Showing posts from February, 2019

Talismanic invocations of scholarship

One of the silliest, and most annoying, trends in public Christian discourse is the use of academic scholarship. I've no doubt the trend I have in mind is present on all sides, but where I see it most is in newly liberated ex-evangelicals, whether pastors or laypeople, but certainly in popular writers.

Not only is "scholarship" used in the singular, as if two centuries' worth of study of the Bible in all its variety of contexts across dozens of countries in as many languages can be considered monolithic and unanimous. Even more, it's waved around as a kind of talisman, evidently with the expectation of an effect that can only be called apotropaic—which, we may infer, is the effect it had initially on the person so using it.

It's true that any number of stupid or damaging claims about the Bible and Christianity are a function or result of ignorance, and that education can remedy some of this. But the truth is that scholars disagree about very nearly anything a…

My new email plan

I've written recently about my technology habits, and now I write with an update. Last week I took email off my phone, moving ever closer to the reduction of my iPhone to the basic features of a dumb phone, plus pictures/video, maps, weather, WhatsApp, and podcasts. That was why I purchased an iPhone in the first place, in the fall of 2015: to send and receive pictures and video of my children and nephews, and to get around easier when traveling. But Facebook and Twitter and Gmail and the rest colonized my phone and, in turn, my mind and, eventually, my daily habits; and this is part of my ongoing purgation of that colonization. Get thee behind me, Satan!

My iPhone's weekly Sunday morning report of usage told me my screen time declined by 30%, to an average of 49 minutes/day. I bet the next report will be even smaller. As I've said, my goal is an average of 45 minutes/day. But honestly, if I'm not texting much, and instead of reading Instapaper articles I'm reading…

On reading political writing from the 1990s

Recently I've been reading through Left Hooks, Right Crosses: A Decade of Political Writing, edited by Christopher Caldwell and the late Christopher Hitchens. It's a collection of 40 essays written during the 1990s, nearly all under the Clinton administration.

It's been a revelation. I was 7 years old when Clinton was elected the first time. I came of age politically and intellectually during the second Bush's two terms, and I didn't start consistently reading serious—or at least good—political writing from across the ideological spectrum until Obama's second term.

That means I'm basically a novice in these matters. I have a fairly good sense of the historical scope and shape of these arguments; I've read political philosophy, old and new; I'm conversant with what's going on at present. But I've little idea what it was like in the moment, in weekly and monthly political journalism, in each of the previous decades, even those I lived through.

"This Day" by Denise Levertov

This Day

By Denise Levertov

i Dry wafer,
sour wine.

This day I see

God’s in the dust,
not sifted

out from confusion.
ii Perhaps, I thought,
passing the duckpond,
perhaps—seeing the brilliantly somber water
deranged by lost feathers and bits of
drowning bread—perhaps
these imperfections (the ducklings
practised their diving,
stylized feet vigorously cycling among débris)
are part of perfection,
a pristine nuance? our eyes
our lives, too close to the canvas,
enmeshed within
the turning dance,
to see it?
iii In so many Dutch 17th-century paintings
one perceives
a visible quietness, to which the concord
of lute and harpsichord contribute,
in which a smiling conversation
‘calme, luxe,” and—in auburn or mercurial sheen
of vessels, autumnal wealth
of fur-soft table-carpets,
blue snow-gleam of Delft—
‘volupte’; but also the clutter
of fruit and herbs, pots, pans, poultry,
strewn on the floor: and isn’t
the quiet upon them too, in them and of them,
aren’t they wholly at one with the wond…

New essay published in Commonweal: "The Specter of Marcionism"

I've got a new essay published in the latest issue of Commonweal titled "The Specter of Marcionism." It uses the combined examples from last year of Andy Stanley's controversial teaching on the Old Testament and the First Things review relitigating the Mortara case to think about the different ways in which Protestants and Catholics struggle with the election of the Jews, Israel's scriptures, and supersessionism. Here's a taste:

"On this, all can agree. God and the Jews are a package deal. As 1 John 2:23 says of God and Christ—that one cannot have the Father without the Son, or the Son without the Father—so here: you cannot have Abraham’s God without Abraham’s children. Reject the latter and you lose the former. In its rejection of Marcionism, the church staked a claim to this principle: the only God with whom it would have to do was the Jewish God, the God of Moses, Hannah, Mary, and Jesus. But the church’s consistency in maintaining this princip…

Lewis's other virtue as a novelist

Last week I listed six virtues that make C. S. Lewis's novels, especially the Space Trilogy, so lovable. I forgot one, though: his ability to describe evil—evil persons and evil deeds—without ever making evil the least bit appealing or interesting.

This isn't because there's no evil in Lewis's world; there's plenty. In fact, it's often embodied not just in human beings but in devils, or in humans possessed by demons. The scale of evil in Lewis is cosmic. But it is also minute, even mundane. And that's what makes his depiction of evil so brilliant, so compelling, yet so unattractive. Evil is boring, ugly, deficient, and stupid. It's imbecilic, infantile, a shallow life-sucking self-sabotage of all that is—which is to say, of all that is good, beautiful, and true. It enlivens nothing and parasitically eats from the inside whatever gives it quarter.

Lewis is able to strike this philosophically informed macro/micro balance without glamorizing the good life …

My technology habits

Developing good technology habits is one of the driving motivations of my daily life. Particularly since I surrendered and got a smart phone (only three years ago), combined with having children (the oldest is six) and getting a job (now in my second year), the possibility for the internet and screens to overtake my every waking moment has never been greater. A little less than two years ago I read Andy Crouch's The Tech-Wise Family, which galvanized and organized my approach to disciplining technology's role in my life. Here's where things stand at the moment.


I still have an iPhone, though an older and increasingly outdated model. When I read Crouch I realized I was spending more than 2 hours a day on my phone (adolescents average 3-6 hours—some of my students more than that!), and I followed his lead in downloading the Moment app to monitor my usage. Since then I've cut down my daily screen time on my phone to ~45 minutes: 10 or so minutes checking email, 10-20…

The virtues of Lewis's Space Trilogy

I've been re-reading Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra this last month (I read That Hideous Strength for the first time last year), and the former especially brought to mind why I love Lewis so much. His novelistic shortcomings are more than apparent in these early works, so in the midst of noticing those, I asked myself: What is it about these books that makes them lovable? What are the virtues that Lewis the novelist brings to bear in them that raise them to more than pleasant diversions?

Here's a short list.

1. Lewis has a knack for making the metaphysical reality that Christians confess to be true inhabitable. He makes it seem like common sense—more, he makes it seem roomy. "This is the real world, refracted through fiction" is the refrain of all his writing, not least Ransom's adventures in space. Or: "It's probably not precisely this, but it's almost certainly very like this—only better and more wondrous."

2. Apart from the beautiful…

New review in the latest issue of Christian Century

I've got a critical review of Craig Carter's new book, Reading Scripture with the Great Tradition, in the latest issue of The Christian Century. Here's a taste:

"The spiritual sense that [premodern] saints sought—which is to say, prayed for, delighted in, and contemplated—was not a 'stable' 'layer' of meaning 'residing' in the text. It was the in principle infinite sacramental signification of human signs divinely authored and illumined. For the res of scripture, as a whole and in each of its parts, is Christ. Just how any one particular text of scripture signifies Christ, not to mention just what Christ might use such a text to say to the believing reader under the Spirit’s guidance, is limited neither by human authors’ intentions nor by ordinary rules of grammar and syntax, nor by the capacities, desires, or convictions of readers, believing or pagan. It is determinate, but only insofar as Christ is determinate. And Christ makes hi…

Blessed are the heretics

I have always attributed the line "blessed are the heretics" to Stanley Hauerwas, who in his typical fashion goes on to say (paraphrasing from memory) that without the heretics the church would not be instigated into growing ever more deeply into the truths of the faith. Indeed, a quick Google search found this quote, which I'm sure is a regularly repackaged line:

"In truth, we are never quite sure what we believe until someone gets it wrong. That is why those we call heretics are so blessed because without them we would not know what we believe."

There he goes on to discuss the Apollinarian heresy as an instance of the church establishing, through hard-win effort, a more rigorous christological grammar than it previously had.

Re-reading the Confessions the other day, though, I saw that St. Augustine says something similar. In Book VII, while discussing the "books of the Platonists" and their relationship to the faith, he writes first of his friend, t…