Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Naming your Christian Conference in the New Year

For those of you who plan conferences for Christians, in 2014 kindly remember the rules for naming your conference:

1) You may use no more than one (1) word;
2) The word must be imperative;
3) The word must be vaguely theological, even if it's not clear as to why.

Here are some suggestions, just for free:


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Did I meet the goal I forgot had I set for myself?

At the end of last year, Ross Douthat (just how do you say his last name anyway?) challenged us to

1) take out a subscription for (and read in its entirety) a magazine that holds the opposite political position that you do (so, liberals should take up National Review, conservatives The Nation, etc);  
2) read the writings of someone who lives in a different geographic setting that you do (urbanites, check out the rural-minded Front Porch Republic; middle Americans, why not read the New York Times?);  
3) read the fringes--libertarians, Evangelical social Christians, communitarians, etc.

So, how have I measured up?

1) fail, utterly. While I have spent significant time reading books (selections listed below) and articles written by those with whom I disagree, that is exactly what Douthat said doesn't count. I have not subscribed to any opposite-me periodical and read it in its entirety. And now that I'm in reduced financial circumstances, this one may have to be a wash. The score: 0-1
2) win, technically. This one may be a bit unfair, since when I lived in DC (in the early part of this year), I was a fairly devoted follower of Front Porch Republic and a handful of other rural-focused publications. And now that I'm in middle-America, it's fairly easy just to keep up with the on-the-coast publications that I had followed living in DC. So while I've obeyed the letter of this suggestion, I can't claim to have followed its spirit. Fortunately, I'm not a legalist, so I'm going to call the score at this point 1-1. 
3) I think in the strictest sense of the term, I've got to call this a tie--and that because I am one of those people on the "fringes", so I can't count the reading it's fairly natural for me to read anyway. But then again, I am reading in this category. So: a tie.   
Which leaves me at 1-1-1. Possibly, this is the best I could have hoped for in a year as busy as 2013 has been...

The books I read this year with which I disagree (politically, and culled from my Goodreads list):

The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson
Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age by Steven Johnson (Review TBA)
What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael Sandel
Thinking the Twentieth Century by Tony Judt
Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark
The Founders' Key: The Divine and Natural Connection between the Declaration and the Constitution, and what we risk by Losing it by Larry Arnn (Review TBA)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

If Christianity is truth...

If Christianity is truth, it ought to touch on the whole of life. The modern drift in some evangelical circles toward being emotionally and experientially based is really very, very weak. The other side of the coin, though, is that Christianity must never be reduced merely to an intellectual system. It too has to touch the whole of life, which means the devotional and so on... After all, if God is there, if it isn't just an answer to an intellectual question, then he's really there. We should love him, we're called upon to adore him, to be in relationship to him, and, incidentally, to obey him.
We are in a pincer movement. On one hand you have the theological existentialists who are devaluating the Bible in making their division between the spiritual and the space-time cosmos. On the other hand you have people who claim to hold to the total authority of the Bible but who then, you find, are getting easy divorces and remarried. They go on being Christian leaders even though they have unbiblical divorces. In this pincer movement the Bible is being hit from two sides.
If God is really there, he is to be worshiped, he is to be adored, but he's also to be obeyed. Think back over the last ten years. How many sermons have you heard on 'Thou shalt' and 'Thou shalt not'? It is very few, curiously. If you listen with care to a great deal of the emotional Christianity that's being put forth, it is always what God can do for you. You hear nothing about what we're supposed to do for God. This is a tremendous lack. The concept of Christianity being truth and touching the fullness of life ought to contain all these elements. But then we would all have to say that none of us do it very well. We sure ought to struggle for it. 
Francis Schaeffer, interview with Colin Duriez in Francis Schaeffer: an Authentic Life, 220-221.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Setting the Record Straight...

Alternet has put up a useful article on "5 Christian Right Delusions and Lies about History" that's worth a response. This piece is interesting for a couple of reasons, first because it shows how the other side sees (and often stereotypes) us; second because it shows the kind of image we have admittedly helped to create for ourselves; and third it gives us (well, me at least) a chance to set the record straight.

Of course, even before doing that, we have to acknowledge that there certainly are Christians who believe these things. That is not an admission that Christians are always lying and delusional about history. There are atheists who believe that all Christians are immoral and awful people, but the fact that some atheists believe something so blatantly untrue does not discredit all atheists. There are a lot of Christians, and between us we hold a whole host of diverse historical views. And while I certainly don't claim to represent all of them, I at least hope to show that Christians can be reasonable and honest when it comes to understanding the past.

Below are my responses as a Christian to the claims about how we see history:

Claim 1: "Joe McCarthy was a good guy. A new and extremely toxic myth is beginning to percolate in on the Christian right: Insisting that Sen. Joseph McCarthy, a paranoid alcoholic who saw communist subversives in every corner, was actually an upstanding guy fighting for God and country. In 2003, Ann Coulter published a book she claims vindicates McCarthy..."

Response: Leaving aside the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, Ann Coulter speaks for no Christian group or denomination, I am quite happy to admit that Joe McCarthy did some awful things (sorry, I'm too ignorant of that aspect of history to speak to his personal life-he may or may not have been a "paranoid alcoholic", but that's more than I can say).
I am, however, equally happy to admit that the goal of fighting communism was (and is) an admirable one.
Does that mean Joe McCarthy was a good person? Of course not. Good general ends do not justify evil specific means.
I'd like to think that whether Christian or atheist, we can simultaneously reject McCarthyism AND communism without even necessarily bringing religion into it.

Claim 2: "What the Founding Fathers believed. For people who downright deify our Founding Fathers, the religious right is really hostile to accepting them as they actually were, which is not particularly religious, especially by the standards of their time. But David Barton, a revisionist "historian" whose name comes up again and again in these kinds of discussions, has spread the belief far and wide in the Christian right that the Founders were, in fact, fundamentalist Christians who are quite like the ones we have today."

Response: Really, I should direct you to my recent series rejecting much of the terrible history put forward by Barton-like writers, but even without turning to specific historical points we can hopefully all admit that there are good and bad historians on each side of this argument. Those who argue that the Founding Fathers were all Christian are just as wrong as those who argue that the Founding Fathers were all secular Enlightenment thinkers (and hence precursors to modern atheist humanists).
Moreover, there are reputable and talented historians who are Christian and reputable and talented historians who are atheist. When it comes to the American Founding, we should search out those who are reputable and talented historians on each side of the issue rather than the ones who sacrifice accuracy to ideology. As I've noted elsewhere, Christians above all others have a vested interested in historical honesty and accuracy--our faith depends upon it!

Claim 3: "God’s protection. If you believe the lie that the Founders intended this to be a religious nation and that secularism is only a recent development, it’s not much of a leap to decide next that God, in his anger, has turned his back on the United States. And therefore that bad things are happening to us because he doesn’t protect us anymore."

Response: Again, there are certainly Christians who believe this, but there are also any number of Christians who don't. If you want to read a good book by three solidly Evangelical scholars (well-known and academically solid ones) who lead the Christian charge against this position, I'm happy to endorse The Search for a Christian America by Mark Noll, George Marsden, and Nathan Hatch.

And I suppose in passing that I should point out that there's a bigger problem here. At the end of the day, Claim 3 is not really a historical question at all. Claiming that the reasons God does or does not do something in history are not ultimately historical questions. We are told what God is doing (that, in some sense, is the full definition of history), but we are certainly not told why. When Christians say "God has done X in history because of Y;" and when atheists reply by saying "no he hasn't!" (Or even "there's not God at all, so the Christian statement is meaningless.) Both have stepped outside of the realm of history and into theology and metaphysics. And while there is certainly a connection between those fields, I would suggest that on some level both sides are making categorical errors.

Claim 4: "Roman civilization. The Christian right doesn’t just like to lie about our own history; they lie about other nations, too. A popular theory on the right is that the Roman Empire “collapsed” because growing decadence and liberalism caused people to, I don’t know, be too busy screwing to govern. It’s always a little hazy, but the formula is standard: Romans started having a bunch of sex, stuff fell apart, warning for America."

Response: The great historian Edward Gibbon--certainly no Christian!--wrote in his masterpiece The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that the cause of the fall of Rome was... moral decline. Specifically, he argued that the immoral Christians distracted the virtuous pagans from the business of government with their obscure theological debates, and so the Empire fell. I find this argument endlessly fascinating, if ultimately uncompelling. Does this, however, mean that all secular humanists believe that Christianity caused the fall of Rome? Of course not.
That's a fairly superficial response, but on even a closer analysis we can see that to believe that this is how Christians view the fall of Rome is to be fundamentally ignorant of Christian history and theology. The definitive text on the subject was written by someone who was there: Augustine's City of God. In this book Augustine--the greatest theologian since the writing of the New Testament--says explicitly that Rome did not fall because of immorality. Or at least, it did not fall because it got less moral--it rose to power and then fell for exactly the same reasons that every other nation does: because of God's mysterious providence. When I said above that we can't know why God does things the way He does in history, I was really just cribbing from Augustine's book. God's actions are not dominated or driven by human morality or immorality--heaven help us if that ever becomes the case!
Again, I'm not saying that there aren't Christians who make this argument. I am saying that it's not the traditional or even the dominant modern one.

Claim 5: "French revolution. One problem with characterizing the American revolution as Christian instead of secular is that there was another one shortly thereafter, built on the same basic ideals, that was undeniably secular due to the aggressive attacks on Catholic power. If the French were so secular, how could the Americans not be? The answer to the conundrum is to lie and claim there was some kind of gulf between the ideals of the French Revolution and the American Revolution."

Response: While I confess I don't follow the modern Christian political right as much as I should, I don't know that I've seen a groundswell of hatred for the French Revolution coming from Evangelical popular writers. (That's more of a paleoconservative concern anyway--a demographic which is sadly lacking in Christian thinkers.)

If there is, well then this might be a case of "a pox on both your houses." To say that the difference between the Revolutions comes down to a question of being Christian vs. being atheist (as the article claims Christians believe) is wrong; but so is claiming that the French and American revolutions are really driven by the same spirit. After all, whatever it might eventually become, the American Revolution kicks off when American colonists believe that their rights as British subjects are being violated. And to the best of my knowledge, no one (Christian or otherwise) has made the patently silly claim that such was the origin of the French Revolution.
This isn't to say the revolutions were unrelated (Thomas Paine being a key connection), but it is to say that there's more complexity here than either side tends to realize. For more discussion on this, traditionalist conservative writers are where you want to go, not modern Evangelicals.

I suspect that one reply to these comments will be "yes Coyle, you may not believe these things, but all those stupid Christians out there do. And really, the fact that you hold these opinions suggests that you might not be a very good Christian in the first place."
I suppose the first statement might be true, and the second one certainly is true (if we're talking holiness). After all, as I noted above there are a lot of Christians out there who believe a whole host of things. But, I think it's a bit problematic to point at the extremes of, say, the Tea Party and then try to tie that to all right-leaning Christians. There are those sorts, to be sure. But there's also a hefty number of agrarians (like some of the folks at Front Porch Republic); thoughtful postmoderns (like the folks at Postmodern Conservative); and throughout academia who are doing the hard work of trudging through history for the benefit of the church and the world alike. And, well, I'm just not convinced that all of these small movements taken in the aggregate are the minority. They're not necessarily organized, and they're not all concerned with the same issues, but they're also not small in number.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thoughts on Negative Reviews

I love being a book reviewer. Not only do I get free books out of it, but I also get to read them and then tell people what I thought. And really, reading and having opinions are two of the things I do best (not necessarily in that order).
Being a book reviewer is, well, it's like someone gives you a piece of cake, asks you to eat the cake, then asks you what your opinion about the cake is, and then applauds you for giving your opinion on the cake (if you do it well enough and fairly often).
Of course, it's not all cake. Sometimes you are given brussel sprouts and lima beans, and you have to review those too. There are books that it's good for us to read, even if they're not completely enjoyable.
Sometimes, unfortunately, we're given cardboard. It's not good for you, but you can eat it and it won't kill you.
But every once in a while, someone hands you a plate with a giant, steaming pile of horse droppings on it. Which often raises a difficult problem for a reviewer? What do we do when that happens? Do we try to find the positive, no matter how obscure ("It looks like it was a good year for alfalfa and oats!" "My, the color scheme certainly matches the smell in just the right way!")? Or do we unleash our inner honesty and give a negative review?

Micah Mattix over at The American Conservative gives five reasons why negative reviews are good things:
(I'll summarize here, but the whole article is worth your time)

  1. "First, it’s called criticism for a reason because you’re, like, supposed to think and, like, evaluate the quality of something?... If a book is ugly, a critic needs to explain clearly why and support his or her judgment with proof, not hide behind veiled criticisms.
  2. Second, and related to the above, writing or publishing only positive reviews is impractical and encourages an unhelpful kind prejudice (pre-judging) because it would seem to require either the suppression of negative reviews or a misguided attempt to determine whether a book is good or bad before reading it.
  3. Third, bad books are harmful. There seems to be the attitude amongst the only-positive-review crowd that bad books are really not that harmful to culture, and that, therefore, they should simply be ignored.
  4. Fourth, only publishing good reviews is harmful to the critic and to criticism. The value of criticism is in large part related to trust. If readers don’t trust a critic to provide them with honest and reliable criticism, why would they read his or her reviews? And if a critic or a book section never publishes a negative review, how can readers determine if either the critic or the book section is honest and reliable?
  5. Last, negative reviews are fun to read. "

Saturday, November 9, 2013

My Reflections on the Worst of the Worst- "Under God" by Toby Mac and Michael Tait: Book Review

So, I finally finished this problematic and troublesome book. If you are friends with me on Goodreads, you'll know that I gave it 3 stars, which might raise some eyebrows given the awful things I'm about to say about the book. Just so you know, my rock-solid rule is that if a book is well-written, it gets a minimum of three stars. In an era when anyone can crank out a book for a minimum investment of time and resources, quality writing needs to be celebrated and rewarded. Aside from the content, the style and construction of this book were quite good.

But when it comes to the content, this book is right on the border between "worthless" and "dangerous." Since I've already commented on some of the specifics (links at the end), I'll keep it general here.

Disclaimer (which I've given before): I am in no way questioning whether or not the authors of this book are Christian. I'm merely commenting on their political philosophy, interpretations of history, and theology.

In general, there are two fundamental problems with this book: its bad history and its bad theology.

Bad History

I've already dealt with some of the more specific egregious historical errors, but in general Under God is problematic in how it lays out a two-sided approach to American history. On the one hand, we are given a vision of a golden past where America was God's nation and all the Founding Fathers were Christian. This past gradually declined into the present, where atheism has run rampant and we have gotten away from our roots as a Christian nation. Story after story of our Founders' faith (even the anti-Trinitarian John Adams is used at one point, along with the cultist Sojourner Truth) are thrown out before us along with out-of-context quotes, questionable interpretations, and frankly a one-sided view of history. It probably bears repeating that not only were most of the Founders NOT Christian, even the few that were could not agree on whether or not the American revolution was a good thing (to say nothing of the later Constitution--which Christians for the most part seemed to oppose).

We must remember that "The Founders" were not a monolithic entity whose spirit we need to try to recapture today, they were a diverse group of individuals and factions who each had their own views on religion, politics, and the world. I'll include some links below for good overview sources for the Founding Period that will give a better interpretation of the various views of the generation of the 1770s.

Alas, that's not the only problem. On the one hand we have the Golden Age view of American history. On the other hand, Under God gives us a vision of a past mired in the sin of slavery, racism, and sexism. Over time, so the book implies, we have gradually clawed our way out of this past into the enlightened present, where these horrible evils are dead and we have true brotherhood in our nation (or would have, if only we'd get back to our Christian roots). To be sure, the darker aspects of American history are relevant and do demand much more attention than they've been given (especially at the popular level), but I'm not convinced this is the way to do it. While most of the stories on this topic in Under God are by themselves unobjectionable and fairly straightforward (if not always completely historically accurate), as the book progresses a pattern begins to unfold--a pattern intended to suggest that America used to struggle with these evils, but no longer does. As a result, I believe these past-negative stories are little more than a cathartic "see, we believe in sin too--but fortunately it was all in the way back when, and we've moved beyond it." Which works if we're talking about slavery (the bulk of the book's attention, though Native Americans and suffrage get nods as well). Clearly we no longer have slaves--that is an evil that has been vanquished. And yet, if we start talking about greed, or apathy, or pride, or gluttony, or self-indulgence, or, well, any other of a host of sins that we could raise, it's hard to see how we can have any kind of rosy view of moral progress (or regress) in America.

But so what? It's a history book, shouldn't everything be about the past anyway? This is a big deal because Under God's treatment of sin in American history requires absolutely nothing of the reader other than a feeling of shame and regret, followed by a feeling of relief as we note that the things which cause our shame and regret are increasingly in the distant past. True, we are perhaps concerned at the atheistic tendencies of the present, and filled a longing for the golden days of yore when everyone was a Christian. And maybe we're even tempted to get angry at the decline of religion in modern America (though to be fair, Under God steers away from that particular emotion for the most part). Yet you will search in vain for something that will personally convict you or in any way challenge you to change your life. Of course, this is a history book--in that sense it should be all focused on the past. (Well, 'history' book.) But the stated agenda at the beginning of the book is to "ignite a passion and inspire you to learn more about the great heritage you have and to seek out the unfinished work left to do." (9) A noble enough goal, but not one met by Under God.

Bad Theology

Really, the best thing I can do is point you to Miles Mullin's post on Thomas Kidd's blog, where he takes on the project of the group behind the publication of this book (the "Wallbuilders"). Mullin writes of how according to this worldview:
The United States has been uniquely blessed because of its Christian character...
If the founders used Christian words, they must mean what we mean.  Divorced from their context, quote after quote made founder after founder sound evangelical.  Even Charles Carroll, the sole Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, came across sounding like a good Baptist...
At the end of the presentation, [the listeners] were left with the following impressions: the founders were religious.  They were religious just like me.  Because they were religious like me, God has uniquely blessed America, per Psalm 33:12.  And, if we want the blessings to continue, we need to elect righteous people.
The same agenda is at work in Under God. This is idolatry of the second-highest order (the first-highest of course being actually worshiping statues), wherein the Christian life is identified with the life of the political community. Americans are not God's people--not even the Americans of the Founding generation. Only Christians can lay claim to that title, and even then not because of anything inherent to us (either where we're born or what nation we're born into), but only because of the grace of God and His kindness in Christ.

As believers, we must remember that our country is ultimately not America--that is a temporary and passing thing. Our city has eternal foundations with God as its architect and builder. It will last forever, while America (and England, and France, and China, and Israel, and all the other nations of the earth) will eventually cease to exist, either through the providential working of history over time or immediately when Christ returns. There is no spiritual benefit that inherently comes from being an American--we may have different opportunities than Christians in other nations (easy access to good books, for example), but we are by no means better because we live in a nation that God loves more. As I pointed out in a previous post, America holds a place in God's providential plan for the world, but it is not any more special a place than that of any other country.

And, [sigh], I've got more of these books to read, so I should save something for later reviews. The short version is this: we must never put our faith in our nation, or in God's blessings on our nation. And we should certainly never assume that if only we all become Christians, America will become some sort of elect country. Our hope should be centered on Christ alone and His atoning work on the cross. Salvation does not come through having a country full of Christians, salvation comes to us when we reject our sin and embrace the Gospel offer in faith.

I've included some links below if you want to read more on the subjects mentioned in this post.

Previous Comments on Under God:
First Thoughts
Second Thoughts
Third Thoughts
Bet You're Surprised I had this Many Thoughts
Latest Thoughts

For Further (and better) Reading
American Founding:
Founding Brothers by Joseph Ellis
The Creation of the American Republic by Gordon Wood
Novus Ordo Seculorum by Forrest MacDonald
The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution by Bernard Bailyn
Freedom Just Around the Corner by Walter MacDougall

Political Theology:
City of God by Augustine
Lectures on Calvinism by Kuyper
Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms and Living in God's Two Kingdoms by David Van Drunen
The Search for a Christian America by Noll, Hatch, and Marsden
Christianity and Classical Culture by Charles Norris Cochrane
Just a note: this last one is difficult and dense, but it's also a great introduction to how Christians interacted with the state in the first four centuries AD. I know of no secondary source that compares in terms of richness and depth for any other period of history...

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: "Arguing with Socrates: An Introduction to Plato's Shorter Dialogues" by Christopher Warne

Arguing with Socrates by Christopher Warne is a brief introduction to and overview of several of Plato's short dialogues. The book is divided into two parts. In Part One, Warne introduces the people in the dialogues and discusses the roles they play (both dramatic and philosophical). He also surveys the Socratic methods and means used in the dialogues to arrive at Socrates' (or Plato's) philosophical position. Part Two is a survey of nine short dialogues: The Apology, Crito, Euthyphro, Hippias Major, Ion, Laches, Meno, Protagoras, and Symposium.

Overall, this book is a brief, well-written, and thoughtful overview of some of Plato's best known short works. Warne writes clearly and well, blending smoothly Plato's ancient ideas with examples and anecdotes drawn from contemporary society. He clearly has a grasp of both Plato and modern scholarship, as well as an understanding of the practical application of otherwise abstract ideas and problems.

And yet, I would hesitate to recommend this book to the intended audience. The claim is that Arguing with Socrates is an introductory work to the problems of Platonic philosophy, and that's true as far as it goes. The problem is that while Arguing with Socrates does not necessarily require an introductory knowledge of Plato or his writings, it does assume a base understanding of the discipline of philosophy. Werne's introductory material and language throughout the book are, I suspect, not intentionally targeted at those who already possess a basic understanding of the discipline, yet I couldn't help but think that someone who picked up this text who had not taken at least an Intro to Philosophy course would quickly be lost. (Chapter 2 is probably the worst offender here.) I was considering this book for a short course I'm teaching as an introduction to Plato, but I'm afraid that much of it will be over their heads. Perhaps not very far over their heads, but enough that it would be more trouble that it's worth.

Which is not to say that the book is without its merits. While I do not recommend Arguing with Socrates as an introductory book to those new to the study of Plato or philosophy, I am quite happy to endorse it as a useful refresher for those returning to the field. It would make a great book for the first week of a graduate course (possibly even a senior-level undergraduate course) that would serve to remind the students of the terms and ideas they may have forgotten over the summer or winter break.
And of course, it's an excellent book for those of us who just love the material. If you're a Plato junkie, I'm happy to recommend this book to you.

I received this book for free from the publisher. I was not required to give it a positive review. 

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book Review: Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Tertullian, Parts I, II, and III

Good LORD these volumes take forever to finish. I mean, theoretically I read 10 pages/day, and the whole thing should take me no more than 70-some odd days. But in the real world, 1) I get busy and don't always have time to knock out 10 pages/day; 2) each page is double-columned, so 10 pages is really 20 pages; 3) this isn't always the most thrilling writing; 4) this isn't always the most useful writing-- though 3) and 4) should probably be following by a ton of caveats (which I won't).

With all of that said, despite how long it took me to finish the volume, it was worthwhile. Tertullian is one of the two most important writers of the pre-Augustine/post-NT church (along with Origen), and as such is worth taking a bit more time to work through. He ably defended the faith in the face of persecution, was direct and assertive in facing down heresy, stood staunchly on revealed truth in a world of relativistic morality, and was the first to articulate several key theological ideas (for example, he coined the word "Trinity"). While not every work in the volume is of equal value, they're all interesting and have much to say. That in later years Tertullian stumbled into heresy himself is unfortunate, but does not diminish his contributions to the formation of the church. (The heresy in question was Montanism, which if it existed today would be an extreme form of ascetic Pentacostalism--so not the worst heresy you can end up in, and I will be surprised if the good Mr. Tertullian is not in heaven when I get there, since to the best of our knowledge he never rejected the Trinity or the atonement, and only held a distorted view of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.)

This volume contains:

The Apology: In this work, Tertullian defends Christianity by pointing out how wrong it is of the Romans to persecute Christians both morally and legally. After all, if Christianity is just another philosophy (as some claim), then why aren't other philosophies persecuted? And if Christians are being persecuted for being immoral, why not go after pagans, who are so much worse? In point of fact Christians are persecuted merely because they carry the name "Christian", which has been declared illegal, which in turn is just evidence that the law can err. Tertullian ends by giving a picture of Christian life and practice, and encouraging Christians to hold to the truth even through persecution. "The oftener we are mown down by you [pagans], the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed." (55)

On Idolatry: Idolatry is, according to Tertullian, the chief crime of humanity, since all sins ultimately flow back to it. In this sense, "idolatry" is not merely the act of bowing down to idols (though it is certainly that), but it is at root the desire to worship something other than God. Statues are actually later additions to this practice.
But this is really just the surface concern of the book, on a deeper level Tertullian is attempting to explain how Christians can live in a society so dominated and defined by sin. Idolatry, in his time, pervaded everything--public events, the marketplace, popular worship, politics, entertainment, and so on. While any of these things might be fine by themselves (nothing wrong with athletics, after all), when idolatry is mixed in it becomes a matter of conscience that the Christian has to work through. [We might consider similar questions in the context of sexuality or greed today.] Overall, we must think carefully and try our best to live pure and clean lives so that we are a model of the truth to others and pursuing holiness ourselves. The good news is, we are not left to ourselves in this pursuit, indeed God has given us faith as the means by which we can live in as redeemed sinners in a sinful world: ""Amid these reefs and inlets, amid these shallows and straits of idolatry, Faith, her sails filled by the Spirit of God, navigates; safe if cautious, secure if intently watchful." (75)

The Shows, or De Spectaculis: Christians should not attend events in the public theaters (including athletic contests, plays, gladiatorial combats, etc) because doing so exposes us and incites us to all manner of sins. These include (but are not limited to): idolatry, lust, mob frenzy, violence, and a whole host of others. This is not to say that Christianity is a dour and joyless religion, it is in fact ultimately a patient one. Because we have a show and a spectacle stored up for us the likes of which the world cannot begin to imagine: present salvation and the coming return of Christ are a spectacle without parallel. "For what more delightful than to have God the Father and our Lord at peace with us, than revelation of the truth, than confession of our errors, than pardon of the innumerable sins of our past life? What greater pleasure than distaste of pleasure itself, contempt of all that the world can give, true liberty, a pure conscience, a contented life, and freedom from all fear of death?... These are the pleasures, these the spectacles that befit Christian men--holy, everlasting, free." (90-91)
But even more than the games and contests of the world, Christians are participants in the great spectacle of salvation: "Behold unchastity overcome by chastity, perfidy slain by faithfulness, cruelty stricken by compassion, impudence thrown into the shade by modesty; these are the contests we have among us, and in these we win our crowns. Would you have something of blood too? You have Christ's." (91)

The Chaplet, or De Corona: This treatise asks the question of whether a Christian can, in good conscience, receive honors from the world. Under consideration here are specifically military awards, "the crown" being something akin to a modern Congressional Medal of Honor. Military service in the ancient world involved all sorts of things which were objectionable to Christians, including worship of the Emperor and idolatry. But even those sins aside, the biggest objection to a Christian wearing "the crown" is that it is rooted in warfare itself: "shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?" (99)
Christians should not kill, when God has forbidden it and so much has been done to bring us to life. And if we still desire the glory of the crown, we should remember that the crowns of the world are sinful for Christians when there is a heavenly crown awaiting those who patiently wait for the return of Christ. That is all the reward we should need or desire.

To Scapula: Akin to the Apology, To Scapula is written to the Proconsul of Carthage (Scapula) in defense of Christians against their legal persecution. This short work is simply wonderful, and is a stirring defense of Christianity at its best. "For our religion commands us to love even our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us... For all love those who love them; it is peculiar to Christians alone to love those who hate them." (105) Or again: "A Christian is enemy to none, least of all to the Emperor of Rome, whom he knows to be appointed by his God, and so cannot but love and honor; and whose well-being moreover, he must needs desire, with that of the empire of which he reigns so long as the world shall stand--for so long as that shall Rome continue. To the emperor, therefore, we render such reverential homage as is lawful for us and good for him." (105-106)

Ad Nationes: The first book of this work is a defense of Christian morality in the face of Roman criminal charges, and a challenge to the pagans to clean their own house before pointing fingers at the sins of the Christians. The pagans are quick to blame the problems of the world on the Christians, when in fact there were problems in the world long before there were ever Christians. Also in this book Tertullian clears up some misconceptions about who and what the Christians worship, which in turn tells us what some of the stories circulating around the Empire at the time must have been. Tertullian argues that Christians do not worship the head of an ass, the cross, or the sun. Nor do we sacrifice infants, in fact Christians are the first to rush to save "aborted" (i.e. abandoned--the ancient version of abortion) babies whenever possible. You pagans need to fix yourselves of all these ills first, though of course if you truly fix all your own problems, you will have become Christians!
The second book holds up Christianity as truth in the face of pagan religion and philosophy. He does not give an extensive overview of the pagan systems, but deals generally with the more absurd of their beliefs and ideas, concluding that the mythic "gods" of the pagans are morally awful ("Must we regard it as a subject of ridicule or indignation, that such characters are believed to be gods who are not fit to be men?") and that the greatness of the Romans is not due to their piety or the generosity of their "gods", but only to God alone who distributes kingdoms and empires as He sees fit.

An Answer to the Jews: This work apparently began in the form of a public debate between an unnamed Christian and Jew. The onlookers got a little raucous, and the debate was broken up. Tertullian thought this was a good thing, because it meant that the debate became a written one, which means that each point can now be dealt with in detail.
The big two points Tertullian engages are 1) the relationship between the Gentiles and the Law and 2) Christ's fulfillment of the Law. As for the first, the Law of God is for all mankind, beginning in the Garden of Eden and passing down through the generations. "For in this law given to Adam we recognize in embryo all the precepts which afterwards sprouted forth when given through Moses." (152) The summary of all these is that we should love God and our neighbor. Yet when Christ came, these laws were superseded by Him about whom they were ultimately written. "But Christ's Name is extending everywhere, believed everywhere, worshiped by all the above-enumerated nations, reigning everywhere, adored everywhere, conferred equally everywhere upon all. No king, with Him, finds greater favor, no barbarian lesser joy; no dignities or pedigrees enjoy distinctions of merit; to all He is equal, to all King, to all Judge, to all God and Lord." (158)

The Soul's Testimony: If you won't listen to us Christians or read our books for the evidence for Christianity, maybe, Tertullian argues, you'll listen to the evidence--the "testimony"-- of your own soul. Even the naked, untaught, and unregenerate heathens know in the depths of their souls that there is a God, that we are sinners, that there are demons and a spiritual world, and that there is a coming resurrection and judgment. We see these things reflected in our thoughts, words, and actions, will we not then believe the evidence we produce from the very depths of our being?

A Treatise on the Soul: Tertullian begins this treatise by reminding us that all truth is founded only on Revelation. To be sure, some philosophers from time to time stumble on the truth--we after all have intelligence. Yet, even when pagan philosophers have truth they can't help but pervert it. Christians, however, have the Scriptures and need not--indeed are commanded not to--go beyond what God has revealed.
What, then, has been revealed about the soul? 1) It was created by God at birth from nothing, it has neither eternal existence nor its origin from matter; 2) the soul is tied to the body, as the Stoics teach and the Platonists deny; 3) the soul, however, is also spiritual and simple, as Plato teaches, and not just tied to our bodies; 4) the mind and the soul are connected, but the soul is superior and drives the mind; 5) the soul is divisible in the sense that we can speak of different aspects of it (intelligence, reason/irrationality, the senses), it is not divisible in the sense that it can be cut into pieces like an arm or a leg; 6) the soul has free will, though this is itself under grace; 7) the soul is not God, contrary to Plato's claim; 8) the soul is created at conception, and so abortion ought to be condemned; 9) the soul is neither reincarnated nor transmigrated, contrary to Pythagoras; 10) the soul is the source of sin, though we must not push this too far lest we end up as reverse-Gnostics--the flesh too is guilty; 11) the soul has something to do with sleep and dreams, even if we're not exactly sure what--though ti seems that they can be diabolical, Divine, or natural; 12) death separates the soul from the body temporarily as a result of sin; 13) magic cannot affect the soul--only God can do this.
Overall, this is a fascinating little treatise with some key points for Christian theology, and obviously some ideas and doctrines that would become less important over the years :)

The Prescription Against Heretics: The existence of heresy should not surprise us, nor should the departure of heretics from the body of believers. Falling into heresy is not a failure of faith, it's a sign of lack of faith in the first place. In fact, it's a sign that the person has followed his own will rather than the will of God by choosing to align himself with the wisdom and philosophy of the world, and after all what does this wisdom have to do with true righteousness? "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? what between heretics and Christians?... Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides." (246)
We should of course seek the truth, but we should also stop seeking once we've found it. And this is the true point of the treatise: heretics appeal to Scripture, and we must deny them this. They should not be allowed to use Scriptures when by their words and actions they deny their content.
The general pattern that heretics follow is to deny the authority of the traditional teachings of the church, and instead claim that a new and "secret" teaching of the Apostles has been discovered and revealed only to the few. In truth, there is no "secret" doctrine and no new revelation of truth. The church and tradition have faithfully transmitted the teachings of Scripture from the Apostles to us, and we should hesitate to claim that all the faithful believers who have gone before us were wrong in their faith. And what is that faith which was held by the Apostles, written down in Scripture, and carried on by the church?
Now, with regard to this rule of faith--that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend--it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is only one God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen "in diverse manners" by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promised of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. (249)
If that sounds familiar, it's the seed form of what would eventually become the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds. Heretics are those who reject these teachings and hold to their own imaginations.

The Five Books Against Marcion: Oh goodness, this is the big one. Weighing in at about 1/3 of the whole volume, Tertullian's response to Marcion is probably not worth the time it takes to read the whole thing, especially if you've read Irenaeus' Against Heresies from Volume 1 of this series. While Marcion wasn't exactly a Gnostic (the objections of Irenaeus' ire), Tertullian thinks he's close enough for government work. In short, Marcion argues that there are actually two "gods" found in the Bible, the cruel and just god of the Old Testament, who created matter and judges the world with fire and brimstone; and the loving and kind god of the New Testament, who comes in the person of Jesus and who is loving and forgiving. What, then, do we do with all the New Testament stuff about justice and judgment? We cut it out of course. Marcion skimmed down the New Testament until all that was left were Luke, Acts, and certain writings of Paul. Tertullian of course has an aneurysm over this, and the five books against Marcion is the result.
I don't think it's worthwhile to give an extensive summary/review of these books. Instead, I'll just bring up a few things that jumped out at me:
1) Tertullian thinks this all started with an undue attention to the problem of evil: "Now (like many other persons now-a-days, especially those who have a heretical proclivity), while morbidly brooding over the question of the origin of evil, his [Marcion's] perception became blunted by the very irregularity of his researches." (272)
2) Tertullian argues that by definition, God must be one rather than two. Christ, he argues, reveals the Creator; Christ does not reveal an unbridgeable division between the Law and the Gospel.
3) God is perfect, but He has complex emotions--which are required for justice. Marcion's "god", on the other hand, is a limp-wristed weakling who can never be just. "Listen, ye sinners; and ye who have not yet come to this, hear, that you may attain to such a pass! A better god has been discovered, who never takes offence, is never angry, never inflicts punishment, who has prepared no fire in hell, no gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness! He is purely and simply good. He indeed forbids all delinquency, but only in word. He is in you, if you are willing to pay him homage, for the sake of appearances, that you may seem to honor God; for your fear he does not want!" (292) Tertullian goes on then to ask how, if they don't fear God, the Marcionites ever avoid sin? "Why do you not frequent the customary pleasures of the maddening circus, the bloodthirsty arena, and the lascivious theater?" (292-293) He notes that they reply by saying that they fear sin, and would never do such things, to which Tertullian responds that they are in a twisted way giving more homage to sin than they are to God.
4) We cannot separate God's goodness from His justice, and in these two together we see how it is that God "creates" evil. When we sin, He punishes us for our sin--this is a judicial evil that ultimately, for God's people, falls on Christ instead of on us. "If, however, you accept the gospel of truth, you will discover on whom recoils the sentence of the Judge." (309) We see woven through human history a mix of God's goodness and His justice, the two simply cannot be separated however we may take scissors to the Bible and try to make it happen.
5) Christ comes from the Creator, as prophesied on the Old Testament. What this means is that we cannot say that there are two separate gods in each Testament. Tertullian spends a great deal of time (and most of Book III) explaining exactly how Jesus can be seen in the OT and how He is the very God described there.
6) In cutting up the New Testament, Marcion has described a god and a christ who reflect his own character. But, just so he can't cry "foul," Tertullian engages Marcion on his own turf and argues in Books IV and V from Luke's and Paul's writings. Over and over Tertullian argues from Scripture the unity of the Godhead and the unity of the Testaments, arguing that the division between Old and New is one established by God, not a division of gods.

As I said, this work is long and dense, and probably will be most of interest to those who study how the church fathers approached and interpreted Scripture. If you're going to read this, I suggest just the first Three books and then skimming IV and V.

Against Hermogenes: Repeating a theme from Against Marcion and The Prescription against Heretics, Tertullian reiterates that heresy is always new and truth is always old. Hermogenes has rejected creation ex nihilo ("from nothing") and instead has embraced pagan philosophical creation accounts. He claims that for God to be eternally "Lord", there must have been eternal matter for God to be "Lord" of. Yet, Tertullian points out that while God is always God, "Lord" is a relative title that comes with creation.
Moreover, God alone has the property of eternity, while matter is created by God from nothing and will return to nothing in judgment when the world is recreated with a new, glorified matter.

Against the Valentinians: You just can't talk to some people! Some heretics simply will not reply to challenges "If you propose to them inquiries sincere and honest, they answer you with stern look and contracted brow and say "The subject is profound." If you try them with subtle questions, with the ambiguities of their double tongue, they affirm a community of faith (with yourself). If you intimate to them that you understand their opinions, they insist on knowing nothing themselves. If you come to a close engagement with them, they destroy your own fond hope of a victory over them by a self-immolation." (503-504) In other words, Tertullian had troubles with hipsters too! This particular heresy (another variant of Gnosticism) is so broad and slippery that it can be hard to refute. "But this heresy is permitted to fashion itself into as many various shapes as a courtezan, who usually changes and adjusts her dress every day. And why not? When they review that spiritual seed of theirs in every man after this fashion, whenever they have hit upon any novelty, they forthwith call their presumption a revelation, their own perverse ingenuity a spiritual gift." (505)
Fortunately, it's okay to laugh at heretics sometimes, so long as we're not being unseemly when we're doing so.
Really, the chief value of this treatise is that it provides a short, accessible, hilarious introduction to Gnosticism and the Christian response. I would actually recommend reading this even before Irenaeus' Against Heretics, even if that's not the right chronological order. This little survey is an easier read and summarizes more clearly, as well as giving a bit of humor into the mix.

On the Flesh of Christ: There are some who argue that Jesus wasn't really a human being, he was just a god in human shape, or an illusion, or just a soul, or just a body. Jesus' flesh was just as ours is, save for not having a sin nature. Scripture is clear that if this is not true, then there is no resurrection and no salvation. That some people say the idea of a God-man is absurd should be no barrier to Christian belief. "The Son of God was crucified; I am not ashamed because men must needs be ashamed of it. And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible." (525) This short, easy, work is well worth reading at least once, maybe more.

On the Resurrection of the Flesh: The Resurrection of the dead is a fairly unique Christian doctrine which flows from the Incarnation and the Crucifixion. There are of course a few of the heathen who believe in the resurrection, but the vast majority reject the flesh as unworthy or being brought back to life. After all, who really wants this gross thing back anyway?
But Christians teach that man was made in the image of God, and so is noble not because of anything inherently good in the flesh, but because of the skill and glory of the one who made it. And so when we are saved, we are saved both body and soul. Our souls are forgiven now and our bodies will be redeemed one day in the future. Our whole person is saved by the Gospel and will be renewed by grace for the purpose of joy and life. We will have restored bodies, new functions, glory like the angels, and a perfected identity.

Against Praxeas: Some people (Praxeas, presumably) have been arguing that in the Incarnation the Father became man (Monarchianism) and suffered on the cross (patripassianism). In response, we must understand the doctrine of the Trinity. This is hard for the common man to grasp (or the uncommon, for that matter), but we must always remember that the Son proceeds from the Father as the Word and Wisdom of God. The Trinity is unified and economically diverse at the same time.
We, however, as we indeed always have done... believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oikonomia [economy], as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her--being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and int he Holy Ghost. (598)
This is an excellent little treatise to begin a careful study of the Trinity, so long as it is not the place one ends such a study. For further reading on this, B.B. Warfield's essays on Tertullian on the Trinity are excellent, as is Edwards' unpublished essay on the Trinity.

Scorpiace: This short work is one of Tertullian's best, and is intended to encourage Christians facing persecution ("the scorpion's sting"). He reminds us that martyrdom is a duty ordained by God as the inevitable result of obeying His will. After all, no one complains about the brutality of sporting events--they celebrate the victory gained through the pain just as we are to celebrate the victory of heaven gained by the pain of martyrdom.

Against All Heresies:  This work wasn't by Tertullian, but is a short survey of heresy from Simon Magus through Praxaeas. It's interesting, but not terribly useful beyond filling in a few details here and there.

On Repentance: This excellent little treatise explores the nature of Christian repentance, especially in contrast to pagan views of the same. Tertullian points out that pagans believe that repentance is disgust at previously cherished sentiments based on rightly-ordered reason. This, he admits, is true as far as it goes--it simply doesn't go far enough. True repentance is rational, to be sure, but it is founded on grace rather than on reason and involves a changed life, rather than merely a feeling of disgust. When we repent, we put to death sin and pursue good deeds. We have a changed life both physically and spiritually (the two are of equal value). True repentance does not return to sin, and without true repentance we can expect no forgiveness--even if we've been baptized (so much for baptismal regeneration!). When we do sin, the church is there to support us and to encourage us towards true repentance so that we may live lives worthy of the forgiveness we've received.

On Baptism: Baptism is a requirement: claiming to be a Christian while saying that baptism isn't necessary is heresy. Yet, we don't receive the Spirit by baptism, baptism merely prepares us for that.
Overall, this treatise is a little bit confused, and it's easy to see why there's a lot of debate over whether or not the early church believed in baptismal regeneration. As a Protestant, I can read it and say that I see here a high view of baptism, but not one that's salvific. But I can also see how a Catholic could read it and come to the opposite conclusion.

On Prayer: The New Testament, Tertullian argues, gives us a new form of prayer that is based on speech, wisdom, and the Spirit and takes form in the Lord's Prayer (though we may of course pray beyond what is revealed there). In order to prepare ourselves for prayer, we do not need to wash our hands first, and we may stand, sit, or kneel with our hands raised (or not) so long as we're doing none of these things to extremes or disruptively. What we should do in preparation is reconcile with others and calm ourselves mentally.

Ad Martyras (To the Martyrs): If you are in prison and about to be martyred, take heart! The world is the true prison, and you're about to get an early release by imitating Christ as you are wrongfully executed. Just as soldiers suffer in training, so you are suffering into holiness. If even the heathen suffer to earn worldly glory on the battlefield or in the stadium, how much more so should those of us who hold the truth suffer for the glory that awaits us in heaven?

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas: Another not by Tertullian, but an apparently legit story of martyrdom from Carthage in the early church. This is short, a good picture of early piety, and well worth reading.

Of Patience:
I fully confess unto the Lord God that it has been rash enough, if not even impudent, in me to have dared to compose a treatise on Patience, for practising which I am all unfit, being a man of no goodness; whereas it were becoming that such as have addressed themselves to the demonstration and commendation of some particular thing, should themselves first be conspicuous in the practice of that thing, and should regulate the constancy of their commonishing by the authority of their personal conduct, for fear their words blush at the deficiency of their deeds.... So I, most miserable, ever sick with the heats of impatience, must of necessity sigh after, and invoke, and persistently plead for, that health of patience which I possess not; while I recall to mind, and, in the contemplation of my own weakness, digest, the truth, that the good health of faith, and the soundness of the Lord's discipline, accrue not easily to any unless patience sit by his side. (707)
With this confession, Tertullian launches into a treatise on patience that is among the best I've ever read (not that I've read all that many). He argues that God the Father and Christ the Son are both models of patience to us, God by not destroying us instantly when we sin, and Christ by all the abuse He takes from a sinful world, leading up to and including the cross. When we are patient, we are giving evidence of our own faith. When we are impatient, we are showing the covetousness that defines our natural selves and our desperate need of salvation.
Tertullian gives explicit advice for how to be patient in persecution, bereavement, when we desire revenge, and when we're trying to obey. Above all, we must remember that patience has great rewards and virtuous effects. Our patience as Christians is not the same thing as the heathen's patience--we wait because we have a solid hope of a better world to come, not because we think there is value in the waiting itself. "Let us, on the other hand, love the patience of God, the patience of Christ; let us repay to Him the patience which He has paid down for us! Let us offer to Him the patience of the spirit, the patience of the flesh, believing as we do in the resurrection of flesh and spirit." (717).

Overall, this volume is tough but mostly worthwhile. I don't know that I'd say Tertullian is the place to start a study of the ancient church, but he is definitely a writer you should get to sooner rather than later.

You can read this for free here, or not for free from Amazon on Kindle or in print.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

My Reflections on the Worst of the Worst- "Under God" 5

What do we do with a bunch of shiftless, lazy folks who don't want to work but are quite happy to let generous Puritan colonists charitably feed them? Even worse, what do you do with such folks in a time of near-famine, when there certainly won't be enough food for all if they don't get off their duffs and get some farming done?

If you're Governor William Bradford, you read your Bible until you come to 2 Thessalonians 3:10: "If any man would not work, neither should he eat."* Why would Bradford do this? because "'The Bible is a book about government,' he would often say. 'When we don't know what to do, we should look in its pages.'" (92)

There's a serious problem at work here, and it's a little bit Bradford's and a big bit the author of Under God's. This section concludes by relating the success of Bradford's "work or starve" program by pointing out how Bradford divided up the land and parceled it out among the colonists, and that

The opportunity to own their own land was beyond their wildest dreams in England. The colonists worked even harder, the colony prospered, and government according to the Scriptures was established as a principle. (93)

So what is the problem here? Isn't it clearly true that the Bible is a book about government, and that if only we'll do what it says our country will prosper? Well... yes and no.

If what is meant by "the Bible is a book about government" is "the Bible presents a picture of government that finds its clearest fulfillment in America, and everyone else was just getting it wrong for the last 2000 years, and the proof of this is that we are materially prosperous," then the answer is a resounding "No! Absolutely not!" The Bible is not a constitution; it is not a formula which we can use to set up a political government that will do everything right and so earn God's blessing. This is an incorrect use of Scripture which the Puritans in New England were a tiny bit guilty of, and which a goodly number of American Christians today are a huge bit guilty of.

If, however, what is meant by "the Bible is a book about government" is "the Bible provides guidance on how to live as a Christian under a government" then the answer is yes. But what specific guidance does it provide? Well, here's one: pay your taxes (even if your taxes are being paid to Pilate and he's eventually going to have you executed). Here's another one: obey the government (even if that government is run by Nero and is executing Christians left and right).

Now, to be sure we live in a Republic which gives us as individual citizens a good deal of say in government. And to that end, we have a responsibility to live in a way that displays God's truth to those around us. When comes time to vote, we have a responsibility to use that vote in the best way possible in accord with that truth.

With that said, the Bible simply does not draw a moral conclusion about the value of a monarchy vs. a republic, or an oligarchy vs. a democracy, or really any two forms of government. All of those sorts of governments are established by God's decree and under his sovereignty. Some of them might be better than others (I happen to think that some are), but that spectrum of value of governments has not been revealed in Scripture. Our Scriptural obedience to government in a republic looks different than Scriptural obedience to government in a monarchy, but that is not the same thing as saying that a republic > monarchy.

And I'll even carry this one step farther and say that it's probably better that we don't have much politics in the Bible. At the very least, no Christian should ever say (though we all to often do) "I'm a better Christian because I live in country X, and country X is more Godly and Biblical than any other on earth."

Anyway, end rant here. More undoubtedly to follow.

*Technically, Bradford likely would have been using the Geneva Bible (there's an outside chance he'd have the KJV, but probably not), which says: "if there were any which would not work, that he should not eat." The footnote included in the Geneva Bible reads "What shall we do then with those idle bellied Monks, and sacrificing Priests? A Monk (saith Socrates, book 8, of his Tripartite history) which worketh not with his hands, is like a thief."

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Review: "The Wine of the Puritans" by Van Wyck Brooks

So I suppose I should start this review off by pointing out that there's not much about either wine or the Puritans in this short book by Van Wyck Brooks. Oh sure, Brooks starts off with a discussion about the Puritans and about the folly of putting their old-world wine in the new wineskins of the American setting, but that gets left behind pretty quickly as we wander into the subject Brooks really wants to discuss (and one found in the subtitle): "A Study of Present Day America."

This is, however, no ordinary study of present day America. Brooks has structured his work as a "dialogue" between two individuals who don't really dialogue at all, but just feed off of each others comments and move the discussion forward through instant agreement and mutual support. This is not to say the book is boring or poorly done, just that it's not what we think of when we think of a dialogue.

So what are Brooks' conclusions about the state of "modern" America? (Keep in mind that this book was written in 1908.) In short, it is about the difficulty of Americans in finding their own voice/spirit/philosophy/whatever. We are as a nation a set of "new wineskins", yet as we all know old wine (the thought and lifestyles of Europe) doesn't work well with new wineskins. Which means that we need a new wine to go in our new setting, but we haven't been great at discovering this new wine. In fact, we aren't really clear on what the nature of the new wineskins is, let alone what should go into it.

To give an example from the book, Brooks talks about art:
But it seems that an artist can produce great and lasting work only out of the materials which exist in him by instinct and which constitute racial fibre, the accretion of countless generations of ancestors, trained to one deep, local, indigenous attitude toward life. A man is more the product of his race than of his art, for a man may supremely express his race without being an artist, while he cannot be a supreme artist without expressing his race. (121-122)
The problem is, we have no concept of what it means to be part of the American "race," no way of exploring our own perspective on the world and on life. That in part was the goal of Brooks' career (The Wine of the Puritans was, I think, his first book). Through books on Washington Irving, the New England writers, Mark Twain, and other giants of American arts and letters, Brooks strove to find the thread tying them all together. Here, Brooks doesn't so much find a unifying theme as he does suggest that such a theme might best be found by comparing American writings to European ones. He writes:
And what trait do you find that these American artists all have in common? Precisely that not one of them could be mistaken essentially for a Frenchman or an Englishman or a Spaniard. Their technique may be the technique of any of these foreign schools, but where anything lies behind the technique we know that it must be the American spirit, because we can see that it is not the French spirit or the English spirit. (125-126)
This may be a bit of a dodge, but there may also be something to it. We may not be able to articulate the American spirit, but we know it when we see it.

Overall, this quick little read is an excellent jumping-off point into thinking about what it is that makes America distinct artistically, philosophically, etc. While I don't agree with all of Brooks' comments or conclusions, he is an excellent writer and has good points to make.

Recommended for those interested in the subject.

This book is available free through Google or not for free through Amazon:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Book Review: "Liberal Democracy and Political Science" by James W. Ceaser

This was a book I was supposed to read (at least in part) for a graduate course on Constitutionalism. If the markings at the beginning of the book were any indication, I read at least the first 40 pages. I'll be generous with myself and assume that that was all that was assigned...

Since then, I've been meaning to get back to Dr. Ceaser's book. In part, this is because I am a fan of his writings over at Postmodern Conservative. In part this is also because I was impressed with the book and have been meaning to get back to it. In yet another part this is because I have a friend who is in pretty regular contact with him regarding freedom, politics, Christianity, and all that stuff. In yet a fourth part it is because I once had a brief email exchange with him, not that he would remember it, given how in-passing it was. (But how could I pass up a chance to show off all the famous people I know?)

Mostly, however, I took up this book now because I have started teaching political science at a four-year institution, and I thought it would be a good idea to start the year off by thinking carefully about exactly what my responsibility as a political scientist/teacher in a liberal democracy is in the first place. Since this is pretty much the only book I know that deals with the question, Liberal Democracy and Political Science seemed like a good place to start.

LDPS has eight chapters. The first two define and discuss the problems with the definition of "liberal democracy." The next four deal with the nature and methods of political science past and present, but with a heavy emphasis on Tocqueville and the political science of the second half of the 20th century (up through the end of the 1980s, since this book was published in 1991). The last two chapters discuss how political science and liberal democracy ought to interact. I won't go into too much detail in any one of these, but instead will try to hit the high points from each section.

Essentially, the point of this book is to explore one particular problem experienced by liberal democracy: that of maintaining the sort of political culture/mores necessary for its own continued existence. That is, liberal democracy--a state that is both liberal in its view of freedom and democratic in its functioning, as opposed to say an illiberal democracy, a liberal despotism, or an illiberal despotism--requires a certain sort of citizens in order to continue to function. Caeser writes:

[Tocqueville] shows us that what happens in one sphere (e.g., the religious, the artistic, or the philosophic) affects what happens in the others (the economic and the political). The formal or juridical boundaries, from this perspective, are not primary. Liberal democracy depends upon a certain political culture, which is a product not just of law, but of philosophic and religious views, of habits and sentiments. The creation of a supportive political culture is not, however, automatic; the interaction between the private and public spheres does not necessarily regulate itself in a way that supports liberal democracy.
The private sphere must, accordingly, be superintended by a self-conscious effort. The immediate response is probably to think of the state as the best agency to perform this task. But if this task is handled chiefly by the state, in particular by the central authority, it would add to centralized power and contribute further t conceiving of 'government as the sole, simple, providential, and creative force' in society. Even where the central state can be used effectively, its benefits must be carefully weighed and discounted against the long-term effect of people's overall reliance on government. The means of promoting liberal democracy cannot habitually be contrary to its ends and still succeed in promoting those ends. (36-37)
In other words, a free society requires a citizen shaped in a very specific way by culture, education, religion, art, and a number of other social factors. The problem is that if the government itself tries to ensure such a shaping, it has to become so large and powerful that the resulting society can no longer truly be considered a "liberal democracy." This is where, according to Tocqueville and Ceaser, political science steps in.

What government cannot do without destroying by its means the ends it aims at, political science can achieve. With that in mind, Ceaser gives an overview of the discipline, tracing its development from "traditional political science" through "the new normativism." I'll confess that I found portions of these chapters to be a bit, well, dull. I know that's the fault of political science and not Dr. Ceaser, but nonetheless one can only read about methods for so long before one starts to nod off a bit.

With that said, if nothing else these chapters were useful (if a bit dated--remember this was published 20 years ago) for showing me that I am in fact a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist when it comes to political science. That is, I prefer studying political culture, ideal regimes, and real regimes to behaviorism, postbehaviorism, the new normativism, and so forth. Which isn't to say that these newer methods don't have their value, just that I find the traditional method both more interesting and more useful when studying and teaching about government.

The last two chapters of the book focus on how political science works in the context of the American regime, specifically in terms of the analysis of Tocqueville and our contemporary issues. Parts of this were necessarily dated, since our "contemporary issues" have changed since the early 90s--though of course Tocqueville remains the same. I suspect that the most useful aspects of this section have to do with 1) Ceaser's analysis of Tocqueville and exposition of his thought; and 2) the model Ceaser provides of how political science ought to support and criticized liberal democracy. By looking at HOW he does it, rather than WHAT he says the 20-year gap becomes that much less relevant.

Overall, this was an excellent and useful read. It will certainly affect how I approach the discipline in the future, and will even affect some of what I do in my American government courses. Recommended to those interested in thinking about teaching government and American politics, and those interested in Tocqueville.

End note: Apparently, the price of this book has gone up significantly since I bought it for class sometime in 2006/07. This book is certainly worth the $15 I paid for it, probably worth the $25 now being asked if and only if (as the mathematicians say) you're in the discipline, and not worth the $40 that I've seen the price peak at. So do with that information what you will.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Seven Years at Catholic University: A Retrospective

It's been a just over a year since I defended my dissertation before a panel of professors and received a diploma stating that I am now a Ph.D in political theory. At this point, I think it is useful to take a few minutes/words to reflect on my time at The Catholic University of America.

Between August, 2005 and September, 2012, I was a graduate student, an adjunct professor (2007-2012, intermittently), and an office manager in a dorm working for residence life (2005-2007) at CUA. In other words, I've seen pretty much every side of graduate student life at Catholic- student, faculty, and staff. And, well, it was definitely a... unique experience.

Disclaimer: I won't be using any real names, for obvious reasons.

The Good:

The academics at Catholic University are quite frankly fantastic. Whether considering professors, my fellow graduate students, or the undergrads, I have been nothing but impressed with the academic quality of those associated with CUA.

During my first semester at Catholic, the rigorous standards were even something of a shock. Now, to be fair, part of this was probably my fault. I regularly took four or five courses (the standard graduate course load is three), and my very first graduate course was on a philosopher named Martin Heidegger, who is a notoriously challenging thinker. What's more, I was somewhat unprepared for graduate study in philosophy, since my undergrad political theory prof--though a wonderful man in many ways--wasn't a terribly good political theorist (not his fault--he was a psychologist by training and really the only one willing to teach political theory at all).

Once I got over being utterly lost, it was great. The professors by and large are excellent lecturers who possess that necessary combination of a solid command of the material and the ability to convey it well. Far too often college professors are brilliant enough as writers, but wretched speakers; or they are great speakers but only deal in drivel. If Catholic has any professors of either sort, I haven't met them. And that is also true for the professors in classes I've taken outside of my field. Even more, the professors expected a high level of performance on our end of things as well. They were exacting in what they demanded from us both in our written work and in our in-class discussions; they expected nothing less than the same level of attention and commitment that they themselves offered.

The other grad students were likewise a bit of a surprise. My fellow students at Catholic were informed, articulate, and hard-working. They came to class having read the material (or at least having done a decent job of skimming it) and had thoughtful contributions to make to the discussion.

Of course, we had the regular spectrum of students, from "the quiet ones who never speak" to "those who never shut up." (I suspect that across my graduate career I moved from one end of the spectrum to the other, but you'll have to check with people who had class with me to be sure.) Whatever their levels of introversion or extroversion, I have yet to come across a CUA grad student who hadn't done the work and come up with useful and interesting thoughts that were worth hearing. Even more than that, I have yet to meet at CUA grad student who was anything less than kind and friendly. Sure, some of us may be arrogant jerks at times (me maybe a little more than others), but it's never in the kind of petty way you hear about in horror stories from other schools. I've received nothing but support and encouragement from other students--even when they think I'm wrong (and I certainly hope that's been a two-way street). I've heard horror stories--especially out of a major Midwestern university--about graduate students sabotaging other student's research, undermining each other with professors, and generally being nasty. I experienced absolutely none of that in seven years at Catholic.

I should also note that given its unique nature, the graduate student population at Catholic is fairly diverse. In my own courses we had everything from grandparents to people barely out of their teens. Around campus, you could encounter everyone from nuns to Presbyterian pastors to staunch atheists all working towards their Masters or PhD.s. Again, across this whole spectrum I never encountered anyone who was less than polite, intelligent, and generous.

Before commenting on the undergrads, I should point out that in the past few years I have taught (as an adjunct) at one of the most academically rigorous schools in the country, and at one of the biggest community colleges in the region. In other words, a school for the academic elites and a school for students who... aren't quite so elite, and maybe even struggle a bit. Catholic undergraduates fall in between those two extremes, but they are certainly closer to the higher end of the spectrum than the lower. Sure, there were the slackers who just refused to come to class or do their work--every school has those (I've been known to be one myself at times)--but by and large the undergraduates at CUA were pretty darn good. I can honestly say that I looked forward to the in-class discussions and homework assignments in a way that I know is not always the case in higher education. As with the professors and graduate students, the quality of undergraduates CUA attracts regularly impressed me in the classroom.

Clearly, I really can't stress this part enough: Catholic University has fantastic professors; engaged, intelligent, and friendly graduate students; and quality undergraduates. And all of that without mentioning what I actually learned: which was a lot. Maybe I'll do another post someday on the content of my graduate education, but that's for another time...

The Bad:

Catholic University is expensive. I mean, really expensive. I could have bought a house where I grew up for what I paid for my education in DC (where housing costs just add to the price of an already expensive tuition rate), and I can unfortunately expect to be spending a significant portion of the rest of my life paying the government back for the loans that financed my education. Unless the Democrats keep winning and my student loans get canceled...

What's worse is that despite the quality of the education, the name "CUA" doesn't carry with it the reputation of a big-name university. Which means that I've paid Ivy League prices (or at least Georgetown prices) without the Ivy League job prospects. This of course isn't completely Catholic's fault (they would love to be uttered in the same breath as the University of Chicago or Columbia), but it's a negative nonetheless.

The Ugly:

The administrative bureaucracy at Catholic University is simply atrocious. I mean, levels of Dante's Inferno bad. I would say that every single experience I've had with the CUA administrative apparatus has been negative, but that's not quite true. There was one (1) office which I found to be friendly and efficient. And by one "office", I mean "a single administrator and their assistant."

A few bureaucrats in this world are competent and friendly. Most are either are either incompetent or rude. Catholic, however, seems to have gone out of its way to hire the handful of bureaucrats who are both. This of course might be an unfair statement--it might be that CUA tries to hire people who are friendly and competent and the nature of the job just grinds them down. I can't speak much to that, since I only worked within the bureaucracy for a couple of years, and was most likely either incompetent or rude (or both) myself to begin with...

Now, I say this with the full understanding that every institution has its bureaucratic difficulties. I've been associated with several universities now and to be sure they all have offices and programs that are less well run than others, and staff who just can't get the whole "being nice to people" thing down. If CUA were the same as every other school this would hardly be worth mentioning. But CUA is not the same: so far as I can tell it is much, much worse. (And I am certainly not alone in this complaint--my time working in Housing and talking to other students suggested that my bad experiences seem not to be unique.)

And, well, I don't want to run this into the ground so I'll end my "the Ugly" section here. Just let it be said that for reasons unknown to me, this school's bureaucracy is horrendous. Is this a phase all universities go through? Is this something inherent to a Catholic school? Is it because of CUA's unique position as a conservative, religious, private institution in a fairly liberal city? I don't know, I'll leave those questions to the experts.

The End of the Matter

So what can I say about all of this? I'm sorely tempted to compare my graduate school with my undergraduate, but I think that's probably unfair on a couple of levels. First, they simply don't lend themselves to comparison as schools (private/religious/liberal arts/smallish/urban vs public/state/broad-ranging/largish/small town-based); second, the graduate experience is inherently a different beast from the undergraduate experience; and third, I've changed quite a bit myself so that even if I were to go back and do either of them over, it likely wouldn't be the same experience.

I think perhaps the best place to end is by noting my gratitude for both the quality of education I have received from The Catholic University of America, and for bringing me to Washington, DC, where I met both my church and my wife (in chronological order, not necessarily in order of importance).