Genre criticism

I'm in a book club with some buddies in town, and as it happens I'm the only one who liked the latest book, a work of fantasy. Two issues with the book have come to the surface, and I've been thinking about their status for fiction more generally.

First, I've realized that I don't believe in "pace." Or rather, a book's having a slow or fast pace is at best a neutral statement that requires content to be filled in: was the slow pace done well, or was the fast pace rushed? More often, I think pacing is a cipher for other matters: whether the reader finds the characters, interactions, descriptions, and events engaging—or not. In that sense a reader might well say, "I found the pacing slow," to which the author could reply, "Yes, exactly, that's the idea," at which point the reader then must supply further reasons as to why the slow pacing was a problem. There may be good reasons to make such an assertion, but they involve referenc…

Pop culture, for and against

Jake Meador has kindly cross-posted my original blog post "Against pop culture" over at Mere Orthodoxy, and it's gotten a second round of (much larger) attention. Mostly the responses have been appreciative or generously critical, but let me address some of the criticisms as well as clear up some misunderstandings.

1. The piece is meant to be provocative, as both the title and tone suggest, so part of this is doubtless my own fault; but the overall point I'm trying to make is not that pop culture as such, or Netflix, is Bad, or that Christians should not ever "engage" it. The primary argument, instead, is that Christians (with an audience) who believe or write that Christians (in general) ought to "engage" popular culture as an imperative are wrong. That is, even if pop culture is neutral (which it is not), there is no good argument that Christians (again, in the aggregate) should, as a prescriptive norm, make it a priority to watch more Hulu, see…

On climate change and the church

Yesterday Freddie de Boer posted a brief reflection on climate change, which he opens in this way:

"This is one of those things where I feel like everybody quietly knows it but we have this sort of tacit agreement not to say it openly in order to preserve some sort of illusion about what our society is and who we are. But, I mean, come on – we’re not fixing climate change. Nobody thinks we are, not really. Everyone’s putting on a brave face, everyone’s maintaining the pretense on behalf of the kids of whatever. But come on. Let us be adults here. We are not, as a species, going to do the things necessary to arrest or meaningfully slow the heating of the planet and thus will be exposed to all of the ruinous consequences of failing to do so."

This is neither, for him, denialism nor despair, just the hard facts. Action is still called for:

"I’m not telling people to give up, and I’m not telling people to despair. Of course we have to fight this thing, just like …

Against pop culture

Christians love pop culture these days. But the subset of Christians who love pop culture the most is pastors, writers, and academics. Pop culture as a mode of "engagement"; pop culture as a means of "reaching" this or that group; pop culture as a way of "relating" to students: all these and more are celebrated and commended and practiced in churches, classrooms, and websites every day. "Finding the gospel in [pop culture artifact X]" is a ubiquitous and representative genre. Christians love pop culture, and Christians with an audience want fellow Christians to love pop culture.

Why is that? Why should Christians like, love, or "engage with" pop culture?

I don't think there are very many, or perhaps any, good answers to that question.

Now, sociologically and empirically, we can surely posit some reasons for the lovefest. Christians, especially conservative Christians, especially conservative evangelical Christians, have tended to b…

New essay published in The Los Angeles Review of Books: "Enter Paul"

I have a new essay published this morning over in The Los Angeles Review of Books, titled "Enter Paul," on Paula Fredriksen's two latest books, Paul: The Pagans' Apostle and When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (both from Yale University Press). Here's a sample:

"Put it this way: an itinerant rabbi from the Galilee — the backwaters of Palestine — leads a popular movement among the Jews, one that comes to an ignominious end when he is executed for sedition by the Roman authorities. Some of his followers form a small community in Jerusalem, proclaiming that not only was this rabbi and prophet the longed-for Messiah of Israel, but he is alive, in glory with God, vested with impregnable power and heavenly authority. These messianic Jews share goods in common and worship daily at the temple, praying and waiting eagerly for Jesus’s imminent return, when he will drive out the pagan occupiers and restore his people’s fortunes.

"Pause the fra…

"We can't really be that fallen": a question for Christian socialists

Recently Nathan Robinson, editor-in-chief at Current Affairs, a socialist magazine, responded toNational Review's issue "Against Socialism." He considers, successively, thirteen different writers' contributions in the issue. The tone of the piece is cheeky while wanting genuinely to respond in kind to substantive critiques of socialism.

One passage stood out to me. First, here is a paragraph that Robinson quotes from Theodore Dalrymple's essay in the NR issue:

"Socialism is not only, or even principally, an economic doctrine: It is a revolt against human nature. It refuses to believe that man is a fallen creature and seeks to improve him by making all equal one to another. It is not surprising that the development of the New Man was the ultimate goal of Communist tyrannies, the older version of man being so imperfect and even despicable. But such futile and reprehensible dreams, notwithstanding the disastrous results when they were taken seriously by r…

Theses on preaching

1. The principal subject matter for preaching, always and everywhere, is the triune God of Israel attested and revealed in the good news about Jesus, the Lord and Messiah of Israel. If a sermon could not plausibly be said to have been about that, it was not a sermon.

1.1. This is primarily a substantive point, that is, regarding what a sermon is "about," which doesn't mean that counting the number of times the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Spirit," "Trinity," etc., are mentioned in a sermon is going to do the job. Throwing around those words isn't good enough; indeed, imagine an expertly crafted sermon on the book of Esther that somehow avoided such terms, just like the text in question, while nevertheless rendering God's providential, saving hand throughout.

1.2. Having said that, the point is secondarily grammatical. That is, months and months of sermons unpopulated by liberal use of the sentence structure, &qu…

Politics on the pattern of the martyrs

In my Comment essay earlier this year titled "The Church and the Common Good," I wrote the following, describing and recommending Paul Griffiths' idiosyncratic spin on quietism as the proper form of Christian political action:

"At bottom it is a radical call for epistemic, moral, and theological humility. For we cannot know either the actual or the unintended consequences of the policies for which we advocate; nor can we know those of the policies we oppose. We must assume our opponents act in good faith, even as we admit we act from mixed motives ourselves. If we fail, we may trust that providence has allowed it, for reasons opaque to us; if we prevail, we are in an even more precarious position, for we will be responsible for what results, and we will be tempted to pride. In any case, what good comes, we receive with gratitude. What evil comes, we suffer with patience.

"Quietism, in short, is politics on the pattern of the martyrs, who, like Christ,…

Are there good reasons to stay on Twitter?

Earlier this week Nolan Lawson wrote a brief post extolling people to get off Twitter. He opens it by saying, "Stop complaining about Twitter on Twitter. Deny them your attention, your time, and your data. Get off of Twitter. The more time you spend on Twitter, the more money you make for Twitter. Get off of Twitter."

Alan Jacobs picked up on this post and wrote in support: "The decision to be on Twitter (or Facebook, etc.) is not simply a personal choice. It has run-on effects for you but also for others. When you use the big social media platforms you contribute to their power and influence, and you deplete the energy and value of the open web. You make things worse for everyone. I truly believe that. Which is why I’m so obnoxiously repetitive on this point."

I've written extensively about my own habits of technology and internet discipline. I deleted my Facebook account. I don't have any social media apps on my iPhone; nor do I even have access to em…

DIY Christianity

What is the greatest threat to the church in America today? You could list a lot of candidates.

My answer is DIY Christianity.

That's the term I use with my students to communicate the notion—which they readily recognize—of the Christian faith as recreated anew in, by, and for each generation, or even perhaps each local body of believers. This is Christianity without history, without tradition, without authority, without saints or martyrs or anything mediate, that is, anything intervening (thus obtruding, thus obstructing) between the individual and Jesus. DIY Christianity is "founding" a local church the way entrepreneurs found a start-up, with Big Ideas and Enough With The Old and Radical Innovation. (DIY Christianity thinks "innovation," like "curiosity," is a virtue rather than a vice.)

DIY Christianity is a mortal enemy to the faith once for all delivered to the saints and handed on, generation after generation, from the apostles to the present d…