D.A. Carson Defends British Christianity

Anyone who hasn’t had their head in the ecclesial sand has probably heard a thing or two about the kerfuffle caused by Mark Driscoll’s dismissive denunciation of British churches as full of “cowards” in a recent radio interview here in the UK.  Driscoll’s attack on UK Christianity followed similar lines to those favored among the Christian Right in America—the churches over here are dying because they’re wimpy and womanish, and they need to man up, stop wearing robes, and start speaking out without worrying about how offensive they’re being.  As an American Christian in the UK, this kind of attitude has often disheartened me.  I mean, let’s not deny the fact—much of the Church here is in shambles, and a few godly courageous men could make a world of difference.  But sensitivity is not an un-Christian trait, and perhaps only an American could be brash enough to think that being wilfully insensitive is a good way to make UK Christians less sensitive and therefore, apparently, more Gospel-preaching.  

So I was very encouraged to read this essay by D.A. Carson today (thanks to Peter Escalante for the link), in response (but very obliquely and judiciously) to Driscoll’s accusations.  Carson patiently points to the impossibility of generalizing about the UK as a whole, and to many of the really excellent things that are going on in portions of the UK church.  And he ends with a powerful and much-needed reminder that faithfulness is not measured by success.  A church can be faithful, courageous, and shrinking, and if this is the case, it needs all our admiration and support, not contempt.  “We must not equate courage with success, or even youth with success. We must avoid ever leaving the impression that these equations are valid. I have spent too much time in places like Japan, or in parts of the Muslim world, where courage is not measured on the world stage, where a single convert is reckoned a mighty trophy of grace.”

Finally, he reminds us that, even where rebuke is needed, “the Jesus who can denounce hypocritical religious leaders in Matthew 22 is also the one of whom it is said, “He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”  

How to Make Conferences Less Awkward…by Not Trying

I’ve been away at the Society for the Study of Theology Conference with no internet for a few days, and I am now emerging, having been inspired in the meantime to write this little (firmly tongue-in-cheek) satire.  This post may only make sense to those of you who have regularly gone to academic conferences (though admittedly, the same phenomena often appear in other more mundane academic settings), indeed, perhaps only those who have regularly gone to British academic conferences.  One has the sense that the vices (or misplaced virtues) I am about to deplore are a particular affliction of the British people, with their penchant for uncomfortable politeness.  

The goal of an academic conference, you see, is to facilitate the free exchange of academic ideas with the minimum discomfort for all those involved.  We come, we sit, we listen, we ask polite questions; then we take our turns at the podium to boost our CVs, while everyone else listens and asks polite questions.  Ideas are gently expressed, gently prodded, and gently defended.  Everyone goes home enriched and intact.  Sounds great, right?

The problem is that this is all built upon a myth–the myth that all ideas are created equal–have equal value, equal coherence, deserve an equal hearing.  And ultimately, most people at these conferences do not buy this myth.  We must publicly pretend we believe it, pretending to be unfazed in the presence of a an idea that is hardly worthy of the name, but privately, we are painfully aware of its falsity.  Before we were academics, after all, we were humans.  And a human being can detect awkwardness the way a shark can detect blood–we have a built-in satellite dish to detect when someone is absolutely blowing it.  In normal social settings, we have built-in damage-control mechanisms–someone interrupts, and diverts attention from the epic failure unfolding before our eyes; or perhaps everyone just bursts out laughing, the offender included.  Or, failing all other devices, someone says, “Well, that was awkward,” and once we have named it, we can move past it.  Not so at the academic conference.  We don’t want anyone to feel awkward, so there will be no interrupting, no laughing, no acknowledgment of failure.  We will Stoically continue on, as if nothing had happened. 

But the laws of nature cannot be so easily derailed–the awkwardness still simmers in the air, the room heats up, people shift uncomfortably in their seats and start fidgeting with their smart phones–as soon as the session ends, everyone bolts for the door in relief.  So, I suggest that for academic conferences, to help us get past this awkwardness, we need to stop hiding from it and embrace it.  Let’s be rude.  Let’s sacrifice the dignity of one or two for the greater good.  I have three scenarios, that any of you conference junkies know all too well, any of which could be solved if “moderators” would actually moderate, would be willing to interrupt and shut people up, or even end the session early, instead of sitting there like dumb sheep.


Scenario 1:
The Mini-lecture as “Question”

You all know this one.  You know this one from freshman year at college, in fact, or, if you went to school with me, from 7th grade.  But guess what?  Senior academics still do it. 

The lecture ends.  Everyone applauds politely.  The moderator opens the floor for questions, and points to the first person to raise their hand.  They stand up, and begin to talk.  And they continue to talk, and to talk.  They cite a half-dozen of their favorite scholars, they tell you a bit about their own research.  They tell the speaker repeatedly of the impressions they had of what the speaker was trying to do.  At several points, they pause for breath, and the main speaker thinks they are now being given the opportunity to respond–to either affirm or deny that those impressions are correct.  But after a single stuttering syllable, the main speaker is silence again, by the resumed tirade of the “questioner.”  Unable to get a word in edgewise, the main speaker resorts to facial expressions and gestures to try to signal his response to the questioner.  The audience watches impotently, while the moderator, banned by the laws of politeness from actually moderating anything, looks on in self-imposed impotence.  At last the questioner concludes, though only occasionally in a sentence that could legitimately be written with a question mark.  Unfortunately, this rarely constitutes the end of the encounter, as such a questioner is unlikely to let the speaker go without a follow-up.  

We can only assume that these “questions” must result, more often than not, from people who submitted paper proposals, and were rejected. Wanting to heal their wounded pride and assert that they too have enough worthwhile thoughts to give a lecture of their own, they take the Q&A session as an opportunity.  Perhaps then we ought to provide empty rooms during the conference in which all rejected paper proposers could air their ideas to anyone or no one willing to listen.

Scenario 2: 
The Q&A disconnect

I’m sure you’ve all experienced this one too.  Someone raises their hand, and stands up to ask a question, that usually begins with something like, “Thanks, that paper was really interesting…it sorta reminded me of [insert completely unrelated text or field of discourse here].  I wondered if you might comment on that.”  Or sometimes, the question is more focused than that, but the end result is the same–the main speaker clearly has no idea what is being asked.  But he tries to answer anyway.  He flails desperately about with generalities, hoping to stumble by chance on what the questioner was getting at, and then concludes, “Does that answer your question?”  Invariably, it does not.  The questioner follows up, often in what seems a completely different direction from the original question, and the speaker tries again, but comes no nearer.  The exchange drags on and on, with both interlocutors sliding further and further into incoherence, or else speaking at complete cross-purposes, while everyone else looks on, ears reddening in embarrassment.  Again, the moderator remains in his self-imposed impotence.  Finally, the speaker mercifully decides to give up on the interchange, and looks frantically about for another questioner, who is usually happy to oblige, to free us all from the torture.  


Scenario 3:
The Epic Fail

Don’t tell me you’ve never been in that paper.  The paper where the speaker clearly had no idea what they were talking about.  Maybe they’d never presented at a conference before, maybe they had a flattering supervisor who wouldn’t tell them how badly off they really were, who knows?  It’s reminiscent, perhaps, of some of those auditions from American Idol they used to love to show on TV–where someone walks in, convinced they have a lovely baritone, and proceeds to give a good impression of a screech owl.  At conferences, it’s not always so immediately obvious.  We are generous people after all, we academics, ready to give the benefit of the doubt.  Perhaps we simply didn’t understand what the speaker was trying to do.  Perhaps it was our fault, not theirs.  Perhaps a few well-placed questions will elicit more clearly the point they were trying to make, and it will prove a profound one. 

Or not.  Instead, what happens is that the questions reach out, groping, into a vacuum.  There is nothing there.  Follow-up questions close in on the victim, not like buzzards ready to devour, but rather like lifeguards, to try to rescue him and give him some opportunity to redeem himself, but they only worsen the problem.  He flounders and sinks.  His answers become more and more repetitive and platitudinous; sometimes he indulges in long digressions about only tangentially related subjects to fill the void and to make the clock go by faster.  The audience too is looking at the clock.  After all, we’re not ancient Romans.  We didn’t come to watch a slow death in the gladiatorial ring.  We want out.  We don’t want to watch the implosion, but we are forced to, for there is nothing else to watch.  At last, the session ends, and everyone runs for the door, with a silent pact amongst us not even to mention the lecture amongst ourselves henceforth–the memory is too painful.  The presenter, often as not, steps out still fixed in their delusion that they delivered a solid paper, since no one was ever willing to say anything otherwise.

So one of these days, I would like to go to a conference where the moderator was not afraid to stand up and say, “Ok, that’s enough.  You have nothing to say.  It’s no reason to be offended, it happens to the best of us–all of us have large air pockets in our heads, and it is likely that sooner or later, we will open our mouths and nothing of substance will come out.  That, my friend, is what is happening to you now, and it’s best that we saved both you and ourselves from enduring it any longer.”  Or we could just all agree to laugh.  If everyone understood that that was the procedure, we could carry on, shake it off, and enjoy a conference freed from gratuitous awkwardness. 

Bombs over Benghazi

I concluded my post on Thursday by reflecting that we had no right to blame God for the deaths of tens of thousands in Japan’s tsunami as long as we went around screwing up the world in manifest acts of evil on our own account.  Alas, I had no idea those words would prove so immediately relevant.  On Friday, following a frenetic month-long media blitz to convince us that Gaddafi was an evil war criminal exterminating his own people and must be stopped, the US, Britain, and France achieved their ambition–a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate cease-fire or else our militaries would act to impose a “no-fly zone” in Libya to prevent airstrikes on civilians.  The cease-fire was immediately announced, but somehow two days later here we are not merely having established a no-fly zone, but having proceeded immediately to bombing soldiers, convoys, and according to many reports, plenty of civilians of our own. 

How on earth could we be pulled into this madness again so easily?  With the bitter taste of the Great Iraq Deception and its disastrous effects still in the mouths of the UK and US public, with the memory of the shameless propaganda that led up to it and our shameful capitulation to it still so fresh, how could we possibly let this happen again?  Back then, I was young and stupid, and I bought the warmongering hook, line, and sinker…now I know it what it must’ve felt like for the few who kept their senses back then and watched as the godlessness unfolded around them–angry, confused, helpless.


I had hoped that the one good effect of this disaster in Japan would be that the 24/7 media propaganda bombardment about Libya would let up, our focus would shift temporarily to a clear-cut humanitarian disaster, and we would then be able to reassess the Libyan situation with fresh eyes, and ears that were not deafened by the warmongering shouts.  But amazingly, even with whole cities leveled and a historic nuclear disaster, the distraction of Japan managed to last less than a week.  Within a few days, the Western leaders had regrouped from the public-relations setback and managed to force Libya back onto centre-stage, supplanting a massive humanitarian disaster unfolding in broad daylight in desperate need of aid resources with one as yet almost entirely undocumented.  

In the days and weeks leading up to the UN decision, all we heard about, it seemed, was a “no-fly zone” that would be established–patrolling Libya’s airspace, and bombing its airfields if necessary.  I wondered how this was going to do anything more than drag out the conflict a few extra days, since most of Libya’s strength lay in its ground forces, and apparently the Western leaders thought so too.  The “no-fly zone,” it seems, was a red herring all along; the resolution surreptitiously inserted the ominous “by all means necessary” clause and within 24 hours, the action escalated beyond a no-fly zone to full-scale war, and infliction of mass casualties–bombing convoys, etc.

Even the Arab League, which had lobbied so strongly for intervention, was appalled, with its president Amr Moussa immediately denouncing the violence that had been unleashed, saying, “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone, and what we want is the protection of civilians and not the bombardment of more civilians.”  If even one of the leaders calling for an attack was as taken aback at the scale of it as I was, this suggests deliberate deception of Western citizens by their leaders about what was being contemplated.  

It’s sadly ironic that this intervention is being done in the name of freedom and democracy, when a crucial pillar of democracy is the ability of citizens to take part in key decision-making, such as the declaration of war, and that democratic process has been entirely bypassed in this situation.  We have effectively declared war on Libya, and yet the American people were in no way consulted, nor the British.  This decision was made by politicians and diplomats behind closed doors, and authorized by a body that cannot boast a shred of democratic election.  Who are the real dictators in this story?


Perhaps the story we’ve been hearing is all true, perhaps a slaughter of epic proportions would’ve unfolded if we haven’t intervened, perhaps this is all urgently necessary, and has been carefully and wisely considered (certainly I appreciate that for once the US was dragging its heels rather than pounding the war-drum, at least until late last week).  But I just cannot feel confident that we are the shining white knights of this story. While avoiding conspiracy theory explanations (although this is one situation where such explanations are disturbingly plausible), I want to raise a few pointed questions about the official narrative:  


 1. Is Gaddafi really a brutal dictator, hated by his people?

While I’m not wanting to suggest that Gaddafi is Santa Clause or anything, he hardly seems to be a murderous fiend like many of the dictators we’ve seen in the 20th century.  Such fiends, for one thing, rarely manage to stay in power for 43 years.  Such fiends rarely govern countries with the highest literacy rates and per capita incomes, and the lowest poverty rates in their region, as Gaddafi does.  Libya, for all its unfreedoms, is certainly not quite the dystopia that it’s been painted as.  And the fact that thousands of Libyans have been spontaneously showing their support for the regime in the last month, and even now many are tweeting their support for Gaddafi, testifies to the fact that many, at least, consider him a good leader.  Indeed, in recent years, the Western powers had warmed up to Gaddafi, acknowledging that the worst of his human rights abuses were well behind him.  All that seems forgotten now, and the media has painted this as a situation of universal opposition to a bloodthirsty tyrant, who is clinging to power only by brute force, with the aid of mercenaries and the secret police.  But the facts on the ground simply don’t seem to bear that out.  If he was that bad, one would have expected the protests to become more and more insistent and universal, gathering momentum until the regime crumbled, as in Egypt and Tunisia.  Instead, resistance has seemed to center on a specific group of armed rebels, rather than mass civilian protests.  What we seem clearly to have here is a situation of genuine internal division over what’s best for Libya–Gaddafi or the rebels–not a situation of a lone tyrant massacring innocent protesters.  And if it is the former, rather than the latter, outside intervention is much more dangerous, both morally and practically.  


2. How much was he really murdering civilians?

The claim that Gaddafi was targeting and killing civilians has been repeated over and over, more and more shrilly and dramatically, until we’ve heard rhetoric like “Gaddafi is exterminating his own people.”  But the evidence for it has remained quite slim indeed.  Very little has even been brought forward, much less verified.  The key allegation that the West has made has centered on Gaddafi’s use of aircraft to bomb the opposition–even this is not clearly an attack on “civilians,” since the opposition are very much armed.  But Russian sources contested even this claim, insisting that they had no evidence for the airstrikes alleged.  The International Institute for Strategic Studies have acknowledged that Gaddafi is in fact probably taking careful pains not to kill civilians.  He may well be–don’t get me wrong.  I’d just like to see some much more careful and objective documentation.  


3. Why intervene in Libya, specfically?

Let’s assume the worst–a tyrannical regime, determined to cling to power, massacring unarmed civilians.  Hm…you mean like the one in Bahrain, where they’ve called in military assistance from neighboring countries to use against their own people?  Or the one in Yemen, where they massacred dozens of unarmed protesters on Friday?  What’s so different about those two countries, that they get off scot-free, and Libya becomes the focus of a non-stop international outcry, followed by a bombing campaign?  The main difference seems to be that Bahrain and Yemen are crucial US allies, while Gaddafi has been a thorn in the West’s side for years (and not always as the bad guy, either).  

Or how about the massacres going on in the Ivory Coast over the past couple weeks?  Or did you even know they happened?  For whatever reason, the Western media doesn’t care about the Ivory Coast.  And that’s because Western leaders don’t care about the Ivory Coast.  Or to push it back, how about the Congo or Rwanda?  Millions of innocent civilians were raped and murdered, and we stood by and did nothing, and did our best to turn a blind eye to it all?  If all we care about is really protecting civilians, how come only civilians on top of oil fields owned by US enemies seem valuable enough to protect?  Again, perhaps this is necessary, but I’d like a clear explanation of why such a double-standard is appropriate.


 4. What’s up with this cease-fire?

Is it just me or did the Libyans not immediately acquiesce to the international demand for a cease-fire?  There were reports Saturday morning that they’d violated it–that an opposition plane had been shot down over Benghazi or something.  But if they announced a cease-fire, isn’t it worth taking a couple days and doing some careful observation and investigation to see if they’re keeping their word?  As it was, the bombing plans simply went right ahead as if they’d just decided to give the UN the finger.  Then, this evening, another cease-fire was announced.  Without any pause whatsoever to see if it was for real, to see if Gaddafi was going to make good on it, we continued bombing.  This seems to me a direct violation of the laws of war.  If someone raises the white flag, you quit shooting.  If they then then grab a hand grenade and start to lob it at you anyway, that’s another matter, but you have a duty to at least give them a chance.


5. Do the rebels even want help?

I’ve read some articles, and some tweets coming out of Libya, suggesting that even those in the rebellion, even those who hate the regime, want the West to stay out of it.  Either they don’t trust the West (who can blame them?) or else they just want to do it on their own.  Presumably they feel like a losing basketball team, that would rather lose if they can’t miraculously win on their own, rather than having a thug go into the opposing team’s locker room at half-time and break all their shins.  There may be situations where intervention is ethically justified even when unasked for, but they are few and fraught with political and practical dangers.  


6. So why might this be happening?

All of this just doesn’t add up.  One doesn’t have to be a cynic or a conspiracy theorist to suspect ulterior motives from Sarkozy, Cameron, Obama, et. al.  So what might they be?  Three suggest themselves–here they are in order from most cynical to least cynical: a) Oil.  Whatever you think about Iraq, one can’t deny that oil seems to be awfully mixed up in a lot of the Western military and diplomatic aggression over recent decades.  Libya is a huge oil producer, and Gaddafi’s policies keep a lot of the oil money within the country, through the National Oil Corporation.  That’s part of the reason for the very low poverty in Libya.  But it’s also a reason for ExxonMobil, BP, Total, and the politicians they have in their pockets to really dislike Gaddafi.  I’m not sayin’, I’m just sayin’.  b) Quelling Arab protests.  It has been jolly inconvenient for Washington in recent months that Arabs throughout the Middle East have decided to start listening to all our rhetoric about freedom and democracy and have employed it against leaders who were loyal allies of Washington, however brutal they might’ve been to their own people.  Caught between a rock and a hard place, the West has been unable to intervene to prop up ailing dictator-allies.  How does Libya help?  Well, if the West can be seen coming in on the side of rebels to take down a dictator, suddenly all the freedom-fighting ceases to be an anti-Western gesture, as it has been in several cases.  The Arab citizens can’t think of their rebellions as knocking down Western puppets–they’ll be afraid they’re just going to be used as Western puppets themselves.  Takes some of the wind out of their sails.  c) Declining popularity.  This is the most likely part of the explanation, though it may well not be the whole explanation.  Military intervention, especially against supposed tyrants, is a guaranteed way to shift public attention away from problems at home and to make maligned leaders look tough, decisive, and morally passionate.  David Cameron, who has been under more fire than any of the major leaders in recent months as Britain has suffered from devastating (though perhaps necessary) budget cuts, was in a similar position to Margaret Thatcher on the eve of the Falklands War.  He may have recalled just how much that war helped her popularity and helped her push through her economic agenda, and decided that another war might be just the trick.  Obama, too, would be merely one in a long line of American presidents who have used foreign military adventures to distract from economic malaise at home and reverse declining approval ratings (Andrew Bacevich has been particularly keen on identifying this pattern in his books).  It can only be hoped that this ill-conceived crusade will backfire and bring public ire down on these snakes.  I can certainly attest that it has destroyed my respect for both Cameron and Obama, both of whom I’ve many times attempted to defend against their detractors.  


I may be proved wrong in all this.  It may well be that this intervention is completely necessary, completely well-intentioned, and completely effective.  Indeed, I pray that I will be proved wrong.  But the signs sure don’t look good so far.

(Note: I’ll try to edit this post later and insert some links to a few of the stories I’ve been reading.  For now, this article by Owen Jones is well-worth looking at, as are this discussion on CNN and this article from the BBC).

Red Tory Blues

Concreteness and relevance are this book’s greatest strengths and its greatest weaknesses.

Allow me to explain.

Most books from Christian theologians these days (perhaps this term is a stretch in Blond’s case, but as John Milbank himself is rumored to have been the ghost-writer for the meatier core of the book, it is probably apropos) seeking to engage the problems of modern politics and economics with a “third way” that eschews both statism and free-marketism, reasserting a holistic, mutualist, communitarian and ethical kind of human society (and such books are perhaps a dime a dozen these days), suffer from a glaring lack of concreteness. It is effortless for critics to dismiss them, labeling them pie-in-the-sky fantasies that offer no substantive engagement with real-world political realities and no plausible and concrete policy solutions. Such criticisms, I should hasten to add, are more often than not quite unfair, because such concreteness is not always possible or even desirable, at least not the kind of concreteness the critics want. Nevertheless, the critics do have a point. 

Blond’s book, however, is ironclad against such criticism. It is nothing if not concrete. It is aimed squarely at the problems facing Britain in 2010, not “modern society” in general, and it backs up its diagnosis of the problems with an overwhelming dollop of statistics and examples on almost every page. Nor is Blond content (as are so many of the books in the aforementioned genre) with a single slim chapter at the end venturing some “practical solutions” or “blueprints for change”–the whole last half of the book is dedicated to outlining a thorough and specific policy agenda to remedy the problems described in the first half. This latter half is particularly concrete, delving into the minutia of British local-government policy and the inner workings of various bureaucracies and outlining new structures that could be created.

Needless to say, this kind of concreteness was at times rather tiresome even to an American as disenchanted with his homeland and enchanted with Britain as myself. I really had no idea how most of these branches of British bureaucracy worked, and I really couldn’t bring myself to care half the time, much as I tried. This is, of course, why the book took me eight months to read–the majority of that time was spent very slowly picking away at the latter half of the book, which often seemed only very indirectly relevant to Americans or “Red Tory” sympathizers more broadly. The first half of the book, on the other hand, contained (especially in the Introduction) some fascinating critiques of the symbiotic relationship between the ubiquitous state and the liberated free market, critiques of great interest to any citizens whose countries have been infected with the malaise of corporatocracy in the last three decades.  However, even this section was frustrating at times for the sheer volume of statistics that Blond kept pulling out of his hat. We all remember what Mark Twain said about statistics, and even if our society and our politicians are obsessed with them, I don’t see that we should cater to the obsession as obsequiously as Blond does. 

The other great strength of this book is “relevance.” Too many books in the aforementioned genre, for all their wonderful theologizing, are simply inaccessible to a world of politicians and economists that does not share the theological assumptions. Now, that’s no reason to stop doing the theology, or to dumb down our thinking to the secularists’ level, but we do need someone who can translate a diagnosis of the problems and a stab at some possible solutions into terms that the wider world can readily grasp and act on. Blond meets this need, and writes a book distilling many of the concerns and ideas of Radical Orthodoxy (a theological movement all about the need for explicitly theological language) into completely non-religious terms, terms accessible to average policy-makers and even average citizens. 

However, it should come as no surprise that a great deal is lost in such translation. The intentional absence of theological language or explicit Christian commitment in this volume (though it was readily discernible just beneath the surface at many points) gave the whole thing an air of studied vagueness, appealing to platitudinous terms like “community,” “character,” “empowerment,” “justice,” etc. Not only is that frustratingly vacuous at times, but it’s just stylistically annoying too. 

Of course, in the end, the gravest doubt one must express about Red Tory is whether, for all its concessions to be relevant and concrete, it achieves its goal of being realistic. Blond believes (or claims to believe) that there is still enough residual sense of virtue and longing for community in England’s green and pleasant land that, if only the government would stop carelessly trampling out its last vestiges, civic virtue and reciprocal community would spring up anew, bright and promising. But based on what I’ve seen in 15 months here, I am tempted to think that, from a worldly perspective at least, this country is too far gone. The state and the market’s ambition to atomise society into unprincipled, aimless, detached individuals has almost run its course and I’m not sure that course can be reversed, save by an act of God. Which is, of course, why theology, not politics or economics, will have to shoulder the burden.