Pastor, Are You Talking About Me?

This post is a sort of detour from the game plan laid out at the end of my last post, and there will be at least one more detour on the way, but it isn’t actually changing the topic at all. You see, I’m not only talking about politics. I have been talking about Christian anxiety and the need to make Jesus your soul’s satisfaction. This whole series is secretly about pastoral theology. I’m trying to sneak soulcare into a conversation about worldview. Don’t tell anyone. And so, to the question at hand. Have I been talking about you?

This is something that pastors actually experience frequently. In sermons or other writings we use illustrations or we praise or critique something by description, and so the question arises, “Is he criticizing one person in particular?” I am not here talking about academic, formal, or legal cases. It is appropriate and necessary to name names and cite sources in those instances. But in pastoral contexts, things are different. We aren’t making charges against someone. We aren’t writing a book review. We are using illustrations and examples to prove a more general point about sin and righteousness. These can be tricky and even dangerous occasions, and they are why we have the expression “bully pulpit.” Using a sermon or pastoral essay to “go after” someone is a sort of power-play, and it is hurtful and unfair. Continue reading

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Putting Politics in Its Place: Vocation and Dominion

I’ve been talking about politics lately. I know that it appeared like I was talking about not talking about politics, but to do that is to still talk about politics, and so, yeah, anyway, here we are, politics. I got a fair amount of responses to my post Political Talk as Totalitarian Distraction, some of them rational and some of them not, and so that gives me a good opportunity to say more. It would be a mistake to assume that I was talking about a kind of theology per se in that post. I singled out “political talk” as the thing under critique, and I highlighted the immoderate consumption and use of “TV news, talk radio, and online media.” I cannot see how this applies to a specific school of theology directly, but I suppose that if someone wishes to volunteer their feeling that the shoe fits, then I won’t be able argue too much against them. Perhaps some theologies do actively promote such immoderate consumption as a key commitment. Still, we shouldn’t confuse experiential memory and reflex with faithful interpretation of text. What I was addressing was not a theology at all, but rather a pathology– giving the discussion of politics, usually a fairly medium-to-low level discussion at that, a totalizing control over your life and, especially, allowing it to dominate your church and family. That was my actual target, and that is what any responsible reading of my words will substantiate.  

Also, my concluding three points were not presented as an alternative political theology but instead as a pre-political theology, or as a way to “put politics in its place,” as I said in the immediate context. If you understand justification by faith, the biblical doctrine of dominion, and the role of vocation in your life, then you will be free to engage in politics appropriately. But if those things are out of order, as they so often are, then you will be unable to resist a totalitarian political theology. It will fill the void of those more basic things, and you will find yourself enslaved. 

But what of politics itself or political theology? Can we say specifically “Christian” things about it? Yes. But before we get there we need to define our terms. Continue reading

Political Talk as Totalitarian Distraction

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the kind of book that should be read several times throughout one’s life and for a variety of reasons. Most people who read it do so as assigned reading in High School or College. They then apply it to history and politics, respectively, seeing the themes and connections that Huxley is presenting throughout the story. What I would propose, however, is applying it not simply to politics, but to society itself and indeed ourselves, to human nature. While a much better book, Brave New World is less iconic than Orwell’s 1984 and so it does not contribute to our common parlance in quite the same way. Everyone knows what “Big Brother” is, but hardly anyone in the general population would know what I meant if I referred to soma, Fordianism, or “the feelies.” This is too bad, because Huxley much more accurately foresaw the condition of the middle-to-late 20th century, and what he saw continues today. In fact, I think it is a book with immense pastoral value. (Pastors: read it next to Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos and for the same reason.)

The difference between Huxley’s vision and Orwell’s lies in the nature of coercion and repression. Orwell’s presentation is of the classically totalitarian sort: traditional-style propaganda, the military-industrial complex, and top-down control. Huxley sees things from the opposite direction. True, there is still a “program” which is enforced on society, but in Brave New World, the powers that be have figured out how to make the people impose this program on themselves, voluntarily and without ever feeling discomfort. This is achieved through a strict class stratification, the disestablishment of the family, free sex, ubiquitous prescription drugs, and an entertainment industry which keeps everyone constantly distracted. Where Orwell depicts the old-style statism of Nazis and Soviets, Huxley captures liberal-progressivism of the sort that the modern West, including the US, embodies today. We have largely entertained and distracted ourselves to death. Continue reading

The Actual Culture War

So there definitely is a culture war.  It doesn’t take much reading through academic literature and the press to see that discussions of reason and revelation, faith and science, social freedoms, public morality, and sexual identity all attract attention and all cut to the deepest convictions and principles of American society.  And it doesn’t take long to see that America is unsettled on those convictions and principles.  The problem is that this culture war is often pretty mixed up, with participants shooting themselves in the foot as often as anything else.

They say that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  This is true.  People learn a couple of talking points and a few intellectual formulas, and suddenly they think they have profound weaponry for social regeneration.  One example is a billboard on Interstate 55 here in Jackson.  It’s advertising a school which, I’m told, actually does do a good job at placing students into colleges and preparing them for high-paying jobs.  Still, the sign’s faux intellectualism is unnerving.  It advertises that the school will “Teach you how to think, not what to think.”  Now that certainly sounds pious.  This school, unique among all others, will avoid brainwashing its students with socio-political bias and will instead impart to them a view-from-nowhere objectivity that will allow these students to discover the best world and life for each of them, as they freely realize it on their own, with no intrusion from the principalities and powers.

Obviously that’s ridiculous.   Continue reading

When To Get All Political And When Not To Do That

So politics, however messy things get in real life, is a legitimate topic of conversation, specialization, and even vocation.  There is nothing necessarily immoral or even undignified about the art of statecraft.  And politics are necessary.  Whenever you hear a politician deriding politics, as when our President says that we shouldn’t let “politics” prevent Washington from “getting things done,” you should ask the very basic question– “What ever else are they supposed to be doing?”  It’s a silly rhetorical conceit, designed to capitalize on and manipulate the common man’s cynicism.  And sometimes politics directly affects people’s lives and livelihoods.  So it matters, and people should care about it.

On the other hand, the old Southern rule of etiquette still holds true.  Politics really isn’t a good subject to discuss over dinner.  It can be alienating and off-putting in a number of ways.  First, it can quickly become a specialized topic, leaving out those people who have not been keeping up with the latest news.  It can also be divisive, in that not everyone is going to agree (surprise!).  And as much as we like to assume that politics is about good and evil or absolute justice vs. absolute injustice, this is actually irregularly the case.  More often it is about efficiency and prudence, what will work and what won’t work, or perhaps, what will kinda work and what won’t work so well.  People often don’t admit it, but their political thinking is biased, formed by sociology and personal history as much or more than by objective positions and principled argumentation.  In the same way you judge others, you will be judged, so let’s consider ourselves and our neighbor and extend an extra dose of charity to political conversation, even if that means not having it right now.

And so there’s nothing terribly profound in this post.  Rather, I just want to give some good pastoral advice, otherwise known as common courtesy.  Politics is not always awful, but neither is it always awesome.  Keep it in perspective.  Also, for those Calvinists out there who claim to believe in divine sovereignty and that there is “no power but of God,” does your rhetoric and ordinary anxiety level line up with your claim?  If you are always worried about politics, always talking about it, letting it actually get you down- well, might that not mean that “where your treasure is, there your heart is also”?  Are you trusting in chariots, after all?

Politics can be good, but it is always earthly.  The heavenly king is King Jesus, and his throne is forever.  Let your light shine before men, starting with a sunny disposition.  Trust in him, let your hearts not be troubled, and tone it down a notch at the table.

SPSA 2012

So I’ve been gone a long time again.  What can I say?  I’ve been busy and having fun.  However, I do have news that might be of interest to some of you.

Next Thursday, Jan. 12th, I will be presenting a paper for the Southern Political Science Association in New Orleans, LA.  My panel is called “People of God? The Role of Political Hebraism in America,” and it meets from 3:00 to 4:30pm.  I’m presenting on the 19th cent. Presbyterian-Catholic debates of John Breckinridge and John Hughes.  Here’s an abstract:

The notion of religious tolerance in early 19th century America was hotly contested, and perhaps nowhere do we see how hot that contest could get as in the debates between John Breckinridge and John Hughes over religious principles and American liberty. Their political dialogue reveals a mixture of Enlightenment ideals and specifically theological convictions, and as it was in early 19th century America that the new religious tolerance was most clearly put to the test, an examination of the intellectual assumptions involved is helpful in locating the distinctive contours of the new Liberal settlement. There was not an easy or obvious settlement, as the history of anti-Catholicism in America has shown. Although anti-Catholic bigotry was involved in some of the controversies of the time, it is also the case that some of the specific arguments of the anti-Catholics reflected the matrix of political, philosophical, and religious ideals upon which the American settlement was founded, claiming a specifically Protestant foundation for Liberal religious toleration. The Catholics, on their part, pointed to aspects of the Protestants’ own history which contradicted their new sentiment. My investigation will seek to highlight the conflicting demands of religious communities and American civic liberty, identifying the basic principles and the rhetoric of ecclesiastical self-representation. It will also illustrate that certain theories of natural rights were themselves dependent upon religious or transcendental commitments, a fact which Revolutionary secularity did not always aim to highlight, but which became obvious in debates such as the one between Breckinridge and Hughes.

I would also like to compare the intellectual features of Breckinridge and Hughes’ arguments with the claims about developing secularity made by the contemporary writers Philip Hamburger and Eric Nelson. While the relevance to Hamburger’s work on the American notion of separation of church and state is obvious, Nelson’s treatment of the 16th and 17th century Hebraicists might seem much more remotely pertinent. In many ways, however, John Breckinridge’s Protestant version of religious tolerance directly mirrors the early modern moves highlighted by Nelson, and his own religious tradition was an heir of that earlier British thought. In this respect, it may be possible to show that the American development of secularity was a continuation of and not a departure from earlier modern Liberal views.

Pro-Life Principles- The Ethical Questions

As we noted in the previous post, the abortion discussion can be divided into two parts: the ethical and the political.  These are not unrelated questions, but they are distinct.  So first, the ethical-

Is abortion moral? 

This question is the elephant in the room.  Almost no one in the pro-choice camp is willing to answer in the affirmative.  They will always say that abortion is to be regretted, yet there are other influential factors that may make certain abortions morally justifiable.

We can already anticipate more questions, but we must not run off just yet.  Let’s stick to this one question.  Is abortion moral?  Or rather, is it moral to end the life of (kill) a human entity (person?  being?  life?) prior to its birth? Continue reading

Pro-Life Principles- A Prolegomena

The fallout from Proposition 26 has been very revealing.  The measure was defeated by a sizable majority, and there are various theories as to just what was its downfall.  “Overreaching” seems to be the consensus explanation, but I think the problem is more basic.  It was seen as overreaching because it implicated a variety of issues and practices that the average “pro-life” Christian was not prepared to question.  Almost everyone in the great state of Mississippi is “pro-life.”  It’s really quite polite to be so.  But it is a much smaller percentage who are willing to condemn abortifacient birth control, and still fewer of that group are ready to say that certain advances in “reproductive technology” violate the natural law.  Perhaps, and a bit more understandably, legal “personhood” is also too difficult of a concept to apply to entities that do not yet exist within the immediate jurisdiction of the state.

While I supported Prop. 26 and am still convinced that it was a morally justified position, I am willing to have the conversation about each of these issues.  From my own perspective, I am convinced that the ethical questions will always have a singular answer, however, the prudential political questions may vary depending upon our context and ability.  Still, what I saw more than anything else was a failure on the part of the citizenry to articulate clear principles and to explain why they would support one practice yet condemn another.  We did not have our first principles in order, nor did we quite know how the law ought to work in support of those principles.

Because of this, I would like to have an extended conversation about these matters.  I want to examine those principles, as well as ask certain key questions as to why people think and decide as they do.  Continue reading