The book of Revelation continues to gain a great deal of attention–for better and for worse. Back in the 1980s I paid sustained attention to this amazing piece of literature and wrote a short commentary. Here is the commentary’s discussion of chapters two and three, from Triumph of the Lamb (Herald Press, 1987; reprinted by Wipf and Stock).
Monthly Archives: November 2008
Nicholas Wolterstorff. Justice: Rights and Wrongs.
Nicholas Wolterstorff. Justice: Rights and Wrongs. Princeton University Press, 2008.
This is an important book, but also a bit of a frustrating book. Wolterstorff is a well-known Christian philosopher, long-time professor at Calvin College, more recently at Yale University, and currently in residence as an active retiree at the University of Virginia.
I really like his argument. He grounds justice in human rights and he grounds human rights in the inherent worth of each person. He presents the case for seeing such an understanding in the Bible. I love that he brings the Bible to bear on this discussion, though his presentation is a bit disjointed. He summarizes his interpretation of the biblical bases for a strong view of human rights, but then kind of leaves it behind as he turns to the philosophical tradition. It feels more like he is using the Bible as an illustration than as a fundamental source.
Probably because I am not a philosopher, Wolterstorff’s long and winding journey through philosophical argumentation did not hold my attention. I like where he ends up, but I did not find the process particularly enlightening. One big surprise for me was his utter lack of attention to the political philosophers of recent years who have tackled the theory of justice (John Rawls gets a brief footnote early on, Ronald Dworkin gets a passing mention; Robert Nozick, Michael Sandel, Michael Walzer, William Galstone are all completely ignored). I found this lack to be surprising. By not engaging the political philosophers, Wolterstorff allows his discussion to remain on a highly abstract level once he leaves his biblical discussion.
It turns out that this book is part one of a two part work. In the midst of writing on justice, Wolterstorff realized that he needed a thorough treatment of love. He briefly addresses love here but promises a second volume that deal with it in much more detail. I look forward to this second book and believe that some of the problems I have with Justice: Rights and Wrongs (especially how abstract and philosophical it is) will be alleviated when the full work is complete.
One of the most attractive aspect of this work in my mind is Wolterstorff’s openness about his own commitments–he’s profoundly committed to social justice (having been active in anti-apartheid activism and supporting Palestinian rights in the Middle East) and he’s a deeply committed Christian who seeks to view everything through the eyes of his faith convictions.
His argument about justice, human rights, and human worth is profound and deserves careful attention. He provides bases for a Christian perspective on many of the pressing issues of our day that challenge injustice and oppression. Hopefully Wolterstorff himself and others will continue to push out implications of this understanding of justice and apply it to actual on the ground issues.
Jesus and Herod: Two Kinds of King
One of the central issues that Christian theology and ethics must face is the question of why Jesus, who by all accounts was an extraordinarily kind, generous, and merciful person, found himself is such conflict during his life–ending with his execution in the most torturous, humiliating way imaginable. To take this question seriously is to engage the issue of our own faith and the role it plays in our way of living in the world.
Here is an article I published about ten years ago that reflects on this issue. Jesus came to be seen as the Christ, a title that literally meant “King.” In the story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel, we encounter another king, known as Herod the Great. Comparing and contrasting these two kings, especially in relation to the categories of scarcity and abundance, provides important insights into Jesus’ way of life, his conflict with the powers that be, and the shape lives modeled after his might take.
Frank Schaeffer. Crazy for God.
Frank Schaeffer. Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. DeCapo Press, 2008.
This is an fascinating book for a certain population–namely past and current evangelical Christians who have at one time been influenced by the author’s father, Francis Schaeffer. That population includes me, so I indeed did find this a fascinating book. To readers who are not familiar with the Schaeffers, I am not sure this book would be worth reading.
Francis Schaeffer made his name first of all as a Presbyterian missionary in Switzerland who in time founded a ministry called L’Abri and specialized in ministering to young adults who had religious questions–whether because of disaffection with standard Christianity or out of post-Christian Western ignorance of Christianity. Schaeffer was known as a thoughtful person who took the questions seriously. And his wife, Edith, gained fame due to her hospitality and ability to write engagingly about the missionary work.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, some of Schaeffer’s lectures in apologetics were published in North America and gained a wide audience. The Schaeffer’s mission work increasingly attracted young Americans, heightening their fame.
They had three daughters and their youngest was their one son–named after his father, called “Franky” for many years, and now known as “Frank.” As Franky came of age, he joined his father in ministry. He helped influence Francis to exploit his popularity by joining with the emerging Christian Right in America to lead opposition to abortion and to defend biblical inerrancy. They produced a couple of films and some best-selling books.
At the height of his popularity, Francis contracted cancer, dying in 1984–celebrated by that time primarily by his “co-belligerents” on the Right, including Ronald Reagan and Jerry Falwell.
With the death of his father, Franky began drifting, trying his hand at movie production and other media work, but without much success. In the midst of his struggles, he wrote a novel that caught a publisher’s attention and redirected his life. In time, he joined the Eastern Orthodox faith and continued to find success as a writer.
Crazy for God tells this story from Frank’s point of view. It ends up being quite an exposé of his own family and of the evangelical movement that he and his father found such fame with. Again, for anyone who has been influenced by the Schaeffers, this will be fascinating (and somewhat scandalous) stuff.
My own time as a “Schaefferite” was short–from the summer of 1975 through the spring of 1977. I was fortunate to encounter the “progressive” Schaeffer who asserted that Christians should never be afraid of any questions, who advocated environmental responsibility, and who challenged the empty materialism of Western culture. My own turning point came with the release of the Schaeffers ambitious film and book project that sought to apply Francis’s apologetics on a grand scale, called How Should We Then Live. I was on a team of three Schaeffer fans who taught a class on the book and film at the University of Oregon. There is nothing like teaching a book to help one perceive the book’s flaws. By the end of the class, I was convinced that Schaeffer did not really know what he was talking about–and combined his ignorance with a bad attitude.
Then, as I moved to the left politically and theologically, Schaeffer became an icon in the Christian Right. I later learned that he had begun his career as a rigid, devisive fundamentalist, a close colleague of the legendary Carl McIntire in battles among American Presbyterians in the 1930s. Sadly, these instincts never really left him.
Frank Schaeffer portrays his father as a mostly well-meaning and caring person whose brightest moments came in his non-judgmental acceptance of the troubled young people who flocked to L’Abri in the 1960s. Francis tragically got caught up in his bigger “mission” that moved him away from the things he truly cared about–art, beauty, creativity.
While the book is well worth reading for anyone interested in the Schaeffer family saga (Edith Schaeffer somes off much more negatively than her husband), I ended up feeling surprisingly unenlightened. Frank throughout comes off as a pretty unattractive character (which, I suppose, is a credit to his honesty). I really didn’t feel much empathy toward him nor interest in his own journey.
The kinds of things I would have been most interested in–the intellectual dynamics in Francis Schaeffer’s ministry–were given pretty short shrift. Likely Frank Schaeffer never really engaged with the ideas that pulled in many questioning young thinkers to his father’s orbit. If one were to write a history of the most interesting evangelical thinkers of the past generation, Francis Schaeffer’s impact on awakening many people’s intellectual energies would be seen in its enormity.
But such a history is not what this book ultimately is about. It is about the rise, fall, and recovery of a pretty uninteresting person who nonetheless rubbed shoulders with many who did (for better and mostly for worse) impact our society. As such, it’s an important artifact.
Why People Saying “No” to World War II Still Matters
During World War II, about 12,000 young draftees chose, because of their pacifist convictions, to refuse to go into the military and instead performed alternative service (another 6,000 or so went to prison out of similar convictions). This made up only a tiny percentage of draftees–pacifism certainly did not carry the day.
However, that little, flickering light of witness continues to be worth reflecting on (as does our society’s continued assumption that this indeed was a “good war”–see Nicholson Baker’s critique of such an assumption in his book, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization, and my reflections on critique).
Here is a recent article I wrote suggesting that the experience on conscientious objectors in Civilian Public Service (the name of the alternative service program) provides a continually important legacy.
Andrew J. Bacevich. The New American Militarism
Andrew Bacevich, professor at Boston University and retired U.S. Army Colonel, has emerged as a major voice in the discussion of American foreign policy and military actions. His most recent book, The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, a fairly popular level bestselling critique of “the illusions that have governed American policies since 1945” (reviewed here), follows upon an earlier, more substantial analysis–The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War.
The New American Militarism is a cry of alarm from an American patriot, a military man who breaks with his former associates on the political right. The key problem Bacevich identifies is the tendency for Americans to link the military might of our country with idealism about the universality of American values–leading to a destructive tendency to use the military to further “the American way of life.” And one of the major casualties of this tendency, he fears, will be American democracy itself.
Even if Bacevich is more sanguine about positive role the US military has played in the world and could still play than I am, I found his book overall to be extraordinarily helpful–clearly written, forcefully argued, well-documented, and ultimately quite persuasive. It is great to have confirmed the conviction that our current military and global political behavior is extraordinarily self-destructive for our country.
Triumph of the Lamb: Revelation One
The book of Revelation continues to gain a great deal of attention–for better and for worse. Back in the 1980s I paid sustained attention to this amazing piece of literature and wrote a short commentary. Here is the commentary’s discussion of chapter one, from Triumph of the Lamb (Herald Press, 1987; reprinted by Wipf and Stock).
Naomi Klein. The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
I don’t think I can praise Melanie Klein’s, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, highly enough. It has become a best-seller, deservedly so, so by now many people have encountered it. For those who have not yet, I think it would be well worth tracking down.
This one book has done more for my understanding of our current world crises than any other five books I could think of. Klein describes the evolution of global capitalism over the past generation, linking together the devastation of the southern cone of Latin America in the 1970s, the enormous disappointments following the ending of apartheid in South Africa and the reign of communism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and since, and the disaster of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the 21st century (plus numerous other cases).
She coins the term “disaster capitalism” to characterize how the widespread social disorientation following massive collective shocks (wars, major “natural disasters,” radical political change) is exploited by corporate leaders and their political and military allies to shift wealth in massive ways from the public sector to select powers in the private sector–with resultant widespread social dislocations and misery.
She helps us connect the dots–how the immense suffering following the rise of dictatorships such as the Pinochet regime in Chile, the immense increase in poverty and loss of safety nets in Eastern Europe, the heightening of social stratification in post-apartheid South Africa, the almost unbelievable failures of the U.S. policies in Iraq, Afghanistan, and New Orleans, are none of them accidental but, essentially, consequences of deliberate actions by people in power to transfer wealth into the hands of select corporations and their beneficiaries.
As Klein has demonstrated in her earlier work (including her extraordinarily perceptive book, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs ), she is able to combine analytical rigor, a thoroughly progressive and humane political philosophy, and an engaging ability to tell a story. She gives the human side of these difficult issues, but not at the expense of macro-analysis. This is to say, her writing is solid and substantial, but admirably accessible and concrete. She possesses distinctive gifts.
For people of faith, a book such as The Shock Doctrine should light a fire under our efforts to embody Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor. Klein, to her credit, does not simply analyze and critique (though these are where her greatest contributions lie), she also tries to point toward solutions and empower her readers to seek to resist and transform. The task is enormous, but to move toward healing we much have at least some sense of the nature of the problems we face. This book, better than any other I am aware of that addresses our current scence, helps us understand.
Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry
One of the Apostle Paul’s central concerns in his letter to the Romans is to confront the tendency of human beings to put their trust in idols rather than in God and God’s way of healing. I address this theme in a paper I presented to the “Bible, Theology, and Postmodernity” session at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting in Chicago, November 2, 2008.
This paper, “Paul’s Deconstruction of Idolatry,” comes out of my interest in Christianity and violence, focused especially on biblical and theological materials that point toward ways of overcoming violence. The biblical story often portrays violence and injustice having roots in idolatry. I believe that we find in the biblical critique of idolatry perspectives that are important, even essential for responding to the problems of violence in our world today.
In the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul offers an analysis and critique of idolatry that I believe remains useful today. Paul takes on two types of idolatry. First, he criticizes what I will call the idol of lust in the Roman Empire that underwrites violence and injustice. And, second, he critiques the claims of those (like Paul himself before he met Jesus) who believed that loyalty to the Law requires violence in defense of the covenant community.
Our present-day analogs of the forces Paul critiques—nationalism, imperialism, religious fundamentalism—all gained power with the rise of modernity in the Western world. The much-heralded turn toward post-modernity may offer a sense of awareness to help us break free from such totalisms that foster so much violence in our world.
Our task of resisting demands for ultimate loyalty unites biblical prophets (including Paul) with present-day Christians seeking to further life in the face of death-dealing violence. Modernity did not create death-dealing idolatries so much as give them new impetus. The task of breaking bondage to the idols of injustice that Paul engaged in remains ours today.