Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

With friends like this...

Do any anti-Iraq-war partisans besides me wish that the darned celebrities would keep their mouths shut? At the Washington DC demonstration over the weekend, Jane Fonda and Susan Sarandon walked right into the traps set for them by Fox News, making them easy targets for Bill O'Reilly's ridicule. They have their facts wrong, their numbers wrong, their history wrong -- it's embarrassing.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Literary fiction and the Christian Right

Here's a good (and very funny) example of the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction. Cormac McCarthy's No Country For Old Men is in one sense a conventional thriller, a page-turner about drug-running and law enforcement on the Tex-Mex border (think of the movie Traffic). In addition to being beautifully written in the McCarthy fashion, however, it is lifted out of the run-of-the-mill crime-novel category by the wonderful, fully dimensional character of Sheriff Bell, a genuine philosopher of human nature (and a good Christian man as well). His reflections, with their regional speech patterns intact, punctuate the otherwise unstoppable plot. When we are tempted to say something scornful about the Christian Right (which many of us are, several times a day) we would do well to ponder Sheriff Bell's wisdom:

"Here a year or two back me and Loretta [his wife] went to a conference in Corpus Christi and I got set next to this woman, she was the wife of somebody or other. And she kept talking about the right wing this and the right wing that. I aint even sure what she meant by it. The people I know are mostly just common people. Common as dirt, as the sayin goes. I told her that and she looked at me funny. She thought I was sayin something bad about em, but of course that's a high compliment in my part of the world. She kept on, kept on. Finally told me, she said: I don't like the way this country is headed. I want my granddaughter to be able to have an abortion. And I said well mam I don't think you got any worries about the way the country is headed. The way I see it goin I don't have much doubt but what she'll be able to have an abortion. I'm goin to say that not only will she be able to have an abortion, she'll be able to have you put to sleep. Which pretty much ended the conversation."

No Country For Old Men reminds me of an excellent movie from a few years back, A Simple Plan (based on a book of the same name which I have not yet read). McCarthy's book and the movie both tell stories of ordinary, decent people who are drawn into terrible crime and cover-ups because of money that falls—so to speak—into their laps.

Some McCarthy fans thought he was slumming with this one, but I found it thought-provoking and I recommend it, though I grant it is a lesser effort compared to his great works (Blood Meridian, The Road for starters). Be warned, however; no novelist has ever had a darker vision.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Carlotta Gall of the New York Times beaten up by Taliban sympathizers

Who are our heroes today? For whom do we pray aloud every week in church? Whose support is trumpeted with yellow ribbons on thousands of cars? Not newspaper reporters, that's for sure. Yet Karl Barth used to make a point, in his prayers, to intercede for "the writers of newspapers."

In today's America, journalists are very low on the totem pole. Newspapers are read less and less, "the media" is widely reviled and mistrusted, reporters are vilified as diggers of dirt. But as a longtime member of The Committee to Protect Journalists, I know that the life of a foreign correspondent is filled with danger. 93 people involved in journalism have been killed in Iraq since the war began, according to the exceptionally interesting and informative CPJ website

I have long admired Carlotta Gall, who has done extraordinary work from her post in Kabul. For instance, she is the one who uncovered the death of an innocent Afghan farmer in US custody, one of the most shocking episodes to emerge from our engagement in Afghanistan. Here is a brief synopsis from the Internet:

"Dilawar, the Afghan farmer who was detained by US troops on December 5 (see December 5, 2002), is found dead in his cell at Bagram. The pathologist who records his death, Maj. Elizabeth A. Rouse, writes on Dilawar’s death certificate that he died from 'blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease.' She marks 'homicide' as the cause of death. Months later, New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall learns of and investigates Dilawar’s death and confirms the death certificate’s authenticity with the US military. She also interviews Dilawar’s family and friends who describe the 22-year-old farmer as being young and inexperienced. 'He had never spent a night away from his father and mother,' his brother says. Dilawar was married and the father of a 2-year-old girl. [New York Times, 3/4/2003; Washington Post, 3/5/2003; BBC, 3/6/2003; Guardian, 3/7/2003; Independent, 3/7/2003; New York Times, 9/17/2004] A military investigation will later find that after his arrival at the base, he was shackled by Sgt. James P. Boland, a guard from the Army Reserve’s 377th MP Company from Cincinnati, with his hands above his shoulders, and was denied medical care. [New York Times, 9/17/2004] Dilawar was then beaten by guards and interrogators, some of whom stood with their full weight on top of him, concentrating on his groin." [Knight Ridder, 8/21/2004]

Ms. Gall's diligence was a chief factor in bringing this story into the open. In recent months, she has been concentrating on something else: the resurgence of the Taliban on the Pakistan-Afghan border where Osama bin Laden is thought to be lurking still. Here is what happened to her in Quetta, Pakistan, just a few days ago:

"My photographer, Akhtar Soomro, and I were followed over several days of reporting in Quetta by plainclothes intelligence officials who were posted at our respective hotels. That is not unusual in Pakistan, where accredited journalists are free to travel and report, but their movements, phone calls and interviews are often monitored.

"On our fifth and last day in Quetta, Dec. 19, four plainclothesmen detained Mr. Soomro at his hotel downtown and seized his computer and photo equipment. They raided my hotel room that evening, using a key card to open the door and then breaking through the chain that I had locked from the inside. They seized a computer, notebooks and a cellphone. One agent punched me twice in the face and head and knocked me to the floor. I was left with bruises on my arms, temple and cheekbone, swelling on my eye and a sprained knee. One of the men told me that I was not permitted to visit Pashtunabad, a neighborhood in Quetta, and that it was forbidden to interview members of the Taliban.

"The men did not reveal their identity but said we could apply to the Special Branch of the Interior Ministry for our belongings the next day. After the intervention of the minister of state for information and broadcasting, Tariq Azim Khan, my belongings were returned several hours later. Mr. Soomro was released after more than five hours in detention.

"Since then it has become clear that intelligence agents copied data from our computers, notebooks and cellphones and have tracked down contacts and acquaintances in Quetta. All the people I interviewed were subsequently visited by intelligence agents, and local journalists who helped me were later questioned by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence.

"Mr. Soomro has been warned not to work for The New York Times or any other foreign news organization." (NYT article, 1/21/07)

Somebody does not want Carlotta Gall and her photographer making discoveries about what the Taliban is up to.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the story that led to her being beaten:

"Western diplomats in both countries and Pakistani opposition figures say that Pakistani intelligence agencies — in particular the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence — have been supporting a Taliban restoration...
"More than two weeks of reporting along this frontier, including dozens of interviews with residents on each side of the porous border, leaves little doubt that Quetta is an important base for the Taliban, and found many signs that Pakistani authorities are encouraging the insurgents, if not sponsoring them.
"The evidence is provided in fearful whispers, and it is anecdotal. At Jamiya Islamiya, a religious school here in Quetta, Taliban sympathies are on flagrant display, and residents say students have gone with their teachers’ blessings to die in suicide bombings in Afghanistan." (NYT 1/21/07)

As I travel around the country, I hear many scoffing remarks about The New York Times. Many people think of it as a wildly left-leaning, irresponsible, unpatriotic--you name it--propaganda machine. Other people do not bother to scoff at it simply because they do not read it and consider it irrelevant. But how can we not take note of the brave journalists who are investigating the activities of the Taliban? How can their activities be anything other than in the best interests of American security and, even more important, American ideals? And what of Mr. Soomro, the photographer, who risks his life just taking pictures? Wouldn't it be a good idea to pray once in a while, not only for our troops, but for these others who are on the front lines?

PS. A new book called The Race Beat (Knopf), which is getting excellent reviews, tells the story of the reporters, editors and publishers who covered the Civil Rights Movement. Without some of these, conspicuously Claude Sitton, the white Southerner who stayed on the beat for six years, the movement could not have gained the momentum that it did.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Liberal evangelicals, speak up!

Today on our local NPR station, WNYC (a staple of my existence), our extraordinarily intelligent and even-handed moderator, Brian Lehrer, interviewed the former Israeli government spokesman Zev Chafets, who has just published a book about Jews and evangelicals called A Match Made in Heaven. Chafets, a secular Jew who obviously relishes controversy, is warmly disposed toward so-called evangelical Christians because of their solid support of the state of Israel. In the interview, however, both Lehrer and Chafets show how little they know about any evangelicals other than the Tim Lahayes and Pat Robertsons. Chafets stated, with an air of great authority, that most Jews have never met an evangelical. His point was meant to be benevolent, demonstrating that evangelicals have gotten a bad rap from Jews. However, for evangelicals like myself with numerous Jewish friends and conversation partners, this narrow definition of biblical Christianity is endlessly frustrating. Not only frustrating, but inimical to the gospel.

I have tried, in conversation with Jewish acquaintances, to introduce the subject of the evangelical Left. But I am only one person. Unless more evangelicals of a politically left-leaning persuasion (or even a rightish but culturally hip orientation) speak up, forthrightly claiming the term evangelical, this disastrous misperception is going to continue to dominate all the discussion.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

"Free Will"? Ha!

No doctrine is more passionately held in the United States than that of Free Will, but this Pelagian heresy comes under attack in a substantial article in the January 2 New York Times (see, you never know what you will find there!).

Dennis Overbye writes:

I was a free man until they brought the dessert menu around. There was one of those molten chocolate cakes, and I was suddenly being dragged into a vortex, swirling helplessly toward caloric doom, sucked toward the edge of a black (chocolate) hole. Visions of my father's heart attack danced before my glazed eyes. My wife, Nancy, had a resigned look on her face.

The outcome, endlessly replayed whenever we go out, is never in doubt, though I often cover my tracks by offering to split my dessert with the table. O.K., I can imagine what you're thinking. There but for the grace of God...

Having just lived through another New Year's Eve, many of you have just resolved to be better, wiser, stronger and richer in the coming months and years. After all, we're free humans, not slaves, robots or animals doomed to repeat the same boring mistakes over and over again. As William James wrote in 1890, the whole "sting and excitement" of life comes from "our sense that in it things are really being decided from one moment to another, and that it is not the dull rattling off of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago." Get over it, Dr. James. Go get yourself fitted for a new chain-mail vest. A bevy of experiments in recent years suggest that the conscious mind is like a monkey riding a tiger of subconscious decisions and actions in progress, frantically making up stories about being in control.


This is priceless. What does St. Paul teach if not "the dull rattling of a chain that was forged innumerable ages ago"? Paul calls that condition "Adam" (Romans 5). We are trapped in it, and that is precisely why we have a victorious Saviour who has broken that chain in his death and resurrection. We are "slaves to sin." That's one of the chief messages of the letter to the Romans. And "who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord."

The section just quoted above is is the best part of the article. The rest of it consists mostly of testimony by psychologists and sociologists who don't think we have much free will. That's all very well, and it's cheering to have this support from the various social sciences. The real news here, however, is that God, in his Son's sacrifice, is reshaping our wills into the "mind of Christ." In the definitive paradox delineated by Augustine in the fifth century, perfect human freedom is found in service to the will of God.

Link to the Times article:

Thoughts for preachers inspired by a World War II reminiscence

Ben Bradlee, longtime executive editor of the Washington Post, wrote a thoughtful memoir of his time on a Navy destroyer in the Second World War. After describing several scenes of horrifying carnage he muses about the reunion of the ship’s crew that he attended in Norfolk this year. He recalls that when he came home from the Pacific as a very young man, no one had been particularly interested in hearing his war stories, so mostly he did not tell them. Reuniting with his comrades of long ago disclosed something to him. “It wasn’t long [after the war],” he writes, “before it faded against my new life—starting a family and getting a job,” but still, he says, “it marked me. It may sound trite to modern ears, but those really were years when you could get involved in something beyond yourself…It was the most important period of my life.” (The New Yorker, October 2, 2006)

Two things strike me about this. First, it seems sad that in these ironic times anyone should think it was “trite” to be involved in something larger than oneself. The other thing that struck me is that it seems tragic that, for so very many men, fighting a war is the most important thing that they ever do.

It occurs to me, and I am quite serious about this, that there are several other careers that involve one in “something beyond yourself” not just in the vigor of youth but for a lifetime, and among them is preaching the gospel in the context of the church.

Serving as a humanitarian worker in a poverty zone, writing world-class literature, editing a newspaper (yes!), being a Legal Aid lawyer, fighting for social justice, teaching in a challenging environment—these things and many more offer a lifetime of surpassingly important work. But I cannot think of anything else that demands more intellectual (or at least mental) firepower, more emotional honesty, more rigorous discipline, more naked self-examination, more day-in-day-out struggle with hostile forces, and a more consistent connection to “something larger” (namely, the Word of God) than being a preacher for decades of one’s life.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Death of a monster

Now that Saddam Hussein has actually been hanged, I am bringing forward a blog I wrote just before Advent because it seems even more relevant now. Last Sunday the New York Times "Week in Review" section featured an article about the execution by John F. Burns, the prominent reporter who has covered Iraq for years. He took stock of Saddam's cruelties and lack of remorse, yet said that he had a few seconds of feeling sorry for him because his demise was conducted in such a sordid manner. Yet Don Imus (a very intelligent man when he is not fooling around) observed that in his very last moments, Saddam had maintained a dignified, even heroic posture (though he was shouting imprecations shortly before) and that this was a marked contrast to his black-hooded, thuggish executioners. Imus wondered if this image on the worldwide Net was not going to be fodder for extremists, who would now be more inclined than ever to think of Saddam as a noble martyr.

Burns wrote that his moment of pity was scorned by his Iraqi friends and colleagues as a sign of profound moral weakness on his part. Perhaps. The Wrath of God has to be in here somewhere. I stand by what I wrote back in November:

Our two tabloids, the New York Post and the Daily News, had photos of Saddam with these huge headlines:

Good Noose
Next Stop Hell

It is my belief that Saddam Hussein is that rare thing, a human monster of epic proportions. Perhaps not on quite the same scale as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot or Mao since, unlike them (from what I know of them), he shows some features of mental illness—-but still, monstrous. What does this imply about our attitudes toward him and his pending execution?

On V-J Day sixty years ago, when I was a child of eight, we were spending the summer in Charlottesville with my grandparents. We went out into the streets where there was cheering, horn-blowing, shouting, every kind of exuberant demonstration never to be forgotten. My grandfather was hollering out the window, "Hoop-la-hoop! Hoop-la-hoop! Hirohito's in the soup!" There was something else, though, that I have never forgotten. Even in the very midst of the celebration my remarkable mother was muttering that we shouldn’t have dropped the atomic bombs on non-combatants.

When we began to bomb Afghanistan after 9/11 and there was real anticipation that we would find Osama bin Laden, I began to imagine a day when we would hear the news that American troops had found and killed Osama. How, I have been wondering, should Christians receive this announcement? Not with celebrations in the streets, it seems to me, but rather with:

--Solemn thanksgiving to God alone
--Awe that such a monstrous evil mind has been among us and is now gone
--Repentance for the state of the world that such a thing should be necessary
--Solemnity befitting the power of Death over us all
--Certainty that he, like all the rest of us, will answer to a righteous God
--Knowledge that, as Ecclesiastes says, "it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with."

The disturbing thing about the tabloid headlines is that they bring out the worst in us all. We love to think of someone else going to hell but never think that we or any of our favorite people might go there. There is nothing more certain about the human being than our universal propensity for dividing up the human race into good guys and bad guys, with ourselves always on the right side of the divide. Paul warned against this in explicit terms in Romans:

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God...

I have been arguing against the death penalty all my life and I have not changed my mind. I believe all Christians should be against it for everyone in every circumstance. Yet I must admit that if anyone should hang it should be Saddam Hussein. My concern at present is not for him. My concern is for us who are Christian leaders, that we are not communicating successfully about the meaning of the judgment of God. When people gleefully consign other people to hell and regard their deaths with levity ("good noose" is a parody of the evangel), it is clear that something very basic about human nature is not understood by this nation of millions of "Bible-believing" Christians. Lord, have mercy upon us all as we shall stand at the dreadful day of judgment. That, after all, is the theme of Advent.