Tuesday, December 3, 2013

GRAY MATTERS (2013) - by Brett McCracken (book review, Part II)

Let us begin this second part of exploring the ideas in Brett McCracken’s interesting book, Gray Matters, with the qualification that there is much in his book that ought to be deeply appreciated and affirmed.  For this reason, I discussed how much I heartily agreed with many of Mr. McCracken’s viewpoints in Part One of this book review.  Those of us who are strongly committed to articulating how our faith ought to rightly exist in life and culture can count him as among our number.  Thus, I consider the questions and disagreements that I pose further in this review as those of the kind that can be asked and held between like-minded friends.

In another sense, my disagreements with Mr. McCracken are those related to what could be described as tactical or rhetorical decisions ultimately directed towards the same ends.  In discussing culture, art or politics, Christians and conservatives have to make proper distinctions.  They also recently seem to have been neglecting tactical thinking regarding such subjects as “pop culture”, consumerism, church subculture, the relation of morality to culture, entertainment, the difference between high and low culture, and other closely related corollaries such as the doctrine of general revelation.

It is rhetorical and tactical thinking here that I am interested in.  How we choose to formulate our position requires that we use our language carefully.  We must keep both history and our immediate audience in mind.  Persuasion is an art form.  Some forms of persuasion work more effectively than others.  Other forms of persuasion work less effectively and yet are perhaps demanded by an adherence to the moral order in which we live.

“It has been well established,” McCracken writes early in his book, “that Christians can find value in exploring secular pop culture.” (pg. 14)

Here’s the problem.  I understand where McCracken is coming from because, like him, I was raised in an evangelical world that taught against “the culture” and “the world.”  It makes sense that McCracken would want to argue that there is value in culture.  But McCracken doesn’t use the term culture.  Instead he uses the phrase “pop culture.”


If Christians in our generation mean to be serious about reversing the withdrawal from culture that we have experienced in both the fundamentalist and evangelical movements, then we must first be aware of what culture is and the intellectual history behind the idea.  In order to be aware of what culture is, it is important that we do not ignore the philosophical debate that has shaped the meaning of the word over the last three centuries.  This debate grows apparent first by glancing at the two different primary definitions of “culture” in our dictionaries.

Worded slightly differently in different dictionaries, if you were peruse the different definitions of “culture,” you would find two main themes.

First, you would find culture defined as “the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic” or “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group” (Merriam-Webster online, 2013).

Secondly, you would also find culture defined as “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education” or “enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training” (Merriam-Webster online, 2013).

Now, if you were to look closer at the history of the word, you would find that the second definition is far older than the first.  The older definition views culture, by definition, as something of value to be attained.  It is not limited to any class or social group.  It is accessible to anyone who makes the effort to cultivate it.  It implies universal values in both the moral and aesthetic spheres.  In contrast, the newer definition of culture does not presuppose any universal values at all.  Instead, it regulates culture to the characteristics of one social group or class as distinguished from another.

As we will discuss further, McCracken relies upon the theologian, Kevin Vanhoozer, to explain some of his ideas.  But Vanhoozer seems to prefer the newer definition to the old.  In fact, in the book, Everyday Theology, Vanhoozer even claims that the newer definition of culture is the older one:

“One of the oldest and most influential definitions of culture is that of the first professor of anthropology, Edward Tylor, given in his 1871 work Primitive Culture.  According to Tylor, culture is ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’  Thus from anthropology we learn that culture is a way of life ...” (Everyday Theology, pg. 24.)

However, Dr. Samuel Johnson defined culture in his 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language as “The act of cultivation; tillage; the art of improvement and melioration.”  Noah Webster defined culture in his 1828 Dictionary as “The application of labor or other means to improve good qualities in, or growth; as the culture of the mind; the culture of virtue ... Any labor or means employed for improvement, correction or growth.”

Vanhoozer has Tylor’s “oldest and most influential” definition in 1871, more than an entire century after Dr. Johnson.  And then, we must not neglect the very respectable Century Unabridged Dictionary from 1889.  Its section on “culture” reads as follows:

“The systematic improvement and refinement of the mind, especially of one’s own. [Not common before the nineteenth century, except with strong consciousness of the metaphor involved, though used in Latin by Cicero.] ... The result of mental cultivation, or the state of being cultivated; refinement or enlightenment; learning and taste; in a broad sense, civilization: as, a man of culture. (‘Rather to the pomp and ostentacion of their wit, then to the culture and profit of theyr mindes.’ - Sir Thomas More, Works, p. 14. ‘The culture and manurance of minds in youth hath such a forcible (though unseen) operation as hardly any length of time or contention of labour can countervail it afterwards.’ - Sir Francis Bacon, Advancement of Learning (Original [English ed.], Works, III. 415. ‘O Lord, if thou suffer not thy servant, that we may pray before thee, and thou give us seed unto our heart, and culture to our understanding, that there may come fruit of it, how shall each man live that is corrupt, who beareth the place of a man?’ - 2 Esd. viii. 6. ‘Culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit.’ - M. Arnold, Literature and Dogma, Pref.)”

In the history of the word, it was philosophers who criticized this old definition as elitist.  Johann Gottfried Herder and Georg W.F. Hegel both did not like how the word implied universal values, so they argued that culture, instead of being something that is the striving for a higher standard, should just be what people already have.  Both Herder and Hegel ended up consciously arguing to use the word “culture” differently so as to only mean a specific collection of characteristics belonging to a distinct social group.  In one sense, they succeeded.  Other philosophers began using the word in this way and now it is the sense in which we use it most.  Now really only our adjective “cultured” still first reminds us of the older sense of the word.

Now, what is important here is that in order to use a phrase like “pop culture,” you have to use the newer definition of the word.  And that is exactly what Kevin Vanhoozer does:

“Let us therefore define popular culture as ‘the shared environment, practices, and resources of everyday life,’ that is, the texts and trends that fill and frame our days and nights.” (pg. 28)

All this is a preliminary to thinking coherently about what culture means.  Over time the phrase “high culture” has been used in order to distinguish the older definition from the more recent definition.  And yet, another way that culture can possess great value, and a legitimate way in which the newer definition was useful to us, is to speak of “folk culture.”  Folk culture has also been called “common culture” or even “low culture.”  It is what is more popular to everyone, uneducated or educated.  But it is specific to a particular community and place.  Folk or common culture includes the local traditions, customs, conventions, legends and history of a distinct and local community.  It can be agricultural, rural, regional or even national.  Great works of art and great beauty has been produced, created and valued within folk culture.  But the problem is this.  Today, folk cultures are dying.  What used to be called folk culture, as local communities have progressively disintegrated, is now being replaced by what we call “pop culture.”

In other words, the phenomenon that we call “pop culture” is uniquely shaped by mass media and mass entertainment.  It is the replacing of traditional folk songs uniquely belonging to the customs and ceremonies of a local community with mass commercially produced pop songs that everyone in every local community learns and listens to instead.  It is the replacing of local forms of entertainment with electronic media entertainment, uniformly the same for all.  It is the replacing of local styles of uniquely crafted cuisine with mass-produced artificially preserved and processed foods.  Instead of locally  run bakeries, breweries, restaurants, cafes, diners and pubs, it is the emergence of mass corporately run food-chains, where the food that is offered can be the same in every city or every country that you should happen to visit.  There is a uniformity to “pop culture” that did not exist in “folk culture.”  It makes more and more of us the same in our “personal” tastes, activities and consumption.

In fact, there is even another reason to distrust “pop culture” as distinguished from the older ideas of culture.  Where does this line of reasoning take us?  (1)  “Pop culture” is the product of mass media and mass entertainment.  (2)  It includes rejection of universal values of the philosophers who changed the meaning of the word.  (3) They changed the word to mean merely those collections of beliefs, tastes, customs, conventions and activities held by a group of people as distinguished from another group.  This cuts out any implication of higher value from the word’s older meaning.  Therefore, (4) “pop culture” is essentially that collection of beliefs, tastes, customs, conventions and activities that happen to be popular with the majority of massed consumers.  In other words, “pop culture” loses much of the good still left in the newer definition of the word.  Where culture could be understood to mean “folk culture” it was at least still tied to the traditions of local community.  “Pop culture” does not even have that.  In the world of pop culture, local community dissolves and melds into an indistinct and amorphous mass.  Local family customs, regional traditions and community activity is replaced by a mass popularity that cuts across local place, time and tradition.

As distinct from “high culture” or from “folk culture,” pop culture is increasingly engaged with what, at the present moment, attracts the most popular attention.  There are many ways to express the phenomenon.  Pop culture is the replacing of local musicians with the radio.  It is the replacing of local theater with the television.  It is currently the replacing of local communal interaction with online social media.

Pop culture reduces high culture to a small educated elite, who intentionally neglect mass media in order to spend the time necessary to do the thinking necessary to educate themselves.  Pop culture reduces folk culture to quaint marketing demographics and retro-fashions that have slowly grown more and more similar (and less and less tied to any local place) with each successive generation.

This is why, when McCracken says “it has been well established that Christians can find value in exploring secular pop culture” (pg. 14), his statement is, whether he has thought about it or not, set in the middle of philosophical debate.  I fear he is focusing rather single-mindedly upon the meaning of “can find value” rather than in the meaning of “pop culture.”

It is not that I mean to accuse him of the inability to make any distinctions.  For he does go to the trouble to distinguish.  For instance, he writes that our “pop music culture has seen it all and - in the name of free speech - tolerated most of it.” (pg. 95) And blind or all-embracing tolerance of pop culture is not what McCracken is advocating for.  He uses the content of some popular rap music to explain that there are moral grounds to occasionally object to the popular.

“Tyler and Odd Future regularly rap about rape, violence against women, drugs, and murder fantasies; they employ offensive language with nearly every lyric, using the f-word 204 times in the 73 minutes of Tyler’s 2011 album Goblin, for example.” (pgs. 95-96)  “On the positive journey toward a wider appreciation of culture, Christians shouldn’t forget that - as Odd Future reminds us - not everything that is artistic, ‘real,’ or forward thinking is good for us.  Discernment is necessary.” (pg. 97)

But allowing for the ability to make moral objections does not solve the problems caused by embracing pop culture.

Yes.  Discernment is necessary.  But we must not be too heavily influenced by the “capture the culture” rhetoric of the evangelical right.  This is the unfortunate type of rhetoric that is in love with militaristic flourishes.  Thus derives all the talk you’ll hear about “fighting the culture wars,” capturing the culture (as if it were an enemy citadel), or “engaging” the culture (as if one were firing broadsides at the enemy).  If you have heard this sort of talk all your life, as I have, then without thinking about it, you’ll find this language slipping into your speech almost surreptitiously.  This happens to McCracken and it is no surprise given that he’s been reading Kevin Vanhoozer.

McCracken writes:

“It is important for Christians to engage culture on its own terms and ‘go the extra hermeneutical mile to make sure they do not simply project their own interests onto cultural texts.’  But it’s also important for Christians not to be ‘helpless victims of popular culture’ but rather to ‘make their own cultural statements out of whatever the culture industries produce,’ something Kevin Vanhoozer eloquently champions ...Vanhoozer advocates an informed Christian cultural literacy in which Christians can locate within pop culture the elements that can be redeemed and taken captive for the cause of Christ.” (pg. 110, emphasis added.)

Now Mr. Vanhoozer is both a nice and very intelligent man.  I have profited by his thinking on multiple occasions.  Nevertheless, in reading his work, one still finds jarring juxtapositions between evangelical culture warfare rhetoric and lapses into academic jargon of the kind of which any postmodernist collegiate would be proud.

For instance, looking again at his essay published in Everyday Theology, one first reads that “Christians have increasingly become aware of the need to engage culture as part of Christian mission ...” (pg. 32) But then one finds Vanhoozer saying things like this: “Fortunately, a multilevel approach brings order into the plurality of possible methodological approaches by arranging hierarchically the various levels of complexity that characterize cultural reality.” (pg. 46) Or this: “In addition to the plurality of perspectives and levels, however, the Method is also multidimensional.  To be precise, it situates cultural texts and trends in two distinct three-dimensional frameworks.” (pg. 48)

This sort of thing makes me uneasy because I worry that Vanhoozer has influenced McCracken and other Christian believers a little too far.  McCracken tries his best to promote one of Vanhoozer’s more postmodernist streaks, but then as a consequence finds himself also being influenced by the French Jesuit cultural theorist, Michel de Certeau.  Certeau is a separate essay subject in and of himself, but he is a perfect example of a Christian who attempted to debate the deconstructionists and postmodernists on their own terms, adopting much of their language in order to do so.  The problem with adopting the language of the postmodernist is that you will inevitably find yourself in fatal epistemological quicksand.  (Certeau, poor fellow, soon found himself trying to argue that “heterologies” were what ultimately explained life as the strategies of structures of power engaged in a war with the tactics of the subjugated so that everyday living is the process of poaching the social territories and power constructs of others.  That way madness lies.)

McCracken explains that Vanhoozer “cites French cultural critic Michel de Certeau’s model of ‘poaching’ cultural texts - the idea that an audience can appropriate a text for its own purposes, transforming its meaning to better fit one’s own perspective or goal.” (pg. 110)

Now, the reader’s ability to “transform” the meaning of a text for his “own purposes” is a favorite trope of postmodern philosophy. In order to argue, as both McCracken and Vanhoozer seem to argue, that Christians can do it too, one has to first grant some epistemological ground.  There are different schools of thought within Epistemology, and Christianity will not survive in any but one.  The school of thought that argues that the meaning of a text can be “poached” or appropriated by a reader, viewer or consumer is to say something about the nature of meaning itself.  Later in his book, McCracken writes:

“Michael de Certeau’s essay ‘Reading as Poaching’ is the classic apologia for the empowered consumer.  In it, de Certeau suggests that consumers of culture should not think of themselves as doomed to passivity, beholden to whatever telos of meaning (or vision of the good life) the producer intends ... In de Certeau’s view, the reader of cultural texts ‘invents in texts something different from what [the author] ‘intended.’ ... He combines their fragments and creates something unknown in the space organized by their capacity for allowing an indefinite plurality of meanings.’” (pgs. 256-257)

To his credit, at least he also adds:

“There are limits to ‘poaching.’  But where it’s appropriate, sensible, and informed by more than just a desire for a convenient sermon illustration, the savvy Christian consumer should consider how a misdirected cultural liturgy might be redirected toward a Christian telos.” (pg. 257)

So ... while I admire the ends for which McCracken is aiming, but I would caution every thinking Christian to avoid the sort of postmodern epistemology that argues that the reader can make a text with one meaning mean whatever meaning he or she really wishes it meant.  A text does not change its meaning merely because the reader wants it to.  This is not something new.  Today’s postmodernists are making the same outworn arguments about language and meaning that the heretical Nominalists of the Medieval Ages made.  The nominalist/postmodernist epistemology, denying that words have the ability to mean things that exist objectively in reality (and therefore that the meaning of a text can change at a reader's whim), falls only before the solid ground of what, in philosophy, is called moderate realism.

Nominalist thinking withered under the cross-examination of Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro.  It disintegrated when subjected to the works of Aristotle (read, for example, his Sophistical Refutations).  St. Thomas Aquinas found himself obligated to repeatedly deal it death blows as he found other Medieval theologians attracted to it.  But instead of turning this book review into an essay about meaning and universals, I'll just strongly recommend the book, Reclaiming the Center: Confronting Evangelical Accommodation in Postmodern Times, in which Millard J. Erickson, Justin Taylor, D.A. Carson and others make the argument that adopting or “poaching” any of the epistemological ideas of postmodernism leaves any Christian claim to any objective truth groundless.

“A perfect judge will read each work of wit
With the same spirit that its author writ.”
- Alexander Pope

Kevin Vanhoozer is more intelligent than I.  He’s a theologian who knows his stuff and I’m just a layman.  I have found his warnings against “reducing theology into mere cultural anthropology” both important and informative.  But whenever he starts trying to appropriate or poach the ideas of a philosopher like Paul Ricoeur, he loses solid ground to stand on.

At one point, Vanhoozer explains that discourse “happens when someone uses some medium to say or show something.  Ricoeur analyzes discourse further in terms of ‘a hierarchy of subordinate acts distributed on three levels’ (1) ‘locution,’ or act of saying something, (2) ‘illocution,’ or act of doing something in saying something, and (3) ‘perlocutation,’ or what we do by saying something ...” (44-45) And then: “Understanding cultural discourse demands a thick description of what has been wrought, and this is best accomplished with the aid of those speech act categories (viz., locution, illocution, perlocution) that enable a thick description of the act of discourse.” (Everyday Theology, pg. 46.)

The problem arises because one of the reasons Ricoeur made up all these new definitions in the first place is so that he can have them contradict each other.  Eventually you get the sort of thing where Smith the Academic performs the act of lucuting A, in order to illocute B in lucuting A, while also simultaneously perlocutating not A.

One suspects that academics may have a use for that sort of thing.  But if you spend too much of your time reading it, something in the brain starts gumming up your ability to express straightforward ideas and then you’ll start writing sentences like “To be precise, it situates cultural texts and trends in two distinct three-dimensional frameworks.”

The argument for trying to make the best of a bad job out of “pop culture” lost me with Herder and Hegel’s arguments against the old definition of culture.  From a tactical point of view, perhaps our objectives for working in culture would be best served instead by reviving the old sense of the word and standing on the more traditional ground of Dr. Johnson, Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot’s arguments about the value of culture.  When we can still do that, why go to the trouble of “poaching” nonsense and then trying to make it Christian?  This is exactly what McCracken warns against in other places in his book.

PROBLEM: Should conservatives or Christians simply advocate for the good that can be found in “pop culture” without addressing what it is, as distinguished from “culture” or “folk culture”?  No.  There is no need to give ground on this merely because some “folk” or “high” culture can be found mixed inside the mass of “pop” culture.  Neither is there a need to begin adopting postmodernist cultural interpretation.  For anyone interested in restoring the strength of local community or in debunking postmodernist assumptions, these are distinctions worth making.

Joseph Devlin, apparently with a Screwtapian smile, wrote that “For instance, you may not want to call a spade a spade. You may prefer to call it a spatulous device for abrading the surface of the soil.”  Plutarch thought otherwise.  Ten skafen skafen legontas.

This brings us next to the distinction between high and low culture.


There is another importance difference between the older and newer senses of the word culture.

McCracken writes:

“In his book Art Needs No Justification, Hans Rookmaaker suggests that the division between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art ultimately causes all art to suffer:
     ‘High art has shunned all practical demands, such as decoration, entertainment or in fact any role that might smack of involvement in real life.  Yet this type of art inevitably attracts almost everybody who has some talent ... But inevitably the ‘low’ arts have suffered also.  They become the ‘popular’ arts, sometimes called ‘commercial.’  It is art in the service of Mammon.  As all genuinely talented people tend to shun this field, its quality has deteriorated, and too often what is produced lacks all imagination or quality.’
     I agree with Rookmaaker that this division has unfortunately produced a needlessly simplistic binary, pitting the ‘commercial’ against the ‘artistic,’ as if something cannot ever be both.” (pg. 173)

But McCracken doesn’t explain how he imagines this division between “high” and “low” to have occurred.  Even his Rookmaaker quote does not really criticize the distinction itself.  Instead, it explains one reason why “high” art attracts those who are interested in producing quality and why “low” arts do not.  After reading McCracken, I cannot imagine how the act of distinguishing between “high art” and “low art” is supposed to have caused this.  Instead, they just seem to be the names we use to label them.  Pitting the commercial against the artistic is useful for the very reason that serious artists often avoid careers devoted to making, oh say, commercials.  One doubts they avoid doing so because someone somewhere one day decided to label commercials as “low art.”

No.  It’s not that something can never be both commercialized and artistic at the same time.  The point is what being commercialized can often do to a work of art.  Commercialization is something that really happens to art, and it rarely ever helps improve quality.  Taking McCracken’s music example, the list of highly talented and innovative musical artists who have had their careers wasted by commercialization is long and tragic.  Even Elvis Presley was convinced later in his life that he had sold out by allowing his career to be controlled by movie roles and songs written for him by other people.  Commercialization, far too often, means the loss of quality or musical integrity for the sake of mass production and catering to popular demand.

You can see this in popular bands whose music, according to many serious music critics, deteriorated in direct corrolation to their commercialization.  (See Genesis, Jefferson Airplane, Kings of Leon, Kiss, Metallica and Nickelback.)  Most recently, I’d argue that you can also see this in Rap and Hip Hop.  Unlike American blues and jazz, which kept much of its integrity without its best artists changing their style for the sake of marketing statistics, American Hip Hop may be one of the musical genres that has suffered the most from mass commercialization.  The Black Eyed Peas, Lil Wayne, OutKast, Puff Daddy, Run-D.M.C. and Snoop Dog are all gifted artists with real talent.  Arguably, all of their music at the beginning of their careers is so much better than their music now because they allowed commercialization to change their music.  (The same phenomenon has also happened, even more recently, to Indie Rock.)  That commercialization has really affected the quality of music is not even really in question.

This doesn’t always happen with everyone.  Jermaine Cole (J. Cole), Lauryn Hill, Nasir Jones (Nas) and Kanye West have all conspicuously refused to change their music so that it would sell better.  Others like Bobby McFerrin have refused multiple product endorsements.  The Doors refused to allow their music to be used for commercial advertising.  Pearl Jam refused to make music videos and set a ceiling for their ticket prices.  Mark Hollis and his English rock band, Talk Talk, kept the sound they wanted when pressured to change and probably threw away commercial success because of it.  Other musicians like Barbara Dane and Christy Paige have rejected different forms of commercialized success in order to try to preserve their freedom to create quality music outside of popular demand.

Generally, we use the phrase, high culture, to refer to the older ideas of culture and the phrase, low culture, to refer to that which is based on popularity rather than quality.

McCracken offers what he argues is a different way of thinking about this distinction:

   “I’d like to reimagine ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture not in terms of their old stereotypes ... but in terms of how high or low something takes us in the upward path toward sublime epiphany.  In this way, high and low would look more like this:
   High culture: That which reaches for greater heights of transcendence and truth, seeking to reveal - often in pleasurable and entertaining fashion - beauty and goodness honestly and with excellence.  Pays attention to craft, believes in meaning, and exudes humility.
   Low culture: That which hovers closer to the base or surface, incurious and uninterested in truly wrestling with truth or achieving the sublime/transcendent.  It is indulgent and undisciplined, more interested in esoteric obfuscation than true discovery.
   In this new understanding, a work of art could be considered high culture even if viewed by millions on YouTube each week.” (pg. 174)

What is unclear is why McCracken thinks that this way of putting it is new.  Anything that is a part of old “high” culture - Mozart, Rembrandt, Dostoevsky, Bernini, Tarkovsky - would not cease to be what it is if it were viewed on YouTube by millions.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is that sort of thing is simply not viewed on YouTube by millions.  Prioritizing high quality and that which is of high value is already commonly advocated for by those who have argued for high culture (Arnold, Eliot, Scruton).  Prioritizing self-indulgence and gratification is what has already been referred to as “low culture.”  No respectable critic or student of aesthetics really argues to popularity is a standard of value.  On the contrary, in order to advocate for the unpopular against the popular, one has to reject mere popularity as a measuring standard.  And once one does that, one could never argue against something merely because it was popular.  Turning the logical fallacy, argumentum ad populum, upside down does not make it cease to be a fallacy.

McCracken attempts to apply another distinction in pop culture’s favor with the help of Hans Urs von Balthasar.  He writes: “One of the tensions that has long informed Christian critique of culture is that of God’s immanence vs. transcendence.  Is God present here, in all things, infusing even culture with his goodness (‘God in all’)?  Or is he distant from the fallen things below, a ‘wholly other’ Being whose character does not manifest in the cultural works of sinful, estranged humanity (‘God above all’)?” (pgs. 97-98)

But are there really respectable Christian theologians who have argued that God is “wholly other” and completely outside of culture?  McCracken suggests that “Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, for example, favored the ‘transcendent’ view and thus rejected most popular culture as being a thoroughly secular impediment to spiritual growth.” (pg. 98)

Yet it is difficult to understand how Tillich’s writing could be described as “rejection” of culture.  After all, he is the theologian who wrote: “Religion as ultimate concern is the meaning-giving substance of culture, and culture is the totality of forms in which the basic concern of religion expresses itself.  In abbreviation: religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion.  Such a consideration definitely prevents the establishment of a dualism of religion and culture.”  (Theology of Culture, pg. 42.)  Speaking of how the church influenced education in the past, Tillich also wrote: “The reality into which generation after generation were inducted was the Christian Church, or more precisely, the ‘corpus Christianum,’ the ‘body Christian,’ which embraced religion, politics, and culture.  The soul of this body, namely, the spirit of medieval Christianity, was present and exercised educational functions on every level of man’s individual and social life.” (Theology of Culture, pg. 148)  This is the same theologian who argued against being unaware of other culture outside one’s own immediate experience, something that he attacked as “intellectual and spiritual provincialism.”  (Theology of Culture, pgs. 159-176.)

At the same time, McCracken contrasts Tillich with the rich theology of Balthasar, claiming that on “the ‘immanent’ side, an example might be Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who had a more positive view of human creativity and culture and felt that it could stir up a yearning in humans for God.” (pg. 98) Whether this contradicts Tillich is doubtful.  I still need to read more of Balthasar myself, but from what I have read of Balthasar’s writing on culture, there has never been any reason to equate what he meant by “culture” with what is, today, now called Pop.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Reflections on Being an Army Veteran in the 21st Century


“What life to lead and where to go
After the War, after the War?
We'd often talked this way before.
But I still see the brazier glow
That April night, still feel the smoke
And stifling pungency of burning coke.
I'd thought: ‘A cottage in the hills,
North Wales, a cottage full of books,
Pictures and brass and cosy nooks
And comfortable broad window-sills,
Flowers in the garden, walls all white.
I'd live there peacefully and dream and write.’ ...”
- Robert Graves, 1916

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.”
- T.E. Lawrence, 1920

(Note: This meandering and rather lengthy essay is written primarily to my fellow alumni from Patrick Henry College.  It was produced by request for the November 2013 Issue of the Patrick Henry College Alumni Newsletter.  The editor who honored me with the request said that the word count did not matter.  His primary mistake was that he rather carelessly told this to a very undisciplined writer.  This is the first time I’ve ever written or said anything officially to my fellow graduates and alumni.  It is also only the second time that I’ve written anything that discussed being in Iraq.)

It still sounds strange for me to say this.  I am a veteran of the Iraq war.  I was deployed for one year, from 2006 to 2007, to active duty as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves.  When I arrived in Iraq, the new government had just taken office and the insurgency was on the upswing.  I was there right before the troop surge of 2007 and I was there at the time that Saddam Hussein was executed.

I was proud to serve in the 298th Transportation Company, United States Army Reserves, with a number of brave and selfless men and women who I watched risk their lives daily and selflessly.  When our gun truck platoon was told that it would be spending a year guarding and driving gasoline tankers up and down the country across the roads of Iraq, I watched my friends shrug it off with a sangfroid worthy of their American ancestry.  It reminded me of a story I once heard William F. Buckley tell about a general, trying on one rare occasion, as officers sometimes awkwardly do, to make conversation with the enlisted men during a spit-‘n-polish inspection.  “Why do you like to do such an insane thing like jumping out of an airplane?” he asked a nearby paratrooper.  “Oh, I don’t like to, sir.  I hate it every single jump. It scares the hell out of me,” the paratrooper replied.  “Then why on earth do you do it?”  The answer goes a long way to explaining how many veterans feel about each other.  “I do it,” the paratrooper replied, “because I just like to be around the sort of people who like to jump out of airplanes.”

It is now a running joke that, whenever asked by some new acquaintance who has discovered for the first time that I was in the war, I’ll answer by boasting I was given the distinct privilege of being shot at inside the city of Nineveh.  But that isn’t quite true.  The hostile city I experienced, which possessed a seemingly infinite number of enemy roadblocks making it a pain in the rear to drive through, was Mosul.  Mosul is actually built upon the ancient ruins of Nineveh along the Tigris river.  Jonah notwithstanding, if there is anything the people of that city have yet to “repent” of, it is their enthusiasm for making it extremely uncomfortable for any westerners who should dare to venture inside their walls.

Our platoons took turns going out on missions.  Some missions lasted for a couple hours.  Some missions lasted for sixteen hours or more.  It became so commonplace for IEDs to explode in or on the side of the road every single mission, that their blowing holes in the road just became humdrum routine.  Eight times out of ten, they missed us.  Once out ten, they would manage merely to send shrapnel through the tires of our vehicles.  So I saw a little action over there.  Yet my company and I were blessed.  We all made it.  I made some other friends outside my own company.  A few of them went out on missions and never came back.

It was the sort of thing we talked about - the possibility of not making it back.  But it was too easy to reassure ourselves because of who we were and where we were from.  We’d continually compare the action that we’d seen to the action that our fathers, uncles and grandfathers had seen.  (I have one uncle who made it back from Vietnam and one great-uncle who didn’t.  I am also very proud of the fact that both of my grandfathers served with distinction in the Pacific theater of WWII.)  The “combat” we were experiencing in Iraq was nothing compared to what the men in past generations had seen and suffered through in other wars.  How on earth could we complain about what we were seeing once we compared ourselves to them?

I will never forget attending Patrick Henry College on September 11, 2001. The whole school shut down that day.  All our classes were very solemn and full of continual prayer for weeks afterward.  It was seared into our minds that we were now living in a new world, different from anything our country had ever experienced before.  Grief was first above all else.  But the next feeling was one of profound frustration.  I had already resolved, as a matter of family tradition, to serve in the Army.  But there is a strong sense in which, no matter how you are working in academics or politics, you can often feel like you aren’t doing anything that really matters. After graduating in the first graduating class, I walked off the platform in May of 2002 straight into boot camp.  My degree at Patrick Henry helped secure my acceptance to George Mason University School of Law.  I was never going to pursue a military career, but I was obligated, like so many of my historical heroes, to still participate in my generation’s war.

Neither will I forget the international relations and foreign policy classes I attended at PHC.  It was at our school that I first thoroughly studied and learned how empires have risen and fallen over the course of history.  It was at our school that I realized that there are lessons, even in the Peloponnesian War of the 400s BC, that still contain matters of great importance for us now.  Because I attended our school, I knew when I trod the desert sands of Iraq that others who believed in the principles of Western Civilization had trod them before me.  I experienced some unpleasantness there.  But so did Xenophon and his fellow Greek hoplites, outnumbered by tens of thousands of Persians, after they held back their enemy in the Battle of Cunaxa and then, leaderless, had to fight their way over a thousand miles back to the Black Sea.

It makes being in a foreign land and fighting what seems like a confused war far more meaningful if you pay attention to military history.  It turns out, I was fighting in merely one of a long series of conflicts between the East and the West.  I was in the same troubled country that had once been conquered by Alexander the Great.  The consequent Greco-Persian wars covered five decades.  It was a land that was later part of the Parthian Empire, conquered by Rome, established as a province by Trajan, evacuated as a province by Hadrian, and conquered again by the Roman general, Lucius Verus.  The Roman-Persian wars lasted for over seven centuries, as Roman legions did something very similar to what American troops were doing for the last decade.  The Crusaders of the Medieval Ages fought in what are now the cities of Iraq.  The Ottoman Empire was in conflict with the West for over six centuries. The British had to fight the Ottoman Central Powers there during World War I, and then they tried to keep order, often bungling it for which T.E. Lawrence so eloquently took them to task.

Western armies have entered the Middle East, defeated the enemy and then sat around superfluously until they eventually retreated over and over again.  It is useless to criticize American involvement in the Middle East without studying this history.  Asking why we were in Iraq is a question that cannot be satisfactorily answered without asking why East and West have been in conflict since antiquity.

My understanding of why I was there changed permanently when I made friends with an Iraqi.  For purposes of this essay, I’ll call him Zaid instead of his real name.  Zaid worked on a U.S. Army base, providing information regarding local cities to us despite death threats that had been made against him and his family.  He told me about how excited he still was about voting in the last Iraqi parliamentary election.  Al-Qaeda had threatened to attack the polling booths and then demonstrated that they were not bluffing, killing and bombing would-be voters standing in line across the country.  Knowing that this was happening, Zaid and his wife stood in line waiting to vote for over four hours.  When I asked him why, he gave me an answer that I will never forget: “We have never NEVER had real elections before.  We want to be different now and voting has changed us forever.”  In other words, for thousands of years, the people there have never before possessed self-government.  Now, at least, they have a beginning.

But this isn’t to say that we should expect them to be just like us.  “We ought not to be surprised,” wrote Russell Kirk, “that men and nations resist desperately - often unreasoningly - any attempt to assimilate their character to that of some other body social.  This resistance is the first law of their being, extending below the level of consciousness.  There is one sure way to make a deadly enemy; and that is to propose to anyone, ‘Submit yourself to me, and I will improve your condition by relieving you from the burden of your peculiar identity and reconstituting your substance in my image.”  The East has a great richness of culture, art, religion and wisdom.  Much of this historical richness has been destroyed by radical Islam, but we have to understand how influences from the West have been destroying it too.

Archie Roosevelt, in his 1988 book, For Lust of Knowing: Memoirs of an Intelligence Officer, wrote that in “Baghdad and Tehran the charms of the old Islamic cities were losing the battle to the banalities of secondhand Western modernity.”  Roosevelt worked for years in the Middle East, and he described how in many cities there, “hordes of automobiles, squeezed together by rush-hour jams and traffic lights” had crowded out the very existence of local communities.  Families were being broken apart as individual family members take “employment as guards, taxi drivers, and members of the lower scale bureaucracy.”  A new technocratic elite is increasingly regulating the lives of local communities and families, and this kind of organization has been ushered in by Western influence.  Commercialization is entering the Middle East.  When I was there, I watched the number of McDonalds’s and Burger Kings that were setting up in Iraqi cities double in number.  These are not necessary accoutrements to self-government.

One of the reasons I decided to serve in the U.S. military was because I learned at our school that it was precisely the military experience of some of our founding fathers that gave them insights into the reality of how government worked.  Washington and Hamilton both had learned, firsthand, how the powers of a Confederate Congress worked when they attempted to obtain financial and logistical support for the army during the Revolutionary War.  It is no coincidence that the institutions and limitations of our constitutional order was designed by many men who learned practical political lessons by their experience in war.  You can even see it at the Constitutional Convention.  The voices of those who only sat in political office during the war ring with a different tone in the debates than the more urgent voices of those who personally fought in the war.

So how, as a veteran, is my point of view now different?

I’d confess that, because of my experience, there are some ways in which my point of view should carry less weight.  I’d also argue there are ways in which it should carry more.

In order that you may know how to take a veteran’s point of view cautiously, let’s first consider the disadvantages of being a veteran.  There is a real sense in which life in the military is unhealthy for the soul.  I didn’t go through any greatly tragic or searing experiences that many other of my fellow service members went through.  I don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder.  But those problems aside, military life and war still influence the participant unhealthily.  In the training process, mentally you have to steel yourself against feeling.  After experiencing a combat environment where you could endanger the lives of your friends by making even one single tiny mistake, after living in a state of constant vigilance and lack of security every day for a year, you develop mental habits that are not always going to be desirable in civilian life.

I believe in the faculty of free will and I believe influences do not impare one’s will.  I am still morally culpable for every choice that I’ve made.  But that does not change the fact that, since my military service, I now lack empathy in a way that I didn’t before.  Empathy is one of the basic requirements for close personal relationships, but my experience has roughened (or corroded) my ability to relate to others as Christianity teaches I ought.  This is an advantage in emergencies.  Everyone else around me can be upset, stressed out or even shouting, and I will stay utterly calm, ready to act with ruthless efficiency despite the feelings in the room.  It is often a disadvantage at being a human being.  My personal relationships with friends and family have suffered because of this.  There was, for example, a lovely young lady that I was growing closer to before I left for Iraq.  It sounds too dramatic to say that the deployment changed who I was.  The alterations were often small, gradual and subtle.  But I grew less empathetic, more callous, and even more coarse, towards her.  She noticed and rightly drew away.

My faults are my own, but I can also see how being a veteran has decreased my own personal responsibility.  When you live for an extended period of time doing a job that is literally a matter of life and death, when you have watched other people at the very moment when they deliberately try to kill you, when you have ducked so as not to be torn in half by gunfire, it is often very difficult to view other less demanding things in life as priorities.  I now work in the law.  There is occasionally a “crisis” at my office concerning what we’ll call the filing of paperwork.  I simply cannot feel any sense of urgency about paperwork.  I happily work hard at things.  I’m willing to commit to finishing things.  But the excitement or the adrenaline rush I used to feel in accomplishing simple workday tasks under pressure is now gone.  I’ve talked to other veteran friends and they’ve said they share this same problem.  Basic adult responsibilities have been neglected in my life as a result of this attitude.  If you happen to know other veterans who have seen combat, understanding this about them will do much to your understanding why they sometimes act the way they do.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

On Houses Divided vs. Houses That Need Cleaning

On October 28, 2013, Ramesh Ponnuru & Rich Lowry posted an essay over at National Review analyzing the fallout from this whole sordid government shutdown business.  The essay is full of a number of well-timed common sense tactical observations.  Summing it up, Lowry & Ponnuru strongly denounce the blind insistence upon ideological purity that leads to much strutting and fretting upon the media stage, but inevitably ends like a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  This essay is the sort of thing that conservatives are strangely somehow in great need of today.  Over recent years, it has not been exactly clear just how many conservatives there are for whom the word “tactical” is included in their vocabulary.

It is quite refreshing that Lowry & Ponnuru do not mince words.  The problem is basic: there is a kind of politics that ought to have no place in conservatism.  Furthermore, this insight is not new.  The government shutdown was only the most recent instance of what keeps happening when one particular faction of the Republican Party controls the leadership:

“[The government shutdown] was the latest and most consequential expression of an apocalyptic conservative politics. It is a politics of perpetual intra-Republican denunciation. It focuses its fire on other conservatives as much as on liberals. It takes more satisfaction in a complete loss on supposed principle than in a partial victory, let alone in the mere avoidance of worse outcomes. It has only one tactic — raise the stakes, hope to lower the boom — and treats any prudential disagreement with that tactic as a betrayal. Adherents of this brand of conservative politics are investing considerable time, energy, and money in it, locking themselves in unending intra-party battle.” [emphasis added]

Thus, strategically, the insistence upon ideological purity is one of the best plans for guaranteed failure.  In the real world, refusal to compromise nets zero results.  It also strips away all those who would have agreed with a primary position, merely because they aren’t interested in taking such a position all the way to its nth-most extreme.  This shrinks what often is already a minority, burns bridges, and encourages the desertion of many natural allies from the ranks.

“An emphasis on purity — even when defined essentially by matters of style and attitude rather than policy views — has too often kept such allies out of power. It has led Republican primary voters on several occasions to choose candidates who lost races that mainstream conservatives would likely have won. William F. Buckley Jr. said that conservatives should support the rightwardmost viable candidate, with viability understood to include the ability to make the case for conservatism in a way voters will find compelling. For the purists, viability is an unacceptable compromise. Which leads us to such candidates as Sharron Angle ... National Review joined the purists in supporting Richard Mourdock in Indiana, too, and that turned out to be a mistake. Too many conservatives have not admitted it or drawn appropriate conclusions.”

Don't forget both Christine O’Donnell and Ken Buck (who all but gift-wrapped Senate seats for the Democrats).  If conservatives are not careful, the 2014 elections (traditionally favorable to the party outside the White House) may cause more harm than good.  There is evidence that has been piling up over the years that Tea Party candidates who win in the primaries very often give up elections to the Democrats even in districts that have Republican majorities.  This can only mean that there is something defective about certain types of candidates.  (There are many who learned this long ago in elementary school.)

Lowry & Ponnuru’s warnings here are timely and much needed.  There is currently a strategic problem among conservative leadership, and recent failure has been based upon some fundamentally false assumptions:

“The key premise that has been guiding these conservatives, however, is mistaken. That premise is that the main reason conservatives have won so few elections and policy victories, especially recently, is a lack of ideological commitment and will among Republican politicians. A bigger problem than the insufficient conservatism of our leaders is the insufficient number of our followers. There aren’t enough conservative voters to elect enough officials to enact a conservative agenda in Washington, D.C. — or to sustain them in that project even if they were elected. The challenge, fundamentally, isn’t a redoubling of ideological commitment, but more success at persuasion and at winning elections. [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, Lowry & Ponnuru can’t even make common sense warnings of this sort without being attacked - and the attacks derive from within their own camp.  On October 29th, editor-in-chief of RedState.com, Erick Erickson, tore into National Review for even making this argument in the first place.  Unlike more traditional online conservative writers (see Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher or Alan Jacobs), Erickson appears to represent a new and popular brand of “conservative” that is currently more trendy these days over at CNN and FoxNews.  RedState.com was launched in 2004.  Erickson is also a radio talk-show host not known for temperance at, as Buckley used to say, “the rhetorical or bombastic level.”  To see the rather disconcerting nature of his rhetoric, all you have to do is listen to Erickson actually talk for a couple minutes anywhere on the news or on youtube.

Mr. Erickson’s counterpoints to Lowry & Ponnuru's essay demonstrate a profound unfamiliarity with traditional conservative thought.  He attempts to back up his first point by referring to Buckley’s 1955 mission statement for National Review, noting that Buckley “did not mention winning elections” and that, instead, Buckley encouraged “standing athwart history yelling stop.”  First, it is not entirely clear if Mr. Erickson understands that Buckley’s language was intended to be taken metaphorically rather than literally.  As one continues to read Mr. Erickson, one comes away from his writing with the distinct impression that actually “yelling stop” may be one of his preferred methods of debate over at RedState.com.  Secondly, reading his attempt to argue that it is meaningful that Buckley did not mention winning elections in one notable column, one can only conclude either (a) that Mr. Erickson has not really read much of Buckley, or (b) that he decided to deliberately ignore what Buckley actually did say about winning elections.

When asked who are the best types of candidates that a conservative should support, Buckley replied: “The wisest choice would be the one who would win. No sense running Mona Lisa in a beauty contest. I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win. If you could convince me that Barry Goldwater could win, I’d vote for him.”  (And, apparently at least someone over at RedState.com has heard of this rule before.)

The Goldwater example is, in fact, instructive.  While Goldwater did garner the support of Buckley and National Review in the mid-1960s, the interesting story is how he was able to do so.  At the time, supporting Goldwater was a matter of controversy over at National Review.  William Rusher and Brent Bozell were among the first to support him.  On the other hand, James Burnham and Buckley’s sister, Priscilla, did not and warned against the consequences of supporting him.  But Goldwater eventually gained the support of both Buckley and Russell Kirk before the Republican Primary by initially agreeing with them to distance himself from members of the John Birch Society.  This agreement, however, did not last very long.  Carl T. Bogus explains:

“In the end - and to his undoing - it was Barry Goldwater who accommodated himself to the John Birch Society.  Some of his advisers begged him not to do it.  Nevertheless, when he accepted his party’s nomination for president in July 1964, Goldwater stood before the Republican National Convention and declared, ‘I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.’  Cheers shook the Cow Palace in San Francisco.  Goldwater had to wait more than forty seconds before he could deliver the companion line: ‘And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!’  The audience leaped to its feet.  Everyone understood that Goldwater had just said that the John Birch Society was okay by him.  Richard Nixon, who had introduced Goldwater, grabbed his wife Pat’s arm to keep her from rising with the crowd ...”

This was ultimately disappointing for the crowd at National Review.  Goldwater had disregarded the advice of both Buckley and Kirk, and this disregard contributed to his loss of the 1964 election.  Burnham’s warnings about Goldwater had ultimately proved to be correct. Reflecting on this later, Buckley wrote bemusedly that “Goldwater had learned too late the lesson that one must guard against any use of a word which, for many, amounted to a call to immoral ends ... It was so in 1964 with the word ‘extremism.’  It could not be hygienically used in any affirmative context.”

Also, when asked, during another conversation about Goldwater, about which “failures of the conservative movement in the past ten to twenty years” most distressed him, Buckley answered that he understood the conservative argument against voting for Goldwater.  However: “In any case, that was not by any means my idea of the great disappointment of the sixties.  That was the failure, on the whole, to verbalize more broadly, more convincingly, the conservative view of things.  The conservative critique has been very well made, but it hasn’t got through with sufficient force to the opinion makers.  It is still hard as hell to find a young conservative with writing talent.  That distresses me deeply.”

In other words, according to Buckley, the conservative failure that the entire Goldwater episode demonstrated was one a failure of persuasion.  Poor conservative persuasive skill is a direct result of ignoring practical considerations.  Lack of self-restraint and associating oneself with extreme points of view detracts from one’s persuasive power.  These are the considerations that Mr. Erickson completely misses.  These same strategic considerations regarding candidates who cannot persuasively articulate the conservative position also equally apply to the tactics used by elected conservatives members of government.  This is one of Lowry & Ponnuru’s most convincing critiques of the recent government shutdown:

“The defunding campaign was the legislative equivalent of the hopelessly ill-suited candidate — and, like many of those candidates, it drew support from people who see politics primarily in terms of purity, confrontation, and willpower. The contrast to the Democrats’ behavior in 2009 and 2010 is instructive. They were willing to muscle through a health-care bill even though the public opposed it, and even though some of them realized it would cost them seats. Republicans should have a similar commitment to better causes. But they should also note that Democrats used this maneuver only when they had the votes — large majorities in both houses of Congress, control of the White House — to pull it off. They did not take a large political risk while having no plausible way to gain a policy victory to show for the potential costs.”

But Erickson dismisses National Review’s point here with contempt: “Now, instead of standing athwart history yelling stop, National Review spends 3,591 words to tell conservatives to stop fighting until they win ... I await the well-fed editors apologizing for the Goldwater candidacy. At this point, it is only a matter of time.”  Making cheap shots like this ignores the lessons that conservatives learned from the Goldwater candidacy.  For our purposes, the whole point is that the Goldwater campaign went off the rails, turning towards precisely the type of uncompromising rhetoric that Erickson supports.

“The truth,” argues Erickson, “is that Obamacare is deeply destructive and an assault on individual liberty. It should be fought by all means, with or without a Senate majority or White House. The fight should not depend on electoral outcomes and should not be delayed pending reinforcements, many of whom will flee the field once elected.”  But that’s just the problem, who wins the fight does depend on electoral outcomes.  The reality is that conservatives have to return back to convincing the public of their positions or they will never advance any further conservative objectives.  But Erickson doesn’t care:

“The present editors of National Review, over the last several years, have made it clearer and clearer that they now speak mostly for the well-fed right and not for conservatives hungering for a fight against the leviathan. They have made their peace with the New Deal ...”  But hungering for a fight isn’t enough.  Mere opposition, without even the a minimal plan for success, will never reverse anything.  Drawing a proper distinction between fighting now and living to fight another day is not making peace with the philosophical consequences of the New Deal.

Erickson’s contempt contrasts sharply with National Review’s respect for the more energetic elements with in the Tea Party movement.  Lowry & Ponnuru are happy to point out that the “groups that pushed defunding play an important role in galvanizing grassroots sentiment. The insistence on conservative rigor can exercise a welcome influence in fights like the one over the farm bill, in which inertia and self-serving Republican politics are at their worst and many of the same groups that supported defunding urged a better, more reformist course. Their willingness to go out and fight is indispensable.”  And yet, a willingness for a fight alone isn’t enough.  Effective politics means picking and choosing your battles.  Some fights are unrealistic in a government specifically designed so as not to be shaped by sheer brute power.

So how exactly is it that have we stopped caring about reality?

“Conservative groups that have internalized the apocalyptic view of politics believe the most effective model for gaining ground is simply pressuring Republicans to be more confrontational. The first step of the defunding strategy was not to persuade most Republicans that it was a good idea; it was to force them to go along with it whether or not they agreed. So the defunders prevented the majority of House Republicans, who disagreed, from being able to follow a different approach, and threatened to run primary opponents against some of them. Then they began to insist that Republicans who remained critical were dishonorably breaking the party’s (coerced) unity.”

In fact, there is a whole other story here about how Ted Cruz and Rand Paul pushed past the more realistic options for working out real compromise that other conservatives like Paul Ryan were negotiating for.  Instead, when Republican leadership caved and stumbled, Paul Ryan was ignored and the “defunders thus filled a vacuum — but filled it badly. And they did not supply what the leaders most woefully lacked. Neither group has promoted a free-market health-care plan of the kind that would have to be part of any plausible strategy to replace Obamacare.”

The editors of National Review are, in fact, pleading here against despair.  The leaders that produced the government shutdown are implicitly acting, for all intents and purposes, as if winning elections are now beyond hope.  Rushing to make stands against the inevitable without waiting for the right moment;  insisting on votes before they have the opportunity to collect the necessary majority; demanding that the other side give in when the other side obviously can tell  that you are bluffing ... all these maneuvers are the tactics of a mind-set that has given up on winning elections and persuading the electorate.


“There is no alternative to seeking to expand the conservative base beyond its present inadequate numbers and to win the votes of people who aren’t yet conservatives or are not yet conservatives on all issues. The defunders often said that those who predicted their failure were ‘defeatists.’ Yet it is they who have given in to despair. They are the ones who entertain the ideas that everything has gotten worse; that the last few decades of conservative thought and action have been for nothing; that engagement in politics as traditionally conceived is hopeless; that government programs, once begun, must corrupt the citizenry so that they can never be ended or reformed; that the country will soon be past the point of regeneration, if it is not there already.”

The only way that conservatives will enact legislation to reform health care, to reform the budget, to put in place a reasonable plan to decrease the debt, and to stop the incredible recent exponential growth of government spending, will be to put such legislation up to a vote.  Need we really explain this any further?  (To win a vote, you submit your legislation to a vote after you have collected enough votes to win.  Refusing to do anything as blackmail in order to force the other side to give in accomplishes nothing.  The refusing-to-do-anything-strategy has historically helped one political party to enact exactly no legislative reform whatsoever.)

Scott Johnson wrote that “Erickson’s response illustrates one of the phenomena that Lowry and Ponnuru decry in Cruz’s leadership.”  It almost appears as if Erickson doesn’t care if the conservatives win.  If the point is to find a public spotlight in which to demonstrate one’s ideological purity, then Ted Cruz and the defunders’ strategy was successful.  If the point is to eventually change Obamacare and/or replace it with a plan that is at least somewhat designed to account for Economic 101, then Erickson is not helping.

Not only is he not helping, but, considering the press coverage Erickson has been able to attract, he might as well be working against conservatives.  The news of the last week has been of the “house divided against itself cannot stand” variety.  MSNBC was happy to report that the “ideological civil war inside the Republican Party is well underway.”  Jonathan S. Tobin, at Commentary Magazine, enthusiastically explains that: “Those parachuting into this debate from the outside will struggle mightily to see what the two sides disagree about in terms of principles or policies and will discover little evidence of any actual split on anything of importance. All participants oppose President Obama’s policies and ObamaCare. They’d like to see the president replaced by a conservative at the next presidential election and ObamaCare to be repealed. But that unity of purpose isn’t enough to prevent what is starting to take on the appearance of an all-out civil war within the ranks of the conservative movement.”

This is not what conservatives need right now, but Tobin may not be that far off from the truth.  If enough conservatives are not paying attention, they will allow electable candidates to be replaced by mere core-base-pleasing unelectable candidates.  The Democrats will then increase their majority in the Senate and even threaten a considerable number of seats in the House.

“It’s too soon to know for sure, but right now I’m starting to think that those inclined to pooh-pooh the chances for a genuine split are wrong. If that portion of the conservative base listens to Cruz and Erickson they are going to spend much of the next year trying to exact revenge on the senator’s critics. And if that means helping to knock off genuine conservatives like McConnell who will almost certainly be replaced in the Senate not by more Cruz clones but by liberal Democrats, they think it’s no great loss because such people are more interested in purifying the GOP than in beating the Democrats ... This drama will be played out in many states next year in the midterm elections, but it will come to a head in 2016 when a single formidable moderate conservative may possibly be opposed by a split field of right-wingers in the race for the GOP presidential nomination.”

Sunday, October 27, 2013

GRAY MATTERS (2013) - by Brett McCracken (book review, Part I)

“Cultured Christians don’t rush to judgment.  They don’t look at something fancy on a menu and say, ‘No thanks.  I’ll go with what I know!’  They don’t walk out of a difficult, complex film saying, ‘I didn’t get it.  What a waste of my time.’  They understand that good things in culture rarely lend themselves to immediate and easy understanding.  It takes time, effort, the development of taste, and a patient sensibility to get the most out of culture.”
- Brett McCracken, pgs. 18-19

“The evidence of scripture, tradition, and experience all suggest that art can sometimes mediate not only a sense of life but also a sense of grace and of the mystery that we call God.  And since art cannot mediate without the aid of aesthetic imagination, response, and judgment - without taste, in short - we must consider the perhaps surprising possibility that taste at its most encompassing is no less crucial to religious life and faith than is intellectual understanding and moral commitment.”
- Frank Burch Brown, pg. 125

The most striking thing that makes Brett McCracken’s second book, Gray Matters: Navigating The Space Between Legalism & Liberty, so interesting is his refreshingly creative approach to the question of legalism.  The Modern Church doesn’t so much have a problem with legalism anymore (except in fringe corners).  On the contrary, the Church now seems to have a much more serious problem of overreacting against it.  No one likes the old positions of the legalist in our now unabashedly open and tolerant society.  It is currently purely a matter of course for younger believers to despise, and marshal their arguments against, the close-minded and out-of-touch fundamentalist.  Legalism just has all these rules, you see, and, well, they're unduly restrictive of liberty.  Christianity isn’t, after all, about rules anymore; it’s all (so they tell us) about ... relationship.

Much rarer is the theologically grounded member of the Church who can still, with both a healthy confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture and a competent proficiency in the elementary rules of hermeneutics, demonstrate how erroneous are the Scriptural interpretations of the legalist.  Such articulate advocates do exist.  And, unless you happen to be anti-intellectual, conservatism does not equal legalism.  After rudimentary study and consideration, any half-competent first-year Bible college student can show the obvious arguments against the basic prejudices of legalism.  Scripture does not forbid the drinking of wine, beer or even of hard liquor.  Scripture does not forbid the speaking of “uncouth” words.  Scripture does not forbid listening to particular genres of musical notation.  Scripture does not forbid the activity of dancing.  Scripture does not forbid walking into a movie theater.  Scripture does not forbid critical thinking.  Etc. etc. etc.

That these arguments even have had to be made is informative, if not of the doctrines of Christianity itself, at least of a particular historically limited bias or waywardness in applied Scriptural interpretation.  But Mr. McCracken has not here really marshaled the Scriptural evidence against the more embarrassing errors American fundamentalist legalism.  Others have already done this before.  This is not the book in which to find those ever so exhaustive lists of Scripture passages in favor of drinking or giving examples of the cussing habits of King David, the prophet Elijah or the apostle Paul.  To our benefit, McCracken has taken an entirely different and rather more provocative approach.

His approach is, I think, superior to those who merely argue against the common fundamentalist misinterpretations of Scripture.  It is, instead, a focus upon the question of culture - a healthy focus that many in the modern church still avoid (even if they reject legalism).  Ultimately, the legalist/libertine debates are really about culture, and McCracken understands this.  The consequence is that Gray Matters is a uniquely curious book in that it could only have been written by one who was raised within American Evangelicalism.  Yet that itself is not a criticism.  I also was raised in the world of American Evangelicalism.  I understand that it is not easy to divest oneself of naturally resulting overreactions. “Will we,” asks McCracken, “be apathetic separatists who cede appreciation of culture to ‘the world’?  Will we, as another extreme, be uncritical and careless in our accepting of any and every bit of culture at our disposal?” (pg. 129)

Many in our generation completely reject Evangelicalism and live a lifestyle single-mindedly devoted to not being Evangelical.  And then there are still others I know who accept the bubble-like strictures of their historically limited upbringing.  The former way reacts against how we’ve been taught.  The latter reacts against those who react against how we’ve been taught.  McCracken’s book offers something different.  “Christians have for too long been motivated by reactions to the errors and excesses of the generations before ... Let’s grow up.  Let’s stop compensating for the wrong-headed approaches to culture that our Christian forebears might have had.” (pg. 240)


The most obvious wrong-headedness still to be found in many American churches today is the dismissal of culture altogether.  According to this form of church teaching, which is by its nature at the very root of legalism, the “culture” is merely something for Christians to engage, to capture, to avoid, to separate from, to evangelize, to make their own or to fight against.  “The” culture is considered something that is always changing (in contrast, of course, to the unchanging Bible).  It is the lifestyle of the world - the products of which are considered to be in opposition to the Gospel.

Indeed, I have personally heard so many sermons contrasting “the gospel” as something inherently distinct from “the culture” or “the world” that I now could, mindlessly and without any preparation whatsoever, get up and preach this sermon, simply listing and repeating all the clichés and warnings against culture with which Evangelical and Post-Evangelical churches are now so familiar.  (Some churchgoers have speculated as to whether it is actually possible for a pastor to preach a sermon and to take a nap simultaneously.  If it is possible, the sermon that distinguishes the gospel from the culture and the world is probably the perfect naptime sermon.)   The result, as McCracken discusses while using jazz and rock music as examples, is rather embarrassing.

“Anti-jazz magazine articles popped up with titles like ‘The Jazz Problem’ or ‘Unspeakable Jazz Must Go,’ the latter being a 1921 critique in Ladies’ Home Journal in which clergy and everyday citizens decried the perils of this popular new music form.  Jazz is ‘worse than the saloon,’ one person remarked.  It is ‘simply rotten.  It belongs in the underworld.’  The instruments’ broken, jerky rhythms have a ‘sensual appeal’ that ‘call[s] out the low and rowdy instinct,’ making youth act ‘in a restless and rowdy manner.’” (pgs. 76-77)

“One of the charges against rock that got a lot of traction during the Cold War was the notion that rock ‘n’ roll was a communist weapon to undermine the character of America’s youth.  Leading this charge was David A. Noebel, longtime Christian crusader against pop culture who kicked off a rather illustrious career with the 1965 pamphlet ‘Communism, Hypnotism and The Beatles,’ followed by the 1966 tome Rhythm, Riots and Revolution, a sizeable book in which dubious experts and ‘scientists’ (with names like ‘Dr. Freedom’) support the thesis that Communists used rock music to destroy the mental and emotional stability of America’s youth.” (pg. 78)

It is therefore a pleasure to read McCracken’s healthy opposition to this mindset in the church.  For those of us uninterested in following legalistic forms of thought, “the” culture is not something to avoid or to be afraid of.  It is not something opposed to the gospel.  It is not something that ought to be removed from the order of Christian life and being.  On the contrary, we ought ourselves to be “cultured.”  Culture is a pursuit and endeavor worthy of the believer.  It is a part of civilization, a necessary institution deriving from the nature of man, and therefore ultimately a part of general revelation.  Thinking in this older and more traditional way results in a different kind of living. “Cultured Christians,” McCracken admonishes the reader, “don’t pit their Christianity in oppositions to culture or understand their faith as being uninformed or uninfluenced by culture.  They avoid looking at things in terms of sacred/secular dichotomies, recognizing that common grace lends dignity to all manner of cultural activity ... Cultured Christians are not pendulum people.  They aren’t always reacting against some bad iteration of the faith by going too far in the other direction.” (pg. 19)

Because McCracken is a film reviewer, he is uniquely suited to using cinema as an example in this discussion.  In his experience within Evangelicalism, he has seen Christians reject films based upon their rejection of “the” culture.  He argues, and I heartily agree with him, that intentional cultural illiteracy is a poor witness for Christianity.  It’s not that we cannot reject things in our society.  There is an appropriate time to reject particular films or popular trends, fashions or fads.  But to do so based upon a rejection of the culture itself is merely ignorance.  “One can be thoughtful, quiet, well-informed, and - if asked - articulate in their reasoning to not see a film.  Or one can be legalistic, loud, defensive, and simpleminded in their abstinence.  In the latter case - a Christian refusing to see Harry Potter because it ‘promotes witchcraft,’ perhaps - the witness is a bad one for Christianity.” (pg. 166)  Such a lack of perspective presents a Christian faith unworthy of any nonbeliever’s consideration - a Christian faith that is, moreover, outside the bounds of traditional and historical Christian orthodoxy.

That these things are even necessary to explain is unfortunate.  But in the context of much of modern church teaching, they are preliminaries required in order to pursue the topics of legalism and freedom with further depth.


But there is another kind of wrong-headedness here, and that is the refusal of many Christians to actually think.  If you've spent any time attending the church, you'll know what I mean.  Many Christians actually resist thought.  The hard work and challenge that it takes to think difficult questions through is rejected in favor of the trite, the easy and the sloganeering.

“How many times have you heard something say, ‘Oh no, is this one of those thinking movies?’ I wince every time I hear it.  Is having to think during a movie really such a bad thing?  It doesn’t have to feel like going to the dentist.  On the contrary, being able to think critically while watching a film can enhance rather than detract from the pleasures of the experience.” (pg. 177)

Thus, a second preliminary that it is refreshing to find a member of my generation actually articulate is the theologically grounded refutation of the anti-intellectual bias when it comes to Christians’ relation to culture.  Again, film is an instructive example.  Evangelicals’ abandonment of culture has, effectually, meant the abandonment of the Arts and Humanities.  Regardless of what anyone else is doing, we ought not to be living shallow and mostly thoughtless lives.  At very the heart of the Arts and Humanities is the idea that works of art and literature can reflect truths about our condition and, by showing us such truths, change us as persons for the better.

“So often we blaze through life, moving from temporary enjoyment to temporary enjoyment, haphazardly consuming things so that none of it ever grows us in any significant way.  But I know we can be better.  And I know that if we take the time to really dig in and do the work of being the best consumers of culture we can be, it will not only enhance our faith and witness but also glorify God.  He’s the source of everything good, after all, and he makes everything good taste, sound, look, and feel all the more magnificent.” (pg. 23)

A proper Christian view of general revelation will include the necessary insight that the sacred and the divine can speak to us through art forms like film.  Generally, it is far too easy even to attend church without being changed or genuinely spoken to.  In church itself, we are subjected to floods of clichés and sentimentality.  Many of us can count the times we were intellectually challenged in church on the fingers of one hand.  This is not how we ought to live.  Neither is it how we ought to approach the experience of church, cinema or anything else.  “Like church, an experience in the movie theater can be as shallow or as meaningful as you make it,” argues McCracken.  “Movies are sometimes (perhaps most of the time) merely an easy diversionary amusement.  We leave the theater unchanged.” (pg. 172)  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  The problem is that when artists try to do something different with film, they are resisted and unpopular.  Their films are often not given wide release.  Their films are not noticed by a church preoccupied with either entertainment or evangelization.

“‘Film as art’ is an idea resisted by many, in part because from its inception film has been a ‘popular’ or ‘mass’ amusement - cheap and accessible to wider swaths of humanity than, say, the opera.  In its relatively young history (barely a century old), cinema has been quite commercially lucrative and more associated with ‘fun’ diversions like amusement park rides ... than ‘serious’ activities like reading or visiting an art museum ...

“[A]udiences tend not to expect to be intellectually challenged by an experience in the movie theater.  ‘It’s only a movie.  Why should I have to think?’ is a fairly common sentiment.  People go into a theater with a different frame of mind from the way they might go into a museum.  In the latter case, they’re looking to be educated or challenged; in the former, to be entertained.” (pgs. 173-174)

But perhaps looking to be entertained is unhealthy.  Maybe we shouldn’t be looking to be entertained.  It could be that sitting back and being entertained is the opposite of thinking.  It is a surrender to sensation, impulse and distraction.  It crowds out the ability to view anyone or anything with depth or contemplation.

“People tend to want a film’s points made quickly and its pleasures immediate, observes [Justin] Chang.  ‘The idea that you might sit in a movie and have a meditative or spiritual experience is seen as a little weird ...’” (pg. 176)

I sometimes fear that this desire for trivial entertainment may even be more common in the church than out of it.  What if Christians, of all people, are even more prone to accepting formulas and clichés?  What if they, more easily than others, are more willing to just accept whatever they are fed as long as it fits the comfort and strictures of what they have been taught to expect?

“Like myself, my friend Eugene Suen - a filmmaker of faith and former co-director of the Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Seminary - bristles at the unwillingness of Christian audiences to experience films that are challenging or slow ... ‘It’s a shame when anything that even remotely deviates from traditional narrative (‘acceptable’) cinema is seen as alienating, boring, and pretentious,’ notes Suan.  He sees this as symptomatic of a fundamental lack of openness, ‘an openness that we need as human beings - indeed, as Christians - in order to enlarge ourselves and arrive at a genuine understanding of others.’” (pg. 177)

“Cinema,” wrote film director Andrei Tarkovsky, “should be a means of exploring the most complex problems of our time, as vital as those which for centuries have been the subject of literature, music and painting.”  Isn’t this how a person, who accepts the claims of Christianity to be true, ought to view film-making?  If films really can enlarge our point of view and strengthen our ability to love others, then why are we not seeking out such films?

This, McCracken hints, could be a powerful way to witness.  If we pursue the very best in quality - that which is capable of moving and changing us for the better - then we will begin to cultivate those things that attract others.  This is just one example of how we could pursue the things of God in how we live every day.

“For Christians, approaching film in a thinking way also shows the world that we care: not just to be amused and entertained, but to glean all the value out of a film that we can.  It shows that we care to explore all that a filmmaker wants to show us and that we respect the creator of the work enough to do a little interpretive work.”  (pg. 177)


There are two other preliminaries here that McCracken establishes well.  The next one is the idea that pursuing “culture” is not going to be easy.  It requires hard work, effort and energy.  It’s one thing to merely agree that “culture” is worth pursuing when one has the energy to do it.  It’s another thing altogether to actually do it.  “It’s not enough to just affirm the value of ‘engaging culture.’  That’s black-and-white thinking.  We must do the work of engaging it well.” (pg. 14)  But, the idea that being “cultured” is hard work is a little misleading.  It is not “work” in the usual sense that we think of it.  Yes, it does require effort.  However, it can lead be refreshing, relaxing and invigorating at the same time.

This isn’t a job that one has to grit one’s teeth over and finish.  “The pursuit of a more discerning, well-rounded taste is never finished.  It’s a process.” (pg. 128)  It’s not just forcing oneself to eat one’s vegetables.  It’s not just a chore.  McCracken argues that it is a way of living that does not have to end at some utilitarian goal of “getting” the gospel or reaching some sort of security level with God.  Real truth, goodness and beauty are not necessarily going to feel safe or comfortable.  They can hurt us and shake us and shape us.  It takes effort to seek them out.

“It’s very tempting to ignore difficult truth, or at least to hide from any of the truths that don’t line up in the comfortable, familiar ways we want them to.  But art has the ability to shake us out of our comfort zones and show us the realities of existence - both beautiful and ugly - we might otherwise look past or ignore.” (pg. 162)

But some things, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable, are greatly to be desired and valued.  These are, in fact, often just the very things that can give life meaning and make each day worth living through.  If we don’t put in the work and the effort, then these are things that will always be lost to us.  We will never be able to experience them.

“The value we derive from something is directly proportional to the effort we put forth to engage it.  Whether we’re talking about relationships, jobs, cooking, painting, or parenting, we derive the most pleasure from that which we work the hardest at.” (pg. 178)

Making the effort equals increased value and worth.  The more thought and feeling and work you place into your experience, the more your pleasure in it can surprisingly be deepened.  Pursuing the challenging and the stimulating is an active pursuit.  You can’t just sit back and hope that it comes to you.  You can’t just let life happen to you.  That is subjecting yourself to the manipulation of others and it is not giving the things of God that are embedded in culture the attention that they deserve.

“A passive consumer, who sits back and takes something in without much thought or interpretive effort, is not going to have as full or invested an experience as the consumer who takes a more active interpretative role.” (pg. 178)

“This goes for other aspects of culture too: if you do the work of learning the nuances of wine varietals, you’ll likely enjoy wine tasting more; if you do the work of researching the historical and aesthetic context of painting, your experience of a gallery will be more satisfying.” (pg. 178)

I worry that McCracken’s point is another one lost on the average American church.  Far too often Christians avoid the culture as somehow being something separate from the gospel.  They don’t pursue depth of thought about the world because they assume everything has already been laid out and explained to them.  In order to experience the “gospel-centered” life, we somehow are supposed to avoid culture in the world as not part of the gospel-centered life.  But McCracken argues that “knowledge rarely detracts from our experience of culture; it enhances it.” (pg. 178)

Why wouldn’t you enhance and deepen your experience of precisely that part of Christendom in which so many of the things of God can be found?

There are only two answers: either fear or utter laziness.

What does this kind of work and effort look like?  It means the investment of time.  It means refusing to prejudge something you have yet to gain much knowledge of.  It means being willing to work your way through first impressions.  It means pursuing that which may resist attainment after a firs try.  McCracken gives an example:

“Some of my favorite films only became my favorites after I revisited them for a second or third viewing, giving myself time and distance to consider them more fully.  The same principle goes for other cultural experiences, like music.  The richness and beauty of an album rarely reveals itself on the first listen; it takes multiple listens to learn to appreciate it.  Coffee doesn’t taste beautiful the first time one tries it.  Nor does wine.  The best things in life require more than just a passing assessment to be truly appreciated.” (pg. 184)

There is no good reason to just lazily or casually dismiss that which you have not truly tried - especially if others have already testified to the good that can be found within it.

Ridding our selves of our habitual passing assessments of things we do not understand is one of the preliminaries to deepening our lives.


One of the most aggravating parts of going to church these days, or walking into almost any event organized by American evangelicals, is having to suffer through the incredibly bad taste that they have in just about any one of the arts.  It is far too easy to get the impression that Christians today have really really bad taste in music, in films, in architecture, in decor, in art and in culture.  It was not always so.

Far far too often, Christians define their experience of culture by what they avoid.  Music is an obvious example.  Some of the best music out there has been avoided by Christians - some of the worst music you’ll ever hear is made and produced by Christians.  Christian contemporary music (CCM) is arguably some of the most cringe-worthy stuff on the radio.  It’s not purchased by consumers looking for quality.  Christians have developed a reputation for appreciating things like music for its message, for its use as a tool, for its popular appeal, for its almost anything other than technical craft or artistry.  But, “Music appreciation,” McCracken argues “is also about community, artists, critics, tradition, and the development of taste.  It’s not just about avoiding the bad and the unhealthy; it’s about energetically educating ourselves to better pursue the good.” (pg. 116)

This is a thought too easily dismissed.  Everyone has their own personal preferences.  We are told that we shouldn’t criticize other people for having different tastes than we have.  Except, this isn’t true.  Some people have better taste in some things than I have, and such critics and connoisseurs should be able to criticize and thereby improve my own uneducated taste.  My personal preferences are often the result of lack of experience and education.  My personal tastes are often the consequence of my own enclosed and limited life.

“Preferences are one thing, notes Christian art theorist Hans Rookmaaker, but ‘even if our preferences cannot be discussed, our choices can, since quality and content are not just a matter of taste, but a matter of norms.  If we talk about portraits, some are more, some are less beautiful, of a higher or a lower artistic quality.’” (pg. 123)  “Developing taste is important because it allows us to enter into a positive critical discourse that has as its goal the discovery and enjoyment of the best that is out there.” (pg. 124)

McCracken elaborates what I will call the fourth preliminary to thinking about legalism and liberty - the idea of developing improved taste:

“At this point we must talk about the notion of ‘having good taste.’  Is it even sensible to talk in objective terms about such a thing?  Many people would say no.  ‘Good quality’ is subjectively defined from culture to culture, class to class, they would say; there’s no such thing as objective good taste.” (pg. 123)

Is personal taste merely subjective?  It does take a bit for McCracken to warm up on this one.  “I’m not sure an ironclad, universal formula for ‘good’ art or ‘proper’ taste exists,” he writes.  That’s fine, although no one arguing for objective standards in art would ever call what they were advocating for a “universal formula.”  But he keeps going - “But I do think that within a given culture - and especially within a given style or genre - objective assessments of quality are valid.” (pg. 123)  In other words, within the proper context, objective value judgments about quality can be made.

In fact, this necessarily follows if you claim to hold to the truths claimed by Christianity.  If objective truth really does exist, then it will have some bearing on beauty.  It is no coincidence that the “philosophy of aesthetics” (explored since Ancient Greece) presupposes and explores higher standards by which we can lift ourselves and our own limited understands up to something higher.

“When I asked my friend Laura, a music critic who writes for publications like Under the Radar and Filter, what constitutes ‘objective good’ in music, she said that it existed in different forms within each genre, but that one ‘universal’ marker of good was whether an artist believes in the story they are telling.  ‘I need to feel some emotional truth they are exploring, some honesty,’ she said.  ‘You can be authentic in any genre, but it’s all about whether an artist is attempting to tell a story that is true.’

“Laura noted that the ‘easy to swallow’ music that tends to appeal the masses often is created with mass appeal in mind as opposed to authentic truth-telling.  Music that is authentic and true is often more difficult and requires more work, she said.  ‘The best stuff isn’t always the easiest.  We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we feeding ourselves McDonald’s or are we going to a four-star restaurant?’’” (pg. 124)

The easy is very often not the best.  What is easy to see and understand is often not that of the greatest worth.  If you always just go for what is easy, then you are very likely cheating yourself.

“Christians should recognize that taste has both subjective and objective elements; it includes both our individual resonances with a work and also the larger community of interpretation and evaluation.”  If this is true, then we can learn from the larger community and improve the subjective elements of our own taste.  We can seek out the critics and connoisseurs who know more than we do and who have more experience than we do.  We can pursue the hard and the difficult that we have never tried before.  “Good taste is not simply pointing to one’s record collection and declaring it tasteful; good taste is being willing to expand one’s horizons, hear what others have to say, and seek a more thorough understanding of how a work of art can be better perceived, enjoyed, and evaluated.” (pg. 126)  It almost follows from this that we possess a duty.

McCracken’s book then takes the reader through four different topics in order to use them as illustrations - Eating, Drinking, Music and Film.


“The fact that food is more delicious than it needs to be and that God was generous and went over the top in creating both taste buds and tasty food means, to Tim Chester, that ‘the quality of food should matter to us.  We’re to treat food as a gift, not merely as fuel.’” (pg. 38)  “... the types of things we eat more of are worse for us: fats, oils, sugars, sweeteners.  The average American eats fifteen more pounds of sugar a year today than in 1970, for example.  For one of three Americans, this often spells high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, type 2 diabetes, or cancer.” (pg. 55) “If we give no thought to the health of the food we eat and frequently indulge in gluttonous displays of junk food eating, what does that say about our appreciation of God’s gifts (including the gift our own body)?” (pg. 250)

I can admit that when I, with my limited perspective as a bachelor, think of culture, I most often do not think of food.  I put very little thought into what I eat.  McCracken makes the argument that we ought to make the effort to pay attention to what and how we eat.  I was struck by his quoting Robert Farrar Capon: “The world is no disposable ladder to heaven.  Earth is not convenient, it is good; it is, by God’s design, our lawful love.” (pg. 39) I have never really been taught this before, or if I have, I was never paying attention.  Food is not fuel and neither is it a mere convenience.

The most utilitarian part of my life may actually be my diet.  But this is unhealthy.  For the Christian, it is really bad theology not to care what you eat.  What a difference it could make if we were to eat for pleasure rather than utility and for health rather than only for energy.  But, at the same time, McCracken warns against snobbery.  Yes, we may enjoy using “Whole Foods” or “Trader Joe’s” or “Farmer’s Markets,” but the opportunities for healthy or organic produce are still often limited to a higher price level.  There are those in our society how cannot financially afford to eat healthy.  If this is true, then there is still something fundamentally wrong with the way we live.

“It can be easy for those with expendable time and money to talk about the healthier, environmentally friendlier superiority of ‘slow food’ and more natural, unprocessed food, but when you’re a single mom struggling to pay rent and feed young children, fast food can be a lifesaver.  Some fast-food chains are getting better about offering healthy options, but the fact is, most healthy food is not all that affordable or convenient for the majority of eaters around the world ... What can we do to make healthier good more accessible to all people?  Until we address these issues, none of us should look down our noses at those who eat at McDonald’s or shop at discount grocery stores.  For many people, it’s the best they can do.” (pg. 63)

But there’s more.

Eating is not just a pleasure.  It’s not just a good and healthy necessity that can be improved by intentional work.  It can be spiritually healthy too.  How we eat can affect how we relate to others. “For Jesus, the table was a prime opportunity to live out his generous gospel of grace - a symbolic activity that underscores the social significance of dining in community.” (pg. 40) Some of the best meals I have ever had were in the company of family and friends - or, when I was all alone in a strange place, being included at the table of a generous family I didn’t know.

We now too often neglect the communal part of eating.  Hosting guests at your table was traditionally considered, in ages past, of more than mere material significance.  Fellowship and conversation were meant to go together with dining.  There is something perhaps even mystical about having a group of friends or family around your table and sharing in the pleasure of eating lovingly prepared and carefully crafted meals.  It creates a bond.  It is a form of love.

It is therefore, McCracken argues, no coincidence that one of the Christian sacraments is the act of participating in the Lord’s Supper, Communion or the Eucharist:

“Why is the Eucharist such a big deal?  Well, for one thing it is the central symbolic action of the Christian life.  In this meal, as we take the bread and the cup, we remember and give thanks for the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus for us, we join in communion with our fellow believers, and we look forward to the second coming of Christ and the messianic feast to come ... Peter Leithart says the Lord’s Supper is ‘the world in miniature; it has cosmic significance.’” (pg. 41)

“... the Eucharist - rebuffs the isolationist mode of consumption.  It’s a sacred means of connection and solidarity.  In it we identify with the suffering of Christ.  We connect with our Savior and his body: our fellow believers throughout the ages.” (pg. 54)

And it isn’t just that a Christian can participate in the meaning of the Eucharist during a church service.  It’s a form of participation in meaning during a hearty meal in fellowship with others.  Therefore, part of being “cultured” ought to mean a significant amount of sharing.  Something as simple as hosting others for dinner around your table is imbued with a tradition of communing - of community and love and friendship - that deepens the experience of eating.  What we eat can obviously be good and pleasurable - and it will be if one makes the effort to pay attention.  How we eat with others can strengthen who we are as social beings and members of a fellowship.


McCracken also spends a chapter exploring the issue of drinking alcohol.  As a demonstration of the current state of the American church, this discussion is a good illustration of one of our major problems.  He starts the chapter out by explaining: “The fourth and final area of culture to be explored in this book is easily the most controversial: alcohol.” (pg. 189)  Is it though?  Drinking alcohol is still one of the most controversial issues in the American Church?  Why?  If it is, doesn’t that demonstrate a profound disconnect with the entirety of church history?  “It’s a dicey, dangerous topic, one that has long divided Christians and is fiercely debated even today.” (pg. 189)  But that's just it, drinking alcohol is not that big of a deal in church history.  It is not an issue that has long divided Christians.  It’s an issue that apparently still divides Christians now, but I would argue that this is still, in the context of church history, a recent phenomenon.

The fact that McCracken even has to discuss this is a clue to the problem.  This problem in the American Church is twofold: (a) an almost total ignorance of the elementary rules for interpreting Scripture and (b) a vast ignorance of church history.

No, wine in Scripture is not grape juice. (pgs. 194-195)  Instead, the Bible merely teaches that it is drunkenness, not drinking itself, that is a sin. (pgs. 195-196)  But this teaching is one-sided unless we also take into account that alcohol is considered to be a joy and a blessing by Scripture, even in both a material and eschatological sense. (pgs. 196-198)  Abstinence is not commanded by the Bible.  While it does have its uses, it is not common.  (pg. 198-199)  Moderation is the answer - abusus non tollit usum - and this “goes without saying ...” (pg. 232)
The chapter on drinking makes for good reading because McCracken also takes us through some church history on the subject.  In doing this, he is soon forced to admit: “Have Christians always been so divided about it?  (Short answer: no.)  Is it significant that followers of Christ were the first people to invent sophisticated wine-and-beer-making techniques (in medieval monasteries) but also the people who led the charge to make alcohol illegal in America?” (pgs. 205-206)

Thus the history of church theology and alcohol arguably begins in the second century with St. Clement of Alexandria -

“In his Pedagogia - perhaps the earliest Christian ethic of alcohol consumption - St. Clement of Alexandria discusses the Christian’s obligation to drink wine as part of the Eucharist while also being careful to avoid drunkenness.  Clement urged ... ‘In what manner do you think the Lord drank when He became man for our sakes? ... For rest assured, He Himself also partook wine; for He, too, was man.  And He blessed the wine, saying, Take drink: this is my blood - the blood of the vine ... And he who drinks ought to observe moderation ...’ (pg. 206)

And don’t forget the Irish missionaries like St. Patrick -

“In the medieval period, as Christians spread the gospel throughout pagan lands, beer played a positive role.  As St. Patrick introduced the gospel to the wild pagan land of Ireland, he ‘captured many an Irish tribal chieftain with his tasty beer before he won the man for God.’  In the Holy Roman Empire, beer lover Charlemagne promoted improvements in brewing at monasteries throughout the empire ...” (pg. 207)

It was churches who first began improving techniques for cultivating the production of high quality wines.  (pg. 207)  It was Christians in monasteries who built the foundations for modern beer brewing, once again focusing on quality.  In fact, there are still some “brews today - such as Weihenstephan (founded in AD 1040) and Leffe (AD 1240) - [that] originated in medieval monasteries.” (pg. 210)  “Nuns also joined in the beer-making business. Hildegard von Bingen was a brewer and is sometimes credited with the discovery that hops added preservative qualities to ale.” (pg. 210)  Martin Luther was an enthusiastic beer drinker.  He taught some of his classes in taverns with beer and his wife also brewed her own beer.  (pg. 211)

It is almost comical when we realize that, if the American church had only listened to Martin Luther, we could have avoided all the misguided nonsensical teaching we’ve been given on the subject.  “You should be moderate and sober,” Luther instructed, “this means that we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated ... The mind will tolerate a certain degree of elevation, but this most be moderate, not indecent.”  Luther even responded to potential prohibitionists of his day.  “Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused.  Men can go wrong with wine and women.  Shall we then prohibit and abolish women?” (pg. 211)

Add to this the beginnings of American history.  When the Pilgrims first landed on Plymouth Rock, the very first building they built was a brewery.  (pg. 212)  The ship that brought John Winthrop and the Puritans to the New World carried “more than 10,000 gallons of wine and three times as much beer as water.” (pg. 208) And “Post-Reformation Christians such as George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, for example, were known to enjoy rum and hard cider, respectively.” (pg. 211)  Let’s also not forget Arthur Guinness over in Ireland.

McCracken contrasts this history with what we have now:

“... folks like Stephen Reynolds (author of The Biblical Approach to Alcohol), who argues that the Bible teaches ‘an absolute prohibition against the beverage use of alcohol,’ and John MacArthur, who in a 2011 blog post on alcohol and Christianity said, ‘It is puerile and irresponsible for any pastor to encourage the recreational use of intoxicants.’” (pg. 193)

John MacArthur’s article “Beer, Bohemianism, and True Christian Liberty” is both strident and one-sided.  He argues that the “image of beer-drinking Bohemianism does nothing to advance the cause of Christ’s kingdom.” (pg. 214) After reading it, I still find it unclear exactly how MacArthur distinguishes “beer-drinking Bohemianism” from “beer-drinking.” Many other believers like G.K. Chesterton would heartily disagree.  (But, of course, Chesterton would have disagreed with a large amount of what the Calvinist MacArthur currently has to say.)

McCracken’s summary of the rest of the story is sharp and informative.  It’s worth the read.  He takes us through the fundamentalist and evangelical rhetoric that led to the American Prohibition.  He explains how Welch’s pasteurized non-fermented grape juice replaced wine at church communion around 1869.  (Stop and think about where that date stands in the middle of all of church history for a moment.)  And McCracken also admits that the critiques of drinking do rely on some hard, real-world facts about the consequences of abusing alcohol.

The destruction on human lives that abuse of alcohol wrecks is real.  It’s a problem in our modern culture that we cannot ignore.  Thus, while drinking with friends and family is a form of communion and fellowship, McCracken cautions us that we ought to be careful about dismissing those who try to bring attention to the existence of abuse.

Alcoholism is not to be scoffed at.  There are some critics of the church (and I’m one of them) who are very dismissive of the modern American church’s teaching on subjects like alcohol.  “American evangelicalism is unique in its fear and avoidance of alcohol, they say.  And there is some truth in this.” (pg. 225)  But this doesn’t let us off from responsibility or from giving the other side a fair hearing either.

“But let’s be real here.  Whether they like it or not, American Christians live within a culture in which alcohol is viewed in a particular way and where certain habits of consumption prevail.  Ours is a culture of college binge drinking, keggers, underage drinking as rebellion, and Bud Light commercials.” (pg. 225)

So the question turns to what has caused these sort of modern cultural habits of excess and disregard.  Perhaps it has something to do with mass market consumption, an evil that craft brewing may help provide an antidote for.  (pg. 234) Perhaps, like almost everything else in our culture, it has something to do with the loss of thinking of wine or beer as the art form that the monks and nuns of history used to think of it.  “We are artisans, not industry,” McCracken quotes a Spanish winemaker as explaining.  Perhaps it is because, like so many other things, we view alcohol for what it can do for us rather than enjoying it for the thing that it is.

McCracken’s conclusion is refreshing: Don’t use alcohol.  Enjoy it.

“When we use it,” he writes, “we diminish it to nothing more than a tool in service of disordered desires.  We lose sight of the fact that alcohol can be as complex and aesthetically rich as a painting or ballet.” (pg. 234)  “As a corollary to the ‘receive, don’t use’ approach to alcohol is this advice: love it for how it tastes more than for how it makes you feel.  This isn’t to say that the ‘buzz’ of alcohol is always a bad thing - it is surely one of its manifold blessings, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.  But when the buzz is the main reason we drink alcohol, it becomes far easier to abuse it.  Plus, it turns the activity of drinking into a me-centered activity of ‘what this drink does to me’ rather than ‘how this drink communicates beauty.’  This is why people who drink primarily for the buzz - college kids, partiers, ‘bros,’ soccer hooligans, and so on - don’t mind drinking swill like Coors, Bud Light, Heineken, and Shock Top.  It’s not about the taste for them.  If it’s a cold beverage and gives them a buzz, it’s enough.” (pgs. 235-236)

“In my life, some of the most profound moments of connection and deepest occasions of feeling known have occurred over fermented beverages: discussing the mysteries of God’s grace over pints under the stars in Oxford; gathering at a pub with friends to laugh and share stories together long into the night; toasting to my best friend on the night before his wedding; sipping wine at an oceanside restaurant with the girl I love.  These moments can be transcendent.” (pg. 227)

I cannot begin to describe the joy and fellowship that can result from the view towards alcohol that McCracken ultimately advocates for.  It is the traditional Christian view, the loss of which has, perhaps not coincidentally, precisely coincided with what I can only describe as mass-produced watery horribly-tasting gag-inducing-smelling alcoholic versions of heavily carbonated soda-water - abominations produced with no sense of art that are drunk for no other reason than to experience their alcoholic effects.  There is nothing manly about drinking for unrestrained appetite and oblivion rather than for pleasure and merriment.