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Wednesday
Feb012012

Mitt Romney's "Faith in America"

Last year I enjoyed a visit to Brigham Young University to give a lecture and lead a faculty workshop.  The hospitality was marvelous, the conversation engaging, and I was surprised to learn how much the dynamics of an intentionally Mormon university parallaleld my own institution.  My gracious hosts sent me packing with several books to read, including a couple of little gems that I devoured on planes and in airports on the way home: Richard Bushman's Mormonism: A Very Short Introduction and Terryl Givens' The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction.  I commend them both to you in this election cycle. 

I left BYU with an interest in continuing the sorts of conversations my friend Rich Mouw has had over the years.  I think there are especially reasons why Reformed folk might be able to foster Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue in unique ways.  Given that my familiarity with LDS theology and philosophy is in its infancy, I know I have a lot to learn.

However, I can't shake one impression that has stuck with me: Mormonism might just be the great American religion.  An indigenous religious product, Mormonism seems primed to make a religion of America, to enshrine "America" in ways that are perhaps more integral to the Book of Mormon than the Bible carried by evangelicals.  (Granted, there's been plenty of Protestant evangelical kitsch that would rival LDS painter Jon McNaughton's "One Nation Under God" above.)  

This came back to me last night while listening to Mitt Romney's victory speech in Florida--which, in turn, reminded me of a speech he gave 4 years ago, during the last Republican nomination contest.  The speech was entitled "Faith in America," and I was asked to comment on the speech for the PBS Religion and Ethics Newsweekly blog, "One Nation: Religion and Politics." It seems to me the ideas still have some legs, so I reproduce it here:

The God of Americanism

A lot can hang on a preposition. Mitt Romney first promised a speech about his faith, then backed off to offer a broader take on America’s religious landscape and its heritage of religious freedom. So rather than offering an apologetic for his own faith, Romney instead offered an account of “Faith in America.” But the speech has me wondering whether there’s a difference; more specifically, I wonder what’s at stake in that “in.” From where I sit, it looks like Romney’s “own” faith is faith in America. Americans needn’t worry about Romney’s Mormonism because, at the end of the day, the faith that trumps all others is “Americanism.”

Don’t get me wrong: this religion has a long and illustrious history (documented in David Gelertner’s recent book, Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion). It is a noble faith that feeds off the blood of its martyrs—in particular “the greatest generation” to which Romney first appeals—who made the greatest sacrifice for the sake of the religion’s highest value: freedom (understood, I should note, in largely negative terms as freedom of choice). Indeed, “freedom” and “liberty” are the mantras of this faith, and Romney’s speech invokes these shibboleths no less than thirty times (God or “the Creator” or “divine author” comes in at a close second with 21 references). And Romney doesn’t fail to allude to the great artifacts of this religion. Americanism has its own sacred documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution), its own saints (“the Founding Fathers”), and has even birthed its own cathedrals and grottos (just stroll the National Mall).

So if Mitt Romney was looking to quell concerns about his religion, I think he’s performed admirably! He has indicated, in no uncertain terms, that he is an “Americanist” like almost every other presidential candidate (from I don’t care which side of the aisle). He is an American before he is a Mormon. He is primarily interested in conserving America’s role as a hegemon (“preserving American leadership” is the guise under which he segues to talk about religion). And he enthusiastically adopts Sam Adams axiom that it’s not the specifics of piety that matters, but rather whether one is a “patriot.”

If conservatives were worried about his Mormonism, I think Romney has laid his cards on the table and said to them: “Look, don’t worry. Mormonism doesn’t prevent me from being an Americanist. We’re brothers in that cause.”

In a way, this is refreshingly honest theology. In fact, if one pays close attention to the actual theology at work here—that is, if one starts asking just which God is being invoked—one finds that it is a particular deity: “the divine ‘author of liberty.’” The god of the culture warriors has always been a generic god of theism (precisely like the god of the Founding Fathers): a “God who gave us liberty” (to do what we want). The “Creator” is a granter of inalienable rights and unregulated freedoms, a god who shares and ordains “American values.” If evangelical culture warriors had worries about Romney’s faith, his jeremiad today should confirm that he pledges allegiance to the same “God of liberty” that they do. We’re all Americanists now.

But I hope Mr. Romney and his culture warrior friends (whether on the Right or Left) won’t be surprised if some of us find it hard to believe in Americanism and its God of liberty. Some of us just can’t muster faith in the generic theism that is preached on the campaign trail, whether from the Right or Left. Some of us Christians have a hard time reconciling the Almighty, all-powerful, law-giving God of liberty with the crucified suffering servant born in a barn and executed at the hands of the elite. Some of us are trying to figure out what it means to be a people who follow one who relinquished his rights rather than asserted them, who considered submission a higher value than freedom. We serve a God-man who wasn’t concerned with “preserving leadership” and the hegemony of the empire’s gospel of freedom, but rather was crushed by its machinations for proclaiming and embodying another gospel.

We’re not out to win a culture war; we’re just trying to be witnesses. We’re not out to “transform” culture by marshaling the engine of the state; we’re trying to carve out little foretastes of a coming kingdom. And so we can’t share Mr. Romney’s evangelistic zeal for the god of Americanism.

 

 

Wednesday
Jan182012

In Praise of Little Magazines

What is it about the Reformed tradition and desktop publishing?  I have very tangible memories of this as part of my induction to the Reformed tradition.  While doing graduate work at the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto--site of my baptism-by-fire into Dutch Reformedom--I worked in the tiny little "bookstore" at the Institute.  "Bookstore" is a rather grandiose label for a closet in the back corner of a back room on the second floor that was home to books published by ICS Senior Members and friends of the Institute.  But some of the real treasures were scads and scads of mimeographed papers and lectures and classnotes that I gobbled up like academic tracts--archived with a sober sense of their world-historical import and eagerly sent around the world with a revolutionary zeal in a pre-digital age.  These xeroxed treatises constituted a not insignificant part of my most formative education.  

There's something in the DNA of a Reformed "world- and life-view" that energizes tiny bands of upstart thinkers and writers and publishers to get the word out--to devote themselves to the largely thankless task of comment and criticism committed to print.  One can think of Groen van Prinsterer's anti-revolutionary daily, De Nederlander; or Kuyper's founding of De Standaard; or more proximately, the rich legacy of The Reformed Journal and its heir, Perspectives, as well as the glossy upstart, Comment.  Indeed, perhaps one can even see The Twelve blog as a digital expression of this same impulse.  

All of these publishing ventures exhibit an energetic commitment to small, good things (to invoke Raymond Carver).  And, as per my schtick here of late, this trend brings to mind another Jewish intellectual: Lionel Trilling.  I was recently re-reading Trilling's classic collection, The Liberal Imagination, and was reminded of his retrospective essay on the 10th anniversary of The Partisan Review.  In "The Function of the Little Magazine," first published as an introduction to a Partisan Review anthology (not unlike The Best of the Reformed Journal), Trilling notes an odd metric of success:

"The Partisan Reader may be thought of as an ambiguous monument.  It commemorates a victory--Partisan Review has survived for a decade, and has survived with a vitality of which the evidence may be found in the book which marks the anniversary.  Yet to celebrate the victory is to be at once aware of the larger circumstance of defeat in which it was gained.  For what we speak of as if it were a notable achievement is no more than this: that a magazine which has devoted itself to the publication of good writing of various kinds has been able to continue in existence for ten years and has so far established itself that its audience now numbers some six thousand readers."

While we bemoan the demise of a literate and literary public in our time, and look longingly back to the age of Edmund Wilson and Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling, in fact Trilling, in 1950, was already lamenting the same state of affairs: "the general lowering of the status of literature and of the interest in it."  Any proverbial golden age will have to be older than we thought.  However, this is the context in which Trilling praises "little magazines": it is in the face of such a deline that "the innumberable 'little magazines' have been a natural and heroic response."

Little magazines are positively heroic!  And this has nothing to do with the size of their circulation.  Indeed, Trilling suggests that we resist the temptation to find the elusive "general reader" or measure success by mass appeal.  The writer for the little magazine is writing for someone else:

"The writer must define his audience by its abilities, by its perfections, so far as he is gifted to conceive them.  He does well, if he cannot see his right audience within immediate reach of his voice, to direct his words to his spiritual ancestors, or to posterity, or even, if need be, to a coterie.  The writer serves his daemon and his subject."

Even, if need be, to a coterie.  Three cheers for Reformed coteries!--and to those ancestors who wrote for posterity, whose mimeographed notes I devoured in that back room, whose sequestered scribblings trickle down to us and are unsuspecting catalysts for new generations and unimagined audiences.  Who knows what heroic work our little magazines might be doing, their little lights shining, refusing to be busheled.  As Trilling closes, who knows what might happen without them?

"A magazine with six thousand readers cannot seem very powerful here, and yet to rest with this judgment would be to yield far too easily to the temptations of grossness and crudeness which appear whenever the question of power is raised.  We must take into account what would be our moral and politcal condition if the impulse which such a magazine represents did not exist, the impulse to make sure that the daemon and the subject are served..."

I have been honored to be a part of "little magazines" like Perspectives and Comment, and am deeply appreciative of the labor of love undertaken by their editors and publishers.  May their tribe increase! And may our little coterie rise to meet them. 

Wednesday
Jan042012

The Kids Are Not All Right: A Research Opportunity

[Do me a favor: Promise me you'll read this post with The National's "Conversation 16" video playing in the background. Don't try to exegete the lyrics, just let it rattle and hum a couple of times through. If you're looking for a more adventuresome video version, try this (advanced warning: zombie ahead!).]

The kids are not all right.  That is the evidence-based, data-driven picture that is emerging from sociologist Christian Smith's National Study of Youth and Religion.  His account of the paucity of moral reasoning among twentysomethings can't be chalked up as mere grumpy-old-man harumphing about "those damn kids" or a reactionary conservative harangue about godless "secular" America.  Smith's longitudinal study provides a deeply worrisome snapshot of the state of spiritual maturity and moral reflection among millenials. Indded, I found the first chapter of his latest book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood, to be positively harrowing in its account of how these young people are "morally adrift."  But as Smith is at pains to emphasize: the point isn't to demonize twentysomethings; the point is for the rest of us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves how we produced this generation.  

Earlier volumes (Soul Searching and Souls in Transition) did the same with respect to religious understanding and spiritual maturity.  While the study considers young people from various religions and those without any, the implications for Christian ministry were especially challenging (explored with verve and wisdom by Kenda Creasy Dean in Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teens is Telling the Church).  The "faith" that young Christians were learning (often from age-segmented youth ministries) was not trinitarian Christian faith but rather "moralistic therapuetic deism": a strange deity who embraces antimonies and paradox, who is both a legalist and a great big bubble gum machine in the sky--the perfect god for American civil religion, who judges premarital sex but is enough of a big teddy bear to also let it slide, because really, he just wants you to be happy.  The god of moralistic therapeutic deism is a lot like Oprah, it turns out.  

And if that's the god that our young people worship, we need to ask ourselves: What have we done?  As Dean puts it, this is an indictment of the church, not teenagers.  

This is why I think Bert Polman's upcoming seminar (June 18-22, 2012), "Singing What We Believe: Theology & Hymn Texts," is such an excellent, timely opportunity for a blend of scholars and practitioners to spend some time together thinking about these issues.  For maybe it's at least partly the case that young people have been sung into the moralistic therapeutic deistic faith.  Here's a description of the seminar:

Congregational songs have often been called the lay persons’ “handbook of theology” as “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” have a unique mix of doxa (worship) and logia (teaching) which shape and express the life of Christians.  This seminar will explore initially the theology of hymn texts, based on an analysis of some 250 classic hymn lyrics and a similar number of contemporary Praise-Worship texts. Then the seminar participants will discuss the relationship between the theological themes of such texts and the prevalence of what sociologists of religion (Christian Smith, et al) have termed “moralistic therapeutic deism.”  In other words, this interdisciplinary seminar will focus not only on doxa and logia but also onpraxis, and is expected to raise issues about current religious convictions and practices of Christians.

Do consider applying (by February 1)!

Wednesday
Dec212011

The Temptations of Assimilation: Schilder our Bellow?

In the second part of his essay, "The Jewish Writer in America," Saul Bellow notes that while the Jewish writer will always be a stranger, this doesn't mean he is immune from the ethos and the age.  It is the themes of immunity and assimilation that might interest those of us who identify with some robust notion of "being Reformed."

First note that the "America" of Bellow's title is less a place and more like a Gestalt, an idea, a state of mind and way of being.  Actually, Bellow zooms out even wider than that: he sees something even bigger than "America" at work in the twentieth century: "the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century," Bellow summarizes, "was to suffer the cruelties of nihilistic thought and nihilistic politics."  (This is the Bellow of Ravelstein, it seems to me, more than Augie March.)  In that respect, "America" is just one more outpost of this zeitgeist--but it is the incarnation where Bellow lives.  For Bellow, what defines this "nihilism" is the denial of any substantial "self."

Let's not be distracted by Bellow's claims about nihilism or his reading of Heidegger.  What interests us is his account of how the Jewish writer inhabits this zeitgeist.  Bellow's analysis reminds me of Charles Taylor's account of the "malaise" of modernity that besets us all in our "secular age."  Even if you're religious in this secular age, Taylor argues, you can't help but be religious differently because of the ubiquity of the secular--the contestability of religious belief falls upon the just and the unjust.  There are no isolated enclaves; just different ways of inhabiting the age.

Similarly, Bellow concedes that even if "the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century was to suffer the cruelties of nihilistic thought," this doesn't grant the Jewish writer any immunity:

I did not say that the Jews--the survivors and descendants themselves--escaped the desolate and empty picture of being that Barrett correctly tells us "is at work in our whole culture."  All of us living in the West must endure this desolation.  The feelings it transmits, the motives it instills in us, the human states our surroundings make us familiar with, the invasive force of these states which we are constrained to submit to, the coloration they give to our personalities, the mutilations they inflict on us, the overwhelming shaping powers of a nihilism now commonplace do not spare anybody.  The argument developing here, using me as its instrument, is that Jews, as such, are not exempt from these ruling forces of desolation.  Jewish orthodoxy obviously claims immunity from this general condition but most of us do not share this orthodox conviction.  Closely observed, the orthodox too are seen to be bruised by these ambiguities and the violence that our age releases impartially against us all.

(Bellow goes on to point out that neither are Israelis immune.)  So there is no immunity--not even in enclaves and subcultures that seek purity and protection.  They, too, will be "cross-pressured," as Taylor puts it.  Indeed, sometimes sub-cultures, confident in their seclusion and separation, end up replicating the majority culture just with a kitschy veneer of religiosity.  

If immunity is impossible, then it seems we are left with no critique of assimilation. Resistance is futile.  But that's not quite Bellow's conclusion.  Notice the verb above: it is a question of endurance.  

Indeed, Bellow states baldly: "I am not an assimilationist."  But he owns up to the complications: "I am an American writer and a Jew."  It's the how of that "and" he's trying to understand.  Many of his contemporaries, he recognizes, wouldn't even understand the question.  

Nor would many of mine, I fear.  "Being Reformed" is too regularly the banner under which we enthusiastically assimilate to "America."  "Being Reformed" is the warrant and rationale for our cultural engagement to the point that it becomes a license to have our cake and eat it, too.  "Being Reformed" is the badge of our refusal to be fundamentalists or evangelicals or conservatives or "concordists" or what have you, which only gives us permission to happily assimilate to the spirit of the age (there are both "left" and "right" versions of this available).  

If we learn anything from Saul Bellow, we might look for continuing education from Klaas Schilder.  

Tuesday
Dec062011

Learning to be Reformed from a Jewish Novelist

As you'll note from my recent Perspectives article, "A Peculiar People," I've been thinking a lot about the dynamics of immigration and how that intersects with my own experience of being an immigrant--and being Reformed.  That's not just because my Reformed community finds its heritage in an immigrant population; rather, there is something inherent to this expression of the Reformed faith that is poised to appreciate the precarious place of the immigrant and the exile.  This is because the people of God inhabit that equally precarious place between common grace and antithesis--between the persistent affirmation that the whole earth is the Lord's (Psalm 24:1) and the heartbreaking recognition that the whole world lies under the sway of the evil one (1 John 5:19).   We serve the risen, coming King of creation but are constantly aware of the governorship of the enemy in this meanwhile.  And so we are like citizens who return to our homeland only to find it under foreign rule.  We are not so different from Israel, who returned from exile only to find themselves exiles in their homeland now run by the Roman empire.  

At the heart of what I've imbibed from Kuyper and Dooyeweerd and Runner and Seerveld is the sense that the covenant people of God will (and should) never quite be "at home" anywhere; the people of God hold citizenship in a far country which should make us uncomfortable but constructive inhabitants of any culture.  We are called to seek the welfare of the city in which we are exiled (Jeremiah 29:4-7) while also learning to sing the Lord's song in a strange land (Psalm 137:4).   We shouldn't lock ourselves up in ex-pat enclaves, as it were--forming holy huddles and circling the wagons to protect ourselves from "the world." But neither should we gleefully assimmilate to majority cultures characterized by disordered love.  Reformed Christians, for example, should never easily be described as "good Americans," it seems to me.  We should instead by characterized by a kind of immigrant distance, which can also manifest itself as cautious gratitude.

This brings to mind Jhumpa Lahiri's epigraph to her story collection, Unaccustomed Earth.  She cites a moving passage from Nathaniel Hawthorne's story, "The Custom-House":

"Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil.  My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth."

This is why my first post looked to Saul Bellow as a resource for those of us in the Reformed tradition.  Bellow's reflections on being "A Jewish Writer in America" are provocative in this regard because the experience and identity of the Jewish writer in America is one of immigrant otherness overlaid with a religious identity.  

Bellow begins his memoiristic reflections by unfashionably appealing to his "first consciousness," which he begins as follows:

So, in my first consciousness, I was, among other things, a Jew, the child of Jewish immigrants. At home our parents spoke Russian to each other, we children spoke Yiddish with them, and we spoke English with one another. At the age of four we began to read the Old Testament in Hebrew, we observed Jewish customs, some of them superstitions, and we recited prayers and blessings all day long. Because I had to memorize most of Genesis, my first consciousness was that of a cosmos, and in that cosmos I was a Jew. I suppose it would be proper to apply the word “archaic” to such a representation of the world as I had—archaic, prehistoric. This was my “given” and it would be idle to quarrel with it, to try to revise or efface it.

Of course what complicates all of this is precisely his placement "among other things."  This "given" in his life is cross-pressured by his location in "America," "modernity," "the West," and more.  Thus Bellow continues:

A millennial belief in a Holy God may have the effect of deepening the soul, but it is also obviously archaic, and modern influences would presently bring me up to date and reveal how antiquated my origins were. To turn away from those origins, however, has always seemed to me an utter impossibility. It would be a treason to my first consciousness to un-Jew myself. One may be tempted to go behind the given and invent something better, to attempt to reenter life at a more advantageous point. In America this is common, we have all seen it done, and done in many instances with great ingenuity. But the thought of such an attempt never entered my mind. Thus I may have been archaic, but I escaped the horrors of an identity crisis.

I wonder if this doesn't get at something of what it is to be a Reformed Christian in 21st century America.  Of course, of course, there are glaring differences.  I don't mean for a moment to suggest that Reformed Christians are subject to the sorts of persecution and marginalization that has characterized the Jewish experience of anti-Semitism (which Bellow goes on to recount).  I mean rather the inward tension experienced: of inheriting this centering in a cosmos, in a community, and feeling buffetted by competing identities, but never quite able to relinqish that given either--though it would be so much easier.  Bellow even notes the temptation for respect and acceptance when mainting a heroic otherness becomes tiresome and wearying:

On the other hand one can’t always be heroic, and there were times when shades of Brownsville and Delancey Street surrounded Jewish lovers of American literature and they were unhappily wondering what T.S. Eliot or Edmund Wilson would be thinking of them. Among my Jewish contemporaries, more than one poet flirted with Anglicanism and others came up with different evasions, dodges, ruses, and disguises. I had little patience with that kind of thing. If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.

At what point does the Reformed impetus for cultural engagement morph into the assimmilating desire to be accepted and respected?  

Let me close this little installment of "Lessons from Saul Bellow" with a selection from Bellow's essay, and leave it for you to ponder the analogies, until we take this up again:

The condition I am looking into is that of a young American who in the late Thirties finds that he is something like a writer and begins to think what to do about it, how to position himself, and how to combine being a Jew with being an American and a writer. Not everyone thinks well of such a project. The young man is challenged from all sides. Representatives of the Protestant majority want to see his credentials. Less overtly hostile because they are more snobbish, the English want to know who he is or what he thinks he is. Later his French publishers will invariably turn his books over to Jewish translators.

The Jews too try to place him. Is he too Jewish? Is he Jewish enough? Is he good or bad for the Jews? Jews in business or politics ask, “Must we forever be reading about his damn Jews?” Jewish critics examine him with a certain sharpness—they have their own axes to grind. As the sons of Jewish immigrants, descendants of the people whose cackling and shrieking set Henry James’s teeth on edge when he visited the East Side, they accuse themselves secretly of presumption when they write of Emerson, Walt Whitman, or Matthew Arnold. My own view is that since Henry James and Henry Adams did not hesitate to express their dislike of Jews there is no reason why Jews, while full of respect for these masters, should not be free to write as they please about them. To let them (the hostile American WASPs) determine once and for all what the American psyche is, not to challenge their views where those views are narrow, or to accept the transmission of European infections and racial poisons would be disloyal and cowardly.