Thursday, December 15, 2016

The difficulty of seeing Christ (Dorothy Day)

If everyone were holy and handsome, with “alter Christus” shining in neon lighting from them, it would be easy to see Christ in everyone. If Mary had appeared in Bethlehem clothed, as St. John says, with the sun, a crown of twelve stars on her head, and the moon under her feet, then people would have fought to make room for her. But that was not God’s way for her, nor is it Christ’s way for himself, now when he is disguised under every type of humanity that treads the earth.
- Dorothy Day

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

How men become scoundrels (C.S. Lewis)

The following quote is from an address C.S. Lewis gave at King's College in 1944, published as "The Inner Ring" in The Weight of Glory. It's cited by Dallas Willard in Renovation of the Heart. Here Lewis describes how the desire to be accepted into cliques/groups/circles from which one is excluded leads to corruption.

It would be polite and charitable, and in view of your age, reasonable too, to suppose that none of you is yet a scoundrel. On the other hand, by the mere law of averages (I am saying nothing against free will) it is almost certain that at least two or three of you before you die will have become something very like scoundrels. There must be in this room the makings of at least that number of unscrupulous, treacherous, ruthless egotists. The choice is still before you, and I hope you will not take my hard words about your possible future characters as a token of disrespect to your present characters. And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink or a cup of coffee, disguised as a triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which is not quite in accordance with the technical rules of fair play; something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand; something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about, but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.” And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage, and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel. 
[...] Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.

Monday, December 12, 2016

The American voice

On December 12, 1915 Francis Albert Sinatra was forcibly wrenched from the womb. The forceps permanently disfigured the left ear and cheek of the child that would grow up to possess one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th century. The story goes that baby Sinatra wasn't breathing when he emerged and was given up for dead by the doctor, but his quick-thinking grandmother held him under cold water until he started breathing. Quite the beginning. I don't listen to Sinatra as much as I used to. His essential subject was loneliness, specifically male loneliness, thus his recordings don't resonate in the same way as they did when I was younger and solitary. I suppose great art speaks to us more, or less, depending on the season of life we're in.

Shortly after Sinatra's death in 1998 newspaperman Pete Hamill wrote a wonderful little book called Why Sinatra Matters. I pulled it off the shelf a few nights ago. Hamill explains that the reason Sinatra matters is the same reason Mozart and Charlie Parker still matter. Different generations and cultures will listen differently, but "the music remains" and "every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals..." (pp. 8-9)

Though not a conventional biography, Why Sinatra Matters effectively traces the impact that Sinatra's hardscrabble Hoboken, New Jersey upbringing and Italian heritage played in his life and career. It was a source of pride and also something to transcend. "'Of course, it meant something to me to be the son of immigrants,' Sinatra said to me once. 'How could it not? I grew up for a few years thinking I was just another American kid. Then I discovered at - what? five? six? - I discovered that some people thought I was a dago. A wop. A guinea...That's why years later, when Harry [James] wanted me to change my name, I said no way, baby. The name is Sinatra.'" (pp. 37-38) Yet as the first and only child of immigrant parents Frank was a trailblazer, the first American of his family. Back in the neighborhood he spoke the "argot of the street. He could be profane, even vulgar. The word them could become dem, and those could become dose. It depended on the company." (p. 94) But as anyone who's listened to the songs knows, Sinatra's diction was impeccable. Young Frank would go to the movies and imitate how he heard Cary Grant and Clark Gable speak. "Alone in my room, I'd keep practicing the other kind of English." (p. 94) Frank Sinatra was a powerful symbol of the great American melting pot and a hero to scores of Italian Americans. In many ways his story is the American story. Ultimately though, his enduring legacy, the reason "Sinatra matters," rests on one thing. The main thing.

His finest accomplishment, of course, was the sound. The voice itself would evolve over the years from a violin to a viola to a cello, with a rich middle register and dark bottom tones. But it was a combination of voice, diction, attitude, and taste in music that produced the Sinatra sound. It remains unique. Sinatra created something that was not there before he arrived: an urban American voice. It was the voice of the sons of the immigrants in northern cities - not simply the Italian Americans, but the children of all those immigrants who had arrived on the great tide at the turn of the century. That's why Irish and Jewish Americans listened to him in New York. That's why the children of Poles in Chicago, along with all those other people in cities around the nation, listened to him. If they did not exactly sound like him, they wanted to sound like him. Frank Sinatra was the voice of the twentieth-century American city. (pp. 93-94)

One of Frank's signature songs was the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer standard "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Sinatra recorded it several times, including a definitive interpretation on the 1958 album for Columbia aptly called Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. This is the whiskey-voiced Sinatra, somewhere between a viola and cello. Accompanied by piano and only the sparest Nelson Riddle orchestration, it's an almost painfully intimate thing to listen to. To me, and I think to a lot of fans, "One for My Baby" is the quintessential Sinatra closer -- not the cheesy "My Way." I believe it when he sings "it's quarter to three, there's no one in the place 'cept you and me." Fifty-plus years on I'm reminded why he's still THE American popular singer, the Babe Ruth of American song. "So thanks for the cheer, I hope you didn't mind my bending your ear." We didn't mind, Frank. We didn't mind at all.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

From skyscrapers to mosaics (re-posted from 2012)

I've been enjoying Renewing the Center by the late Baptist theologian Stanley Grenz (1950 - 2005). I picked this book up on a whim at a used book sale. It was $5 well spent. Grenz is often associated with the emergent church crowd, and Brian McClaren contributes a Foreword. Yet I don't see in Grenz the eagerness to jettison (or water down) unfashionable Christian doctrines that one sees with McClaren, Doug Pagitt, et al. This book seems to me a thoughtful attempt to come to grips with postmodernism in a way that remains faithful to the Apostolic Nicene faith, and that retains a high view of Scripture and the centrality of the church to God's plan of salvation. One of the things I like most about Renewing the Center is it's call for evangelicals to make ecclesiology more central. He suggests that the postmodern turn is an opportunity for evangelicals to recognize how influenced we've been by Enlightenment individualism and empiricism, and a tendency to rely too much on unaided human reason.

But what exactly is evangelicalism? Some have argued that the term has become so broad as to have lost any value. In addition, since the 1970s the word is increasingly associated with political and cultural agendas rather than the evangel (good news) at it's root. Critics are right to point out the problems with those unfortunate associations. In trying to get a handle on evangelicalism Grenz cites a classic formulation from historian David Bebbington, which is as good a definition as any. Evangelicalism is characterized by conversionism, activism, biblicism and crucicentrism. Stated that way "evangelical" is a word worth defending.

But back to the main thrust of the book. The first half is basically a theological history from the Protestant Reformation to the late 20th century, and it's a cracking good read. Grenz follows the various streams that flowed from Luther and Calvin and shows how each of them influenced the evangelical movement that emerged in the wake of the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the 1920s & 30s. It's fascinating stuff. Included are extended discussions of evangelical luminaries like Carl Henry and Bernard Ramm. Grenz is always charitable in his assessments, even when he's critical. His biases do occasionally show, though. For instance, when portraying the legacy of Old Princeton as a victory of arid Protestant scholasticism (the cognitive-doctrinal) over and against a concern for personal piety (the practical-experiential). In my opinion this is a caricature that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

In the second half the author begins to set out the parameters of the book's subtitle: an evangelical theology for a post-theological era. Here we're in the realm of philosophical concepts and academic jargon, but it remains an engaging read. Grenz agrees with the postmodern thesis that Enlightenment foundationalism is dead. This is the notion that "certain beliefs anchor other beliefs, i.e., certain beliefs are 'basic,' and other beliefs arise as conclusions from them." Foundationalism seeks to gain "epistemological certitude by discovering an unassailable foundation of basic beliefs upon which to construct the knowledge edifice." In this way of thinking the quest for knowledge, indeed the quest for truth, is like building a skyscraper. You lay a foundation and then build it floor by floor. In the quest for theological truth evangelical theologians have imitated the methods of their secular counterparts, who arbitrarily assign religious beliefs to the realm of "nonbasic status". (all quotes from p. 208)

This begs the question: "What killed foundationalism?" The short answer is postmodernism killed it. Postmodernism is one of those words/concepts that's notoriously difficult to get a grip on. I agree with the wag who said postmodern is really mostmodern! In any case one of the insights of postmodernism is that human reason is "person specific" and "situation specific." This is argued by self-styled Reformed epistemologists Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Grenz points approvingly to these two eminent philosophers as examples of constructive Christian engagement with the postmodern context. They don't deny the existence of basic beliefs, but they "join other nonfoundationalists in claiming against the Enlightenment that there is no universal human reason. That is, there is no single, universal set of criteria by means of which we can judge definitively the epistemic status of all beliefs." (p. 208)

In summary: one's conception of truth is inseparable from one's community.

Plantinga and Wolterstorff acknowledge the inevitability of our being situated in a particular community and the indispensable role our respective communities or traditions play in shaping our conceptions of rationality, as well as the religious beliefs we deem basic and thus by appeal to which we test new claims. And they readily admit the attendant loss of certitude involved with this acknowledgment, for they realize that these various communities may disagree as to the relevant set of paradigm instances of basic beliefs.

The difficulty this poses for any claims to universal truth ought not to be overlooked . . . . Nevertheless, the communitarian turn marks an important advance. This focus returns theological reflection to its proper primary location within the believing community, in contrast to the Enlightenment ideal that effectively took theology out of the church and put it in the academy. More specifically, nonfoundationalist approaches see Christian theology as an activity of the community that gathers around Jesus the Christ. (p. 209)

Grenz further defines that community as one made up of individuals who've had a saving encounter with Jesus Christ and who now find their identity in him. This is not to turn religious experience into a new foundationalism ala Schleiermacher and Protestant liberalism, but it's to make it "the identifying feature of participation in this specific community." (p. 210)

In turn this community becomes basic for formulating Christian theology. Instead of the metaphor of a building, this results in something more like a mosaic.

This mosaic consists of the set of interconnected doctrines that together comprise what ought to be the specifically Christian way of viewing the world. This worldview is truly theological and specifically Christian, because it involves an understanding of the entire universe and of ourselves in connection with the God of the Bible, and the biblical narrative of God, at work bringing creation to its divinely destined goal. (p. 213)

For the most part Christian scholars have assumed a defensive posture when engaged with the grab bag of ideas labelled postmodernism, viewing it as a threat to orthodox faith and practice. But what if—while recognizing the dangers—the church embraced the opportunity to articulate a fresh vision of "the faith that was once for all entrusted to God's holy people"? (Jude 1:3 NIV) This book is a worthy attempt to do just that. In writing it Grenz saw opportunities where others saw only danger. We need more optimistic books like this one!

Quotes from Stanley Grenz, Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era (Baker, 2000)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

In praise of ambiguity

Late Tuesday evening while most American sports fans were watching Game 3 of the Cubs/Dodgers series, I watched a recording of a soccer match played six hours earlier in Germany: Tottenham v. Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League. Parenthetically, in cases like this I quarantine myself from media so as not to learn the result before I have a chance to watch it. As a diehard Spurs supporter I experienced the match as a stressful emotional rollercoaster. It wasn't until the final whistle blew that I fully exhaled. "Wow," you may be thinking, "it must have been quite the back and forth high-scoring affair!"

Actually, no. You would be half right. It was a back and forth affair in which each side had the upper hand at various times, but the final score was 0-0 "nil-nil" with both teams walking away with a point (instead of the three points a win would have earned). Here would seem to be Exhibit A to the "soccer is boring" crowd's jibe that it's a sport that features "lots of running around with nothing happening." I get it, believe me, I get it, having once felt the same way. But like Saul on the Damascus Road I've had an epiphany, so even a match in which neither team scores can leave me breathless. Another example of an utterly compelling match that ended nil-nil -- and felt like a massive victory under the circumstances -- was the 2013 USA v. Mexico World Cup qualifying match at the Azteca. Still one of my favorite soccer matches, and sports memories, ever.

Football fan Andi Thomas writes in praise of the nil-nil draw in a terrific piece at SB Nation in which he compares the Tottenham/Leverkusen match with a less scintillating 0-0 result the night before in Liverpool (if you're a fan of the English Premier League you'll want to click through and read the whole thing). Thomas writes:

This is why the nil-nil draw is so important to football as a sport. Most, if not all of the other sports that might aspire to a similar kind of cultural penetration don't even permit such a thing to happen, either through explicit rules mandating some kind of overtime or by implicitly ensuring that points (or whatever) cannot help but turn up. (One exception is test cricket, which has produced some truly beautiful five-day draws.) As such, while almost anybody that takes any sport seriously comes away from a match thinking about the things that were good and were not, and barely any victory is entirely joyous, there is always a result to centre the response. 
Perhaps, to adapt the joke slightly, it's not that a nil-nil draw is 90 minutes in which nothing happens — did you see Hugo Lloris' save? That was definitely a thing — but 90 minutes in which lots of things happen but fail, ultimately, to resolve into anything immediately coherent. Which is a problem, perhaps, if you've promised millions of Monday night viewers one of the games of the century or you wanted to pick up three points in a tricky Champions League group. But we might also suggest that part of the singular character of football is that it forces those that follow it into not-infrequent moments of institutionalised ambiguity, where the uncertainty is the result, and frustration and satisfaction just have to find a way to rub along.

That last paragraph is the best thing I've read in a while about football -- and come to think of it -- is not only an apt description of a sport in which victory and defeat often cancel each other out, but of life as experienced most of the time.


Friday, October 14, 2016

The power of feelings (Dallas Willard)

This is how Dallas Willard begins Chapter 7 "Transforming the Mind: Spiritual Formation and Our Feelings" of Renovation of the Heart.

Feelings are a primary blessing and a primary problem for human life. We cannot life without them and we can hardly live with them. Hence they are also central for spiritual formation in the Christian tradition. In the restoration of the individual to God, feelings too must be renovated: old ones removed in many cases, or at least thoroughly modified, and new ones installed or at least heightened into a new prominence.
Our first inquiry as we greet people for the day is likely to be, "How are you feeling today?" Rarely will it be, "How are you thinking?" Feelings live on the front row of our lives like unruly children clamoring for attention. They presume on their justification in being whatever they are—unlike a thought, which by nature is open to challenge and invites the question "Why?"  

Further on Willard states: "Feelings are, with a few exceptions, good servants. But they are disastrous masters." The aim of this chapter will be to show us how we can master our feelings in the service of transformation into Christlikeness. And not just master, but more importantly, replace wrong feelings with the right ones.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

How to pray during hurricane season (originally posted in 2008)

Reports are starting to come in from the islands in the path of Hurricane Ike, as now it bears down on impoverished Cuba. Reports of 80 percent of homes destroyed, infrastructure wiped out, and more deadly flooding in Haiti. Just a couple of days ago we here in Palm Beach County were reckoning with the possibility of a direct hit from a category 4 hurricane. Instead, on a sunny Lord's Day I sit here counting my blessings that we were spared this one. The high pressure ridge that's causing our beautiful weather is the same ridge that kept Ike moving west through the Caribbean instead of turning northwest into Florida. It's all about the timing.

I've been reflecting on how a Christian should pray when a hurricane threatens. With almost three months left to go in hurricane season, we'd be fortunate if Ike was the last one. I offer three possibilities, well actually four. First, pray that it doesn't come here. Second, pray that the storm weakens and goes harmlessly out to sea. Third, thy will be done. I believe all three together are the best response. Personally, I can't in good conscience pray #1 without the other two...especially #3 ("Not my will, but thine" should be the default mode of all prayer). I'm no more deserving of being spared the wrath of a killer storm than someone in Cuba or the Gulf coast. Which leads me to a fourth response that's been impressed on me as I've been reading Isaiah the last few days -- in particular, the first terrifying chapters where Isaiah prophecies God's coming judgment on Judah and the nations. Humble repentance.

For the Lord of hosts has a day
against all that is proud and lofty,
against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;
against all the cedars of Lebanon,
lofty and lifted up;
and against all the oaks of Bashan;
against all the lofty mountains,
and against all the uplifted hills;
against every high tower,
and against every fortified wall;
against all the ships of Tarshish,
and against all the beautiful craft.
And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
And the idols shall utterly pass away.
And people shall enter the caves of the rocks
and the holes of the ground,
from before the terror of the Lord,
and from the splendor of his majesty,
when he rises to terrify the earth.

Isaiah 2:12-19 (ESV)

The prophet was predicting a day that came to pass when God used Assyria and Babylon as his tools to judge Israel and Judah, but he was also looking ahead to The Day when all the nations will be judged. In that day only the righteous, those covered by Christ's blood, will find refuge in the strong tower that is the name of the LORD. The meaning of the prophet's name conveys the blessed hope: the LORD saves. Hurricanes, floods and earthquakes are birth pains (Rom. 8:22). They remind us of a future day when every mouth will be stopped and every knee bow. They're a reminder of how powerless we are. They're a reminder that there's still time.

Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
But rebels and sinners shall be broken together,
and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.

Isaiah 1:27-28 (ESV)

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Diabolical Faith (Thomas Merton)

This year I've been reading a lot of Merton. Many of the meditations in this collection have faith, and the life of faith, as subjects. One of the biggest benefits to immersing yourself in Merton is a deeper understanding of faith: both what it is and what it is not. This is huge, because faith must be a subject of profound interest to any seeker of the one true God. As the scriptures tell us:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. Hebrews 11:6 (ESV)

In an essay titled "The Theology of the Devil" Merton describes a counterfeit version of faith that ends up drawing us away from God. See if you recognize it.

The theology of the devil is really not theology but magic. "Faith" in this theology is really not the acceptance of a God Who reveals Himself as mercy. It is a psychological, subjective "force" which applies a kind of violence to reality in order to change it according to one's own whims. Faith is a kind of supereffective wishing: a mastery that comes from a special, mysteriously dynamic will power that is generated by "profound convictions." By virtue of this wonderful energy one can exert a persuasive force even on God Himself and bend His will to one's own will. By this astounding new dynamic soul force of faith (which any quack can develop in you for an appropriate remuneration) you can turn God into a means to your own ends. We become civilized medicine men, and God becomes our servant. Though He is terrible in His own right, He respects our sorcery, He allows Himself to be tamed by it. He will appreciate our dynamism, and will reward it with success in everything we attempt. We will become popular because we have "faith." We will be rich because we have "faith." All our national enemies will come and lay down their arms at our feet because we have "faith." Business will boom all over the world, and we will be able to make money out of everything and everyone under the sun because of the charmed life we lead. We have faith.
But there is a subtle dialectic in all this, too.
We hear that faith does everything. So we close our eyes and strain a bit, to generate some "soul force." We believe. We believe.
Nothing happens.
We close our eyes again, and generate some more soul force. The devil likes us to generate soul force. He helps us to generate plenty of it. We are just gushing with soul force.
But nothing happens.
So we go on with this until we become disgusted with the whole business. We get tired of "generating soul force." We get tired of this "faith" that does not do anything to change reality. It does not take away our anxieties, our conflicts, it leaves us a prey to uncertainty. It does not lift all responsibilities off our shoulders. Its magic is not so effective after all. It does not thoroughly convince us that God is satisfied with us, or even that we are satisfied with ourselves (though in this, it is true, some people's faith is often quite effective).
Having become disgusted with faith, and therefore with God, we are now ready for the Totalitarian Mass Movement that will pick us up on the rebound and make us happy with war, with the persecution of "inferior races" or of enemy classes, or generally speaking, with actively punishing someone who is different from ourselves. . .


Monday, August 15, 2016

Plain talk from Dallas Willard

Here's another foundational statement from Renovation of the Heart:

We must clearly understand that there is a rigorous consistency in the human self and its actions. This is one of the things we are most inclined to deceive ourselves about. If I do evil, I am the kind of person who does evil; if I do good, I am the kind of person who does good (1 John 3:7-10). Actions are not impositions on who we are, but are expressions of who we are. They come out of our heart and the inner realities it supervises and interacts with.

Today one of the most common rationalizations of sin or folly is, "Oh, I just blew it." While there is some point to such a remark, it is not the one those who use it hope for. It does not exonerate them. While it may be true that there are other circumstances in which I would not have done the foolish or sinful thing I did, and while what I did may not represent me fully, "blowing it" does represent me fully. I am the kind of person who "blows it." "Blowing it" shows who I am as a person. I am, through and through, in my deepest self, the kind of person who "blows it"—hardly a lovely and promising thing to be.

Whatever my action is comes out of my whole person...

There you go again, Dallas Willard. Not sugar-coating it. Not letting us off the hook. Good intentions are not enough. The will is not strong enough. Because I am sinful, I sin. A bad tree produces bad fruit. But the good news is that my intentions and will—indeed my heart— can be aligned with God and his kingdom (which Willard defines as "the range of God's effective will, where what God wants done is done"). I can be formed into a good tree that bears good fruit. That's the radical-sounding message of this book.

More to come...

Quote from Chapter 2 "The Heart in the System of Human Life"

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

A reason to vote for Trump

My favorite moment of the presidential campaign happened back in February when Donald Trump stood before a crowd of Republican establishment types in South Carolina and declared that the "war in Iraq was a big fat mistake." He continued by pointing out that the trillions of dollars spent and thousands of lives lost got us nothing and that the reason given for invading Iraq (the supposed presence of WMD's) was false.  As you can hear if you watch the clip, all this was met with a chorus of boos by the pro-Bush crowd.

Of course, Trump went on to win the South Carolina primary and the rest is history. If I was going to vote for the Donald (I'm not) it would be for this reason: that he rightly pointed out that the GOP foreign policy establishment emperors have no clothes.

Fast forward six months and many of the same people who engineered the Iraq debacle have signed an open letter saying Trump isn't fit to be president, and would put our national security at risk. They may be right, but it's hard to take seriously those who have already done so much to make the world a more dangerous and unstable place by their hubristic blundering.

There's a terrific piece by David Goldman that you should read. A link to the full article is below, but here's an excerpt.

The Republican Establishment believed with fervor in the Arab Spring. Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol went as far as to compare the abortive rebellions fo the American founding. It backed the overthrow and assassination of Libya’s dictator Muamar Qaddafi, which turned a nasty but stable country into a Petri dish for terrorism. It believed that majority rule in Iraq would lead to a stable, pro-American government in that Frankenstein monster of a country patched together with body parts taken from the corpse of the American empire. Instead, it got a sectarian Shi’ite regime aligned to Iran and a Sunni rebellion stretching from Mesopotamia to the Lebanon led by ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Trump is vulgar, ill-informed and poorly spoken. He has no foreign policy credentials and a disturbing inclination to give credit to Russia’s Vladimir Putin where it isn’t due. But he has one thing that the fifty former officials lack, and that is healthy common sense. That is what propelled him to the Republican nomination. The American people took note that the “experiment” of which Gen. Hayden spoke so admiringly was tough not only on the ordinary Egyptian, but on the ordinary American as well. Americans are willing to fight and die for their country, but revolt against sacrifices on behalf of social experiments devised by a self-appointed elite. That is why the only two candidates in the Republican primaries who made it past the starting gate repudiated the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

Read the whole thing. I've said it once and I'll say it again: Trump is the nominee the intellectually bankrupt Republican establishment deserves. I say that as one who dutifully drank the "conservative" Kool-Aid for years. No more.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A legendary trio: Ford, Wayne and Fonda

John Ford's two favorite actors were John Wayne and Henry Fonda. Essential to being a Ford favorite on screen, was being a Ford favorite off screen as well. Fonda once quipped that the director cast actors based on their card-playing ability! There were practical as well as personal reasons for this. A John Ford film set was a small community, so naturally Ford cast people he would enjoy hanging out with when the cameras weren't rolling. When Ford's stock company headed out to Monument Valley to shoot a picture, away from meddling producers and the bright lights of Hollywood, in many respects they lived a romanticized version of the frontier lifestyle they were bringing to life on screen.

All this is recounted in local author Scott Eyman's indispensable Ford bio Print the Legend. Both Wayne and Fonda fit easily into the director's macho inner circle: a membership that required an appetite for lots of "boys will be boys" carousing, and most importantly, letting Ford win at cards. Below is a poor quality shot of Ford flanked by Wayne and Fonda, with another regular member of the Ford entourage Ward Bond at far right.

Being a friend of Ford's off the set was a mixed blessing, though, since one had to endure Ford's incessant ribbing which often crossed a line into outright cruelty. Duke Wayne was a regular target of the deeply insecure Ford's mania for control over those around him. Perhaps this stemmed from the fact that it was Ford who fashioned Wayne into a movie star...and he was never going to let Duke forget it. Fonda, on the other hand, was already an established star when Ford cast him as Abe Lincoln in 1939, and the relationship between these two men was more like that of one between equals. Young Mr. Lincoln began a run of three films in which Ford and Fonda collaborated -- the other two being Drums Along the Mohawk and The Grapes of Wrath -- a trio that went a long way toward raising John Ford to the pinnacle of American filmmaking.

After the war the Ford/Fonda relationship continued to be fruitful in films like My Darling Clementine and Fort Apache. Fonda and Wayne both brought a natural ease to the screen, but the characters they played for Ford were quite different. Eyman explains:

Ford would use Fonda in a very different way than he would John Wayne. Wayne's characters were earthy and warm, brawlers by temperament, capable of love and rage. Fonda's characters burned with a cold fire—they displayed strength, but a removed, abstracted, rather asexual strength, tempered by the actor's instinctive austerity.

This contrast is set in stark relief in Fort Apache (1948): the first installment of Ford's great Cavalry Trilogy. Fonda's Colonel Thursday and Wayne's Captain York display contrasting qualities that Ford admired -- the "by the book" mentality of Thursday that would rather charge headlong into an Apache massacre than admit weakness, and the easy intuitive intelligence of York who is willing to meet the Indians as equals to avoid bloodshed. Ford had room for both kinds of men in his American mythology. He once described Custer as "great" and "stupid"...just like Thursday in Fort Apache.

Eyman writes: "Ford's work embraces deliberate contradictions. . . . Ford is a realist as well as a romantic poet." One could spend hours arguing the relative merits of Wayne and Fonda's performances for John Ford. Recently, I've been immersed in My Darling Clementine (1946). Along with Young Mr. Lincoln and The Grapes of Wrath it forms a foundational trilogy of American self-understanding, both real and imagined. Based on his legend and myth-making turns as Honest Abe, Tom Joad and Wyatt Earp, I give Henry Fonda the slight edge over John Wayne. But it doesn't matter. All that needs to be said is that their complementary talents were the perfect tools for an American master to create some of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

Quotes from pp. 211 & 341 of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999)

Monday, August 1, 2016

What Trump could have said to Mr. and Mrs. Khan

I don't have the bandwidth to follow every twist and turn of the Trump craziness, but Rod Dreher does, and he imagines what Trump could have said in response to Khizr Khan's speech at the Democratic National Convention. Could have said, that is, if Trump "had the instincts of a normal human being."

"I cannot imagine the pain of what Mr. and Mrs. Khan have been going through since losing their son. I honor their patriotism, and regret that they have allowed the Clinton campaign to exploit their heroic son’s death and their own grief. What I would tell them is this: as Commander in Chief, Donald Trump will not send any more sons and daughters of America to fight and die in unnecessary wars."

That would have been an effective and wise response. Instead, we have the spectacle of a Republican presidential candidate crassly attacking a Gold Star father and mother who could be poster children for the best of American ideals. Truly remarkable.

As I wrote in this space previously: virtue has left the building.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Dallas Willard - spiritual formation is not optional

Here's a foundational statement from Chapter 1 of Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ: a book every disciple of Jesus—regardless of your tradition or denomination—would benefit from. I'll be sharing more from this revolutionary book. I have to give a shout out to Team Carlson (you know who you are) for giving me the nudge to read DW for myself.

Dallas Willard:

[...] Spiritual formation, without regard to any specifically religious context or tradition, is the process by which the human spirit or will is given a definite "form" or character. It is a process that happens to everyone. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons have had a spiritual formation. Terrorists as well as saints are the outcome of spiritual formation. Their spirits or hearts have been formed. Period.

We each become a certain kind of person in the depths of our being, gaining a specific type of character. And that is the outcome of a process of spiritual formation as understood in general human terms that apply to everyone, whether they want it or not. Fortunate or blessed are those who are able to find or are given a path of life that will form their spirit and inner world in a way that is truly strong and good and directed Godward.

The shaping and reshaping of the inner life is, accordingly, a problem that has been around as long as humanity itself; and the earliest records of human thought bear eloquent witness to the human struggle to solve it—but with very limited success, one would have to say.

True, some points in human history have shown more success in the elevation of the human spirit than others. But the low points far exceed the high points, and the average is discouragingly low. Societies the world around are currently in desperate straits trying to produce people who are merely capable of coping with their life on earth in a nondestructive manner. This is as true of North America and Europe as it is of the rest of the world, though the struggle takes superficially different forms in various areas. In spiritual matters there really is no "Third World." It's all Third World.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

NBA hypocrisy

I don't know anything about North Carolina Congressman Robert Pittenger, but I salute him for lowering the boom on the rank hypocrisy and smug moral posturing of the NBA. Don't hold your breath expecting an answer.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Fear and loathing in Cleveland

I resisted turning on the Republican National Convention for three nights, but last night I settled in shortly after 8pm to see the show. And what a fascinating spectacle it was. Even though you knew it was coming, witnessing Donald Trump accept the nomination was surreal and Saturday Night Live-ish.

But before that there were the speakers leading up to the big moment. First, openly gay tech billionaire Peter Thiel (the founder of PayPal) gave a rather awkward low-key endorsement. What he said about stagnant wages and the vast inequality between his Silicon Valley enclave and places such as Oakland resonated with me. Indeed much of his speech, including ripping our Middle East adventurism, could have been delivered by Bernie Sanders. Then of course there was the requisite "I'm proud to be gay" line. Last night was a decisive rebuke for any who still hoped that the GOP was a congenial home for those who still believe and practice the sexual ethic taught by Scripture and tradition.

After an avuncular address by Trump business associate Tom Barrack -- which seemed more like a wedding toast than political endorsement -- daughter Ivanka took the stage to introduce her father. I couldn't help but wonder if mother Ivana was watching somewhere in a mansion on Palm Beach. If so, she must have been proud. Perhaps the best things about Donald Trump are his children. Like Thiel's I found the specifics of Ivanka's speech appealing, especially the part about making policies favorable to working mothers, the lack of which my wife and I are wrestling with even now as she prepares to go back to work under unjust circumstances having just given birth to our third child. All in all this portion of the evening must have struck many in the convention hall as a bit off key. "Where's the red meat?" you could almost hear the hard-cores in the crowd thinking. They would soon get what they came for.

My theory is that Trump's beliefs, and the way he lives in real life, is more like the picture painted by the three speakers preceding him, but the speech he gave is characteristic of his chameleon-ish strategy for winning the ultimate validation to his insecure narcissistic ego -- becoming President of the United States. (Read McKay Coppins truly jaw-dropping BuzzFeed article for more on Trump's motivation.) Trump in his essence is representative of the Manhattan, Las Vegas and Palm Beach circles he runs in -- vaguely liberal on social issues, somewhat fiscally conservative (when it suits his interests) and reflexively pro-law enforcement and pro-military. And there's the whole power and machismo thing too. Rudy Giuliani is another who embodies this sort of Rockefeller Republicanism 2.0. And by the way, how sad to see someone who was a genuine national hero after 9/11 morph into the worst sort of political opportunist hack.

In short, I don't believe Donald Trump personally is a bigot, or even that bothered about illegal immigration. However, he's cynically appealing to the worst instincts of white blue-collar and working-class voters who have legitimate fears about immigration, globalism and the changing face of America. Thus we had the strange spectacle last night of a candidate pledging to be the great protector of LGBTQ people, while in the next breath stoking the latent fear and loathing of "the other" when that other has a brown or black face.  Any thought that he was going to pivot, or moderate his strongman rhetoric, was dispelled by last night's speech.  

I haven't the slightest clue what a Trump Administration would actually look like. But win or lose his campaign has unleashed demons into the body politic that will be hard to exorcise. Trump is the nominee the GOP establishment deserved, but whether his destruction of the Republican Party of Bush, Romney and Conservatism, Inc. paves the way for something better remains to be seen.

Will the Republic survive a Trump presidency? Probably. Will it survive another Clinton in the White House? Probably. Still, with the choice before us it's hard not to conclude that our national politics is broken beyond repair. Virtue (defined as "thinking and acting in the right way") has left the room. As a husband and father my urgent priority is to embed my family within communities in which virtue can flourish. How to do that is a daunting challenge, but as followers of Christ it's our only option.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Republocrat: Chapter 3 "Not-So-Fantastic Mr. Fox"

The scandal and turmoil engulfing Fox News Channel reminded me of this post from 2010. It was part of a series I did on a book by Carl Trueman called Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative.

Shortly after moving here from England; Republocrat author Carl Trueman was told by a well-meaning Christian friend that he should watch Fox News because -- "that's the unbiased news channel." Upon investigation it turned out that FNC wasn't that historical rarity: a truly unbiased source of reportage, instead, it was a source of around-the-clock conservative commentary and spin. Lest you're thinking this assesment of Fox News is a case of British snobbery, the venerable BBC comes in for some harsh criticism too: "Visiting home recently, I was shocked to see that, in my nearly nine-year absence, the BBC seems to have been taken over by a bunch of New Labour groupies. . ." (p. 41)

The point is -- the BBC has a left of center bias, as do most of the mainstream media institutions in the United States (e.g. CNN, MSNBC, New York Times). It's fine and good that Fox News wants to provide an alternative viewpoint to the left-wing MSM, but don't say with a straight face that Fox is unbiased. As Trueman points out -- we all have our biases. In his history class he makes an important distinction between objectivity and neutrality.

I like to argue in class that in the writing of history, no one can be neutral, but historians can be objective. (p. 42)

Some historians are more objective than others, and so are some news channels. On the rare occasions when I watch cable news I usually turn to CNN because (in my opinion) they do a better job of giving a full picture and more objective viewpoint than the outliers on the right and left (see, I have a centrist bias). The fact, though, that CNN's ratings have been in decline relative to their main competitors is an indication of what the public wants.

What the public increasingly wants, it seems, is news and commentary that confirms what they already believe -- and the more outrageous and shrill the better. Instead of exposing ourselves to a variety of voices we gravitate to those that validate our prejudices and stoke our fears. If you're a worried conservative who believes in your gut that they (liberals, Europeans, George Soros, etc.) are out to get us, then the fevered monologues and talking points of Beck and O'Reilly will strike a chord. This in itself isn't all that remarkable. What is remarkable are the legions of conservative Christians who've reacted to the bias of the "liberal media" by annointing Rupert Murdoch's channel as defender of traditional values and purveyor of all that's true, right and good.

How well does this reputation stack up with reality? After a devastatingly funny deconstruction of a couple of representative quotes from the aforementioned stars of the Fox firmament (see pp. 44-49) the author turns to Murdoch and his media empire. I have to say that Trueman really has it out for Mr. Murdoch. In fact he admits a Beckian conspiratorial bent in his fixation on the Aussie mogul.

To start with -- Murdoch personally is no paragon of family values. He's on his third marriage to the young vice president of one of his many media properties (Star TV) who he married mere days after his second divorce. That behavior in itself isn't necessarily a reason not to watch his channels or read his newspapers. I've written in this space about my admiration for the movies of Woody Allen -- this despite his tawdry personal life. However, while conservative Christians are quick to condemn the private peccadillos of a liberal like Woody Allen, "the Christian Right. . . is often very forgiving of the private failings of its heroes, as in the case of Rush Limbaugh with his various marriages and his well-publicized drug addiction." (pp. 51-2)

Beyond Murdoch's personal life there's his ownership of The Sun -- "a tabloid known for setting the bar as low as it gets when it comes to journalism" and it's "daily diet of beautiful, topless women. Indeed, prior to the advent of the World Wide Web, it is possible that Murdoch was responsible for putting more soft pornography into more houses than anybody else in history." (p. 52) Trueman wonders aloud how Christian fathers would feel if they opened up the newspaper and saw their daughter posing naked for the leering masses. Also, it's easy to forget the Fox part of Fox News -- that network whose stock-in-trade is raunchy sitcoms that mock the values cherished by conservative Christians and encourage us to laugh at family dysfunction.

The take-home message from this chapter is that Christians should be more "eclectic" in what they read, watch and listen to. Don't get all your news from the same source. Realize that all news channels have their biases. Be intentional in exposing yourself to voices that challenge your view of the world. If we take into account the wide-ranging impact of sin on people and institutions then we'll approach any media outlet with a degree of skepticism. Trueman encourages his readers to emulate the Greek apologists of the early church by taking seriously our responsibility to be the most thoughtful and informed citizens we can be, as opposed to those who traffic in "clichés, slander, and lunatic conspiracy theories." (p. 59)

In short, the primary aim of this chapter isn't to convince Christians that they shouldn't turn on Fox News. It's to convince them that they shouldn't turn on Fox News with their God-given critical faculties turned off.

Next: the uneasy marriage of Christianity and capitalism.

Quotes from Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Merton for a fearful age

Thomas Merton has been a source of great comfort and inspiration throughout the past few angry and blood-soaked months, angry and blood-soaked months for the world and for our nation. Here in America we're living through a dark period when—as I heard someone say recently—the flags seem to be permanently at half staff. Overseas the atrocities mount up faster than we can keep up. News of bombings, uprisings, and mass murders by ever more horrifying means crawl across our TV screens. Spend any time at all watching the news or social media, and it's hard to resist the grip of fear. In this fearful political season we would do well to listen to this quiet man of peace Thomas Merton. His writings are full of penetrating spiritual and psychological insight.

I've been slowly reading and re-reading the collection of essays published as New Seeds of Contemplation. The morning after the murder of the police officers in Dallas I opened up to "The Root of War Is Fear." By war Merton means more than armies meeting on a battlefield. He could just as easily titled this one: the root of violence is fear. Merton begins with a thesis:

At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything.

This fear leads to distrust (of one another and ourselves) and ultimately hatred (of one another and ourselves) and violence. We see the very real evil all around us. But rather than acknowledging that we are complicit, and looking with repentant eyes into our own hearts, we look for something or someone to punish. We pass our burden of guilt onto someone else. This lets us off the hook and allows us to lazily ignore the complexity of issues surrounding race and justice and politics.

When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify the sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self. In ourselves, it is the other way round; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it. We find it very hard to identify our sin with our own will and our own malice. On the contrary, we naturally tend to interpret our immoral act as an involuntary mistake, or as the malice of a spirit in us that is other than ourself. Yet at the same we are fully aware that others do not make this convenient distinction for us. The acts that have been done by us are, in their eyes, "our" acts and they hold us fully responsible.
[...] In all these ways we build up such an obsession with evil, both in ourselves and in others, that we waste all our mental energy trying to account for this evil, to punish it, to exorcise it, or to get rid of it in any way we can. We drive ourselves mad with our preoccupation and in the end there is no outlet left but violence. We have to destroy something or someone. By that time we have created for ourselves a suitable enemy, a scapegoat in whom we have invested all the evil in the world. He is the cause of every wrong. He is the fomentor of all conflict. If he can only be destroyed, conflict will cease, evil will be done with, there will be no more war.

This simplistic binary thinking is a dangerous delusion, but it forms the foundation of our contemporary national life and political discourse.

[...] Thus we never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy. 

So if we're all wrong, does that mean we're wrong in everything? If we're all acting out of mixed motives should we even try to act on the basis of believing ourselves to be in the right? If as Merton writes: "politics is an inextricable tangle of good and evil motives" what hope is there for creating a more just and peaceful society? He answers these questions by directing us to the mercy of God, who condescends to work with, and through, contingent and flawed men and women.

It would be sentimental folly to expect men to trust one another when they obviously cannot be trusted. But at least they can learn to trust God. They can bring themselves to see that the mysterious power of God can, quite independently of human malice and error, protect men unaccountably against themselves, and that He can always turn evil into good, though perhaps not always in a sense that would be understood by the preachers of sunshine and uplift. [I absolutely love that line!] If they can trust and love God, Who is infinitely wise and Who rules the lives of men permitting them to use their freedom even to the point of almost incredible abuse, they can love men who are evil. They can learn to love them even in their sin, as God has loved them. If we can love the men we cannot trust (without trusting them foolishly) and if we can to some extent share the burden of their sin by identifying ourselves with them, then perhaps there is some hope of a kind of peace on earth, based not on the wisdom and the manipulations of men but on the inscrutable mercy of God.
For only love—which means humility—can exorcise the fear which is at the root of all war...

God, grant us a love that's stronger than our fear. Give us the grace to hate the disorder in our own hearts more than we hate it in others. Thank-you for your servant Thomas Merton, whose life and writings teach us how to be people of peace. Amen.

Monday, July 11, 2016

1968 Redux?

Ross Douthat speculates on whether history is repeating itself and we are entering a period of American history not unlike the late 60s/early 70s.

History rhymes rather than repeats; we are not reliving the widening gyre that Didion discerned. But there are echoes and recurrences linking this difficult moment to the American berserk of two generations back.
Now as then there is urban unrest, a sudden rise in homicides, tensions between protesters and cops; even white nationalism is re-emerging from its post-segregation sleep. Now as then there is campus activism, the New Left reborn as Social Justice Warriors. Now as then there is a spate of domestic terror attacks. Now as then — much more now than then, in fact — there is a pervasive mistrust of institutions, a sense that the country is rotting from the head down.

Click through to read the whole thing, but Douthat concludes that we (probably) aren't about to experience 1968 redux. On the way to church yesterday I heard a speaker on NPR compare this moment with that one with the comment "our cities aren't burning, but the internet is burning." As bad as that is -- and if you spend any time reading comment threads you'll be profoundly depressed --  I fervently hope it remains that way.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Matthew Sitman on leaving conservatism and Jake Meador on cultivating indifference

For your consideration, two exceptional essays from young writers worth reading.

First, Matthew Sitman tells the story of leaving the conservatism of his youth. It's a respectful and beautifully written essay. Many elements of his spiritual and intellectual journey mirror my own, and help to explain how someone who was a subscriber to National Review in his twenties could vote for Bernie Sanders in my forties. An excerpt...

Leaving conservatism behind, then, was like leaving behind my youthful fundamentalism. Both conservatism and fundamentalism assume freedom to be the foundation of our lives, not something limited by environment or resources. Both assume that virtue can conquer the brute force of circumstances. And both condemn us to a world where grace must be earned rather than freely given—a view of life that comforts and flatters the successful but can only prove cruel to everyone else.

A class-based politics acknowledges that we are bound in ways we do not choose; that we are constrained in ways that the exertion of our wills may never overcome. This is not to concede too much to defeatism or despair, but to resist making heroism a requirement for a decent life. Class politics is, finally, a form of solidarity, a way of joining together in our shared fallibility and weakness, and shaping our life together accordingly.

The tired platitude that the young, if they have a heart, should be liberal, and the old, if they have a sound mind, should be conservative, turns out to be wrong. Experience has taught me just how much contingency and chance are responsible for what good has come to me in my life. Growing up has meant an awareness that the struggles of so many are not because they lack virtue or ambition, but because we live in a country stacked against their material well-being and interests. And I know, when I think about what the people I love and so many others have endured, that it does not have to be this way.

Second, Jake Meador writes about what Protestant evangelicals might learn from the monastic tradition. In particular, the virtue of indifference. Here's how he describes it...

To be indifferent is, in the sense we are speaking of today, to be confident in the goodness of a certain way of life. It is to be immune to the appeals of popularity and relevance, committed instead to the work we have been given to do. It is to be convinced enough of your vocation that you don’t need to be bothered by many of the things that consume the attention of your peers. It is to say that you are not concerned with finding your next promotion, accumulating life experiences (which you use to build your brand on social media as well as your CV), looking for your next big house, or seeking out the right school to advance your child’s career prospects. It is to be content with the life you have been given and to work in one’s home place for its improvement rather than seeking a better place somewhere else. It is, to borrow a phrase from Berry, to acquire the joy of sales resistance.

Of course, this kind of indifference is not indifference to the world in all ways, nor is it an excuse to ignore or neglect the Christian duties we owe to our neighbors. Rather, it is in fact a necessary condition for caring for the world and our neighbors in the right way. We cannot love the world if we are preoccupied with ingratiating ourselves to it or with meeting its own standards of success. In our particular moment, it is also worth noting that integrating ourselves too much into a culture as materialistic and individualistic as ours will also have the effect of shaping us in ways that are, at best, unhelpful toward maturing in Christian love and, more probably, are actually harmful to that work. The indifference we must learn is thus not an absolute indifference, but a wise indifference that is able to see the world as it is, love it, and yet also recognize where it is not possible to be like it.

Both of these pieces moved and inspired me. I hope you'll check them out. Peace.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Quotable Kiarostami (repost from 2009)

I've recently begun to delve into the work of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Believe it or not Iranian/Persian cinema has a long and glorious history stretching back to the 1930s. Kiarostami is it's most prominent representative working today. The following is from an interview with Iranian film scholar Dr. Jamsheed Akrami.

It’s difficult to talk about the things that I like because you see them in my films. It’s easier for me to talk about things that I don’t like. What I don’t like, you don’t see in my films. I don’t like to engage in telling stories. I don’t like to arouse the viewer emotionally or give him advice. I don’t like to belittle him or burden him with a sense of guilt. Those are the things I don’t like in the movies.

I think a good film is one that has a lasting power, and you start to reconstruct it right after you leave the theater. There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films. On the other hand, there are films that nail you to your seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later. These are the films that take you hostage. I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them.

I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.

Kiarostami died yesterday at age 76. His life's work will live on.

Thomas Friedman (the Lexus and the olive tree)

[...] In many ways, the Lexus and the olive tree were the symbols of the post-cold war world. Some countries were emerging from the cold war intent on building a better Lexus, while others were emerging from the cold war intent on renewing ethnic and tribal feuds over who owned which olive trees. Some countries were obsessed with doing whatever it took to streamline and re-engineer their economies so they could better compete in a global marketplace, while others were consumed with internal strife over who owned which olive trees. In Japan, in Taiwan, in Singapore, in Maastricht, in Brussels, the future seemed to be burying the past. Yet in Sarajevo, in Rwanda, in Nagorno-Karabakh and Georgia, in Hebron and Gaza, the past seemed to be burying the future.
Finding this balance between the Lexus and the olive tree is not easy. On the one hand, societies need to link up with the global economy and attract global investment in order to survive economically. But at the same time, the more societies ask their citizens to link up with distant, sterile economic structures—like GATT, NAFTA, or the EU—the more they need to find ways to give their people the ability to express their distinctly cultural, religious, and national identities. Countries are like people. They have bodies and souls, and both have to be nourished.

That quote comes from Friedman's 1995 memoir From Beirut to Jerusalem (a great read btw). He would later go on to write a follow-up book expanding on the Lexus and olive tree metaphor. Like all metaphors that try to explain giant trends it's a bit simplistic, but I think it does explain a lot of what's going on even today, with the rise of figures like Trump and Sanders, the Brexit vote, and the rise of various nationalist movements across Europe and the world. Perhaps "the establishment" (however you want to define that) has lost sight of the fact that countries, and their citizens, have souls.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter, or else

Spending a day in the ER clarifies. Behind the (mostly) smiling professionalism a grim reality. Keeping the Destroyer at bay. The banality of chest pain alerts, IV's and blood draws. Pain and death. The great levelers. Someone you love and anonymous strangers. Thrown together. Not for me vapid platitudes. Pain is my sworn enemy. Death is Satan's suicidal Hail Mary. Jesus! Oh Death where is thy sting? The seeds of your final defeat are ripening. I dance on your grave. Driving home (it's late). The homeless man hunched in the dark intersection as cars whiz by. No hope! Busiest intersection in Palm Beach County. Another victim of the Fall. This world sucks! But we get to go home. Air conditioned and cozy. Wine and ale to console the heart. Kiss the tears away. Surprised by joy again. Life is grand. But life sucks. But life is grand. Am I schizophrenic? I think not. The Apostle was struck down but not defeated, sorrowful yet always rejoicing. How can that make sense? The hope of the resurrection. "A crutch for the weak", sneers the philosopher. Yeah I'm weak and crippled. If not for the empty tomb I'd shoot myself. Give me the risen Christ or give me nihilism.

Behold, I am making all things new!

Lord, give us a song in the painful night and sustain us thru the grim tomorrow. Come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth. The high countries beckon.

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

(Originally posted in 2007)

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Peggy Noonan gets it

Among the many analyses and diatribes I've read on this unprecedented, surreal, crazy (insert your own adjective) election season this essay by Peggy Noonan stands out. Here are the opening paragraphs. Click on the link to read the whole thing. It's worth it.

What is happening in American politics?

We’re in the midst of a rebellion. The bottom and middle are pushing against the top. It’s a throwing off of old claims and it’s been going on for a while, but we’re seeing it more sharply after New Hampshire. This is not politics as usual, which by its nature is full of surprise. There’s something deep, suggestive, even epochal about what’s happening now.

I have thought for some time that there’s a kind of soft French Revolution going on in America, with the angry and blocked beginning to push hard against an oblivious elite. It is not only political. Yes, it is about the Democratic National Committee, that house of hacks, and about a Republican establishment owned by the donor class. But establishment journalism, which for eight months has been simultaneously at Donald Trump’s feet (“Of course you can call us on your cell from the bathtub for your Sunday show interview!”) and at his throat (“Trump supporters, many of whom are nativists and nationalists . . .”) is being rebelled against too. Their old standing as guides and gatekeepers? Gone, and not only because of multiplying platforms. Gloria Steinem thought she owned feminism, thought she was feminism. She doesn’t and isn’t. The Clintons thought they owned the party—they don’t. Hedge-funders thought they owned the GOP. Too bad they forgot to buy the base!

All this goes hand in hand with the general decline of America’s faith in its institutions...
Read the rest here.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Some Wendell Berry on the eve of "Super Tuesday"

The collapse of families and communities -- so far, more or less disguisable as "mobility" or "growth" or "progress" or "liberation" -- comes from or with the collapse of personal character and is a social catastrophe. It leaves individuals subject to no requirements or restraints except those imposed by government. The liberal individual desires freedom from restraints upon personal choices and acts, which often has extended to freedom from familial and communal responsibilities. The conservative individual desires freedom from restraints upon economic choices and acts, which often extends to freedom from social, ecological and even economic responsibilities. Preoccupied with these degraded freedoms, both sides have refused to look straight at the dangers and the failures of government-by-corporations.

The Christian or social conservatives who wish for government protection of their version of family values have been seduced by the conservatives of corporate finance who wish for government protection of their semireligion of personal wealth earned in contempt for families. The liberals, calling for too few restraints upon incorporated wealth, wish for government enlargement of their semireligion of personal rights and liberties. One side espouses family values pertaining to temporary homes that are empty all day, every day. The other promotes liberation that vouchsafes little actual freedom and no particular responsibility. And so we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry, and alone. We are talking therefore about a politics of mutual estrangement, in which the two sides go at each other with the fervor of extreme righteousness in defense of rickety absolutes that are indefensible and therefore cannot be compromised.

"Caught in the Middle" (pp. 75-6) as published in Our Only World: Ten Essays