Category Archives: Culture

The Long View

I found this interview with Pastor Aaron Graham of The District Church in Washington, DC so encouraging. It reminded me that God is working in that city, regardless of the politics and power struggles I see in the news.

From the article, one question and answer:

Elijah: You mentioned the progressive bubble in D.C. earlier, it seems to be around the world. Both large national church organizations all the way down to the local church are grappling with this progressive social narrative, issues like gender identity or abortion, life issues, racial issues. It seems to be really this tension between the church trying to welcome as many people as possible while also standing firm theologically. How have you tried to meet that intersection, and also bring the church through it as well, particularly being in such a progessive area?

Pastor Graham: I think it’s just doing the hard work of trying to teach people to think Biblically, and to increase Biblical literacy. Because we live in the social media age along with 24 hour news cycles, that many Christians today are more discipled by media commentators than they are by the Word of God. It becomes difficult for a pastor to speak to the issues in a way where it’s not already emotionally charged. I try to teach and preach the Bible, and allow the Bible to speak to the issues of the time. When I went through the Sermon on the Mount recently, I critiqued progressive Chrisitanity and Christian nationalism. What happened in our city on January 6th with the insurrection had its roots in Christian nationalism, where people don’t know where the American dream begins and Christianity ends. It’s just all one and the same, and it’s like Christianity is America and we have to create this top down. That’s dangerous, we have to preach against that. Likewise, there’s a movement deconstructing core theological doctrines that have been consensus doctrines for 2,000 years in the local church. In our quest to do good, to do justice, we’re forgetting fallen humanity, that the chief problem is fallen humanity and that’s shared across all groups of people. That’s what makes the gospel so great and so inclusive, is that we’re all fallen, and that God has given us a way to be reconciled to Him through Christ and through His death for us on the cross.

It’s easy to respond to whatever’s popping up here or there, important things and important current events, things that we should be engaged in, to forget our history and to forget the Bible. Biblical literacy and understanding the core Christian doctrines of the faith have become an increasing priority to me the longer that I’ve been here, because I’ve realized that I think secular culture is doing a better job of discipling urban Christians than the local church is. I’m having to be more intentional and aggressive about that, to say hey, let’s make sure the questions you’re asking around progressive Christianity, that progressive Christianity doesn’t become a layover to post-Christianity. That reading progessive Christianity becomes a place where you can wrestle with your doubts and come back to historic Christianity and a deeper sense, rather than “oh, this is just an exit for me to total deconstruction.” I talk about the difference between doubt and deconstruction, that doubt is a normal part of growth, asking questions, not just inheriting your parents faith, wrestling with these things, but active deconstruction is trying to tear down things where progressives have an agenda to then convert Christians to their agenda, just like Christian nationalists have the same thing.

Future Generations

Reading from C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (1943) I was struck by how his discussion of “Man’s Conquest of Nature”, particularly regarding contraception, is pertinent to abortion debate. At this point in time abortion is, at the very least, a method of contraception. Following is a quote from the book, and if you substitute “abortion” for “contraception” you will see what I mean:

“[A]s regards contraception there is a paradoxical, negative sense in which all possible future generations are the patients or subjects of a power wielded by those already alive. By contraception simply, they are denied existence; by contraception used as a means of selective breeding, they are, without their concurring voice, made to be what one generation, for its own reasons, may choose to prefer. From this point of view, what we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument…. And all long-term exercises of power, especially in breeding, must mean the power of earlier generations over later ones. The latter point is not always sufficiently emphasized, because those who write on social matters have not yet learned to imitate the physicists by always including Time among the dimensions. In order to understand fully what Man’s power over Nature, and therefore the power of some men over other men, really means, we must picture the race extended in time from the date of its emergence to that of its extinction. Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, insofar as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger: for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have preordained how they are to use them. And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the age most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically a that of its successors.” (added emphasis mine).

What Can Be Expected of Us

More from Vaclav Havel’s book, Disturbing the Peace:

I’m not one of those who somehow got mental stuck in that week of occupation and have then spent the rest of their lives reminiscing about what it was like.  And I have no intention of romanticizing that period either.  I only think that, taken all together, it made for a unique phenomenon which to this day, as far as I know, has never been analyzed in any depth sociologically, philosophically, psychologically, or politically.  But some things were so obvious you could understand them immediately, without any scientific analysis.  For example, that society is a very mysterious animal with many faces and hidden potentialities, and that it’s extremely short-sighted to believe that the face society happens to be presenting to you at a given moment is its only true face.  None of us know all the potentialities that slumber in the spirit of the populations, or all the ways in which that population can surprise us when there is the right interplay of events, both visible and invisible.  Who would have believed–at a time when the Noventny regime was corroding away because the entire nation was behaving like Svejks–that half a year later the same society would display a genuine civic-mindedness, and that a year later this recently apathetic, skeptical, and demoralized society would stand up with such courage and intelligence to a foreign power!  And who would have suspected that, after scarcely a year had gone by, this same society would, as swiftly as the wind blows, lapse back into a state of demoralization far deeper than its original one!  After all these experiences, one must be very careful about coming to any conclusions about the way we are, or what can be expected of us.

A Few Realities about Abortion in the United States

David French:

Decades of data and decades of legal, political, and cultural developments have combined to teach us a few, simple realities about abortion in the United States:

1. Presidents have been irrelevant to the abortion rate;

2. Judges have been forces of stability, not change, in abortion law;

3. State legislatures have had more influence on abortion than Congress;

4. Even if Roe is overturned, abortion will be mostly unchanged in the U.S.; and

5. The pro-life movement has an enormous cultural advantage.

If the points above don’t seem to make sense to you, then you’re likely unfamiliar with the way that decisive numbers of Americans think about abortion—not in crystal-clear terms of life versus choice (or “baby” versus “clump of cells”), but through much hazier and subjective reasoning. This means that absolutists are consistently frustrated with the political process. Unless Americans change, that process will not yield the results they seek.

Do Pro-Lifers Who Reject Trump Have ‘Blood on their Hands’?

Science and Unwishful Thinking

A startling investigation into how a cheap, well-known drug became a political football in the midst of a pandemic

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, a survey of the world’s frontline physicians showed hydroxychloroquine to be the drug they considered the most effective at treating COVID-19 patients. That was in early April, shortly after a French study showed it was safe and effective in lowering the virus count, at times in combination with azithromycin. Next we were told hydroxychloroquine was likely ineffective, and also dangerous, and that that French study was flawed and the scientist behind it worthy of mockery. More studies followed, with contradictory results, and then out came what was hailed by some as a definitive study of 96,000 patients showing the drug was most certainly dangerous and ineffective, and indeed that it killed 30% more people than those who didn’t take it. Within days, that study was retracted, with the editor of one of the two most respected medical journals in the Western world conceding it was “a monumental fraud.” And on it went.

Not only are lay people confused; professionals are. All that seems certain is that there is something disturbing going on in our science, and that if and when the “perfect study” were to ever come along, many won’t know what to believe.

We live in a culture that has uncritically accepted that every domain of life is political, and that even things we think are not political are so, that all human enterprises are merely power struggles, that even the idea of “truth” is a fantasy, and really a matter of imposing one’s view on others. For a while, some held out hope that science remained an exception to this. That scientists would not bring their personal political biases into their science, and they would not be mobbed if what they said was unwelcome to one faction or another. But the sordid 2020 drama of hydroxychloroquine—which saw scientists routinely attacked for critically evaluating evidence and coming to politically inconvenient conclusions—has, for many, killed those hopes.

…..What is unique about the hydroxychloroquine discussion is that it is a story of “unwishful thinking”—to coin a term for the perverse hope that some good outcome that most sane people would earnestly desire, will never come to pass. It’s about how, in the midst of a pandemic, thousands started earnestly hoping—before the science was really in—that a drug, one that might save lives at a comparatively low cost, would not (emphasis mine) actually do so. Reasonably good studies were depicted as sloppy work, fatally flawed. Many have excelled in making counterfeit bills that look real, but few have excelled at making real bills look counterfeit.

Read it.

Hydroxychloroquine: A Morality Tale

Nowhere Man From Nowhere Land

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From a book review of Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul:

Against innovators and radicals, Emerson remarked, “conservatism always has the worst of the argument.” “Always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate,” conservatism “makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory.” Coming Home: Reclaiming America’s Conservative Soul accepts the Emersonian challenge, calling on Americans to retrieve their heritage from the progressive cultural elites who would consign it to oblivion. Ted V. McAllister and Bruce P. Frohnen are accomplished scholars of American intellectual and political history, but their slim and trenchant book addresses primarily their fellow citizens—and they do not mince words. Americans are in danger of forgetting the historical inheritance that sustains their identity as a self-governing people. This spiritual crisis calls for a “revolution,” in the classical sense of turning back to first principles.
Its title notwithstanding, Coming Home disavows nostalgia; its tone is combative, not elegiac. America suffers not from homesickness but homelessness—the alienation of a people from its true self. “A civilization is diseased when its people lose faith in its essential ideals and institutions, and when its elite loses or distorts its historical memory.” The conjunction is not accidental. Americans are assailed by what the philosopher Roger Scruton dubbed “the culture of repudiation,” a relentless negation of the traditional norms that leaves the world of human ties swept bare. In denigrating our cultural forebears, our elites have rendered our identity opaque and deprived us of a sense of home. The latter grows only from below, through people’s associative impulses and habits of affection, but it is easily destroyed from above when the state arrogates to itself the functions of civil society.
Read it all here.

Trying Not to Increase the Clamour

 

“More than half a century of existence has taught me that most of the wrong and folly which darken earth is due to those who cannot possess their souls in quiet; that most of the good which saves mankind from destruction comes of life that is led in thoughtful stillness.  Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all.”

Quoted from George Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, (1903), by Stephen Pentz at First Known When Lost.

 

Bradbury: Tyranny comes from the Masses, Not Government

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Bradley J. Birzer writes about author Ray Bradbury’s insight into where the danger of tyranny begins in a society.  Birzer:

“Bradbury taught, though, stated rather bluntly that danger came from the Masses and that the government, naturally inept and unwieldy, only coopted and hi-jacked (rather incompetently) the longings of the mob.

In Fahrenheit 451, Fire-chief Beatty and the protagonist, Guy Montag, play a dangerous game of cat and mouse as they discuss exactly why, when, and how the burning of books and the censorship of ideas became the norm. In a rather long passage—well worth quoting—Beatty, though the antagonist of the story, puts Bradbury’s fears into their most articulate form.

Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.

And what did the Masses hate the most? The young genius who thinks independently and must be put in his place.

Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course, it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.

Again, what matters so critically with these passages is that the tyranny comes from the demands of the Masses, not from the central government. In Bradbury’s understanding, the government might very well be wicked and evil, but it would always follow the lead of the Masses and become their tool, rather than the other way around.

Read it all here.

Historical Seventh Day Baptist engagement against Slavery

Many of my American ancestors have been here since before the American Revolution, and most of them, including the later arrivals,  belonged to the Seventh Day Baptist (SDB) denomination.   Much of my childhood I attended the second SDB church in America (established 1708) not far from the first one, which is in Newport, RI (established 1672).  So in a very real sense the denomination is my family.

I am reading the first volume of a collection of historical papers, Seventh Day Baptists in Europe and America.  The American portion of this volume includes the years between 1664 and 1902.  Of special interest to me right now is the General Conference reports, which began in 1802.  I decided to look though those documents for references to slavery. Each meeting lists resolutions that passed (but not the actual resolutions).  Some of them are not explicit but the wording often gives indication of their point of view.  Here is what I found:

1852  Passed a resolution regarding the inhuman “Fugitive Slave Law.”
1855  Resolution regarding the Case of Pardon Davis imprisoned in Louisiana on the
          charge of aiding slaves to escape.
          Prayer for the emancipation of the slaves in our beloved country.
1858  Resolution adopted relating to the late disgraceful attempt of our general
           government to force slavery on Kansas.
          Resolution regarding The American Tract Society as having forfeited its right to our
          support, because….it refused to publish anything against slavery.
1861  Eight resolutions were discussed and set forth slavery as the cause, and its  
           overthrow as the desired result of the Civil War; and pledged to the Union loyal  
          support, “whatever it may cost.”
1862  A Memorial, upon Emancipation was prepared and ordered sent to the President in  
          the name of the Conference.
1863  Resolution regarding the support of the government against “the slave-holders’ 
           rebellion.”
1864  Resolution regarding the protracted struggle for the Union, liberty and good
          government in connection with which there was a special prayer of
          thanksgiving and confession.
1865  Resolution regarding gratitude for the overthrow of the rebellion, and its great
          cause-slavery.
          Resolution on the right to suffrage without regard to color.
1866  Resolutions adopted relating to the morally wrong and unpatriotic methods of the      
          nation’s chief executive and the so-called “Union” party.
1870  Resolution regarding the anti-slavery struggle and its results to freedom.
1891  Resolution declaring it to be un-politic and un-Christian for our government to
          make distinction among immigrants based on prejudice, race or color.

 

 

Reality

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Like many others, I am finding some time to read during our COVID-19 confinement.  I have been reading two books, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year.  (I am rather plodding through them).  Last week, on my shelves, I saw Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays, The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought, and read the one titled “Facing Reality.”  It begins:

    Anyone who reads and writes history or economics or science must sometimes wonder what fiction is, where its boundaries are, if they exist at all.  The question implies certain distinctions, as between fiction and fact, or, more cautiously, between fiction and nonfiction.  I would suggest that, while such distinctions are real, they are also profoundly relative, conditional, and circumstantial.  Almost everything we have a name for exists in the universe of time and matter, and should, so it seems to me, be assumed to share certain of their essential qualities, two of these being ineluctability and profound resistance to definition.

    Yet we have put together among ourselves a rigidly simple account of life in the world, which we honor with the name Reality and which, we now assure one another, must be faced and accepted, even or especially at the cost of those very things which societies we admire are believed by us to value, our example education, the arts, a humane standard of life for the whole community.  Science fetches back from its explorations mystery upon mystery, yet somehow we feel increasingly sunk in a world of mere things, in a hard-edged Reality that disallows imagination except to exact tribute from it, in portraits which assert its own power and ferocity, or in interludes and recreations which concede by their triviality that only Reality matters.  Our present model of the world is a fiction, based on notions of objectivity and of the character and implications of science which are a hundred years out of date.  It is based on the flotsam and detritus and also the floor sweepings of all disciplines–psychology, penology, economics, history, all of them.  From them it takes its important tone, helping in magnifying any present obsession.  For many of us it is true to say, Reality marks our ballots, even rears our children.  It is such a poor contrivance that we would not believe in it for a minute if we did not want to.

And this:

    As a fiction writer, I feel smothered by this collective fiction, this Reality.  I do not admire it or enjoy it, this work of grand minor imagination which somehow or other got itself acknowledged as The Great Truth and The Voice of Our Time because of rather than despite its obvious thinness and fraudulence.  So I will give it a bad review…

There is so much more, and it is all very good.  I particularly liked her extended discussion of anxiety.

Here is a nice review of the book.