The Politics of Advent

In a recent post, I mused that the chief Christian contribution to a hypocritical and deceitful worldly politics might be the witness of truthfulness and transparency.  In a typically luminous column for First Things On the Square, Peter Leithart writes of the political message of Advent, the promise that in the second coming, the transparency which seems to elude all our social and political endeavors now will at last be a reality:

There is a city that fulfills Augustine’s dream of social life, but it’s not an earthly city, not the city of man. In the life to come, everything will become transparent to the Creator, and as a result, opacity will give way to complete transparency: “The thoughts of each of us will then also be manifest to all.” When God removes his veil, we will peer into the souls of others. When we are purged of sin, we will freely share the good within. Only in the city where we see God face-to-face will we have faces to face each other. 

By virtue of Christ’s first advent, though, we have a foretaste of this politics of truth in the Church, a politics that we are called to live out and witness the possibility of, however imperfectly:

Sins are not to be concealed but confessed, and Christians are commanded to meet open confession with open forgiveness. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples, a light shining out but also a light that, supplied by the oil of the Spirit, illuminates the corners and dark corridors within.  
Within the church are faint glimmers of a society that might meet with Augustine’s approval. Within the church we find the imperfectly realized possibility of a politics of two Advents.

The Promise and Perils of Academic Blogging

The following is adapted from a talk I gave yesterday at the University of Edinburgh’s IT Futures Conference

The purpose of blogging for me (and what seems to me its most valuable use for students like myself) is both to brainstorm ideas for my reserch, and to reflect on issues lying at the intersection of my academic work and the interests and experiences of more ordinary people.  This latter goal is perhaps easier for me, given my particular field of study, than it would be for many young academics.  After all, I am working in Christian ethics and political thought, and almost everyone has occasion to worry about how to live ethically and to dispute about politics.  Perhaps a biochemist would have more difficulty blogging in this middle space.  But where it’s possible, it’s very useful, since it helps keep you from becoming the kind of detached, super-specialized academic that can only talk to other academics.  If you’re planning to teach, this kind of blogging is very good practice. 

But my first purpose now is not, of course, to teach.  Rather, my blog serves, first and foremost, as a thinkspace, a place for me to brainstorm ideas on questions that I’m thinking of researching or writing, as a place to post book reviews or interesting passages as I research key sources, which I might use later in my writing, or even as a place to post initial drafts of my thesis or other projects.  

But the blog also helps keep me from becoming so narrowly focused on my research that I can’t think intelligently about other issues, as too often happens to Ph.D students.  Attending conferences and talking with fellow students is of course one good way to maintain some breadth, but for many of us, there’s no substitute for writing, as a way of processing and organizing information, and indeed generating new insights.  Of course, many students try to publish journal articles on topics loosely related or unrelated to their research, as a way of keeping some breadth in their studies, but this can be a very demanding and time-consuming process, requiring a level of thoroughness in research and care in citation that one can rarely justify given the demands of one’s primary research project.  Blogging is a great way to solve this dilemma.  It gives one an outlet to reflect seriously and carefully on issues that one is interested in, but without demanding the rigor and time investment of a journal article or conference paper. 


Now what makes the blog a truly useful way of accomplishing both these ends is of course the presence of other people.  Naturally, I could sit and brainstorm and write up thoughts on my computer to my heart’s content, but this would not be terribly useful, for any number of reasons.  For one, it would be difficult to be sufficiently disciplined; the temptation would always be to stop writing when a thought was half-formed and only partially articulate.  The simple awareness that others may be reading compels you to organize your thoughts, to clarify them, to qualify them where necessary; to anticipate objections, rather than simply trusting in one’s first instincts.  And, if you are writing with a largely non-academic readership in mind, as I am, then you’re also forced to think about how to simplify complex ideas, how to communicate them in lucid language, rather than hiding behind technical terms, and how to make the thoughts interesting and compelling to a non-specialist.  Ph.D students often have woeful writing skills, and the exercise of writing a Ph.D is not one that tends to improve them much, since your supervisor has to read your work, no matter how boring it is.  Although blogging was perhaps once associated with loose, careless, and sloppy writing, nowadays, quality blogs are in high demand, and blogging can provide a great opportunity to practice writing well, really engaging people’s attention.  And of course, if hypothetical readers translate into actual readers, as they almost surely will do if you have anything worthwhile to say, you can get feedback–criticism of poorly-formed ideas, questions that invite you to reflect and explain further, suggestions of sources that you could use in further research.  Your posts may also lure in other readers–potentially other postgraduate students, or even established academics, with interest in similar issues, giving you the opportunity to learn from them and form relationships.  Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find regular interlocutors, with your same interests but somewhat different perspectives, who will consistently challenge you to rethink and refine your assumptions, often opening up space for great intellectual breakthroughs that reshape your research and make it far clearer and more useful than it otherwise would have been.  This has been my own experience, and I have been enormously blessed by it.


Now it is important to note at this point an important tension that has been introduced.  I started off talking about blogging as something I do primarily for myself, but its usefulness depends also upon its being done for other people.  Now this tension turns out to be a persistent and difficult one. It is important, I think, not to start out with a more altruistic concept of blogging–“I am writing in order to help share my wisdom with others, and illuminate them about all these important issues.  I will use my superior learning to help correct popular misconceptions on a whole range of issues.”  Such a posture is actually ultimately more selfish, because more arrogant.  You may in fact have many useful things to offer the world, but it’s best not to start off by assuming that you do.  It’s easy to get an inflated idea of your own importance in blogdom.  It doesn’t take much for you to find that a couple dozen folks a day are popping in to see what you’ve been writing, for maybe one hundred pairs of eyes to read each well-written post.  If you venture onto a subject of popular interest (as I did when I wrote a theological critique of the final Harry Potter movie), then social media could turn you into a temporary celebrity overnight.  This can quickly go to your head, and this is bad for any number of reasons.  For one thing, even if you have a truly wide readership, and one that is well-deserved, that doesn’t mean you really know what you’re talking about.  1000 hits a day is no substitute for a peer-reviewed journal article or positive feedback from your supervisor.  If your #1 goal is to be a successful Ph.D researcher, then you need to keep your eye on the ball and maintain due humility about the scope of your knowledge.  

Even aside from that problem, however, too much of a focus on your readership can pose a real problem.  For instance, suppose you get in the habit of posting about three times a week, and then you get to a phase of your Ph.D where you have to focus really intensively on some research, and you find you hardly have any time to post.  Well, if you fall into too much of the mentality that your blog is for your readers, then you will feel a lot of pressure to keep putting up posts.  Otherwise, readers might start getting restless–or stop following your blog altogether!  If the pressure to keep posting means you spend time on your blog that you should be spending on research, then the blog has shifted from being a useful servant to a cruel taskmaster.  Another way that this can happen is through comments.  The payoff of a successful blog is that it demands more of your time.  Lots of people read your posts, and they comment–they ask questions, or they argue with one another, or they argue with you.  Naturally, you want to engage their comments, especially if they’ve been hard-hitting in their criticisms, and you start taking it personally.  But they may end of having much more time to keep arguing with you than you have to spare; it’s not hard to find yourself spending up 10 hours a week blogging and replying to comments.  And there’s also the danger of becoming so worried about projecting a polished, all-knowing, omni-competent image that you’re afraid to actually think through difficult issues on your blog or be honest about questions you’re struggling to answer.  That makes the blog less useful for yourself and your readers.  


 Now, all of this might suggest that the best way to blog is to write as if nobody is reading.  But, for obvious reasons, this is not a suitable solution.  As mentioned above, one point of blogging, instead of just jotting down notes to yourself, is to compel you to write better.  A false humility that assumes that hardly anyone is actually reading can become an excuse for carelessness and flippancy.  This can become particularly dangerous when expressing controversial opinions or critiquing other writers.  Controversy and criticism are of course an inevitable part of academic life, but they have to be managed very carefully.  Within academic writing, there are a host of unwritten rules about how one engages in these, attempting to ensure that even the sharpest disagreements remain gentlemanly, respectful, and restrained.  There is naturally a bit more freedom in a blogging environment, which can be useful, but it is very easy to go too far, indulging in colorful rhetoric or blunt attacks that will hurt your own image and may come back to haunt you.  In fact, it’s remarkable how quickly one may be brought to regret the carelessness that comes from this false humility.  Once, when blogging about a prestigious visiting lecturer’s presentation, I made some carelessly-phrased joking criticisms in the midst of what I thought was clearly an attitude of good-natured appreciation, assuming that only a few friends and students would be reading my post.  But tones of voice do not come through in writing, and 24 hours later, my supervisor was asking me to explain myself, the lecturer in question having seen my post and angrily contacted the school.  Since then, I’ve made a point of trying to always write with the assumption that anyone could be listening, and to guard carefully in advance against possible misunderstandings.  If I do have anything to offer in my blogging, I don’t want to turn people off by the way I say it.


So, in order to blog successfully, it’s important to simultaneously be always aware of your possible audience, and yet not preoccupied with them, remembering that the blog is first and foremost a tool to aid you in your own thinking and research, and that you will likely be of much more use to the world, and any potential readers, in the long-term if you successfully complete your research than if you spend all your time blogging.  It’s important to try to project an intelligent and respectable image through your blogging, but not to be so concerned with image that you’re no longer being genuine–the key is to use the blog as a way to explore your own interests and clarify your own ideas.  By making this your focus, you may well find that, as a by-product, lots of people–even important people, even potential employers–do want to listen to you and talk with you.  Through my blogging, I’ve formed lots of great relationships and hopefully made lots of good impressions.  But important as this result is, it’s more likely to happen if it remains no more than a secondary goal, not the primary purpose of all your blogging. 

Consumed: A Book Review

It took me more than a year to finish this book–sometimes, that should tell you something about me, but in this case, that should tell you something about this book.  While Barber’s overall thesis is compelling and important, his presentation of it seemed calculated to alienate any possible allies.  Pompous and blustering, he writes most of the book’s 339 small-font pages in a breathless, melodramatic tone of fervent moral passion and outrage (I suppose the subtitle should’ve warned me adequately: “How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole”).  Now, this would understandable as an occasional device.  The subject is one that calls for moral passion and outrage, and I, for one, am sympathetic to the desire to indulge in rhetorically-charged passages chock-full of unusual polysyllabic words.  But intense rhetoric is only effective as an occasional device, as a departure from the benchmark of more restrained rhetoric.  Unfortunately, for Barber, the bombastic was the benchmark, from which he almost never departed.  And as you can imagine, that begins to grate on one. 

As part of his tirade against consumer culture, he seeks to include pretty much every example and phenomenon he can think of, regardless of whether it’s relevant or compelling.  Instead of a focused account of some of the most alarming trends and damning evidence, Barber is determined to offer a comprehensive account of everything that is wrong with the world today under his heading of “infantilization.”  Couple that with the fact that he seems to have been too pompous to have accepted any advice from his editor, and one has to endure many pages of irrelevant or laughably overblown laundry lists of complaints.

And yet, I did the book the honor of reading till the end, because I believe his overall thesis is compelling and very important.  Barber argues that a vast distance separates the consumer capitalism of our own day from the productive capitalism of yesteryear which pundits continue to laud, idealistically imagining that our economic system today is scarcely different from that of 100 years ago, and that today’s critics of capitalism can be answered by appealing to capitalism’s virtues of yesteryear.  As a somewhat nostalgic, rose-tinted view of capitalism’s past, Barber’s portrait leaves me skeptical, but as a diagnosis of our contemporary condition, I think he is spot-on.  Originally, says Barber, capitalism served to meet genuine human needs, and it did a really excellent job of this; now, however, with genuine material needs sated in the West, capitalism has had to turn to *creating* artificial needs and wants that it can satisfy.  Not only that, but although there are still many places in the world with genuine needs, urgent needs, it is far less profitable to service these than it is to continue to feed the pathological desires of consumer society.  

This leads to the phenomenon which Barber calls infantilization, which constitutes the heart of his argument.  Producers, eager to create as much demand as possible to a strategy of infantilization, market to children, and try to turn us all into children.  After all, children have far less sales resistance, far less ability to discriminate what they really want and really need, far less ability to make rational decisions about what they can afford and what they can’t, so it’s much easier to sell to children than adults, easier to get them hooked on brands and products.  Barber chronicles the sinister ways that companies have sought to take over childhood with commercialism, barraging children not only with a surfeit of children’s products, but also colonizing childhood prematurely with the trappings and products of adulthood.  Not only that, but it pays to keep adults in a perpetual state of childlike neediness and dependency, to establish habits of impulse buying and brand addiction that people will never outgrow.  Some of Barber’s examples of the phenomenon of infantilization (e.g., the popularity of Pixar, which makes “children’s movies”) are quite poor, and even hurt his thesis, but overall, as I say, it’s compelling.  Of course, it’s important to note that Barber does not treat this simply as some big conspiracy on the part of manufacturers (although occasionally he comes off that way), but as an overarching social phenomenon of regression and loss of self-control in which we are all complicit.  

This pattern of infantilization carries with it a corollary, which is the other key theme of Barber’s argument—”privatization.”  Barber uses this term not in its common narrow sense of handing over government functions to corporations (though that is part of it), but as a wider problem of the destruction of the public, the atomization of society, and the consequent loss of corporate moral agency (note that “corporate” here and following does not mean “relating to a corporation”).  Although I’m not sure that he cites her at all, Hannah Arendt’s fascinating discussion of the “privation of the private” in The Human Condition provides an excellent foundation for his argument here.  He argues that we have made such an idol out of personal choice and freedom that we find ourselves powerless to oppose all kinds of things that almost no one wants and almost everyone considers harmful–unrestricted pornography, aggressive marketing of junk food to children, etc.  Indeed, he points out in a section that should be of great interest to conservative Christians how this demographic finds itself in a ridiculous quandary.  On the one hand, conservative Christians are most concerned about many of the things the culture is throwing at our children, and the ways that the ubiquity of media and the aggressiveness of advertising make it impossible to escape from, and yet conservative Christians are most likely to eschew any public means of combating this onslaught, and are reduced to each fighting their own losing battles as tiny enclaves.  In the interests of freedom, we have actually accepted a great loss of freedom, since to resist some evils and protect some freedoms, it requires corporate agency–to remain free, we cannot each rely solely on our own resources.  Barber offers a compelling apologia for regulation, understood not as the officious meddling of power-hungry bureaucrats, but as the collective decision of citizens to stand against and rein in forces that undermine society and morality.

Now, we are naturally inclined to suspect that Barber is simply going to take us out of the frying pan and put us into the fire, substituting the evils of big government for the evils of big market.  This knee-jerk suspicion is often unfair, because there is a genuine place for government in restraining rapacious markets.  But in this case, we are right to be a bit suspicious.  Barber is almost as eloquent in eulogizing “democracy” as he is in decrying consumerism.  He has this rosy idea that somehow if we all stepped up to the plate and were willing to be “citizens” again, and engage in real democracy, exercising our corporate moral agency, then everything would be alright.  Given the depth of the cultural malaise that Barber identifies in this book, I’m awfully skeptical.  For this reason, the last two chapters, trying to offer a way out of our current predicament, are the weakest.  


For all this book’s weaknesses, however, I would definitely recommend reading the first four chapters, if you can handle that much of the hypertrophied rhetoric.  For a more disciplined treatment of some similar issues, read Naomi Klein’s No Logo.  And for a very concise and thoroughly theological overview of many of the same problems, read Cavanaugh’s fantastic Being Consumed.  And, of course, for a primer on the nature and importance of corporate moral agency, read Richard Hooker. 🙂

The Challenge of Homosexuality

Dale Martin, Professor of New Testament at Yale, lays down the following challenge to Christians determined to continue the Church’s traditional stand against homosexuality:

“There can be no debate about the fact that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide for millions of people. If the church wishes to continue with its traditional interpretation it must demonstrate, not just claim, that it is more loving to condemn homosexuality than to affirm homosexuals. Can the church show that same-sex loving relationships damage those involved in them? Can the church give compelling reasons to believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake? Is it really better for lesbian and gay teenagers to despise themselves and endlessly pray that their very personalities be reconstructed so that they may experience romance like their straight friends? Is it really more loving for the church to continue its worship of ‘heterosexual fulfillment’ (a ‘nonbiblical’ concept, by the way) while consigning thousands of its members to a life of either celibacy or endless psychological manipulations that masquerade as ‘healing’?”

The challenge here is certainly not one that is unique to the issue of homosexuality, but indeed, involves the whole of Christian ethics.  Too often Christians have been satisfied with a flat, blunt, divine command approach to ethics–“God says no, so that means no.  Deal with it.”  This means that for many, God seems like an arbitrary dictator who is against fun, who is against freedom, who is against fulfillment.  This problem did not, perhaps, loom so large when society was more homogeneous, when widely-accepted customs comported nicely with Biblical morality, so that the commands and demands of Christian ethics seemed on the whole quite natural.  “Well, of course it’s bad to sleep around–everyone I know seems to agree on that, and I’d be a pariah if I did.”  With the breakdown of a social consensus, however, and the increasing diversity of Western society, people have been left asking, “Well, why not?” and the Church has often been unready to offer a compelling answer, unable to show how the demands of the Gospel are really “good news,” that points us back toward what we were created to be and toward true fulfillment, and not merely oppressive and arbitrary rules.  In our age, this disconnect, and the consequent rejection of the Church as “intolerant,” “unloving,” and “judgmental,” has been particularly pronounced in the area of sexual ethics, and is perhaps most acute on the issue of homosexuality.  

Indeed, it is here that traditional Christian ethics can look most arbitrary–sure, we can give good reasons why serial fornication, for instance, is not just against God’s will, but ultimately destructive, undermining human fulfillment, but why should a committed monogamous relationship be so terrible, just because it’s between people of the same sex?  And it is here that traditional Christian ethics can look most oppressive–after all, the categorical refusal of the opportunity for sexual intimacy and lifelong companionship is among the most difficult and comprehensive demands you can possibly make on a person.  And yet, for the most part, the Church has been singularly unready or unwilling to step up to the plate and show that God’s “No” to homosexuality corresponds to a “Yes” to creation, a “Yes” to the deepest desires of human nature and to human fulfilment; instead of just being a “No” to fun, a “No” to enjoyment, a “No” to fulfilment and freedom.  

This is why O’Donovan argues in The Church in Crisis that the Church must learn how to preach the Gospel to gays as gospel—as good news.  Of course, good news doesn’t mean easy news—the Gospel isn’t that for any of us:  “The righteousness of Jesus Christ is not comfort without demand, any more than it is demand without comfort. It is never less than that demanding comfort by which God makes more of us than we thought it possible to become.”

The urgent need for the Church today is to develop an evangelical ethic which embodies this “demanding comfort”—which integrates both Law and Gospel, creation and redemption, calling us out of brokenness to new life, and showing us why the hard road self-denial that this entails for all—but perhaps especially for the gay Christian—is a price well-worth paying, a journey well-worth embarking upon.  

Reforming Virtue

To continue my recent trend of blogging without investing the time to think out and type up a proper blog post, I wanted to call folks’ attention to an important little change on the Blogroll.  A couple months ago, my friend Davey Henreckson migrated from his Theopolitical blog to a new home with a spiffy new name and a minimalist design, Reforming Virtue.  I have now at last belatedly reflected that change in my blogroll.

For fantastic book reviews on contemporary works in political theology and ethics (currently working through Wolterstorff’s Justice in Love, which I’ll be very interested to follow), as well as links to interesting discussions elsewhere in blogdom, Davey’s blog is a first-rate resource.