Archive for November, 2010

Melting Pot (or Not?): Democracy and Cultural Diversity

Melting PotI’m in the middle of reading Kenneth Minogue’s new book, and so far it is all-around brilliant.

The basic premise is that democracy has wrongly evolved from a mere process to a supreme ideal. More and more, Minogue argues, the West is substituting individual moral responsibility for a superficial form of collective salvation. In short, decisions at the ballot box have subtly become the supreme authority on moral truth.

I’ll be reviewing the book in the near future, but at the moment I wanted to focus on a point Minogue makes in a chapter called “Democratic Ambiguities.” In the chapter, Minogue highlights various elements we need to understand before holistically evaluating democracy. One of Minogue’s many points therein centers around the social conditions necessary for successful democracy. One of those conditions, in Minogue’s view, is cultural homogeneity.

As Minogue writes:

…[T]he ideal of democracy has little purchase on plausibility unless “the whole people” is a relatively homogeneous set of people who “speak the same language” (even if it is only in a metaphorical sense, as in states such as Spain, Switzerland, and Belgium).

But what about the claim that there is no definitive “American culture”? Minogue apparently disagrees:

The United States established its cultural homogeneity as virtually a condition of admission to its shores. A pays politique can hardly exist unless individuals share similar sources of information and talk to each other in mutually comprehensible terms.

To prove his point, Minogue offers several examples where democracy has failed due to competing cultural (or “tribal”) forces. By examining situations in Lebanon, Spain, Northern Ireland, and Africa (no country in particular), Minogue concludes that some degree of cultural Read the rest of this entry »

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City of Man: Defining the Future of the Religious Right

City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New EraIt’s hard to deny that the religious right has been on the wane. Need some proof?

Once-prominent religious leaders like Pat Robertson are now viewed as fringe radicals by many conservative elites and “ordinary people” alike. Social issues like gay marriage and abortion have been largely dismissed as secondary by tea partiers and Republican politicians. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican voters preferred the irreligious “pragmatism” of John McCain to the Bible-belt fervor of Mike Huckabee.

As author Brett McCracken recently said in an interview with yours truly, aligning oneself with the religious right has become increasingly “unhip.”

But some don’t see such a change as an overall indictment of the movement itself. For Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, authors of the new book, City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era, such a change is “less a value judgment than a fact of life.” Despite some fundamental flaws in the religious right’s approach, Gerson and Wehner see the energetic movement of yore as a highly positive, right-time-right-place kind of thing.

But the times they are a-changin’.

We are in a moment of transition, say Gerson and Wehner. The same Christians who aligned themselves with the Religious Right now find little use or relevance in its tactics or execution. Strict conservative political theology has been by and large replaced by universalist political activism. Social conservatism has been subtly supplanted by a blurry, left-leaning social justice. The cutting, careless words of Pat Robertson has been overshadowed by the moderate tone of Rick Warren.

But although the political scene is changing (and necessarily so), Gerson and Wehner see more confusion in the shift than they do clarity. For them, this is a prime opportunity for conservatives (and everyone else) to reexamine the proper relationship between religion and politics. Now, they argue, is not only a time for adaptation, but also for introspection.

The aim, therefore, is to crystalize a proper Christian approach to politics — one that takes full account of theological fundamentals, proper Read the rest of this entry »

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Laid Off: Coping with Destruction

I was recently laid off from my job, and along with the resulting chaos and emotional disarray has come a personal reflection about the meaning of work itself. The question is this: Is destruction always creative?

Today at Ethika Politika I explore this question by pondering the implications of my personal layoff experience.

Here’s an excerpt:

There was plenty on my mind after all was said and done – my family, our health insurance, my professional future. But there was something else that I couldn’t let go of  – a lingering fear centered on that most dreaded and uncomfortable of questions: “Was this all for nothing?”

So how do we wrap our heads around such destruction? Destruction may not always be creative in the material sense, but is there some kind of deeper, non-material creativity that occurs in and throughout our work?

The question of whether our loss is creative in a tangible, material sense is an important one, but the answer is far too often unknowable in the immediate aftermath of destruction…Which is why the more answerable (and optimistic) question for the destroyed is this: Even if our destruction is indeed destructive in the material sense, is all truly lost?

To read the full article, click here.

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Legislating Morality: We Can’t Help It!

Lincoln-Douglas Debate

Lincoln-Douglas Debate (1858)

Whether morality can or should be legislated has been a common topic of this blog, and Micah Watson has some insightful thoughts on the matter over at The Witherspoon Institute.

Here is the opener:

“You can’t legislate morality” has become a common turn of phrase. The truth, however, is that every law and regulation that is proposed, passed, and enforced has inherent in it some idea of the good that it seeks to promote or preserve. Indeed, no governing authority can in any way be understood to be morally neutral. Those who think such a chimerical understanding is possible could hardly be more wrong. For, in fact, the opposite is true: You cannot not legislate morality.

When speaking of these matters, I think a certain distinction needs to be made. Many would read Watson’s words and take away an argument about the inevitability of moral entrance in the realm of political decision making. But while such inevitability is indeed a reality, Watson is pointing to something beyond mere inevitability.

What is often missed is that morality is inherent in all legislative decisions. It is not a matter of this or that, but of this and this (and so on). Morality is not confined to matters of gay marriage and torture, but is equally involved in those of taxation and sanitation.

Thus, the distinctions we pursue are not to be found in the moral inherence within particular decisions but in the moral consequences thereof.

As Watson continues:

Not every decision has profound moral consequences. But even drawing the line between morally innocent choices and morally culpable choices demonstrates our Read the rest of this entry »

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The Economics of Hipsterdom: An Interview with Brett McCracken

Brett McCracken“Is Christianity cool in today’s culture?” asks Brett McCracken. “And I mean naturally cool? As in — are people attracted to and desirous of it on its own accord?”

McCracken explores this question (and more) in his new book, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide. I outlined some of the book’s major themes in my recent review, but there are some other areas I found particularly pertinent for readers of this blog — namely, the societal systems and cultural institutions that influence and steer hipsterdom.

How should the church respond to “cool” in a capitalistic society? How does competition jive with Christianity? How do we avoid the artificial and attain the authentic in our pursuit of cool?

Although McCracken touches on these matters in the book, he was kind enough to share some of his thoughts with Remnant Culture. If you’re intrigued by his answers, I highly encourage you to pick up the book. Enjoy!

Q: In your chronicling of the history of hip, you call America a country that was “born to be hip.” What about America makes it stand out in the evolution of hipsterdom?

America’s founding principles were utterly conducive to a thriving culture of hip. Individualism and a “self-made-man” ethos, in which status was no longer bound to blood or land but was determined by things like ambition and cleverness, were particularly hip-friendly values. America was founded on the notion that each man is sovereign and subject to no one but himself. The republic was governed by and for the people, and thus it was your right — indeed, your mandate — to be independent and upwardly mobile. America upended the old world’s hierarchies and power classes and made democratic, bottom-up populism the new force majeuer (well, in theory at least). America amplified the dance of power between hereditary elites, upstart entrepreneurs, and newly educated bohemian/intellectual classes, which was the hallmark of hip’s development in Europe in prior centuries. Furthermore, America was just this totally new, fresh, immigrant-heavy melting pot in which ideas, cultures, and ideologies from all over the place came together in dynamic ways. Hip always thrives most at the intersection of a plurality of voices and perspectives which can freely interact under the banner of democracy, and America has been ground zero for intersections of that sort ever since its founding.

Q: If American capitalism has led to “hyperindividuation,” and if the resulting self-centeredness opposes the Christian calling, how can Christians hope to achieve authentic Christian cool in a capitalistic society?

It’s difficult. Our capitalistic society is based on feeding our human impulses to want to stand out, be noticed, and be envied. In many ways, the economy is based on status symbols — buying and selling things that help us Read the rest of this entry »

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Giving and Government: Why Charity Belongs to Us

Offering plateDouglas Wilson recently posted a rather lengthy piece about tithes and offerings, in which he outlines a “brief theology of designated gifts.” I disagree with him on a few points, but for the most part it serves as a great resource for understanding the importance of giving, as well as the Biblical principles and instructions behind it.

Although Wilson doesn’t wade into the political realm, I think he offers some valuable lessons (or warnings) for those who think the government can or should serve as a vehicle for fulfilling our Christian calling to give.

From the social gospel of the Progressive Movement to the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, citizens and politicians have shown a fondness for using political economics to execute spiritual acts. Christian giving and government redistribution are incompatible on a number of levels, and we can see this through some of the core features Wilson highlights. Based on his post, I have built a list of essential components of Christian giving that cannot remain intact with a government takeover.

1. Giving must be voluntary. Although government and taxes may be necessary, we should not assume that any sort of coercive redistribution can somehow replace our responsibility to give. Here is Wilson on the importance of giving freely:

Give, and it will be given to you again (Luke 6:38). This is a foundational Christian principle. The foundational Christian principle is not “make sure others give,” or “make sure others give the right amounts or in the right way.” Parishioners should in fact be taught how to give the right way, but they should be taught this largely by example (Heb. 13:7,17) … [W]e are commanded to give freely because we have received freely. Further, as we give freely, more will be given. Give and it will be given to you.

2. Giving should be a lesson in faith and trust. If our charity is co-opted by government programs, we are stricken with a stifling form of security — one that prevents us from depending wholly on God’s provision and blessing. Here is Wilson on the matter:

The giver of the tithe is trusting God. “How do I know that God will bless the remaining 90%?” So also must the recipient of the tithe learn to trust God. “How do we know if God will continue to finance the work we have to do, unless we Read the rest of this entry »

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Transformation Pays: The Spiritual Benefits of Self-Sacrifice

The Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saint John

Today at Common Sense Concept I add a bit more clarity to my previous post on Ayn Rand. This time, I focus more closely on the spiritual payoffs to self-sacrifice.

Here’s an excerpt from the post:

In this post, I hope to offer a bit more illumination as to how we as Christians are to process such a “payoff” in our own lives. But take note: I am not advocating a give-and-take mindset by which we throw our lives at the altar while begging for goodies from heaven. For any of these “payoffs” to occur, our heart motive must be properly aligned to what Jesus calls us to. That’s the tricky part. For us to be able to enjoy the blessed life, our sacrifice has to be genuine and steadfast. Our motives have to be pure and properly aligned to a desire to perform God’s will. Without such an alignment, our sacrifice is in vain.

To launch my argument, I use John Piper’s famous book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist:

Piper discusses the many ways in which God desires for us to be joyful, arguing that “the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever.” This is the key: In order to “profit,” as Rand would say, we must not only learn to enjoy God, but we must begin to recognize how he is constantly changing us and transforming us through our selfless attempts to change the world for his glory.

The question?

What do we risk if we reject Christ’s call to selfless self-interestedness? If we dismiss his instructions as silly contradictions (as Rand does) or exalt them as glorious masochism (as many Christians do), will we be able to fulfill God’s calling for us? Will we be able to enjoy God if we fail to glorify him through our obedience?

To read the full post, click here.

In my next post, I will focus on Read the rest of this entry »

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Passion Is Not Enough: Asking the Right Questions

The new project I’m blogging for, Common Sense Concept, is focused on exploring the morality of capitalism. They have just released a new video to promote their cause, and I think it’s pretty effective.

My favorite line is this: “It’s one thing to give the shirt off your back, but it’s no good if you’re just sitting their shirtless.”

Watch the video here:

The video tries to tap into the youthful passion inside us all — the passion to change the world. Unfortunately, what has been lost on many is that good intentions are not enough. We need to be able to ask the right questions.

The narrator offers some great examples of these types of questions:

How could we protect a neighborhood without knowing what it takes to maintain one. How could we promote stronger communities without building better families? How could we demand jobs without knowing how jobs are created? If we are going to demand food for the poor, we should know how Read the rest of this entry »

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Dear Ayn Rand: God Is Not a Communist Dictator

Ayn RandIn my recent post at Common Sense Concept, I tackle some issues surrounding that most beloved of libertarian icons, Ayn Rand. More specifically, I focus my critique on her views about Jesus and his teachings.

Many people have criticized Christians for admiring Rand’s political views, primarily because Rand was an atheist who abhorred Jesus’ teachings on self-sacrifice (Rand prefers the term altruism). Christians should certainly be wary of the anti-Christian elements within Rand’s thinking, but I think examining her errors will help us better understand the implications of Rand’s philosophy, as well as those of Christianity properly understood.

I think Rand’s fundamental error is that she doesn’t think any personal good or personal profit can come from self-sacrifice, whether in the spiritual realm or in the natural. Jesus taught, on the other hand, that properly executed self-sacrifice yields gains in both.

Here’s an excerpt from my post:

The message of Christ is both self-sacrificial and self-interested all in one. The Beatitudes don’t read “cursed are the poor,” yet they also don’t read “blessed are the rich.” Likewise, Jesus constantly qualifies his demands for sacrifice with promises of reward, whether in this life or the next. For anyone who reads the Gospels in full, Jesus is consistent and intentional in the way he elevates the ideal of self-sacrifice alongside the ideal of rational self-interest.

In a sense, I am sympathetic to Rand. After all, her views about the Christian God have been reinforced by the church itself. As I have discussed recently (here and here), the church consistently paints a picture of a God that elevates the role of oppression alongside salvation:

Whether or not we want to admit it, the historical church has been complicit in painting God as Rand does — as some lofty and detached communist dictator who delights in limiting our ambitions and seizing his fair share. Like Rand, many Christians opt for a one-sided Jesus who delights in our suffering and whose heavenly Father sees oppression as a prerequisite for salvation.

To read the full post, click here.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Hipster Christianity: The Quest for Authentic Christian Cool

Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool CollideWhen I first picked up Brett McCracken’s new book, I was expecting a simple, cheeky romp through the various fads and frivolities within modern Christianity. The title itself, Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide, sounded an awful lot like the pretentiously reflective, light-and-trite nonfiction that Christian twentysomethings flock to nowadays.

But McCracken takes hip seriously, and he has a strong message for Christians who don’t.

“[W]e have to think harder,” says McCracken. “…even with something that might seem trivial, like ideas of “hip” and “cool,” Christians need to think long and hard about what it all means for our objective on this planet.”

McCracken certainly has a lighter side, and anyone who has read his blog or his movie reviews will know that he has a great ability to write wittily and pithily on all things art and culture. But although he enjoys cracking church-culture jokes as much as the rest of us, McCracken is largely on a mission to find an answer.

The question, as McCracken sees it, is this:

Is Christianity cool in today’s culture? And I mean naturally cool? As in — are people attracted to and desirous of it on its own accord? Or must it be cool in the marketed, presentational sense? … perhaps Christianity is hopelessly unhip, maybe even the anticool. What if it turns out that Christianity’s endurance comes from the fact that it is, has been, and continues to be the antithesis and antidote to the intoxicating and exhausting drive in our human nature for cool (for independence, for survival, for leadership, for hipness)?

Before answering this question directly, McCracken uses the first part of the book to offer an extensive history of hip, beginning in the Renaissance and proceeding all the way up to the modern church. Moving from Rousseau’s anti-aristocrat pose to Brummel’s eighteenth-century dandyism and bohemianism, McCracken eventually hangs the hat of hipsterdom on the birth of America, a country that McCracken describes as Read the rest of this entry »

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