad made me chuckle. And immediately feel bad about myself for doing so.

(Sorry for the poor video quality- but that's what you get when you use Youtube...)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Best of the best: Political Ads I

In these political weeks leading up to the election, I thought it might be fun to take a bit of time and put up some of my favorite political campaign ads. Note that I do not claim that these are the best, the most relevant, the most meaningful, or most thoughtful. They are simply my favorite, no more and no less. Okay, so I know I claim they're the "best of the best" in the title of the post, but that's more to get your attention, and less of an ethical or social contract.
Nor do I promise to be consistent with posting these- it is a busy time of year for us academic types, especially us academic types involved in teaching politics. But I'll do what I can. Maybe.

Leading off the series is what is (to date) my favorite ad ever released by a politician upon the public:

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Review of "The New Left and Christian Radicalism" by Arthur G. Gish

I particularly like "Draft Beer/Not Boys"

The New Left and Christian Radicalism is a book that appears to have only gone through only one edition- and that originally published by Eerdman's in 1970. That being the case, how on earth did this obscure paperback fall into my hands? Simple: it was in a giveaway box on the sidewalk (free books are my kryptonite). It took me a while to get around to it, but man was it worth the wait...

Gish's project is to compare and contrast (but mostly compare) the Radical New Left movement of the late 1960s with the Radical Anabaptist Reformation of the 16th century. Both, he argues, are concerned with a total transformation of the culture and a lifestyle that involves total commitment to that end. Both are concerned with absolute purity and justice, and with never compromising with a fallen world or a fallen system in the name of the lesser evil. And both are utterly unwilling to compromise with sin and evil in the world, especially in their social incarnations.

The Pros:
Gish is a lucid writer who is clearly engaged with his subject matter and aware of the work being done by the New Left movement (or at least he was, he apparently passed away in 2010 in a farming accident). Even better, despite his enthusiasm for the New Left, he's not unaware of the drawbacks, failings, and blindspots of the movement.
The New Left is, according to Gish (and I think he's right), a movement concerned with the failure of the affluent American system to live up to its own stated ideals of liberty and justice. We promise freedom, and then drop napalm on children in Vietnam. We promise justice, but then refuse the vote to minorities. We promise rule by the people, but then have a government almost completely dominated by the rich and powerful elites. Worst of all, there is no means of change by working within the system (the Old Liberal ideal), since the system itself is corrupted by the same forces that keep obstructing freedom, justice, and the rule of the people. What we need is a total systemic overhaul. This overhaul should not come through violent revolution [this was in the days before the Weather Underground took over the New Left movement, and nonviolence was still the order of the day], but rather through peaceful protest and setting good personal examples of what life should be like.
In just the same way, the Anabaptists stood up to both the Protestants and the Catholics in the 16th century, arguing that what was needed was not simply to switch from a Catholic state church to a Lutheran, Zwinglian, Anglican, or Calvinist one, but a radically new idea of church and society altogether. Also working through peaceful methods (certain exceptions aside), the Anabaptists strive to set the example and to live up to the idea that being a Christian means a radical transformation of our lives in this world, and in turn working for a radical transformation of society.
What the Anabaptists have to offer the New Left is what the New Left cannot agree upon on its own: a vision of what society actually should look like. As with so many counter-cultural movements, the New Left is excellent at criticizing but poor and proposing solutions. The Anabaptists, on the other hand, have had four hundred years to think the issue through, and have several suggestions which Gish thinks line up quite nicely with New Left ideals (and have the added benefit of being Christian). This includes principles such as:

  1. Change must come from the bottom-up: a new social order requires the people to take matters into their own hands. Top-down change would require the government to be the agent of change, and the government itself is corrupt and so cannot fix the problems of the culture.
  2. We must have a solid understanding of both the old order we're trying to topple, and our own identities (something which the New Left is not so good at, given their low view of sin). 
  3. We must not compromise with the system- just as the Christian must never compromise with sin. 
  4. We must set the example by modelling the life we are calling others to live. This means living as if all the promises made in Christ have already been fulfilled. 
These are just a few of Gish's suggestions, but ones which capture the general thrust of his thought. 

Obviously, I am fairly sympathetic to this worldview. It's not so much that I'm a hippie or anything like that, it's just that I believe as a Christian and as a political philosopher that the New Left makes a lot of valid points about American society. We are too materialistic. We strut around the world like we own the place. We do thrust our nose into the business of other nations, despite our claims that people should be free to determine their own destinies. The war in Vietnam was unjust (and I have serious reservations about Afghanistan and Iraq, for that matter). And, well, I could go on. In fact, I'd take it even one step more than Gish, and agree with Augustine that the state (whether America or any other state) is a part of the city of man, and consequently necessarily defined by sin and headed for destruction. We should chalk it up to God's (common) grace that we have even the few blessings that we do- we certainly don't deserve them.

Gish also offers several excellent reminders that Christians are called to live all our lives in a radical and Christ-centered way. We are not allowed to compartmentalize, especially since doing so leads to the temptation to compromise. We say "I'm a Christian, but I live in a fallen world, so I guess in terms of politics I'll have to do what is expedient (or even easy), rather than what I know is right." Gish utterly rejects this worldview, and tells us that if we live in a world where we can't do what is right, as Christians it is our responsibility to try to change the world so we can. No free passes for us! Gish writes:

To be a Christian is to be an extremist. Moderation is a Greek ideal, not Christian. Christian faith is not a halfway measure; it talks about going two miles instead of one, of plucking out eyes that disturb, of dying on a cross. it is to risk death, to love enemies, and to pray without ceasing. As one biblical writer put it, "Would that you were hot or cold! So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth" (Revelation 3:15-16)... the Christian is not satisfied with maintaining a tension between the good and the possible. He does the good regardless of consequences or effectiveness. Faith involves intensity and commitment. We are called to love God with our whole being. (94-95)

The Christian life -including our involvement in politics- is to be one of total dedication to Christ and the life we are called to live in him. 

The Cons:
There are two major drawbacks to Gish's book, which may have been corrected had he spent another hundred pages or so working through his ideas. 
First, the book could have used a little more Gospel. Or at least, a little more exposition of the Gospel. The hints given here and there suggest that Gish sees Christ as an example and the cross a declaration of victory (akin to the New Perspective movement that would come later), rather than as an atoning sacrifice provided by God for his people. And while I suspect that Gish was a bit more theologically liberal than I am usually comfortable with (he cites Paul Tillich far more than anyone should who is not explicitly writing a critique of his thought), I can't quite say he believes a different Gospel. Reading more of his works may sort this out in the future. I don't think this negates his overall points, it just would give us a better foundation to stand upon as Christians as we criticize the culture. 

Second, much of what he looks for in society should be found in the church. (I had a similar objection to a more recent liberal book I reviewed.) It's unfortunate that he left out a discussion of the church, given that the ecclesiastical body really does have a role to play in the Christian's political thought. Ultimately, we should not look to the state as a fountain of justice, freedom, and democracy, but rather we should see those things on display in the church built upon the Gospel. The state will someday come to an end when its role of temporary stewardship is concluded, but the church of Christ will last for all eternity. To that end, we should work first in the local church to correct the wrongs we see, and only second in the state. 

Overall, this is an excellent and fascinating approach to Christian political thought. This should be read in conjunction with other works on the New Left, including The Times Were a Changin' and The Sixties.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Review of "Tangled Ashes" by Michele Phoenix

Image source:

This book is a serviceable read... and not much more. Granted, Michele Phoenix can string together two words- and quite well at that (I read the book fairly quickly, and with far less wincing that I though there would be given that this book is basically Christian chick lit). What fell flat here was really the plot. There are two story lines, a major one set in the present focusing on Marshall Becker, the alcoholic architect charged with updating the local castle for a rich Englishman, and his growing/tense/banter-filled relationship with Jade, the rich Englishman's nanny. The minor story line is set in [sigh] Nazi-occupied France at the same castle and involves two French maids hired to work at the "secret" Nazi baby factory set up in the same castle. The two stories finally collide at the end of the book. (I won't give any spoilers, not that there are many to give.)

The chief strength of this book is that it is well written. I sailed through it easily and with some level of enjoyment. Even more, while her faith clearly comes through, she's not preachy (much) about it. While there are ways to work your beliefs into a story organically (cf. Stephen Lawhead), far too many Christian authors fling it in your face, often at the expense of artistic value. Phoenix does not commit this crime, and even has some talent as a storyteller, she just needs a good story to apply it to.

The biggest problem I had with the book is, as I've been hinting at, the lack of a worthwhile plot. Through the 350+ pages of the story, there's really not enough tension or action or, well, anything to set the pace. In the hands of a less competent writer, this book would have been awful. In Phoenix's hands, it's just kind of meh. Having said that, I'll give her a tiny bit of leeway since in the author's note she reveals that the setting and the Nazi baby factory were both real (and where she grew up, see picture above). And that shows in the book- easily the best parts of the story were her descriptions of the setting. And while you can do a lot with setting, you can't carry an entire novel with it. (Just ask Mervyn Peake.)

So would I recommend this book? Well... maybe if you're one of those people who have decided that you are only going to read "Christian" books (please don't be one of those people) then yes, this is better than most of the tripe out there. So if you've restricted yourself to Amish fiction and books that have covers that would be Harlequin Romances if two or three articles of clothing were removed, then this book will likely be a step up and I suggest that you take up and read. On the other hand, there are a lot of books out there that you really could be reading instead, why not pick up one of those?

I received this book free from the publisher (or at least from a proxy marketer). They did not pay me or in any way require me to write a positive review. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Strength and Weakness of the New Left

The legit criticism by the New Left of America is that it is overly materialistic: "[The New Left has] understood the growing totalitarianism of our technological, centralized society. Theirs is the existentialist revolt against the dehumanization of our modern world, the transformation of man into an object. It is the search for authenticity in the midst of depersonalization and objectification. They are asking whether technology and bureaucracy can be mastered and put to the use of man, or whether we are doomed to a technocratic totalitarianism." 
The legit criticism by Christians of the New Left is that it fails to understand sin: "[The New Left has] a profound understanding of how sin (alienation) is a product of our social structures. they fail to recognize, however, that sin also has personal roots." 

-Arthur Gish, "The New Left and Christian Radicalism", 22, 46

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

On immigration in the early 19th century

Entering the United States, these immigrants were as free as air, free as the Indians in their forest heyday, for no papers were required of them, there were no regulations to bind them, there were no privileges of birth, no tithes, no guilds. No one asked them even to be naturalized and there was work and abundance for all, for the labour-shortage was acute, with turnpikes and canals a-building, and presently railroads. The nation was growing by leaps and bounds, and cities sprang up overnight, while the older towns could scarcely meet the demand for new streets, houses, docks and stores. For these were the days of Andrew Jackson, and a fury of energy drove the people, who felt that the nation belonged to them at last. Travellers observed that Americans lived twice as much as other folk and accomplished twice as much in the span of their lives, for they plunged into the stream of enterprise in their early teens; and David Crockett's "Go ahead" had become a national slogan that often omitted the words "Be sure you're right." 
-Van Wyck Brooks, The World of Washington Irving, 313-314

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Crockett's Canines

Davy Crockett was all man.

Want proof? Here's what he named his dogs:

And of course, his (probably mythological) pet bear:
Death Hug.

Source: The World of Washington Irving, Van Wyck Brooks, 298-299.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

A note or two on Greg Bear's "City at the End of Time"

These are for my upcoming review of City at the End of Time (to be published in the near future at )

Some Clarifications of City at the End of Time:

Again, I’d encourage you to give the book a chance before reading the notes below. Granted, I don’t plan to give any major spoilers, but still I think you’ll be served by trying out the book first.
Okay, here goes. These were the points that caught me up most while reading:

In City at the End of Time, it is understood that several parallel realities exist at the same time. (Those who can shift, for example, can leap from reality to reality.) There is a force in the universe which works to bind them into a coherent harmony, and a force which exists to sever and destroy those which cannot be harmonized. At the end of at least one of these realities is a city—the last city.

The “zeros” are—I think—the exponential number of years since creation. So, “ten zeros” would be something like 1010 and “fourteen zeros” would be 1014, or ten billion and one thousand trillion years, respectively. In other words, the book spans a really long time.

But! As the millennia have gone on, entropy and chaos have begun to grow in the galaxy. The existence balanced between order and chaos has begun to fall apart. The laws of reason, logic, math, and all everything which holds the universe together have begun to break down. This assault has begun at the end of time, destroying or forcing together the realities, leaving only the city:

As the assault of the chaos has increased in intensity, it has spread through the past, destroying possible realities along the way as it moves towards consuming all things. Whenever the chaos cuts off a timeline, terminus, or the end of all possible fates is achieved. The tension of the book is the question of whether terminus will be the end of all things, or some reality will remain hold out against its assault.

And, well, summarizing this book could continue until terminus arrives (even Wikipedia doesn’t really do it justice). This should be enough to get you started and cover some of the more challenging chronological details—if you’re brave enough to venture into so dense a tome.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Life Together III: Unity and Peace

Once upon a time, I started blogging through my church's covenant. As with so many things, this has been swept aside by a combination of teaching, dissertating, and laziness. But, with my teaching schedule this semester fairly light, and the end of the dissertation drawing nigh, I've been looking for something not related to Jonathan Edwards (my dissertation's subject) to spend a minute or two here and there working on. I've also been trying to be more disciplined with my writing (thank you Stephen King), and I really need something to work on that's not related to Jonathan Edwards.
Did I mention I need a distraction from Edwards?

So, I thought I'd pick up a neglected blog series and carry it at least a step forward, even if I immediately have to go back to Edwards afterwards, and I thought my series on the church covenant was a good one to get back to. (Possibly inspired by reciting it for communion the other morning during the service.)
Without further ado, onward to the covenant!

"We will work and pray for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

-Capitol Hill Baptist Church Covenant, Paragraph 2

As with the first paragraph of the covenant, this statement acts as a declaration rather than as a law. Christians are people who do this, it is descriptive of our life together as a church. We are not to read this as "if we work and pray, then we will have unity and peace." Instead, we should see this as a snapshot of the church in action. We know that the Gospel is at work when we see Christians living working and praying for unity and peace. To that end, there are three things going on in this paragraph:

  1. What we hope for;
  2. How we strive to achieve that hope;
  3. Where our hope is found;
  1. The Christian church hopes for unity and peace. Very often the world defines both of these concepts as simply being a lack of conflict. We as a nation are at peace with other nations if we are not fighting with them and unified with ourselves if we are not at each others' throats. Yet the church is called to a higher level of unity and peace based not on anything in ourselves, but in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are unified and at peace with God and with each other because of the forgiveness that comes through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is pictured by marriage. Consider the writing of the Italian Reformer
    We know that the custom of marriage is that two become one flesh; and the goods of both become common, so that the husband claims the dowry of the wife, and in like manner the wife claims the house and all the riches of the husband... In the same way God has married his most dearly-beloved Son with the faithful soul, who having nothing of her own but sin, the Son of God nevertheless has not disdained to take her for his well-beloved spouse. And by the uniting and knitting together of this most holy matrimony, the thing that belongs to the one becomes the other's, so that Christ says then, 'the dowry of the soul, my dearly-beloved spouse, that is to say, your sins, the transgression of the law, the wrath of God against you... the prison of hell and all your other evils, are now under my power, and are mine to order, and it is mine to do with the dowry whatever pleases me, and therefore I will cast it upon the alter of my cross, and make it of no further effect.'
    God then seeing his Son all filled with the sin of his spouse, scourged him, and killed him upon a wooden cross; but he because he was his most dearly-beloved and obedient Son, he raised him again from death to life, and gave unto him all power in heaven and in earth, and has set him on his right hand. The spouse in like manner says with most hearty rejoicing, 'the realms and empires of my well-beloved husband are mine. I am queen and empress of heaven and earth, my husband's riches... his holiness, his innocency, his righteousness, his Godhead, with all his virtue and power, are my riches; and therefore I am holy, innocent, righteous, and godly; there is no spot in me... (The Benefit of Christ's Death

    In the same way, Christians in the church are united to each other as a group of people whose unity and peace are found outside of themselves and in the person and work of Christ. Because Christ takes our sin away from us, the obstacles to unity and peace are removed. And because he gives us his own righteousness, the foundation for fellowship is laid in heaven.
  2. Christians strive for these things by work and prayer.
    "Work" in this instance means that we obey the commands given by Christ to the church: we practice baptism, we celebrate the Lord's Supper, we exercise discipline, and above all we declare the Gospel to the world and to each other.
    "Prayer" in this context is the regular public acknowledgement of the absolute sovereignty of God over every aspect of church life, but especially over the unity and peace of the church. The very act of praying is a public declaration that we cannot hope to build this ourselves, but instead must rely on the mercy and power of God to do the work.
    By including both work and prayer, our covenant recognizes that the church is not a passive entity (work), even as it believes fully that God and God alone is capable of bringing to fruition his promises (prayer).
  3. Ultimately, our hope for unity and peace are found in the Holy Spirit. It is very difficult to talk about the Holy Spirit, since His primary function Scripturally seems to be to direct our attention to Jesus. Every time we think about the Spirit's role, our minds should to some extent slide off of Him and onto Christ. This may explain why so few books have been written on the Spirit (so few good ones, at any rate- to the best of my knowledge limited to Abraham Kuyper's, John Owen's, R.C. Sproul's, Sinclair Ferguson's, and Francis Chan's; if you know of any others kindly drop me a note as I'd be interested to read them). And yet, the Spirit is the means by which God binds his church together. Our unity and peace are built by and in the Spirit. He works in the hearts of believes to draw the church together or, in the case of judgment or trial, withdraws and allows it to fall apart. And honestly, I don't know that I have much more to say about the work of the Spirit in the church. Not that there isn't much more to say, just that I need to give the issue more thought and attention than I have in the past. (Hence- Kuyper's book is on my "to-read" list, as is Owen's.) 
All of this to say that a true church (and may that always be our church) will work and pray for the bond of peace and unity of the Spirit. Regular reminders that we should be doing so should serve to spur us on to further prayer and work both when gathered as a church body and on our own.