Posted: June 23, 2016 Filed under: Uncategorized
Before reading this book, I had never heard of netsuke, which are intricate miniature ornaments, usually carved from wood or ivory and representing people, animals, the professions, mythical creatures, and sexual acts. Worn to hang items from a kimono (which have no pockets), they reflect the rich culture of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Japan.
In 2005 Edmund DeWaal, a potter from London, inherited a collection of 264 netsuke from his uncle Iggie. The netsuke, it turns out, had traveled a long, winding journey to London. Iggie had possessed them for decades in Tokyo. Before that the collection survived in a mattress, undiscovered during the aryanization of Jewish properties in Vienna during World War II. Before that, the collection was assembled by Charles Ephrussi in Paris during the Japonisme obsession in Western Europe in the late nineteenth century. In total, the netsuke had a history that spanned five generations of Ephrussis from 1871 to 2009.
But DeWaal didn’t know any of this when the netsuke came into his possession. The Hare with Amber Eyes is DeWaal’s sobering and delightful project of historical recovery. What he finds in his family history reveals a sweeping, panoramic view of nineteenth-century European history. It’s a primer on the migration of Jews from the shtetls of Ukraine to the glistening cities of Western Europe, on the devastation of the Holocaust, on the fascination of Western elites for Eastern culture. The sources from this literate, wealthy, and connected dynasty give the book amazing texture.
The original Hare with Amber Eyes–courtesy of edmunddewaal.com
Most profoundly, The Hare with Amber Eyes is a search for identity. DeWaal travels to London, New York City, Toyko, Odessa, Vienna, and Paris. In Odessa, for example, he is taken by the city’s exquisite texture. But then he realizes “that in all my enthusiasm about tactile responses to Odessa I have mislaid its reputation as a city of pogroms, a city you might wish to leave behind.” DeWaal wonders if he really wants to recover this emerging narrative of extravagant living, extramarital affairs, and genocide. “Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live. I don’t miss Vienna, Elisabeth would say, with a lightness in her voice. It was claustrophobic. It was very dark.” Later he writes, “I think of all those careful burnings by others, the systematic erasing of stories, the separations between people and their possessions, and then of people from their families and families from their neighborhoods. And then from their country.”
It’s also a narrative about place and belonging. Is it ok to bring the netsuke to his home in a Edwardian house on a pleasant London street far, far away from their history in Vienna, Paris, and Japan? In the end, DeWaal decides it is permissible. After all, “objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters.”
Which is what De Waal has done so compellingly. “I put some of the netsuke out on display—the wolf, the medlar, the hare with amber eyes, a dozen more—and when I next look they have been moved around. A rat, curled up asleep, has been pushed to the front. I open the glass door and pick it up. I slip it into my pocket, put the dog on the lead and leave for work. I have pots to make. The netsuke begin again.”
And so this story about netsuke is really a story about a family, which is really a story about leaving and movement and about preservation and destruction. What does it mean that the netsuke survive the Holocaust, but their owners do not? The richness of description makes the destruction all the more stark and sinister.
The book—beautifully composed, compellingly conceived, narratively tight—is unsettling too. It is an upbeat horror story with lots of emptiness, loneliness—seemingly redeemed because the stunning netsuke have survived to another generation. This narrative about ultimate things that features a dearth of religion and a striking abundance of good taste left me wondering: Is aesthetics all there is?
Posted: June 16, 2016 Filed under: Uncategorized
Marty Troyer, The Gospel Next Door: Following Jesus Right Where You Are (Herald Press 2016).
This epistle challenges conservative American Christian sensibilities. In an era of retrenchment when many want to build walls and militarize borders, Marty Troyer links the gospel to shalom. More than an absence of violence, he seeks wholeness and human flourishing.
This is not an abstract notion. Troyer, who writes out of his experience as a Mennonite pastor, does not seek an ethereal gospel. This is a particular gospel that plays out in real life. It takes concrete shape across the world, in our cities, even next door. It also plays out in time: ancient Palestine and Egypt, the Karankawa peoples that once inhabited modern-day Southeast Texas, and now in the land of a global superpower.
These were—and are—places of extreme depravity. Houston, the place the author knows best, is home to human trafficking, astounding corporate greed, stifling pollution, wounded soldiers afflicted with PTSD, and the excesses of a market economy. How, Troyer asks, are we living out the gospel amidst these troubles?
But Houston is also home to a gospel that heals both people and cities. In Project Curate, Habitat for Humanity, the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation, Troyer sees glimpses of a coming kingdom. In artist Robert Hodge; Julie Waters, founder of Free the Captives Houston; and Betty and Jim Herrington, who invite the homeless into their home, he sees modern-day saints. If we have eyes to see, the gospel is almost certainly at work next door.
The genius of The Gospel Next Door is that it brings together things perceived as fundamentally different: evangelism and peace, social justice and salvation, Black Lives Matter and theology. To a church and society riven by culture wars, this book is a profound gift of public theology.
Posted: April 5, 2016 Filed under: Uncategorized
This post on politician Rand Paul, the latest in a series that has included Pentecostals, holiness groups, and Charles Spurgeon, will probably perturb everyone. Conservatives will object because they won’t want to be linked to the “liberal” position of pacifism. Libertarians will object because theirs is not a principled pacifism, but a fiscal one. Pacifists will object because theirs is a not a fiscal one, but a principled one. Progressives will object because they, though perhaps admiring Paul’s rhetoric of peace, don’t want to be linked to the right wing. But Rand Paul is a person, not a platonic ideal, and he, even more than most people, defies easy categorization.
Back in May 2013, Paul, a Kentucky senator and likely presidential candidate in 2016, gave an extended interview to the Christian Broadcasting Network. (You can watch the entire 28-minute feature here.) It didn’t get much press at the time, but Paul, as he is prone to do, pushed back against established narratives. Concerned about the Republican enthusiasm for international conflict, he contended that Jesus “wasn’t really involved in the wars of his days.” He continued, “Part of Republicans’ problems and, frankly, to tell you the truth, some in the evangelical Christian movement I think have appeared too eager for war. . . . I think you need to remember that [Jesus] was the ‘Prince of Peace.’”
Paul has persisted in this anti-violence refrain. In June at the Freedom and Faith Conference, he articulated a strong pro-life message on abortion (pro-life groups say he has a 100% pro-life voting record on 8 votes in the Senate). He also declared, “Jesus reminds us what our goal should be when he proclaims, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God,’ . . . It’s unacceptable to have, and appoint, leaders who really show no reluctance for war.”
Fellow conservatives were apoplectic. David Limbaugh, younger brother of shock jock Rush Limbaugh, tweeted, “I pray there’s some explanation.” Richard Epstein of the Hoover Institution despaired of Paul’s “disastrous judgments” and naiveté. In an article entitled “Rand Paul’s Fatal Pacifism,” he wrote, “It is hardly wise to wait until ISIS is strong enough to mount a direct attack on the United States, when its operatives, acting out of safe havens, can commit serious acts of aggression against ourselves and our allies. It is far better to intervene too soon than to wait too long.” Epstein concluded, “Senator Paul’s position is inexcusable. It renders him unfit to serve as President of the United States should he be eyeing the 2016 candidacy.”
Paul was quick to point out that, despite using Jesus as an argument against war, he is not actually a pacifist. “I’m a Christian,” he clarified. “I’m not always a good one because I struggle still. I struggle with my faith and I struggle with my doubts. I’m not naive enough to say that ‘oh we’re gonna end war.’ I’m not a pacifist.” He then advocated for limited strikes with no ground forces. An article from the National Interest helpfully positions the senator, saying that Paul “thinks the establishments of both major parties are too quick to resort to military force, but he wants to reassure voters that he is not so dogmatic that he would not do what’s necessary to keep the country safe.” In short, he seems to hold a classic just-war position. What makes him unusual is that he seems more willing to actually practice that position’s criteria of restraint and last resort. Paul’s explicit endorsement of peace only seems like pacifism in the context of evangelical superpatriots.
It also may be that Paul’s anti-interventionism is animated more by libertarian principles than Christian ones (although a few, like the “Bleeding Heart Libertarians,” try to explicitly link libertarian and Christian principles). Libertarians, who want to reduce government spending, have historically spoken out against expensive wars. Rooted in the critiques of Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and David Boaz, the U.S. Libertarian Party has criticized hawkish neo-conservatives for supporting a “trillion-dollar foreign war” in Iraq. “It’s interesting that conservatives only notice “big government” when it’s something their political enemies want,” said Libertarian Party Executive Director Wes Benedict said. “When conservatives want it, apparently it doesn’t count.”
This is a fascinating critique in a historical moment when many American conservatives pursue an unrestrained interventionism. They preach a gospel of unlimited economic growth and aspire to actively shape the global order. But these are very different impulses compared to conservatives’ historic esteem of restraint and limits. Back in the 1790s Edmund Burke, citing the radical nature of the French Revolution, urged slow political and cultural change. In the 1961 Dwight Eisenhower urged a contraction of the “military industrial complex.” And there are some traditional conservatives still around. Writers at the Front Porch Republic and The American Conservative—and just-war theorists at Calvin College and Catholic universities—plead for caution, emphasizing the role that U.S. interventions in the past have played in provoking jihadists.
They just don’t seem to be reaching big chunks of the electorate. Perhaps Rand Paul more than eggheads can get a hearing from Christian crusaders who wrap the cross in a flag.
*** Originally posted at The Anxious Bench ***
Posted: September 21, 2015 Filed under: Uncategorized
Several months ago Florida Polytechnic University opened a brand-new library. Its architecture, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is striking. Even more striking is what this library lacks: books. I’ll repeat that: you can’t check out any physical books at FPU’s library.
Courtesy of Creative Commons
You can, however, read from a screen. Staffers say that electronic workstations give students access to over 135,000 e-books. Director of Libraries Kathryn Miller says, “It’s the information that’s key, not its form.”
I confess to considerable ambivalence over the prospect of bookless libraries. On one hand, I kind of get it. Why buy expensive books and shelves when e-books can be accessed for far less money? The library holdings at my small liberal arts college are limited compared to those of the research university library where I went to graduate school, so I’m dependent on interlibrary loans and electronic resources such as Jstor and Ebsco. In fact, my research has benefited tremendously from searchable databases and electronic journals. I’ve been able to track down sources in ways that would have been impossible decades ago.
On the other hand, I’m not ready to toss out the books. I get a lot of pleasure from sitting down in my office’s green leather recliner with a mug of steaming Earl Grey as I turn the pages of a book that I can actually touch. Is this a silly nostalgia for a preindustrial utopia that never was? I don’t think so. Along with Neil Postman, I’m not convinced that form doesn’t matter. This seems especially true when working in the archives. There’s something almost mystical about touching and reading the very documents that my historical subjects had touched. I like to think that it makes me a more empathetic historian.
I also object to bookless libraries because of the way we learn. Many times I’ve searched my library’s online catalog for a book only to realize later that the search was laughably insufficient. I might identify an important book, but when I head to the bricks-and-mortar library to fetch it, I almost always realize that the catalog didn’t find everything. In fact, some of my best sources have not come from targeted searches. I almost always come out of the stacks with half a dozen books from surrounding shelves. Catalog searches have real limits. We’re limited, obviously, by the terms of the search—and the teleology embedded in our searches. Browsing the stacks allows us to happen upon sources we never considered.
Sometimes the best learning comes through indirection as we travel circuitous routes toward an unknown destination. Sometimes we stumble on answers or insights on the path to somewhere else. Sometimes we pose the wrong question—or we construct an answer before we even ask a question. Sometimes we happen upon our best archival sources after being given the wrong box. Sometimes our most profound insights result from winding journeys in the laboratory, in the field, or in the text. The process can seem inefficient, but the search itself is important. It takes us beyond knowledge to wisdom.
Sure, I’m grateful for the precision of digital searches. But they don’t give us context, leave much room for instinct, or teach us to empathize with historical subjects. I’m not ready to leave behind the serendipity that can be found in the library stacks.
–Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench-–
Posted: August 21, 2015 Filed under: Uncategorized
Charles Spurgeon, a Reformed Baptist known as the “prince of preachers” in the nineteenth century, remains revered. Known especially for his devotional writings, he currently ranks in the top 100 bestsellers of Christian literature on Amazon. Tom Nettles, a professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that contemporary fascination with Spurgeon is due to “his commitment to gospel-centered preaching, belief in the inspiration of Scripture, and the sheer success of his ministry.” In every sermon, no matter what the text, he incorporated a simple explanation of the way of salvation. For all these reasons, Spurgeon is an icon within neo-Reformed circles.
But would a reincarnated Spurgeon actually be welcomed at Mars Hill Church or Bethlehem Baptist Church? As Jonathan Merritt notes, the “prince of preachers” criticized capitalism. He favored government welfare policies to alleviate poverty. And he denounced Christian participation in war. In contrast to the full-throated defense of just war emanating from many neo-Reformed pulpits, Spurgeon consistently spoke out against redemptive violence. Here are just a few examples within his pacifist oeuvre:
- “What pride flushes the patriot’s cheek when he remembers that his nation can murder faster than any other people. Ah, foolish generation, ye are groping in the flames of hell to find your heaven, raking amid blood and bones for the foul thing which ye call glory. Killing is not the path to prosperity; huge armaments are a curse to the nation itself as well as to its neighbours.”
- “I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed, and that, if a nation is driven to fight in its own defence, Christianity stands by to weep and to intervene as soon as possible, and not to join in the cruel shouts which celebrate an enemy’s slaughter.”
- “The Church of Christ is continually represented under the figure of an army; yet its Captain is the Prince of Peace; its object is the establishment of peace, and its soldiers are men of a peaceful disposition. The spirit of war is at the extremely opposite point to the spirit of the gospel.”
- And if you have a spare 48 minutes, listen to this rendition of Spurgeon’s 1859 sermon entitled “War! War! War!” If you just want to skim it, click here for the full text. And for more Spurgeon quotes, visit www.spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/.
Nettles’ new biography of Spurgeon (which I’m very much looking forward to reading) features blurbs from John Piper, David Dockery, and others from top neo-Reformed seminaries. Al Mohler calls him “a mountain—a massive figure on the evangelical landscape.” But none of the endorsements mentions Spurgeon’s view of war (though Nettles does in interviews). And the few evangelicals who do in other contexts, like those who post on the online discussion forum Baptist Board, are not impressed. “I have a real problem with anyone, Spurgeon, or anyone else who never served in the armed forces, or was in combat, commenting about the merits or lack thereof of war,” writes one. And another: “War is necessary because there is evil in the world. Jesus came the first time in peace. The next time, He will be riding a white horse leading an army of His saints.”
Like so many historical figures, Spurgeon violates our categories and sensibilities. Don’t conservative politics, a high view of scripture, and redemptive violence inherently belong together? Charles Spurgeon would beg to differ. He argued that the very elements that make him so attractive to evangelicals—his commitment to evangelism, gospel-centered preaching, and Scripture—form the very foundation of his Christian pacifism.
*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench ***
Posted: August 4, 2015 Filed under: Uncategorized
At Asbury University, where I teach, the fall semester is already ramping up. After welcoming nearly 400 new students to campus last Tuesday for orientation, we didn’t waste any time starting up academic conversations. All incoming students are reading G.K. Chesterton’s mystery thriller The Man Who Was Thursday for their liberal arts seminar, which met each day of orientation in both small group and plenary sessions. What follows are notes of my concluding plenary address.
A few years ago as an incoming student at a college very much like this one, I sat in an auditorium during orientation like you are right now and contemplated my future. On one level, I was engrossed with the immediate future, the future driven by my stomach, hormones, and nerves. But I also thought long-term. As I recall, my goals clustered around two concerns. One had to do with practicality. I wanted training for a career, one that would pay off my student loans and one that would provide for a comfortable living. The other had to do with answers. I wanted to be able to defend my beliefs and pin down my opponents. I wanted to know the correct interpretation of classical and biblical texts, the right answer to the calculus problem, the precise treatment we should offer to someone suffering from an ailment.
To be sure, there is great virtue in precise medical treatments and in financial solvency. But I wish I had wished for more. And my wish for you, during your college orientation, is that you can expand the notion of education beyond the calibrated metrics and language of input, output, and quality control that characterized my own conception. For the next few minutes, I want to speak to you about the role of mystery as you pursue a life of inquiry here.
There is considerable pressure on you to follow a safe narrative, to view college and your major only as job preparation. You may feel this pressure from yourself, your parents, from society to live predictable lives in which you follow a script of moving along from kindergarten to high school to college syllabi to a job to a retirement of shuffleboard and early-bird specials in Florida.
But it’s possible to be too practical, to train for a job that might not exist in a decade. One of the strongest defenses of the liberal arts is that it teaches you to think, write, and have imagination. This prepares you for many kinds of jobs. But beyond this practical critique of practicality, I imagine that we should be open to the possibility of sources of inspiration beyond spreadsheets, sources like tradition, morality, passion, and mystery.
You’re going to be reading a detective story this semester that delights in mystery. The Man Who Was Thursday is terrifying, deeply bewildering, and always mysterious. This is a theme Chesterton wrote much about. In his Introduction to the Book of Job, Chesterton writes, “God comes in at the end, not to answer riddles, but to propound them.” Instead of giving a satisfying, philosophically nuanced answer of the sort Job is expecting, God recites poems about wild animals. This is the kind of whiplash you are going to experience when you read the many surreal scenes in this novel. Things are never as they seem. Scenes depict the mystery of life and the paradoxes of ourselves. If some are wolves in sheep’s clothing, some are sheep in wolves clothing. Anarchists are virtuous. The police are corrupt. There is a hierarchical governing body of those dedicated to blowing up a hierarchical governing body. In the end, Chesterton suggests, we must realize that we are simultaneously good and bad. We are at war with ourselves. And then there are the disguises. The Man Who Was Thursday is full of mystery.
How does this take shape in our scholarly conversation here? It means not limiting your education to the classrooms, for one thing. It means following your passions beyond graded assignments. It means not pestering faculty for higher grades and instead learning for the sake of learning, not grades. It means realizing that fiction can be truer than nonfiction. It means working with your classmates, not against them. It means letting the mystery of God command us more than commanding God into our tidy theological constructs. It means recognizing that community does not follow an easy formula. It means reveling in classrooms that hum with energy and intellectual curiosity. And realizing that what makes community in the first place is often serendipitous and unimaginably complex.
No talk at an Asbury orientation is complete without some C. S. Lewis. Here is my obligatory quote: “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded against a weak excess of sensibility, there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.”
Many of us could probably use a dose of discipline. But I would wager that even more of us suffer from the problem of vulgarity. We value grades over learning. We plod along the arid deserts of a coldly efficient modernity. We need doses of water and blood to grow wild jungles of mystery and creativity and passion. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I don’t wish for you four years of straight A’s (although I may wish for a job after saying that). I don’t wish for you lives of wealth and comfort. I don’t want you to extract an optimal cost-benefit ratio from your experience. Instead, I urge you to immerse yourself in this complex, mysterious community. If that’s your goal, you’ve come to the right place. Asbury is a great place to irrigate deserts.
*** Cross-posted at The Anxious Bench blog ***
Posted: April 21, 2015 Filed under: Uncategorized
In my last post I described the pushback from some American evangelicals against God-and-country Bibles like the Patriot’s Bible or the Bicentennial Bible. Another woefully understudied, but potentially significant, source of dissent is global evangelicalism. To my knowledge Mark Noll is one of the few to analyze foreign perspectives on America’s treatment of Scripture. In one of the most striking chapters of The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, entitled “Opinions of Protestants Abroad,” Noll surveys how nineteenth-century European Christians regarded the American debate over slavery. None linked the defense of American slavery with the defense of scriptural authority. Many Europeans, according to Tracy McKenzie’s overview, observed what was “invisible to American believers, in particular the degree to which material interests, republican assumptions, and racial attitudes were shaping the Christians, North and South.” Many were withering in their assessments of American methodologies in debates over the Civil War. Noll agrees, noting the utter lack of “theological profundity.” American Christians were hyper-individualistic, lacked any central authority, and paid insufficient attention to tradition.
Is there a twenty-first-century equivalent of this critique? Views from abroad are surely diverse themselves, but it is difficult to imagine a strong global constituency for The Patriot’s Bible. This is perhaps Perry’s perceptive point when he writes, “It may be that evangelicals’ goal of Americanizing the Bible is at cross-purposes with their goal of biblicizing America, because they make the Bible dependent on a particular reading of American history.” Of the individuals quoted in The Patriot’s Bible, the overwhelming majority are white, male, dead, and American. The appeal of this message and approach surely has real limits in the context of a rising Global South, a maturing theological educational system abroad, and burgeoning immigration to the U.S. from the Majority World.
Barton surely derives identity, strength, and internal cohesion from his sense of embattlement. But the weight of demography leans heavily against the kind of right-wing Christian nationalism represented by these patriotic bibles. It could be that The Patriot’s Bible—with its misplaced nostalgia and abuse of history—is a last gasp from marginal fundamentalists slipping into obscurity. After all, conservatives are losing the battle over same-sex marriage. Some are abandoning the faith entirely. Others, supplementing common-sense readings of Scripture with history and tradition, are “crossing the Tiber” (see Christian Smith’s The Bible Made Impossible) or taking the Canterbury Trail (see Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail).
In the end, the rowdy assemblage of immigrant, Anabaptist, and Christian nationalist perspectives may simply be the logical end of an individualistic Protestantism. American evangelicals, as Tocqueville noted, were the authors of a democratic, non-hierarchical style that was simultaneously volatile and virile. Very few purveyors of usable history in this debate over Scripture and the nation have practiced the humility of Lincoln, who turned out to be one of the very few profound theological voices during the Civil War. Acknowledging that “the Almighty has his own purposes” is not the kind of sensibility that would depict Jesus cuffed with an American flag (as some New Left evangelicals have done)—or interpolate quotes from Dick Cheney into the biblical text (as some New Right evangelicals have done).
*** For a broader discussion on the topic of “The Bible in America, America in the Bible,” see the July-August 2014 edition of the Religion and Culture Web Forum hosted by the University of Chicago Divinity School. ***