Friday, July 03, 2015

The Reformation as Slipppery Slope: The Benedict Option for Evangelicals

The Reformation as slippery slope: impetus increases with distance?

This is what happens when you combine the "authority of the word" with a nominalist metaphysic: individual conscience and experience become the ultimate authority.
I wonder if the only way "this real person" can "come from outside ourselves" is if there is a body/church/institution strong enough to resist the corrosion of a culture that has sold out to this worldly philosophy. Such a body would presuppose a realist metaphysic. At this point, IMO the only groups that have a track record of success in resisting nominalism throughout the centuries are the Catholics and the Orthodox. Is the time soon coming where the only way to remain a faithful evangelical is to embrace Catholicism or Orthodoxy? I wonder....

The Benedict Option for Evangelicals

The Gospel as External Authority by Phillip Cary

In the wake of Obergefell, I expect we'll be talking for quite some time about the “Benedict Option” Rod Dreher is proposing. At least I hope so. I'd like to see how it might work, for evangelical Protestants as well as for Roman Catholics.
The Catholic challenge seems clear: if the way forward depends on intentional communities of Christian formation rather like Benedictine monasteries, then what shall we hope for from the parishes located, as it were, outside the monastery walls? What is the task of a parish priest and other leaders in a congregation with many members who are passive or active supporters of a cultural regime that does not understand marriage, the sacredness of human life, or the value of religious liberty?

Evangelical Protestants in America face a similar problem, which is especially evident in their youth. The next generation is more likely to side with the new regime than their parents are. This poses a mortal challenge to the predominant strategy for retaining the youth in growing evangelical churches: get them involved in an emotionally powerful youth group and convince them that the experiences they have there are a great thing they can only have with Jesus. The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.

It's a tough competition to win, and the momentum is now clearly on the side of the opposing team. The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They've adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience. Today's evangelical Christians are taught to find God by listening for the voice of the Spirit in their hearts. My students typically think this is what it means to know God. This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us. If the true God is the God of our experience, then why can't the voice of liberated desire be the Spirit of God?

Something crucial drops out of our religious experience when we make the theological turn to experience. We fail to learn from external authority, which is to say the authority of an Other. Americans are not good with external authority, and American evangelicals have for quite some time been quietly dropping—in practice though not in theory—their old love affair with the authority of Holy Scripture. They are trying to be “personal” in a way that ends up losing the sense that God is a real person who comes to us from outside our own lives. They forget the old Protestant conviction that Christ comes to us in the external word of the Gospel, as a Bridegroom promising himself to his Bride.

In our common efforts to learn how to do Christian formation under the new regime, evangelicals could do other Christians a great service by reigniting their love for the authority of this word, knowing that the Beloved we seek is found in our hearts only when he is first found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Only when we love the authority of this Other, this real person who comes to us from outside ourselves, will we find ourselves glad to obey his commandments.

Phillip Cary is professor of philosophy at Eastern University.

Tyler Franke's "10 Questions No Young Earth Creationist Can Answer"

Most debates between young-earth creationists and those who accept evolution go something like this:

E: Rargh, I am a scary evolutionist! Prepare to be crushed beneath the weight of my mighty evidence and properly utilized scientific principles!
C: Not so fast, Mr. Evolutionist! Or should I say, “EVIL-lutionist”?! For, behold, I have this! (Holds up a Bible.)
E: Nooooooo! Quotes from the Bible! My only weakness! (Collapses to the ground.)

I had to take out some subtext to simplify things for our purposes, but that’s basically it. As far as most young-earther proponents are concerned, this is a dispute between science on one side and the Bible on the other, and the Bible will always trump science. Period.

Unfortunately for them, this neat little picture is complicated by the fact that there are people who also hold the Bible in extremely high regard, and who have no problem with the fact of evolution or the ancient age of the earth. People like yours truly. And we happen to think the Bible does not support the young-earth creationist view nearly as well as its teachers think it does.

Actually, we think their theology is quite bad. Really quite bad. Really, quite, terribly, awfully, really-are-you-serious-with-this-theology?this-is-actually-what-you-believe?, just horribly, incredibly bad.
That’s why I’ve prepared the following list of questions, painstakingly compiled through my years of intense research working on this site. I hope it sparks some good discussion, but I also hope it illustrates that the young-earth crowd does not have the market cornered on biblical truth like they pretend they do, and that, really, their pie-in-the-sky claims fail on theological grounds, without ever having to get into the finer details of the fossil record or the human genome.

1. What was the point of the tree of life?

The tree of life, so named in Genesis 2:9, is one of the most baffling of the many problems spawned by the literal interpretation of the creation accounts. Literalists often pretend like the purpose of the tree is vague and unclear, but the truth is — unlike many things in Genesis 1-3 — the power possessed by the tree of life isn’t vague at all. Genesis 3:22 makes it abundantly clear: Have a little nibble on the fruit of the tree of life and you live forever. Eat your heart out, diet and exercise.
The tree of life: A marvelous, wonderful creation of God, whose miraculous power served absolutely no purpose.
The tree of life: A miraculous creation of God, whose unique and wondrous power served absolutely no purpose.
This presents a huge problem for the young-earth view, because they believe physical death was not part of God’s original creation. According to them, neither humans nor animals were capable of death, pain or suffering until after Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden. Because, obviously, causing the death of every living thing for all time is a perfectly fair and reasonable punishment for a single act of disobedience.

Of course, this raises the question of why, exactly, did God create a magical tree that grants immortality in a world where every living thing was already immortal? If the young-earth theology is correct, then this tree’s miraculous power served absolutely no useful function until after the fall of man — at which point God barred access to the tree with bad-ass angels and a flaming sword. So why’d he make it in the first place?

And speaking of the tree of life, where is it now? Because, again, God didn’t mulch it at the end of the story. Young-earth proponents maintain it was destroyed in Noah’s flood, but not only does this require exactly the kind of extrabiblical conjecture that makes people like me such “compromisers,” but it also implies the tree of life can die (!), which sort of makes my brain explode a little bit.
"This is the tree of life, which grants immortality to whomever eats of its fruit. Also, it can die if it doesn't get enough sun."
“This is the tree of life, which miraculously grants immortality to whomever eats of its fruit. Also, it can die if it doesn’t get enough sun.”
2. If human sin is the reason animals die, why can’t they be saved?

Let’s recap: young-earth creationists believe all death, even animal death, is a consequence of human sin. Now, ignoring for a moment the fact that the Bible never once actually says animal death is a consequence of human sin (seems significant enough to warrant at least a mention or two, don’t you think?), this creates some pretty problematic theology.
Consider, for example, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” You see where I’m going with this. The young-earth crowd can’t say animals are among those who “die in Adam,” but not among those who “shall be made alive in Christ.”
... but only if they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
… but only if they accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
Of course, no young-earth creationist really believes goats and hamsters and dragonflies can become born-again believers in Jesus, but they can’t have it both ways. Scripture doesn’t allow them to. To argue otherwise is not only to nullify this passage and many others, but also to call into question whether Christ’s sacrifice really addressed the full ramifications and consequences of our sin.
Some may respond to this that 1 Corinthians 15 is just about people, not animals, and I agree, of course. The only problem is that this is one of the very few biblical proof-texts that have ever been offered to justify animal death as a consequence for human sin in the first place. Without them, the doctrine is based on nothing but the assertions of folks like Ken Ham, which — confident and self-assured they may be — aren’t much to go on.

And, really, that’s as it should be. The whole notion of animal death being a “not-good” amendment to God’s perfect original creation is ridiculous on its face, one I suspect always had a lot more to do with “Bambi” and people’s sentimental notions about animals (not to mention providing a simple solution to the problem of natural evil) than it ever had to do with the Bible and what it actually says.
Please, let’s jettison this silly dogma once and for all, and have a purer — and more biblically accurate — faith to present to the world.

3. If physical death is part of the punishment for sin, why do Christians still die?

So at this point, you may be saying, “OK, that’s all well and good about animal death, but what about human death? Because there are definitely verses that say human death came from Adam’s sin.” Fair enough. Let’s look at one of those verses, shall we?

Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.”

Now, look at what the verse is really saying, and don’t — as we are so often tempted to do — neglect the second part: “… death spread to all men, because all sinned.” If this is talking about physical death, then it clearly implies that we don’t become capable of physical death until after we sin, which makes absolutely no sense.

What I believe is that this passage is talking about something different entirely: spiritual death — which is a pretty common theme in scripture as well. Like, for example, just a couple chapters later in Romans, when Paul writes, “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive and I died.”

Since it’s unlikely that Paul was an unusually eloquent zombie when he penned the Book of Romans, it rather obvious that he’s talking about a non-physical type of death here. And, since the two contexts are identical (discussing the consequences of human sin), the same is almost certainly true of Romans 5.
This was not the Apostle Paul when he wrote Romans.
This was not the Apostle Paul when he wrote Romans.
But there are more insidious implications of this notion that physical death is part of the punishment for human sin. Central to the Christian faith is the idea that Jesus “paid it all,” that his sacrifice was fully sufficient to atone for our sin, remove the punishment that was due us, and reconcile us back into a right relationship with God.

The only problem is that every single Christian who has ever lived has also died. Which has to make you wonder how that’s possible, if physical death was part of the punishment for human sin and Jesus paid the full sum of our punishment with his death on the cross. Fact is, they can’t both be true. Either Christ’s sacrifice was not sufficient to cover all the consequences of our transgressions (which throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the past 2,000 years of Christian theology and tradition), or death just isn’t one of those consequences.

Personally, I side with the latter. I believe God “appointed” that man should die once, not as a punishment, but as an inherent part of the current created order and a symbol of what’s to come — when that order is ultimately done away with.

4. Why was Eve named “mother of life”?

Immediately after Genesis 3:17-19, which is when God “curses” mankind, Adam names his wife Eve. And when I say “immediately after,” I mean, literally, the very next verse. This is significant, because the curse is the part of the Bible that young-earth creationism proponents cite as the genesis (geddit?) for all death and illness and disorder and pretty much any bad thing that’s ever happened (even though, again, the Bible says nothing remotely like that).

Genesis 3:20 explains that Adam chose the name “Eve” for his previously anonymous wife because she “was the mother of all (the) living/life.” The name comes from the Hebrew Ḥawwāh, meaning “living one” or “source of life,” and is related to ḥāyâ, “to live.” I don’t know about you, but it just seems slightly odd (not to mention a little insensitive) that Adam would name his wife “source of life” immediately after she had supposedly just been responsible for cursing the entire universe with death, suffering and misery for the rest of time.
Maybe Adam thought "Royal-screw-up-who-is-responsible-for-the-death-of-everyone" was too much of a mouthful.
Maybe Adam thought “Royal-screw-up-who-is-responsible-for-the-death-of-everyone” was too much of a mouthful.
I mean, I know Adam may not have been the smartest guy in the world (he needed supernatural revelation to realize he was in his birthday suit, after all), but give him a little credit.
And, while we’re on the subject…

5. How did Adam and Eve know what death was?

When God first commands Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge, he warns him what the punishment will be for disobedience: “You will surely die.” The woman hadn’t been made yet at this point in the story, but based on her reference to the penalty during her conversation with the serpent, we can assume the message got passed along in some fashion.

The confusing thing about this is, how did Adam and Eve know what death was? You know, considering the fact that they had just been molded into existence earlier that same day, and were living in a world in which there was no such thing as death. You ever try explaining death to a small child? It’s very difficult. You ever try explaining death to a one-day-old child? It’s even harder.
"Hey, wake up, kid. Daddy's gotta explain you what death is all about."
“Hey, wake up, kid. Daddy’s gotta explain you what death is all about.”
Now, to be fair, groups like AiG have tried to answer this one before. Using their X-trabiblical Vision™, that superpower common to young-earth creationists which gives them the ability to know what God’s word says about things that aren’t actually in God’s word, they reveal that Adam was a super-genius who would’ve known everything there is to know about death simply from hearing the word.

But again, a guy who’s not with it enough to tell that he’s naked doesn’t really inspire confidence that he’s capable of grasping complicated abstract ideas. When God dropped a supposedly foreign concept like death on him, I’m pretty sure the dude would have had some questions.
Like, “What is that,” for example.
Along those same lines…

6. If the punishment for eating from the tree was that Adam and Eve would physically die … why didn’t they physically die?

At first glance, you might be confused by this question. You may be thinking, “Wait a minute. The Bible says they would die, and they did die. What’s the problem?”
Well, the thing is, there’s a little more to it than that. The Bible doesn’t just say they would die, it says they would die “in the day” that they disobeyed. And, fortunately, we know from the literalists that the word “day” in the Genesis creation accounts can’t mean anything other than an ordinary, 24-hour day.

Only, this is a little confusing, since — according to the story — neither Adam nor Eve actually died the day they ate from the tree of knowledge. We don’t know exactly how old Eve was when she shuffled off this mortal coil, but Adam lived to the ripe old age of 930. Now, I’m no mathematician, but I’m fairly certain 930 years is a lot longer than a 24-hour day. And I’m not aware of any coroner who begins his investigation into the cause of death by asking about fruit the deceased may have eaten 900 years prior.

God: You should have seen your face. Oh man! Oh, that was classic. Woman: Oh. [laughing] I really thought I was gonna die. Michael: Oh, really? Pam: Yeah. 'Cause you said I would...
God: You should have seen your face. Oh man! Oh, that was classic.
Woman: Oh. [laughing] I really thought I was gonna die.
God: Oh, really?
Woman: Yeah. ‘Cause you said I would…
The young-earthers have all sorts of creative ways they attempt to avoid this rather obvious discrepancy. A common one is to assert that, in this very special case, maybe the word “day” does refer to a long, indeterminate period of time (even though the people God was talking to clearly understood that the effects would be immediate, such that the woman feared she would die from simply touching the fruit).

My personal favorite is this delightful little exercise in hand-wavery: “(After eating the fruit,) Adam and Eve began to die.”

Ha! “Began to die” — isn’t that great? Setting aside for now that that’s, you know, not what the Bible says (it doesn’t say “begin to die,” it says ”die” — “surely die,” as a matter of fact), what does that even mean? Because as far as I can tell, the definition of “beginning to die” is no different than “being alive.”

Which makes it pretty useless as far as I’m concerned. When any human being older than a zygote qualifies as having “begun to die,” I think the phrase has pretty much lost all meaning as a concept.
So what was God talking about in Genesis 2:16-17? I think the only interpretation that makes sense is the only one that made sense of Romans 5 and 7 earlier in this post: spiritual death.
Humans did not physically die the first time we disobeyed God, nor did we lose the immortality we supposedly enjoyed (for a few minutes, anyway) after our original creation. What happened was that we died spiritually, because our decision to sin severed us from our spiritual source of life — God. Faith in Christ is our one hope of restoring that connection, and restoring that connection is our one hope of eternal life, because our spirit — not our physical bodies — is the only part of us that can live forever.

7. Can you name any other piece of literature in which the existence of a talking snake and trees with magical powers would suggest to you that it was meant to be taken literally?

This one is funny, because when you start discussing the proper interpretation of Genesis with young-earth creationists, they tend to refer to contextual clues a lot. To give just one example, this piece, which goes to hilarious lengths to compare the use of the Hebrew “yom” (“day”) to the 2,282 other Old Testament uses of the word.

Somehow, in this author’s detailed analysis of the use of ordinal numbers in conjunction with “yom,” he managed to miss out on a couple of fairly significant contextual clues, like, I dunno, the freaking snake that is TALKING TO PEOPLE. Because I actually just completed a survey of 6,842 stories that feature talking animals, and — wouldn’t you know it — none of them were history.

Then you have the trees whose fruit bear obvious magical properties, which happens to be another astoundingly common theme in one particular type of writing: fiction writing.

Librarian 1: "Hey, what category do I list this book under?" Librarian 2: "It's got a lot of talking animals in it. Better file it under non-fiction."
Librarian 1: “Hey, what category do I list this book under?”
Librarian 2: “It’s got a lot of talking animals in it. Better place it in non-fiction.”
Some young-earthers have responded to this with the story of Balaam’s donkey, but unlike in Genesis 3, the donkey’s ability to talk is explicitly described as a miraculous act of God. Of course, their exhaustive comparative studies never include Proverbs 3:18 and 13:12, two instances in which the biblical authors revisit the concept of the tree of life — in an obviously figurative context.

8. Why do Genesis 1 and 2 contradict?

I have a much more detailed post on this issue here, so I’ll be brief.
Here is the order of some of the things God made in Genesis 1:
Plants (1:11-13)
Fish and birds, concurrently (1:20-23)
Land animals (1:24-25)
Men and women, concurrently (1:26-27)
Now here’s the order of the same stuff in Genesis 2:
Man (2:7)
Trees (2:9)
Land animals and birds (2:19)
Woman (2:21-22)

Notice any differences? Oh, wait, it’s all different. Now, if these two stories are meant to be theological allegory, as I believe they are, then there’s no issue. But if they are — as the young-earthers insist — historical accounts of the same creation of the same universe, then we have a problem … because they are irreconcilably different.

Some may criticize this question’s inclusion on this list. True, it’s not like young-earthers haven’t tried to answer it before. (Not that they really have a choice — if they can’t even get past the second chapter of Genesis without their literalist exegesis falling apart, they’re in big trouble.) Unfortunately, their explanations are utterly unfaithful to the very story they purport to be defending.

The primary explanation is that the verb in verse 19 (NASB: “Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky…”) should be translated in the past perfect: “had formed.” And indeed this is how some modern translations like the New International Version and the English Standard Version render the verse, even though the only reason to do so is to serve the translator’s underlying theological presuppositions.

Morphosyntactic considerations aside, if you do render the verse 19 verb “had formed,” it kind of completely wrecks the story. Whereas, in the NASB, verse 19 proceeds logically from the preceeding one (18: God says, “I will make a helper suitable for man.” 19: He makes a bunch of helpers), the NIV is hopelessly muddled (18: God says, “I will make a helper suitable for man.” 19: God suddenly reverses course: “Actually, never mind. I forgot I already made all these things. Will any of these work?”).

And don’t forget, this is only one of many problems that the literalistic, young-earth hermeneutic creates. It has to make you wonder: If these really are two literal accounts which are meant to be read as one harmonious history, why do you have to change or ignore so much of what they say to make them harmonize?

9. Why is incest wrong?

Ken Ham claims the most common question he’s been asked is, “Where did Cain get his wife?” Well, consider this the follow-up.

You see, young-earth groups are pretty up-front about where they think Cain’s wife came from: He married his sister. According to the young-earthers, God’s divine plan necessitated that men to procreate with their sisters or mother at least twice: following Noah’s flood and right after our original creation.
Somehow I can't help but question a worldview in which geology must be treated with the utmost caution, but sex with your blood relatives is OK in the proper context.
Somehow I can’t help but question a worldview in which radiometric dating is met with the greatest skepticism, but sex with your blood relatives is OK in the proper context.
Besides being weird and disturbing and more than a little icky, this is problematic because, biblically, incest is repeatedly and consistently described as a sin. It happens to be mentioned in scripture at least as many times as homosexuality, and I think we all know what Ken Ham thinks about that.
So why does incest get a pass?

Two reasons: Because there would “fewer genetic mistakes” the closer the happy couple was to Adam and Eve, and because God hadn’t issued his Mosaic-era prohibitions against incest yet.
Unfortunately, the first defense was arrived at using X-trabiblical Vision™, and since I don’t possess this power, I’m not really qualified to respond.
But the second is — pardon my French — total BS. News flash: According to the young-earthers, God hadn’t issued any commands at this point in history beyond “Don’t eat that fruit,” but it still seemed to be a pretty major party foul when Cain murdered Abel.

"Gee, Cain, I really wish you hadn't done that, but since I didn't specifically tell you not to, I guess it's all right." — God ("Cain Slaying Abel," Peter Paul Rubens)
God: “Gee, Cain, I really wish you hadn’t done that, but since I didn’t specifically tell you not to, I guess it’s all right.” (“Cain Slaying Abel,” Peter Paul Rubens)
So if God’s moral prohibition against murder was in effect before Heston — er, I mean, Moses — laid down the law on Sinai, then so was his moral prohibition against incest. Which makes it pretty unlikely that he would have set up his creation in such a way that it required incest almost immediately, don’t you think?

10. And finally, if it is so vitally important that Christians take Genesis literally, why did Jesus never once instruct us to take Genesis literally?

Sure, it’s an argument from silence. But it’s still worth considering why Jesus — who often addressed Old Testament passages that religious people had a habit of misinterpreting, and surely knew the issue this would one day become in the church. Preventing all that would have been as simple as this:
And again the Pharisees came to test Jesus. “Great teacher,” they said, “there are some who say the creation accounts are like your parables, and not meant to be read as history. What do you say to this?”

And then Jesus replied, giving the exact right answer that would preemptively end decades of harsh debate almost 2,000 years later.

But there’s nothing remotely like that in the gospels. Which proves that, regardless of whose interpretation of Genesis is correct, it doesn’t really matter in the end.
Because, if one particular view of the creation accounts was remotely necessary to the true understanding of Christianity, I’m pretty sure the founder of Christianity would have mentioned it.

Tyler Francke is founder of God of Evolution and author of Reoriented. He can be reached at

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Farewell, Cultural Christianity

Farewell, Cultural Christianity

How a changing landscape can strengthen our witness.

Farewell, Cultural Christianity
Evangelical Christians, of almost all sorts, are a narrative-driven people. Our evangelism often includes personal stories of how we came to meet Christ. Our worship often includes personal “testimonies,” either spoken or sung. To those outside the community, these can seem cloyingly sentimental, and sometimes even manipulative. Even so, those who emphasize the personal nature of knowing Christ often define following Christ in terms of our past, what we’re leaving behind. But even without a spoken testimony, one can often read what an evangelical is walking away from based on what he’s reacting, or over-reacting, to.

Whenever I hear a Christian say that we shouldn’t emphasize the imperatives of Scripture (the commands of God), but rather the indicatives (who we are in Christ), I can predict that, almost every time, this is someone who grew up in an oppressive and rigid legalism. By contrast, when I hear an evangelical Christian wanting to build hedges of rules around the possibility of sin, I can usually guess that this someone was converted out of a morally chaotic background. The Christian who was converted out of a dead, lifeless church often dismisses liturgy as “formalism” and contrasts “religion” with “relationship.” At the same time, one who was converted despite an emotionally exuberant but theologically vacuous church will often seek out the ancient roots and structure of a more liturgically ordered church.

What’s true at the personal level is also true at the movement level. We tend to ping back and forth between extremes—always seeking to avoid the last bad thing. As David R. Swartz points out in his book Moral Minority, The Religious Left of the last generation was, in many ways, a reaction from some sectors of the “Jesus People” era to the empty consumerism and racism and militarism of the post-World War II religious establishments. The old Religious Right was in many ways a reaction to the awful consequences of a real or perceived pietistic withdrawal of some in the church as the country veered into Sexual Revolution and an abortion culture. As we move into a new era, the church in America will seek to correct the course from some aspects of the past. We should simply make sure that we correct in the right way.

Some will see any reframing of Christian public witness as a “pullback from politics” or a withdrawal back into the enclaves. But this is not the case, for several reasons. First of all, it will be impossible. It is one thing for Christianity to correct errors in past forays into the public square: triumphalist expectations, for example, or theatrical panic and paranoia rooted in a victim-status siege mentality. It is quite another to, with silence, constrict the liberty of future generations.

Total disengagement is itself a privilege of a cultural Christendom that is fast passing away.
Total disengagement is itself a privilege of a cultural Christendom that is fast passing away. A church can avoid taking controversial stances on what it means to be human or what it means to be married only so long as the outside culture at least pretends to share the same basic ideals. A church can ignore the culture only until, as the divorce culture did in the past, that culture reshapes the church in a way that obscures the gospel itself. And a church can ignore the state only as long as the state respects the territorial boundaries of Mr. Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” A state that sees some aspects of Christian witness as bigoted and dangerous will not long stay on the other side of that wall.
The primary reason I think evangelicalism will not go wobbly on public engagement is the gospel. In the rising wave of evangelicals, one hears the constant refrain of “gospel focus” and “gospel centrality.” Some might dismiss this as just more evangelical faddishness and sloganeering, and perhaps some of it is. But I think it is far more than that.

The focus on the gospel is tied up with the collapse of the Bible Belt. As American culture secularizes, the most basic Christian tenets seem ever more detached from mainstream American culture. There is, for those who came and will come of age in recent years, no social utility in embracing them. Those who identify with Christianity, and who gather with the people of God, have already decided to walk out of step with the culture. These Christians have already embraced strangeness by spending Sunday morning at church rather than at brunch.

This is leading to a sort of mirror image of the Rapture that the traveling evangelists warned us about. Those who were nominally Christian are suddenly vanished from the pews. Those who wanted an almost-gospel will find that they don’t need it to thrive in American culture. As a matter of fact, cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat released in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.

To understand why this leads to greater engagement rather than to lesser engagement, we must understand what the slow-motion collapse of the Bible Belt is about in the first place. This changes not just the number of unbelievers, but the way that believers themselves think and relate to the outside culture. Philosopher James K. A. Smith, in his book How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, gives the example of an evangelical church-planter relocating from the Bible Belt to a “post-Christian” urban center in the Pacific Northwest. The church planter is equipped to evangelize and make disciples by asking people diagnostic questions about what’s missing in their lives.
A generation or two ago, that might have been what they were trusting in to get to heaven. In more recent years, it would have been what’s missing in order to grant meaning and purpose to their lives. The central issue isn’t that the church planter isn’t adequately trained to answer their questions; it’s that they are asking different questions. They do not feel “lost” in the world, and they don’t feel as though they need meaning or purpose. The effective evangelist must engage not only at the level of the answers, but also at the level of the questions themselves.

The same will be true when it comes to the social and political witness of Christianity in a new era. Older generations could assume that the culture resonated with the same “values” and “principles.” They could assume that the culture wanted to conserve their “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Increasingly, the culture doesn’t see Christianity as the “real America.” If Christianity is a means to American values, America can get by without it, because America is learning to value other things.
This is, perhaps counterintuitively, both good for the church and good for the church’s engagement with the outside world. In the 1920s, J. Gresham Machen warned the church his book Christianity and Liberalism not only that bartering away orthodoxy wouldn’t gain the church cultural credibility, but also that the great danger for the church is to see Christianity as a means to some other end. Christianity does indeed build stronger families, he argued, and it does indeed provide an alternative to Marxist ideologies. But if Christianity is embraced as a way to build strong families or assimilate people into American values or fight Communism, it is no longer Christianity but an entirely other religion, one he called “liberalism.”

In the last generation of Christian public engagement, there were some genuine prophets and saints, who called the church out of isolation but constantly warned against a political captivity of the church, a captivity that would tap Christianity of its righteous zeal for the sake of power but would, ultimately, drain it of what every culture finds most troublesome: the exclusivity of Christ.
As American culture changes, the scandal of Christianity is increasingly right up front, exactly where it was in the first century. The shaking of American culture will get us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?” As the Bible Belt recedes, those left standing up for Jesus will be those who, like Simon Peter of old, know how to answer that question. Once Christianity is no longer seen as part and parcel of patriotism, the church must offer more than “What would Jesus do?” moralism and the “I vote values” populism to which we’ve grown accustomed. Good.

Stanley Hauerwas: "We always marry the wrong person"

"Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become "whole" and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.

We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married."

What American Christians Should Be Singing on July 4

Ever wonder why Independence Day is not part of the Church Year?

a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms:
Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.
Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,
and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;
myself I give thee; let thy will be done.>

(this can be sung to the tune, "Finlandia")

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Exterminatrix of Heresy : This is what my family thinks I do.

This is what my family thinks I do.

2) Exterminatrix of Heresy

Jesus gave us Mary to be our spiritual mother (John 19.26-27). She is also the fulfillment of the Woman in Genesis, of whom God made the enemy of the serpent (Genesis 3.15). As Christ’s servant, she does all she can to protect Christ’s faithful from the evil one.



Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Emmanuel: God with Us, even in the midst of storms

Our God is a God of transformation, not transaction.

When God Sleeps through Storms (Lectionary Reflection for Mark 4:35-41)

Flickr Creative Commons by Ben Salter
Flickr Creative Commons by Ben Salter
Proper 7 — Year B – Mark 4:35-41
“Even the wind and the sea obey him,” the awestruck disciples say.
Just minutes before, they had been in the most terrible storm of their lives. Out on the open sea, the storm had threatened to swamp the disciples and their boat. They were terrified. Completely undone and beside themselves at the prospect of capsizing and drowning. They were baling water, wrestling the wind-whipped sails, and hanging on for their lives. 

And Jesus was fast asleep. 

In the stern, his head propped up on a cushion.

Were it not for the crashing waves and shouting disciples, I’m pretty sure you could have heard Jesus snoring.

Finally, the disciples, in terror and exasperation, shout, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”
Jesus wakes and rebukes the wind and commands it to quiet down.

“Peace! Be still,” he says, but I imagine this is as much a rebuke of the disciples as it is at the wind.
We are like the disciples. We want God to calm the wind and seas. We want to shout at God, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you see we are perishing? Don’t you see so many of us — children, even! — have already perished? Wake up, God! Stop sleeping when we need you most!”

Like the disciples, we believe the power — the divine — is in the ability to control things. We assume, like the disciples, that the miracle is in Jesus rebuking and calming the storm.

But if you notice, Jesus only reluctantly uses his power. He doesn’t seem to want to do anything. He wants to keep sleeping! He goes so far as to rebuke his disciples for even asking for his help. He calls them faithless. This storm-calming power isn’t the kind of power Jesus came to demonstrate. Rather, it is the exact kind of power Jesus came in order to give up, to empty himself of. It is the same power he rejects when he refuses to throw himself from the pinnacle when he is tempted in the desert, the same power he turns down when he refuses to kneel before the Adversary, that same superficial power that controls earthly things.

Though we might like it to be, this isn’t a story, I don’t think, about Jesus’ ability to control the weather. He is bothered to perform the miracle and is annoyed, it seems, that his disciples even asked. This is a story, rather, about how little we believe God to be with us in the midst of an overwhelming storm. It’s about how, deep down, maybe we don’t really believe that a God-with-us is actually enough. It’s about how what we really want is a God who is in control. And it is an indictment of the disciples and of us.

I don’t really think the miracle in this story is about Jesus calming the storm and taking control. The miracle in this story is that Jesus was with the disciples in the water-logged and weatherbeaten boat, experiencing the same terrible storm, the same terrible waves, the same terrible danger.
And that alone should have been enough.

God’s power isn’t in the control of creation or of people, but in being in covenant and relationship with them. It isn’t in imposing the divine will or insisting on its own way but in sojourning with us as we fumble around and make our way in the world. God’s power is not in miraculous interventions, pre-emptive strikes in the cosmic war against suffering and evil, but in inviting us to build a kingdom out of love, peace and justice with God. God’s power is not in the obliterating of what is bad in the world, but in empowering us to build something good in this world.

And isn’t this true power? Instead of enforcing control and solutions onto the world, God’s power is revealed in coming alongside us, journeying with us, suffering with us, and even staying with us in the boat when the storms come.

We might find this idea jarring because I think we misunderstand what divine power is. God isn’t in the business of controlling things like the weather, because that isn’t the nature of God’s power. God’s power is something stranger, more paradoxical.
The omnipotence of God isn’t about having all the power. That’s would turn God into a controlling, insecure narcissist.

Rather, the omnipotence of God is in the sharing of power.

God’s power is in the giving up of power, in the act of disarming divine omnipotence in favor of covenant and relationship with creation.

God’s power is in the act of becoming empty (kenosis), in becoming one of us.
In simply getting in the boat with us, in the midst of terrible storms.
Imagine if the disciples had been awestruck not that the winds and seas had obeyed Jesus, but that Jesus had stayed in the boat while the seas raged around them.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Frederica Mathewes-Greene on Orthodoxy, and being a clergy wife

I admire Frederica Mathewes-Greene and the way she has been able to communicate the truth and beauty of Orthodoxy to those of us in the west. We especially have a lot to learn from the East about atonement and resurrection. However, there may come a day when my mother's Alzheimer's Disease visits me; but as of now I am constitutionally unable to "turn my mind off." : ) Not all thinking is doubting. ISTM that while Orthodoxy does a marvelous job with Wonder, it doesn't leave much room for wondering. YMMV.

Lopez: How is life different for a pastor’s wife?

Mathewes-Green: I grew up Roman Catholic, so I never saw a pastor’s wife; it was a role I knew nothing about. When I was in seminary, though, the other seminary wives talked a lot about the tough expectations they would be facing, and the gossip and judgment clergy wives face. I was grateful that I had no experience of that, and was free to try to be a clergy wife in my own way. Over the years I have found it a joyful role, and I give all the credit to my husband. He’s a born pastor. Parishioners like him, and look up to him, and follow his leadership. I think it’s especially telling that so many of his parishioners over the years decided to become pastors themselves. So I can’t say I have suffered at all from the expectations people have of the pastor’s wife, but I think it is because I married a pastor whom congregations love. When we were preparing to enter Orthodoxy, I wondered if there were expectations for the pastor’s wife that I didn’t know about. In Orthodoxy, a priest’s wife has an honorary title (like presbytera in Greek, khouria in Arabic) and is seen as sharing in her husband’s pastoral ministry. So I worried about unknown expectations. I asked a Russian matushka if there was anything people would expect me to do in the parish, and she just couldn’t understand what I was asking. When she finally understood she said, “You just be a Christian! Just pray and be a Christian!” 

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The Mercy of Hell

It's just as Lewis said, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened."  Butler gives us a good way of "locating" hell, and an important distinction between torment and torture.

The Mercy of Hell

The following post is written by my friend Joshua Ryan Butler and it’s the first of three that he’ll write this week. Josh
Joshua Ryan Butler
Joshua Ryan Butler
has written a killer book titled The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War, and I’ve asked him to sum up some of the main points of his book on my blog. A massive thanks to Josh for being willing to do this. Take it away, Josh!

Many people fear hell is a skeleton in God’s closet, an underground torture chamber that makes God look like a sadistic torturer. But I’ve found many people have a caricature of what’s actually happening in the biblical story.
So I’d like to share a few paradigm shifts that have helped me over the years, to see this topic arising from the goodness of God rather than in spite of or contradiction to it.
The Story: Heaven and Earth
We get hell wrong because we get heaven and earth wrong. The following diagram contrasts the problematic way many people talk today with the gospel story.

In the problematic story, we live on earth now but one day we’ll die and God will either send us up to heaven or down to hell. Earth is nowhere in the eternal picture, and heaven and hell become co-equal counterparts competing for our destiny, while hell starts to look like an underground torture chamber.
In the gospel story, however, heaven’s primary counterpart is not hell, but earth. Heaven and earth show up paired together around 200 times in the same verse throughout Scripture (hell virtually never appears this way, paired together with heaven). Heaven and earth are created good by God, but they’re currently torn apart by the destructive wildfire of our sin.
There’s good news, however: heaven and earth are destined for reconciliation. God wants to bring creation back together from the things that tear it apart. God is on a mission to get the hell out of earth: to redeem his world from the destructive power of sin, death and hell.
This story arises because of God’s extravagant goodness (not in spite of it), towards his sin-struck, war-torn world. So when God banishes hell’s power from earth, where does it go?

The Location: Outside the City
Americans tend to picture hell underground (remember those Looney Tunes cartoons growing up?) But Jesus’ word for hell is Gehenna: an actual physical place just outside the city walls of Jerusalem. It was not a cavernous hole deep in the belly of the earth, but rather somewhere you could Mapquest.
And it had a dark and destructive history.
In the Old Testament, Gehenna was known as the Valley of Hinnom—and it was the epicenter of child sacrifice, one of Israel’s most detestable practices. The prophets railed on it as a signpost of how messed up and corrupt the capital of Jerusalem had become. (cf. Jeremiah 19:4-6; 32:32-35; 2 Chronicles 28:1-4; 33:3-9) The wicked valley became a symbol of the idolatry and injustice that had come to infect the people as a whole.
The hope of the prophets, however, was that God was going to return one day as the good King, to redeem Jerusalem and kick the idolatry and injustice back outside the city to where it came from . . . to Gehenna. Jesus draws on this tradition, depicting hell’s location as outside the city. When God establishes his good and righteous kingdom, he banishes the destructive power of sin, death and hell, away from the seat of power, influence and authority it has held for so long, outside his kingdom where it can no longer hurt or destroy.
This storyline arises, once again, because of the goodness of God (not in spite of it), and gives rise to a different purpose for hell than the caricature: not torture, but protection. God protects his kingdom by containing the destructive power of our unrepentant sin outside.
Torment vs. Torture
I think many folks get confused because the English words torment and torture sound similar—but they’re not the same thing. For example, I can be tormented by a headache, or someone can torture me by hitting me repeatedly over the head with a two-by-four. Both hurt my head, but in radically different ways: torment arises internally; torture is inflicted from the outside.
I can be tormented by my sin, and this is significantly different from God torturing me.
In Jesus’ famous parable of Lazarus and the rich man, for example, he describes the rich man “in agony in this flame.” Looks obviously like torture, right? This is one of two key passages usually pointed to for the torture image. But let’s look closer.
This word agony [odunomai] can also be translated “grief” or “anguish” and conveys a state of emotional turmoil rather than physical pain. For example, this word also shows up two other places in the New Testament: when Mary and Joseph realize their twelve-year-old son, Jesus, is missing and are searching “anxiously” (Luke 2:48); and when Paul is leaving Ephesus, as the church’s leaders realize they will never see him again, so they wrap their arms around him, weep, and are “grieved” (Acts 20:38).
Both of these passages depict not physical torture but emotional grief; not pain inflicted from the outside, but lament arising from the inside–when they realize something they love has been lost.
Similarly, the rich man in Jesus’ parable is in anguish, agony, grief–he’s invested his life in his riches, his greed and pride have come to define him, and a distress arises from within as he realizes in agony something he loves has been lost . . . his riches. They’ve been burned up in the fire.
God judges the rich man by taking the toys away that he refused to share.
And the loss is agony. God is not a passive bystander; God actively contains our recalcitrant rebellion against his kingdom. But the torment arises internally from our unrepentant resistance to the gracious goodness of God.
The Great Physician
The good news is that God wants us in his kingdom. Jesus’ question to us is not “Are you good enough to get into my kingdom?” It is, rather, “Will you let me heal you?” The arms of the Crucified One are stretched wide on the cross to embrace all who would come. Though we’ve all unleashed the wildfire of sin into God’s good world, Jesus has taken its destructive flame into himself on the cross, and risen victorious–quenching its death-dealing power and pursuing us with lavish grace to bring us home to God.
Jesus is the Great Physician, out to heal our world from hell’s wildfire flame. The question is not whether God wants us, that question has been answered on the cross. The question is whether we want God: whether we’re willing to receive his reconciling embrace, and enter in repentant submission under his kingdom reign.
If we refuse God’s lavish mercy, preferring our independence to worship, our autonomy to communion, life on our own terms to life under God, then God’s greatest punishment might be giving us what we want.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Notre Dame is currently doing a "curriculum review." Goal-based curriculum is all the rage; disciplines are passe. Commercial values are trumping pedagogical values. Students are being transformed into consumers. The liberal arts are being further and further marginalized for the sake of the Almighty Dollar.  While I disagree with Deresiewicz's seemingly nominalist presuppositions ("A self is a separate space, a private space,”  “a space of strength, security, autonomy, creativity, play” ) I agree with him that  human beings are more than just fodder for the neoliberal political economy.

The Liberal Arts vs. Neoliberalism

William Deresiewicz's 'Excellent Sheep'
Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
William Deresiewicz
Free Press, $26, 245 pp.

It is a platitude that we cannot defend the humanities without slipping into platitudes. Why is that? Part of the answer involves the corrosive impact of contemporary intellectual fashion. We are besieged by a resurgence of positivist scientism—the transformation of science from a method to a metaphysic, promising precise answers to age-old ultimate questions. Yet while pop-neuroscientists, evolutionary psychologists, and other defenders of quantifiable certainty have beaten back postmodern philosophical critiques, the postmodern style of ironic detachment has flourished. The recoil from modernist high seriousness, epitomized by the turn from Abstract Expressionist painting to Pop Art, has persisted long after Andy Warhol displaced Jackson Pollock as the celebrity artist du jour. As a signifier of the dominant cultural tone, the furrowed brow has been largely eclipsed by the knowing smirk. The commitment to searching out deep truths has yielded to the celebration of playing with surfaces (in the arts) or solving problems (in the sciences). The merger of postmodern irony and positivist scientism has been underwritten by neoliberal capitalism—whose only standard of value is market utility.

This convergence of postmodern style, positivist epistemology, and neoliberal political economy has turned a whole class of words into the stuff of platitude. Old words that used to mean something—ideals, meaning, character, self, soul—have come to seem mere floating signifiers, counters in a game played by commencement speakers and college catalogs. Vague and variable as their meanings may have been, there was a time when the big words of the humanities still carried weight. They sustained yearnings and aspirations; they sanctioned the notion that the four-year transition from adolescence to adulthood might be a time of exploration and experiment.

This idea has not disappeared entirely, but the last time it flourished en masse was forty years or so ago, in the atmosphere pervaded by the antiwar counterculture. Indeed one could argue that the counterculture of the 1960s and early ’70s involved far more than the contemporary caricature of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. It was in part a creation of young people who wanted to take college education seriously, to treat it as more than mere job training. Beneath the slogans and excess, the counterculture contained a probing critique of the instrumentalist mentality that managed the Vietnam War—the mad perversion of pragmatism embodied in the American major’s words: “it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Writers like Albert Camus, Martin Buber, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have been more often cited than read by young people in the 1960s and ’70s, but those writers’ presence in countercultural discourse suggested the urgent question at its core: How can we live an ethical life amid the demands of illegitimate power?

One place to explore answers to that question was the liberal-arts curriculum. During the late 1960s, even at my conservative Southern university, humanities enrollments soared as students packed English, philosophy, and history courses—posing fundamental questions, resisting conventional answers. The old words still had meaning, and were being called to account. Literature provided a language for challenging “the insolence of office” that was epitomized in government lies—and for exposing the technocratic hubris embodied in Ahab’s boast: “All my means are sane; my motive and my object mad.” This is how we learned what we were up against: nothing better captured the madness of the managerial rationality behind the Vietnam War and the nuclear-arms race. Many students, myself included, acted on the unarticulated assumption that reading, reflection, and introspection might provide the foundation of an independent self—skeptical of official pieties, capable of imagining more capacious ideas of patriotism and courage than the ones provided by the dominant culture—a self that could speak truth to power. That phrase was fresh to us then.

How times have changed. Nowadays “speak truth to power” has to be placed in inverted commas, to distance us from its earnestness. Among the educated professional classes, no one would be caught dead confusing intellectual inquiry with a quest for ultimate meaning, or with the effort to create an independent self. Indeed the very notion of authentic selfhood—a self determined to heed its own ethical and aesthetic imperatives, resistant to the claims of fashion, money, and popularity—has come to seem archaic. In an atmosphere dominated by postmodern irony, pop-neuroscience, and the technocratic ethos of neoliberalism, the self is little more than a series of manipulable appearances, fashioned and re-fashioned to meet the marketing needs of the moment. We have bid adieu to existential inwardness. The reduction of the mind to software and the brain to a computer, which originated among cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind, has been popularized by journalists into the stuff of dinner-party conversations. The computer analogy, if taken as seriously as its proponents wish, undermines the concept of subjectivity—the core of older versions of the self. So it should come as no surprise that, in many enlightened circles, the very notion of an inner life has come to seem passé.

One consequence of this seismic cultural shift is the train wreck of contemporary higher education. Nothing better exemplifies the catastrophe than President Barack Obama’s plan to publish the average incomes earned by graduates from various colleges, so parents and students can know which diplomas are worth the most in the marketplace, and choose accordingly. In higher education as in health care, market utility has become the sole criterion of worth. The monetary standard of value has reinforced the American distrust of intellect unharnessed to practical purposes: the result is an atmosphere toxic to the humanities. We need a defense of the humanities that takes these cultural developments into account; that claims more for the liberal arts than the promotion of “critical thinking” and “people skills”; that insists, without slipping into platitude, on the importance of the humanities for their own sake.

WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ, A FORMER member of Yale’s English Department, has written it. In Excellent Sheep, he presents a devastating critique of the idea that college education is simply about learning marketable skills; he also makes a compelling case for the humanities. He revives, in effect, the old words—the old quest for meaning, self, and soul. The problem is that he has attached his argument to a critique of elite higher education, even as he recognizes that the critique extends far beyond the Ivy League. He shrewdly dissects the cult of “meritocracy” on American campuses, diagnosing its elements of anti-intellectualism—the careerism, the conventionality, the managerial reduction of education to “problem-solving,” the embrace of money as the measure of all things. He acknowledges that these maladies could be found as easily at the University of Virginia or the University of Mississippi Honors Program as at Yale or Princeton, but he does not seem to recognize fully that together they constitute a plague pervading the entire society. Amid the obsession with marketable skills encouraged by neoliberal capitalism, all colleges aim to turn out excellent sheep; some are better equipped than others to do so. Some sheep are more excellent—by all the conventional criteria—than others.

Whether the students are actually satisfied to be sheep is another matter. Deresiewicz writes movingly of their anguish. No reader of his book can doubt that elite colleges are full of fearful, driven kids whose miseries include “eating disorders, cutting, substance abuse, addiction, depression...” Here are some voices from the meritocracy in training: “I only get two hours sleep per night.... I really really fear failure.... I am just a machine with no life at this place.... I am a robot just going page by page, doing the work.” It is like the mental Olympics, one student observes, but the contest never ends. Sometimes “the drug of praise” can temporarily numb the fear of failure. And sometimes it takes other drugs: “If I didn’t take Zoloft,” one former student told him, “I would hate myself.” Parents who understandably worry about their children’s mental health receive glib reassurances from administrators, who talk about how many students are depressed and how easy it is to phone the suicide hotline. The number of breakdowns is almost a point of pride, part of the price for high academic standards. A young woman of my acquaintance recalled the Old Campus at Yale (the freshmen dorms) as a hive of conventional ambition; the buildings themselves seemed buzzing with ceaseless busyness. One thing is clear from Deresiewicz’s interviews: the “meritocratic” atmosphere is death to intellectual seekers, who feel they’ve been sold a bill of goods and often keep searching after they get out. Somehow the job at Goldman Sachs just doesn’t satisfy.

The problem, for Deresiewicz, is that when you focus on problems at Ivy League universities you invite the hostility of reviewers, many of whom are associated with Ivy League universities themselves. A few might even be called excellent sheep—products of the self-styled meritocracy of recent decades. Perhaps the most egregious example is Nathan Heller’s review in the New Yorker. Heller asks “Are Elite Colleges Bad for the Soul?” and begins by describing the many forms of sleep deprivation endured by him and his classmates “early in this century” at an unspecified Ivy League university. All this makes clear that he will avoid the larger issues raised by the book and focus instead on an anecdotal defense of his own experience—a strategy followed by other reviewers as well. Deresiewicz has unintentionally invited this. So to do him justice it’s important to emphasize that his argument stretches beyond the Ivy League, toward all of higher education in the contemporary United States—and beyond our borders to encompass the striving professional classes from Canada and the United Kingdom to China and India.

Still, there is a logic to focusing on the Ivy League; it is where the meritocratic myth flourishes in its purest form. The official atmosphere is pervaded by the unspoken rhetorical question: Aren’t we great? The relentless striving for badges of achievement is more flagrantly and broadly present on elite campuses than anywhere else. The Ivy League is where the American ruling class (or at least a good chunk of it) learns that they have power and wealth because they deserve it. They are meritorious. Their credentials confirm it.

The catch is that the students have to keep acquiring more evidence of their excellence—beginning, after they graduate, with a job that pays at least $100,000 a year. You remain haunted, they say, by “the feeling of being a failure if you don’t continue to amass the blue chip names” and prodded by “the need to keep on doing the most prestigious possible thing.” Yet some still fear that they have missed something, some passionate pursuit of a success that can’t be measured by conventional criteria.

High-achieving children are the products of “high-achievement parenting,” another development of recent decades, performed by “parents who fill up their own brittle selves with their children’s accomplishments,” in the withering judgment of the psychotherapist Madeline Levine, whom Deresiewicz cites at length. His favorite example of an abusive parent is Amy Chua, whose The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother celebrated her own authoritarian insistence on her children’s feverish striving. Once again he picks the most virulent form of the sickness he wants to diagnose.
However strict or permissive their upbringing, children destined for elite schools display a “self that forms in response to parental expectations,” an “affable, competent, adult-oriented personality.” Not all parents embrace the meritocratic agenda, but even if they resist it, their children are swept along by the broad upper-middle-class culture of achievement. Its darker dimensions include “junior careerism, directionless ambition, risk-aversion, Hobbesian competitiveness,” and “monumental cynicism.” There’s no there there. Education comes to be seen as “not far from game theory, an algorithm to be cracked in order to get to the next level.”

The preoccupation with process over purpose, means over ends, has long been a feature of the technocratic mind, which despite occasional countercultural protests (as in the 1960s) has dominated American universities since the late nineteenth century and now seems poised to render other forms of thinking invisible. The focus on mastering technique rather than grappling with substance means that too often higher education “does nothing to challenge students’ high school values, ideals, practices, and beliefs,” as Deresiewicz observes. How can it, if it has no vision of what an educated human being should be, as Allen Bloom complained nearly thirty years ago in The Closing of the American Mind. It is interesting how often Deresiewicz cites Bloom, the bogeyman of the politically correct left in the 1980s, who was nothing if not a passionate defender of the humanities. Resistance to technocratic imperatives cuts across conventional political boundaries.

In recent decades, au courant educational ideologues have put technocratic imperatives in a determinist idiom—the train has left the station, etc.—and have added a dose of management jargon. The most egregious management-speak is the near universal use of a customer-service model for what universities do. As Deresiewicz observes, commercial values are the opposite of pedagogical ones. If you are interested in students’ long-term welfare, don’t give them what they want—don’t be afraid, he tells professors, to stand on your own authority, to assume you know something your students don’t, which they might profit by learning. The very fact that he has to make this obvious point suggests the parlous state we are in. The easy equation of students with consumers confirms Deresiewicz’s conclusion that the schools “finally don’t care about learning at all”—or about teaching. “Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another,” he writes, implicitly challenging the current fashion of online education. On the contrary: “‘Educate’ means ‘lead forth.’ A teacher’s job is to lead forth the powers that lie asleep within her students. A teacher awakens; a teacher inspires.” Not every teacher can measure up to this exalted standard, but its presence at least can make us try. By comparison, when it comes to motivating teachers, the commercial model offers nothing.
The emptiness of management jargon, applied to traditional moral concepts, is nowhere more apparent than in the ubiquity of the word “leadership.” Once upon a time it was something that was considered a duty, an accompaniment of privilege. Now, Deresiewicz writes, it’s little more than “an empty set of rituals known only to propitiate the gods.” Like so many other ideals of the meritocracy (“innovation,” “creativity,” “disruption”), indeed like the meritocrats themselves, “leadership” lacks content. And where content is absent, power pours in. We are left with Mark Edmundson’s witty summation, quoted by Deresiewicz: a leader is “someone who, in a very energetic, upbeat way, shares all the values of the people who are in charge.”

The people in charge make sure that their charges inhabit “an atmosphere of constant affirmation” characterized by “the relentless inculcation of prosocial behavior.” This is how elite colleges produce “team players”—but so do many other sorts of institutions, and so they have for many decades. The difference is that team players from Ivy Schools are more likely to end up team captain.
To the question “What’s the point? What’s this team for, anyway?” the answers are as vacant as they have always been in management literature; only now they reflect the diminished expectations of our neoliberal moment. As Deresiewicz says, the dominant ethos is: “Forget about ideals and ideologies and big ideas, those scourges of the twentieth century. Just pick a problem and go to work on it. The notion is technocratic, and bespeaks the kind of technocratic education students get today.” Of course its inspiration is not the plodding gray technocracy of the mid-century corporation, but the hipness of the high-tech entrepreneur. Deresiewicz is rightly suspicious of the idea that this new social formation constitutes a “creative class.” As he writes: “The suspicion arises that the small-scale/techie/entrepreneurial model represents the expression not of a social philosophy...but of the desire for a certain kind of lifestyle”—autonomous, hip, and rich.

Still not everyone, even among the elite, is seduced by this trendy vision. Deresiewicz has spoken to many young people who resist it. They are “ardent, curious, independent—looking to college for meaning, not skills; looking to the world for possibility, not security. What they told me, invariably, was that they felt abandoned by their institution.” But it is not just the elite universities that have abandoned them; it is our entire leadership class, beginning with the president himself. During the 2008 campaign, Obama gave stirring speeches in Austin, Texas, and Madison, Wisconsin, where he insisted on the importance of music and the arts in any educational program. For a presidential candidate to be saying these things seemed too good to be true—as in fact it was. Once in office, Obama embraced the neoliberal education agenda of marketization and privatization, epitomized by his reliably anti-intellectual secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Where are intellectual seekers supposed to find legitimation for their search?

In Deresiewicz’s book, for starters. He does not mince words: “An undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted. The purpose of college is to enable you to live more alertly, more responsibly, more freely: more fully.” The key to this process is “developing the habit of skepticism and the capacity to put it into practice. It means learning not to take things for granted, so you can reach your own conclusions.” So it comes down to an effort at self-culture, as Emerson would have said. And self-culture involves an inward turn: it is “through this act of introspection, of self-examination, of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul. And that is what it means to develop a self.” Deresiewicz, the son of Orthodox Jewish parents, is not himself religious. But he finds religious language—beginning with the marriage of self and soul—inescapable in describing the intellectual quest fostered by the liberal arts. “People go to monasteries to find out why they have come, and college ought to be the same,” he writes. It takes real courage to make such claims amid the market-driven discourse of contemporary higher education.

THE CONSEQUENCE OF THIS soul-making odyssey—or at least an early way station on a lifelong journey—is precisely the kind of self that resists the siren song of contemporary intellectual fashion, a self that is fortified against disappointments and failure. “A self is a separate space, a private space,” Deresiewicz writes, “a space of strength, security, autonomy, creativity, play.” This is a romantic modernist vision, thoroughly at odds with postmodern and neoliberal notions of selfhood. And like the romantic modernists of the 1960s, Deresiewicz sometimes slips into formulaic oppositions—such as the one he poses between the young and their parents, whom he falsely assumes to epitomize the constraints of conventional expectations. He is right, though, to recognize the difficulties involved in choosing an independent path—the puzzled looks, the people who wonder why you didn’t fulfill your promise.

But if you’ve taken the humanities seriously you can withstand the puzzled looks. As Deresiewicz writes, the liberal arts curriculum remains “the best training you can give yourself in how to talk and think”—“to reflect...for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.” You read literature, philosophy, and history because “you don’t build a self out of thin air, by gazing at your navel. You build it, in part, by encountering the ways that others have done so themselves.” And the wider and more varied the definition of the canon, the better—the more examples you have of alternative ways of thinking and being in the world. As Bloom wrote (and Deresiewicz quotes): “The most successful the one that removes the awareness of other possibilities.” It was as if the conservative curmudgeon had foreseen the techno-determinists of our own time, for whom the train has always left the station and (in Maggie Thatcher’s words) “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal system. The prerequisite for independence is the realization that there are indeed other possibilities than the ones handed down by conventional wisdom.

A sense of possibility, as Deresiewicz acknowledges, is a product of class privilege. And indeed the humanities have historically functioned as the playground of the rich, before they get down to the real work of running the world. (A friend of mine, a Yale professor, once said that part of ruling-class socialization was listening to a guy with a beard talk about Marx.) Yet the humanities need not be reduced to a mere luxury. Abundant testimony exists from teachers in night-school classes, even in prisons, that comparatively uneducated students can respond to great literature with passion and intelligence. That encounter can be life-changing. A student of mine at Rutgers, a Navy veteran, found that reading Heart of Darkness forced him to come to terms with his own dark experiences in the first Gulf War. Conrad led him to Melville and W. E. B. DuBois, to exploring the mysteries of the divided self. It was a bumpy ride, but he came out of it more alert, more aware, and more fully engaged with the world.

So why shouldn’t everyone have a shot at this experience? Deresiewicz thinks everyone should. And he knows it’s more than a matter of affirmative action. In fact he recognizes what a hollow charade that policy has become—a legitimation of existing privilege. Quoting Walter Benn Michaels, he writes, “the (very few) poor people at Harvard...reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can’t just buy your way into Harvard.” Deresiewicz realizes that the only affirmative action worth the name is a policy that takes class as well as gender and ethnicity into account. But ultimately affirmative action can never be more than a Band-Aid on the carcinoma that afflicts higher education—the primacy of technocratic, monetary standards. We need to create a world, he writes, “where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.” Of course it is already possible to do that at many fine state universities. But they are struggling to stay afloat amid the systematic impoverishment of the public sector that has lasted for decades and has only accelerated in the past few years. The most egregious among many recent examples is the assault on the University of Wisconsin by the Republican governor, Scott Walker. Since 1989, state spending on higher education in the United States has dropped by half—a fact few commentators mention as they bewail the rising cost of college. Of course tuition will rise under these circumstances: somebody has to pay. As Deresiewicz acknowledges, public higher education is suffering the same fate as K–12 education, not to mention public-health initiatives and other essential government services: they are all “starved of funds, then blamed for failing to deliver.” So it is clear that the problems of higher education involve far more than misplaced meritocratic mythology at Ivy League schools; they are part of a general moral and political crisis.

The question remains: What is to be done? Despite his focus on the Ivy League, Deresiewicz supplies valuable ammunition for embattled defenders of the humanities, who too often have been reduced to mumbling about corporate recruiters’ preference for English majors. It is time to go on the offensive, and he has done so in fine style. Arguing for the importance of the humanities is by no means a merely academic gesture. As the antiwar counterculture of the ’60s learned, the liberal-arts tradition has a radical edge; it is a prod to the moral imagination, a seed-bed of political possibilities. The first step toward challenging illegitimate power is the recognition that you can indeed take that step—that there are alternatives available to the future on offer. As a peace-activist colleague of mine in Missouri said, when students wondered where to begin challenging the enormity of the nuclear-arms race: “Well, you start where you’re at.”