When We Make Abortion Illegal

The Pro-Life movement always wins when people pay attention to abortion. Only a few radicals really

"I survived Roe v. Wade. Roe. v. Wade will not survive me." Photo credit: Elizabeth Alison Photograph
“I survived Roe v. Wade. Roe. v. Wade will not survive me.” Photo credit: Elizabeth Alison Photograph

support abortion if they know–really know–what they’re supporting. So the last-ditch tactic of the pro-abortion movement is to convince people to turn their eyes away. It’s not that difficult, normally–we’d all much rather accept that Planned Parenthood provides just vague “care,” rather than tearing apart human fetuses, their real raison d’être.

But when America sees abortion for what it really is, they will no longer support it. It’s as simple as that. I believe it will happen, and it might be sooner than we think.

But if Planned Parenthood is really losing the battle, if abortion really becomes illegal, we in the Church will need to be ready. We need to know what the consequences of this will be, both bad and good. We need to be prepared to help women who are pregnant, scared, poor, alone.

So let’s make some plans. I’ve done a little research. Let’s talk about what will happen and what won’t happen when abortion becomes illegal, and what practical things we need to do to bring that day closer.

What Won’t Happen

First, let’s talk about what won’t happen. If you google “making abortion illegal,” you’ll see a lot of sketchy data and scare tactics from pro-abortion researchers. For example, you might read that it’s actually useless to make abortion illegal, because abortion rates are higher in countries where abortion is illegal than they are here.

That is true in some relatively poor countries (e.g. Brazil) where women have limited access to contraception. That means a pregnancy in those countries is both more likely and more perilous, and women are more easily led to seek abortions. That won’t happen here. A more apt comparison would be to the Republic of Ireland, a rich Western democracy like the United States, with the difference that abortion is illegal. Sadly, Irish women can still access abortion in neighboring countries like the UK and the Netherlands. In 2010, the abortion rate in those countries for women who gave an Irish address was 4.4 per 1,000 women aged 15-44. That’s a full 2/3 lower than the abortion rate in the United States, which in 2011 was 13.9 per 1,000 women aged 15-44.

When abortion becomes illegal in the US, a cottage industry of traveling to Canada, Mexico, or Cuba to obtain abortions will develop. Drug cartels in Mexico could use existing clandestine channels to smuggle abortifacients into the country and sell them on the black market. It’s important to realize that the abortion rate would decrease dramatically if it were made illegal, but it would not hit zero. Abortion has been a shameful part of human civilization since the beginning, and it will not go away entirely.

Another common threat is that if abortion is made illegal, women will die from so-called “back-alley abortions.” It’s true that in 1957, before legalization, 257 American women died from botched abortions, while only 10 women died in 2010. The threat is that maternal deaths will spike due to women seeking unsafe abortions, but the simple (if grotesque) fact is that in the last 50 years abortion methods and abortifacients have become so safe (for women) and effective, that maternal death is not significantly higher due to illegal abortions in 1st world countries. When Chile made abortion illegal, for example, a variety of factors actually caused a decrease in maternal mortality. Making abortion illegal is not a threat to women’s health.

So, to summarize, this is what won’t happen if abortion is made illegal:

1. Abortion rates won’t rise.
2. Abortion will not become nonexistent.
3. Maternal deaths will not spike.

What Must Happen

The wave of public revulsion against Planned Parenthood will not last forever, as we humans naturally turn away from things we don’t like to see. I thank God that these videos are being released, but watching them is painful and unpleasant–I’m honestly surprised so many people have. Soon, barring a miracle, the national conversation will turn away from abortion until the next time we’re able to again expose what goes on behind closed doors in a way that people can’t ignore.

In the absence of public attention, we need to fight hard to decrease the abortion rate and stigmatize untrustworthy abortion providers as we fight to make abortion illegal. In fact, we will never make abortion illegal until we lower the abortion rate. 3 in 10 American women will have had abortions by age 45. A sizable number of those women will regret their decision, but the ones who don’t form the core of the abortion caucus. Any justification for abortion is acceptable, no Pro-Life argument can have any validity–any possibility can be considered except that a woman was wrong to get an abortion and that her abortion took a human life.

Our goal must be to lower that 3 in 10 number. Not only will we save children, but we will decrease the amount of women (and men) whose self-assessment of themselves as good persons depends on justifiable abortion.

To lower the abortion rate, the Pro-Life movement must have these two goals (among others):

1. Lower the rate of unintended pregnancies.
2. Present viable options to women who have become pregnant unintentionally (e.g., Adoption).

This will directly benefit the Pro-Life project of lowering the abortion rate and convincing people that abortion is an unnecessary and radical choice.

So, how do we do this?

In Colorado, the pregnancy rate among teenagers fell by 40% between 2009 and 2013, and the teen abortion rate fell by 42% in the same period. The decline was most pronounced in the state’s poorest areas. How did this happen? Colorado provided free long-lasting and ultra-effective birth control to anyone who wanted it.

This is a practical solution that won’t sit too well with some Pro-Lifers. Whether Christians should use implanted birth control is a valid and necessary discussion, but I think the salient fact here is the hundreds of lives saved. There are a lot of things that I wouldn’t advocate normally, but I would if it were a question of preventing a murder. In this case, it is a question of preventing hundreds of thousands of murders.

The result of this and similar measures is fewer babies killed. Fewer women traumatized by abortion. Fewer people who think their sexual freedom depends on the availability of abortion (and thus fewer willing to fight hard for the pro-abortion cause). Pro-Lifers should work for this.

For women who are pregnant and don’t want to be, Pro-Lifers have an ace up our sleeves: crisis pregnancy centers. In 2013, there were 2,500 of these centers across the country, numbering some 700 more than abortion clinics. One of the largest networks, Care Net, reports that it has saved almost 390,000 lives in the past six years alone.

By targeting women at risk for abortion, crisis pregnancy centers like this one give the lie to the pro-abortion mantra that pro-lifers don’t care about women or children, just unborn fetuses. These centers help young women understand how they can handle motherhood, or if they can’t, they refer them to adoption and foster care agencies. These simple tactics have proven to be jaw-droppingly effective: 8 out of 10 women who consider an abortion choose life after visiting a crisis pregnancy center.

When abortion is illegal, crisis pregnancy centers will entirely replace abortion clinics as the places where women go when they need help due to an unplanned pregnancy. Thus, working to strengthen these institutions is one of the most important things we can do to bring about a future in which no children have to die for their parents’ sexual freedom.

It’s important to remember that women who get abortions are not, for the most part, destitute teenagers pressured by their boyfriends or scared of what their parents will think. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, they’re college students and young members of the workforce. They can afford to raise a child, but they will have to sacrifice to do so. The abortion rate is high because women are not ready to do this, but crisis pregnancy centers help them. The work doesn’t stop when the baby is born–churches have a long way to go in our outreach and care for unwed mothers and their children–but let’s start with the fact that by investing in and volunteering for crisis pregnancy centers, Pro-Lifers can literally save lives.

So, to meet our two goals, here are two practical solutions:

1. Advocate for cheap, effective birth control methods to lower the rate of unintended pregnancy.
2. Fund and advocate for crisis pregnancy centers to provide women practicable alternatives to abortion.

Pro-Lifers don’t often think about what would happen if we actually succeed. It’s time to start, because we’re going to succeed. We need to start working, right now, for the post-abortion future.

How to Ace/Flub a Product Launch : Volvo’s XC90 and Its 240 in the Automotive Press

The new XC90 in a fetching white.
The new XC90 in a fetching white.

Volvo’s new XC90 has been receiving rave reviews in the press. I use the word “press” loosely, because the plush life of a top-notch automotive journalist often involves being ferried all over the world to test new models in great style; this type of event usually features a generous free bar, and is known in the biz as a “press junket.” The idea is to not-so-subtly influence the deliberations of the automotive writer.

I’ve been paying attention to reviews of the new XC90 because it is an incredibly important car for Volvo, as their first new model since the obscure but deep-pocketed Chinese conglomerate Geely purchased the company from Ford for $1.8b in 2010 and proceeded to invest $11B in product development.

Looking at the reviews, I’ve noticed similarities that make it clear that some of these journos are paraphrasing right from the press release. This is a case of journalists telling the story their subjects want them to. Granted, Volvo paid for it: one blog candidly stuck this disclaimer in at the end of their review: “Volvo provided Design Milk airfare, lodging, and meals for attendance of this press event” which other reviewers notably omitted even though they attended the same press event. As Design Milk averred, “Volvo flew out groups of automotive, design, and lifestyle journalists to an empty seaside town off the coast of Tarragona, Spain, turning a whole resort into one giant Volvo showroom.”

The Volvo XC90 launches in Tarragona, Spain. Photo: Design Milk
The Volvo XC90 launches in Tarragona, Spain. Photo: Design Milk

It would be nice if the other blogs and magazines were more transparent about the swag they get from car companies. This is not just important to car nuts like me. If it is possible to get honest, objective reportage about something, then let’s do that: the truth is good, where’er it be found. When, ten years down the road, people like me can afford a car like the XC90, it would be great to look back at an honest review or two before making the decision to buy. As it is, you often don’t hear about a car’s worst traits until it’s being compared negatively with the model that replaces it several years later. You can’t blame the auto journalists for this, really: they need to stay on the good side of the auto companies so they don’t get scooped by other journalists on press events like this. Here’s an extreme example of this, where an auto journalist was bold enough to reveal the dishonest side of Ferrari’s marketing machine–and got himself banned from all future Ferrari tests as a result.

It hasn’t always been like this. Or at least, it wasn’t always this difficult for journalists to speak truth to power. Last week a friend passed along a review of Volvo’s 240 when it debuted in 1974. As this is the model of Volvo I own, I was particularly interested. Volvo’s XC90 can be read as another attempt (likely successful) to distance itself from this very car–not because the 240 was bad, but because it was so good. Volvo’s reputation for producing cars that are safe, square, and more than a little boring is built to a great extent on the 240. It wasn’t cheap, fast, or sexy, but Volvo managed to sell 3.2 million of them over a 19-year production run.

Volvo's 240, new for 1974. Archie Vicar wasn't a big fan.
Volvo’s 240, new for 1974. Archie Vicar wasn’t a big fan.

So, the 240 is legendary. But in this review, Archie Vicar (writing for the defunct Automotorist) doesn’t find anything special. Archie Vicar is a stodgy type, as you’ll see. From the review, it sounds like Volvo has come a long way when it comes to press junkets. Today it’s less stinking fish in the Swedish backcountry and more cava on the Spanish coast. Here’s an example in Vicar’s review (he’s writing in the defunct Autmotorist):

We travelled with SAS to Stockholm one sunny morning in June only to arrive in the midst of typical Swedish summer weather: rain and fog obscuring the retreating snows of May. Volvo’s press wallah, Gunner Jenssen, greeted us at the airport and took us in a taxi to our hotel where a long presentation took place over breakfast of herring, herring and sild with some schnapps to warm us up. The main points to interest motorists will be that the Swedes are pursuing their obsession with safety even further. I’d say the best way to ensure one’s safety in a car is to avoid getting in one in the first place. The Swedes’ view is to accept that if one must be in a car then make sure the car as is as joyless as possible.

They’re on a hiding to nothing with this safety lark, in my view. It’s one thing to improve such things as brakes but these safety-belts are a nuisance. I can’t imagine ladies wanting to crease their blouses by using such contraptions. And they are fiddly to deploy, especially if one has been raising one´s elbow. The other worry is that once these things are fitted it’s only a matter of time before some fussy politician-type insists we all wear them. I digress. You won’t catch me wearing them.

Vicar’s somewhat idiotic dismissal of the three-point safety belt (which Volvo invented and which has reportedly saved more than a million lives) brings us to the common theme between Volvo’s 240 and its XC90, the commitment that sets Volvo apart from any other car company: safety. Volvo’s Vision 2020 plan is an attempt to end all deaths in Volvo cars by 2020. Their ridiculously ambitious goal is for no deaths or critical injuries in Volvo cars by 2020. And the amazing this, they might make it. They have a plan.

This has been a meandering post: I started by talking about Volvo’s new XC90 and press junkets, then I talked about the beloved 240, and finally Volvo’s commitment to safety. But watch me, I can still bring this in for a landing. Volvo’s press strategy (much-improved from forty years ago) is genius, and I wish them the best as they try to attract customers in a crowded market. If they buy automotive journalists a few cocktails along the way, more power to them.

Before I bought my 240, I wanted it for its looks. I just think it looks gorgeous (I realize this is a matter of opinion). However, now that I own it I appreciate the vault-like, straightforward, and trustworthy way in which it’s built. Volvo has been thinking about safety longer than than anyone, and it shows. There’s something incredibly comforting about driving a car that was built by a company that often prioritized the safety of its customers over everything else–including profit margins.

It’s nice to see that Volvo hasn’t lost what has historically set it apart from the pack, and if the reviews are any judge, the XC90 will be a resounding success.


Is Minneapolis an Economic Success, or Is It too White to Qualify?

Two recent articles In The Atlantic concern themselves with Minneapolis, Minnesota. This is rare in itself. Minneapolis is a large, cultured city, but it doesn’t feature often in the national news media.minneapple
In “The Miracle of Minneapolis,” Derek Thompson asserts that “No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well. What’s its secret?” One important factor is that it has more corporate headquarters per capita than any other city in America.

Minneapolis–St. Paul is the headquarters for 19 Fortune 500 companies—more than any other metro its size—spanning retail (Target), health care (UnitedHealth), and food (General Mills). In the past 60 years, 40 Minneapolis-based businesses have made it onto Fortune’s list. “We’re not like Atlanta, where half of its Fortune 500s moved there,” Myles Shaver, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, told me. “There is something about Minneapolis that makes us unusually good at building and keeping large companies.”

Shaver’s theory, which he’s developing into a book, is that Minneapolis is so successful at turning medium-size companies into giants because its most important resource never leaves the city: educated managers of every level, who can work at just about any company. Shaver looked at the outward migration of employed, college-educated people who earn at least twice the national average income—his proxy for the manager demographic—and found that of the 25 largest American cities, only one had a lower rate of outflow than Minneapolis (although he couldn’t compute data for three others). Among all college-educated workers, Minneapolis also had the second-lowest outflow. “It bears out the old adage: ‘It’s really hard to get people to move to Minneapolis, and it’s impossible to get them to leave.’ ”

Also, importantly, Minneapolis uses a system of redistributive taxation to transfer wealth from its richest citizens and biggest companies to poor neighborhoods.

In the 1960s, local districts and towns in the Twin Cities region offered competing tax breaks to lure in new businesses, diminishing their revenues and depleting their social services in an effort to steal jobs from elsewhere within the area. In 1971, the region came up with an ingenious plan that would help halt this race to the bottom, and also address widening inequality. The Minnesota state legislature passed a law requiring all of the region’s local governments—in Minneapolis and St. Paul and throughout their ring of suburbs—to contribute almost half of the growth in their commercial tax revenues to a regional pool, from which the money would be distributed to tax-poor areas. Today, business taxes are used to enrich some of the region’s poorest communities.

The upshot is that Minneapolis is a great place to live. College graduates have relatively little trouble finding jobs at successful local companies, and the poor have a relatively high chance of moving into the Middle Class. But according to another author at The Atlantic, that’s not enough.

In “Minneapolis’s White Lie,” Jessica Nickrand takes Thompson to task for ignoring the fact that Minneapolis is majority-white. It may be a successful economy, but as other cities have more poor minority residents, what works in Minneapolis won’t work in other cities.

Applying policies that work in a relatively white-heavy city, like Minneapolis, to a more diverse municipality without consideration for racial inequality will make the region vulnerable to economic disaster; poor and working-class residents will be relegated to areas of concentrated poverty, which would contribute to a city’s overall loss of wealth, a diminishing tax base, and a larger number of people dependent on city services.

I think most research now agrees that segregation is bad for white people and minorities alike. But this is the first time I’ve heard that segregation leads to economic disaster. Nickrand compares Minneapolis to Detroit to make her case: “Detroit’s economic problems are directly related to policies and actions that deliberately excluded black residents from the city’s progress. This exclusion occurred while the city was championed as a welcoming middle-class haven that was ideal for people to start their adult lives—much like is Minneapolis today.”

Nickrand assumes that anti-minority policies in Detroit are “directly related” to its economic problems. As far as I can tell, she doesn’t present an argument that this was the case. Detroit’s economic collapse is usually attributed to economic factors, like the fact that its economy was built upon the American automotive industry, which contracted massively, disproportionately hurting working class workers of all races. White workers in Detroit had a higher net worth and were more able to leave the city for the suburbs or for other metro areas where jobs were more plentiful, leaving Detroit a city which is today no more than 11% white.

Here’s the problem: the people who create jobs are usually not poor. The (relatively) well-off employ the poor, which enables them to reach out of poverty toward economic stability. In the United States, because of a sad and bloody history of racial discrimination, it is often well-off white people creating jobs for poor minorities. That doesn’t make it a bad thing.

Nickrand relates troubling statistics about racial inequality–although it seems likely to me that comparing Minneapolis’s minority population (which is disproportionately made up of recent immigrants) to its stable and multi-generational indigenous white population is not a good metric.

Ultimately, Nickrand believes that Minneapolis must reenact “the progressive policies of the 1960s and 1970s” to ensure racial economic equality. She doesn’t go into more detail, but I imagine that involves more wealth redistribution than is already occurring. If you don’t think Minneapolis is a progressive city, do you even know what “progressive” means? For Nickrand, economic success for most people is actually a “lie” unless everybody is doing just as well as everybody else–including immigrants just off the plane who have few marketable skills and are happy to have the low-wage jobs that they do qualify for.

The key to Minneapolis’s economic success is economic: it’s the home to large, smart, diversified corporations like 3M. And if Minneapolis’s economy fails on the scale that Detroit’s has, it will also be because of economic factors–not racial ones.

The question, “is Minneapolis economically successful, or is it too white?” is nonsense. Why do attempts to create a “race-blind” society show us to be as obsessed with race as we ever have been?


U2, Lecrae, and the Paradox of Christian Music

Review: Songs of Innocence by U2, Anomaly by Lecrae 

Rembert Browne from the music blog Grantland recently mused on the boundaries between Christian and secular music, and what happens when those boundaries are blurred. He holds up Lecrae as an example. Lecrae is a Christian rapper, whose album Anomaly topped the Billboard 200 last month. This is his first Billboard No. 1 album, but each of his last five albums has hit the top of the Christian charts. Lecrae is a Christian artist now finding success on the secular charts, not a successful mainstream rapper who happens to be a Christian.

But Browne, after listening to Lecrae’s impressive new album, wonders whether it isn’t limiting to call Lecrae a Christian artist. After all, he is selling albums to a much broader audience than other Christian performers, and his subject matter is not as straightforwardly Jesus-centric as the average song on Christian radio. Direct references to Jesus are one thing that sets Christian music apart, but Lecrae’s Anomaly contains few of them.

This leads to the question: what, in fact, makes an artist “Christian?” Is he or she a “Christian artist” if they play his or her music on Christian radio, and a secular artist if they don’t? There are songs on Anomaly that are more about the sin of greed or about the sexual abuse Lecrae suffered as a child. These aren’t likely to get many plays on 98.7 Positive Life Radio. But in these songs, Lecrae is dealing with the darkness of sin in a robustly gospel-centered manner. In this case, perversely, that may entail more plays on secular stations than on Christian ones. I think it’s because of the narrow, blinkered subject matter of “Contemporary Christian Music” that Lecrae has publicly distanced himself from it. In an interview with The Exchange, he said “I am a Christian. I am a Rapper. But Christian is my faith not my genre.”

Browne agrees with Lecrae’s self-assessment:

Anomaly is a complicated album to analyze and listen to, because it’s difficult to think about it in a vacuum, purely as a piece of music. Before you hit play, chances are you understand you’re about to listen to Christian rap. And whether that’s a plus or a minus, it’s most likely a something. Then you begin listening, and it doesn’t come off as a Christian rap album, in the way you imagine a Christian rap album sounding. You know it’s being pushed as Christian rap, but, more often than not, it simply feels like rap that is Christian.

Here we could get into semantics: Lecrae is a Christian. But his genre is not. However, as Browne astutely realizes, it still can be. “…[T]he answer is still, yes he is a Christian rapper. Because with Christian music, there seems to be a one-drop rule. As in, if there’s one drop of vice — of unfavorable content — regardless of the representation of Christianity’s positive tenets, it ultimately becomes secular music. Lecrae’s status as a Christian rapper hinges on the fact that he never becomes a bad Christian, lyrically.”

Lecrae is attempting a delicate balancing act. Frustrated with the artificially limited subject matter of music on the Christian charts, as well as the lack of influence Christian rappers have on their mainstream counterparts, and perhaps as well with the limited audience for Christian music, Lecrae decided not to release a “Christian album.” Instead, he released Anomaly. And that’s what it is: an anomaly. If it’s a Christian album, it’s an uncommonly harsh and real one. If it’s a secular album, it wouldn’t talk about Jesus in such a reverent way, or address sins like greed and lust in the ways that it does.

And I think that’s just what Lecrae intended. He is conscious of his own status as an anomaly; he is a black man, a product of a godless upbringing in the inner city, but he is not an Baptist or Methodist like most African-American Christians. He is Reformed. Theologically, that means he has more in common with John Calvin than with Dr. King. But the contradictions don’t stop there. He is a chart-topping rapper, but he doesn’t glorify sexual profligacy, drugs, or rampant greed like Lil Wayne or Kanye (see the song “Nuthin'”). In fact, he glorifies monogamous, self-sacrificial love (see the incredible song “Runners”). He is a well-known entertainer, but a committed and humble Christian. He is good friends with both Kendrick Lamar and Billy Graham, and any man with those two names in his Rolodex must be dealing with some contradictions, or at least doesn’t quite fit in any box.  He is an anomaly, and he’s proud of it, and his album is an attempt to get us to see him uniquely, as he sees himself–and not as “just another” of something else.

There are fantastic songs on Anomaly: the lead single “Nuthin'” is spectacular. It’s dark, brooding, musical, and the verse is impeccable. “Say I Won’t,” “Outsiders,” and “Anomaly” are similar.  They’re in minor key much of the time, with vaguely menacing beats and great electronic samples. In fact, the whole album is a little dark, a little raw. The song “Dirty Water” is even darker, a sneering jeremiad against the roots of black poverty and white disdain. It’s a far more effective song than Kanye’s “Blood on the Leaves”, even though Yeezy samples the super Billie Holliday song “Strange Fruit.” The song “Fear” is perhaps the best example of Lecrae’s dark gospel truth. It sounds like nothing else.

It begins with Psalm 23:4, and then the metaphors for a Christian response to fear and death build until, it seems, Lecrae becomes dissatisfied with mere metaphor. He comes right out and says it:

I’mma tell that truth till it kill me
And I’m chillin’ with my Creator
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
To all of my haters
For the ones that think I forgot Him
And the ones who won’t let me say it
I ain’t scared no mo’

I could go on, but I advise you to explore Anomaly for yourself. It’s dark, haunting, faithful, and excellent.

Anomaly by Lecrae: 9/10

Lecreae’s release coincided with U2’s surprise free release of Songs of Innocence, their first album in five years. Unlike Lecrae, U2 is generally regarded as a secular act. But over the years U2 has recorded many songs with religious allusions, and a few superb songs that are more explicitly Christian than some of the music on Christian radio. Songs from their early albums like “40” and “Gloria,” as well as more recent songs like 2004’s “Yahweh” are as genre-bustingly reverent as Lecrae’s Anomaly.

It wouldn’t be true to call U2 a “Christian band,” but Bono, Edge, and bassist Adam Clayton all adhere to some sort of Christian faith. I’m not the one to tell you whether they take their faith very seriously; certainly their lyrics often make them out to be “bad Christians.” But Bono at least is on record as saying that he believes in a risen Christ. In fact, channeling C.S. Lewis, he went as far as to say that Jesus was either the son of God or He was insane.

The religious themes in U2’s music are incontrovertible, although they are frequently combined with romantic and erotic imagery that made me uncomfortable (before I read the Song of Songs in greater depth). U2’s music is, however, less religious now than it was thirty years ago, when Bono, Edge, and Clayton were all members of a charismatic Dublin religious collective called “Shalom.” Edge almost left the band in the early 80s as he struggled with the seeming contradiction between his newfound religious convictions and the world of rock and roll. Their 1981 album October, often regarded as one of their worst, is living proof that wrestling with contradiction isn’t always musically healthy. However, that album yielded “Gloria,” a superb song that takes the text of a Latin prayer and turns it into an incredible, rocking, guitar-driven anthem. I can’t think of many songs (and all the others are also by U2) that are equally spiritual and equally rocking.

In the 1994 book U2 at the End of the World, Edge candidly told the author that he and the other Christians in the band had not overcome the contradiction, either by becoming “Christian musicians” or by giving themselves over to their rock and roll demons, but rather embraced the contradictions and tried to bridge the gap between being Christian men and being rock gods. Some Christians would say they were hardly the former, and some critics would say that they are hardly the latter, but U2 has gone a long way toward proving both contentions by making chart-topping rock music while becoming world-famous for their charity efforts.

During the lengthy recording sessions for their new album, U2 tried to record an acoustic version of each song, as a safeguard against creating songs that were too big, processed, or distant. It shows: Songs of Innocence is an intimate and personal album. The acoustic versions, which are included on the deluxe version of the album available on Spotify, sometimes exceed the fully orchestrated versions. I think this is the case for album standout “Every Breaking Wave,” and I know it’s the case for album weak point “California.”

A few listens in, I thought Songs of Innocence was a disappointment. But now, after many more listens, I think it may be the best album U2 has produced since 1991’s Achtung Baby (that isn’t saying a whole lot). Songs like “Iris (Hold Me Close),” which is about the death of Bono’s mother, and “Song for Someone” are classic U2. Beautiful, ethereal guitar, combined with Bono’s voice, which has often been described as angelic. It’s a winning combination here, just as it has been for thirty-five years.

However, like a few other U2 records, there isn’t much to latch on to lyrically.  It seems like Bono is trying at times to express something spiritual, but doesn’t quite reach coherence. A recent article in the New Yorker by Joshua Rothman explored this:

Most people think of U2 as a wildly popular rock band. Actually, they’re a wildly popular, semi-secretly Christian rock band. In some ways, this seems obvious: a song on one recent album was called “Yahweh,” and where else would the streets have no name? But even critics and fans who say that they know about U2’s Christianity often underestimate how important it is to the band’s music, and to the U2 phenomenon. The result has been a divide that’s unusual in pop culture. While secular listeners tend to think of U2’s religiosity as preachy window dressing, religious listeners see faith as central to the band’s identity. To some people, Bono’s lyrics are treacly platitudes, verging on nonsense; to others, they’re thoughtful, searching, and profound meditations on faith.

It’s true, “Iris” is a beautiful song and a profound meditation, but it’s not quite a coherent whole, like many Bono-penned songs. Lyrically, this provides a clear contrast with Lecrae. Bono and Edge are a bit shy about their beliefs, and I believe that’s part of the reason they don’t quite make it to the listener on Songs of Innocence. Lecrae, on the other hand, is sometimes coy about his faith, but he never hides it under a bushel. It’s always there, just not in the form you might expect. As a Christian, I might easily wish U2 had Lecrae’s musical courage. But they’re in a radically different place in life, in the world, and in the music industry. Rothman concludes his article by proffering this narrative for U2’s faith journey.

The story of U2 might be this: having begun as a band that was uncertain about the idea of pursuing a life of faith through music, they have resolved that uncertainty. Their thin ecclesiology has become thick. Today, they are their own faith community; they even have a philanthropic arm, which has improved the lives of millions of people. They know they made the right choice, and they seem happy. Possibly, their growing comfort is bad for their art. But how long could they have kept singing the same song of yearning and doubt? “I waited patiently for the Lord,” Bono sings, in the band’s version of Psalm 40. “He inclined and heard my cry.”

It’s not a hard thing, I think, to make music that glorifies God. It just has to be true and beautiful. These two albums fit that description, and that proves God’s truth and beauty are deep and wide.

U2, Songs of Innocence: 7.5/10

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.

Bertrand Russell Builds a Golden Image

101 years ago, Bertrand Russell wrote an essay called A Free Man’s Worship. We read it for my Ethics class and this was my short response. The original here: http://www.philosophicalsociety.com/archives/a%20free%20man’s%20worship.htm

 Bertrand Russell quotes Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, in which humans deny the world’s absurdity: “’There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts.”

Russell is deeply uncomfortable with the absurdity and ugliness of life, a howling abyss which begins and ends in non-being. But he attempts to build a safe habitation for the soul “in the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” If a man cuts his dreams and aspirations down to size, he can preserve them, even as he unflinchingly accepts their emptiness and his frailty. He can, in other words, bring harmony out of chaos by human efforts.

It seems to me, though, as if Russell is attempting to do the same thing as the men in Dr. Faustus. They created a God to worship and a divine plan to help make their lives seem less meaningless, while Russell creates “a temple for the worship of our own ideals,” in the “untroubled kingdom of reason, and in the golden sunset magic of lyrics, where beauty shines and glows.” For someone who prides himself on accepting the horror if life without resort to delusion, he seems very set on transmuting the universe “in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay.”

But for Russell, this new image is as powerless and meaningless as the old idol—more beautiful, more pleasing to the imagination—but a delusion and a lie just the same.  

One sentence summary: Man is a squib of gas in the silence of the cosmos; it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow of mortality fall, “the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.”