Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet | Book Review


Today is the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Douglass. Born a slave in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass escaped slavery in 1838, fleeing to New York but eventually settling in Massachusetts. Three years later, he began his lifelong work as an abolitionist and civil rights activist.

There are many excellent biographies of Douglass, including three autobiographical works. D. H. Dilbeck’s Frederick Douglass is valuable because it is a “religious biography,” the goal of which is “to explain the substance of Douglass’s faith and show how it shaped his public career.” In Dilbeck’s judgment, Douglass was “the most significant spokesman of his day” for “black prophetic Christianity.”

This prophetic Christianity involved both judgment and hope. “Throughout his long public career,” Dilbeck writes, “Douglass ardently denounced slavery, racism, and bigotry in all its forms.” His opposition to slavery and Jim Crow are well known, but Dilbeck reminds readers that Douglass was an early advocate of women’s suffrage, as well as the rights of Chinese immigrants.

Even so, Dilbeck writes, “if Douglass pursued any single calling that tied together his entire life, it was simply to force Americans to confront the disjuncture between the Christianity they professed and practiced and ‘the Christianity of Christ.’” White Southern Christianity drew particular scorn from Douglass throughout his life, for its defense of white supremacy and the practices of first slavery, then Jim Crow. But he also critiqued Northern Christian complicity and Black Church passivity in the face of injustice.

Douglass had an evangelical conversion in his teens, and he never repudiated the Christian faith, which in fact undergirded his civil rights activism. But the injustice, complicity and passivity of Christian churches led Douglass away from formal affiliation with any congregation or denomination. It also led him to criticize churches that cultivated doctrinal orthodoxy and personal piety, but never engaged in struggle against the great injustices of the day.

After Douglass’ death, Christian Recorder, the leading black Methodist newspaper, summarized his understanding of Christianity this way:

His religion was not a religion of creeds, churches, hymnals and prayer books, but he believed in precept, the life and practice as taught by the Master of “doing unto others as we would have others to do unto us.” It was the “cups of cold water in His name,” “feed the hungry,” “clothe the naked,” not in professions of church phraseology and beautiful song, but in the example with love to our fellows and our neighbors as ourselves, which, after all, is the greatest and only evidence of our love to God.

And yet, alongside the prophetic judgment, there was prophetic hope. Throughout his career, Douglass held the settled conviction that God was on the side of justice; therefore, justice would ultimately prevail. “I recognize an arm stronger than any human arm,” he told an 1853 American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society meeting, “and an intelligence higher than any human intelligence, guarding and guiding this Anti-Slavery cause, through all the dangers and perils that beset it.”

Divine providence did not excuse human beings from taking action, however. Waldo Martin argued in The Mind of Frederick Douglass that by the time of the Civil War, Douglass had replaced his “traditional God-centered religious philosophy” with a “liberal human-centered religious philosophy.” Dilbeck disagrees. He explains:

…the apparent changes in Douglass’s later theology had less to do with some new understanding of God and far more to do instead with the new social and political challenges confronting African Americans after emancipation. Douglass feared that a certain passive spirit might spread among African Americans, especially slaves, if they embraced too-simplistic notions of providence.

“The Lord is good and kind,” as Douglass put it in 1893, “but of most use to those who do for themselves” (emphasis in original).

Douglass’ optimism in the postbellum Reconstruction period — with the abolition of slavery and the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution — was tempered in the post-Reconstruction period because of the recrudescence in the South of the power of white supremacy, which expressed itself by disenfranchising black voters, segregating Southern society and lynching black males.

“I have seen dark hours in my life,” Douglass said in an October 1890 speech. He had just outlined the injustices mentioned above. Yet, he went on to say: “I have seen the darkness gradually disappearing and the light gradually increasing.” Most importantly, “I remember that God reigns in eternity, and that whatever delays, whatever disappointments and discouragements may come, truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail.”

It is easy, more than 100 years after Douglass’ death, to lionize the man, and there is good reason to do so. He was right on fundamental issues of justice and equality, when so many Christians in his day were wrong. That is a historical fact that all now acknowledge.

As a Christian reader, though, I cannot help but think that D. H. Dilbeck’s religious biography poses an implicit challenge to American Christians today: Are we in fact on God’s side? Are we working to ensure that “truth, justice, liberty, and humanity” will prevail? That is, it seems to me, an open question.

Book Reviewewed
D. H. Dilbeck, Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History | Book Review


After Charlottesville, I have spent a fair bit of time on Facebook arguing about the Confederacy, the Civil War, and statues of Confederate heroes such as Robert E. Lee. My position is that the Confederacy was incorrigibly racist, that it started the war to defend slavery, and that its “heroes” should not be given statues because they were traitors. I am a conservative Republican and evangelical Christian, so my opposition to Confederate statues comes from the Right, not the Left, which always seems to catch people off guard.

I mention this because I have been surpised by the defense of Confederate statues by my fellow conservatives and Christians. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them to disappoint me. Most of them defend these statues on slippery-slope grounds—e.g., if Lee today, then why not Washington and Jefferson tomorrow? They worry that taking down statues equates to erasing history. But as the conversation continues, someone else will join in with a rosy view of the Confederacy as a redoubt of state’s rights and small government in which slavery was an unfortunate but historically ancillary problem. (Talk about the erasure of history!)

Historians term this point of view the myth of Lost Cause. It is an interpretation of the war that arose in the immediate aftermath of the Confederacy’s defeat in order to explain away that defeat away while simultaneously justifying the antebellum South’s way of life. It is a tendentious way of reading history, one that downplays the central role of slavery in both secession and the Confederacy, and romanticizes the valor of the Southern warfighter, who fell victim to the superior manpower and materiel—though not martial skill—of Northern forces.

Unfortunately, writes Alan T. Nolan in his sketch of the Lost Cause interpretation, “The victim of the Lost Cause legend has been history, for which the legend has been substituted in the national memory.” The goal of this volume, as the editors put it, is “to build on previous literature by engaging various aspects of the white South’s response to defeat, efforts to create a suitable memory of the war, and uses of the Confederate past.”

Nine authors examine various topics. Alan T. Nolan describes the contours of the Lost Cause interpretation (Chapter One). Gary W. Gallagher highlights the crucial role of Jubal A. Early in promulgating the myth (Chapter Two), while Lesley J. Gordon does the same for LaSalle Corbell Pickett, the wife of Major General George Pickett of “Pickett’s Charge” fame (Chapter Eight).

Three authors examine how Lost Cause mythology was put to use in as many states: Charles J. Holden on South Carolina (Chapter Three), Keith S. Bohannon on Georgia (Chapter Four), and Peter S. Carmichael on Virginia (Chapter Five). Chapters Six by Jeffry D. Wert and Chapter Seven by Brooks D. Simpson examine how the Lost Cause interpreted the martial skill of James Longstreet and Ulysses S. Grant, leading Confederate and Union generals, respectively. Longstreet became the “Judas Iscariot” of the Confederacy, blamed for losing Gettysburg by Jubal A. Early, and reviled for working with Republicans during Reconstruction. Lost Cause historians gave (and give) Grant little credit as a leader for defeating Lee, attributing his success to his willingness to hammer Confederate forces into attrition by means of sheer numbers and mechanized weaponry. This allows Lost Cause historians to valorize—if not apotheosize—Confederate leaders like Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Finally, Chapter Nine by Lloyd A. Hunger looks at “Lost Cause Religion,” namely, the entanglement of Protestant religion with the Confederate cause, so that the symbols of one became symbols of the other. As an evangelical Christian and a minister of the gospel, I read this chapter in particular as a warning to the present of the way that the gospel can be used and abused in support of self-interested ideology.

The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History is an excellent book, but it is probably not the best book to read if you are unfamiliar with Civil War history generally or Lost Cause mythology specifically. It assumes a lot of background knowledge, and its assortment of essays do not make for a unified look at the topic. Historian John Fea has put together a list of essential readings on the Lost Cause, and this book makes the list, however. For that reason, and because it was so informative, I nonetheless recommend it highly to anyone with a decent background knowledge of the issues.

 

Book Reviewed:
Gary W. Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000).

P.S. If you found this review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review.

Apostles of Disunion | Book Review


“The Civil War was fought over what important issue?”

That question begins and ends the 2001 edition of Charles B. Dew’s Apostles of Disunion. It appeared on a test administered to prospective citizens by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services. According to the INS, either “slavery” or “states [sic] rights” was an acceptable answer. This binary option, in Dew’s words, “reflects the deep division and profound ambivalence in contemporary American culture over the origins of the Civil War.”

Today, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the test. The current version of that test, updated in January 2017, includes this question: “Name one problem that led to the Civil War” (emphasis in original). Acceptable answers include “slavery,” “economic reasons,” and “states’ rights.” After 152 years, Americans still don’t agree on the cause of the Civil War.

There is a sense in which the second and third answers are correct. The election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860 alarmed the South. Southerners feared that a Republican administration would violate their states’ rights and harm their economies in the process. Because they couldn’t see a way of keeping their states’ rights inviolate and their economies flourishing with Lincoln in the White House, they seceded.

And yet, citing “states’ rights” and “economic reasons” as causes of the Civil War is also profoundly misleading. Think of it this way: Why did Southerners think a Republican administration threatened their states’ rights and economies? Because they felt that Lincoln and the Republicans would interfere with their “peculiar institution,” slavery—the source of their region’s economic wealth and the reason for the constant invocation of states’ rights against federal power. Economic reasons and states’ right might have been proximate causes, but slavery was the ultimate cause.

The South seceded from the Union in order to defend the ideology of white supremacy and the practice of slavery. Next time you read about a conflict regarding a Confederate monument or the Confederate battle flag, keep that fact in mind.

But don’t take either my word or Charles B. Dew’s word for this conclusion. Take the word of the various men profiled in his book, men specifically commissioned by Southern states (e.g., South Carolina) to advocate the need for other Southern states (e.g., Virginia) to secede from the Union and form a new Confederacy, an advocacy that occurred in late 1860 and early 1861, prior to the attach on Fort Sumter. “Over and over again,” Dew writes, “they called up three stark images that, taken together, constituted the white South’s worst nightmare.”

Below are the “three stark images” together with representative quotes from secessionist commissioners:

  1. Racial equality

“Our fathers made this a government for the white man, rejecting the negro, as an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self-government, and not, therefore, entitled to be associated with the white man upon terms of civil, political, or social equality” (William L. Harris, Mississippi commissioner, in a December 1860 speech to the Georgia legislature).

  1. Race war

“Under the policy of the Republican party, the time would arrive when the scenes of San Domingo and Hayti, with all their attendant horrors, would be enacted in the slaveholding States” (William Cooper, Alabama commissioner, in a December 1860 speech to the Missouri legislature. He was referring to the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), in which Haitian slaves overthrew their French masters.)

  1. Racial amalgamation

“Therefore it is that the election of Mr. Lincoln cannot be regarded otherwise than a solemn declaration, on the part of a great majority of the Northern people, of hostility to the South, her property, and her institutions [i.e., slavery]; nothing less than an open declaration of war, for the triumph of this new theory of government [i.e., “the equality of the races, white and black”] destroys the property of the South, lays waste her fields, and inaugurates all the horrors of a San Domingo servile insurrection [i.e., the Haitian Revolution], consigning her citizens to assassinations and her wives and daughters to pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans” (Stephen F. Hale, Alabama commissioner, in a December 27, 1860, in a formal letter to Gov. Beriah Magoffin of Kentucky).

In his 2016 Afterword, Dew notes that he reviewed the commissioners’ speeches and formal letters afresh and saw with greater clarity how “economic themes formed a significant undercurrent in their case for secession.” But once again, those economic reasons focused on slavery. After quoting various commissioners, Dew notes: “The two largest industries in the Old South were staple crop agriculture and the [internal] slave trade. No other economic activity came even close to these two enterprises. So they had to figure in the secession commissioners’ argument, and they did.”

With the defeat of the South and the abolition of slavery, Southern partisans recast the ultimate cause of their struggle. The result was the so-called “Lost Cause,” the defense of Southern culture in which the centrality of slavery was downplayed. In light of what secession commissioners said about the cause of their struggle before the Civil War, however, the Lost Cause can only be seen as egregious historical revisionism. The South seceded from the Union in order to defend the ideology of white supremacy and the practice of slavery. That was its ultimate aim and the reason for its invocation of “states’ rights” and “economic reasons.”

Next time you read about a conflict regarding a Confederate monument or the Confederate battle flag, keep that fact in mind.

 

Book Reviewed:
Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War, 15th anniv. ed. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 2016).

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The Myth of Robert E. Lee


Over at The Atlantic, Adam Serwer exposes what he calls “The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.” It’s well worth reading. Here’s a sample:

The myth of Lee goes something like this: He was a brilliant strategist and devoted Christian man who abhorred slavery and labored tirelessly after the war to bring the country back together.

There is little truth in this. Lee was a devout Christian, and historians regard him as an accomplished tactician. But despite his ability to win individual battles, his decision to fight a conventional war against the more densely populated and industrialized North is considered by many historians to have been a fatal strategic error.

But even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as historian David Blight writes, it provided a “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.”

And…

Lee is a pivotal figure in American history worthy of study. Neither the man who really existed, nor the fictionalized tragic hero of the Lost Cause, are heroes worthy of a statue in a place of honor. As one Union veteran angrily put it in 1903 when Pennsylvania was considering placing a statute to Lee at Gettysburg, “If you want historical accuracy as your excuse, then place upon this field a statue of Lee holding in his hand the banner under which he fought, bearing the legend: ‘We wage this war against a government conceived in liberty and dedicated to humanity.’” The most fitting monument to Lee is the national military cemetery the federal government placed on the grounds of his former home in Arlington.

To describe this man as an American hero requires ignoring the immense suffering for which he was personally responsible, both on and off the battlefield. It requires ignoring his participation in the industry of human bondage, his betrayal of his country in defense of that institution, the battlefields scattered with the lifeless bodies of men who followed his orders and those they killed, his hostility toward the rights of the freedmen and his indifference to his own students waging a campaign of terror against the newly emancipated. It requires reducing the sum of human virtue to a sense of decorum and the ability to convey gravitas in a gray uniform.

Read the whole thing!

Review of ‘This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War’ by Bruce Catton


This-Hallowed-GroundBruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground: A History of the Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2012; repr. Doubleday, 1956). Paperback | Kindle

My wife and I celebrated our tenth anniversary by touring Civil War battlefields in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Standing in the fields where soldiers fought and died gave me a tree-and-leaf view of the battles, but I felt lost in the details because I did not have a forest view of the war. Park rangers and tour guides recommended Bruce Catton’s books, so I went to Barnes & Noble and purchased This Hallowed Ground.

Originally subtitled, “The Story of the Union Side of the Civil War,” it has been reissued as part of the Vintage Civil War Library with a new subtitle: “A History of the Civil War.” Readers looking for a binocular view of the war should read Catton’s The Civil War in the American Heritage Books series. But if you want to understand the war from a Union viewpoint, this is your book. Catton writes with good pacing, telling detail, deep pathos, and sharp insight.

As an example of the latter—and as proof of Catton’s eloquence—let me quote two paragraphs describing Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant as they sat down to negotiate the Army of Northern Virginia’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

Regarding Lee, Catton writes:

There was an American aristocracy, and it had had a great day. It came from the past and it looked to the past; it seemed almost deliberately archaic, with an air of knee breeches and buckled shoes and powdered wigs, with a leisured dignity and a rigid code in which privilege and duty were closely joined. It had brought the country to its birth and it had provided many of its beliefs; it had given courage and leadership, a sense of order and learning, and if there had been any way by which the eighteenth century could possibly have been carried forward into the future, this class would have provided the perfect vehicle. But from the day of its beginning America had been fated to be a land of unending change. The country in which this leisured class had its place was in powerful ferment, and the class itself had changed. It had been diluted. In the struggle for survival it had laid hands on the curious combination of modern machinery and slave labor, the old standards had been altered, dignity had begun to look like arrogance and pride of purse had begun to elbow out pride of breeding. The single lifetime of Robert E. Lee had seen the change, although Lee himself had not been touched by it.

With these words, Catton manages to shine a light on the virtues of Southern society (and of Lee particularly), while offering a penetrating critique of it at the same time.

Here’s what Catton writes about Grant by contrast:

The other man was wholly representative too. Behind him there was a new society, not dreamed of by the founding fathers: a society with the lid taken off, western man standing up to assert that what lay back of a person mattered nothing in comparison to what lay ahead of him. It was the land of the mudsills, the temporarily dispossessed, the people who had nothing to lose but the future; behind it were hard times, humiliation and failure, and ahead of it was all the world and a chance to lift oneself by one’s bootstraps. It had few standards beyond a basic unformulated belief in the irrepressibility and ultimate value of the human spirit, and it could tramp with heavy boots down a ravaged Shenandoah Valley or though the embers of a burned Columbia without giving more than casual thought to the things that were being destroyed. Yet it had its own nobility and its own standards; it had, in fact, the future of the race in its keeping, with all the immeasurable potential that might reside in a people who had decided that they would no longer be bound by the limitations of the past. It was rough and uncultivated and it came to important meetings wearing muddy boots and no sword, and it had to be listened to.

Phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and whole pages of This Hallowed Ground are filled with observations like these. (Indeed, I found myself several times reading them aloud to my wife.) But in so describing Lee and Grant, Catton described America, whose Civil War was the end of one revolution and the beginning of another, whose final outcome is still being decided.

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P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

 

Review of ‘The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation’ by Hennessy and McConnell


Gettysburg Address Graphic Jonathan Hennessy and Aaron McConnell, The Gettysburg Address: A Graphic Adaptation (New York: William Morrow, 2013). $15.99, 224 pages.

At the outset, I should confess that I am not a reader of graphic novels. Indeed, The Gettysburg Address by Jonathan Hennessy (writer) and Aaron McConnell (artist) is the first one I have ever read from cover to cover, let alone with any enjoyment. I am, however, a lover of all things Lincoln, so in the sesquicentennial of his address, I resolved to purchase and read this graphic novel.

A graphic novel has to be reviewed in two parts: the substance of the writing and the form of the art. Let me start with the latter. Aaron McConnell has done a superb job illustrating the Jonathan Hennessy’s text. As an avid reader of text-only books, I worried that the graphics might get in the way of the text. In fact, they enhanced it. One example, on page 22: Early in the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln appointed general after general to lead the Union armies, each of whom he replaced when they didn’t do an adequate job. A text-only approach would spend hundreds of words to explain what McConnell shows in a single picture: four Union generals marching through a revolving door. Brilliant! My only complaint is that in several frames, where Hennessy quotes historical documents, he uses a cursive type script that was hard to read, at least for me. (See Robert E. Lee’s letter on page 26, for example.)

That brings me to the substance of Jonathan Hennessy’s writing. What Hennessy does is use the words of the Gettysburg Address to organize a historical brief of the historical forces that led to the Civil War, reached critical mass at Gettysburg, and then were channeled into Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement. On the whole, this organization works well, resulting in a coherent narrative.

There is much to commend in this narrative. However, I repeatedly choked on Hennessy’s simplistic distinction between Lincolnian “big government” and Southern “small government,” with its concomitant praise of centralized federal power and its critique of states’ rights. There are fewer “big” governments than state governments that legalized slavery, and fewer “small” governments than Lincoln’s nuanced attention to the limits of his constitutional powers in the Emancipation Proclamation. Moreover, through much of the nation’s history, the federal government—especially the Supreme Court in its Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson decisions—was the engine of oppression, not the liberator from it. Meanwhile, Northern states took the lead in emancipating slaves.

The question of the Civil War, then, is not whether government should be big or small according to some abstract metric, but which government—Federal or state? Executive, legislative, or judicial?—should exercise its powers under the Constitution, and how. The Civil War forever settled the nature of the American union, but it didn’t repeal the 10th Amendment. Within their respective frames, the federal and state governments have enumerated constitutional powers that make them “big,” as well as constitutional limits that keep them “small.”

Despite my philosophical reservations about Hennessy’s narrative, I read, enjoyed, and recommend this graphic novel. Prior to The Gettysburg Address, Hennessy and McConnell produced The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation. Given my positive experience with this graphic novel, I look forward to reading that one too.

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Monday, May 9, 2011


This year is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Over at ChristianityToday.com, Mark A. Noll asks, “What would it have been like if the KJV had always been only one among several competing English-language versions of the Bible?”His answer:

When the KJV became the cultural and literary standard for the entire English-speaking world, it was easier to focus on the literary excellence of the translation without stopping to face the divine imperatives and promises that are any Bible’s primary reason for existence. The pervasive cultural presence of this Bible also made it easy to exploit scriptural words, phrases, images, and allusions for their evocative power, even when those uses contradicted the Bible’s basic spiritual meaning.

Yet even soberly considered, the immense good accomplished in and through the KJV is a marvel. When the KJV became the cultural and literary standard for the entire English-speaking world, the spiritual impact of the Bible was certainly enhanced because the scriptural message was carried far and wide via an all-pervasive cultural standard. The substance of divine revelation that lay immediately beneath the words of the KJV could also exert a dramatic public impact for good, precisely because this translation so dominated the English-speaking world.

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Over at Patheos.com, John Fea concludes an excellent four-part series on the Civil War as a war between two “Christian nations.”

  • Part 1: “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible”
  • Part 2: “God’s Judgment Upon the South”
  • Part 3: “The Confederacy’s “Christian Nation”
  • Part 4: “A Slaveholding Nation is a Christian Nation”

Fea’s conclusion is worth keeping in mind when you hear talk about America as a “Christian nation”:

As we’ve seen over the past four columns, by 1860 there were two visions of Christian America. Many Northerners believed that the national Union was sacred because it was created and blessed by God. Many Southerners argued that the Confederate States of America was a Christian nation because the Bible’s teachings were compatible with a southern way of life.

Throughout American history there was seldom a common understanding of what it meant to be a Christian nation. The Civil War is merely one example. This is certainly something to remember whenever we get the urge to talk about America’s so-called Christian roots.

If you like what you read, check out Fea’s America as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction.

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C. S. Lewis on Evolution and Intelligent Design.

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The Arts & Faith Top 100 Films does not include The Mission but it does include The Story of the Weeping Camel. Something’s seriously wrong with this list.

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Who is the devil like? David Bentley Hart offers these thoughts:

  • “the sort of person you try your best to get away from at a party”
  • “A merciless real estate developer whose largest projects are all casinos.”
  • “Donald Trump—though perhaps just a little nicer”

Ouch. And, heh.

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“Faith unshaken by tornado.” Well, yeah. Psalm 46:1–3.

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“Bin Laden’s theology a radical break with traditional Islam.” That’s both true and good to know, although Mollie Hemingway has some questions.

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“Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” There Be Dragons, a new film about Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá, gets a good review from Cathleen Falsani Possley.

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, May 3, 2011


“Welcome to hell, bin Laden.” So said Gov. Mike Huckabee in the opening statement of his Huckabee Report. It’s a common sentiment, but is it a Christian one? James Martin SJ, asks, “What is a Christian Response to Bin Laden’s Death?”  Jennifer Fulwiler writes about “The Shocking Truth That God Loves [loved?] Bin Laden Too.” Jim Wallis argues that “it is never a Christian response to celebrate the death of any human being, even one so given over to the face of evil.” Joe Carter reminds us that “our relief at his death must be tempered by a Christian view of humanity. We must never forget that the evil comes not from the actions of “subhuman vermin” but from the heart of a fallen, sacred yet degraded, human being. If we are to preserve our own humanity we must not forget that our enemy differs from us in degree, not in kind. Like us, they are human, all too human.” Me? I think justice was served by bin Laden’s death. But in the back of my mind, I keep thinking of the scene in Unforgiven where the young man says, “I guess he had it coming.” And Clint Eastwood responds, “We all have it coming, kid.”

Perhaps you’ve seen the following quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the internet: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” The first sentence of that quote is fake. The rest is authentic, however, taken from a 1963 book of King’s sermons called Strength to Love.

In re Rob Bell, James K. A. Smith asks, “Can hope be wrong?” Sample: “The “I-can’t-imagine” strategy is fundamentally Feuerbachian: it is a hermeneutic of projection which begins from what I can conceive and then projects “upwards,” as it were, to a conception of God. While this “imagining” might have absorbed some biblical themes of love and mercy, this absorption seems selective. More importantly, the “I-can’t-imagine” argument seems inattentive to how much my imagination is shaped and limited by all kinds of cultural factors and sensibilities–including how I “imagine” the nature of love, etc. The “I-can’t-imagine” argument makes man the measure of God, or at least seems to let the limits and constraints of “my” imagination trump the authority of Scripture and interpretation. I take it that discipleship means submitting even my imagination to the discipline of Scripture. (Indeed, could anything be more countercultural right now than Jonathan Edwards’ radical theocentrism, with all its attendant scandals for our modern sensibilities?)”

“Do Your Political Views Affect Your Religious Beliefs?” Uh, shouldn’t that be the other way around?

Make sure to read David Weiss’s article, “God of the Schizophrenic.” I liked this passage: “My faith in God has always been an important part of my life. I am not a saint. I have prejudices and flaws. But as a Christian, I wish fellow churchgoers would refrain from passing judgment and recommending a fix after two minutes of conversation.” Yep.

Anthony Bradley raises some interesting questions in his article, “Evangelicalism’s Narcissism Epidemic.” Here’s the penultimate sentence: “I hate to sound overly simplistic, but I am beginning to wonder if we undermine the mystery of the Christian life by adding extra tasks, missions, and principles that are not in the Bible and burn people out in the process, making Christianity a burden.”

J.E. Dyer argues, “Don’t Be Satisfied with Tolerance.” Personally, I never was.

Over at Patheos.com, John Fea is writing a four-part series on the Civil War as a war between two “Christian nations.” Part 1: “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” Part 2: “God’s Judgment upon the South.” Part 3: “The Confederacy’s Christian Nation.” If this series doesn’t sharpen your sense of the irony of history, then your irony-o-meter is broken.

I’ve been thinking about the Bishop of London’s homily at the royal wedding. I particularly liked this passage: “As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive, we need mutual forgiveness, to thrive.” I wonder if he’d mind me borrowing that line every now and then.

Did you see the footage of the church verger cartwheeling down the aisle of Westminster Abbey after the royal wedding? Evidently, cartwheeling in a church after a wedding is a no-no in England, but I thought it rather appropriate. Shouldn’t we celebrate wedding with a little whimsy?

The World Wide (Religious) Web for Wednesday, April 20, 2011


Here are ten religious posts that caught my eye today:

Lee Strobel discusses how Easter killed his faith in atheism. If you’re interested in the topic, check out N. T. Wright’s exhaustive study, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which—at 740 pages is not merely exhaustive but exhausting…to hold, anyway. Or read Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, which is 22 pages shorter.

President Obama hosted an Easter Prayer Breakfast at the White House, and a reporter can’t help but note a political angle (in the penultimate paragraph). Personally, I cheer the president’s statement of faith. Raspberries on his politics, though.

Did the Last Supper occur on Thursday or Wednesday? I wouldn’t mind a few New Testament scholars weighing in with their evaluations…

Walter Russell Mead on how Christian faith matters in a world where the pace and intensity of change is so unsettling.

If capital punishment is a sin, is God a sinner (Genesis 9:6)?

Edward O. Wilson and other evolutionary biologists are having a fight about the origin of altruism, specifically, whether group selection or kin selection best explains its origin. Interestingly, forty years ago, Wilson promoted kin selection as the best explanation. For me, this argument demonstrates how difficult it is to overturn scholarly consensus.

The Barna Group reports on what Americans believe about universalism and pluralism.

Historian John Fea is halfway through a four part series on “the Civil War as a battle between two ‘Christian’ nations”: Part 1 is “One Nation, Under God, Indivisible.” Part 2 is “God’s Judgment Upon the South.” Fea is author of Was American Founded as a Christian Nation? Mark Noll has an excellent book on the Civil War you might want to read if you like Fea’s series: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Ben Witherington posting a chapter-by-chapter critique of Bart Ehrman’s book, Forged: Writings in the Name of God—Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are: Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter2 , Chapter 3, Chapter 4, Chapter 5, Chapter 6, and Chapters 7 and 8.  I’m reading the book too and hope to have a (much shorter) review up in the next few weeks.

James Hannam argues that science and Christianity can get on better than you think. I always thought they can get along just fine, but evidently there are some atheists who think otherwise. Hannam is author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution, which I’m also reading and hoping to review in the near future.

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