Thursday, May 24, 2012

Meanwhile, back at the ranch....

Diane Rehm covered this recently, courtesy of Ross Douthat (who really should know better).  It was nothing new to me; I'd learned about this in seminary, more than a decade ago.  But what is known to academics and "experts" in the field, is always last known by the people who will be affected by it.  Like the people in Muncie, Indiana:

Knock around Muncie for proof: City Hall, like Washington, is petty and polarized, driving down voter engagement. Stodgy mainline churches are losing worshipers in droves. Low-tech and unruly public schools are prompting parents to pull their children out. The city’s once-beloved business class shuttered its factories, leaving a legacy of double-digit unemployment and helplessness. Labor unions once credited with creating the middle class are now often blamed for the demise of industry. Even The Star Press, Muncie’s daily newspaper once venerated for holding locals to account, was gutted after a job-killing merger in 1996 and the sale, a few years later, to media giant Gannett.
I mention Muncie only because of that highlighted sentence. The cause and effect there is all wrong. "Stodgy mainline churches" have been losing worshipers in droves since long before the economy collapsed. Even Ross Douthat knows that.

The goings-on at Union Chapel Ministries, just a few miles away, help explain why traditionalists are languishing. Sitting on a 40-acre plot, Union Chapel is part of a fast-growing multibillion-dollar religious industry in America that is adapting one of the world’s oldest institutions to fit modern times—by giving congregants a sense of connection many had ceased to feel elsewhere. These so-called mega-churches are led by charismatic pastors with the skill set of corporate marketers; they sell not just the word of God but also the utility of God’s teaching in an era of atomization and economic change. What would Jesus do about long-term unemployment, school bullying, and Facebook? These churches help worshippers figure it out.

Union Chapel’s pastor, Gregg Parris, speaks in phrases you’d expect from an M.B.A. (“I’m in the word business”) or a sociologist (“We’re going from a Gutenberg world to a Google world”). He keeps his sermons simple because “you can’t assume everybody knows the Lord’s Prayer,” and he strives to make the liturgy relevant to life’s challenges. His church offers counseling for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, marriage problems, alcoholism, and sexual abuse. Union Chapel heavily promotes its social clubs to buoy connection-starved people. The services are casual, hip, and focused on middle-class Muncians who feel abandoned amid economic change. “My job,” Parris says in an interview at his office, “is to fill in the gaps where our institutions have failed us.”
By, one cannot help but notice, being as secular as possible. Remind me, what world did Jesus live in? It wasn't the Gutenberg world. Although, true enough, Jesus spoke to people of his day outside the institutional structures, which seem in the Gospels to have failed people then as much as they have today. But Jesus made no effort to set up an institution.  Nor did he seem too interested in the gaps where the institutions had failed.  Paul set up an institution, without really meaning to.

Next, Paul believes absolutely that "Jesus" or the "Messiah/Christ" or the "Lord" all refer to the same person. Paul can spaek of the Lord Jesus Christ or of the Lord Jesus or, most simply, of the Lord. On the one hand, "lord" was a polite term usable by slave to master or disciple to teacher. On the other, "the Lord" meant the emperor himself. What we see here is what Gustav Adolf Deissmann described, almost a hundred years ago, as "the early establishment of a polemical parallelism between the cult of Christ and the cult of Caesar in the application of the term kyrios, 'lord.'" Or, if you prefer, polemical parallelism as high treason.

(In Search of Paul, John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, (New York: HarperCollins 2004, p. 166.).  That was Paul. And I quote that particularly because of the reference to Diessmann's work from almost a century gone now.  We've known this was Paul's work for longer than any of us have been alive.  But who among us has yet heard of this?  Who has noticed?  Paul set his "institution" up among families, the basic foundational unit of Roman society. But he did it in a way that was radically counter-cultural.  There are reasons the Romans didn't like the Christians, and it doesn't have solely to do with Roman "tolerance" and Christian "intolerance."  That version gives too much credit to Rome, and too little to Paul and his disciples.  Now, as in Rome, the family is a one-stop shop for all your psychological and material (and spiritual? Maybe. Maybe they get to that eventually) needs. But is it Christianity? Is it discipleship?
Walt [Kallestad] led Community Church of Joy in Phoenix, a megachurch that had been an average congregation of 200 before he took over in the 80s and oversaw it's growth. But in 2002 he suffered a massive heart attack requiring six-way bypass surgery. The heart attack, says Walt, was a "wake up call" for the leaders to develop a succession plan to ensure the megachurch continued to thrive after Walt's tenure. Kallestad began networking around the country looking for a young pastor he could bring onboard and eventually hand the church over to. One conversation stuck with him. "It's a pretty good opportunity," Walt said. "We have 187 acres just off a major freeway, multipurpose buildings, and a great staff." The leader looked him in the eyes and said, "Who'd want it? Who in their right minds would want to run that?" "That's when it dawned on me," Kallestad reflected. "By the time we service the $12-million debt, pay the staff, and maintain the property, we've spent more than a million before we can spend a dime on our mission. At the time, we had plans for a spectacular worship center with a retractable roof. After that conversation, I scrapped it."
Part of the problem there, of course, is that seminary and bible colleges are not business schools.  They don't train pastors to be administrators of multi-million dollar enterprises, and few of us enter ministry with that ideal in mind.  The question that young pastor was asking was:  Who wants those headaches?  Ministry is hard enough without being the CEO of a business enterprise with major capital investments.  Kallestad seems to be understanding there that the mission of church is mission, not church.  But that doesn't answer the question, it just raises one:  what is the mission of the church?

If it is just to help us get through our daily lives, then it isn't for much at all.  On the other hand, if church is wholly unconcerned with our daily lives, then it isn't much good at all, either.  There is a legitimate question in this quote:  "What would Jesus do about long-term unemployment, school bullying, and Facebook? These churches help worshippers figure it out." But aside from Facebook, none of those issues are new to the church or to America. Churches have always dealt with those problems; you can't be a pastor and not encounter every problem of modern existence (Facebook, for example) and human existence in the course of just a few years, including the extremes of death, suicide, murder, and deep psychological trauma. I've no doubt Americans are "connection starved people." Does the Church have to be "casual, hip, and focused on the middle-class" in order to address that? (And by the way, point me to one congregation in America that isn't focused on the economic class from which the majority of its congregants are drawn.) But before I start yelling about bad writing and lazy journalism (or, as Charles Pierce would say, without meaning to reference Ricouer at all, narrative!), let's try to consider the slightly larger picture.
If Parris’s church is fresh, new, and relevant, John Hunt, the head usher back at High Street, knows how his church is perceived. “Some people think it’s cold and unfriendly,” he says. Mendenhall, too, knows he’s failing to reach people, as are other traditional churches struggling to keep pace with the times. As the 60-year-old Methodist pastor puts it, “Churches are still stuck in the mentality that we just have to fling our doors open, and people will come. That’s not the case anymore. Just look around.”
Douthat hits this point correctly: church growth exploded after World War II. People moved to the suburbs and took the churches with them (many "inner city churches" are dying or have died for just that reason; it's been going on for over 60 years now), and church attendance went up to heights literally not seen even when the Puritans ran Massachusetts. The collapse, or rather the return to status quo, was inevitable. What Pastor Mendenhall identifies as no longer the case hasn't been the case since at least my childhood. This is not, in other words, news (and an Episcopal priest was the first caller to the show, and his comment boiled down to "Same as it ever was!"). I do like this bit, too:
Traditional churches often cater to people who no longer exist—men and women guaranteed long marriages, many children, and a single job that lasts a lifetime. Today, as people search for moral grounding in an uncertain world, what is more relevant to them, Mendenhall must wonder: choirs or rock bands? Church-basement socials or Starbucks? Bake sales or yoga classes? Missions that serve the poor overseas or those that help the church’s own destitute neighbors?
I'm not sure what having a single marriage, job, and "many children" has to do with choirs v. rock bands.  The Starbucks reference is just trying to be cute, and yoga is a spiritual practice of Hinduism (it is first described in the Baghavad Gita), so, um..... (besides, how very '60's. Everything old really is new again.).  Again, this argument has been around since I was a pre-teen in the Presbyterian church, and we're no closer to an answer now than we were then (nor have the mainline churches disappeared yet.  Taking a long itme for the collapse to sink in, apparently.) As for the highlighted portion, which neighbors does the church plan to serve? Its own congregants? Or the people around the church?  Or the vast, abstract "poor" who are somewhere out there and deserving of our charity? (although not anyone who might be drawn to the church door.  At least, few churches are truly interested in soup kitchens on their grounds).  The latter is seen as "charity" and might well clash with the sensibilities of people who think the poor are lazy, shiftless, or the cause of their own woes (I've known many a middle-class church member to express that opinion). Charity for the members? Is that really going to draw a crowd, when you are asking the church to emulate the one Luke described in Acts? Even Paul knew that couldn't last long.

I also like the slam at "low-tech schools."  I was discussing this with my college age daughter today, recalling my childhood of filmstrips and movies (Your friend, the Atom!) and speed reading machines (????), and all the technological folderol which was cutting edge before we knew there was a cutting edge, and all aimed at making us learn better and faster than our parents because we were the true TV Generation!

And it was all bollocks.  Film strips taught us to wait for the "ding" on the record.  Movies taught me we could watch TV in school (same difference).  Disney taught me atomic power was my friend.  (Oops!  Sorry, Japan.  Again.)  I learned more about atomic physics by reading my way through the books at the Carnegie Library downtown.  A lot more.  Technology didn't teach me squat, except how to keep my eyes open in a dark room.  Books taught me.  Teachers taught me.  I teach in a "low-tech" classroom now; at least the way I use it is low-tech.  Would I be a better teacher with a smart board and a Power-Point presentation, and lots of streaming video from YouTube?  I can tell teachers next door to me are doing that, because I can hear their audio track above my own lecturing.  For some reason audio can't be heard unless it is louder than the action film in the theater next to you at the multiplex. And when I've substituted in classes where a film was assigned, I see the same glazed eyes in the students I undoubtedly had at home in front of my parents' TV.  Or in the classroom, with the movie projector whirring noisily above the soundtrack.

But, you know, narrative.

Which is ultimately the problem here:  narrative.  Tie this into it, if you will:

Mainstream news organizations like the New York Times, ever-fearful of being branded anti-religious, have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting the Christian right’s implicit suggestion that the only true Christian is a Christian conservative member of an evangelical or fundamentalist congregation.
And the irony is, even the most MSM-skeptic blogs tend to buy right into that narrative:

I’ll give him the secular part. He probably likes using birth control, eating at nice restaurants, etc. He definitely likes writing about anal sex (be very afraid).
Because we all know only secular people like birth control, eating at nice restaurants, etc.

Yeah, Balloon Juice only means that as shorthand for the stereotype of the "believer," but really:  does everyone have to swallow the blue pill in order to critique the Matrix?

I come at this via  Slacktivist, who rails against the mis-labeling of Christians.  While I'm sympathetic, I'm not sure this isn't attacking the branches of the tree of evil, rather than the roots.  Maybe that's because I grew up in Southern Baptist East Texas, struggling almost as for air to establish my Christianity (mainline Protestantism) as equally valid to the "Are you saved?" variety practiced by every wide-eyed Baptist boy and girl of my acquaintance.  Even then I was less worried about my individual salvation and my eternal soul than how should I then live.

But we are still circling the question of what church is for.  Is it supposed to buttress the decisions of the world, as Douthat seems to advise?  That's the church Martin Luther King excoriated in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail."  Michael Sean Winters points out something that came up in Douthat's interview with Diane Rehm:  his pitiful ignorance of where most churches in America stood on the question of King's civil rights marches:

 He argues that “both branches of American Christendom [Mainline Protestantism and Roman Catholicism] embraced the civil rights movement well before the politicians did.” That would come as news to many white, Southern, mainline preachers, who searchingly found ways to resist the civil rights movement. It is true that the leaders of the Catholic Church, which had been quite ambivalent about slavery during the Civil War, took up the cause of desegregation wholeheartedly, but when Dr. King got to the Catholic suburbs of Chicago in the 1960s, he saw the same hatred that he had seen in Birmingham.

Of course, Douthat's analysis seems to rest on criticism of the Roman Catholic church that is limited to Vatican II, and criticism of the culture generally which seems to have deviated from this:

“Both the Protestant Mainline and the Catholic Church were strong cultures in 1950s America—capable of making their presence felt in the commanding heights of American life, from the media and the academy to the film and television industries, even as they provided a powerful spiritual and ethical vocabulary for everyday life down below. Together, these two traditions supplied a common religious story and a common moral framework for a vast and complicated nation, influencing even where they did not predominate, and sowing seeds in fields where they did not reap the harvest.”

 Which is simply nonsense, as Winters shows in his review.  In fact, he sums up Douthat's argument quite nicely, this way:

In the 1950s, Reinhold Niebuhr and Bishop Fulton Sheen carried the arguments for orthodoxy while Bing Crosby and Karl Malden brought the presbyterate onto the Hollywood screen and Charlton Heston came down from Sinai with God’s Holy Law. Everyone went to Church and understood the value of chastity. Then came the 1960s and liberal theology, the pill, and Vietnam, and America went to hell.
 It is pure bosh, in other words.  When things went wrong, Vietnam and the Pill were the world's contribution; "liberal theology" (i.e., Vatican II) was the church's error.  And so it goes.  We are back to the Big Idea which can never fail, but can only be failed.  People are no damned good because they fail to be servants to the Big Idea.  Interestingly, that's an entirely un-Biblical, and un-Christian, view of the world; and of God.

I've been reading, finally, The Brothers Karamazov, and I recently finished the story of the Grand Inquisitor.  In my youth this was presented to me, in various references to the novel, as a penetrating piece of theological challenge; yet, when I finally get to it, it's a simple ecclesiological screed aimed at the Roman Catholic church from an Orthodox perspective with the Jesuits as its bull's eye.  The point of the poem, as Ivan Fyodorovich calls it, is that the Church has twisted the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth into a Big Idea, the better to control the people with it.  And they did this because the people are sheeple and demand, not freedom, as the Inquisitor claims Christ came to offer them, but security.  They demand certainty.

Did you forget that peace and even death are dearer to man [sic] than free choice in the knowledge of good and evil?  There is nothing more seductive for man than the freedom of his conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.  And so, instead of a firm foundation for appeasing human conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was unusual, enigmatic, and indefinite, you chose everything that was beyond men's strength, and thereby acted as if you did not love them at all--and who did this?  He who came to give his life for them!  Instead of taking over men's freedom, you increased it and forever burdened the kingdom of the human soul with its torments.  You desired the free love of man, that he should follow you freely, seduced and captivated by you.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brother Karamazov, tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonksy, New York:  Vintage, 1990, pp.254-255.

I might quibble with some of the Inquisitor's details, but I think that is a sound explanation of the teachings of Christ.  I also think they are thoroughly in-line with the Hebrew Scriptures, centered as they are around the Torah.  The Inquisitor goes on to mention "the firm ancient law," but it was not so firm as most Christians imagine, and there was as much dispute about what it required as there is among Christian sects as to which doctrines are true.  Such disputes are not only human, they are necessary.  There is nothing wrong with a Big Idea; the problem is when the Big Idea replaces the human beings.  The prophets who told Judah what went wrong during and after the Exile didn't re-dot all the "i's" and recross all the "t's" of the Law:  they told the people the problem was justice.

Woe to him who says,
"I shall build myself a spacious palace
with airy roof chambers and
windows set in it.
It will be paneled with cedar
and painted with vermilion."
Though your cedar is so splendid,
does that prove you a king?
Think of your father: he ate and drank,
dealt justly and fairly; all went well with him.
He upheld the cause of the lowly and poor;
then all was well.
Did not this show he knew me? says the Lord.
But your eyes and your heart are set on naught but gain, set only on the innocent blood you can shed,
on the cruel acts of tyranny you perpetrate.

Jeremiah 22: 14-17 (REB)

And justice is never a Big Idea, or it is no longer justice.  It is measured, not by fealty to an abstraction, but by the conditions of individuals.  God isn't telling the people to become better legal scholars, to be more exacting in how they sacrifice or worship or in what doctrine they adhere to.  God is telling the people do see that justice prevails among them, to uphold the cause of the lowly and poor.  The Exile was not God's punishment for apostasy; it was the consequence of failing to follow the wisdom of the Law.

Heresy is only possible when the Big Idea becomes more important than the people, because heresy is any idea that doesn't uphold the Big Idea.  The Grand Inquisitor is not interested in the people, only in the idea of the people.  He is a servant, not of the living God, but of the Big Idea.  He is in the world and of the world, and he serves it by upholding the Big Idea.  As Charles Pierce points out, that has always been the problem:

The First Council of Nicaea, after all, was called by the Emperor Constantine, not by the bishops of the Church. Constantine — whose adoption of the Christianity that Douthat so celebrates would later be condemned by James Madison as the worst thing that ever happened to both religion and government  — demanded religious peace. The council did its damndest to give it to him. The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, but Constantine was a doozy.
As long as I'm wandering far and wide, and picking up shiny objects like the jackdaw that I am, a word from Gary Wills is in order here:
There was a vogue, just after the Second Vatican Council, for some Catholics to demonstrate their liberation from Catholic schooling by making fun of nuns, as strict disciplinarians or prissy moralists. I wrote at the time that this was untrue of the many nuns I have known, beginning with the Dominican Sisters of Adrian, Michigan, who taught me for five of my grade school years. They taught me the Latin of the old liturgy; Father Sullivan, our pastor, just got angry at words mispronounced or forgotten. The Dominicans never physically punished anyone that I saw or heard of.

They were more supportive of talent than were most of the lay teachers I met in a brief experience of public school. I had no artistic inclinations, but classmates who did were encouraged. The nuns’ genuine interest in their pupils can be seen in the fact that my seventh grade teacher kept in touch with me for all the years until her death in 1996. She was Sister John Joseph when I met her, but she recovered her real name after the Council, and as Anne O’Connor congratulated me on anything I wrote. (I would no more have kept up with Father Sullivan than with cholera.)
Wills writes in the context of the rebuke of the nuns by the Vatican:  "Nuns have always had a different set of priorities from that of bishops. The bishops are interested in power. The nuns are interested in the powerless."  And he notes:

Nuns were quick to respond to the AIDS crisis, and to the spiritual needs of gay people—which earned them an earlier rebuke from Rome. They were active in the civil rights movement. They ran soup kitchens. 

And still the question remains:  what is church for?  The nuns, actually, point us to an answer.

In my own church, the United Church of Christ, there is actually a history of nuns.  The UCC is a very Protestant church.  Its roots going back to the Pilgrims and Puritans on one side, and to the Lutherans and Reformed churches of Germany on the other.  When German immigrants came to this country, they brought their Evangelical church with them (a forced merger of the Lutheran and Reformed churches).  They saw that immigrants needed help, and so they set up orphanages for children left behind by parents who died too soon.  They set up asylums for the care of the mentally ill.  They established a hospital run by "sisters," women who dedicated their lives to the care of others.  Those were the "nuns."  When men went down the Mississippi from St. Louis to Biloxi on the steam ships, they needed help at the other end.  Wages were low, life was hard.  A mission to help them was set up there.  All of these institutions still exist, and they were possible only because people gathered together and cared enough in that gathering to do such things.  It's a common argument today (prick any blog and it will bleed this response) that such things are entirely possible among atheists and non-believers; and indeed, they are.  But show me an organized group of atheists who has ever set up a hospital for the public good, with entirely private efforts.  Show me a group of atheists who ever gathered together long enough to leave behind the institutions in Missouri and Mississippi established by the German Evangelical church, by immigrants themselves almost too poor to feed themselves.  Those immigrants were not so poor they couldn't set up orphanages and hospitals and asylums; but they weren't so rich that such things were done out of their pocket change.  Yes, atheists and non-Christians could have done such things:  but they didn't.  Later many more institutions would arise, and they would become more and more secular (Deaconness Hospital is now part of a larger system; it no longer stands alone, or with any affiliation to the UCC; no more than Harvard is still connected to the Congregational church.).  These things happened when they happened because people of faith cared enough to make them happen.  And I know of plenty of Episcopal and Methodist and Presbyterian, as well as Roman Catholic, hospitals still functioning today.  Such institutions do not exist without people organized enough to see to their existence.  Many of these places did not happen without a church interested in seeing them happen.

So what is church for?  "Religion is responsibility, or it is nothing at all," Jacques Derrida tells us.  Is church just a community organization that does good?  There are other such organizations in America, organized for just that purpose, and none of them are considered "religious."  They take the claims of responsibility as seriously as any religious institution; perhaps more so.  To say "churches did this" is not to elevate believers above non-believers or even anti-believers.  It is to say institutions and organizations and groups of people have a purpose beyond merely serving the interests of the group.  If they do not, then Reinhold Niebuhr's rather bleak sociological vision of human communities large and small leaves us on a darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night (he was, by the say, savaging the "Social Gospel" which Gary Wills and others are currently praising in response to the Bishops and the Vatican.  The term has changed in meaning since Niebuhr's day; and Niebuhr's attack on the older term is still sound.) 

Is the purpose of the church to remain unchanged by a changing world?  Is it to be the still point of the turning world?  But aren't those the churches that are now failing to reach the people?

If my sympathies are with the nuns against the Bishops, it is in part because I probably misunderstand the conflict.  But it is also born of experience with church judicatories.  My experience being between the congregation and the judicatory (whatever they are:  Bishops, Conference Ministers, employees out of UCC Cleveland, what have you) is that the latter inevitably treat every problem as amenable to a Big Idea.  The representative of the hierarchy always has a larger vision, a bigger view, a nobler purpose, than those of us in the trenches, and no matter what we may say about conditions on the ground, the representative knows better and understands deeper and needs us only to listen and convey the interests of the Church or the General Synod or whoever it is, to the people in the pews.  Who will undoubtedly understand, if we the ministers will simply do our job and ad-minister the policy of the hierarchy.

That this seldom works out in practice, and even more seldom leads to a fruitful dialogue among all parties concerned, is also seldom considered a significant obstacle to implementation.  When I considered entering seminary the Dean of the school told me the seminary wanted to put theologians in the pulpits.  It was (obviously) an idea I was sympathetic to; but it also meant someone with knowledge exercising that knowledge in empathy with the people in the pews (never, actually, the "congregation."  There is no "congregation."  That, too, is an abstraction, not a noun; an idea, not an object.).  "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," I was reminded time and again; and it turned out to be the truest advice I got.   Ministry is hard because it involves working with individuals, and individuals lead messy lives.  A minister needs guiding principles; but she also needs deep understanding; the kind of understanding you get only by establishing relationships with individuals, and with the group they make up as a "congregation."  (So it is, after all, a thing; but a querulous thing, a thing usually more quarrelsome than quiet.)

So what is church for?  It is for the faithfulness to the tradition, and to the revelation.  Which faithfulness, by and large, cuts out the Prosperity Gospel.  Church is not for how you can think and grow rich.  Whatever Joel Osteen runs he does not, in my humble opinion, run a church.  Not that I'm going to take that issue up with the IRS; but there we are.  Church is also for the transmission and communication and development of the faith.  That is a definition Paul would probably agree with, although his "house churches" look nothing like anything we call church today, and their absence underlines the need for something more institutional and less based on accidental (i.e., family) relationships.  How that faith is transmitted (and, equally, what faith is transmitted) is a complex issue, but it isn't necessarily one of choirs v rock bands.  I wonder how much this is an issue in churches which don't have choirs as part of their tradition, (there are more than a few of them), and which encourage singing because there are no instruments to drown out the people in the pews?  I grew up with beautiful organ playing, but more and more I've come to recognize it serves to keep the congregations quiet, not to encourage them to open their throats and make a joyful noise.  And does anybody really sing to a rock band?  Or is it just there for the entertainment value, like the multiple screens and the light show and the PowerPoint presentations during the sermon?

And what is that form of "worship" teaching?  That worshiping God is a spectator sport?  Liturgy is the work of the people.  If you aren't doing any work at all, except to keep up with the images flashing on the screens, or the dialogue of the actors on the "stage," how is "worship" any different from live theater? As I've noted before, this style of worship doesn't create disciples, it creates attendees.  It creates an audience, not a congregation.

I've talked about all of this before.  The question is:  what makes a congregation?  The megachurch hasn't really answered that question, and already shows many signs of trying to find its way in a still-changing world.  And before the megachurches, it was the TV evangelists, of whom a friend of mine who is a pastor derisively said:  "Call them when you need a funeral."  And before the TV evangelists, it was the tent revivalists.  And before them, it was...

Well, it's turtles all the way down.

The analysis of Douthat's discontent that I mentioned above ends on a note that made me wish I'd written it:

 My problem with Douthat’s book is not that his opinions differ from my own. My problem is that he does not seem to have any idea what he is talking about. In the West, there has been no universally accepted authoritative voice on orthodoxy since the Reformation. “What am I to do when many persons allege different interpretations, each one of whom swears to have the Spirit?” asked Erasmus in 1524. But Douthat does not see the larger picture that he aims to explain, and his treatment of his subject is so pitifully mistaken in things large and small that what we are left with is a meandering, self-serving screed. The book has the same reliance on private judgment that anyone who was really concerned with heresy would recognize as part of the problem, not part of the solution.
It's the stupidity, stupid.  And by the way, Charles Pierce tells me Chuck Todd and David Brooks were terribly interested in the National Journal article I started with, so don't let anybody tell you my 12th century theological obsessions are not on the cutting edge of what's happenin' now! (IMHO it's a nothing burger of an article, but it was good for a quote.)  I think I really start to despair (rather than just playing at despair) when I realize how many times humanity has to reinvent the wheel just to start to get a handle on what's really ailing us:  and what it is, ain't Facebook or technology or even the New Atheism.

It's that humanity is still the same as it ever was.


  1. Windhorse10:38 AM

    Wow, you really hit it out of the park with this one! A dozen or more brilliant insights in your rambling contemplation. I wouldn't know where to begin. I'm taking away justice as fundamental to the Christian ethos and how clinging to "the Big Idea" instead tends to thwart that (incidentally, one of the minor themes in the semi-historical novel "The Name of the Rose” which I recently encountered, although the book goes further in exploring the relationship of the Big Idea to power and not just orthodoxy for orthodoxy's sake).

    And the nostalgia of speed-reading machines and friends Atoms, to boot. Nice work.

  2. Anonymous7:38 PM

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