We’ve had some cheerful reading around here lately: Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, mentioned in our history textbook. I’ve been reading it aloud to the girls at lunchtime, trying to model how to go about engaging with a not-necessarily-accessible “classic” book. For some reason even I don’t understand, I decided this was not enough dark, spiritually probing Hawthorne, and in my spare time I reread The House of the Seven Gables.
These experiences challenge me to think about what it means to “like” a book or an author. For me, it seems, “liking” a book doesn’t entail pure entertainment; it can involve some intellectual work. Hawthorne’s sentences alone require a certain discipline to hold the first part of the sentence in mind during the long meander to the end, and the antiquated vocabulary and turns of phrase force the reader to slow down. This was particularly striking to me, since after reading a chapter of The Scarlet Letter, I also read aloud a chapter of the book of Acts. The Bible was much easier reading! — more simple sentences, more directly constructed, than Hawthorne’s.
The subject matter too requires work. There is the leap into the past with its different social values and level of development. In Seven Gables, we begin with Hepzibah Pyncheon’s personally devastating effort to start a cent shop in the ancestral mansion in order to avoid the poorhouse, an act that plunges her from the elevated status of “lady” into the ranks of the working class. She has a boarder, Mr. Holgrave, whose progressive politics and scientific interests in mesmerism and daguerrotyping make him a representative of the forward-looking class whose concerns are now distantly removed from us. We’re left musing over what form he might take, and what interests he might have, if he lived today. Instead of mesmerism, maybe he would be waxing eloquent on stem cell research; rather than early photographic work, he might be creating virtual reality software.
Hawthorne’s interest in the psychology of fallen humanity makes for a dark fictional journey in this book. We see the fruit of family sins like greed and the lust for control. The house itself, with its dark, cobwebbed corners and decayed structure, its overgrown garden, and its centrally located portrait of the original Pyncheon sternly dominating the atmosphere, serves as a mind symbol of a family desperately in need of light from without. Like a Shakespearian comedy or a good Jane Austen novel, the conflicts are resolved through a marriage that restores order and frees the family from both poverty and depression as they move to a new dwelling.
Why do I find the book satisfying? Why do the girls seem so interested in The Scarlet Letter? I confess that I’m not sure what the appeal is. This is not escape fiction or entertainment, yet there is enough engagement of real human questions and difficulties to transcend the challenges that go along with the reading. A friend of mine confessed recently that she had never been able to finish The House of the Seven Gables, and another called The Scarlet Letter dull, so I can’t say that Hawthorne is universally loved. I have had enough for now myself. But there is something intriguing and substantive that Hawthorne draws us towards as we read, and because of that the stories will remain in my thoughts and remind me of how easily we can become trapped in the stale air of ancestral patterns or personal perceptions.
In Utopia Drive, the road weaves between times as its author searches the past for present answers. Though we may not be aware of the many utopian communes that have existed at one time or another on American soil, Erik Reece has compiled an introduction to several of them in this record of his summer travels in 2015. Setting out from his home state of Kentucky, Reece explores a number of experimental communities that tried out alternatives to the vision the rest of America was following.
Most of them eventually petered out, though some made a good run. The Shakers of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, for example, lasted a hundred years despite their ban on marriage and marital relations. The perfectionists of Oneida, New York, lasted as a cooperative for 30 years. And a few still exist, such as the Twin Oaks and Acorn communes in Louisa County, Virginia.
It interested me to see how many attempts have been made at essentially communist living within this capitalist nation. Years ago, on a news program, I heard a British man explain that the British had always looked at America and felt that the real conflict was not between democracy and communism, but democracy and capitalism. Apparently many others have shared the sentiment when they see the darker underside of a capitalistic system operating without shared moral guard rails. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and it’s every man for himself.
The two utopias that interested me most were Shakertown and the Oneida perfectionists. Both pictured themselves living out the kingdom of God on earth, a fulfillment of Christian teaching that repeats the pattern set by the first century church in the book of Acts. In the same way these early believers “had everything in common,” the head of each respective commune envisioned a cooperative system that involved shared labor and shared reaping of the results. But where the early Christians’ behavior grew spontaneously from their devotion to a supremely generous God, the Shakers and the perfectionists developed a system. Though Christianity should express itself in generosity, compassion, and good stewardship of the creation, I am always ambivalent about systematizing those fruits of genuine faith. Christianity’s most unfortunate legacies grow from attempts to impose it on people as part of a political system.
At times, though there are admirable qualities in the utopias, I found them… creepy. I admire the integrity of people who define success differently and live it out; I admire the skills and work ethic the groups brought to bear; I admire the simple bravery of their small-scale revolutions. But alongside the successes were costs that seemed to rival those of the larger society they rejected. Restrictions on the most private of behaviors, curtailing of natural motivations and drives like sexual intimacy and maternal attachment, and even the rejection of private property counterbalance the gains in community life. And alongside the incredibly practical outworking of community vision were sometimes strange psychological effects, like the Shakers’ many spiritual visions and the perfectionists’ willing submission of young girls to their leader, John Henry Noyes, for “initiation” to the world of intimacy.
Perhaps because of this uneasiness with some of the content, I really appreciated the accessibility of Reece’s scholarship. A readable and entertaining research project, Utopia Drive blends factual reports about each place with the writer’s reflections and experiences as a literary traveler as well as a geographical one. Musings on theology, politics, nature and literature alternate with driving narratives about the author locking his keys in his truck, interacting with tollbooth personnel, or facing the unexpected challenge of a full parking lot at Walden Pond. The reassuringly human voice of the narrative balances the strangeness of immersion in counter cultures.
The last chapter synthesizes the author’s experiences and steps firmly into the present day by looking at some examples of businesses that alter the typical model to give their workers greater ownership and reflect different values from much of America’s corporate culture. I was fascinated to read about Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland, formed because some nonprofit “eds and meds” (educational and medical institutions) got together to develop and support local business in poorer communities around them. The resulting laundry, solar power, and gardening companies supply the needs of these “anchor institutions” and give their workers shares in the company. All kinds of positive benefits arise.
It got me thinking about my own (depressed) region, and the ways a similar operation would help. Ultimately, this is the effect of the book: it encourages its readers to think about what matters, what disturbs and distresses, and what steps one can imagine to enact change. Some of these past communities have posed solutions to these problems, and it was encouraging to read of some present day models that bring “utopian” thinking to bear on important questions: what constitutes true wealth? What does a healthy work culture look like? How can you do business intelligently, without violence against people or the natural world? For those who see big problems and no solutions, Utopia Drive offers a dose of possibility that will restore some hope.
J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Google the title, or the author’s name, and you’ll discover that it is making news as a treatise on the white working class. Some call it “an explanation of Trump voters.” But I doubt that Mr. Vance would feel comfortable with the title of “explainer.” (There is also no mention of Trump in the book, though in interviews the author is asked about him.) I got the sense that he, too, is asking questions, mulling experience, and trying to understand. His perspective carries weight because it has all the authenticity of lived experience.
A native of Middletown, Ohio, Vance comes from a family of Appalachian “hillbillies.” His grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, moved from a cripplingly poor county in Kentucky to central Ohio in an effort to improve their chances and those of their children. They largely succeeded, arriving well before the factories closed. But for complex reasons, including an uneasy match between the hillbilly culture they brought with them and their Ohio community, their early financial success not only didn’t last, but was accompanied by a level of personal struggle and family dysfunction that made this author the most unlikely candidate in the world for the life he has attained: a graduate of Ohio State and Yale Law School, a happily married man, and a financially successful member of the professional class.
I admire the way Mr. Vance has been willing to speak for his community before a wider audience. He writes with great honesty, and great love, about the mixed bag of his cultural inheritance: deep devotion to family, yet a broken home and an unstable mother struggling with various addictions and a string of stepfathers; a volatile family life, yet a Scots-Irish honor code that insists on revenge for any perceived slight to you or your family member; a willingness to work hard and a love for country, yet a profound hopelessness in “the system” to ever guarantee success. The picture that emerges is a complex one, and though it brought tears to my eyes at times as I read, the author’s love and concern infused the telling and rendered both reflexive elitism and unfeeling judgment equally impossible. I respect Vance’s clear-eyed refusal to simplify, stereotype, or dismiss his subjects. In no way does he disown his heritage, however many of its hurdles he has cleared.
By far the heroes of the story are Mamaw and Papaw Vance, the author’s grandparents. They became Vance’s unofficial guardians and provided the stability, or as he calls it, the “safety valve,” in an otherwise chaotic and sometimes dangerous personal world. Though they have plenty of rough edges and failures, Vance sees his upward trajectory as directly attributable to them. After his grandfather dies, Vance lives with his grandmother for several years, and her steady encouragement and love enables him to begin redeeming himself as a high school student. He joins the Marines, where he learns discipline as well as a number of greatly needed life skills, and from there he is on his way up.
So why aren’t more from the white working class experiencing the kind of upward mobility Vance is? He offers no all-encompassing answer, but he does point to both systemic problems working on the community from without, and personal agency of those within the community. His discussion includes, among other things, the influence of Christianity, class, family, and politics both left and right. While the book is inspiring and gives me lots to think about, it does nothing to abate the concern I feel for our country or for my own family. On the contrary, it acknowledges some of the great divides among us. But it does so in a way that opens dialogue and advances the discussion in a disarmingly personal, civil way. Hillbilly Elegy does what all the best books do: it unsettles me, it brings others into sharper focus, and it makes me think about how similar and how connected we really are. These days, we can’t hear enough of such reminders.
I’ve had different degrees of success in my reading this summer. For example, though their premises were interesting and they were in general pretty good, I fell by the wayside and failed to finish Simplicity Parenting and Sarum. After waiting weeks for The Nest to become available at the library, the opening pages turned me off quickly by presenting me with a sordid encounter.
Nevertheless, I’ve had some success. It’s a Beautiful Day, by Renee and Philip Murdoch, details its author’s healing from traumatic brain injury. An American missionary in Rio, Renee Murdoch was attacked by a homeless man who fractured her skull so violently that no one could have predicted she would survive, much less recover without any brain damage. It’s an inspiring story full of encouragement, gripping description, and quirky humor. It challenged me to persist in prayer, no matter how many times the same prayer may be required or how long it takes to reach complete — not partial — fulfillment.
The Givenness of Things, by Marilynne Robinson, is a book of essays of which I read a few. One modern trend Robinson explores in her searching, densely packed way is the loss of theological distinction and tradition in modern Protestantism. A Calvinist herself, she seeks to connect our public discourse and sense of politics to what she sees as a lack of depth in our churches. She is politically liberal and a proud proponent of “civil religion,” neither of which persuasions found a sympathetic chord in me. Yet she makes some good points that require a thoughtful consideration. For example:
The word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic… This drift is the American version of a phenomenon that is clearly widespread throughout old Christendom. A ferocious secularism can carry on its internecine wars under the names Catholic and Protestant. Notional Christians can align themselves against actual Muslims in defense of European culture and civilization, which are based on a system of belief that is no longer believed, and are therefore under a severer threat than any they could face from a competing religion…
Who can fail to think of our current election season? Robinson reminds us that this is nothing new, but only “old humankind going about its mad business as if it simply cannot remember the harm it did itself yesterday.” But the fact that it’s not new doesn’t make it less serious. And perhaps, she writes, part of it is new: “There appears to me to be a dynamic at work that is new for us, a polarization of the good on one side and the religious on the other, which will be a catastrophe for American Christianity.”
Seeing the performance of Christians throughout this campaign, and seeing the apparent faith that salvation can be found in the political process, there can be little doubt that there has been a catastrophe for American Christianity. I don’t know if Robinson’s take explains it fully, but there is surely something very wrong.
I’ve enjoyed Wendell Berry’s Imagination in Place, a book of essays that take up literary topics. He has essays presenting his perspective on several authors that I like (such as James Still and Wallace Stegner), as well as those who have been among his longest writerly friends (James Baker Hall and Gurney Norman). As always, I enjoy making my way through these thoughtful essays on art and artists. One of my classmates in graduate school remarked that Wendell Berry’s prose literally slows you down as you read, and in our hectic age this is a gift that grows steadily more valuable.
While I’m sure I read Elizabeth George Speare’s Witch of Blackbird Pond many years ago, I remembered none of it. Rereading it in advance of this year’s American history study, I felt it to be a pitch-perfect YA novel, well paced, sympathetic, and rich in detail of the period. Though the depiction of the Puritans is weighted toward the stern and curmudgeonly, there are a few scenes that show them simply merry and enjoying the life of the community and the beautiful natural setting in Connecticut. The “witch” of the story, a Quaker woman, is somewhat idealized, but ultimately the story shows the faith community growing and learning.
Finally, I revisited Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. My original, more complete review of the book is here. While I feel this book stops short of taking a Marxist view of people, it does offer a critical examination of America’s version of the rugged individualist success story. Taking selected “outliers” who perform with an extraordinary degree of success — in the IT industry, the practice of law, hockey players, pilots, and math students, for instance — Gladwell makes a convincing case for external factors like the 10,000 hour rule, family and wealth, and the occasional once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity that only comes to some. It’s a fascinating book that will make any parent consider how to help their children succeed — and encourage any individual to take a look around and see what opportunities may be quietly at hand.
One phenomenon Gladwell discusses is the importance of cultural heritage. He begins with a discussion of the Scots-Irish honor culture, and this is part of the subject matter of a book I expect to read soon: Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. (You can read an interview with the author here.) The only catch is that the book needs to arrive — and just this morning I received a notice that it will be delayed. Oh well. I expect it to offer some needed insight into the surrealism of this election season, among other things.
We are in the midst of a Victorian novel fest around here. Both daughters have been listening to Jane Austen (just a little earlier than the Victorians, but close enough) — Emma and Pride and Prejudice, courtesy of Librivox — and I have been rereading Dickens’ Bleak House, said by many critics to be his finest novel, and one I enjoyed very much the first time. (Great Expectations and David Copperfield are also among my favorites!) The noteworthy points of this tome are many and varied, so I thought I’d mention just a few of them here. The notion of “reviewing” this well established and substantial book seems preposterous, but noting a few features that stood out to me on this reading will be worthwhile for me to look back on if I revisit it again.
The narrative switches back and forth from an omniscient narrator to “Esther’s narrative” — a telling from within the sensibility of the heroine, Esther Summerson. We get the intimacy of a first-person narrative in the Esther chapters, and the breadth of perspective the omniscient narrator gives us in the other chapters. The two perspectives work well together; we feel a sense of personal investment, but without the limitations of Esther’s scope of knowledge.
Esther herself can be somewhat cloying. She is Dickens’ “angel in the house,” the perfect representation of domestic virtue. Despite her mysterious history and lack of pedigree, she is extremely genteel and fits in well with her middle class guardian, John Jarndyce, and his other two wards, Ada and Richard Carstone. She always thinks of others before herself; she is self-effacing and humble; she scolds herself whenever she has a desire that runs counter to what she regards as conventional; and she is above all busy about Jarndyce’s estate, Bleak House. She makes the home a clean, charming, efficiently run, comfortable place, and though we never learn anything at all specific about how she manages this, we are told many times that she jingles her keys busily. She is likable, and we want her to do well. But occasionally I wanted to have a pointed chat with her about the virtues of plain honesty. She is dutiful to a fault, but somewhat disingenuous in her representation of this as what she legitimately desires at all times. But her compassion for others is the real thing, and we feel sorrow for her when she ends up disfigured by smallpox (though the disease is never named) as a result of caring for a poor, sick orphan named Jo.
The benevolent Mr. Jarndyce is party to a suit in chancery that has lasted for many years without resolution. He has deliberately stopped following the case and made a life for himself that’s indifferent to what the outcome may be, but Richard, his ward, is not so lucky. He, and several others, are tragically depicted as characters who have been drawn into obsession over legal proceedings in the case Jarndyce & Jarndyce, and Dickens’ satire on the judicial system in England is scathing indeed.
The cast of characters is incredibly extensive, and true to form, they are all revealed to be somehow connected in the end. Dickens’ sympathy is far-reaching, and as a psychologist he can be, sometimes, frighteningly on target. Though some are stereotyped stock characters, others seem to attract amazing sympathy in Dickens’ imagination. Sir Leicester Dedlock, an almost comedic figure in his sense of self-importance and preoccupation with trivial matters, rises to truly heroic proportions in his love and forgiveness for Lady Dedlock when he learns that her true history has been kept secret from him for many years. Another example is Caddy Jellyby, whose mother is a caricature of Esther Summerson’s polar opposite in her neglect of her family in favor of a humanitarian project in “Borrioboola-Gha.” Caddy successfully removes herself from her mother’s dysfunctional household only to find herself married to a man whose father is equally self-involved. Nevertheless, she is able to create a home of her own that is a loving and safe place for her family, and she is able to overlook her father-in-law’s flaws.
Delay. Dickens needed to use it in the novel’s original serial publication, stretching the story out from one issue to the next between March and September of 1852. He is expert at making his audience laugh, making them weep, and making them WAIT. You have to be ready to relax and enjoy the ride or it gets frustrating.
Mr. Bucket, one of the first detectives in English fiction, is a striking character able to relate to everyone, a solver of mysteries, an observer of details, seemingly at home at every class level and in every environment from country estate to Chancery Lane to London slum. He is less cosmopolitan but more likable than the later, more well-known Sherlock Holmes.
I could go on and on, but this will suffice to mark the territory this time around. Though Dickens himself was a complex, not entirely consistent character, I enjoyed the experience of Bleak House every bit as much on this reading as before — its comedy, its tragedy, its domesticity and raw social satire, its hominess and homelessness, its exuberant descriptions and jokes, and above all its happy ending that draws together an impossibly large tangle of plot strands into a neat, satisfying bow.
This is a post from some time ago — October 2014. It’s been sitting in my drafts folder, I suppose waiting for refinement. But I’m going to go ahead and publish it as is.
Someone should do a study of comment threads.
Lately, for some inexplicable reason, I’ve actually been scrolling down to look at the comments below news articles online. In principle, I dislike the policy of allowing comments. They are about the clicks that make advertisers want to support certain sites, not about discussion. And they are often nasty.
Yet I’ve looked at the comment threads a few times lately, and it’s surprised me to see how often the discussion turns to spiritual matters. This story about a volunteer with Doctors without Borders, for example, includes a question about whether the doctor is a man of faith. One commenter takes the interviewer to task for daring to assert the relevance of faith. Then there’s this one, about the Ebola cases in the U.S., in which one unsuspecting commenter dares to suggest he is praying for health care workers on the front lines of treating Ebola patients. Another commenter cites a study saying that prayer doesn’t work, and the whole discussion becomes focused on the question of whether it works, and whether anyone should be permitted to say they are praying on the chance that they may offend an atheist, and so on. Both threads reveal a segment aggressively in favor of censoring any references to Christianity. It’s okay to be a Christian as long as you remain absolutely silent and purge your speech of all religious associations, real or implied, it seems.
There have been two interesting news stories about faith lately, too, both rather sad to me. This one is about “mass mobs” in Catholic churches (a variation on “flash mobs”). Many stand nearly empty most of the time, but if a mob shows up, the people get to have the experience of what a packed-out mass is like. The general consensus of those quoted in the article is that the experience is meaningful first of all as an exciting, “electric” experience; secondly for its nostalgic value, because it reminds people of what it “used to be like” back when people still went to church. There’s no mention of the actual spiritual content of the mass or of why filling churches has anything to do with faith itself.
And then this one, about how religious studies departments are thriving despite the fact that a third of young Americans report no religious affiliation. Why? Because of “interfaith” affiliations. Students report faithfully practicing different religions, and a sanctuary is described with religious symbols of many faiths. The chaplain explains that the office is not oriented around God, but around the big questions. One student explains that his “comfort with paradox,” which he describes as being able to hold opposing viewpoints in his mind and see both sides, is extremely valuable. (I would say he’s comfortable with syncretism — blending all belief systems — rather than paradox.)
No wonder The Bible Tells Me So — which proposes that much of the Bible is simply humans mistaking what God is trying to say despite its many truth claims, but we should read it anyway — is so popular. We’re in an age seething with superficial interest in spiritual things. But love of truth? Even belief in truth — truth as something external to ourselves, which requires accommodation? What about that?
“Seek and ye shall find.” I have to believe that however misdirected some of these interests seem, at the root they reflect the God-given longing for truth that can lead all true seekers home.
A thoughtful reader emailed me recently regarding my post entitled “Quandary.” The reader brought up the question of what Jesus would do in the present election. As it was already a subject revolving in my mind, I decided to get some thoughts down here.
The problem with “WWJD” thinking is that it often simply evolves into what a person thinks anyway. Once I heard my two daughters surveying their extremely messy playroom, and one said, “I wonder what Jesus would do with this room.”
“He’d tell us to clean it up,” advised my responsible older daughter.
“Or, maybe he’d ask an angel to do it!” replied my more carefree younger daughter.
What would he do in a democratic republic? No idea. God chose a different age as the “fullness of time” for the Messiah to come, an age of emperors that demanded to be worshiped as gods, an age in which church and state were not separated. The more salient question is what Jesus actually did do about political involvement. The answer is, not much — at least, not much that was recorded. His disciples reflected different political points of view, and he didn’t sanction any of them or allow himself to be identified with any specific political movement. The only expressly political statement I can think of that Jesus made was, “Render unto Caesar what belongs to him, and to God what belongs to him.” (He said this because political groups were trying to trap him into defining himself in their terms.) He didn’t make any effort at all to help the Jews overthrow their oppressive Roman overlords. He did claim to be himself the King of kings — a political statement if ever there was one! But he said his kingdom was “not of this world.” Mostly, he seems to have had the kind of long view we would expect a Creator to have toward human establishments. He wasn’t a political activist in the sphere of human government.
This article is an interesting summary of Jesus’ politics. It concludes,
As the King of kings and Lord of lords, Jesus was political, though of an order that transcends this world and intersects this world all at the same time and calls it to account at every turn. As Jesus intersects our paths during this election season and beyond, do we realize that our ultimate allegiance must be to him?
How is this “ultimate allegiance” expressed? The New Testament gives us the general exhortation to live with integrity, in a manner worthy of our calling. This amounts to much the same thing any democratic republic tells its citizens to do: vote your conscience. For starters, Philippians 4:8 lays out some standards for a Christian conscience. Galatians 5:22-23 does too. 1 Timothy 3 lays out some standards for church leaders, and although a president is not a church leader, these standards define the kind of good character that marks a trustworthy leader.
As I said in my previous post, voting my conscience does not mean I’ll be “sitting out the election.” It means I’ll be voting for someone I can support. That means neither of the two major party candidates. I have watched every debate since last summer, read avidly the candidates’ positions on issues, and followed their public statements in an effort to be informed. I don’t see how either one is worthy of public office. Neither even amounts to a lesser evil. There is a slight difference in the party platforms, but in practice these platforms don’t seem to mean anything. In terms of moral outlook and political philosophy, a Clinton or a Trump presidency would look about the same. In terms of personal character, both are demonstrably dishonest, both are long-time political insiders who have played the system for years, and neither has any intention of reforming the excesses and corruptions of government. I’ve held my nose and voted for candidates in the past who may not match my criteria in every respect, but who meet at least some of them and are in the main decent people. This year, both parties are offering people below that threshold. I will have to find some other alternative to vote for, even if it means writing someone in, and in this way exercise the privilege of having a vote.
Some would argue that voting in this way is somehow disloyal to, as one person calls it, “our nation of Christians.” A nation of Christians would not have chosen these two candidates. The astonishing voting performance of self-proclaimed evangelicals and prominent church figures in the primaries reveals (among other things) a chasm between true Christianity and what Greg Boyd calls “civil religion” in his excellent book The Myth of a Christian Nation.
Christianity is based on a relationship practiced by individuals. It’s not a set of political positions or, as Dallas Willard called them, “boundary markers.” Christians in any nation retain (or lose) their identity and integrity independently of who’s in office, or what laws are on the books, or what party keeps its majority. Christians have thrived the most when politics have not gone their way, as the church’s vitality in ancient Rome, or modern day China, show. From that standpoint, perhaps the best thing that could happen in America is for us to stand with some courage against the moral tide now flowing against Christians, rather than rushing like lemmings to a figure whose only virtue is the promise of political control.
A second thing that happens when we fail to distinguish the civil religion of America from the kingdom of God is that we end up wasting precious time and resources defending and tweaking the civil religion — as though doing so had some kingdom value. We strive to keep prayer in the schools, fight for the right to have public prayer before football games, lobby to preserve the phrases “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance and “in God we trust” on our coins, battle to hold the traditional civil meaning of marriage, and things of the sort — as though winning these fights somehow brings America closer to the kingdom of God. This, we think, is part of what it means to “take America back for God.”
Now, you may or may not agree that preserving the civil religion in this way is good for the culture. Vote your conscience. But can we really believe that tweaking civil religion in these ways actually brings people closer to the kingdom of God, that it helps them become more like Jesus? For example, does anyone really think that allowing for a prayer before social functions is going to help students become kingdom people? Might not such prayer — and the political efforts to defend such prayer — actually be harmful to the kingdom inasmuch as it reinforces the shallow civil religious mindset that sees prayer primarily as a perfunctory religious activity? Might it not be better to teach our kids that true kingdom prayer has nothing to do with perfunctory social functions, that true kingdom prayer cannot be demanded or retracted by social laws and that their job as kingdom warriors is to “pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17) whether the law allows for it to be publicly expressed or not?
In other words, rather than spending time and energy defending and tweaking the civil religion, might it not be in the best interest of the kingdom of God to distance ourselves from the civil religion? Couldn’t one even go so far as to argue that it would be good for the kingdom of God if this civic brand of pseudo-Christianity died altogether? Isn’t one of the primary problems we’re up against in this nation the fact that Christianity has been trivialized by being associated with civic functions? And aren’t we actually reinforcing this trivialization by fighting so vigorously to preserve this pseudo-Christian veneer? Maybe Kierkegaard was right when he stated that the worst form of apostasy the Christian faith can undergo is to have it become simply an aspect of culture. Perhaps it would be a benefit to the advancement of this kingdom if America looked as pagan as it actually is, if the word God wasn’t so trivially sprinkled on our coins, our Pledge of Allegiance, our civic functions, and elsewhere. Then perhaps the word might come to mean something significant to people who genuinely hunger and thirst for the real thing!
Ancient Israel was a theocracy, not a democratic republic. But their history shows some of the same dynamic we see today in America. Just this morning, I read about the era just after King Solomon, when the kingdom split in two. Jereboam wanted to maintain control of his ten tribes by preventing them from having to travel to Jerusalem, where all the true Levite priests had fled. So he made a couple of idols and proclaimed, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” Those who “set their hearts on seeking the Lord, the God of Israel” fled to Jerusalem. But the rest obediently stayed home and worshiped the idols.
It’s a chilling picture, all too similar to what is happening today in America. Those people had to make a choice. Would they follow a political personality who seemed sympathetic to their needs, but who wanted to use their religion, changing it in the process, to consolidate his own power? Or would they turn away and hold firm to the faithful God who had taken care of them so far? Rather than selling our souls at the altar of a political party or a personality, let’s hold firm to the One we know is true and real.
Richard Swenson’s Contentment: The Secret to a Lasting Calm was recommended on a blog several years ago (I don’t remember which one!). I started reading it then, but it didn’t “take.” Recently I picked it up again, and this time I completed it.
I have mixed feelings about this book. The up side is that it focuses the reader’s attention in a sustained way on a worthy subject and offers some interesting observations about our culture. The concept of contentment is not difficult to grasp, but when was the last time you meditated on it, or on whether your life reflects it? In an increasingly consumptive culture, this book invites you to step back and assess to what extent your heart may have absorbed the spirit of the age even when it runs counter to your principles. Swenson makes some interesting observations about biblical attitudes toward possessions, and he purports to offer a history of the concept of contentment in western culture.
This is where my two complaints with the book come in. First, Swenson is often mind-numbingly general. Here’s one typical example. Swenson is talking about the last quarter century:
Without warning, progress went vertical, heading straight for the stratosphere. We are locked in an acceleration trap and somehow can’t escape. The entire globe seems to be making it up as we go along. The math is now behaving strangely and no longer works in a variety of critical settings. The numbers are increasingly incomprehensible, the curves increasingly exponential (the profusion curve is actually hyperexponential), and the math increasingly dysfunctional. As a result, nearly everything is being shaken — economics at personal, family, local, state, and federal levels; budget deficits; the stock and bond markets; the U.S. dollar; credit ratings; the middle class; real estate; higher education; elementary and secondary education…
Believe it or not, he goes on for another half a page peppering the reader with more items in this list. Do you have a sense that he may be touching on something important? Absolutely. This is why it’s a shame that he cannot write about it in a clear, systematic way. The pseudo-scientific terms, global focus, and hypnotically long list leave the reader with a general sense that we’re going to Hell in a hand basket, but without any real comprehension of why. His history of ideas chapter gives anywhere from a half a page to two pages each on whole eras of human history. It’s hard to take seriously.
Another irritating feature of Mr. Swenson’s writing is his over-reliance on quotations. Rather than quoting from a few choice sources to illuminate his own ideas, he offers lists of quotations in the belief that he is representing an era of history. At times this destroys the continuity of his own argument and makes the book read like Bartlett’s. I love a pithy quotation, but lists of them degenerate into meaninglessness.
There is an eccentric quality to the book that I am not sure what to make of. Swenson himself broadcasts his credentials as a medical doctor on the cover of the book, even though he left private practice to become, as he says, a “futurist” — a student of “the intersection of health, culture, faith, and the future.” Does he mean he sees himself as playing a prophetic role? I wasn’t sure. He certainly comes across as an isolated voice rather than part of any established community.
But at the same time, he offers some discerning biblical commentary, intriguing observation, and spiritual insight that I found useful and interesting. I just wish the book were less uneven. At the end, Swenson offers a series of prescriptions for restoring contentment. I will propose a counter-prescription in reply. My Rx for this book: make it into several books, each with a more narrowly defined, more fully developed focus. There are, maybe, some profound truths to be had here, but in their present form they were very difficult for me to grasp.
The two major party candidates seem desperately inadequate in both character and policy. I have been registered as a Republican for years, but the day after the nominee seemed determined, I changed to Independent. I’ve thought about it for some time, given how little real difference there is between the parties. But this clinched the deal.
Lately the prominent Republicans have been rallying around Mr Trump and demanding that the rank and file do the same. Even worse, prominent evangelicals have come out in support of him for months, despite how counter he is to their principles, and evangelicals voted him in in the primaries. Most recently appears this article interviewing Anne Graham Lotz, who has distressed me before, and who now does so again. I find the rationale Ms Lotz gives for voting for Mr Trump troubling. She is not telling others whom to vote for, but her influence will no doubt sway some in the same direction. Her thinking reflects some of the reasoning that has brought us to this appalling pass.
In the first place, this vote runs counter to Ms Lotz’s major theme: the wrath of God. She has been proclaiming that God has abandoned America, is judging America, is mad at America, since at least 2009 when her claims first reached my ears. It’s no surprise when she espouses the view in this article, explaining, “I think legally, educationally, institutionally, governmentally — in so many ways, we are abandoning our faith in God, and we are abandoning God. And when you do, the Bible says God will back away from you and abandon you.” I have problems with this notion for several reasons (I developed them more in this post from 2009). One is that America has no reason to believe itself ever to have had special favor from God; he only ever declared one “chosen nation,” and it was not America — it was Israel. Another is that Jesus came and ended the era of God dealing with nations; now he deals with individuals “of every land.” A third is that Jesus explicitly promised never to leave or forsake his followers, and the Bible affirms this elsewhere with the assurance that God remains faithful even when we are not. Her position has real problems! But considering that it is her position that God is very angry at America for worldliness, how can she vote for Mr Trump? How can she use her influence to imply that this is a good decision? It boggles the mind.
Not surprisingly, she uses an Old Testament story to explain her rationale — specifically, she gives Nebuchadnezzar as an example of God working through an unbelieving king. The article quotes her this way: “‘If God can use Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel’s day — Daniel served under Nebuchadnezzar, and at the end, Nebuchadnezzar professed faith in the God of Daniel’ — then He can use Trump, too.”
There seem to be several errors here. One is that Nebuchadnezzar praises God not once, but several times in the account in the book of Daniel, yet he seems not to know what he’s doing. He has a pattern of acknowledging God’s greatness, then doing something to show he doesn’t understand at all — like erecting a huge monument to himself and demanding that everyone worship him, throwing God’s servants into the fire when they don’t. I am hard pressed to see him “profess faith” even after his bout of insanity. We certainly never see him govern as a believer in God.
Even more importantly, this discussion sidesteps the the obvious differences between a conquesting king and a democratic republic. The Israelites did not vote Nebuchadnezzar into office. They were a captive people! We have the freedom, and the serious responsibility, to vote wisely for our leaders. My vote is my personal endorsement of a person’s fitness for office, and my considered judgment that he will govern wisely. As a Christian, I vote with the belief that the Holy Spirit dwells in me, so I am putting his stamp of approval on a candidate. The comparison to Nebuchadnezzar is apples and oranges in the sense that the people over whom he ruled had no choice. We do. The issue at hand is voting wisely, not leaping forward to a Trump presidency.
Mrs Lotz is quite cavalier about this responsibility. “Whoever is on the Republican side, I will vote for and pray for whoever that is,” she explains, substituting partisanship for judgment. The Republican platform has traditionally retained some positions on moral issues that Christians can get behind, but elected officials demonstrate very little loyalty to them. This is why the electorate is seething with such rancor against “the establishment” on the Republican side. What evidence is there that Mr Trump, an infant in his Republican affiliation after many years of liberal values and public stances, would be any different? But this may all be moot, as the Republican platform will be up for debate anyway at this year’s convention. It may lose even these few planks of distinctiveness from the Democrat party.
There can be little doubt that America is in increasing darkness spiritually, but it’s not because God is abandoning us or angry at us. It’s because many are deceived — including, grievously, many Christians. God says he will remain faithful even if his people are faithless. But that faithlessness leads naturally to consequences — in this case, moral blindness. I am tempted to blame the church, but it would be better to leave the blame where it belongs, with the one the Bible calls the enemy of our souls.
One thing I know: I will pray for whoever wins this election. But in the meantime, I am accountable for the vote I cast. It represents a real quandary. Likely I will write in a candidate I believe in rather than voting for either major party candidate. Some might say I am abdicating my responsibility because such a vote is not “strategic.” But nowhere do I see in the Bible a recommendation to be strategic — only to be truthful, and mindful that the God I have declared my allegiance to is both holy and loving. If either of these two candidates win, it will be a tragedy for the country. Neither of them will be getting my help.
I’ve had a great experience reading this little book by John Eldredge aloud to my two daughters. Epic: The Story God is Telling and the Role that is Yours to Play takes up the question of why the most popular books and movies move us so deeply. Its answer? They follow the same pattern as the creation/redemption story which, Christians believe, defines the terms for understanding human experience. We recognize its themes and movements instinctively because we are born into this story, and it creates the framework for all of our deepest fears and longings.
Eldredge breaks the book into four chapters, capped at either end with a prologue and epilogue:
Act 1: Eternal Love
Act 2: The Entrance of Evil
Act 3: The Battle for the Heart
Act 4: The Kingdom Restored
Illustrating his points not just with passages from the Bible, but with quotations from numerous great stories and movies, Eldredge appeals to our experience to affirm his argument that there is a universal imaginative language for “reading” one’s own life and understanding our connection to human history. Like the best stories, there is a “Once upon a time” in an Eden; an enemy who robs and corrupts; a battle in which a hero rises to fight for someone; and a restoration. All of these themes appeal simultaneously to our ways of understanding life, and to the Bible story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. Eldredge’s ideas will be familiar to those acquainted with Lewis and Tolkien’s views on myth, or the ideas of archetypal criticism.
The girls really enjoyed this little book. Eldredge’s style is always winsome and engaging and appealingly honest. He acknowledges the hard things frankly, and admits to his own failings. He is not afraid to show his enthusiasm for the tales he discusses here. Also, he makes reference to so many familiar, loved stories that it was a fantastic introduction to literary discussion.
I noticed a couple of things. One was the seeming silence on the subject of self-sacrifice, or one person giving up something precious for another, that seems such a common motif in the “battle for the heart.” Second, it left me musing over how all of this really plays out in someone’s life. The book is short and concise, which works well. But a life is long and often baffling. Which chapter is this? Are we to the point in the story where things turn for the better yet? Why is this section taking so long?
But then this is why the book is worth reading, and what I liked about reading it to my daughters. It makes you think about “the role that is yours to play.” It casts a vital, adventurous vision and provides the terms for seeing it in your own life. One key trait of a humanity made in God’s image is the process of making meaning of raw experience, and this little book offers some eloquent insights to remember along the way.