Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John Howard Yoder on the Historical Scarcity of the Just War Tradition in the Thought and Practice of Ordinary Christians

"Contrary to the standard history, the just-war position is not the one which has been taken practically be most Christians since Constantine. Most Christians (baptized people) in most wars since pacifism was forsaken have died and killed in the light of thought patterns derived from the crusade or the national-interest pattern. Some have sought to cover and interpret this activity with the rhetoric of the just-war heritage; others have not bothered. The just-war tradition remains prominent as a consensus of the stated best insights of a spiritual and intellectual elite, who used that language as a tool for moral leverage on sovereigns for whom the language of the gospel carried no conviction. Thus just-war rhetoric and consistent pacifism are on the same side of most debates. When honest, both will reject most wars, most causes, and most strategies being prepared and implemented. ...

"Not only was the just-war tradition not really in charge in history, but it was not dominant in spirituality. When a history of thought is based on the writings of a magisterial elite, then it is the just-war tradition which we must report. But how many people like that were there, and how many more drew spiritual sustenance from them?

"If, on the other hand, we were to ask how through the centuries most people -- who were at the same time somehow authentic Christian believers and lived their lives of faith with some explicit sincerity -- thought about war, then we should have to report that their lives were sincerely burdened, not nourished, by the just-war grid. Their lives were nourished, not by the summas of the academicians, but by the lives of the saints. Most of the saints were tacitly nonviolent. Most of the martyr-saints were expressly nonviolent. The rejection of violent self-defense or of service in the armies of Caesar was sometimes the reason for which the saint was martyred. The lives of the saints are told to incite the hearer to trust God for his or her surviving and prospering. Even those saints (like Francis) who lived in the midst of war and the few who were soldiers were not Machiavellian. They cultivated a worldview marked by trusting God for survival, a willingness to suffer rather than to sin, and an absence of any cynical utilitarianism in their definition of the path of obedience. The penitent and the pilgrim were normally, naturally defenseless. The stories of the saints abound in tales of miraculous deliverance from the threats of bandits and brigands.

"It is a source of deep historical confusion to identify the history of Christian morality as a whole with the record of the thought of academic moralists, where just-war thought in Christendom has been located. Such academic formulations may, in some cultures, make a major contribution to how people will actually make decision in the future, if local preachers or confessors take their cues from the professor. But in other traditions, where the instrument of enforcement that the confessional provides is not used, the relation between the academic articulation and the real life of the community is more like that of the froth to the beer."

--John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (2d ed.; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1996, 2001), 68-70

Monday, October 25, 2010

Karl Barth's Knocking on the Door...

It was almost 7:00 in the evening, and friends had just arrived for dinner when I heard a knock on the door. I opened it to find a delivery man with a box for me...

I opened it to see what was inside...

And now, it begins.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: William Stafford

Like Ted Kooser last week (except that Kooser is still with us!), William Stafford was a great American poet of the 20th century, and in 1970 was appointed the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the U.S. Library of Congress. He was also a pacifist and a registered conscientious objector who was put to the service camps during World War II. Born and raised in Kansas, he lived and taught for the most part in Oregon; apparently he wrote more than 22,000 poems in his life, and around 3,000 or so are published. He died in 1993.

The poem below is from his collection The Rescued Year, published in 1965.

- - - - - - -


By William Stafford

Sometimes up out of this land
a legend begins to move.
Is it a coming near
of something under love?

Love is of the earth only,
the surface, a map of roads
leading wherever go miles
or little bushes nod.

Not so the legend under,
fixed, inexorable,
deep as the darkest mine
the thick rocks won't tell.

As fire burns the leaf
and out of the green appears
the vein in the center line
and the legend veins under there,

So, the world happens twice --
once what we see it as;
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Predictions for the 2010-2011 NBA Season

It is my annual tradition to offer my predictions for the upcoming NBA season, and as the 2010-2011 season will be upon us next week, you will find my stated expectations below.

Usually I offer extensive commentary on the state of the Spurs, as well as on the rest of the league, but little of that this year, primarily due to the Spurs' lack of championship contention and the anticipated juggernaut bout between the Lakers, Heat, and Celtics. I am hopeful (and anticipate) that the OKC Durants will give the LA Kobes a run for their money; but at the end of the day, my predictions are largely boring and in agreement with others. Some years it's like that; the interest this year will instead be about the new makeup of so many teams, the looming trades of key players like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, and which of the juggernauts will finally emerge victorious.

Plus, there's still all the basketball to play. So there's that, too.

- - - - - - -

Western Conference
1. Los Angeles Lakers (58-24)
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (56-26)
3. Utah Jazz (54-28)
4. San Antonio Spurs (51-31)
5. Dallas Mavericks (51-31)
6. Portland Trailblazers (46-36)
7. Phoenix Suns (45-37)
8. Los Angeles Clippers (44-38)

9. Sacramento Kings (41-41)
10. Houston Rockets (39-43)
11. New Orleans Hornets (37-45)
12. Denver Nuggets (34-48)
13. Memphis Grizzlies (30-52)
14. Golden State Warriors (22-60)
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-67)

Eastern Conference
1. Miami Heat (67-15)
2. Orlando Magic (62-20)
3. Boston Celtics (58-24)
4. Chicago Bulls (52-30)
5. New York Knicks (48-34)
6. Atlanta Hawks (44-38)
7. Charlotte Bobcats (42-40)
8. Milwaukee Bucks (40-42)

9. Washington Wizards (38-44)
10. Cleveland Cavaliers (35-47)
11. New Jersey Nets (31-51)
12. Philadelphia 76ers (30-52)
13. Detroit Pistons (27-55)
14. Toronto Raptors (19-63)
15. Indiana Pacers (14-68)

Western Conference First Round
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Los Angeles Clippers (8) in 5 games
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) over Phoenix Suns (7) in 5 games
Utah Jazz (3) over Portland Trailblazers (6) in 5 games
San Antonio Spurs (4) over Dallas Mavericks (5) in 7 games

Eastern Conference First Round
Miami Heat (1) over Milwaukee Bucks (8) in 4 games
Orlando Magic (2) over Charlotte Bobcats (7) in 6 games
Boston Celtics (3) over Atlanta Hawks (6) in 5 games
Chicago Bulls (4) over New York Knicks (5) in 7 games

Western Conference Semifinals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over San Antonio Spurs (4) in 5 games
Oklahoma City Thunder (2) over Utah Jazz (3) in 7 games

Eastern Conference Semifinals
Miami Heat (1) over Chicago Bulls (5) in 6 games
Boston Celtics (3) over Orlando Magic (2) in 6 games

Western Conference Finals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Oklahoma City Thunder (2) in 7 games

Eastern Conference Finals
Miami Heat (1) over Boston Celtics (3) in 7 games

NBA Finals
Los Angeles Lakers (1) over Miami Heat (1) in 6 games

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Go Read James K.A. Smith's Review of Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity

This is two weeks late, but for anyone who missed it, be sure to read James K.A. Smith's review of Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity over at The Other Journal, entitled "Poser Christianity." I had recalled Halden discussing the project last year (a full year and a half ago!), then flipped through the book when Pitts acquired it earlier this month -- and I quickly found my originally piqued interest in what I assumed would be a goofy take on American evangelical faddism transformed into morbid surprise, particularly in the concluding section. Specifically, I agreed with Halden's double take: wasn't McCracken conflating "hipster" with, as Halden put it, "pretty much any Christian under 35 who isn’t a party line conservative evangelical"? And then to discover that the book takes the form of an argument, culminating in a call for the "unchanging eternal gospel" and such like -- it was a bit wearying.

So I was delighted to see Smith's review, and to see that he takes the book to task for all the right reasons. In a sense, speaking personally, it comes down to one question: Do I read (and commend to others!) the work of Wendell Berry because of some sort of image it creates or trend I like, or because I believe it to be true? (And true, moreover, not to some reality or ideology external to the gospel, but precisely to the God and good news and good creation of Christian faith.) My answer, of course, is obvious to anyone who reads this blog; but more importantly, it should be obvious to anyone at all who has taken the time to read Berry or to get to know someone who reads Berry. And the same goes for many of the other authors, ideas, and causes (though certainly not all: there are, as Smith rightly points out, some true posers included) listed by McCracken.

I'll stop there -- no need to regurgitate Smith's excellent review. Go read him to get the full account.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser is one of the most celebrated and lauded American poets living today. He won the Pulitzer in 2004 for his collection Delights & Shadows, and, according to his website, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress from 2004 to 2006. The two poems below are from his 1985 collection One World at a Time.

- - - - - - -

Just Now

By Ted Kooser

Just now, if I look back down
the cool street of the past, I can see
streetlamps, one for each year,
lighting small circles of time
into which someone will step
if I squint, if I try hard enough --
circles smaller and smaller,
leading back to the one faint point
at the start, like a star.
So many of them are empty now,
those circles of roadside and grass.
In one, the moth of some feeling
still flutters, unspoken,
the cold darkness around it enormous.

- - - - - - -

An Empty Shotgun Shell

By Ted Kooser

It's a handsome thing
in its uniform --
all crimson and brass --
standing guard
at the gate to the field,
but something
is wrong at its heart.
It's dark in there,
so dark a whole night
could squeeze in,
could shrink back up in there
like a spider,
a black one
with smoke in its hair.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Richard Hays on Christian Repudiation of Biblical Authority

This week I began re-reading Richard Hays' The Moral Vision of the New Testament for one of my classes, and apart from being struck again at Hays' articulate brilliance and the scope of his project, I also noted a rather dry crack he makes in the last footnote of the introductory chapter. Hays is usually quite measured in his critiques of others, and so this comment stands out all the more. After claiming that "normative Christian ethics is fundamentally a hermeneutical enterprise: it must begin and end in the interpretation and application of Scripture for the life of the community of faith," he notes that "[s]uch a pronouncement will prove controversial in some circles" (p. 10), which then leads to this footnote:
Indeed, there are many -- including some who would identify themselves as Christian theologians -- for whom the Bible is seen as a source of oppression and moral blindness, particularly with regard to issues of sexual ethics; for such interpreters, the most crucial question about the moral teaching of the NT is how we can get critical leverage against it. ... Such forthright repudiation of biblical authority by self-identified Christian thinkers is a historical phenomenon that is both relatively recent and unlikely to exercise any lasting influence within the church. (p. 11n.29)
As it happens, I noticed this comment immediately following an engagement of Rosemary Radford Ruether, which of course made for interesting reflection on exactly who Hays has in mind. In any case, it was certainly good to see Hays getting his polemic on.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

More Theological Readings of No Country For Old Men

Be sure to check out the various spin-off (or stand-alone) takes on No Country For Old Men around the blogosphere:
Beck's piece in particular is superb, and highly thought-provoking. Whatever Jon and I did to contribute to this, I'm happy to have played a part.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Check Out My KBBC Contribution on Barth and No Country For Old Men

Back in early June David Congdon graciously asked me to participate in the upcoming Karl Barth Blog Conference, and I was happy to agree, not least because of the brilliant idea for the topic: Barth in conversation with the Coen Brothers! Jon Coutts, Barthian student extraordinaire from Aberdeen, has written the primary piece -- a creative dialogue between the Coens and Barth -- and I have written the response, both of which are now live and ready to be endlessly dissected. Be sure to go check it out!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Sunday Sabbath Poetry: Paul Mariani

Paul Mariani is a 70-year old American poet living and teaching in Boston, and the poem below is taken from one of his collections from the early 1980s. Little time for other introductory matters, so enjoy!

- - - - - - -

A Bad Joke

By Paul Mariani

Because they had to cut deep
to get the caner in his throat,
my father-in-law was wheezing out

this joke in his old stage manner,
the one about the woman who tells
the butcher to keep on slicing

till he's halfway through
the roast beef before she tells him
dat's good dankyou now she'll take

the next two pieces. I took him
by the arm as we crossed the street,
one eye on the lookout for idiots

peeling up the avenue, the other
on those hip-cracking ice slicks
(the Christmas sun up over

the new high-risers useless
to stop the stupid wind from moaning
off the ocean) and thinking

all the while of my fifteen-year-old
son, whose voice is boom-bellowing
into manhood now and who just last week

was joking at the kitchen table
when all at once I could see
his lanky frame start shaking

as the thing crawled crab-like
over him again: his fear of turning
into elements the way the brilliant

lemur-snouted kid in Chem class
told him happens when you die,
so that I had to grab him

by the elbow as he pushed past
my chair to hold him, his rib-cage
heaving as I told him not to worry

while had had his old man there
to help him, for which white lie,
or worse, bad joke, I beg him

some day to forgive me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Reflections on What It Means to Trust (in) God

For some time during my undergraduate years, I struggled enormously with the popular and oft-repeated notion of "trust in God." A professor and mentor preferred this phrase to "faith" or "belief" in God, as the former carried so much baggage and the latter implied mere intellectual assent; and of course in the ordinary discourse of many Christians, one is counseled continuously to "trust God" or "trust in God."

The phrase troubled me because I had no substantive content to supply its meaning. In its poorest and most unthoughtful use -- if also its most well-worn -- people mean by it to trust, in seemingly insurmountable situations, that God will do something. But this is clearly meaningless, for God does not always "do" something in response to our problems, and even when we might affirm the case, it is just as likely not to be in our favor or assumed well-being as to be what we hoped for.

Nor can it mean to trust that all will work out well. At best that is an eschatological statement, at worst -- and more usually -- it is a bourgeois projection of a benign cosmos, an in fact heretical reification of the way things are as the best of all possible worlds. But things do not always work out well: loved ones die, the cancer spreads, the interview fails, the attempted reconciliation backfires.

So what is trust? What does it mean to trust God, to place one's own or a community's trust in God?

It means to trust that God will be God. To trust God is to believe that he is who he says he is, that he will do what he has said he will do, that he will be faithful to his promises. To trust God means that, in what feels like life's perpetually tilting scale of bad news, we continue to believe that God rules, that the evidence to the contrary is not in fact evidence to the contrary, and that our destinies reside with him -- for better or for worse. Trust in God is the explicit, lifelong unclenching of our fists around our lives' contingencies, failures, risks, and possibilities. When we trust God, we say that we are not God, that whatever happens God will be God and we will be his creatures -- and that our only hope, come what may, is in him.

Sickness, rejection, tragedy, accidents, mistakes, failures, and death will all have their say, and often nearly overwhelmingly so. Trust in God is simply -- though it is worlds away from simple or easy -- the resolute conviction, and consequent practice, that in the face of all these contradictions, God will triumph over all of them. And if God is who he says he is, his victory is both trustworthy, and our own victory, too.

Monday, October 4, 2010

On Disagreeing With Your Heroes: Robert W. Jenson and American Civil Religion

At times I find myself wondering, as I spend so much time reading my theological heroes and teachers, whether I simply imbibe their views and opinions without critical inspection or suspicion, whether I am only a drone lapping up whatever they happen to be pontificating about. And then I come across a passage like this one, and I am reminded that, thankfully, I needn't worry so much:
It is not, however, so often asked what America would have been like without such vision [of divine election]. It is surely worth noting that the one great American enterprise so far undertaken by leaders thoroughly disabused of "moralism" in public policy, was the Indochinese intervention. America cannot deny power; the only question is by what warrants we will determine its use. One need not share politically recrudescent evangelicalism's mission to save the world from Communism, to think America must have some mission, if God's providence lives.

If, as chastened and demythologized post-millenialists, American Christians were still to insist that there can be a better future also in this world, and this by the standards and energy of the gospel; and if we were to think that God's providence can hardly have left our nation with no role in the coming of this future; what might that mission be? The suggestion that can come from [Jonathan] Edwards is surely: advocacy and practice of a human solidarity whose very principle is its transcendence of all barriers of interest or historically momentary affiliation. There has never been a peace-loving nation. But why should there not be?

And if indeed, as seems likely, only common worship of the true God could enable such endlessly self-transcending mutuality, the question of civil religion is reopened. Is it really so, as mainline American denominations have recently argued, that a civil religion can only be a despicable 'lowest common denominator' of various real faiths? Might there not be an appropriation of the biblical eschatology, and even a civil worship appropriate thereto, which can be shared also with those not called to baptism or the prayer of the synagogue? (Robert W. Jenson, America's Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards [New York: Oxford University Press, 1988], 173)
The count of scribbled "no!"'s on this page is nine, including a stand-alone "!?". How fitting that the reason I read this book was for a synthetic comparison with John Howard Yoder. And how reassuring to know that, in fact, I do not simply agree with everything I read.

(And by the way, the correct answer to Jenson's last two rhetorical questions are, happily and conclusively and adamantly, "Yes, it really is so" and "No, there is not.")