Dismissing Jesus: A Study Guide, Intro and Pt. I

Long-time readers will recall that last year around this time I embarked on a gargantuan endeavor to offer a thorough critical review of my erstwhile teacher and mentor, Doug Jones’s, long-awaited book, Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross.  After seven installments and some abortive interaction from Mr. Jones, I had to abandon the project for lack of time, and repeated intentions to resume it have never come to fruition.

In lieu of a full review, then, I am offering here, in two parts, an extended set of discussion questions that I prepared for a book group this past month.  In these questions, I attempt, as I did in my reviews, to capture both the positives and the negatives of the book: on the one hand, prodding readers to take the book’s challenges seriously and try to apply them in our own churches, but on the other hand, critically examining the deep theological and ethical ambiguities of the book and how it might hinder, rather than help, the task of Christian discipleship.  I hope these will be of service to individuals and churches as they wrestle with these important issues.

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Remembering the Great and Holy War, 1914-1918

The Great and Holy War

One hundred years ago today marked the onset of what was then known only as “The Great War.”  As Philip Jenkins’ new book The Great and Holy War shows, however, perhaps we ought still to dignify it with that awful title.  Although WWII looms vastly larger in our cultural consciousness, this is due partly to its greater proximity in time, and to the much greater role that America played in the hostilities.  Yet most people would be surprised to learn that the bloodiest battle in US military history remains the Battle of Meuse-Argonne, which took place over the final 47 days of WWI, in which 26,277 perished.  And the toll suffered by US troops is immeasurably dwarfed by that of the European nations.  Jenkins puts things in perspective for us:

“The full horror of the war was obvious in its opening weeks. . . . On one single day, August 22, the French lost twenty-seven thousand men killed in battles in the Ardennes and at Charleroi, in what became known as the Battle of the Frontiers. . . . To put these casualty figures in context, the French suffered more fatalities on that one sultry day than U.S. forces lost in the two 1945 battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa combined, although these later engagements were spread over a period of four months.  One single August day cost half as many lives as the United States lost in the whole Vietnam War.

During August and September 1914, four hundred thousand French soldiers perished, and already by year’s end, the war had in all claimed two million lives on both sides.  The former chapel of the elite French military academy of Saint-Cyr systematically listed its dead for various wars, but for 1914 it offered only one brief entry: ‘The Class of 1914”—all of it.” (pp. 29-31)

Britain lost 1.75% of its pre-war population to military deaths alone, not to mention the hundreds of thousands maimed for life; Germany, 3%; France, 3.5%.  The Western Front of WWI would claim ten times as many lives as the Western Front of WWII, a statistic borne out by the somber lists of names that can be found in any parish church in Britain. Given that Europe in 1914 was the unquestioned leader of world civilization, and still the center of global Christianity, such trauma could not fail to reshape the course of world religion as well as politics, remaking the world order more comprehensively even than its more global successor, WWII, could do.  It is this cataclysmic shift, in all its varied manifestations, that Jenkins seeks to chronicle in The Great and Holy War.

This book is extraordinarily wide-ranging, even by the standards of Jenkins’ impressive oeuvre thus far, and is difficult to summarize neatly.  This is in part due to the sense one gets that Jenkins was working to a deadline (the centenary of World War One) and hence lacked the time to fully organize the immense array of material his research had assembled.  The book thus perhaps lacks at some points the clear focus and compelling readability that has characterized much of Jenkins’ other work, though it remains a fascinating read, and one hopes any such handicaps will not prevent readers from engaging with its remarkable insights and theses.

The title of the book declares Jenkins’ most remarkable thesis: that the Great War, what we often consider the pinnacle of cynical nationalistic realpolitik, was perceived at the time as a deeply religious conflict, indeed, a “holy war,” by all the combatants.  Such a thesis strikes deeply at the roots of much modern secularization theory, which sees the de-Christianization of Europe as a long gradual process set in motion by science, the Enlightenment, and modern industry, a process very far underway by the 20th century.  On the contrary, shows Jenkins, Europe in 1914 was still steeped in religion, perhaps as much as at any point in its history—mostly Christianity of course, but even freethinkers and secularists were more likely than not to follow strange alternative religions like Theosophy, and to dabble in the occult.  Against the traditional narrative, Jenkins concludes his book with a new theory of religious development that he calls “punctuated equilibrium,” echoing the leading current view in evolutionary science: long periods of relative stasis (such as 1815-1914) followed by short periods of cataclysmic change (such as 1914-1918).  Jenkins’ thesis undermines any claim to comfortable self-assurance on the part of the modern West that technological and political progress necessarily leads to a cool scientific rationality; on the contrary, the years of the Great War were a time of superstition, apocalypticism, and mass hysteria in all the combatant nations.

However, Jenkins’ thesis also strikes deeply at any comfortable self-assurance on the part of western Christians: we like to think that our religion has long been a force for peace in the world, or at worst, essentially disengaged from the secular rationality that drives global conflict; Islam, on the other hand, is a primitive and violent religion that seeks to discern the divine will in every historical incident and to pursue expansion by merciless jihad, or “holy war.”  Jenkins neatly inverts this narrative: “enlightened” western Christianity was responsible for some of the most shocking rhetoric of holy war that we can imagine, at a time when global Islam was diffuse and relatively passive and apolitical; the events of World War One, in fact, set in motion the radicalization of Islam and its current appetite for “holy war” thinking.  Read More

Obamacare and the Task of Responsible Opposition, Pt. 3: How Bad is it?

 (See Pt. 1 here, Pt. 2 here)

Now, all of the preceding has one huge asterisk attached to it; everything I have argued holds if and only if Obamacare falls within the normal spectrum of good, mediocre, and bad law.  Now don’t get me wrong; my own view is that it falls very decidedly on the “bad law” end of the spectrum, in a whole host of ways.  But America has seen a lot of very bad laws—Patriot Act, anyone?—that have not warranted, or have certainly not evoked, this kind of response.  If the Right is not going to be hypocritical, they have to show why this is different and unique.  If in fact it is an abomination before God or against man, an attack on the body politic, a form of tyranny or gross injustice, or sure to do incalculable harm to the common good, well then, we may be in a state of justified exception to the principles I articulated above. Hooker after all says, “Not that I judge it a thing allowable for men to observe those laws which in their hearts they are steadfastly persuaded to be against the law of God”; obviously there comes a point at which “it’s the law of the land” should not be sufficient in itself to compel obedience.  If, for instance, to pick an issue of particular concern to conservatives, Congress were to pass a law requiring that all doctors without exception must perform abortions on demand, civil disobedience on the part of doctors would be the only acceptable option, and ferocious opposition by legislators might be in order.  In cases such as this, we would celebrate the many checks and balances in our constitutional system, and seek to use whichever ones we could to obstruct the implementation of such an unjust law.  But is the Affordable Care Act, as such, of this nature?

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Obamacare and the Task of Responsible Opposition, Pt. 2: Democracy at Work?

(See Pt. 1 here and Pt. 3 here.)

The biggest objection I received to my invocation of Hooker on Obamacare and the government shutdown, unsurprisingly, was that these statements of his could not take into account the particular Constitutional structures of the United States.  He wrote in an age and in a constitutional setting where there really was very little recourse if you didn’t like the law—it was the Queen’s way or the highway, so to speak.  Sure, there was a Parliament through whom elected representatives made decisions on behalf of the body politic, but its power was limited, and its claim to meaningfully represent the people was fairly tenuous by our modern standards.  The right and wrong current debate in the United States Congress could not, of course, be adjudicated by standards from 16th-century England, but only by standards applicable in 21st-century America—including, above all, the Constitution.  So the objection went.

Of course, I was well aware of the anachronism of the post, which I sought to humorously highlight in its title.  I do not think, however, that the appeal to the American constitutional system affects my core point in invoking Hooker; for, as I have sought to highlight in the previous installment, this concerned the rhetoric and attitude behind current Republican obstructionism, rather than its mechanism per se.  It is quite possible to stay within the letter of the law in the means of political opposition used, without in any way maintaining an attitude of respectful obedience toward the law.  Indeed, it is my contention that the forms in which this objection has been voiced simply reinforces the fundamental problem of political and societal breakdown that I wanted to highlight in my post.

I have been told that using such measures as a government shutdown or potential debt default as bargaining chips to pass legislation is simply “democracy at work,” and that the “power of the purse” is a “political weapon” that the Constitution “granted to the House to be employed as it was found to be necessary.”  Of course, debates over to what extent the current crisis is unprecedented or routine have become a prominent part of the partisan back-and-forth over the past week.  I do not feel historically-qualified to resolve them entirely, although I have become reasonably convinced of the following conclusions:

(1) there is considerable precedent for using government shutdowns as leverage for resolving policy disputes, even if the current situation is uncharacteristic by virtue of the sheer boldness of the Republican demands, which, requiring as they did the overturn of such a signature and significant piece of legislation, could not really be considered as a good-faith negotiating position

(2) there has been considerable precedent of negotiating against the backdrop of an impending debt-ceiling, in which the possibility of default loomed as an implicit threat above the heads of both parties, but the current situation is largely distinctive inasmuch as Republicans have turned this implicit threat into an explicit ultimatum, inasmuch as their core demand (the repeal of Obamacare) is essentially extraneous to the budget debate itself, and inasmuch as their demands were so exorbitant that they could never conceivably be attained by ordinary political means.  (For more on this, see the interaction between Jonathan Chait and Ross Douthat here, here, here, and here).

So commentators on the left are unfair to treat all of this as wholly unprecedented political terrorism.  However, that does not mean that it is reasonable to describe all of this simply as business as usual, or “democracy at work.” Read More

The Way of Enemy Love: Dismissing Jesus, A Critical Assessment, Pt. 7

In the past installments of this series of reviews, I have made an effort to tread the thin and delicate line of constructive criticism: on the one hand, I genuinely valued many of the things the book was trying to do, and wanted to affirm and advance them; on the other hand, I was genuinely concerned about points of confusion, unclarity, or just plain error, and wanted to draw attention to them when they were significant enough to have negative consequences.  In considering the ways of Weakness and Renunciation (chs. 2 and 3) I coordinated these two objectives by couching my reviews as calls for further clarification, and pointing out how the unclarity could in fact conspire to deprive Jones’s readers of exactly what they most needed—principles for practical action.  In considering the ways of Deliverance and of Sharing, on the other hand, my approach consisted more of attempting to ground a similar practical agenda (at least, so far as Jones’s practical agenda was discernible) in different, firmer theological soil, pointing out how failure to do so could render very good practices—works of mercy and of sharing—spiritually destructive.

In this chapter, I am afraid I shall have to take a blunter approach, although I hope that none will be offended.  In this chapter, the lack of clarity and equivocation is combined with so sweeping an attack on traditional Christian teaching that it is difficult to salvage anything constructive.  Taken alone, either of these might be frustrating, but might still leave us with a good deal to learn or at least converse with.  The real problem arises, as I sought to outline in Pt. 1 and Pt. 2 of this review, when these two tendencies are combined.  If you want to raise the stakes and condemn the mainstream of Christian practice and teaching for abandoning the way of Christ, this might be unfair or inappropriate, but if your terms are clear and your arguments incisive, you can at least prompt a fruitful debate and discussion.  On the other hand, if you write an ordinary work about theology or Christian living, and don’t define your terms all that well and lapse into occasional contradictions, readers might not gain that much from the book, but at least others may be encouraged to try and refine your arguments to more fruitful ends.  But if you raise the stakes—God vs. Mammon, the way of salvation vs. the way of destruction—and at the same time, indulge in constant equivocation, then the result can hardly be edifying.

PrintTo be sure, as a destructive takedown of contemporary American bloodlust and militarism, some of Jones’s polemics obliquely hit home; though for a somewhat clearer and more useful rendition of this, readers might simply skip to chapter 17, “American Mars.”  But aside from the general sense that many of us American Christians might be compromised by too permissive an embrace of the ways of war and violence, and that we might do well to take more seriously Christ’s blessing of “the peacemakers, it is,” readers are given very little which they can use, and quite a bit that they could readily abuse.

Don’t get me wrong.  None of this is to “dismiss Jesus” or the idea that we need to take a good, long, hard look at our attitudes toward violence.  Few Christians, perhaps, have given serious thought to what it means to love enemies (whether on the battlefield or in their personal lives), or wrestled earnestly with the ethics of war.  While I have, after much wrestling and questioning, settled fairly securely into just war camp, I have great respect for sincere and thoughtful pacifists, and have read with profit and appreciation the writings of Yoder and Hauerwas on this subject, as well as the just-war theories of Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan. Read More