I’m terrible at these lists, but what the hell. Here are the three books, published in 2012, that are – honestly! – tied in terms of my excitement about them while reading and abiding love for them as I think back on my reading in 2012.
I’ll post my fiction selection tomorrow.
This is probably one of the best books in popular apologetics I’ve ever read. Cook is a philosopher (and a pastor – perfect combination!) and he definitely is philosophical in his reasoning and argumentation, but this is not a technical, academic book. And as such, it’s refreshing. Instead of arguing in the inductive, logical style of (too) much apologetics, he passionately argues for the beauty of Christianity and, specifically, Jesus from within, inviting readers to consider Christianity, not so much as a coherent philosophical system without logical quandaries, but as a profoundly compelling view of the universe, life and everything. Maybe it was because I listened to the audiobook, but I came away with the feeling that Cook is the Rob Bell of Christian philosophy. I’d love to go to this guy’s church! This one is going to the top of my list of books to recommend to friends interested in Christianity.
Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, by Ross Douthat
Beginning with his insight about heresy (as the attempted streamlining of Christianity’s inherent paradoxes and mysteries), Douthat applies his keen eye and sharp pen to a number of topics relating to religion and American society – the rise of vibrant Christianity in the post-war period, its decline into liberal irrelevancy and conservative tribalism, and all the crap that followed. I found myself nodding vigorously along to a majority of his points. He reminded me just how conservative I really am, which I was thankful for. The last two chapters were the best ones, I think. His treatment of nationalism (with both its messianic and its apocalyptic streaks) was acidic. And just when he’s filled you with despair about the future of Christianity in America and the Western world, he comes up with a number of genuinely hopeful and, in my opinion, plausible scenarios for Christian cultural reinvigoration. This book comes highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand America’s current religious predicament.
What a remarkable book! I don’t think I’ve read anything this well written in a long time. As the title makes clear, this isn’t a book of apologetics as we’ve come to expect it. It’s not really an argument either – at least not as we’ve come to expect them. If it is an apologetic argument at all, it’s an invitational or demonstrative one, inviting the reader to take a look at or experience Christianity from the inside. While the Christianity readers are being invited to experience is irreducibly Spufford’s, much, if not most, of what he describes rings true. This is what it feels like to be a Christian. And as such, I found myself continually wishing my non-Christian friends would read this book. Not in order to be convinced to become Christians by it, but in order to gain a real understanding of what being a Christian is like, an understanding whose absence I sincerely think lies at the basis of a significant amount of our disagreements. As I said, Spufford writes incredibly well. There fist pump-inducing rants to be found within, like his evisceration of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, or the atheist bus campaign. But there are also moments of real transcendence, like his “Breathe in, breathe out”-description of meditating on space, time and God in a church. All in all, it’s one of the most compelling books I’ve read in ages. Whatever you think of its conclusions and conjectures, you’ll come away loving Spufford’s brain. Or really hating it, I guess.
In the Faroes, we celebrate Christmas – the gifts, the food, the board games – on Christmas Eve. I’m utterly stuffed and wearing a nice new knitted sweater. The kids and wife have dozed off and I’m about to join them with a good book in tow.
Life is good.
Happy Christmas, everyone! God bless.
This morning I had a pile of clothes to fold and file away. So I put my iPod into the dock, dialled up the podcasts and found a nice sermon to listen to while working. The choice fell upon pastor Joel Hunter’s sermon podcast and the sermon I chose was this one, called “Taking the Litmus Test”.
As I was listening, pastor Hunter quoted Philippians 2:14, which says,
Do everything without grumbling or arguing.
Maybe it was the housework I was doing, but when pastor Hunter closed his reading by saying, “I stand condemned!”, I stopped what I was doing. I with my head bowed and frowning, I took one of those deep “I have to re-examine my life, because I’ve been doing it wrong up until now”-breaths. I paused the sermon, printed out that verse with “Dear Arni” topping the page and stuck it unto the fridge. I then apologised to my parents and my wife for being a selfish, grumbling and mumbling asshole around the household chores.
In the large scheme of things, especially as they relate to religion, realising you could have a better attitude when doing the dishes and trying to improve upon that attitude is, I grant, not that big a deal. But this is one of the most valuable things religion, as it is best practiced, has to offer: It’s an invitation to continual self-reflection with the aim of moral improvement.
The Epistle of James has a really helpful image in this regard. It compares the Word, which in this context can be understood as religion’s moral teachings, to a mirror.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror 24 and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)
Religion, then, is like a really judgmental mirror. You look into it to see whether you measure up – which you inevitably do not. And then you go away and improve upon the faults you saw. With a daily devotional life, weekly church attendance and other regular religious rituals, you return to the mirror and continually improve upon yourself.
Additionally, religion offers community, which is helpful in two ways. First, it functions as a corrective to that self-reflection. If we humans know how to do one thing it is to deceive ourselves. Especially with religion. It’s disconcertingly easy to convince ourselves that we’re all right and God all right with us. Having to relate to a community can be a desperately needed jolt out of self-delusion. Second, community is a context in which genuine moral self-improvement is much more likely to happen. Being accountable, more or less directly, to a community on the same moral quest offers social incentives for self-improvement: Crudely put, rewards for good behaviour, punishment for bad. It’s also just easier to do things with your friends, instead of on your own.
This is one of the main things that worries me about the “spiritual, not religious” epidemic of contemporary Western culture. It’s so easy to cherry pick your way through religious traditions in order to substantiate your moralistic, therapeutic deism in a way that’s ultimately self-serving. Being religious and going to church means relating to, in Christianity’s case, the Bible and 2000 years of theological tradition. In other words, a standard outside of yourself – and a very judgmental one at that, but in a good way, of course.
I genuinely worry about a culture that loses these mirrors. Obviously, moral self-reflection and self-improvement aren’t the exclusive domains of religion. But where else in society today do we find this sort of institutionalised reflection? I can’t really think of an example. And that worries me.
Years and years ago, Evangelicals hated Catholics. Some still do, like good, old Mr. Chick. But back in the day, all Evangelicals hated Catholics. Then along came Francis Schaeffer. He was an Evangelical who, among other things, wanted to mobilise his fellow Evangelicals against the recently constitutionalised abortion – and he really liked how Catholics hated abortion. He asked Evangelicals to put aside their enmity for Catholics aside in the fight against a much greater evil than the whore of Babylon. Coining the term, “co-belligerency”, he wrote:
A co-belligerent is a person with whom I do not agree on all sorts of vital issues, but who, for whatever reasons of their own, is on the same side in a fight for some specific issue of public justice. (Francis Schaeffer, Plan for Action: An Action Alternative Handbook for ‘Whatever Happened to the Human Race?’, p.68.)
The enemy of my enemy, as they say, is my friend.
American Evangelicals have made a new friend in this year’s presidential election campaign: Mormons. Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate and enemy of an Evangelical enemy, is a Mormon. A Mormon bishop even. And while some Evangelicals were a bit apprehensive about electing a Mormon, we have witnessed quite a concerted effort to bury hatchets and let heretical bygones be bygones. The most dramatic and most publicised example was Billy Graham’s scrubbing of his website of any sentences that contained both “Mormon” and “cult”.
So Evangelicals and Mormons became friends.
But then Romney lost.
And now there’s no real, or at least less, co-belligerency to unite Evangelicals and Mormons. Over the next few months and years we’ll see if any friendship of lasting significance was achieved in the Romney presidential campaign.
Much of that will probably come down to where the GOP goes from here. Many, both non-Republicans and more moderate Republicans, hoped that a electoral defeat would crack open the epistemic closure of many far right conservatives of the last four years and more. A defeat could mean a head on collision with reality and a return to proper conservatism and not insane ideology. Or the Tea Party wing (or is it centre?) of the Republican party can double down on its ideological insanity.
If the former, the friendship is in less trouble than if the latter. It could be that a return to a more sane conservative politics removes the motivation or animus of the original belligerency, thus removing the basis for the friendship between Evangelicals and Mormons, resulting in the end of the friendship. But more likely, I think, is the scenario where the toning down of the extremism lessens the religious extremism, removing the only real barrier for Evangelicals to befriend Mormons. Because when it comes to conservative values, Evangelicals and Mormons are in almost complete agreement. In fact, I can’t name one single issue they disagree on. Tell me if you can.
Then there’s the latter scenario. If the Republicans in Washington double down on the “severe” conservatism of the last four years, I see two scenarios that could come to pass. Things could stay largely the same as before yesterday: Obama is the enemy and he must be fought by any means. That means anyone who wants to fight him is in. And so, Mormons, headed by Romney, are in and Evangelicals and Mormons remain BFFs. Or, and I think this is more likely, things stay either the same or get even worse. It’s likely in that scenario that Romney will be blamed for the Republican defeat. This hasn’t happened yet, as far as I can tell, but the pundits are still reeling and seem to be patching up their bubble with various conspiracy theories, so it might still come. If it does come, it’s likely friendship between Evangelicals and Mormons is over and things might even get worse than before.
If that does happen, I’m going to check Billy Graham’s website obsessively.
(Obviously, I’m being less than precise in my assumption throughout this post that Evangelicals and Mormons are all conservative. Naturally, they’re not. I just didn’t want to make the post more difficult to read than necessary, so I used a common misconception about the two groups.)
Many years ago – specifically in 1996 – Miroslav Volf didn’t like the internet. In his otherwise brilliant After Our Likeness: The Church As The Image of the Trinity (originally published that year in German, two years later in English), he tried his hand at prophecy.
Admittedly, the same social changes pose a threat with the horrific vision of an electronic church in which the individual Christians are utterly isolated from one another and obey only the voice of the one shepherd delivered by the media. The actualization of this horrific vision would constitute the radical privatization of salvation and the dissolution of the church. (p. 13, note 21)
Clearly, he’s not a prophet. And he changed his mind about the internet. And for that, we should rejoice! Because he recently published a most excellent article on his Facebook called “Values of a Public Faith”. It’s a brief, but as comprehensive as these things go summary of the values that should inform Christian engagement with public and political life. Again, most excellent. Go read it.
If I played in a band it would sound something like this. Excellent stuff! Melodic, yet aggressive. Rhythmically complex, yet dynamic. Go over to the Pirate Bay to download Nostalgia, their EP from last year – with their blessing, of course!
As a pro-lifer, I read Jack Hunter’s passionate protest against drone warfare, as current waged by Barack Obama. That strategy in the war on terror was recently endorsed by Mitt Romney in the last presidential debate, guaranteeing that whatever the outcome of the election, drones are not going away. On his American Conservative blog he puts forward a simple, but powerful argument: “Pro-Life Means Anti-Drone”.
“My pro-life position is simple: Life is sacred,” says Hunter and adds: “This innate sanctity of human life is something virtually all civilized people recognize despite one’s politics.” His pro-life argument against drones is a simple one of analogy: Just like he disapproves morally of the killing of children in the womb, so Hunter disapproves morally of the killing of children in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia by American drones.
I understand what he’s saying completely. I, too, am uneasy about drone warfare, primarily because of the murkiness of its legality and the lack of transparency in regards to its use (especially about how targets are selected), but also because there’s moral danger in separating yourself physically from the war you’re waging. Killing should never be easy. Hunter is exactly right in saying that pro-choicers can stomach abortion only “to the degree that they can downplay or dismiss the humanity of the subject at hand.” There’s a very similar danger in drone warfare, when your enemy becomes, literally, pixels on a screen and lethal battle feels like a video game, complete with joy sticks and all.
But I disagree with Hunter on a few things and want to raise some concerns.
First, I don’t think the abortion analogy works. I’m going to assume that Hunter allows for abortion when the life of the mother is at risk. It’s only morally repugnant if abortion is used, essentially, for the mother’s convenience (or, the moral repugnancy of abortion in other cases is sufficiently low as to allow for its use). But aren’t drones – in principle, at least – in the same moral territory? Because drones aren’t used casually. They are used in order to kill terrorists, individuals who want to kill Americans. If those individuals were allowed to live and continue on their way, they would try to kill Americans. The American government has the duty to protect its citizens against such people. One way of doing so, is by taking out these enemies with drones. Drones save lives, just like (morally defensible) abortion does.
I understand that a lot of people are uneasy about the power of the American president who, as far as I understand, has the power to order a drone strike against anyone he deems worthy of one. Personally, I trust in Obama’s moral integrity here and, judging from what he has said about war, I don’t think he goes about his task lightly. But he is establishing the precedent for a less morally serious president to take advantage of. I get that. But if that’s the issue, why not just say so? Hunter does not and seems to be saying that drones, in and of themselves, are morally repugnant.
Yet, he says, “I believe that sometimes war–and the collateral damage it brings–is justified.” So he’s no pacifist. Why, then, single out drones? Because I don’t quite understand why drones are supposed to be qualitatively different from other weapons used in warfare, like machine guns or missiles. Is the risk of collateral damage higher with drones? If that’s the reason, Hunter doesn’t say so. What makes drones different? Why be more morally outraged by drones than by regular war?
In sheer numbers of people killed, don’t drones kill fewer people? I’m sure a sniper would be more effective, but protecting American lives also includes that of the sniper who has to be smuggled in and out of enemy territory and those who do the smuggling, both American and local. But drones surely kill a lot less people – a lot less children – than regular, full-scale wars do. Yes, wars accomplish different things than drones do. You can’t take over landmass with drones. But there’s substantial overlap. Isn’t the employment of drones to be preferred to the much deeper and wider distress of regular war? The principle of proportionality is part of the just war tradition. It seems to me that drones get closer to that than regular wars do.
I don’t see how a morally compelling, qualitative distinction can be made between drone warfare and regular warfare. People get killed in both cases. Some of that killing can be morally justified, I believe (and so does Hunter). I’m all for discussing the relative merits of drone technology in the context of war. Are there better ways of doing it? What are the cons and how can they be eliminated? But I don’t understand why drones should be assumed to belong to a different category than does regular war and its myriad non-drone weapons.
One last thing: I think the whole “killing of children” is a red herring. Children will be killed regardless. Whether it’s drones or regular war, collateral damage inevitably, it seems, includes children. Not that we shouldn’t care about that fact. We should. A lot. But as far as I know drones don’t kill more children than do regular wars. Pretending that they do is dishonest and unhelpfully skews the discussion.
Let me end with a disclaimer that unfortunately seems necessary in these kinds of ultra heated debates, especially with the American elections coming up: I’m very open to being proven wrong. I’ve made a number of claims in this post that might or might not be true. I’m not an expert in this area by any means. Maybe drones are inherently worse morally than regular wars. If someone has the arguments, I’m all for considering them. Just so you know.