More Dorothy Day, Less Franklin Graham

Brooks quixote_04David Brooks, whom I like personally from his television and radio appearances, but with whom I rarely agree, has a thought-provoking but quixotic op-ed piece in yesterday’s Times.

Brooks begins with a blunt statement of fact: “Christianity is in decline in the United States.” He goes on to point out that its “gravest setbacks are in the realm of values,” particularly in the realm of sexual permissiveness. Premarital sex is virtually universal, out-of-wedlock pregnancy no longer a cause for shame, adultery considered a trivial misstep, etc.

On the homosexual side, not only does gay love dare speak its name, but it shouts it out, Martha-Reeves-and-the-Vandellas style. Gay lovers have stepped from the shadows of alleyways and stroll openly holding hands on the sunny side of our streets, their streets, and to that, most of us — and least the people I hang with — shout Hallelujah!

Of course, others disagree. Brooks quotes Rod Dreher, author of How Dante Can Save Your Life, who suggests that it is “time for Christians to strategically retreat into their own communities, where they [can] keep ‘the light of faith burning through the surrounding cultural darkness.’” Dreher adds, “We have to accept that we really are living in a culturally post-Christian nation. The fundamental norms Christians have long been able to depend on no longer exist.”

Of course, Christianity is complicated. Jesus himself never considered himself a Christian. After all, on the night before his execution, he was celebrating Passover.

Although Christianity and Islam have incorporated elements of Judaism, they aren’t syncretic in the sense that they don’t see Yahweh, Jesus, or Allah as cultural masks for a universal deity that transcends tribal affiliations. In other words, fundamentalists in these religions mistake their myths for history, and this literalism has been [gross understatement alert] problematic (cf. the Inquisition).

Science is the enemy of literalism. Obviously, Noah would have a hard time rounding up penguins in Mesopotamia. Less obviously, scholars agree that Judaism was originally a polytheistic religion and that there is virtually no archeological evidence of an Egyptian captivity. On the Christian side, N.F. Gier writes in God, Reason, and the Evangelicals:

There is no record of Caesar Augustus’ decree that “all the world should be enrolled” (Lk. 2:1).  The Romans kept extremely detailed records of such events.  Not only is Luke’s census not in these records, it goes against all that we know of Roman economic history.  Roman documents show that taxation was done by the various governors at the provincial level.[1]

So some people, naively in my view, tend reject the mythic truth of Judaism and Christianity when they dogmatically argue that the bible is literally true. Millennials especially have little patience with ancient edicts that restrict their behavior. They dismiss it all as “a big bunch of bullshit.”

Enter genetics. I believe that the great shift in US citizens’ acceptance of homosexuality lies in its not being a choice but a biological imperative. Commonsense tells us that we don’t choose our sexual orientations. No one remembers that special day during puberty when she decided to opt for boys instead of girls. So it follows that if people are hard-wired to love certain sexes, why not allow people of both sexual persuasions to make lifelong commitments? Doing less seems uncharitable, and in one sense, un-Christian.

Brooks urges Christians to abandon their “decades-long culture war that has been fought over issues arising from the sexual revolution” and to “consider a different culture war, one just as central to [their] faith and far more powerful in its persuasive witness.”

Here’s his alternative:

The defining face of social conservatism could be this: Those are the people who go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families. Those are the people who build community institutions in places where they are sparse. Those are the people who can help us think about how economic joblessness and spiritual poverty reinforce each other. Those are the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.

In other words, he urges the religious right to become missionaries in their own culture. I love the idea, but alas, as many of the commentators on the piece point out, this solution ain’t going to happen.

After all, Nikki Haley, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Perry attend Christian-themed prayer rallies but in the name of ideology refuse to expand Medicaid in their states, essentially preventing their indigent populations from receiving healthcare.

But, yes, Mr. Brooks, I agree. A cultural war that “is s more Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day than Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham, more Salvation Army than Moral Majority” is a concept devoutly to be wished.

[1] I fault the copy editor for that inelegant sentence, which could have been cast: “Roman documents show that various governors at the provincial level levied taxes.”

4 thoughts on “More Dorothy Day, Less Franklin Graham

  1. I would agree with the loathsome David Brooks that Christianity’s gravest setbacks are in the realm of values, but this is the point at which he and I diverge: the real problem is that David Brooks or in fact anybody believes that Christianity can be lived in any way other than what he advocates in this piece. Jesus, after all, threw the money changers out of the temple and told his followers to sell everything they had and give the money to the poor; one would think that the point of Christianity as practiced today in the US was to discover, in an effort to prove how easy it is for rich people to enter heaven, just how big a camel one could fit through the eye of a needle.

    I agree with your assessment of Giers’s graceless sentence but I think your version weakens the rhetoric very slightly—switch “levied taxes” and “at the provincial level” and the main point of the sentence still comes last (and therefore in the strongest position).

  2. Wesley —  
    Stimulating post, as always!  A few points I’d like to explore: 

    1) “Jesus himself never considered himself a Christian. After all, on the night before his execution, he was celebrating Passover.”  Yes and no.  It *was* a Passover, of sorts, but Jesus went radically “off-script” to reinterpret this sacred Jewish ritual in light of himself.  Had this been known to the Jewish authorities, it would have only added to the charge of blasphemy (and rightly so!).  Jesus said, “take; this is *my* body.”  Jesus’ fellow Jews, who accused him of blasphemy, understood something about Jesus which we modern westerners often miss: “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18).  To say that Jesus “never considered himself a Christian” is to miss the forest for the trees.

    2) “…fundamentalists in these religions mistake their myths for history, and this literalism has been [gross understatement alert] problematic (cf. the Inquisition).”  It’s not clear how you are using the term “fundamentalist” here, but proceeding under the assumption that Christians like Pope Francis, John Stott and Dorothy Day would fit your definition (all of whom believe in the Virgin birth and the Resurrection), I think you lay the charge of “[mistaking] their myths for history” at the feet of the wrong persons.  If there are accusations to be made, they should be leveled against those who lived at the time of Jesus.  These individuals, who knew Jesus personally, who lived and served with him, believed him to be the very son of God.  They knew him to be a historical figure (just as I know *you* to be a historical figure), and passed on to others what they had witnessed.  So, if there is a mistake of confusing myth and history, at least in terms of the accounts of the Gospels, the “mistake” resides in the eyewitnesses.  But this brings into question how, exactly, as eyewitnesses, they could have mistaken myth for history?  And, pressing further, still, the blame *really* ultimately rests with Jesus himself, who allowed these interpretations of his life and ministry the develop as his time on earth unfolded.  To allow Peter to proclaim, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” unchallenged is to encourage the very “myths” with which you take issue.

    3) You assert that literalism leads to the Inquisition, but the example of Dorothy Day (who, again, believed in the literal truth of what you count as myth) is proof that your assertion is false.  It doesn’t take a very deep reading of the Gospels to see that what made the Inquisition possible was, in fact, a *lack* of serious consideration for what Jesus taught and who he claimed to be.

    4) “Less obviously, scholars agree that Judaism was originally a polytheistic religion”  This is simply false.  *Some* scholars hold this view, but many do not.  To assert that “scholars agree that Judaism was originally a polytheistic religion” is no less true than to assert that “scholars believe in God.”  Some do, some don’t.

    5) You assert that “science is the enemy of literalism,” but your assertion carries a second, hidden assumption:  that there is no god who is or can be above/out of/unbound by natural law.  If there is no such God, then yes, all we have are the deterministic laws of science, which, I would point out, we understand much less than we like to convince ourselves that we do.  I often find that those who hold degrees in humanities show much less humility about the limitations of science than those who hold degrees in the hard sciences.  I, and many others, on the other hand, do not share your hidden assumption.  Therefore, I do not see science as the enemy of literalism, but rather, as a trusted friend.

    6) “So some people, naively in my view, tend reject the mythic truth of Judaism and Christianity when they dogmatically argue that the bible is literally true.”  Several issues here.  First, the imprecision of your assertion is unhelpful [use Wesley Moore Robot Voice™ for this sentence].  It would be akin to waving your arm over a friend’s bookshelf, which holds volumes on psychology, history, poetry and saying, “I can’t believe you think that this stuff is *literally* true!”  The Bible, as you know, contains all sorts of material. Some of it is history, some of it is poetry, some of it highly symbolic, other parts, deliberately literal.  Furthermore, the distinction between these categories is much more nuanced than your “either/or” dichotomy implies.  Having said that, it is clear that the writers of the Gospels intended to convey what *actually* happened.  The Gospel according to Mark, believed by many to be the oldest of the Gospels, is unquestionably designed to pass on *eyewitness accounts*. Take, for example, the calming of the storm (Mark 4:35-4:41).  Mark is a deliberate scribe, yet the inclusion of details like “other boats were with him,”  the cushion on which Jesus slept, and the lack of respect shown by the disciples toward their master all add nothing the intended purpose of his account.  Mark is clearly relaying this event as his evidence for the claim that Jesus is the son of God.  So why, then, include these details?  Mark includes them because they are part of the eyewitness account, and he is taking seriously his responsibility to hand on these accounts as intact as possible, superfluous details and all.

    7) You make a great point with the quotation from Gier, but in the end, I think that the issue with Caesar Augustus’ decree says more about the difference between you and me (and, more broadly, people like us) than it does about the Bible.  Each of us brings a lens, or set of lenses, to the Bible.  You come with what might be called a “hermeneutic of suspicion,” and I, with a “hermeneutic of trust.”  For you, the passage from Luke’s gospel is a reason to say, “I *knew* this wasn’t true” but for me, it is cause for a curious riddle to be pondered, “how is it that this seeming anachronism appears in Luke’s Gospel?” Having spent a great deal of time with people, both believers and unbelievers, I’ve come to realize that the problem of Caesar Augustus’ decree, and other such “problems” of the Bible, do more to reveal the heart of the reader than to “prove” anything about the Bible.  I have applied critical thinking (which you had a hand in teaching me) to arrive at the conclusion, neither blindly nor naively, that the Gospels are true, both spiritually and literally (though, even this term bears unpacking, but for now, I’m satisfied with applying the label to myself).  Furthermore, your use of the term “naive” would be convenient, if true, but upon inspection, the label simply isn’t apt.  While you have had many more years than I to ponder the texts of the Bible, I do not think it a stretch to say that I have had as many, if not more, hours devoted to its study.  I am not naive to its contents or problems.  Nor am I naive to the complexities and agonies of this life.  I have passed through many of them, having all naivety painfully stripped from me.  So, we must search for some other cause than naivety to account for the different conclusions when you and I look into the very same texts.  I would suggest that we will *not* find the root of that cause in the text itself, but rather, we must look it elsewhere: the human heart.  Experience tells me that your point about Caesar Augustus’ decree is more a reflection of the state of our hearts (suspicious/trusting) than it is a statement of the trustworthiness of the Gospels.

    8) “Millennials especially have little patience with ancient edicts that restrict their behavior.”  You would draw much closer to the heart of this dynamic were you to replace the term “Millennials” with the term “human beings.”  Human beings have little patience with religion, and the reasons are far more emotional and intuitive than intellectual, I can assure you.  Human beings realize, either consciously or intuitively, that, if true, religious systems would place a bridle of Discipline, Responsibility and Accountability into the jaws of their hearts, and human beings do not want to be told what to do.  At an early age, children learn to blurt out these 6 ½ words: “You’re not the boss of me!”  The reason human beings have little patience with ancient edicts, the reason that they resist the notion that there is any higher wisdom than their own reckoning, is because they do not wish to be accountable to anyone or anything, save their own desires.  This is why the western conception of Buddhism, distinct from its original form, being completely ignorant of the profundity of the Four Distressing Sights and the Four Noble Truths, is so emotionally appealing: in its amorphous, shapeshifting, western form, it demands nothing of me.  God forbid I should be told what to do.  *Human beings* have little patience with ancient edicts that restrict their behavior.
    9) Which brings me to the heart of the matter.  It has become quite the rage for secularists to give advice to the church.  But since the church is, after all, just an organization of people, and Mr. Brooks is, himself, a person, then should we not be able to look to Mr. Brooks to show us the way he prescribes?  Surely it won’t be long before he resigns his post to “go into underprivileged areas and form organizations to help nurture stable families”?  And let me be clear: far be it from me to be above being chided by those who have no love for God, his people and his church, but I do find it curious that secularists have become some fond of advising Christians. And because I do share what, on the face of it, seems to be Brooks’ love and concern for the poor, I would take great inspiration were he to quit his job and lead in the way of humble service that he advocates.

    There. That is more than enough.

    I await your reply with, shall we say, great expectations!

    • Wow, Andrew. I appreciate your passionate reading and eloquent response to my post. I hope you’ll be able get a sermon out of it because you address very well the Bible’s blending of history, poetry, symbolism, and literal truth, and I agree that the gospels’ novelistic detail suggests strongly that these events occurred, e.g., Jesus’s writing in sand with a stick before the aborted stoning. Alas, however, as you know, I’m one of those who has not received the gift of faith; nevertheless, I never attempt to dislodge believers from their faiths, nor do I believe that truth needs to be literal to be true. Although I don’t believe literally in the Virgin Birth nor in the Resurrection, I do believe that Jesus has conquered death and continues to save people 2000 years after his crucifixion. So I hope I don’t disappoint you by not responding to each of your individual points, e.g., Judaism’s originally being polytheistic, etc. I do, however, applaud your passion, your superb prose (you must have had a couple of decent English teachers), and most of all, I applaud just plan ol’ you, Andrew O’Dell! Thank you very much and keep up your good work.

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