Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Empire and Postmodernism.

Though I believe the empire against which we struggle is Babylon, yet it is true that at this time and place (the West in the 21st century) Babylon is utilizing global consumerism as a tool of empire. Elsewhere, such as in the Islamic states, she uses other tools, older ones perhaps. But Walsh and Keesmaat are concerned with the West, so let us go forward and continue to follow their argument.

Empires seek stability by influencing every aspect of life, especially the intellectual and creative lives of its subjects. This can be seen in recent empires' concerns to control the curricula in schools, in the Hitler Youth movement, and the state-approved art of the USSR, the Third Reich and the Cultural Revolution. All these examples may seem obvious, and crude, because they are not our current culture and so can be seen by us more objectively.

If global consumerism is the economic structure of the empire, postmodernism is its intellectual structure. Postmodernism "on the street" is a deep-seated skepticism of all grand metanarratives, all grand stories or accounts that claim to organize or explain all of life. It is the doubt that truth is knowable, perhaps even the doubt whether Truth exists at all. Instead of believing or acting out of the convictions of a single metanarrative, the postmodern individual notes the existence of a plurality of differing organizing stories. He or she feels free to choose among them, even to the extent of picking them apart and selecting an account of origins from one and an account of sexuality from another. It is like mixing and matching clothing and accessories at the mall. In this way it is the perfect match to global consumerism. It is, in a sense, a "marketplace of ideas," or global consumerism of the mind. Furthermore, just as no one is expected to commit to one outfit or one laptop or one cellphone brand, so it is seen as backward and naive to commit to any particular philosophy or metanarrative combo as finally authoritative.

In all this, I think W and K are right on. Postmodernism is the official and sanctioned philosophy of the empire in these her Western provinces. A large portion of the book is devoted to exploring how the truth claims of God's kingdom can be brought forward in a manner comprehensible to a postmodern citizen of the empire. As I am not myself a postmodern man, I found this portion of the book most challenging. More on this later...

Monday, November 28, 2005

Who is the Emperor?

Perhaps I was reminded of Plato when I read Colossians Remixed because the latter is, explicitly in places, a dialogue. The book is structured as a possible response to the questions or problems of four real people, William, Elanna , Eric and Anthony, all young postmodernists. At times, the authors address anticipated objections through explicit, Socratic-style dialogue with a fictional reader. These dialogues are very well done, and generally put the finger right on the objection that was forming in my mind. They did not set up straw men.

They begin with a premise that underlies the subtitle of the book: we, like Paul and Jesus, live in an empire. Our empire is cybernetic globalism, which involves consumerism, global corporations, militarism, and technological optimism. Like Rome, like all empires, our empire claims allegiance on the basis of its being the source of peace and all that is good in our lives, and extends its images and its viewpoint into every aspect of life. It is totalitarian and ultimate. It takes the place and claims the honors that rightly belong only to God.

This conceptualization of the consumerist culture of global capitalism is a very fruitful one, allowing all sorts of useful insights into our lives in the West today. I plan to think more deeply on the ramifications of this idea, and perhaps thereby fulfill, at least partly, Walsh and Keesmaat's purpose in writing this book. Nevertheless, there is a problem with drawing a parallel between the Roman Empire and global consumer capitalism. They are not in the same category. They cannot be made analogous.

Rome was an actual empire. The word "empire" has a tangible, geopolitical meaning, and Rome -- and Assyria, and Babylon, the Soviet Union and 19th Century Britain -- were empires in this sense. These had a hierarchical structure with a single sovereign at the top, even if that sovereign was an elected one. They had specific domains. They had an identifiable imperial army. They had specific written laws. In short, they were specific instances of a human sovereign having dominion over a specific, if broad, geographical territory.

Global capitalism is a different sort of thing, even if it has some of the same features. It is an "ism", so to speak. Communism is also not an empire, though it also shares features of totalism and manipulation of images and imagination. Global capitalism and communism are one sort of thing, empire is another sort of thing. Indeed, an actual empire, like ancient Rome or the British empire, may be globally capitalistic while another, like the old USSR, may be communistic.

This may seem like a quibble, but it is not. How one relates to a thing is limited by what sort of thing it is. Paul could, and did, appeal to Caesar. This was not merely symbolic, or metaphorical, but actual, because Rome was an actual empire. Who is the emperor of global consumer capitalism? If W and K had explicitly identified the Empire as the United States, the analogy to Rome would have been better, but it would have narrowed the scope of their critique.

A solution that occurs to me, that they approach occasionally but do not develop, and which I believe is quite biblical, is that the idea of totalitarian empire, of which Rome was an instance, and which our western culture and various eastern and communist cultures are instances, comes from the ancient enemy of God's kingdom, Mystery Babylon. Both Peter and John make explicit connections between their Rome and the ancient whore. If one examines the world's lament over fallen Babylon in Revelation, one finds all the totalitarianism and commercial features that W and K find in Rome and in our culture. If this is so, if the empire is today, and always has been, Babylon, then we have identified an emperor, one with many heads just as we may see today, perhaps.

So why didn't W and K take it to Babylon? I suspect because that would shift the reader 's focus to the heavenly or spiritual realms, and they wish to focus on earth, in a geopolitical sense. This, I fear, is an overreaction to a perceived unbalanced dualism that emphasizes the heavenly and spiritual over the earthly and physical. The biblical stories emphasize both. We struggle in both worlds. Paul struggled "not against flesh and blood" but against principalities and powers, yet a flesh and blood Roman soldier lopped off his head.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Subverting the Empire...

I just finished reading Walsh and Keesmaat's Colossians Remixed. (Subverting the Empire.) This is a book that warrants a second reading, not merely because it is relevant, but because its argument is complex and carefully constructed and hence its truthfulness is not immediately apparent, at least to me. Reading the book, I felt the same sense of being led to a particular foreseeable conclusion, by a series of questionable concessions, as I feel when reading Plato's dialogues. At each pivotal point, I feel that the argument has been a little contrived, that the theoretical choices have been oversimplified and therefore somewhat narrowed. Coming to the conclusion, one wants to backtrack and perhaps contest more carefully a point that one had granted while feeling just a little uncomfortable with the choices offered or with the accuracy of the underlying assumptions.

In any case, I want to go back now and carefully scrutinize their argument. I hope to reflect on that scrutiny here.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

A Prayer of Confession

From the Daily office of 11/18/05:

Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor.

Most holy and merciful Father:We confess to you and to one another,and to the whole communion of saints in heaven and on earth,that we have sinned by our own fault in thought, word, and deed; by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.
By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.

Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us all our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life. Amen.

This prayer of confession appeared in the Daily office at Mission St. Clare a few days ago. I presume it is from The Book of Common Prayer. How wonderful it would be if such a comprehensive and searching prayer were a regular part of most of our evangelical Protestant churches. What beautiful babies were thrown out with the Roman bathwater...

Friday, November 18, 2005

Intelligent Design: Not a Theory

Though I lament the derogatory tone of this Krauthammer editorial in the Washington Post, I believe he is right on. Intelligent design, which I believe to be true and correct, is not a scientific theory but rather a conclusion, drawn by many scientists, based on certain logical inconsistencies in the natural selection account of origins and also by remarkable coincidences found in both quantum physics and astrophysics.. As such, it should be taught in the schools. The fact that the data leads some world-famous scientists like Paul Davies to suggest that a cosmic designer does exist is out there and addressed by other world-famous scientists like Stephen Hawking. This is a conversation going on at the highest level of scientific philosophical discourse. Just read A Brief History of Time or any other of Hawking's coffee table books and you will find the question of a designer god in every chapter, and sometimes on every page. He is not arguing with the Kansas Board of Education, but with the likes of Paul Davies. They are not arguing about a theory, but about a conclusion. See my comment here.

It is disingenuous to say that this conflict was initiated by ID advocates. The reason these mandates from school boards arise at all is because fear of litigation by the likes of the ACLU has squelched all discussion in the classroom of the theistic conclusions or presuppositions that real scientists like Davies or Hawking ... or Behe...consider every day. It is safe for a teacher to say that natural selection based on unguided, random mutations explains all that needs to be explained about origins. They could even teach Francis Crick's conclusion of "panspermia", (the idea that space aliens seeded Earth with DNA and whatever was needed to jump-start life on this planet.) But they get sued for discussing the conclusion, actually drawn by many prominent and working scientists, that the data itself suggests purpose and even manipulation by nonrandom, non-chance agencies, because such agencies smack of "God" and hence may not be discussed in school. It is this prior stifling of any discourse with any religious content that leads school boards to feel the need to explicitly endorse or even mandate the discussion of Intelligent Design. If public school discourse were really free and open, the discussion of the possibility of an intelligent creator, a discussion that has engaged the minds of the best scientists for centuries, would be part of every upper-level science curriculum.

Waste Land Limericks...

Hannah Eagleson has alerted me to Wendy Cope's translation of Eliot's The Wasteland into limerick form. It's a hoot.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Of other flocks and grafted vines

(Joh 10:16 NASB) "I have other sheep, which are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will hear My voice; and they will become one flock with one shepherd.

This verse has always captured my imagination. As a young Christian reading C.S. Lewis's fiction, I thought of other creations on other worlds, like Malacandra or Narnia. How exciting to have fellowship with other persons with substantially different histories and cultures, discovering the elements of truth vouchsafed to them and peculiarly brought forth in their own stories! What a sumptuous feast for the soul!

Later I came to understand that our Lord was most likely and most proximally speaking of the gentile nations. For a fan of fantasy and science fiction, this was at first a letdown. However, on deeper consideration I find it just as exciting. The cultures of the various Earth peoples and nations are strikingly different. They partake of vastly different cultural and intellectual histories. They have seen the work of God through different lenses. The feast will not be diminished even if all the fare comes only from the gardens of Earth.

Hence my aggravation as I continue to hear the currently popular teaching that, to properly understand God's word and world, we must return primarily, even solely, to the thought patterns and philosophical viewpoint of the ancient Hebrews. There is no doubt of the importance of God's initial self-revelation to this particular people in this particular language, just as there is no doubt that we must begin our study of the Messiah with God's word to Eve about her seed. But to begin at a place is not necessarily to end there, or to remain there. It seems particularly clear to me that God reveals himself progressively, and that He is and always was Lord of all the earth and all its history of all its peoples. He intended from the beginning to bring all the nations into his flock, and has therefore troubled himself all along to direct their particular cultural histories no less sovereignly than he did Israel's.

Not being vintners or nurserymen, we too easily misunderstand what grafting involves. A grafted branch indeed draws its life from the stem and root. But it bears fruit unique to its own nature, its own originating variety. Indeed, this is the purpose of grafting in the first place: To produce fruit with certain desirable characteristics that are not found in the native variety. A neighbor of mine used to graft walnut trees. He would begin with a locally native seedling, whose roots are suited to this soil and climate but whose nuts are unremarkable, even bitter. He would then graft the top of another seedling whose roots were weak or disease prone, but whose fruit was large and sweet. These branches would draw their life from the strong roots of the native stock, and the tree would grow tall and strong. The fruit, however, bore the flavor brought by the grafted-on branches.

I think we miss much of the intended richness of God's Kingdom by dismissing ideas brought into it by its grafted branches and conjoined flocks. God surely knew, for example, that Alexander would bring the richness of Greek thought into contact with Israel centuries before the coming of Messiah, so that the earliest branches grafted in would bear its flavor. Was it unintended by God that Augustine would imbibe of Plato through Plotinus prior to being grafted in and so, directly and indirectly through his influence on such giants as Aquinas, imparting that flavor through two centuries of Christian thought? I doubt it. Instead, I think God continues to shed light upon our understanding as each grafted branch brings its peculiar insights into the Kingdom. What else are the kings bringing into the Holy City?

Rev 21:23-24 NASB
(23) And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb.
(24) The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Paris burning

This is deeply disturbing, as it suggests to me that a very deep fault in European culture is beginning to slip. Insofar as many of these minorities are likely of Islamic background, it supports Gideon Strauss's contention that two of the five top issues for God's people at this moment in history are modern liberalism and Salafiyyah Islam.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

No good divorces...

Generation X is continuing to debunk the myths of their parents the Boomers. In this article in the Washington Post, Elizabeth Marquardt debunks the myth of the "good" (amicable) divorce.She concludes:

Those of us who grew up in the first era of widespread divorce have a new sobriety about it. Yes, sometimes divorce is necessary, but the uncomfortable truth our culture has been hiding for too long is that often it's not, and there is definitely no such thing as a "good" divorce. If parents must divorce, it's good to get along afterward. But people in high-conflict marriages aren't usually successful at "good" divorce (divorce doesn't typically bring out great new communication and cooperation skills). Couples in low-conflict marriages may manage a so-called "good" divorce, but many of them could also manage to, well, stay married and spare themselves and their children a lot of pain.
This sobriety is emerging in movies, in studies, on blogs. I'm convinced there's more to come. Our generation's story needs to be told, because our society still strongly wants to deny just how devastating divorce really is. Too many people imagine that modern divorce is another variation on ordinary family life. Sure, there may be some discomfort, but doesn't childhood stay basically the same?
The answer is no.

I am encouraged.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

"In Heaven"

I like watching pendulums (pendula, whatever). As I sit here I am watching the stately beat of the pendulum of our 1915 neo-Gothic grandfather's clock, and the slightly faster pendulum of an old regulator wall clock. However, I do not like being on a pendulum, whether an amusement park ride or a theological trend. It makes my head swim. I want to puke.

I do not believe truth is itself dialectical, though we often go at it as though it were. In the church, if we feel that there is a trend or a popular notion that is in error or insufficient, we tend to counter it by taking a stand that is just as far from the truth, but in the opposite direction. We justify this behavior as a type of balancing, and it often "works" in the sense that the mass of believers will come to be distributed between the two extremes and hence be "closer" to the truth. Problem is, this method requires distortion or overstatement, both of which are in themselves lies even if the effect is to temper an opposing error or lie.

For example, I have often heard it said at missions conferences that, "God has no hands but our hands, no feet but our feet, no mouth but our mouths." Now, I understand the purpose of this saying, but it just ain't so! Some hearers will accept it as true, distorting their understanding of God's sovereignty and his great commission.

Lately, I have been hearing two ideas that are being stated as if they were established truth, but seem to be really counterweights offered against popular ideas that are perceived as unbalanced. One is monism or physicalism with respect to the nature of man, offered against a naive body-spirit dualism that is believed to lead to pietism or gnosticism. The other is the idea that there is no heaven-as-reward taught in the scriptures, which is offered to balance a perceived overemphasis on the afterlife to the neglect of this world in this life. I have heard it said, "The Bible doesn't teach that believers go to heaven when they die." Or, more carefully perhaps, "The Bible doesn't call us to seek heaven as a reward, but rather to seek God's kingdom on earth." This latter is subtle. It creates a tension, an opposition, between seeking rewards in heaven and seeking the penetration of God's kingdom on earth. Jesus seems to know nothing about this tension, and urged both explicitly.

The link above will take you to a list of all the verses containing the phrase, "in heaven." With regard to this issue,check out the verses from the New Testament, near the end of the list.