Thursday, December 13, 2018

letter to the editor of CT on Samson article (unpublished)

In response to Fred Smith's highly-critical article on Samson in CT...

Judges was one of the first Bible studies that I led. At the time, I used two commentaries. They usually provided different insights but saw their subjects in a similar light. But on Samson, they were remarkably different. One took a decidedly negative approach to Samson in every aspect of his life, casting blame even where the Bible did not provide clear detail. Matthew Henry took an amazingly positive approach (except for chapter 16's clear moral failing), refusing to read between the lines and assessing Samson as charitably as possible.

For example, on Judges 14:10, the former judged Samson as a party animal who was violating his Nazirite vows. In contrast, Henry praised Samson for throwing a party despite his personal vow. In a word, why shouldn't Samson follow custom and good sense in throwing a joyous celebration. Don't let legalism harm others. Don't let your personal standards become a dogmatic killjoy.

These two takes on Samson have been an important reminder to me about many things: the overlap (but potential gaps) between reputation and character; the damage caused by both legalisms and false tolerance; the complexities of understanding others and even ourselves; and the beauty and intricacies of our Scripture. May we read the Bible critically and may we judge others cautiously, as we live in Christian community with our gracious God.

Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier"


A version of this appeared as a journal article in The Independent Review...

George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier (WP) is a good read for a number of reasons. (Thanks to Howard Husock for making me aware of this book through his essay in City Journal!) It's interesting as an historical narrative of difficult working-class lives in 1930's England. And its material is political and philosophical—with significant applications to social class and contemporary politics. 
Orwell divides his book into two halves. The first half is a riveting documentary on the immense challenges of life in the 1930's, even in one of the most prosperous countries in the world—for those who worked in difficult occupations on the lower end of the economic spectrum. In particular, Orwell focuses on coal miners and the remarkably onerous conditions in which they worked. Orwell "gives a first-hand account of the life of the working class population of Wigan and elsewhere. "It is a terrible record of evil conditions, foul housing, wretched pay, hopeless unemployment, and the villanies of the Means Test [England's welfare programs]." (xi) In this, WP is akin to a (presumably-more-accurate) version of the Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
The second half describe Orwell’s admiration for socialism and his sense of the public's frequently-poor perception of socialism and socialists. Orwell "looks at Socialists as a whole and finds them (with a few exceptions) a stupid, offensive, and insincere lot." In this, WP is akin to reading a liberal's take on liberals and the plethora of contemporary faux liberals—a la Thomas Frank's contemporary work.
The second half is so pointed in this regard that the "Left Book Club" (which commissioned the work) expressed disappointment with the book and felt a strong need to clarify the book to its club members. The editors' note that the decision to publish Orwell should not be mistaken for full agreement with his conclusions (ix)—a point on which they elaborated for a full page (x). 
Victor Gallancz, writing for the editors, said that he had more than 100 minor critiques of the book (xii). But he deeply appreciated Orwell's narrative and respected his "highly provocative" argument. The editors loved the first half of the book and were willing to tolerate the critiques, polemic, and bomb-throwing in the second half. Gallancz wrote that it had been "a long time since I have read so living a book, or one so full of a burning indignation against poverty and oppression." (xi) Perhaps the editors secretly respected and valued the second half of the book—for its efforts to make socialism more palatable to the masses. In any case, we can be thankful that they saw fit to publish Orwell's work.
Note also the context of the book and its times. It was published in 1937, as England was continuing to limp along after its "Great Slump" (their version of our "Great Depression"). England did not endure as many policy errors as America under FDR and his "New Deal". So, the times were not nearly as bleak as in America's continuing "depression". (In the 6th year of FDR's policies, unemployment was still 19%. See: Vedder and Galloway’s Out of Work.) But England's recovery was still tepid and times were tough.
Also, socialism was still ascendant as an ideology, and to many, as an economic system. Gallancz points to the then-apparent "successes" of the Soviet Union's economy with its five-year plans (xviii). This is so difficult to imagine now. But even into the 1980s, there were those who imagined (and wrote economics textbooks saying) that the Soviet Union had a better economy than the U.S.
One final observation before I dig into the details of what Orwell wrote. The man was good with a phrase and colorful in his descriptions, making the book a pleasure to read (even when one has quibbles or complaints with what he has written). For example, in chapter 1’s description of the boarding house where he stayed, "the dust was so thick that it was like fur" (5) and "in the morning, the room stank like a ferret's cage" (6). The owner climbed "the stairs, carrying a full chamber-pot which he gripped with his thumb well over the rim." (12) And on the stench of one town: "If at rare moments you stop smelling sulphur, it is because you have begun smelling gas." (106)
Orwell's Observations on "the Working Class"
In Chapters 2-3, Orwell turns from his lodging to the coal miners. He notes the vital importance of coal in his time (or by extension, energy): "In the metabolism of the Western world, the coal miner is second in importance to the man who plows the soil." (21) When I talk about cartels in the classroom, there are only two prominent examples. Both, not coincidentally, are international and natural resources: OPEC and DeBeers. DeBeers is more impressive as a cartel, but OPEC is more important since its sporadic successes have ripple effects across the entire macroeconomy.
Orwell's description of work in the coal mines is sobering. We might have the impression that it's peaceful and bucolic, if we visit when the mine is not in operation (21b). And really, few people want to think about such unpleasantries: "Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above...[not] black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it." (33-34)
The reality of the work is rough. Orwell felt "a pang of envy for their toughness...an almost superhuman job by the standards of an ordinary person...monstrous quantities of coal" while kneeling (22). "The heat...the coal dust...the unending rattle of the conveyor belt" (23). The elevator "cage" to get "400 yards under ground" (24). And then there are the "immense horizontal distances" (25), where one "walks stooping" to get there (26) and this "travelling" is not compensated (29). 
When the miners come up from the pit, their faces are "so pale...due to the foul air” even though it “will wear off presently." (36) He was fascinated by the blue scars on their faces: "The coal dust...enters every cut...forms a blue stain like tattooing, which in fact it is. Some of the older men have their foreheads veined like Roquefort cheese from this cause." (36) Without full "pithead" baths, they could not possibly get clean. Orwell estimates that these were available to only one-third of the miners. "Probably a large majority of miners are completely black from the waist down for at least six days a week. It is almost impossible for them to wash all over in their own homes." (37) 
In Chapter 4, Orwell turns to housing. It is "by any ordinary standard not fit for human habitation" (51). And yet "there are no others to be had...[a] housing shortage" (52). Of course, from Econ101, this doesn't make any sense, unless there is profound monopoly power—of the sort that could only be found at this time through government power. But Orwell doesn't provide any evidences of government malfeasance. Instead, the more likely explanation is that the housing was lousy, but what consumers could afford. 
From there, Orwell talks about "Corporation" housing. These seem to have been government-run—what we would call "public housing." (This is ironic since this government effort was labeled "Corporate".) At their worst, the Corporation houses were still "better than the slums they replace...a condemned house" (68). They were nicer, but more expensive—10 shillings vs. a former rent of 6-7 shillings (68). And the Corporation houses had "restrictions" (71). 
In Chapter 5, Orwell turns his sights on "the Means test"—what we would call "welfare programs" for the poor. Orwell was a prophet ahead of his time—at least by American standards. He was disturbed by the system's cold calculations and bureaucracy. It wasn't until the 1980s when "liberals" were bothered by these things in American welfare. (See: Funiciello’s Tyranny of Kindness.)
Orwell was also concerned about the impact of welfare incentives on work (76-77, 81-82) and family formation (79-80). He said that welfare programs "discourage people from marrying" and "break up families". For a short time, Charles Murray was seen as a gadfly in the 1980's for making this case in Losing Ground. But a few years later, his work on welfare policy was mainstream. Led by liberals and conservatives, motivated by scholars such as Murray and Marvin Olasky (The Tragedy of American Compassion), Bill Clinton and a GOP Congress "changed welfare as we know it" (well, sort of) in 1996. 
Orwell takes a few more pokes along the way—at unions (83), government training and make-work programs (83-84), and gambling through the "Football Pools" (85, 89). He claims that "a luxury is nowadays almost always cheaper than a necessity" and so many people are "underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio" (89-90) It's difficult to make heads or tails of these two claims—how the market could provide luxuries for the same price as common goods or outside of an Obama-phone-like radio initiative, why so many people would have radios but not food.
Orwell on Class Differences
Orwell covers two important topics in the second half of the book. The first is his lengthy discussion of class and pseudo-class differences. In the contemporary American context, I've often argued that racial differences are overstated; class differences are underestimated; and that the latter are probably greater than the former. Orwell doesn't talk about race much, but he certainly sees and explores massive class differences in 1930's England. 
Let me give you a full dose of Orwell's description of the boarding house and its owners, the Brookers (17): 
On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances. The most dreadful thing about people like the Brookers is the way they say the same things over and over again. It gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all, but a kind of ghost for ever rehearsing the same futile rigmarole. In the end, Mrs. Brooker's self-pitying talk--always the same complaints, over and over, and always ending with the tremulous whine of 'It does seem 'ard, don't it now?'--revolted me even more than her habit of wiping her mouth with bits of newspaper. 
But, in a manner reminiscent of those who discourage today’s liberals and Democrat partisans from ignoring Trump voters (whatever they think of their lives and beliefs), Orwell continues by warning us not to ignore "[these] people" (17): 
It is no use saying that people like the Brookers are just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilization that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialism has done for us...this is where it all led to—labyrinthine slums and dark back kitchens with sickly, ageing people creeping round and round them like blackbeetles. It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist; though perhaps it is better not to stay there too long. 
So, learn about them, but don't immerse yourself too much or it may rub off on you. Orwell does encourages his readers to empathize with them as best they can. But understand that it is exceedingly difficult to transcend class differences and there are probably significant limits to the effort (115): 
Is it ever possible to be really intimate with the working class?...I do not think it is possible. But undoubtedly it is easier in the North than it would be in the South to meet working-class people on approximately equal terms. It is fairly easy to live in a miner's house and be accepted as one of the family; with, say, a farm labourer in the Southern counties it probably would be impossible. I have seen just enough of the working class to avoid idealizing them, but I do know that you can learn a great deal in a working-class home, if only you can get there. The essential point is that your middle-class ideals and prejudices are tested by contact with others which are not necessarily better but are certainly different.
Or later (154-156): 
It is so easy to be on equal terms with social outcasts. But unfortunately you do not solve the class problem by making friends with tramps. At most you get rid of some of your own class-prejudice by doing so...But when you come to the normal working class, the position is totally different. There is no short cut into their midst...It is not [necessarily] a question of dislike or distaste, only of difference, but it is enough to make real intimacy impossible...
Olasky and Peter Cove in Poor No More make the same point about efforts to (really) help the poor. It requires effort and (true) compassion, not just sentimentality and money. Given the difficulties, it's common to find posing and trying to shed guilt by spending money, rather than making the difficult investments of time and energy that would make feasible even the start of a helpful approach (157-158):  
Of course, everyone knows that class-prejudice exists, but at the same time everyone claims that he, in some mysterious way, is exempt from it. Snobbishness is one of those vices which we can discern in everyone else but never in ourselves...We all rail against class-distinctions, but very few people seriously want to abolish them. Here you come upon the important fact that every revolutionary opinion draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed. 
And how should we even define "class"? The easiest empirical proxy is income. The next-easiest empirical proxy and the easiest to approximate visually is wealth—or at least, evident wealth. But "class" stands in for education, a variety of social/cultural norms, and a general approach to life. (In his vital book on this topic, Coming Apart, Charles Murray presents data on classes based on income and more. Murray has also done useful work on the “bubbles” in which we live—particularly in the upper classes.)
Orwell provides some estimates of income in contemporary England. But then he quickly moves to professions of the "upper-middle class": "not to any extent commercial, but mainly military, official and professional" (123). In sum, for him: "Which class do I belong to? Economically I belong to the working class, but it is almost impossible for me to think of myself as anything but a member of the bourgeoisie." (225)
In our day, profession, education, and income also intersect in a Venn diagram of what might constitute "class". And so, for example, the middle-income sociology professor is upper-middle class or even upper class. For those within some of the intersections of the Venn, "you live, so to speak, at two levels simultaneously" (123). Moving toward the outer edges of those intersections, we see people "struggling to live genteel lives on what are virtually working-class incomes...forced into close and, in a sense, intimate contact with the working class..." (124) But this intimate contact is no longer true today—with our diminished sense of neighborliness, low-cost transportation, and easy communication. 
Orwell talks about being a young man and a wannabe reactionary. "I was both a snob and a revolutionary." (140) (The editor refers to Orwell as "at one and the same time, an extreme intellectual and a violent anti-intellectual" [xvi]. I'm down that end of the spectrum too, in a group that includes today's anti-anti-Trumpers.) "We retained, basically, the snobbish outlook of our class, we took it for granted that we should continue to draw our dividends or tumble into soft jobs." (139) Orwell says that he grew more aware of this tension over time, but noticed that others were satisfied with platitudes: "Many people, however, imagine that they can abolish class-distinctions without making any uncomfortable change in their own habits and 'ideology'." (162)
Orwell is also brutally frank about his problems with the working class. He starts with a phrase that was popular in his youth but had become too PC to utter at the time of his book: "The lower classes smell." (127) Wow! He continues by describing it as a repulsive physical feeling—and thus, more difficult to get over (128). "They are dirtier" and less likely to have bathrooms (130). He has a "hope that in 100 years, they will be almost as clean as the Japanese" (130)! Then he shares a hilarious story where he was in a position to share a quart of beer with a bunch of herdsmen. He thought he would vomit, but he didn't want to offend them. "You see here how the middle-class squeamishness works both ways." (131) Later, "it was rubbing shoulders with tramps that cured me of it." (131). 
This is reminiscent of Michael Harrington in his classic book on poverty. Harrington argues that the poor are “maimed in body and spirit” (11). On a story about poor African-Americans, Harrington concludes: “The story is funny enough, but at bottom it is made of the same stuff as Amos ‘n’ Andy: the laughing, childlike, pleasure-loving Negro who must be patronized and taken care of like a child…the incident is ultimately one more tragedy within the structure of the ghetto.” And commenting on family structure in the African-American community, Harrington argues that “as a result of this, to take but one consequence of the fact, hundreds of thousands, and perhaps millions, of children in the other America never know stability and ‘normal’ affection.” (16)
Orwell closes the chapter by noting that "he is still responding to the training of his childhood, when he was taught to hate, fear, and despise the working class." (136) Perhaps given our lack of proximity these days, there's not much of such "training". Instead, we have apathy and utter unfamiliarity. But I suspect that fear of the unknown—and less opportunity for intersection with those who are different from us—get us to a similar outcome. 
When one looks down on people—and gets involved with them, out of pity, compassion, etc.—it's easy and often correct to question and criticize their choices. This leads to a difficult and uncomfortable question: When are differences a matter of preference and opinion vs. some objective norm? And if you and I differ—and I am convinced that your decision is "wrong"—at what point should I condemn your choices (never the sinner; always the sin!) or even, bring government policy into the fray? 
Orwell plays with this from a few angles. He points to "the squalor of these people's houses" and "the number of children" (60). (He's not nearly as rough in his paternalism as Michael Harrington’s.) Orwell also notes the role of paternalism in foreign affairs: "seen from the outside, the British rule in India appears—indeed, it is—benevolent and necessary...[but it also] an unjustifiable tyranny." (144) And he extends his observations to paternalism and condescension in nationalism and regionalism (111-112).  
Orwell on the Failure of Socialists to Sell Socialism
The second primary topic in part 2 of the book is Orwell's frustration with socialism's failure to spread in the popular imagination—and thus, socialists' failures to make their case effectively. This is also relevant to a common political malady today. 
With the most recent American presidential election, it became patently obvious that most voters are not all that ideological. The Democrats gave us a decidedly illiberal candidate—e.g., with her approach to foreign policy, crony capitalism, "free speech", the "sharing economy", and so on. The Republicans gave us a decidedly un-conservative candidate—at least by any conventional social or economic definition of "conservatism". 
Public Choice economists describe voters as "rationally ignorant and apathetic". Weighing benefits and costs, it's rarely enough for voters to get educated and take action in the political realm. This leads to light investments in a complicated arena. 
The political philosophies that usually emanate from this approach are somewhere between piecemeal and incoherent. Sadly, this limited thought process too often results in rabid partisanship and a strange sort of hubris. The most impressive cases are those who have applied coherent ideas to a particular policy or a narrow set of policies—say, in support of a position on abortion or international trade restrictions. 
In contrast, there are a handful of folks who have thought things out relatively well and have come to embrace a coherent ideology. In broad terms, these people fall into two categories. They typically have high regard for freedom and economic markets—and pessimism about regulation and political markets. Or they are pessimistic about markets and individual choices—and have high regard for the actions of the State. The former are libertarians or Libertarians; the latter are "Progressives" or Statists. 
Those who have invested enough to reach these conclusions often have difficulty in understanding why others don't think the same as they do—why they don't see the "obvious" problems or solutions that they envision. More broadly, the advocates don't understand why laypeople don't spend much time thinking about these things. (Jonathan Haidt's research on this is fascinating.)
Given the contemporary problems for those in every class (remember this was the 1930s), Orwell remarks casually that "everyone who uses his brain knows that Socialism, as a world-system and wholeheartedly applied, is a way out. It would at least ensure our getting enough to eat even if it deprived us of everything else." (171) 
But "Socialism is not establishing itself...[it is] visibly going back...with so much in its favor—the idea of Socialism is less widely accepted than its was ten years ago. "This must be due chiefly to mistaken methods of propaganda." (171) And/or socialism "has about it something inherently distasteful" (172).
Orwell puts himself in the position of Devil's Advocate to empathize with why people are not impressed by socialism and socialists. (In this, along the lines of Haidt's research, he's doing something that is rare/difficult for many self-styled liberals—at least of the modern, American sort.) While engaged in this exercise, he notes that socialism "is a theory confined entirely to the middle class" (173); it is plagued by a "prevalence of cranks" (174). 
Orwell's example is hilarious, even to a contemporary mind (174-175): 
For instance, I have here a prospectus from another summer school which states its terms per week and then asks me to say 'whether my diet is ordinary or vegetarian'. They take it for granted, you see, that it is necessary to ask this question. This kind of thing is by itself sufficient to alienate plenty of decent people. And their instinct is perfectly sound, for the food-crank is by definition a person willing to cut himself off from human society in hopes of adding five years on to the life of his carcass; that is, a person but of touch with common humanity. 
On "cranks", Orwell's observation seems to apply nicely to “Progressives” and the Libertarian party. In his context, "One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England." (174) For Libertarians, you get James Weeks dancing, an assortment of single-issue folks (who are always somewhere between focused and obsessed), and those who “get it” but can't explain it well and come off as...well, interesting. Or think about the LP's three top presidential candidates in 2016: Johnson, Peterson, and McAfee—each admirable in his own way, but not exactly gifted at reaching the mainstream of American society. 
Continuing his Devil's Advocate critique, Orwell cites "the ugly fact that most middle-class Socialists, while theoretically pining for a classless society, cling like glue to their miserable fragments of social prestige." (175) He also notes the rarity of laypeople having any sort of coherent sense of political economy (176-178). As a result, "it is only the 'educated' [orthodox] man...who knows how to be a bigot...The creed is never found in its pure form in a genuine proletarian." (178) 
And so, "the ordinary decent person, who is in sympathy with the essential aims of Socialism, is given the impression that there is no room for his kind in any Socialist party that means business." (182) Again, we see this sort of thing among the purists in the Libertarian party. And there is a place for purity—but at what expense? 
And what motivates the entire enterprise for the ardent socialist? Orwell observes:
Sometimes I look at a Socialist--the intellectual, tract-writing type of Socialist, with his pullover, his fuzzy hair, and his Marxian quotation--and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is often difficult to believe that it is a love of anybody, especially of the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed. The underlying motive of many Socialists, I believe, is simply a hypertrophied sense of order. (178-179)
What an ironic angle! Orwell argues that it's not love of others, but a personal desire for order, that motivates the socialist. This connects nicely to the fundamentalism one finds from ideologues, even from "liberals"—from orderly thinking (a la Chesterton's "maniac") to believing in government's ability to instill order and the desirability of such an end. Then, Orwell throws another haymaker:
Poverty and, what is more, the habits of mind created by poverty, are something to be abolished from above, by violence if necessary; perhaps even preferably by violence. Hence his worship of 'great' men and appetite for dictatorships...revolution does not mean a movement of the masses with which they hope to associate themselves; it means a set of reforms which 'we', the clever ones, are going to impose upon 'them', the Lower Orders...Though seldom giving much evidence of affection for the exploited, he is perfectly capable of displaying hatred--a sort of queer, theoretical, in vacua hatred--against the exploiters. Hence the grand old Socialist sport of denouncing the bourgeoisie. It is strange how easily almost any Socialist writer can lash himself into frenzies of rage against the class to which, by birth or by adoption, he himself invariably belongs. (179-180)
Another problem for socialism’s popularity: Its supposed success is driven by artificial, government-induced mechanization, with "five-year plans" in search of progress, organization, and efficiency (188-194, 201). For one thing, it's not at all clear that government can accomplish these goals. But Orwell points to another angle: If successful, the things replaced will be anachronisms. Capitalism has the same problem when people recognize it: the good news for consumers and "markets" (of technological advance and increased competition) is also bad news for producers (firms and workers). But Orwell notes that socialism is unattractive to the extent that people perceive it as cold and sterile “progress”.
The bottom line here for Orwell is nicely put at the end of Chapter 12 (p. 216): 
We have reached a stage when the very word 'Socialism' calls up, on the one hand, a picture of aeroplanes, tractors, and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), of earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers. Socialism, at least in this island, does not smell any longer of revolution and the overthrow of tyrants; it smells of crankishness, machine-worship, and the stupid cult of Russia. 
Orwell is a good read for those interested in politics—particularly for those who don't understand why people don't embrace their views. In our days of political hostility, cultural sensitivity, and faux tolerance, we need more empathy and humility—and Orwell can help readers increase both by a notch. 

review of Neuhaus' "American Babylon" (use edited paper's version instead)

Richard John Neuhaus had an interesting and influential life-- and has a great legacy. On top of that, he walked a particularly fascinating path, religiously and politically. He was an ordained Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism and became a priest. He was a liberal and a key player in the civil rights movement, but later became an influential neo-conservative. I came to "know him" through a few books (most notably, his classic work, The Naked Public Square) and his editorial work at the excellent journal he founded and ran for 18 years, First Things.

If you want to read a recent biography, "warts and all", you might check out this book review in CT. If you want read about him, there's Wikipedia-- or this blog which is dedicated to preserving remembrances of him as as well as his key essays.

American Babylon was Neuhaus' final book, posted after he died from cancer in 2009. It describes principles for "living in exile”-- a state that all Christians occupy. I had happened to put it on the top of my reading pile, but then it tied in nicely with a journal article I was writing. So, I prioritized it further and compiled notes on it-- as follows...
____________________

“This world, for all its well-earned dissatisfactions, is worthy of our love and allegiance.” (3) As “citizens of a country that is prone to mistaking itself for the designation…means also a cultivated skepticism about the idea of historical progress, especially moral progress” (3)
This side of Heaven, “there are no permanently lost causes because there are no permanently won causes, and the reverse is also true.” (85)
“The alternative to resigning ourselves to exile without end—whether that resignation takes the form of Stoic defiance, utopian dreams of progress, or ironic liberalism—is the narrative of history, and of our lives in history, moving toward the Kingdom of God, and being encountered by the Kingdom of God moving toward us.” (163)
As Christians and as Americans, “our awkward duality of citizenship” (250)
Neuhaus cites the beginning of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  (Jeremiah 29:5-7). In other words, seek the good of the place in which you find yourself—for their good and yours. “Exile remains exile, and Babylon remains Babylon, but both are penetrated, both are charged, by the promise of deliverance.” (16) God can only bless you where you’re at. God promises to redeem in part now—and ultimately, in the not yet. But as God blesses you here, bless others as well—as co-participants in his redemptive plans. In Jeremiah’s time, the promise was for both the present and their future deliverance from exile. But both “the now and the not yet” were the subject of God’s famous promise a few verses later: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
“America is our homeland, and, as the prophet Jeremiah says, its welfare is our welfare. America is also—and history testifies that this is too easily forgotten—a foreign country.” (26)
“Against our fellow Babylonians who seek no other city and have repudiated the truths upon which this earthly city is founded, we follow the counsel of Jeremiah in attempting to secure and advance the peace and welfare that serve the common good.” (84)
One of the subtle temptations and underlying problems in our endeavor: the thin theology and prevalence of the American “Civil Religion” (ACR) which has a competing claim to Christianity as its core. But the ACR version of Christianity is more bastardized than biblical—with its cultural adherence to a tepid and limited morality, popular traditions, and occasional cultural practices. Neuhaus cites Leo Strauss in describing ACR’s “thin public theology”—with founding principles that were “low but solid”. Neuhaus: “Perhaps too low, and not solid enough..the new order was not wired for first-principle questions such as those addressing the humanity and rights of slaves of African descent. As it is not wired for today’s questions about the humanity and rights of the unborn child.” (40) These theological deficiencies bleed into the truer Christianity within the American church: “American theology has suffered from an ecclesiological deficit, leading to an ecclesiological substitution of America for the Church through time.” (41) With shifting cultural norms, this substitution will be easier to recognize and thus, it will get easier for the Church to differentiate itself from ACR.
Paul echoed this in Philippians 1:20-24: “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
“You might suppose that, during their Babylonian captivity, the only progress, the only promising change, that the people of Israel cold look forward to would be a return to their homeland and rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem. Yet…” (57)
“The cross is not the final word. There is resurrection, and it is both the resurrection in history and resurrection of history.” (73)
“Redemption or salvation is thus viewed not as escape from this world but as participation in the future that is already happening in Jesus Christ and the community of faith in Jesus Christ.” (232) For the believer, eternal life has already begun.
Neuhaus wrestles at length with the idea of “progress” (chapter 3). “Almost everybody agrees that progress is a good thing…however, disagreements arise upon closer examination.” (58) Striving to define it and discern the different ideas about progress, Neuhaus notes that “Progress is more than change; it is change with a purpose… change is teleological.” (58) Change as progress (or regress) assumes an end. A “modern” mindset, as exemplified more often by “liberals” and “progressives” has more faith in change as progress: “Change is good because it is a movement toward the better on history’s way toward some unspecified, and perhaps unspecifiable, good.” (59) “Conservatives” are generally less persuaded by this faith position. Any examination of history encourages us to avoid the two extremes. But then we come to questions of ends, means to ends, and our priors.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

two long fiery passages from Steinbeck's East of Eden on free will and sin (or not), in the context of Genesis 4


Lee on alternative translations of timshel (691’s last word from Adam) in Gen 4 as (’Thou shalt’ / ‘Do thou’ vs. ‘Thou mayest rule over sin’): “Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’—that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”…Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But “Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win…It is the easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there…But this—this is a ladder to climb to the stars.” Lee’s eyes shone. “You can never lose that. It cuts the feet from under weakness and cowardliness and laziness.” (349-350)

“It was your two-word retranslation, Lee—”Thou mayest.’ It took me by the throat and shook me. And when the dizziness was over, a path was open, new and bright. And my life which is ending seems to be going on to an ending wonderful. And my music has a new last melody like a bird song in the night.” Lee was peering at him’ through the darkness. “That’s what it did to those old men of my family.” “ ‘Thou mayest rule over sin,’ Lee. That’s it. I do not believe all men are destroyed. I can name you a dozen who were not, and they are the ones the world lives by. It is true of the spirit as it is true of battles—only the winners are remembered. Surely most men are destroyed, but there are others who like pillars of fire guide frightened men through the darkness. ‘Thou mayest, Thou mayest!’ What glory! It is true that we are weak and sick and quarrelsome, but if that is all we ever were, we would, millenniums ago, have disappeared from the face of the earth. A few remnants of fossilized jawbone, some broken teeth in strata of limestone, would be the only mark man would have left of his existence in the world. But the choice, Lee, the choice of winning! I had never understood it or accepted it before. Do you see now why I told Adam tonight? I exercised the choice. Maybe I was wrong, but by telling him I also forced him to live or get off the pot. What is that word, Lee?” “Timshel,” said Lee. (355-356)

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Cinton vs. Trump contributions and media/ESPN bias

27:1 for Clinton:Trump political contributions for traditional mass media. And 270:1 for ESPN! Wow.

Of course, this points to Leftist/Democrat-tribal bias in the media.
For ESPN, the stories get more complex. --Do sports folks look to create value, dignity and the appearance of weight/seriousness though politics and govt intervention? --Do sports folks enjoy their work so much that they wouldn't respond to higher tax rates-- and assume others are the same? --Do sports folks see themselves as lucky and undeserving-- and are thus, more willing to see their work taxed? See also: Hollywood.