Thursday, July 31, 2008

Christopher Hitchens: “if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture”

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted. . . . I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

—Christopher Hitchens, “Believe Me, It’s Torture” (H/T Alan Jacobs)

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Tourism as existential self-understanding

“I confess that I have never understood why so many people’s idea of a fun vacation is to don flip-flops and sunglasses and crawl through maddening traffic to loud, hot, crowded tourist venues in order to sample a ‘local flavor’ that is by definition ruined by the presence of tourists. . . . As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way—hostile to my fantasy of being a true individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. . . . To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”

—David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006), 240.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Portland: least religious colleges

The Princeton Review released its latest college rankings. As usual, my hometown of Portland, Oregon is home to the #1 and #3 least religious colleges in the United States. I am strangely proud of this fact. I am often weirded out by hyper-religious schools—maybe because I went to one.

At the same time, I am also proud of the fact that my alma mater, Wheaton College (#3 most religious school), again gained the #1 ranking for best campus food. Well done, Wheaton!

Associated Press: “Man shot churchgoers over liberal views”

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — An unemployed man accused of opening fire with a shotgun and killing two people at a Unitarian Universalist church apparently targeted the congregation out of hatred for its support of liberal social policies, police said Monday.

Knoxville Police Chief Sterling Owen IV said a signed, four-page letter written by Jim D. Adkisson, 58, was found in his small SUV in the church parking lot after gunfire interrupted a children's performance based on the musical "Annie" Sunday morning. Seven people also were injured in the melee.

"It appears that what brought him to this horrible event was his lack of being able to obtain a job, his frustration over that and his stated hatred of the liberal movement," Owen said at a news conference.

—Duncan Mansfield, AP

Monday, July 28, 2008

Between atheism and fundamentalism: Mark Lilla’s Enlightened political theology

Last year, the New York Times published a fascinating selection from an upcoming book by Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University. The book is called The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West. The article, “The Politics of God,” is an historical look at what Lilla calls “political theology”—by which he means a politics shaped by belief in God, as represented by, say, Christian crusaders or Muslim extremists.

The article is interesting for a number of reasons, but it is perhaps most fascinating because of the way it opens a window into the mind of a post-Christian, atheist/agnostic academic who assumes a post-Christian, atheist/agnostic audience. Consider the following:
This is the language of political theology, and for millennia it was the only tongue human beings had for expressing their thoughts about political life. It is primordial, but also contemporary: countless millions still pursue the age-old quest to bring the whole of human life under God’s authority, and they have their reasons. To understand them we need only interpret the language of political theology — yet that is what we find hardest to do. Reading a letter like Ahmadinejad’s, we fall mute, like explorers coming upon an ancient inscription written in hieroglyphics.
Who is the “we” in this passage? Clearly not practicing Muslims. But it can’t be most practicing Christians and Jews, either. Or really any religious person, for that matter—those who may disagree with the views of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad but who still understand the language. Lilla writes to a very particular audience, an audience composed of people like himself and his academic colleagues. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is certainly a very limited perspective. What he goes on to say is very telling:
A little more than two centuries ago we began to believe that the West was on a one-way track toward modern secular democracy and that other societies, once placed on that track, would inevitably follow. Though this has not happened, we still maintain our implicit faith in a modernizing process and blame delays on extenuating circumstances like poverty or colonialism. This assumption shapes the way we see political theology, especially in its Islamic form — as an atavism requiring psychological or sociological analysis but not serious intellectual engagement. Islamists, even if they are learned professionals, appear to us primarily as frustrated, irrational representatives of frustrated, irrational societies, nothing more. We live, so to speak, on the other shore.
What is this “other shore”? Who, again, is the “we”? Apparently, the “we” sees religious societies as “irrational,” in contrast to an apparently “rational West.” The assumption here is that reason and Enlightenment have saved us from the irrational, frustrated tendencies of a religiously grounded politics. (Somewhere, William Cavanaugh is writing a book in response—or already has.)

We cannot stop here. The article keeps going (and going), and there is much to ponder, most of which I cannot discuss here. Lilla begins the second section (“The Great Separation”) with the question: “Why is there political theology?” This is a real question for him. In a preliminary attempt to answer this question, Lilla offers a typical phenomenological, socio-historical definition of theology: “Theology is, after all, a set of reasons people give themselves for the way things are and the way they ought to be. So let us try to imagine how those reasons might involve God and have implications for politics.” Despite the etymology, theology is not necessarily about God, he says. It’s really just about the human search for meaning and understanding in the world, and for some, that just so happens to include God. It seems clear that Lilla does not see any distinction between theology as a discipline and religion as a socio-historical entity. Or, rather, theology is simply an articulation of what takes place in religion. There is no critical distance between theology and religion for Lilla, which only goes to show that he hasn’t read much theology. He then offers this imaginative explanation for how humankind began to posit a deity:

Imagine human beings who first become aware of themselves in a world not of their own making. Their world has unknown origins and behaves in a regular fashion, so they wonder why that is. They know that the things they themselves fashion behave in a predictable manner because they conceive and construct them with some end in mind. They stretch the bow, the arrow flies; that is why they were made. So, by analogy, it is not difficult for them to assume that the cosmic order was constructed for a purpose, reflecting its maker’s will. By following this analogy, they begin to have ideas about that maker, about his intentions and therefore about his personality. In taking these few short steps, the human mind finds itself confronted with a picture, a theological image in which God, man and world form a divine nexus.
It’s hard to tell whether Lilla is just speculating for the sake of argument, or whether he honestly thinks this is the sole basis for the idea of God. Either way, it is simply a watered-down version of the teleological argument. Nothing new or surprising here, but also nothing that Christian theologians themselves have not already critiqued. Lilla just shows how impoverished his own imagination really is. He follows his imaginative explanation with the following:
In taking these few short steps, the human mind finds itself confronted with a picture, a theological image in which God, man and world form a divine nexus. Believers have reasons for thinking that they live in this nexus, just as they have reasons for assuming that it offers guidance for political life. But how that guidance is to be understood, and whether believers think it is authoritative, will depend on how they imagine God. If God is thought to be passive, a silent force like the sky, nothing in particular may follow. He is a hypothesis we can do without. But if we take seriously the thought that God is a person with intentions, and that the cosmic order is a result of those intentions, then a great deal can follow. The intentions of such a God reveal something man cannot fully know on his own. This revelation then becomes the source of his authority, over nature and over us, and we have no choice but to obey him and see that his plans are carried out on earth. That is where political theology comes in.
Lilla is at least right about this one thing: how we understand God will affect how we engage in politics. But his analysis is so crude and overly simplistic that it’s laughable. Apparently, God is either a passive object in the heavens (Deism) or an active tyrant who bends all creation to an omnipotent will (hyper-Calvinism). Either political theology appeals to God as a kind of benevolent afterthought, or it appeals to God as the basis for some wacked-out fundamentalist jihad. Lilla is a walking example of how we are still squarely in modernity. He throws around binary oppositions like sledgehammers, leveling all complexity and nuance standing in his way. Certainly, not all scholars of politics and theology are like Lilla, just as all atheists are not as dimwitted as Richard Dawkins. But that is little consolation. Apparently, someone thinks he is worth reading and listening to.

In the end, Mark Lilla serves as a model for how not to think about political theology. If this embarrassing selection from his new book is any indication, we are desperately in need of scholars who will present cogent counter-arguments, demonstrating that we are not limited to a choice between modern Enlightenment atheism and radical fundamentalism. As Barth would say, there is a “third way”—at the very least! Thank God for that.

For more by Mark Lilla, see “Coping with Political Theology” (Cato Unbound).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What is feminism?

Camille Paglia has a new essay in Arion (pdf) on the history and significance of feminism. Her article offers a close examination of the feminist movement in order to assess its relevance today. Near the start of the article, she asks:
What precisely is feminism? Is it a theory, an ideology, or a praxis (that is, a program for action)? Is feminism perhaps so Western in its premises that it cannot be exported to other cultures without distorting them? When we find feminism in medieval or Renaissance writers, are we exporting modern ideas backwards? Who is or is not a feminist, and who defines it? Who confers legitimacy or authenticity? Must a feminist be a member of a group or conform to a dominant ideology or its subsets? Who declares, and on what authority, what is or is not permissible to think or say about gender issues? And is feminism intrinsically a movement of the left, or can there be a feminism based on conservative or religious principles?
Paglia’s historical account ranges from pop culture to social theory to sports to grassroots activism. I highly recommend reading the entire piece. It’s long, but illuminating. She concludes with some thoughts on the future of feminism as well as some interesting proposals for the reformation and renewal of the movement:
One thing is clear: the feminism of the future will be created by women who are young now. The doctrinal disputes and turf wars of the older generation (including me) must be set aside. I reject the term “postfeminism,” which became a glib media tag line in the ’90s and is often attached to me. There is no such animal. Feminism lives but goes through cycles of turmoil and retreat. At present, there is no one leading issue that can galvanize women across a broad spectrum. Feminism certainly has an obligation to protest and, if possible, to correct concrete abuses of women and children in Third World nations. But feminism might look very different in more traditional or religious societies, where motherhood and family are still valorized and where the independent career woman is less typical or admired.

In conclusion, my proposals for reform are as follows. First of all, science must be made a fundamental component of all women’s or gender studies programs. Second, every such program must be assessed by qualified faculty (not administrators or politicians) for ideological bias. The writings of conservative opponents of feminism, as well as of dissident feminists, must be included. Without such diversity, students are getting indoctrination, not education. Certainly among current dissident points of view is the abstinence movement, as an evangelical Protestant phenomenon and also as an argument set forth in Wendy Shalit’s first book, A Return to Modesty, which created a storm when it was published nine years ago but whose influence can be detected in today’s campus chastity clubs, including here at Harvard. As a veteran of pro-sex feminism who still endorses pornography and prostitution, I say more power to all these chaste young women who are defending their individuality and defying groupthink and social convention. That is true feminism!

My final recommendation for reform is a massive rollback of the paternalistic system of grievance committees and other meddlesome bureaucratic contrivances which have turned American college campuses into womblike customer-service resorts. The feminists of my baby-boom generation fought to tear down the intrusive in loco parentis rules that insultingly confined women in their dormitories at night. College administrators and academic committees have no competence whatever to investigate crimes, including sexual assault. If an offense has been committed, it should be reported to the police, so that the civil liberties of both the accuser and the accused can be protected. This is not to absolve young men from their duty to behave honorably. Hooliganism cannot be tolerated. But we must stop seeing everything in life through the narrow lens of gender. If women expect equal treatment in society, they must stop asking for infantilizing special protections. With freedom comes personal responsibility.
For another take on feminism today, see the new article in The Atlantic on working mothers.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Noah’s ark: history, theology, and pop culture

In a recent feature article (“Readers of the Lost Ark”) in Books and Culture, Crystal Downing and Sharon Baker write about Noah’s ark. Their article is really two articles in one: the first half is a very illuminating account of the way people have interpreted the ark narrative throughout history, while the second half is a discussion of the 2007 film, Evan Almighty. The two halves are connected by a central thesis: “Evan Almighty maintains an ancient tradition of Ark midrash: an appropriation of the flood story that reflects the needs and contexts of its readers.” They begin, therefore, by showing just how the flood story has been interpreted and appropriated throughout history, before turning to show how the film fits squarely within that tradition.

The article is illuminating in many ways. In the first part, they begin by noting the Ancient Near Eastern texts which were themselves appropriated to form the story we have in Scripture. But the authors are not content with simply identifying historical facts. Nor are they content with focusing only on Jewish and Christian midrash. The following is especially insightful:
The ark represents salvation, its God-guided enclosure protecting believers from the profane: that which is outside sacred space, as implied by the etymology of pro-fane ("beyond the temple"). In his classic study The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion, Mircea Eliade describes the profane with water-like terms, arguing that sacred space operates as a cosmic center in the midst of "the formless fluidity of profane space." This may explain why, in Muslim tradition, Noah's ark sailed seven times around the holiest place in Islam: the place of the Ka'aba in Mecca, a huge cube toward which Muslims still turn during prayer. The ark identified the sacred center to which pilgrims journey as they emulate Noah's pilgrimage, circling the Ka'aba seven times on foot. By the 7th century, all three Abrahamic faiths had reached an agreement about the site of the ark's landing: a peak in Armenia where a "Cloister of the Ark" was built by Nestorian Christians, followed by a Muslim sanctuary allegedly constructed out of wood from Noah's vessel.
The authors follow this with an incredibly interesting journey through Christian history, showing how the story of the flood impacted Christian theology, art, iconography, and Corpus Christi plays. The first known play was in 1376 as part of the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi. These processions evolved over time so that various guilds would carry biblical images which represented their particular craft: “water-drawers would tote an image of Noah's ark, goldsmiths would shoulder the Ark of the Covenant.” Eventually, these processions turned into complete dramas, such as the Wakefield Noe, the most famous of the Corpus Christi ark plays.

What is clear throughout the history is that, as the authors state, “there is something about the flood story that seeps into our chests. We love its symbolism of sacred space saving us from the formless fluidity of the profane. Perhaps this is why, throughout the history of Christendom, readers have built and stocked the ark with elements reflective of their own cultural values.” This process of re-imagining the ark—that is, re-narrating the story for a new place and time—continues today. In support of this point, Baker and Downing conclude their article with a theologically informed interpretation of Evan Almighty. They show how the film’s modern take on the biblical story stands squarely within the tradition of interpreting the ark for one’s own time. In the case of Evan Almighty, that means viewing the flood as a kind of filmic-biblical version of Hurricane Katrina—a symbol of the environmental damage wrought by humankind. The ark still serves as a symbol of salvation, but this time with an emphasis on acting in a way that considers the lives of others. The ark is reimagined as an acrostic: “A-R-K, representing Acts of Random Kindness.” However indicative of Hollywood tackiness, the film still falls within this long interpretive tradition. And the authors do a nice job of showing how Evan’s character fits the pattern of biblical prophet.

All of this raises some interesting questions:
  • What are some other ways the flood story might be reimagined for today? What are the contexts today, besides environmentalism, which could benefit from a fresh hearing of this story?
  • A key impetus for the flood in the Genesis narrative is the prevalence of violence. Since we live in a world getting more violent by the day, what might this story teach us today?
  • In a post-tsunami, post-Katrina world, how might the flood story be either good news or bad news (or both) for people today, particularly those affected by these natural disasters?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Horror films and mystery: why Hollywood can’t scare

Stephen King is a regular contributor to Entertainment Weekly, my pop culture magazine of choice. In his columns, he consistently makes thoughtful and even profound insights. Probably my favorite piece by him was an article from last year on the Harry Potter series, in which King reflects on why children “get” the stories in a way that adults just don’t, a comment echoing a similar statement by C.S. Lewis regarding his Narnian books. King wrote in that article: “Kids are always looking for the Ministry of Magic, and they usually find it.” Other good columns by King include ones on the simple joy of entertainment, on our culture’s fascination with violence, on the “art” of the blurb, and the problems with banning violent videogames.

Most recently, however, King has written about why big Hollywood horror films are so rarely scary. He writes:
Big movies demand big explanations, which are usually tiresome, and big backstories, which are usually cumbersome. If a studio is going to spend $80 or $100 million in hopes of making $300 or $400 million more, they feel a need to shove WHAT IT ALL MEANS down the audience's throat. Is there a serial killer? Then his mommy didn't love him (insert flashback). A monster from outer space? Its planet exploded, of course (and the poor misunderstood thing probably needs a juicy Earth woman to make sexy with). But nightmares exist outside of logic, and there's little fun to be had in explanations; they're antithetical to the poetry of fear.
King is on to something here, and it goes well beyond horror. The best films—hell, the best stories—are ones that are liberated from any need to conform to some external logic. Chesterton, Lewis, and Tolkien all have beautiful statements about why they love the genre of fantasy for this very reason. Fantasy does not “make sense” according to any external standard; rather, it makes perfect sense within its own narrative world, and once we enter that world, we see that fantasy tells us the truth. Fiction and fantasy are not “pleasant lies” that divert us from reality; they rather speak the truth about reality in the most compelling way. As Chesterton said, the old legends about dragons are not true because dragons really exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated. The point is applicable to Scripture as well: once we think the Bible has to conform to the logic and experience of the empirical world—and so, e.g., requires verification from archeology and modern science—at that moment it ceases to be God’s Word, i.e., it becomes “tiresome” and “cumbersome,” a place where “there’s little fun to be had,” to use King’s language.

While King does not explore why Hollywood keeps shoving explanations down our throats, I think the main reason is that Hollywood is trying to cater to a crowd that has largely lost its imagination, or at least this is how Hollywood perceives them. Youth today are cynical and expect a story to be “realistic.” While that’s true in a way, Hollywood has forgotten that there are more options beyond naive fables and brutal realism. A film like Pan’s Labyrinth shows a kind of third way: fantastical, and yet realistic; fictional, yet deeply full of truth; scary precisely because it refuses to conform to any external logic.

Where King goes astray is in the way he pits The Strangers (which he liked) against the new X-Files that comes out today (which he thinks he won’t like). While I haven’t seen the new X-Files movie and cannot claim to speak on its behalf, he misconstrues the series as horror and seems to think that its big-budget status means that the producers will throw explanations at us in the way other bad films do. But any watcher of the series will know that it’s the very lack of explanation which makes the stories so compelling. Be that as it may, King’s article is otherwise on target.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Problems with postmodernism

I recently criticized the so-called “emerging church” for its emphasis on postmodernism as one of its ecclesial starting-points. A few days later, James K. A. Smith—well-known for his work on postmodernism, philosophy, and theology—began a series on how “pentecostal spirituality is a uniquely postmodern expression of Christian faith.” The first post begins with the following words:
Beyond the epistemological emphasis which recognizes the fundamental role that faith and "control beliefs" play in knowing, postmodernism also has a more holistic understanding of the human person. Rather than reducing the human person to a disembodied thinking mind, postmodernism revalues embodiment, and in so doing it offers an account of knowing that revalues what, in the philosophical tradition, has often been referred to as the "heart." In other words, the "seat" or core of the human person is not identified with cognition or the mind, but rather with the affections and the heart. What most defines the human person is not what she thinks, but what she desires, what she loves. Thus it is no coincidence that one of the most formative influences on Martin Heidegger—who came to be one of the most dominant influences for what would come to be "postmodernism"—was the work of Blaise Pascal, who was himself retrieving a vision of knowing first articulated by Saint Augustine. As Pascal famously put it, "the heart has reasons of which Reason knows nothing."
This paragraph is indicative of why I find talk about postmodernism so exasperating: it quickly proves to be a vacuous term which reifies a conglomerate of ideas that has nothing to do with any particular period of time. Critics of postmodernism have noted in the past how postmodern enthusiasts are quite willing to define “postmodernism” in a non-historical way. As a result, that which goes by the name “postmodern” is no longer something which temporally follows “modernity.” Instead, “postmodern” becomes a label for ideas or notions which counter what we have defined as “modernity,” which is another way of saying that “postmodern” describes whatever we like over against that which we don’t like.

The problem I have just identified is readily apparent in Smith’s opening paragraph. “Postmodern” is here identified with whatever challenges the Aristotelian anthropology of mind/reason over body/desire. Already, in this first post by Smith, we have Augustine of Hippo, Blaise Pascal, Martin Heidegger, and pentecostalism all located within the ever-widening reach of “postmodernism.” But this only serves to undermine the utility of a term like “postmodernism.” If the word can describe anything which exhibits traces of ideas that we happen to like today—ideas like “embodiment,” “affections,” “perspectivalism”—then “postmodernism” simply becomes a cipher representing a conglomerate of things which we approve of, but which have no necessary placement in this present period of time. So Pascal or Charles Finney become representatives of the “postmodern,” even though they precede figures like Charles Hodge, one of the archetypal figures of modern Enlightenment Christianity.

This ahistorical “cherry-picking” eventually leads “postmodernists” to identify whatever they like about the Bible with postmodernity. For example, the “Song of Songs” becomes a favorite text of postmodern theorists, because of its emphasis on embodiment and sexuality. Pre-modern church fathers and mothers who challenge the philosophical tradition are treated like postmodernists, hence the almost entirely uncritical love of the medieval mystics. And since “Song of Songs” and the mystics are often on the margins of scholarship, we see postmodern theorists maundering at length about how the traditional canon of texts is representative of an oppresive, sexist, Enlightenment regime of orthodoxy that needs to be overthrown so that we can achieve true Christian liberty (toss in a verse or two from Paul to validate the point being made).

Of course, I am being hyperbolic and cynical, but there is a serious point I am trying to make: viz., that those who speak so fawningly of postmodernism undermine their own project by locating “the postmodern” in any time and place where they find something that appeals to them. People like Brian McClaren and others in the “emerging church” like to identify the start of “postmodernity” with the 21st millennium (McClaren even has a chart which identifies the year 2000 with the start of the “postmodern world”). But the same people will then appropriate a person like Augustine or Pascal as a postmodern. Are there ways of making sense of this? Sort of. One can say that there were hints of postmodernity throughout history, but that only now has this perspective become dominant. The problem is that the evidence for the growing dominance of modernism is just as available (see below). And if the term “postmodern” has no grounding in history, then it simply becomes an arbitrary description of whatever we dislike about what we call “modernity.” Even our understanding of “modernity” is manufactured, just as the postmodern understanding of pre-modernity is manufactured.

My point is that postmodernism is really just a symptom of modern Western ahistoricism. It has nothing to do with any actual break with modernism. On the contrary, it arises from our forgetfulness and/or fearfulness of the past: we are fearful of things we think we understand but often don’t, and we are forgetful of the things about the past which we might like or dislike that would disrupt our oversimplified characterization of history. There is certainly much more to be said about the phenomenon of postmodernity, but these are just some brief reflections on the quote from Smith.

I said above that I would discuss ways in which modernity is clearly still with us. What follows is a selection from an email that I wrote on this issue, following the rule: when in doubt, always quote yourself!
The issue of postmodernity is complex. Several years ago I was infatuated with it. My thoughts changed dramatically when almost every aspect of what I thought characterized the “postmodern condition” was either greatly lessened in its significance or wiped away altogether. What does it really mean to be “post” or “after” modernity? The classic definition of postmodernism as a rejection of metanarratives (i.e., the universal, transcendental norms of Enlightenment rationality) sounds intelligent, but it’s an illusion. We are seeing the rise of new metanarratives all the time in place of the old. The clearest examples are globalization and late capitalism, which Hardt and Negri identify as the new form of empire in the world today. Empire is often viewed as a mark of modernity, but it’s still with us today.

There are other metanarratives as well. The “new atheists” (Dawkins & co.) use evolutionism (to be distinguished from evolution) and other ideologies that claim to have universal explanatory power. The list goes on and on. Certainly, there are shifts in, say, architecture (where the term postmodern was first coined) and certain literary styles. But the differences are slight shifts within an overarching framework of modernism; there is no clear break by any means.

Moreover, in theology, the continuity with modernity is even more apparent. The central issue raised by modern theologians — Schleiermacher is the highest example, of course — is the doctrine of God. In the late medieval era, it was ecclesiology-sacramentology and soteriology. (We could keep going back in time and identify the key issues, but that’s not important right now.) In the modern era, the being of God is the question under discussion. What do we see in the era of “postmodernity”? The doctrine of God. See the debates over the impassibility of God, for example, or the debate over open theism in evangelical circles. The point is: the doctrine which characterizes the debates of modernity remains the doctrine characteristic of our present time.

But if all that remains unconvincing, I think we find the most solid cultural sign of modernism in the fact that our culture has become more scientistic, not less. Scientism is the ideology of the scientific Enlightenment, the notion that modern science will provide the answers to our problems. Postmodern theorists heralded the end of the Enlightenment hegemony. But we see just the opposite. Take, for example, the “new atheists,” like Richard Dawkins. This group of people turn to modern Enlightenment science to reject God; theirs is simply the outworking of the atheistic ideas that began in the scientific revolution. Or take the Intelligent Design camp. Here we have a movement which seeks to claim validity on the basis of Enlightenment standards. They are seeking the legitimacy of modernity. Or take the culture’s almost unlimited hope in science to solve all the world’s problems, from energy to cancer to replacement organs to genetic mutations. Our culture, more than ever, sees the scientist as the hope for humanity. If there was ever a more convincing sign of our culture being solidly modern, it would be the modern religion of scientism.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Understanding Paul: some brief reflections

In a recent post, Chris Tilling discusses Douglas A. Campbell’s work, The Quest for Paul's Gospel: A Suggested Strategy, and specifically the three models for understanding Paul’s thought which Campbell outlines. Chris lists the three models in the following way:
  1. The 'justification by faith' one
  2. The 'salvation history' model and
  3. The pneumatological participatory martyrological eschatology model (which in important ways is similar to what others call an 'apocalyptic' model) – Campbell makes a case that this is the best one to adopt.
Three things immediately come to mind. First, I always find it incredibly annoying when scholars provide three options, the first two of which are extremely oversimplified in contrast to the third (and clearly preferable option), which is highly nuanced and complex. This kind of procedure is massively disingenuous. Scholars who commit this academic sin should be disciplined in some way. As Paul himself would say, “you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.” (Maybe it’s Chris’s fault. But for now, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and blame Campbell.)

The problem is that this procedure is blatantly manipulative. By placing the first two positions in quotes, it says to the reader: this is a static, closed, stock option which has already been defined and is thus open to no new interpretations. Similarly, by adding no qualifiers, in contrast to the highly qualified third option, it appears as if there is nothing more to be said about the first two options—as if they are each limited to “justification” and “salvation history,” respectively. The consequence is that the third model appears like a breath of fresh air: it is complex, interesting, new, and exciting all at once. We are psychologically predisposed to accept Campbell’s third option because of the freshness that it brings, when in fact we should be investigating the relative merits of each position with a fair and charitable disposition. But this kind of presentation is anything but charitable. It is thoroughly and unabashedly biased.

Second, it is by no means self-evident that the third option—“the pneumatological participatory martyrological eschatology model”—is really the same as the apocalyptic model which is so much in vogue today, thanks to the work of J. Louis Martyn, Beverly Gaventa, and Douglas Harink, among others. The description of the third option could also, it seems to me, be applied to Schweitzer’s mystical understanding of Paul. Moreover, it could also apply, in a way, to the work of E. P. Sanders and the New Perspective on Paul, though this group is partially represented under the “salvation history” model. In any case, these are three distinct groups (despite the historical connections to each other), and the incredibly broad and encompassing third option provided by Campbell is all the more compelling (and problematic) precisely because it blurs the distinctions between these various groups.

Because of its plethora of sexy adjectives, Campbell’s third option entices us by seeming to engulf all the right ideas within its overly generalized academic maw. The third model looms like a scholarly monstrosity, bullying and intimidating all other models so that it alone remains. And yet, like any bully or monster, when the dust settles, it’s unclear exactly who or what it actually is. The monster has no face. Similarly, the third model has no clear position; it is too general to stake a particular claim. It’s not identifiable with any of the three other options listed above (apocalyptic, mystical, New Perspective), because it is intentionally meant to encompass them all within its pacifying gaze. In other words, Campbell, I assume, intends to get beyond the contemporary debates over the New Perspective by offering a position which is so broad that all of the competing groups are included within it. But this does no one any good. Not only does it avoid addressing the actual differences between these groups (including the differences among those who identify in some sense with the New Perspective, which is itself a kind of academic monstrosity), but it also avoids examining whether the first two models might have anything constructive to offer to this conversation. Campbell’s third option presupposes that “justification” and “salvation history” have nothing new to say to us, and that’s a shame.

Third, in light of what I said above, what seems clearest to me is that Campbell’s list is seriously impoverished. At the very least, we could expand the list in the following way:
  1. Justifying address-divine righteousness model
  2. Covenantal-salvation historical model
  3. Cosmic-apocalyptic model
  4. Mystical model
  5. Judaic-eschatological model
  6. Pneumatological-participatory model
  7. Christological-typological model
This list is by no means exhaustive, nor are the positions meant to be mutually exclusive. The point is to keep each model distinct, not in order to limit a person to just one, but so as to discern how we combine perspectives in our various hermeneutical approaches to Paul. My position would primarily emphasize 1-3, with some of 6 and 7 included. I have tried to affirm each distinct position. As a result, the third model is represented by Martyn, the fourth by Schweitzer, and the fifth by Sanders—though of course none of these scholars is limited to just one position, nor is each position limited to the work of these scholars. Other models could be listed, of course, but these are the basic types.

Having outlined what I think is a more helpful typology, let me ask Chris’s question over again, along with some questions of my own:
  • What is your preferred model for understanding Paul?
  • Do you find my alternative list helpful in any way? If so, how?
  • How might you augment or pare down or change my list?
  • Do you have other examples of academic manipulation?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Randall Balmer on the scandal of evangelical politics

Randall Balmer has a review in Books & Culture of Ron Sider’s most recent book on The Scandal of Evangelical Politics: Why Are Christians Missing the Chance to Really Change the World? His review is a rather critical one, summed up well by the title: “A Failure of Nerve.” Balmer censures Sider for three reasons: (1) Sider does not identify any real scandal worthy of the book’s title; (2) Sider’s positive proposals are far less radical and significant than they could be, particularly in light of Sider’s earlier work (e.g., Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger); and, most importantly, (3) Sider locates the promise of “changing the world” in the act of evangelicals “doing politics.” Regarding the last of these three charges, Balmer quite rightly states:

Change the world by "doing politics"? That's a remarkable statement, especially from someone who hails from the Anabaptist tradition. Anabaptists understand better than most Jesus' renunciation of earthly power and his declaration that his kingdom was not of this world. The cautionary lesson from the sorry saga of the Religious Right lies not in the movement's political ineptitude, egregious as that has been, but in its devaluing of the gospel in the quest for political influence. The New Testament suggests that religion always functions best from the margins of society and not in the councils of power—a principle strongly reinforced by an overview of American history. Whenever people of faith begin grasping after power, they lose their prophetic voice. This was no less true of mainline Protestantism in the 1950s, tethered as it was to white, middle-class Eisenhower suburbanism, than it has been of the Religious Right in the decades surrounding the turn of the 21st century.

Am I arguing that people of faith should not make their voices heard in the arena of public discourse? On the contrary: I believe that public discourse would be impoverished without those voices. But we should never delude ourselves into thinking that "doing politics," to use Sider's phrase, represents the highest or the best or even a proximate expression of our prophetic mission. A prophet always stands at the margins, calling the powerful to account. Misplaced allegiance to political power represents a form of idolatry, and the failure of evangelicals generally and the Religious Right in particular to call politicians to account, especially those politicians they propelled into office, is the stuff of, well, scandal.

In this latest issue of Book & Culture, you can also read a review of Balmer’s most recent book, God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

Monday, July 21, 2008

A postheroic superhero

In light of my recent response to James Bowman on the issue of movie heroism, it seems only appropriate that the new Batman film, The Dark Knight, represents one of the most complete rejections of traditional heroism. After seeing the film on Friday, I hope to have something worthwhile to say about it sometime soon. In the meantime, here is a quote from the New York Times review of the film. I don’t entirely agree with the assessment, but the description of the film as a “a postheroic superhero movie” is precisely right.
This is a darker Batman, less obviously human, more strangely other. When he perches over Gotham on the edge of a skyscraper roof, he looks more like a gargoyle than a savior. There’s a touch of demon in his stealthy menace. During a crucial scene, one of the film’s saner characters asserts that this isn’t a time for heroes, the implication being that the moment belongs to villains and madmen. Which is why, when Batman takes flight in this film, his wings stretching across the sky like webbed hands, it’s as if he were trying to possess the world as much as save it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

PET VIII: Emerging church—heretics or heroes?

Problems in Ecclesiology Today VIII:
Emerging Church – heretics or heroes?

The Emerging Church (EC) continues to be the hot topic of discussion within American evangelicalism today, having displaced open theism as the object of conservative ire. Back in January of this year, there was an incident in which Cedarville University canceled a lecture by Shane Claiborne scheduled for Feb. 11. The event was canceled, according to Christianity Today, because “a small but vocal number of bloggers saw the lecture as a step toward liberal theology.” These bloggers “labeled [him] as belonging to the Emergent community.” The central blog referred to in the article is Slice of Laodicea, by Ingrid Schlueter, which represents some of the most reprehensible theology on the internet today. Here is only the most recent example, from a post decrying both Brian McClaren and Barack Obama supporters:
I am not a Republican. I am a Christian, and no Republican or Democrat who wars against God’s moral law and defends gay marriage, child killing or using human embryos for experimentation will get my vote. You can take that to the bank. McLaren has no moral compass because he rejects God’s Word as his only standard. You will notice a distinct correlation between those who reject God’s Word and their support for pro-death, pro-gay marriage candidates, and every other cause that is a revolt against heaven. That’s why the emerging church leaders and followers are up to their armpits in Obama campaign materials. When God’s Word gets thrown out, it affects every aspect of our lives and ethics. Ideas have practical consequences for men and nations.
I have no desire to dwell on this blog or the substance of her criticisms. Suffice it to say that I do not share her opinions. Those who call the EC leaders heretics who reject the Word of God are at best ignorant, and at worst, guilty of transgressing the law of Christ in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt. 7:1). There is quite a bit of judgmental, disparaging, even violent language coming from those who claim to be following God’s Word—a Word which demands that we love our enemies. I think it’s worth asking who’s actually throwing out the Word of God here.

That being said, I am also a strong critic of the EC. I may not view them as heretics, but I certainly cannot view them as heroes. In what follows, I will outline the reasons why I reject the EC. I embrace them as brothers and sisters in the Lord, but I cannot embrace their vision of the church and theology.

1. The Illusion of Postmodernity

Recently, Damien at Christians in Context wrote about the ecclesiology of the EC in dialogue with John Hammett. Hammett notes that the one common theme connecting the various leaders in the EC is “postmodernism.” I agree with this assessment, except that I view this as a reason why the EC is so deeply problematic. Brian McClaren and others in the EC basically take the reality of postmodernity for granted; they assume it has significance for the church. I strongly disagree with them on this. Postmodernism was fashionable for awhile, but it has since faded from view—and for good reason. It was an illusion from the beginning. What went by the name of “postmodernism” was really just a late form of modernism. If there really was any difference between the two, it was a difference of degree, not of kind. And so we see, at Envision for example, McClaren speaking about the “post-colonial church.” A more cynical critic might say that he’s just found a new fad to join. I would be more sympathetic: I think he’s finally recognized the failure of postmodernity to provide any lasting basis for change in the church. In retrospect, I would say these leaders got overexcited about the possibility of some new intellectual paradigm because they saw it as a justification for reconceiving church altogether. I may agree that there are things which the church needs to think differently about, but the way the EC embraced postmodernism is an unfortunate part of their history—not because postmodernism is somehow anti-Christian (as ignorant conservatives like to assert), but because postmodernism is a chimera, an empty cipher.

2. The Relation Between the Church and Culture

The relationship between church and culture is tricky business. Obviously, you cannot have a culture-less church; that would be equivalent to a human-less or world-less church. But the relation between church and culture is a controversial matter. All of the churches which, in different ways and to varying degrees, bear traces of the Constantinian heritage represent a general confusion between Christianity and culture, usually—as in the cases of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches—identifying Christianity with culture. Catholic and Anglican missions, for example, replicate the same Christian culture around the world, which is just a baptized form of cultural imperialism. For churches which engage in cultural replication, preaching is equivalent to propaganda, because what is being sown is not the gospel but a cultural and political institution. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Anabaptist communities seek to exist as an alien presence within the particular culture. They neither adopt the surrounding culture nor create their own, but live as “resident aliens,” as those who witness to a kingdom that stands over and even against culture.

The EC rejects the institutional structure of traditional denominations and so rejects the notion that the church is itself a culture. It also rejects the view of Anabaptists that the church should be an alien presence in the world. But because of its rejection of Constantinianism, the EC could never endorse a national church model, as we see with the Orthodox Church. Instead, the EC says that the church always takes local, particular forms in accordance with the local, particular culture. The church, according to the EC, must be relevant to the concrete culture in which it exists. Like the Anabaptists, the EC rejects the idea that the church should be a culture in itself, but unlike the Anabaptists, it is not an alien but rather a welcome presence within the local culture. If the EC has a motto or slogan, it is that the church needs to be relevant to people in the 21st century. And since each generation has its own kind of culture, we can see why the EC is primarily a movement of white people between the ages of 18 and 35.

Conservatives who attack the EC for capitulating to the tide of relativism miss the point. It’s not that the EC itself embraces relativism; it is rather that the culture within which the EC exists is relativistic. Conversely, people within the EC movement are quite right when they accuse the traditionalists for being bound to a culturally formed idea of the gospel and the church. But that only means the traditionalists and the EC are equally defining the church on the basis of the local culture. Having said that, even if they are often just as unsuccessful, the conservatives do have a point when they inquire as to the norm for the EC’s understanding of the gospel and the church. And here we get to the heart of my critique of the EC.

At the end of the day, because the EC has defined the church on the basis of the local culture, it makes the local culture the norm for how it reads Scripture and understands the gospel. This is the fundamental mistake of the EC: it embraces a form of contextual theology that is essentially religious ideology. Of course all theology is contextual; not even systematic/dogmatic theology denies that. The difference is not whether theology is contextual but whether one’s context is the central norm for theological talk about God. Dogmatic theology takes the witness of Holy Scripture as the final norm for all theological statements. Contextual theology subordinates Scripture to one’s personal experience or socio-historical context. And so we have a feminist christology, a womanist christology, a black christology, etc. These can all be very helpful and worthwhile, but at the end of the day, you have a God made in your own image. What you do not have is a God who can stand over against your particular context—a God who remains Lord and Judge, a God who can actually reconcile the world to Godself because there is an “infinitive qualitative distinction” between God and the world.

The problem with contextual theology is that it ends up identifying one’s context with revelation, rather than allowing God to transcend and thus judge our context. We end up placing God in our “contextual box,” and that allows us to manipulate God to serve our own interests. In short, contextual theology all too often is indistinguishable from pure ideology. And lest we forget, it was contextual theology that German Lutherans employed to justify Hitler’s fascist imperialism. Just because contextual theology is often done by oppressed groups does not make it any better. Once you allow a contextual theology for blacks, you open the door for a contextual theology of white supremacists.

It’s no surprise then that a lot of EC leaders and advocates have embraced process theology or panentheistic conceptions of God. These theological positions seek to identify God with the world itself, or at least include the world within the being of God. The consequence is that one’s socio-historical context is then able to define God, the gospel, and the church. The final result is that God looks just like me. God is what I want God to be. Once I have reached this point, there is nothing to guard me from joining the German Lutherans who made God an antisemite, or joining the KKK in America who made God an anti-Catholic racist. And I am not at all surprised that young evangelicals are flocking to the EC. As a young evangelical myself, I remember singing songs about Jesus being my best friend. American evangelicalism is deeply infected with the notion that God is just like you and me. “Jesus is my homeboy,” as the T-shirt states.

My point is that the EC has no way of combatting the devolution into ideology—and, thus, idolatry. By making cultural relevancy the starting-point and norm for all their thinking about the church, they have subordinated Scripture and revelation to their own particular cultural framework. It should not surprise us that the EC is almost entirely white, and made up of mostly one generation. Nor should it surprise us that the EC is primarily an American phenomenon. Nor should it surprise us that the EC is primarily bourgeois middle class. The fact that Doug Pagitt used his iPhone to give his presentation at the Envision Conference kind of summarizes the whole problem.

3. The Relation Between Christ and the Church

All of this goes back to how Christ relates to culture. EC leaders are fond of saying that the church should be “incarnational” in a way analogous to Christ’s incarnation. This is problematic for a number of reasons. For starters, the incarnation is sui generis, i.e., it is wholly unique and unrepeatable. In short, the incarnation is an event, not a idea that can be applied or a process that can be completed or a reality that can be replicated. What EC leaders mean is that the church takes root in a particular culture the way the Son of God is born within a particular culture. Not only is this a major oversimplification of the incarnation; the analogy simply does not work. In the incarnation, God relates to culture in a way that only God can: God elects culture (humanity) and takes on human nature by a sovereign act of divine freedom. As a result, the fact that Jesus is Jewish does not mean that God is Jewish, just as the fact that Jesus is male does not mean that God is male. God is wholly other than humanity so that God can be wholly for humanity. But God is only for us in that God is the Lord. God is our Judge, the one who cannot be possessed or confined or manipulated by any creaturely reality. Yet God is our Judge as the one who chose to be judged in our place.

While all this is true of God, it is not true of the church. The church does not transcend creaturely reality the way God does. Nor does the church elect culture the way God does. The church is not wholly other than culture, and thus the church cannot be wholly for culture. At best, one might say that the “invisible church”—the spiritual community of those who belong to Jesus Christ—transcends culture. But the “invisible church” is not an active subject; if anything, it is a metaphor which represents just our ontological bond to God through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. Moreover, the people in the EC talk very little if at all about the “invisible church.” Their concern is almost exclusively with the visible, embodied, enculturated community. The ecclesiology of the EC begins from one’s individual cultural context. It begins with the axiom of relevancy: only the church that is relevant to me is a church of which I can be a part. But God has no such axiom. God did not choose to be relevant to humanity in assuming flesh. God did come to meet our needs and our interests. On the contrary, God came as an alien presence: as the friend of sinners and the antagonist of the religious, as the suffering servant who had no beauty that we should be attracted to him, as the lamb whose self-offering on the cross was an act of radical submission to God and radical defiance in the face of imperial power, as the one who interrupts and disrupts our lives as an alien Word of new life in the midst of death.

The church must seek to be the witness to this alien and disruptive word. When a church seeks to be “relevant” to society, this only reveals that the church has abandoned the truth that God came as the radically disruptive reconciler of the world. There is no intrinsic analogy between Jesus Christ and the church. There is only a unique event to which we must faithfully bear witness. We must jettison talk of “incarnational ministry,” which is just a platitude about being involved in the lives of others. The incarnation was not just the ultimate form of “incarnational ministry”; it is laughable even to talk this way. The event of the incarnation was an event of divine judgment for the sake of reconciliation. God did not assume flesh to become our friend; God came to be our Lord and Savior. When we remember that point, we will learn to subordinate our cultural context to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. Unfortunately, by emphasizing a relevant church and a relevant God, the EC has essentially lost its grip on the Christ event itself.

4. Conclusion

Is the EC the worst form of the church? By no means! It is no more problematic than other forms of Christianity. While I think the EC represents a very bad way of approaching the relationship between gospel and culture, it is really only a concentrated form of what we find dominate throughout American Christianity, evangelical or mainline. Moreover, as we learn from Barth and the Protestant tradition, we have to realize that all forms of the Christian church are sinful. Luther called the Catholic Church the “greatest of sinners,” but we have to apply this to all churches everywhere. We cannot let any form of the church escape the judgment of God upon all religion as the manifestation of human sinfulness. To paraphrase Paul, “There is no church that is righteous, not even one.”

Is there any hope for the EC? Yes, there is. Here are some brief suggestions for redeeming the EC and providing a true renewal of American Christianity:
  1. Jettison the language of postmodernity. There is nothing helpful to be found there, and it only serves to create barriers where no barriers need or should exist.
  2. Jettison the language of “incarnational ministry” or the church being the “hands and feet of Jesus.” All such language represents a superficial and erroneous christology, which in turn leads to an erroneous ecclesiology.
  3. Reject all notions of relevancy, whether in christology or in ecclesiology or in any other area of Christian thought.
  4. Similarly, stand under the judgment of God by standing under the judgment of Holy Scripture. Allow the witness of Scripture and life of Christ determine the proper shape of ecclesial existence. Remember that God is “wholly other” and calls us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of [our] minds, so that [we] may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
  5. Read and engage with the work of missional theologians such as David Bosch, Lamin Sanneh, Darrell Guder, Andrew Walls, Christopher J. H. Wright, and others. There are important resources here not only for rethinking central doctrines of the faith, but for rethinking how Christ and the church relate to culture.
  6. In addition to missional theology, read Barthians and Anabaptists on the church, the former to articulate the relation between Christ and the church and the latter to articulate the relationship between the church and culture.
  7. Pray for forgiveness for the way that the church in all times and places has compromised its witness to Jesus, desired to control and manipulate God, and sought to appease one’s cultural context rather than the Holy Spirit.
Update: Those interested might wish to read my much earlier discussion of the EC after listening to McClaren speak at Princeton Seminary.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dumbest Generation?

In the four minutes it probably takes to read this review, you will have logged exactly half the time the average 15- to 24-year-old now spends reading each day. That is, if you even bother to finish. If you are perusing this on the Internet, the big block of text below probably seems daunting, maybe even boring. Who has the time? Besides, one of your Facebook friends might have just posted a status update!

Such is the kind of recklessly distracted impatience that makes Mark Bauerlein fear for his country. "As of 2008," the 49-year-old professor of English at Emory University writes in "The Dumbest Generation," "the intellectual future of the United States looks dim."

Lee Drutman on The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein

Friday, July 18, 2008

Heroism in Hollywood: a critical response to James Bowman

James Bowman is upset. Hollywood “no longer aspires to portray genuine heroism,” or so he says in a new article published in neo-con magazine The American. He argues that Hollywood used to show heroes on screen, but now they seem to have forgotten what a true hero is:
American movies have forgotten how to portray heroism, while a large part of their disappearing audience still wants to see celluloid heroes. I mean real heroes, unqualified heroes, not those who have dominated American cinema over the past 30 years and who can be classified as one of three types: the whistle-blower hero, the victim hero, and the cartoon or superhero.
A “true” hero, according to Bowman, cannot be one of three types. The first type, the “whistle-blower hero,” he identifies with the protagonists in films like “The Insider,” “Erin Brokovich,” and “Michael Clayton.” The second type, the “victim hero,” he finds represented well by the “heroes” in virtually all of the Vietnam War films, such as “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket,” and more recently in the remake of “3:10 to Yuma.” And the third type, the “cartoon or superhero,” is perhaps the most prevalent, found in everything from “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” to the characters played by Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Certain films combine two or more categories. “Batman Begins” combines the cartoon and victim hero. The “Bourne” trilogy combines all three: Jason Bourne is a victim first, then whistle-blower who morphs into a superhero along the way. Bowman’s point is that all three hero types “make sure that heroism can continue to exist only on a plane far removed from the daily lives of the audience.” He then suggests, as the heart of his thesis:
It is hard not to speculate that this is because of a quasi-political aversion on the part of filmmakers to suggesting to the audience that real-life heroism was something to which it, too, could aspire. The subtext of films featuring the whistle-blower hero, the cartoon hero, and the victim hero is that heroism—heroism of the, say, Gary Cooper type—belongs to the public and communal sphere, now universally supposed to be cruel and corrupt, and therefore is really no longer possible or even, perhaps, desirable.
There is certainly something plausible about Bowman’s thesis. One could make a decent case that the “death of the hero in the 1970s” is the result of America’s disillusionment with the Vietnam War. As Bowman notes, “[w]ar had become a shameful thing simply as such and irrespective of the justice of the cause in which it was waged or the net humanitarian good it might accomplish.” All of this is perhaps true, and the fact that the three hero-types mentioned above have dominated the silver screen over the last forty years is certainly an interesting observation. And yet I find myself fiercely disagreeing with Bowman for a number of important reasons.

1. First, the notion that Bowman’s unqualified heroism has simply disappeared is ludicrous. Many heroes of modern movies come to mind: the mother in “Thirteen,” Phil Parma in “Magnolia,” Max in “Collateral,” Babette in “Babette’s Feast,” Lena Leonard in “Punch Drunk Love,” and Carlos in “The Devil’s Backbone.” And these are just from movies that I own. There are so many other possible examples of heroes in contemporary cinema. (If you wish, add to my short list of modern film heroes in the comments.) You’ll notice, however, that most of these heroes are women, not men. And this leads me to my second point.

2. Second, Bowman’s idea of a hero is male, and male only. He writes: “During and after World War II, real-life heroes themselves often looked to the likes of John Wayne or Gary Cooper to see what a hero was supposed to look and act like. Such men hardly exist anymore, except in old movies.” The word “men” here is not being used in a gender inclusive sense. Throughout the entire article, he does not speak once of a female hero. In fact, women only appear once in the article, and they appear as victims to be rescued by the male hero. Speaking of John Wayne’s character in “Stagecoach,” he says that “he wins our hearts not only by being handy with a gun but also by his willingness to form an ad hoc community with his fellow passengers when they are attacked by Indians and by his broad-mindedness and chivalry toward a ‘fallen’ woman.” The mention of American “Indians” brings up a third point.

3. Third, Bowman’s true hero is not only male, but a white male. This almost goes without saying. Almost all of his model heroes are WWII-era WASPs. The white male is free from the category of “victim,” because he is always the superior, always the leader, always the dominant force. The white male is free from the category of “whistle-blower,” because he does not need to engage in subterfuge. He can display his virtue publicly and be rewarded for it, unlike the African-American or the woman. The white male is free from the category of “cartoon or superhero,” because being white and masculine provides all the superiority that one needs. To add anything else to that mix would be redundant and over-the-top. The white male is already at the top of the food chain, so to speak.

4. Fourth, Bowman speaks about the role of the true hero in language that hearkens back to the discourse of colonialism, even though we live in a post-colonial age. He speaks about “the heroism of the ordinary people who brought civilization, peace, and prosperity to the Wild West.” The old Westerns showed heroism in the form of “a story of taming the wilderness, both external and internal, on behalf of decency and civilization.” These statements are indicative of the same problem: Bowman’s definition of true, unqualified heroism is derived from Hollywood’s glamorization and glorification of an era in which white men ruled supreme, conquering the indigenous peoples and taming the wilderness, domesticating the feral unknown through strength, charisma, and superior virtue. This is the ideal which not only forms the basis for most American Westerns, but also undergirds the policies of more than one Western colonial government. Not only is this rhetoric elitist and subordinationist, it is also almost inevitably racist and sexist, too. It is no mere coincidence that these are white men. Bowman talks about “heroism,” but that word is really a cipher for modern Western white male power. This brings us to our fifth point.

5. Fifth, the model heroes, according to Bowman, are the traditional cowboy, represented by John Wayne and Gary Cooper—names he mentions with approval repeatedly—and the traditional war hero, represented, again, by Cooper in “Sergeant York.” As he says, war movies and Westerns are “the biggest generators of movie heroism.” Before I say anything, let’s remind ourselves of Bowman’s thesis: that contemporary movie heroes make sure that heroism can continue to exist only on a plane far removed from the daily lives of the audience.” Let me now state what I think is the most obvious problem with Bowman’s entire article: his two archetypal heroes (the cowboy and war vet) themselves “exist only on a plane far removed from the daily lives of the audience”! How dimwitted do you have to be to fail to see that your thesis deconstructs itself in such a clear and obvious manner? Unless Bowman is surrounded by people who live in a fantasy world of cowboys and D-Day reenactments, the most straightforward thing to say about his entire thesis is that it self-destructs almost immediately. There is nothing at all to connect Cooper the cowboy or Cooper the war vet with the average audience member. I cannot imagine that Bowman himself even connects with those characters, unless he is under a serious self-delusion.

What’s so mind-boggling about Bowman’s suggestion that we need more traditional cowboys and war heroes is not only that he thinks such characters will resonate with audiences today, but also that he thinks movies with Cooper-like heroes will make tons of money. This is precisely the suggestion with which he begins the entire article. I would have thought the fact that AMC has largely dropped such movies from its prime-time lineup to be proof enough that young people today just don’t relate with John Wayne anymore—or even with people who give off a Wayne-like image. Bowman seems to think that the lack of money generated by the anti-Iraq War films is proof that audiences yearn for the days of Wayne and Cooper. But that’s almost as delusional as the idea that cowboys and pious war heroes have anything in common with today’s audiences. There is a reason why movies like “Pleasantville” are made, because we live in a radically different culture. We live in a post-1960s America, and that makes a huge difference. Bowman may wish we still lived in the Wild West or in the pious Pleasantville of the 1950s, but he’s under an illusion if he thinks that everyone else in America shares the same sentiment.

Before I move on to the next point, it’s worth mentioning the wonderful book about the American Western genre by Jane Tompkins entitled, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns. In this book, Tompkins offers a sympathetic but also highly critical reading of Westerns, focusing on, among other things, their selective and sexist understanding of heroism. Bowman would do well to read this work before waxing rhapsodic about the good ole days of Westerns.

6. Sixth, the heart of Bowman’s entire critique of contemporary cinema is his conviction that films should show a world which is morally black-and-white. His approval of traditional Westerns and war films is rooted in this primal belief. His opinion on this matter is made explicit in another article for The American in which he writes about the failure of Akira Kurosawa’s films, because they are “founded on the principle of moral ambiguity.” Early in this article, he asks:
Most of humankind through most of history has happily lived in a black-and-white, good-and-evil world. Why, in the last 50 years or so, has the aesthetic appeal of such a vision faded? Who taught us the charm and sophistication of gray?
What is so remarkable about this statement, besides the fact that he blames Kurosawa for our morally ambiguous films (as if that’s a bad thing), is that he seems to actually believe what he’s saying. He seems to really believe that we once lived in a perfectly black-and-white world. Near the end of this article, he says that “either you’re innocent or guilty, a good guy or a bad guy,” and he faults Kurosawa for seeking a third option. Is Bowman the one person for whom the old adage “living under a rock” is actually true? Perhaps he has never heard the famous line by Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

Perhaps Bowman has never read the Bible, despite his nostalgia for traditional Judeo-Christian values. If he had read the Bible, he would know that moral ambiguity runs through that sacred text from beginning to end. As Paul says, quoting the Psalms, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one.” The point is that we have never lived in a black-and-white world of good versus evil, and to the extent that films portray such a bifurcated cosmos, they depart from reality. If it took the Vietnam War to wake us from our naiveté and self-delusion, then we have to say, at least in this sense, thank God for Vietnam!

It’s worth quoting Solzhenitsyn again, this time from The Gulag Archipelago:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart. . . . This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed with evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts there remains . . . an uprooted small corner of evil.
Bowman’s longing for the morally unambiguous world of cowboys and war heroes is not a return to virtue but is itself the very denial of virtue, insofar as true virtue begins with the humility and wisdom that acknowledges one’s own complicity in evil. We do not and never have lived in a black-and-white world of perfect moral clarity. Those films which portrayed such a world were fantasies; they imagined a society that was subtle and deceptive in its mendacity. These stories misled people into thinking that a person was either good or bad. Because of their deception, such films are infinitely more removed from audiences than films which portray whistle-blowers, victims, and superheroes.

7. Seventh, there is a good reason why heroism looks different in today’s films: not only do we now realize how false the old black-and-white stories really were, but we also live in a different world. Why was (and is) “X-Files” such a huge hit? Because we live in a world in which government leaders are suspect. We live in a society that is easily persuaded to accept conspiracy theories, not because our society is stupid, but because people just don’t trust their leaders anymore—and for really good reasons. We live in a time in which the public sphere is viewed by most as “cruel and corrupt,” because it largely is cruel and corrupt. We know better now. And if we don’t want to go see movies that shove this corruption down our throats, it’s only because we are already too depressed as it is. People can bad-mouth the media all they want—also for very good reasons—but it is undeniable that modern media has shown us just how corrupt our society really is. Part of the reason why pre-Vietnam films are so morally black-and-white is that they did not have the kind of investigative journalism that we take for granted today, the kind that exposes every little bad deed committed by our leaders. We live in a post-“Deep Throat,” post-Clinton, post-Enron, and post-Bush world.

The fact of the matter is that we live in a world of whistle-blowers and victims. It’s frankly rather bizarre that Bowman would think that “Erin Brockovich” is more removed from today’s audiences than “Sergeant York.” Not only is Brockovich a real person, but she is portrayed in the film as the most average of persons. A single white mother who has little education and very little money. How much more average can you get? Bowman might respond: true, but her case is a rare one. Rarer than the war vet or the cowboy? Take the recent National Public Radio story about FAA whistle-blowers. In this story, it is revealed that in the first half of 2008 alone, there have been 32 whistle-blowers, nearly triple the number in 2007. Now, 32 is not a large number, but this is also in 2008 alone and in just one industry among hundreds. This is clearly an important story, and it only serves to demonstrate how different our world is today. We live in the world of the whistle-blower—not exclusively, of course, but this is undeniably a facet of our modern existence.

We also live in the world of the victim. Are the heroes portrayed in “United 93” and “World Trade Center” not “true heroes” because they were victims of a terrorist attack? Try telling that to the families of those who were killed that day. Try telling that to the firepersons who helped that day, many of whom lost their lives, and others of whom live with chronic illness. Are these experiences removed from the lives of everyday audience members? Absolutely. Does that make their efforts any less heroic? Hell no. Terrorism is only the smallest form of victimhood today. What about domestic violence? What about HIV/AIDS? What about poverty and world hunger? What about genocide in Darfur or people (especially women) who live under dictatorships, whether in North Korea or Iran or Zimbabwe? What about sex slaves in southeast Asia? What about child workers? What about the unjustly imprisoned? What about those tortured by so-called democratic governments? What about persecuted ethnic minorities? What about, for example, the Native Americans, who are made the victims by the very same “heroic” cowboys that Bowman praises? I could go on. Already we are talking about most of the world’s population. Is this still somehow removed from the audience? Perhaps removed from those of us in wealthy Western countries, but many of us care deeply about these stories. Moreover, poverty is never something that should be invisible to us. Poverty exists all around us, whether we live in an urban metropolis or in middle class suburbia, whether we live in the “Wild West” or in the distant, remote areas of the world. The simple fact of the matter is that we live most definitely in the world of the victim. And in a globalized society, we are all victims now.

The fact that Bowman identifies the victim hero as someone removed from the lives of people in audiences today only serves to identify Bowman’s status as a comfortable, bourgeois member of the upper middle class whose life is unthreatened by the possibility of victimhood. Ironically, it is Bowman who is removed from reality, not Hollywood. Bowman speaks about how much money a movie portraying traditional heroism would make. And yet his list of “false hero” films includes “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” the “Bourne” trilogy, “Batman Begins,” among others. The fact that Oscar winners like “No Country for Old Men” did not make hundreds of millions of dollars has nothing to do with the fact that audiences wanted a “real hero,” but simply because most Americans don’t care for good filmmaking. They want cheap thrills, and they will pay to see movies like “Transformers,” even if there isn’t a so-called “real hero” portrayed in it. Against Bowman, it seems to me like the evidence favors the conclusion that Americans today spend money on these “false hero” films because they identify with the victim or the whistle-blower or even with the troubled superhero.

The reality is that Bowman doesn’t want to accept the fact that we live in a world of gray. We live in a world that no longer conforms to a black-and-white moral template. We live in a world in which there are few, if any, morally heroic, universal characters that can unite us all. Our stories are full of concrete particularities shaped by a pluralistic, globalized world. We no longer have the luxury of naiveté. We don’t have the luxury of reveling in “Cowboy-and-Indian” pictures which are “heroic” at the expense of both modern sociopolitical realism and a morality which is sensitive to those indigenous peoples who were exploited and oppressed by the “white man.” The world in which we reside is far too fragmented, complex, and diverse to ignore such realities. And so the stories which we find compelling today are ones that bring together a tapestry of individual narratives—a template embodied in films like “Amores Perros,” “Magnolia,” and (to a lesser extent) “Crash.” These films are no less removed from audiences today than Ford’s Westerns; in fact, I would submit that they are quite a bit more relevant to contemporary audiences. Which brings me to my eighth point.

8. Good storytelling does not need to provide abstract, morally unambiguous Everyman and Everywoman characters for the stories to be apposite to audiences. A good story does not need to rely on a protagonist who can serve as a model for imitation. Good stories are able to present particularities and complexities within a morally ambiguous world without those particularities precluding a connection between story and audience. Bowman, I would submit, simply has an impoverished imagination. He expects a heroic protagonist to be a person that can serve as a morally upstanding model for his own life. Never mind the fact that Native Americans, women, and other minorities would find John Wayne a difficult person to imitate. The point is that he needs his protagonist to model the ideal moral man. When he watches a film, he needs to be able to map that character onto his own life with minimal translation.

Bowman seems to have forgotten that universal human characteristics are present even in stories that are distant and remote from the reader or viewer. The Bible is only the most obvious example. But take a cartoon hero like “The Incredible Hulk,” for instance. He may be a superhero of sorts, but the issue of anger and rage is one with which we can all relate. The “X-Men” series has an even stronger connection to audiences. The X-Men story is a thinly veiled reference to racism, sexism, homophobia, and other social ills that create marginalized peoples in modern society. Perhaps the one truly removed superhero is also the least compelling, viz. Superman. I’ve already talked about how compelling many whistle-blower and victim heroes are today. Three of the most compelling victim heroes in modern cinema are Ofelia from “Pan’s Labyrinth,” Theo Faron from “Children of Men,” and Mateo from “In America.” I am willing to grant that these characters are victims—Ofelia of a fascist general, Theo of a corrupt, post-apocalyptic society, and Mateo of AIDS—but each represents a true hero. Each character translates the concept of heroism into a contemporary context, in which political oppression, social upheaval, and global epidemics are everyday realities from which it would be grossly irresponsible to flee. To use Bowman’s own words against him, his call for morally unambiguous cowboy heroes is itself “a denial of responsibility.”

9. Finally, I wish to close by briefly discussing the film “The Station Agent.” In this remarkable story, a group of three friends forms almost accidentally, instigated by the arrival of Finbar McBride, a misanthropic dwarf. In this group, no one person is the “hero.” The group and the world in which they live cannot be split into good guys and bad guys. Each of them instead demonstrates the truth of Solzhenitsyn’s axiom: “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” Each character is complex, but never in a way as to render any character removed from those watching this story unfold. Each person is rather realistic in the most honest and straightforward way. There is no wildly dramatic climax, which feels like something forced upon it by some Hollywood blockbuster template. We are simply treated to the story of three very ordinary people who become unlikely but still ordinary friends. The film is beautiful because of its simplicity. But its simplicity never becomes naiveté. It does not moralize these characters; it doesn’t try to fit them into an external framework of good-vs.-evil. Each person has his or her flaws, some more hidden than others. And yet in their moral complexity, the characters discover their redemptive bonds which hold them together. It is a deeply moving and profound character study, the kind which Bowman seems entirely unable to appreciate. For that, I pity him, because it is his life which is clearly the impoverished one.