“Anhedonia and Internal Emptiness”

The zeitgeist of our generation:

It’s of some interest that the lively arts of the millenial U.S.A. treat anhedonia and internal emptiness as hip and cool. It’s maybe the vestiges of the Romantic glorification of Weltschmerz, which means world-weariness or hip ennui. Maybe it’s the fact that most of the arts here are produced by world-weary and sophisticated older people and then consumed by younger people who not only consume art but study it for clues on how to be cool, hip – and keep in mind that, for kids and younger people, to be hip and cool is the same as to be admired and accepted and included and so Unalone. Forget so-called peer-pressure. It’s more like peer-hunger. No? We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naivete. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent…

…Hal, who’s empty but not dumb, theorizes privately that what passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human (at least as he conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naive and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself analytically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool. One of the really American things about Hal, probably, is the way he despises what it is he’s really lonely for: this hideous internal self, incontinent of sentiment and need, that pules and writhes just under the hip empty mask, anhedonia.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest


Review: “The English and their History” by Robert Tombs

englishThe English and their History by Robert Tombs (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Over the course of 900 pages, Cambridge historian Robert Tombs lays out the stunning history of a people, the English, who have had an outsize effect on the world. From pre-history to 2014 A.D., Tombs tells a succession of gripping stories that will entrap experts and amateurs alike.

If Tombs’ sprawling book has a theme, it is the upending of revisionist theories of English history. Neo-revisionism, I suppose you could call it. A typical passage might state that, on the whole, England bore no more responsibility than other nations (particularly Spain, Portugal, and later the United States) for the growth of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and did more than any of those nations to end it — contra the revisionist narrative proffered by historians of the left.

Tombs holds up various previous historical ideas up to the light, and in his modest, incredibly well-researched way, finds them wanting. The “Whig version of history” fares particularly poorly. In this enduringly popular genre of historiography, as popular among American progressives today as it was for 18th-century English whigs, history is a story of rampant progress from darkness to light, from slavery to freedom, from ludditism to technological nirvana. This paradigm necessarily makes the past look pretty black, to make the gray present look good by comparison–and Tombs methodically dismantles this by showing how the past and present (or the past and the more recent past) were not as different as the Whig narrative maintains, and that it is damaging to believe otherwise.

The opposite of Whig historiography, at least in Britain, is “declinism,” the largely post-1945 phenomenon of British journalists and historians writing off Britain as a world power, or even as a major force in Europe, due to much-publicized failures like the Suez crisis, deindustrialization, and (more recently) the fairly disastrous British contribution to the Iraq war. Tombs dismantles this narrative with equal quiet fervor, pointing out pesky facts that industrial decline (which no one can deny), happened just as quickly under the woman who is supposed to have doomed British industry (Margaret Thatcher, 1.9% yearly) as it later did under a man who by party affiliation at least was diametrically opposed to her policies (Tony Blair, 1.8% yearly).

The British Empire, subject at various times to both Whig and declinist narratives, gets a fairer, middle-ground treatment here. In fact, that is the enduring value of Tombs’ book. Unlike most academic historians (notably, in my limited reading, Piers Brendon), it is impossible to pigeonhole him as a man of the Left or the Right — he skewers them both with quiet gusto when they need it, and praises them in turn. He does this without suspending moral judgment — some things are certainly right, and others are certainly wrong, and some people belong in one camp or another for advocating such and such.

Tombs covers the English wars of religion evenhandedly and even gives Cromwell a fair hearing. However, at one point, he says something to the effect that the motivations of some English politicians of the early 19th century were difficult for us to understand because they harbored a fervent evangelical faith “nowhere in the modern world, except perhaps in the deepest reaches of the American Bible belt.” Tombs’ own book, much later, gives the lie to this statement by briefly mentioning the vibrant revival of Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism in London itself due to (largely black) devout Christian immigrants from the Commonwealth and elsewhere.

If you would learn about English history, I can’t think of a better place to start. Tombs’ book is more than the sum of its parts. It is the history of a people that is written with such evenhanded clarity that even its method, to say nothing of its well-researched conclusions, has implications for the study of history.

David Became Goliath: A Review of Ari Shavit’s “My Promised Land”

Book Review: My Promised Land, Ari Shavit (2013)

On July 5th, provoked by the murder of three Israeli teenagers and the reciprocal killing of a young Palestinian, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza into southern Israel. Israel responded with air strikes and, briefly, a ground invasion. Hostilities continue.

It is very easy for American Christians to side with Israel in the fight with Hamas. Many American Christians ascribe religious significance to the modern, secular state of Israel. The improbable reestablishment of Israel in 1948, they say, must have been the sovereign will of God, and so must its continuing survival. God is looking out for His people.

Another reason is that Israel is a small Jewish country surrounded by tens of millions of Arab Muslims. Americans love an underdog who punches above his weight, and with its highly-trained military and “Iron Dome” missile defense system, Israel is certainly that. After five weeks of fighting in Gaza, Palestinian casualties have topped 2,000. A full quarter of the Palestinian casualties have been children, another eighth have been women. Most of the sixty-seven Israeli casualties have been soldiers. The conflict is so one-sided that Israel is in danger of losing its underdog status in American media coverage. People have begun to ask, if Israel is basically a Western democratic nation on Eastern shores, why are they killing so many children? It’s a fair question.

However, none of the incidentals of the most recent fighting will help us answer this question. To do that, we would need to examine the origins of the conflict, in the fiery birth of the modern Jewish state. But we would need to more than just read Wikipedia articles on the 1948 and 1967 wars–we would need to read a book like Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land. Through personal history, Shavit tells the story of the successful Zionist project to fill Arab Palestine with waves of Jews fleeing persecution and stagnation in Europe.

Ari Shavit is an Israeli journalist for Haaretz, and as a modern secular Jew, heir to the secular Zionist project. His book, My Promised Land, is a stunning personal history of Zionism and of Jewish resettlement in the Holy Land.

But wait, what is a ‘Zionist?’ Before I read Shavit’s book, I thought all Jews were Zionists. I thought the resettlement of Israel was the culmination of a centuries-long Jewish dream, motivated by a deep desire to fulfill Biblical prophecies of returning to the land. But no. Zionism was the brainchild of a group of secular Jews in the 1870s–Jews who didn’t believe in God, much less in Biblical prophecy. They were inspired by Theodor Herzl, an Austrian Jew, and his tract “Der Judenstaat”–The Jewish State. There had not been a Jewish state for millennia, and many Jews were inspired by the prospect of a place where Jews could be safe, free, and above all, Jewish. They began to settle in Palestine, creating communal farms known as kibbutzim, and traded peacefully with their Arab neighbors. They were secular, enlightened, and socialist. Later, as religious Jews joined secular Jews in the Holy Land, the Zionist project created a bridge between them, uniting them as Israelis even as they grew apart from their Muslim and Christian neighbors.

But back to Shavit. My Promised Land is not an exhaustive history. There are no detailed explanations of the Balfour Declaration that brought the Jewish Mandate of Palestine into being in 1917, or the 1948 war in which a young Israel defeated its Arab neighbors, earning the right to exist. Rather, Shavit traces the ambiguities of modern Zionism through portraits of places and persons. He draws the ill-fated Arab city of Lydda and the Jewish kibbutz of Ein Harod with equal care and affection, and there are sections of real pathos as he describes the horror of neighbors, Arab and Jewish, rising against each other. These Jews who massacred Arab children and the Palestinians who blew up Jewish trains–their descendants are fighting in Gaza.

After Shavit describes the teamwork and optimism of the young European Jews who settled at the communal farm of Ein Harod in the 1920s, and traded with their Arab neighbors, he ends the chapter with a chilling reminder that peaceful coexistence could not last.

In three years’ time, the firstborns of Ein Harod will crouch for days in the first cement-built dairy, hiding from the gunfire of Arab neighbors…In twenty years’ time, Ein Harod—and the forces it gave birth to—will have real military might. In twenty-two years, that military might will attack the villages of Nuris, Zarin, and Komay. It will drive all Palestinian inhabitants out of the valley. (p. 46-47)

In each chapter, Shavit deals with a different place, time, and a different cast of characters. He interviews Jewish commandos who mercilessly drove Palestinians from their thousand-year old villages, and he interviews the Palestinian survivors of such pogroms. He talks about his own time as a conscript prison guard in a Palestinian internment camp by the sea. He talks about the energy, vitality, and modernity of Tel Aviv, the zephyr city of secular Judaism. Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish religion, makes only a few appearances. By my count, Shavit interviews only one believing Jew, a xenophobic politician. That’s one thing I understand much better after reading Shavit: the word Jew does not necessarily denote an adherent of Judaism.

There are a few passages that stand out as exceptional. Reading them changed the way I think about Jews, Palestinians, the Jewish state. How did the Jewish people, once David, become Goliath? In this passage, Shavit tells of serving as a guard in an internment camp during the Israeli occupation of Gaza. As another conflict rages in Gaza between Israel and Hamas today, these words are prescient.

I look down at the tents and the fences and the barbed wire. For the last time I try to comprehend the inner logic of the place, the necessity that, so to speak, created it. And I summon up all our just claims, all our mitigating circumstances: Aren’t we refugees too? Aren’t we, too, victims of violence? And if we are to survive in the Middle East, we must be strong. When attacked, we must respond. The IDF and the Shin Bet [Israeli Defence Forces and Israeli Security Service] are all that protect us from total chaos. Only the willingness to use force is what keeps us alive here.

But it doesn’t work here. In the Gaza Beach Detention Camp it cannot work. Because there are places and there are situations that are clear-cut. And this is such a place. This is such a situation. There are no complexities here, no mitigating circumstances. This is what the Palestinians have brought upon us by means of uprising: they deprived us of the illusion of bearable occupation. They have told us that if we are to occupy Gaza, we must have a Gaza Beach prison. And if we are to have such a prison, we must betray ourselves. We must betray everything we were to be and everything we are to be. So the question now is not land for peace. The question is land for decency. Land for our humanity. Land for our very soul. (p. 235)

Later, as Shavit traces his disillusionment with the long process to create peace between Israel and Palestine, he reaches a deep, uncomfortable truth. For all his chutzpah about Israeli might, Shavit has moments of deep reflection where he cuts to the core of the Jewish paradox. His watchphrase is know thyself, and he has determined to know the history of Jewish destiny in a way that will strengthen him to face it. An example:

I worked out a theory. The theory assumed we lived in a tragedy: an almost eternal struggle between two peoples sharing a homeland and fighting over it. For seventy years we Jews had the stamina needed to withstand this tragedy. We were vital enough to be jolly and optimistic while enduring an ongoing conflict. But as fatigue wore us down, we began to deny the tragedy. We wanted to believe there was no tragic decree at the heart of our existence. So we had to pretend that it was not by tragic circumstances that our fate was decided, but by our own deeds. The territories we conquered in 1967 gave us an excellent pretext for this much-needed pretense, as it allowed us to concentrate on an internal conflict of our own making. The Right said, “If only we annex the West Bank, we’ll be safe and sound.” The Left said, “If only we hand over the West Bank, we’ll have peace.” The Right said, “Our dead died because of the Left’s illusions,” while the Left said, “Our dead died because of the Right’s fantasies.” Rather than face a tragic reality imposed on us from without, we chose to create a simplistic narrative of Right against Left. It’s not the Arabs’ fault, it’s the Jews’. It’s not the Middle East, it’s the Israeli government. It’s not the fundamental Israeli condition but some specific mistake made by some specific Israeli politician. In an ingenious way, we turned the tragedy in which we live into a morality play. We created a virtual reality that enables us to blame ourselves rather than face the cruel reality we are trapped in. (p. 253-254)

Even more poignantly, Shavit quotes Israeli politician Moshe Dayan, at the 1956 funeral of a young Jewish soldier, Roy Rotenberg, killed by radical Muslims:

It is not among the Arabs of Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek Roy’s blood. How did we shut out eyes and refuse to look squarely at our fate and see, in all its brutality, the fate of our generation?

Let us today take stock of ourselves. We are a generation of settlement and without the steel helmet and the gun’s muzzle we will not be able to plant a tree and build a house. Let us not fear to look squarely at the hatred that consumes and fills the lives of hundreds of Arabs who live around us. Let us not drop our gaze, lest our arms weaken. That is the fate of our generation. This is our choice—to be ready and armed, tough and hard—or else the sword shall fall from our hands and our lives will be cut short. (p. 267)

In the current conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel plays a better game—it’s undeniable. Their missiles are faster, deadlier, and more accurate than shoulder-fired Hamas rockets. Their “Iron Dome” missile defense system has kept Israeli civilian casualties low. But these things cut both ways. Devastating Israeli air strikes have killed an unconscionable amount of Palestinian civilians. Hamas is a terrorist organization so radical and violent that even Israel’s traditional enemy, Egypt, supports Israel in this conflict. But it’s still a massive PR disaster for the nation of Israel. If they’re killing terrorists, not just families and children, the media have kept quiet about it. A few weeks ago, their missiles struck a UN school in Gaza city, injuring hundreds.

How do you choose a side in a fight like this? It seems easy, on the face of it. One of the belligerents seems like a modern Western nation, a liberal democracy, full of white people who believe in the Bible, who are supplied by American arms companies. The other is a terrorist organization made up of poor, armed brown people. For many Americans, that puts them in the same category as al Qaeda.

But in this fight, I choose the side of the civilians of Gaza. Even before this most recent conflict, it was a hard sentence to live in Palestine. Radical elements in the population, with an uncomfortably just list of grievances, carried out horrible attacks on Israeli civilians, leading to a withdrawal of Israeli economic activity from Gaza and the West Bank (the two partitioned parts of what was once Arab Palestine). Thus, these places are effectively refugee camps for an entire nation. I sympathize with the Arab mothers and fathers who have seen their sons and daughters killed. By the same token, the Israeli citizens who are terrorized daily by Hamas rockets don’t deserve such a fate.

I would like to conclude this essay with an answer. The Jews are right! The Palestinians are right! Someone has to be right! But no, I don’t think that’s the case. Just like Ari Shavit’s “virtual reality”, it may seem like there are only two options, and one of them is right. But as Shavit painfully concludes, the Left and the Right, the Palestinians and Jews, are not right or wrong. If they were, then the way forward would be relatively clear. But the situation, the fundamental condition, is not a morality play. It’s a tragedy—a Greek one, set in the Levantine desert.

I don’t mean to reduce the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a play. But that is the tragic and inescapable destiny of the Jewish and Palestinian peoples, which reminds me of Oedipus and Jocasta. They cannot escape from the conflicts of the past, and most of all, they cannot escape each other. They are two peoples, separated by a common homeland. Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land tells a story that is tragic, but deeply human. It may be impossible for Jews and Palestinians to live in peace together, but like Ari Shavit I will keep hoping. Impossible things happen in Palestine.

My Promised Land, Ari Shavit (Spiegel & Graü, 2013) – 8/10

Book Review: Dismissing Jesus by Douglas Jones

“Being a Christian should just scare the hell out of us.” -Stanley Hauerwas

Doug Jones believes that American Christianity is deeply blighted by some ideas that we have adapted from the world to serve our own sinful purposes. In fact, we’ve largely neglected the entire thrust of Jesus’ teachings: we have dismissed what Jones calls ‘the Way of the Cross,’ a sevenfold path, a primer in following Jesus beyond death.

(1) Way of Weakness: The Lord “primarily and regularly” works through human weakness, rather than power and wealth. God doesn’t exclude the wealthy, but they aren’t the focus of His reign. Moreover, the cross is a shameful death and Jesus died weakly upon it: our paths need to follow His.

(2) Way of Renunciation: The enemy of God’s work is always the spirit of “domination, selfishness, power, green, ostentation, pageantry, exceptionalism, and greatness.” The evil of this “Mammon” is not money, but un-sacrificial wealth. The Gospel is its antithesis.

(3) Way of Deliverance: The goal is not to think rightly and go to heaven, but to create a faithful, holy community on Earth. This means the mission is always to save men and women from the oppressions of Mammon in this life by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

(4) Way of Sharing: Jesus rejected the life of “charity,” in favor of giving everything, including our every penny and our very lives, over to Christ and His service.

(5) Way of Enemy Love: The movement through the covenants of the Bible is a movement away from violence as God trains His people to forsake it in favor of overcoming evil with good. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty.” (2 Cor. 10:4)

(6) Way of the Foolishness: Faith, seeing unseen things, is inherently foolishness. The faith-full decision will seem irrational and mysterious; the way of the World will seem undeniable, rational, and effective–but we are called to faith.

(7) Way of Community: The way of the cross is for the body of believers, not loners. The way of the cross requires us to image the community of the Trinity in this world, among the scattered believers of a fractured church–no one said it was easy.

In the next chapters, Jones lays out these seven Ways in greater detail. When he’s on-message, he can be uncomfortably convicting. He raises questions here about the nature of Christian life and the “comfortable” lives many Christians lead in the West that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. I tend to agree with Dr. Peter Leithart’s foreword, to the effect that “[this] book is unsettling; frequently, it is unsettling in just the way Jesus is.” For example, this, from the passage on wealth:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair.

It’s amazing how wrong Jesus was about the rich. Jesus said that it was very difficult for people with wealth to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23), but modern America has demonstrated clearly and overwhelmingly that this is not the case. We have churches full of the wealthiest people on Earth…(60)

In the second half of the book, Jones deals with “special blinders” to the way of the cross. He mostly attacks godless political conservatism.

If I could reduce this section of Jones’ book to its main theses, it would be these:

(a) Are you wealthy? Give it away: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth…” Wealth is a blessing, and the point of that blessing is to give it away.

(b) Are you American? Escape the idolatrous “American dream” and the perception that American militarism, capitalism, or foreign policy have any tendency to be righteous.

(c) Mammon and “wrong wealth” are not just things in the Bible; they’re alive and well today. Look at our 401k accounts and BMWs.

However, Jones also seems to take issue with the doctrine of Total Depravity (ch. 10) and the penal-substitutionary view of atonement (ch. 12). His treatment of sin is brief, flippant, and unhelpful, but I couldn’t follow the logical train well enough to criticize it on a deeper level. At one point, he says “Our modern focus on personal sin distracts us from seeking first the kingdom of God.” Now, it’s true that the best way to fight sin is to do Christ’s work for Christ’s kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we will stop sinning. And God hates sin. We can’t obsess over our sin–Christ has forgiven us. But it isn’t “distracting” to search out our sin and repent of it–it’s necessary.

The last chapter of Part 2, in contrast, is clear and insightful. Entitled “Broad Way Illusions,” it deals with competing perceptions about following the Gospel: is it perishingly hard? Or is it, as Jesus said, an “easy yoke.” To the world, says Jones, it is a great burden, because we have to give up everything the world loves. But if we love Christ first and best, it is the easiest and most natural thing in the world to give up everything that keeps us from Him.

It’s overwhelming. What the Lord requires us not to believe in order to follow the way of the cross is just too much. It seems too much not just in terms of actual sacrifice but also in terms of dismissing so much “obvious” knowledge…If the way of the cross is something like what I’ve sketched and argued for, then we’re called to dismiss traditional applications of providence, sin, heaven, atonement, fundamental political axioms, handy conservative principles, cemented assumptions about property, the prosperity of the west, the benevolence and honor of U.S. military history, the simple pattern of middle class living, centuries of individualist indoctrination, and all the trillions of dollars spent in advertising and government propaganda to catechize more and more in the ways of Mammon. It would require living contrary to the testimony of thousands of well-loved theologians, politicians, economists, historians, satisfied middle class people, Christian family and friends. And each generation of Christians would have to renew that renunciation in its own era. It’s just too much. The slogan “let God be true though every man a liar” would take on unbearable social weight. (226)

Finally, in part 3, Jones talks about enacting the way of the cross, or “Being the Kingdom-Church.” Following the model of early church leaders like Basil of Caesarea, Jones wants the church to be all things to all suffering men, to truly become a hospital for the broken. But he realizes that this is antithetical to the Protestant idea of what a church is meant to be:

Most churches now don’t see themselves even moving in the direction of becoming full-orbed cities for mercy, manufacturing, farming, education, etc. Churches generally act more like think tanks, where people go for weekly inspirational encouragement. We might do some marginal mercy work, some charity, and the like, and give plenty of Bible studies. But that’s it. (p. 240)

In conclusion, Jones’ book is far from perfect. There are things he deals with in a few pages that he would need a book to really prove. Even for a limited-run edition from a small publisher, the typos are thick on the ground (especially in the first half of the book) and distracting. At one point, he cites a conservative scholar named William Russel Mead who doesn’t seem to exist–maybe he meant Walter Russell Mead?

But harping about the typos would really, REALLY miss the point. In fact, it would be somewhat like complaining about a certain translation of Romans 8 because you don’t like what the text says. I don’t agree with everything here, but I can’t deny that Jones is reading the Bible more closely, and examining his heart and middle class American preconceptions with a clearer eye, than almost any other author I’ve read. There is wisdom here, right out of God’s Word, which he quotes at every turn.

Everyone should read this book. We think we have it all under control, don’t we? Our worship services are slick and smooth, our mercy ministries run on a nice, linear schedule. But we’re not that different from the World, just better at delayed gratification. Jones wants the world to see us all as dangerous, crazy, latter-day monastics who threaten their prosperity and their exploitation of the weak. He wants us to wage holy, peaceful war. To forsake our subdivisions for real community and brotherhood. To “tithe” 10% for ourselves, and give the rest away. It sounds crazy. It is crazy. But what exactly is sane or worldly-wise about Jesus Christ? Jones reminds us that the wisdom of God is stark raving madness to the world. Maybe we should be a little more mad.

Jesus asks, “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46)

How will we answer Him?

Postscript: While I was reading this book, Doug Jones, who previously went to my church, moved to Dubai to teach at a college there, gaining a foothold to begin ministry in that Muslim country. This increased my respect for him tremendously and took away my skepticism about this book, which I had been phrasing like this, “Pfft, well he’s not exactly practicing what he’s preaching.” Then I found out he was. That’s the sort of book this is. If you don’t like it, be careful: it could be your pride getting in the way.

Harry Potter, Jesus Christ, and You

A lot of people have made it into adulthood without reading Harry Potter. Often this is because their parents were uncomfortable with the books when they were younger. As I see it, if you have no problem with the Narnia books, or with other “Christian fantasy” novels, then you can’t really object to Harry Potter. Though they’re not going to start selling them in Christian bookstores, J.K. Rowling has made it clear that the Christian symbolism that fills the books is no accident. From where I stand, Harry’s story is wonderful because in some important aspects, it parallels Jesus Christ’s. I won’t ruin the ending, but when I realized what was going to happen, it knocked me down in shock–I began praising God for what He’s done for us (then I got back to reading).

For years, I’ve been telling people that if they didn’t read Harry Potter as children, it’s not worth it to start now. They might as well spend their time on edifying “adult” novels. Let me RETRACT that advice right now. These novels are shockingly mature. Books 1 and 2 are comfortable in the JUV section in the library. Book 3 should really be in Young Adult. And if I didn’t think the stories were morally praiseworthy, I would never let my kids touch the much-darker books 4-7–they are not “kids’ books.”

J.K. Rowling is a Christian, undoubtedly–but a liberal one. It is lucky, then, that when she set out to write books in which, as she says, “the [religious parallels] have always been obvious,” the religion she is paralleling is grand and true enough to burst out of any box she could put it in. I think she saw this herself: “…I never wanted to talk too openly about [the Christian parallel] because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.” (Again, see Book 7).

But Harry Potter is not perfect. He is not Aslan, nor Peter Pevensie. He is not meant, as Aslan is, to truly represent Christ. He is meant to represent man, limitedly Christlike. But Harry has the capacity to be very un-Christlike indeed. He has a real anger problem and hates and disrespects older and wiser people in the stories (and is often “right” to do so within the narrative). In the final three books he has a rocky relationship even with his closest friends. These traits, while certainly not Christlike, certainly makes him seem more like me. What I like about Harry Potter is that he is someone prideful and angry, who nevertheless sometimes does things like Christ, humbly and often without regard for Himself.

J.K. Rowling can perhaps be compared to an old prospector who was looking for silver in the mountains, and found a rill of perfect diamonds. She was looking to tell a story her way, and to allude to Jesus Christ as she went along. But alluding to Jesus Christ is not like alluding to anyone else. Jesus Christ has power over all such allusions. Jo Rowling has traced a little bit of Story, but the Story itself shines through the cracks brighter than she ever knew or intended, because Christ is always more powerful and loving, more human and vulnerable, more present on the Earth and in our stories, than we imagine.

Harry Potter is not the only Christ figure in popular literature, nor the best. He is, as we have seen, unreliable, angry–very human, even if his heart is “pure.” He is often sorry, often shows remorse, often learns from his mistakes. But he never has a rebirth or conversion, never a self-conscious “I’m learning from my mistakes now” moment. But still, it’s significant that the bestselling and fastest-selling book series of all time is full of Christ and Christian imagery, even if the whole is not really theological at all.

But Jo Rowling’s characters are unique. Granting that she has seven book to do so, I would still assert that few authors have managed to push their characters closer to the reader, until the divide between author and character and reader is slim indeed. Harry Potter is perhaps the most relatable character I have ever read in a work of fiction. His flaws and his qualities are, I think, close to the ones we all imagine ourselves to have. I’m really addressing this to people who scoff at Harry Potter. Sure, there are laughable flaws in the books. Sure, parts are downright silly. But underneath and beyond those flaws are truly human characters, some of the most real I have read, part of the great Story just as we are.

I think the Harry Potter books are going to stick around for the long haul. With that in mind, isn’t it time you read them? It’s easy: they’re more addictive than you can imagine.

Here’s what I think. I think everyone should buy a tree-based book, and it should come with a free electronic copy. But until that happens I’m sticking with regular books, mostly because I don’t want 21st-century technology to take over yet another area of my life.

McCracken’s Hipster Christianity and the Missional Church

Hipster Christianity, Brett McCracken analyzes the hipster movement that quietly predominates on most Christian college campuses and in many churches. The book is written by a hipster, for hipsters, and so I was rsurprised to find that the book is objective and critical rather than a puff piece.

 So what is a hipster? Well, McCracken is one, I am another, and so are most of my friends. But the funny thing is, most of us won’t admit it. The term is derogatory because it suggests that we’re trying to be hip, and nothing is hip if it tries to be. But McCracken’s definition of hipster (“fashionable, young, independent-minded contrarian”) seems to apply to most of my friends, and Urban Dictionary’s definition applies to pretty much all of them: “people in their teens and twenties who generally listen to indie rock, hang out in coffee ships, shop at the thrift store, and talk about things like books, music, films, and art.” So before a young Christian denies that he is a hipster, let him put that in his (manly, Doug Wilsonesque) pipe and smoke it: it’s a broad definition but I think it’s accurate. We’re all hipsters now.

The first two chapters of McCracken’s book are skippable riffs on the essence of cool, and the history of hip. These were interesting, but from Chapter 3 on McCracken brings out the red meat: a neat and incisive portrait of modern hipsters, and then Christian hipsters. McCracken’s five-point definition of hip helps him, and the reader, decide if hip is worthwhile.Undressing Hip:

  1. The desire to be cool develops wherever the values of freedom, liberty, and democracy are introduced. To bestow the individual with the powers of autonomy and self-sovereignty invites self-styled rebellion, subversion, and countercultural behavior.
  2. Hip is always a rebellion against someone or something, a performance of an alternative, presumably superior way of thinking and living. At its core, it is an existential mechanism whereby humans can frame themselves as better or more privileged than everyone else (or at least more “enlightened”).
  3. Hip is about image. It is informed by ideas—philosophies, politics, religion—but its dominant expression is always in the material realm: dress, hygiene, artwork, furniture, cars, things.
  4. The biggest enemy of hip is control—that is, being controlled, restricted, or imprisoned by some system of authority or power. Whether it is a titled aristocrat in eighteenth-century England, a government bureaucracy in 1968, or simply an oppressive system of rules and cultural decorum, “the man” is always the spark that ignites hip rebellion.
  5. Ironically, hip has become a crucial sustainer of contemporary capitalism. The marketplace has embraced cool as the primary symbol of consumerism and material desire, and the result is that true and mass-marketed hip are increasingly hard to distinguish from one another.

Christian Hipsters generally meet these criteria and are, in one way or another, dissatisfied with their parents’ churches. Many of them engaged in spiritual (and chemical) experimentation before settling down in a quirky non-denominational church with a name like “The Gathering at Beacon Hill,” or “Mosaic.” They read RELEVANT Magazine, for which McCracken writes, and listen to Sufjan Stevens. They read parodies of Left Behind and Don Miller books, and watch Terence Malick movies.

The book as a whole is McCracken’s build-up and answer to the question: is it good for Christians and Christian churches to be hip? Along the way, he explores the history of Christian hip (from the Jesus People to dc Talk), and the modern manifestations of the movement (from Mark Driscoll to Rob Bell).

McCracken spends a chapter expressing and eventually critiquing the theses of the “Emerging Church” movement. Ultimately he thinks that people like Rob Bell and Brian McLaren seek to reinvent church simply because it feels outmoded, that they’re engaging in rebellion for the sake of rebellion (how very hip), and finally that they take their cues from culture rather than scripture.

If, as McCracken thinks, the Emergent movement is in decline (several of its leading proponents have abandoned ship), then the missional church is replacing it. Missional comes from the Latin term missio Dei, meaning “the sending of God,” and the movement begins with the mind-set that “the church is not primarily about us, but about God’s mission in the world.” (151) “Missional asserts that the church is and always has been an apostolic action first and an institution second, serving its function by extending itself in motion between the kingdom and the world…[and] the kingdom is not a place for the pleasure of Christians alone: it is a force of transformation and renewal for the world.” (152-153)

This seems to hinge on John 18:36, where Jesus’ words are often translated as, “My kingdom is not of this world.” But N.T. Wright points out that the preposition should make it, “My kingdom is not from this world.” That subtle difference means that the kingdom is “from somewhere else, but it’s for this world.”

Obviously missional has a transparent social requirement: to meet people’s needs, to bless them. McCracken is hopeful about the missional movement, but says that the social gospel cannot override the soul gospel, as it has in earlier times and in modern liberal Christianity.

Ultimately McCracken concludes that real Christianity and “cool” as it is commonly construed are two goals that cannot both be sought faithfully (kind of like God and money, then). He shows seven chasms between cool and Christianity, which I’ll leave you to find on your own, but ends with “the reduction of our identities to the visual.” Everyone knows that clothes are a big part of cool, and most people admit that clothes matter. Our appearance is part of our identity, whether we like it or not. So does that make the hipster obsession with “peacock people” (my phrase) all right for Christians? No, because although Christians should be set apart by our clothes, it’s not part of a relentless, silent struggle to stand out in the crowded cities that secular urban hipsters engage in. Rather, Peter tells us to scorn external adornment in favor of adorning the “hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” So in other words, when someone looks at a Christian, he should say, “He looks good. He clearly cares about his appearance. But I notice that although everything he is wearing is polished and put-together, it doesn’t look like he spent forty minutes getting his cowlick right, or spends most of his budget on shoes. He cares about something more than clothes. I better look at his eyes. Hmm, they’re full of purpose. Who is this man?

Continue reading “McCracken’s Hipster Christianity and the Missional Church”