Reading Roundup | 10.25.20

In which I roundup a portion of my reading from the last week (or so).

We start off with the importance of old books…

New College Library, University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity – A good place to find old books.

Christopher Myers | Old Books Are Strange and Threatening: That’s Why We Should Read Them – A review of Alan Jacobs Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind in which Jacobs shows how to resist the presentism of the age by engaging ideas from the past.

Though this is a book about the past and the benefits of engaging with it, it is not about why knowing history keeps us from repeating it. While Jacobs says he generally agrees with that point, he is after something different and perhaps more relevant to the current moment.

“I am going to try to convince you that the deeper your understanding of the past,” Jacobs writes, “the greater personal density you will accumulate.” He takes the phrase “personal density” from Thomas Pynchon’s famously difficult novel Gravity’s Rainbow. In the novel, an engineer character argues that by deepening your temporal bandwidth, primarily through engagement with the past, you increase your personal density. And reading old books as a way to engage the past is akin to breaking bread with the dead.

But if breaking bread with the dead, if reading and engaging with old books, is truly a way of cultivating tranquility and becoming more personally dense, then what keeps us from it? Jacobs recognizes that the past has fallen on especially hard times. It is viewed with suspicion. It is seen as superfluous or perhaps as even dangerous. Jacobs notes that for some the past is even a place of defilement, a place where one might be indelibly marked by the bad thoughts, bad values, and bad motives of those who have gone before. And to make matters worse, often those who do engage with the past can seem to be nostalgic about it and therefore blind to its real problems. Throughout the book, Jacobs responds to these critiques of the past, but he never simply dismisses them. He truly engages them, takes them seriously, and at points agrees with them—and this is one of the book’s greatest charms.

Jacobs’s own way of reading demonstrates why breaking bread with the dead is more of a feast than eating the bread of the present. A lovely side benefit in doing this is that the more we engage the past, the weaker the hold the present exercises on us and our attention. If we learn to regularly feast with the dead instead of continually gathering up the crumbs and scraps of the present, we might find ourselves more nourished and strengthened. This is not to say that the bread of the present, a kind of manna, cannot and does not nourish, but it is always just for the day. For all manna can do, it does not keep. In fact, it rots.

The more we break bread with the dead, then, the less we try to subsist on the crumbs of the present. This is the both the premise and the promise of this book, and it is certainly attractive, but there is nothing easy about acquiring the tranquility it describes. Enlarging and expanding the self, even through reading, is often a dangerous business. Jacobs knows this too. Contending with the past, he writes, “requires us to be like Jacob, who wrestled with a mighty figure by the Jabbok not in order to defeat or destroy him, but with a strange generosity, an eager and earnest belief that his opponent had something of greater value in his possession, and that he could give it to Jacob. I will not let you go until you bless me.

David Russell Mosley | In the works of C.S. Lewis, find Christian truth in fantasy – on how imaginative storytelling can baptize our imaginations and pave the way to receiving the gospel.

Even before his conversion Lewis was drawn toward storytelling and imagination. In his autobiography Lewis describes how as an atheist he believed that all the things he loved most—Norse myths and legends, Celtic myths, fairy stories—were lies: beautiful lies to be sure, but lies nevertheless. The things he believed most true, meanwhile—that the world is built on materialistic and atheistic principles—left him empty.

His mind began to change, however, after a conversation with his friends J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson one evening on Addison’s Walk, a mile-long path around an island in Oxford, England, where the friends all taught. Tolkien and Dyson, along with other members of the Inklings—the literary society to which they belonged—helped Lewis see that myths can bear truth and that the imagination can be a truth-bearing faculty.

Lewis marks this conversation as the beginning of his return to the Christian faith. Tolkien helped him examine the role of imagination and myth in the story of Jesus Christ, pointing out that the gospel includes all the hallmarks of a great story: love that overcomes death, victory in the face of certain defeat, and a world made new. But he also went one step further, arguing that the gospel story isn’t just one good story among many: It’s actually the underlying truth to which all other stories point.

Have you heard of St. Moses the Black, a fourth century monastic with a past of violence and robbing, but who became a patron saint of nonviolence?

Speaking of imagination: are our imaginations sufficiently shaped to recognise when civil religion and nationalism give the pretence of Christian worship when we see it?

“[D]uring the opening prayer and worship segment of the service … dancers onstage twirled American flags emblazoned with an image of the Statue of Liberty.”

Read the whole thing for yourself, but how is this not and example of the kind of nationalistic idolatry we should flee from? Is this not a prime example of the church being cowed under the partisan nationalistic ‘politic’ of the nation-state?

Stanley Hauerwas offers an alternative to this kind of co-opting of Christian worship. Hauerwas is known for his theology of the church itself as a formative and determinative “politic.” But this can be easily misunderstood amongst those with impoverished ecclesial imaginations for whom the nation-state holds all the political cards and commands the highest allegiance. But Hauerwas here does not mean partisan nation-state politics. In order to grasp what Hauerwas is getting at, our imaginations must be converted away from primal allegiance to the nation-state in its nationalist, conservative, liberal, or progressive ideological partisan varieties. What Hauerwas has in mind is the body of Christ as an alternative ‘politic’ – the church as an alternative social way of being in the world with its own distinctive body language, which forms us according to an alternative allegiance to King Jesus. He states: “The church stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ and “The Father has sent his Son so that we—that is, the church—might be an alternative politics, a politics of truth, to that of the world.”

The one or two people who actually read these Reading Roundups will likely be getting tired of me sharing Tish Harrison Warren (THW) links. My apologies if that’s the case, as I am actually going to share two this week. 🙂 The reason being at least twofold: 1) I love her love for the church in all its flaws and failures and 2) she understands what it means for the church as the community of the triune God to be a eucharistic and cruciform-shaped alternative politic.

THW | Ordinary Church: How Liturgy and Sacraments Teach Us the Mundane Glory of Mission – In which Warren helps shape our ecclesial imaginations such that mission, church, and sacramentality are intimately held together rather than split apart.

THW | The Early Church Saw Itself as a Political Body. We Can Too.

We have an impoverished and inadequate political theology. It took us generations to get here, and this one election, regardless of the results, will not undo that. So before we know who wins or loses, we as a church must begin to reexamine how the good news of Jesus shapes us politically.

The early church aids us in this task. Early Christians used the word ekklesia—a term used for the assembly governing Greek city-states—to describe their own gatherings. This terminology highlights how the early church understood itself as a political body. But this strange, new, Christian assembly proclaimed that they were citizens of a different kingdom with a different king. It wasn’t just a pious idea. It shaped them into a people who, in the words of Peter Leithart, embodied an “unprecedented social and political form” that “burst the bonds of all prior political categories.”

To be a political alternative, we like the early church must confuse calcified cultural categories. Those early Christians were cultural misfits: radically pro-life, sexually chaste, committed to the poor and marginalized, and devoted to racial and ethnic justice and reconciliation. We are called to the same. These convictions don’t place us neatly in one political party. But our current emaciated political theology has formed us into what Tim Keller calls red evangelicals or blue evangelicals who ignore or denigrate parts of Scripture and tradition that don’t fit into our prior partisan commitments.

Yet the reconstruction of a Christian vision of politics is more comprehensive than merely holding nonpartisan political views. A robustly Christian political theology requires that Christians become a different kind of people whose lives bear witness to Jesus in ways that the world finds astonishing, perplexing, and unrecognizable.

The church’s task, then, is to begin the baby steps of relearning how to be an alternative polis—a different kind of community that embodies a different kind of politics. Drawing from the early church and from the Scriptures, we can reconstruct a truer, more faithful, and more beautiful political theology from the ground up. This work of reconstruction will take decades, so we’d better get going. The state of the church’s mission in America will be determined less by what happens in this one election and more by who we become over the coming decades.

Marg Mowczko | Are Men Physically Superior to Women? Its a shame this question even still needs to be fielded. But let’s be honest: the underlying assumption(s) here also produces the general idea that because men are, on average, physically stronger than women, this (somehow?) means that men are superior to women full stop. And yes, I’ve heard this preached from more than one pulpit. I’ve stood face to face with more than one dude-bro who thought this way. And I’ve provided pastoral care for more than one woman crushed by this ideology. It is time the idea was put away once and for all. Cruciform mutuality in ecclesial relation and mission (what we might also call “missional mutuality”) is the high calling of “male and female” in Christ through the Spirit.

Branson Parler | Electing to Vote (or Not): Thoughts on Christian Civic Engagement – 8 theses on the relative (yes, relative, as in, not absolute) value of voting. From 2012 but even more acutely applicable this time around.

Alan Noble, a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University, offers an important reflection for Christian social conservatives. What happens to the soul of our nation (or church), to our social fabric, when we tolerate perpetual lies and falsehoods, entertain hypocrisy as long as its in one’s favour, and treat truth as function of power? Does such a thing not corrupt us from the inside out? [Note: Some things are hard to hear, I get that. While the temptation for many will be to reply with some form of “what about this or that liberal or progressive X, Y, or Z?”, social conservatives must deal with the log in their own eye. Movements must be able to self-critique and to receive critique if they wish to remain vital and healthy, and retain integrity. Resist the reflex toward “what about-ism.” Pointing out the sickness of your opponent doesn’t heal the infection within you; its merely a method of diversion and distraction that leaves you without medicine for healing.]

Social conservatism cannot be sustained by identity politics, because it assumes a common good based on certain truths about existence. It requires a robust conception of transcendent, timeless truths and virtues. If “truth” is merely a function of power, then the pro-choice criticism is right: we really are just trying to control women’s bodies. In that case, the unborn child has no inherent value or rights; there are only our private convictions. Without truth, social conservatism is incoherent and violent.

My concern here is not primarily that a social conservatism that embraces deception will make us appear hypocritical or will kill public support for conservative values. Anecdotally, however, I have indeed witnessed younger evangelicals become increasingly drawn to the political and theological left because they feel betrayed by evangelical support for Trump. We taught our children that integrity matters, and they remember.

Still, what concerns me more is that once we no longer care about the truth, our own deliberations will become corrupt. The positions we take and the policies we advocate—in the name of life or morality or justice—will not be restrained by truth. It will no longer matter how we bring about our agenda. All that will matter is that we win. We may lie, manipulate, cultivate hatred and division, and dehumanize our enemies, so long as we achieve our goals. If we cannot conserve verity, then we have nothing left to conserve.

If we don’t embrace a will-to-power politics, we will be beaten—and often. The person who is free to lie, and deceive, and make full use of the tools of propaganda is at a tremendous advantage over the person who is restrained by virtue and truth. Very well, then: so be it. We will lose some battles. But if we insist upon submitting truth to power, then we have nothing else to offer or to lose. The only remaining distinction between conservatism and liberalism will be which identity groups they represent, not which party more justly and righteously pursues the common good. …

I worry that we have a mistaken vision of political ends. For the world, there is only one standard for judging a political event or movement: success. Did we retain power? Did we win? For the Christian, these are not the most important questions. Christ calls us to long suffering. Sometimes that means losing rather than condoning the spirit of the city.

James K.A. Smith at Comment Magazine | Revolutionism and our Secular Age – a challenging but piercing piece on the unbelief of revolutionism as a social disease.

And lest you miss the uncomfortable point implicit in this thesis, let me make it explicit: the revolutionism in the water of late modern liberal society is, I’m suggesting, the fruit of what, in an earlier age, we would have called “unbelief.”

On the one hand, my argument is directed at revolutionary agendas on both the left and the right, whether the right-leaning mythologies of “creative destruction” or the left-leaning ideologies of progress. The plea on this front is basically Burkean caution: too often our projects that raze existing structures and “rationally” rebuild from scratch end up trying to demolish the legacies and institutions that give life. Rightly ardent to undo injustices and systemic inequalities, our revolutionary programs enact a scorched-earth social “renewal” that cannot tolerate any vestiges of what has gone before. It’s like being angry you’ve moved into an Arts and Crafts home so you gut it in order to re-create it with a pristine Scandinavian palette. Any hint of quarter-sawn oak or stained glass is going to be an offence.

And so, on a broader social level, our revolutionary fervour replays the horrors of 1970s urban “renewal” that pitted Jane Jacobs’s defence of place and history against Robert Moses’s revolutionary “creative destruction” that wanted to railroad concrete expressways through living, breathing neighbourhoods. We’re more like Moses than we realize. Informed by our rational, technocratic “ideals” we flatten neighbourhoods, displace traditional communities, erect brutalist “machines for living,” and disdainfully dismiss people who don’t want to live in the alleged paradise we’ve created. But now we do it for an entire society, taking this same approach to education, the family, even the church. When the Revolution paves paradise, we end up with parking lots and are told they’re good for us.

It’s in this way that revolutionism ends up being a kind of anti-humanism, as if man is made for the revolution rather than the revolution for man. Just as Jacobs resisted Moses’s idealism by pointing out all the resources for thriving embedded in the communities he wanted to bulldoze, so we need a Jane Jacobs of social renewal more broadly, pointing out that the features of society that our technocracy wants to “fix” are, in fact, the things that make us human.

It should be no surprise that I’m pushing back on what I’m calling Revolutionism, liberalism’s secularized, naturalized confidence as a kind of “realized eschatology”—a movement that thinks itself the very embodiment of kingdom come.