Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Book Notes: Republocrat, Confessions of a Liberal Conservative by Carl R. Trueman

I don't know if Carl Trueman actually set out to irritate people across the political spectrum; but his 2010 book, Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative has certainly achieved that. Trueman is most well known as a Reformed Theologian/Historian, whose punchy polemics have spread lively debates far and wide from his office at Philadelphia's Westminster Seminary. 

Republocrat contains Trueman's thoughts about contemporary politics - especially American politics, from a Christian perspective. Since leaving British soil for the USA, Trueman has very naturally found a spiritual home in the doctrine and practice of North America's Reformed churches. He seems however, to have been scandalised by the political culture of American Christianity; and it is this experience which drives this book.

In Trueman's view, unequivocal endorsement of the left is not an option. The church cannot 'baptise' the left agenda, because as he notes, the post 1960s new-left has abandoned the unique focus on addressing material oppression and turned to individualistic psychological categories and has therefore ended up supporting positions which defy the Bible, such as abortion on demand, or the gay-agenda. This chapter is of course, the one which will stir up more controversy in the church here in the UK. However, Trueman has a far larger target in mind than the post 60s left..

Trueman goes on to argue that the kind of assumptions made by huge swathes of the North American church that Christianity=unequivocal endorsement of right wing politics, is wrong. Actually, he argues far more strongly than that - he goes as far in his chapter on Christianity and Capital to describe the baptism of capitalism as an absolute good, or of American Exceptionalism as "idolatry". In his view, there are countless issues on which there is no definitively Biblical position and about which Christians in fellowship with one another can legitimately disagree. Take for example, (p94)
It is not obvious to me from reading Scripture that God really cares one way or the other about how health care is delivered. Sickness is a result of the fall. As it was God's own character revealed in Christ to reach out with compassion to those ill and suffering, so it should be part of the character of God reflected in Christians to act in a manner consistent with this. I would suggest it means that believers should consider health care a good thing and want to see as many people helped by it as possible. How this is done, to what extent the state is involved, etc., are legitimate subjects for debate and not something that should divide Christians as Christians.
In other words the blanket endorsement of the right-wing agenda by the church in the USA is a serious error. Trueman briefly outlines his concerns with the idea that Christian faith necessarily endorses such shibboleths as gun ownership, the minimal state, environmental neglect, or the lack of provision of universal health care; as is so often assumed to be the case in the USA. Much of the blame for this Trueman lays squarely at the door of the likes of Fox News (trusted as an unbiased 'Christian' news-source!), the Murdoch empire, secularism within the church, and the shoddy, almost imbecilic standard of political debate. Politics is complex, and for the Christian will always involve compromise and trade-offs, as each issue is thought-through from a Biblical perspective in its own right. But here, of course is a key for Trueman - as for him the market is not a source of authority or morality, only the Bible is. Therefore the operations of the market can be held to account!

The book is witty, shocking, provocative, readable and wise. It's packed full of perceptive and/or funny examples of his points. Christians who are politically aware should get it, read it and think through the lessons it offers seriously. Although addressed primarily at Christians in Trueman's adopted home, there's plenty in here which relates to British politics too. For those of us who have discussed politics with Christians in America and been deeply perplexed by the whole manifest-destiny stuff, the messianic notions of Foreign Policy, opposition to health-care for the poor, of love of weapons, or the assumption that the British NHS was set up by atheists, communists and opponents of the gospel (!!!!); Republocrat is essential reading. There are times when Republocrat will make the reader laugh, scoff, or even cheer out loud; it certainly won't bore you. It would be tragic if this important book was either ignored and not given the circulation that it deserves, especially amongst the American Christian right. It would also be tragic of the satirical, humorous, and sometimes tongue-in-cheek styled detracted from the sobering wake up call from political naivety, found within it. Trueman's motivation for writing this book is also important to notice as he is not pleading to be understood or accepted by his new countrymen, nor is he hoping to persuade the American Christians to cheerlead for health care reform or some such. While he is concerned that the political-right exploits the religious-right to get votes but doesn't deliver policy outcomes in return; this is not his fundamental reason for writing, as he reveals (p109)
It is my belief that the identification of Christianity, in its practical essence, with very conservative politics will, if left unchecked, drive away a generation of people who are concerned for the poor, for the environment, for foreign policy issues.

In Republocrat, Trueman warns people not to digest media that doesn't challenge, but merely re-enforces their opinions. Of course, that' exactly the danger I am in when I read things like Republocrat. Nevertheless, it is good to read such a cheery and entertaining dismissal of the flawed idea that Biblical morality can be the exclusive property of either left or right.


Monday, February 20, 2012

The Falls of Feugh

Testing the limits of how still I can hold the camera - next camera thing required = tripod!

Inverusk, Bristol and a Funeral

My wife & I were supposed to be enjoying a weekend away together, without the kids! She didn't know anything about it, but I had booked a cottage in the Highlands, and booked my parents to come and grand-parent, for the weekend. Sadly however, it was not to be. My Dad phoned a day or two before the weekend with the sad news that my uncle had died, and so they would not be able to come. Instead of cancelling the weekend altogether, we decided to take the kids with us - and all pile into the cottage. mood... Relaxing with a glass of wine, on a big sofa, in front of a roaring log fire was the ideal way to spend an evening - except that the romantic mood was not exactly enhanced by the presence of a twelve year old boy sitting in between us!

Our friend's cottage is a lovely peaceful place, perched above the river. With its grassy banks, gentle flow, and constant wildlife activity, the banks of Feugh look like the setting for the start of The Wind in the Willows. It certainly provided a serenely calm and beautiful place for me to spend a few minutes remembering my uncle - whose funeral in Bristol I set off to the next day. The funeral was a positive and uplifting event, as my uncle was a committed Christian who believed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and in so doing broke the final power of death - guaranteeing his own resurrection into the presence of Jesus. For me the 'highlight' (is it right to have a highlight of a funeral?) was listening to my Dad paying a moving and heartfelt tribute to his big-brother. He spoke about many things; school, WWII bombing raids, cricket, athletics, meeting up after work for dinner in the mid-1960s, and my uncle's PhD work. Most significantly though he spoke about the way in which his big-brother had first introduced him to the Christian faith through the boys Crusader group (still going, now re-branded as Urban Saints). My Dad talked about that being the place where his own faith in Christ was born - which of course subsequently led to me being brought up in a Christian home. Any reader of this blog will know what a huge influence that has had on me, and therefore how much I owe to my uncle.

Book Notes: The Fires of Jubilee; Nat Turner's Fierce Rebellion

The Fires of Jubilee is Stephen B. Oates stirring narrative of the dramatic events which took place in Southampton, Virginia in 1831. His book contains only a little analysis or historiography, but focuses the vast proportion of its 150+ pages on a straightforward telling of the violent events of the slave rebellion which broke out, and which will forever be associated with the name of it's leader, Nat Turner.

In Oates' account, white Virginia prided itself on its moderate slave regime, even convincing itself that the slaves were not bullied into obsequiousness but were happy, indeed grateful for their lot. White Virginians looked down upon what they regarded as the ill-treatment of slaves in states known for their harsher codes, such as Georgia or Alabama. The reality which lurked below the calm surface was that slaves like Nat Turner refused to be complicit in their dehumanisation and humiliation, and spent years planning an armed revolt.

Turner himself is a fascinating character. A man of unusual abilities he managed to gain the ability to read and write (although this was illegal), and read all he could -especially of the Bible. Reading the Bible for himself, Turner discovered that the White peoples proof-texts justifying slavery were weak; and that the book was full of compelling stories of the divine liberation of captives and exiles. These texts, his life experiences, and his interpretation of mystical signs forged a conviction in his mind that God had called him to be a Moses-like liberator of Virginia's black slaves. A dramatic eclipse in 1831 convinced Turner that God was calling him to start his rebellion, and so his small band of followers began their revolt, executing whites across the county farm by farm. Oates book provides a systematic chronology of the brief revolt and it's brutal suppression.

As fascinating as the story of the rebellion itself, is Oates' account of the aftermath of the events of 1831. For a start, it is often forgotten that the number of black casualties killed in white reprisals far outnumbered Turner's victims. Secondly, Oates describes the level of fear amongst the white community who worried that the rebellion was only a small part of a wider uprising planned by Northern Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison. This in turn led to the imposition of far stricter and harsher 'slave-codes' in Virginia which significantly reduced the limited freedoms slaves had enjoyed prior to 1831 - a severity that would endure for the remainder of the ante-bellum period. Most surprisingly of all however is the fact that Nat Turner's rebellion was one of several factors which combined to almost persuade Virginia's Governor Floyd to table an emancipation bill in the state legislature (he was apparently persuaded against it at the last minute by his mentor, noted apologist for the 'peculiar institution', John C. Calhoun). As much of the state favoured an end to the turbulent and disturbing presence of slavery, there was a possibility that such a bill may have passed - which would have had enormous consequences for the South, and could have radically altered the course of American history, especially the Civil War. Nat Turner and his six confidante's who planned the uprising, didn't manage to spark of a wholescale slave war, and many slaves stayed local to their masters, and the whole movement lasted but three short bloody days. Yet - they came closer to changing history than anyone (except possibly the mystical Turner himself) could have imagined possible. One thing seems certain however; if Turner had lived to see the destruction of Richmond in the 1860s at the conclusion of a Civil War which increasingly came to be defined by the slavery issue; he would have claimed it was the divine judgement on the South that he had warned about in 1831.

Oates concludes his book with a postscript of stories from his field trips to Virginia to research the Turner story. Detailed accounts of the revolt exist so that tracing the exact route of the rebels from farm-to-farm  was possible for Oates in the early 1970s. Some of the same old farm houses from the 1830s were still standing too. Sadly, he found the place still bristling with racial tension nearly a century and a half after Nat Turner led his axe-wielding slaves out from their cabins to overthrow their oppressors.

Interestingly, Oates simply avoids making any moral judgements (either positive or negative) about Turner and his associates. He does not lift the moral agenda of Ghandi and Martin Luther King from the Twentieth Century and impose this back onto the 1830s in order to start a discussion about the necessity for evil to be confronted through non-violent struggle. Rather, (and quoting Frederick Douglass to this effect) he sees the violent actions of the rebels as simply part of the violence created by slavery; the brutal actions created by a brutal system.

Oates' book is short, lively, shocking and important. It vividly details an important chapter in the history of the American South. It's very good, though rather uncomfortable reading.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Notes: The Spirituals and The Blues by James H. Cone

For James Cone, neither The Spirituals, nor The Blues, can be appreciated as musical/lyrical/cultural expressions, apart from the Black experience of America which birthed them. In fact, in this book he goes almost as far as claiming that it is not possible to understand them unless one is part of that very experience. His withering comments about those who would seek to use the objective tools of historical analysis to dissect this music, from outside the experience and faith of Black-America (p4), are foundational for the book. This swipe is obviously aimed at writers like the celebrated Paul Oliver, whose work does feature in Cone's bibliography. "I contend, that there is a deeper level of experience which transcends the tools of  "objective" historical research. And that experience is available only to those who share the spirit and participate in the faith of the people who created these songs", he writes. And then later, "Black music is also social and political. It is social because it is black and thus articulates the separateness of the black community. It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture." (p5-6).

Cone was one of the first theologians to apply so-called "Liberation-Theology" to the experience of Black America in the 1960s, for which he gained both fame and notoriety, depending on who you ask. The Spirituals and The Blues was written in the early 1970s and so the context of his writing is both to build upon that theological base, applying it to this particular cultural form; and also to assert the essential Black-ness of the music at a time when it was being increasingly appropriated by white performers and artists. 

Cone rejects many of the interpretations of The Spirituals which preceded him, such as that by Marxists who insisted that Slave-religion was guilty of the pacification of the oppressed by the offering of false post-mortem rewards for the compliant; the standard 'pie-in-the-sky' opiate. Cone, while demonstrating that that is exactly what White-Christianity was directly and appallingly guilty of, forwards an interpretation of the Spirituals which is politically radical. Aware of the obvious rebuttal to his thesis, Cone takes his time to ensure that such a reading is not simply an eisegesis of the sources from the vantage point of  post civil-rights era radicalism, but roots his reading deeply into the experience of American slavery. From here, apparently innocuous songs and sermons become loaded with political intent. The use of Moses and the Exodus metaphor is only one of a handful of Biblical themes which oppressed people could sing without alarming their 'masters', but which had direct, revolutionary significance for the slave. That is not so say that they were only political metaphors, stripped of theological force; but rather that for Christian-slave, the salvation they looked to God for was not postponed until after death but would begin here, with the freeing of captives and the giving of sight to the blind. As Cone points out, for slave insurrectionist like Nat Turner, their actions were not done as a rejection of God or Christianity, but in seeking to claim the promises they saw within it. Cone, rather elegantly, argues that the spirituals (and then their 'secular counterparts' The Blues), are though more than coded protest songs. In fact their very composition and expression was a powerful political-social-theological statement which affirms the humanity, value and personhood of the people from whom it comes - and this in the face of a system designed to rob them of precisely that personhood. Rather than accepting white values, or escapist theology, or indeed rejecting Christianity - in Cone's reading the singers he examines looked to the Christian God to aid them in their struggle to survive; and who would lead them one day to liberty. (p61)

The lament of the Blues, Cone sees as the other side of the same coin, of the self-expression of the marginalised - albeit without reference to God. "You've never seen a mule sing" Cone quotes the legendary bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson (also a singer of spirituals as Deacon LJ Bates) as saying. That nicely contrasts the two views of black personhood which existed in his experience and the way in which in his creativity asserted his humanity.

In terms of a reading of these wonderful, and so powerfully evocative musical forms, Cone's book is quite wonderful. As black American music has in so many ways conquered the world in successive waves of gospel, blues, jazz, soul, funk, hip-hop and rap; it becomes progressively easier to detach the sound from the context which created it, and which in a sense still owns it in a way which the external appreciator (how ever enraptured) never quite can. Cone's account is though, not without its controversial aspects and elements which I couldn't entirely accept. Liberation Theology is a case in point. While I entirely agree that the gospel must bring economic and social justice in its wake, and that any movement which does not embrace the marginalised is woefully sub-Christian, and that the Kingdom of God is to be advanced here 'as in heaven' in which all peoples are equal and liberation is achieved for all: I do not believe that Liberation Theology alone gives an adequate account of the gospel of Christ. Cone exclusively operates within the framework of liberation theology here - and that is problematic. 

Another element of the book which I found troublesome was Cone's use of absolute generalisations about peoples as if such stereotyping was either historically true or theologically helpful. So for instance, his insistence that slave-religion did not internalise the values of the oppressor, and didn't view 'heaven' as otherworldly but as a emancipation; might be true up to a point. Far more likely it seems to me is that there were a range of responses to the evil of slavery, and that such categorical statements are unlikely to be realistic. If Cone wants to justify this on the grounds that compromised responses were less authentically black and therefore to be excluded from his account, he at that point needs some of the tools of the 'objective historian' to correct his ideological slant. Most provocatively of all, Cone likes to employ the Calvinist terminology of "the elect" (that is to so, the chosen of God for His salvation) in racial terms. In Cone's version of political salvation this is understandable, but is a world away from the use of such terms in the New Testament. Where Cone commends "black-religion" for resisting the importation of "white-categories" into their reading of the Bible (which is a good thing), he needs to be careful not to be also excluding biblical, especially Pauline categories from his. Where 'love for enemies' and Christ's ethical teaching fits into Cone's appreciation of Black music is not mentioned.

The Spirituals and The Blues, (despite the fact that I read it from a totally different theological and cultural perspective than the author), is powerfully provocative, and compelling reading. Anyone who loves this music, and (like me) has wondered why it able to move them so deeply, profoundly and powerfully should read it. Next time I am listening to the heavenly growling of Blind Willie Johnson singing "What is the Soul of A Man?" I will not hear those words in isolation, as an abstract theological or philosophical musing. Instead I will hear a Black man singing from the context of poverty and segregation. In his song, the soul before God is not black or white but equal. Likewise, his song affirms that despite what he has been told since birth, he too is a man, with a soul. Next time I listen to someone sing, "I want Jesus to walk with me", I will think if Cone's discussion of the solitary nature of so many of these songs - as they came from a time when families were so often split up at the auctioneer's block - and communities separated. "In my troubles, walk with me" - are words I have both heard and sung as prayers in dark days; but again Cone's work helps me embed these words within the historical and racial realities in which they were heart-cries. 

Cone's passionate love for Black American music and people is gripping, while his analysis brings a new dimension to the appreciation of the music. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ice Window

Extraordinary patterns in the ice on our attic Velux windows last week. (Click image to enlarge)

Book Notes: Simply Jesus by Tom Wright

Tom Wright's latest popular level book, Simply Jesus, brings the fruits of his many decades of scholarly work on the gospels, and his unique take on them, and makes it accessible to the interested lay-reader (or the scholar who just lacks the necessary time to read his 700+ page tomes!). Wright continues to chart his idiosyncratic course through Christian theology which is always guaranteed to intrigue, fascinate and irritate both conservatives and liberals alike!

Wright's basic working thesis is that both today's liberals and conservative theologians have used their different versions of the contemporary world-view to shape their readings of Jesus, distorting it in different directions. Instead, Wright proposes a scheme in which he claims to draw a usable interpretive framework with which to understand Jesus and his message, from the context of 1st Century Palestine - thus enabling us to shed our imported pre-conceptions and get closer to the real Jesus. Liberals, Wright castigates for their failure to embrace the miraculous aspects of Christ's ministry, thus eviscerating the invasion of God into history of its full power and significance, and in the case of Christ's physical resurrection its meaning and credibility too. Conservatives though, he scolds for their failure to engage with the idea of the Kingdom of God on earth 'as it is in heaven'; depleting Christianity by reducing it to a dualistic 'soul-only' salvation in which escape from the earth is the goal rather than the reign of God on earth. In marking out these broad lines of argument Wright quite brilliantly corrects some of the extremes into which both ends of the spectrum are prone to fall.

Wright's extensive use of the Old Testament is also fascinating, especially where he draws on the prophets and history. One of his contentions is that in the person and life of Jesus (through which the announcement of God's kingship is made), God is doing for the world, what he did for Israel in the Exodus and return from exile. He points out that the pattern, (i) overcoming a tyrant (ii) rescue, (iii) giving a vocation to God's people, (iv) God's presence, (v) inheritance; are exactly what Jesus achieved - with far greater scope than those Old Testament narratives (p75). Therefore, Wright continues:
Just as physical healing is the up-close-and-personal version of what it looks like when God takes charge, to fix and mend the whole world, so individual forgiveness is the up-close-and-personal version of what it looks like when God does what he promised and restores his exiled people..... most Jews in Jesus day saw the Babylonian exile as only the start of a much longer period of history in which God's people remained unredeemed, un-rescued and unforgiven. When Jesus was announcing forgiveness, both on the one-to-one personal scale and more widely, this is the story people would have had in their heads. And this is the story we must assume Jesus intended them to have in their heads. (p75)
Wright's chapter on 'Battle and Temple' is compelling reading. Arguing that the Old Testament temple, was the place where heaven and earth met, as the presence of God was conducted into the Holy of Holies; he demonstrates the way in which many of Jesus words make most sense if we Jesus as the living embodiment of the the temple. Jesus cleansing of the Temple, as well as announcing judgement on it, comes into sharp focus as does his conflict with evil. Likewise his work on the background the gospels is remarkable, the comparisons he makes with other Jewish would-be messianic movements in the centuries either side of Jesus - brings the unique nature of Jesus and his movement into brilliant clarity.

When it comes to examining the death and resurrection of Jesus, Wright is in the thick of the most hotly contested theological issues of the last few years. Wright's emphasis is on the Christus Victor  model of atonement, and yet intriguingly he subsumes some of the language and insights of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) into his scheme. Again many liberals will resist the required physicality of the resurrection, and will baulk at anything more than the example and moral influence of the cross. Yet Wright insists that the cross-resurrection of Christ is absolutely necessary for salvation, and is the first fruits of the renewal of everything including the physical realm. Conservatives would want Wright to be much stronger on PSA - and address the issue of divine justice and the cross, not just the conflict with death and evil, and the associated abandonment of the Son by God the Father at Calvary. Part of this, as several commentators  have noted, is that Wright draws extensively from 1st Century culture, and Old Testament narratives and prophets for his interpretation - but little from Old Testament Law or from the NT Epistles - whose combined influence could bolster the element of PSA which Wright permits in his account. Contrary to some conservative bloggers, I do not think that this invalidates Wright's important work here though. In the wake of the Steve Chalke controversy over PSA several years ago, it became clear that his work was part of an anti-reaction to some caricatures of PSA, or the impression given in some circles that this was the only way to describe the achievement of the cross. In response to Chalke et al, many others have pointed out that the Bible's many ways of describing the Cross may be tricky to systematise - but that each image is like the facets of a diamond - each quite brilliant. The cross and resurrection of Jesus is the basis for all hope, and Wright helps us to see the way in which his triumph over sin and death achieves this for us.

Wright is an enigmatic scholar who can express his vast knowledge in straightforward language. While I struggle to appreciate his work on Paul and justification; I cannot think of a writer who more concisely and illuminatingly brings the gospels to life by drawing the social/political/theological background into such clear focus. While his academic works (published as N.T. Wright) are densely argued and heavily footnoted, his more popular works such as this are fast-paced and almost unbelievably contain barely any references at all. As a Christian, seeking insight into Jesus, understanding of the gospel's text and context, and always trying to be suspicious of my own assumptions which I bring to that exercise, Simply Jesus is a brilliant resource. I do not think agreement with the great Professor on every point is required in order to have one's own assumptions raked through and tested, and light shed in dark corners through reading Simply Jesus. I found it absolutely compelling.


Monday, February 06, 2012