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 "clich├ęs, 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.