Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

American exceptionalism?

I’ve always believed in American exceptionalism but I’ve never known how to defend the idea except to say (with atypical meekness and uncertainty) that I believe God chose the United States of America to play a certain role in the world. This is both similar and dissimilar to God’s choice of his people Israel: dissimilar in that the Jews’ place in the plan of God is unique; but similar in its always-shocking Jacob-vs.-Esau particularity. How to defend this notion of America’s special role? Today on the Brian Lehrer program there was a lengthy discussion of the matter in the context of the Libyan intervention. Brian was interviewing Peter Beinart, a writer whose work I have often admired. Many things emerged from this riveting discussion. One remarkable point: Lehrer noted that the humanitarian internationalists (Samantha Power, et al) and the neocons (Wolfowitz, Kristol et al) were lining up on the same side, for once. Surprisingly (or not? Beinart thought not so surprisingly), the neocons, while opposed to humanitarian intervention per se, are willing to support it if it can (as in this case) be construed as an instrument of American power. But the really interesting part of the discussion about American exceptionalism was the distinction that was drawn between exceptionalism as inherent in American identity and, alternatively and in contrast, a calling that requires ceaseless vigilance and struggle. That seems to me to be humanly, geopolitically, and theologically right. The ghastly new pictures of American soldiers celebrating and posing with their trophy kills (posted on the Rolling Stone website as Special Report: The Kill Team) give us yet one more demonstration of the malevolent capacities within human nature. We must earn our exceptionalism again and again, with national repentance and recommitment every single day, as in daily prayer. Farfetched? Washington and Lincoln called the nation to repentance. If only Obama could do this in a way that would suit our multifaith context….stranger things have happened.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding...

Once in a long while one suddenly discovers a theological thinker that rises above most others, offering a truly fresh viewpoint to enliven one's atrophied faith. It’s like opening a window and seeing a vista heretofore unsuspected. An excitement comes with this that makes encounters with other writers in the church, however worthy, seem less necessary.

I have spent the day reading from a theologian that I can’t believe I haven’t read before. For about ten years, a few (surprisingly few, actually) friends whom I trust have urged me to read this man’s work, but for one reason or another I hadn’t gotten around to it. I have had an anthology of his writings on a shelf for about four years; I picked it up on a whim in a bookstore (how impoverished we are that these opportunities will become fewer and fewer as bookstores disappear) and it has been sitting unread ever since while I have been reading other things. Thanks be to God, it was here in my office just when I needed it (as my old friend Jeanne Burbank, now in a nursing home, said just yesterday, it’s “God's punctuality”).

The man of whom I am speaking is Lesslie Newbigen.

Newbigen carves out the territory where I, for one, want to stand. It’s not a very well-populated territory because, as he observes, the churches are divided between liberal theology and Protestant fundamentalism (he describes this state of affairs in more than ordinary depth), making it difficult for a differing voice to be heard—yet that voice, in Newbigen's case, is more truly biblical than either alternative. Newbigen is a true post-modern believer, who sees clearly the fallacy in the conservative-evangelical tendency to speak in terms of rational absolutes, who recognizes that “all truth claims are culturally embodied,” and who yet affirms the power of the biblical narrative of Jesus Christ as the only basis upon which to build Christian faith.

Newbigen is known as the missionary theologian par excellence, and for good reason; however, it is not for his tales of mission and ministry in India that one reads him. It is his profoundly theological and devotional (how rarely the two coexist in one person!) concern for the life and health of the church everywhere, especially in today's secular West, that makes his work intensely and personally compelling. Because of his worldwide experience and knowledge, he is able to speak with particular authority of the public nature of theology and faith. Moreover, he has a first-rate mind and the ability to take the measure of the philosophers as well as the theologians. No one has written better about how Christians should approach interfaith dialogue. He is able to assess Islam and Hinduism with a critical yet sympathetic understanding (he died in 1998 and was writing in full strength up until the end).

In a brief introduction to Newbigen’s life, the young Newbigen is quoted, saying that he had found Karl Barth’s Romans “incomprehensible.” I was taken aback by this, but the more I kept reading Newbigen's work, the more I thought “this sound like Barth.” Then I discovered that much later he had read all twelve volumes of the Church Dogmatics and, still later, had written this:

It was an immensely rewarding experience. Barth condensed and Barth quoted I had found totally unimpressive. But the real Barth, and especially the famous small-print notes, was enthralling. It was a needed preparation for the much more difficult missionary experience which (as I did not then realize) lay ahead.

By that "more difficult experience" he meant the return from India to Great Britain and the confrontation with a post-Christian Europe. He writes superbly about this context, and about what the Christian is to do and be in this “society which has lost its memory.”

P.S. The volume that I am reading is Lesslie Newbigen, Missionary Theologian: A Reader, edited by Paul Weston. It provides a remarkable collection of Newbigen’s own writings. If any clergy are reading this, I recommend going straight to the Eerdmans website for a discount and instant mailing.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thanking God for Dave Brubeck

News comes today of the death of Joe Morello, the drummer for the Dave Brubeck Quartet. It's been a long time since I've thought about Brubeck. It's hard for anyone born before 1935 or after 1945 to realize that "cool jazz" once dominated the campuses as rock has ever since. "Jazz Goes to College" was on every dorm room record player (those antediluvian contraptions) in the USA in the mid-50s...and then along came Elvis and the brief reign was over. It is remarkable how quickly Brubeck's ascendancy came to an end (along with that of Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Stan Getz, and others). He continued as a serious musician for decades, but the heyday of cool jazz lasted only a few years.

It was wonderful music and it still haunts me, but it's Brubeck as an exemplar that should be especially remembered. His Wikipedia entry tells how, back in the segregated fifties and sixties, he refused to play in venues where his black bassist, Eugene Wright, would not have been readily welcomed. He became a Catholic and wrote much serious sacred music, winning the distinguished Laetare Award from Notre Dame. He is still alive and active in his 90s, the recipient of many important medals and honors. Look him up--you'll be glad you did. And here is today's obituary for Joe Morello:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

David Brooks: our best public ethicist

A wise and discerning friend, Tony Robinson, writes that David Brooks is the closest thing we have now to a public theologian. (Tony himself is a notable observer of trends in the culture: visit him at )

Yesterday's column, "The Modesty Manifesto," by David Brooks is a good example of his work. It was the most emailed article in the New York Times for more than 24 hours, trumping the earthquake and Libya. He must have struck a chord. Here is the link to that article:

Overpraising children, telling them how special they are, is coming in for increasing criticism. I have been thinking about this a lot, because I see it all around me. "Good job!" is uttered every five minutes, if a child puts a plate on the kitchen counter or slides down the hill on a sled. Nobody would ever accuse me of having an underdeveloped ego, but I don't remember my parents or grandparents ever saying "good job"! I don't remember ever being told that I was special. I don't remember them ever even telling me that they were proud of me. Their love for me and their expectations and aspirations for me were part of the atmosphere, never doubted by me for one moment. What was much more likely to be spoken was a lot of questions about what I was learning, and a lot of precious teaching about the subjects that my parents and other relatives knew a lot about. I think about their teaching all day every day. That's what a child carries for a lifetime, not effusive praise for every little thing they do. David Brooks' column on this subject is full of wisdom and insight.

David Brooks is often called "the liberals' favorite conservative." He is Jewish, but he comes across as more Christian than a lot of Christians. Not incidentally, perhaps, he went to the oldest Episcopal camp in the US, Incarnation Camp in Connecticut (where my children also went), and he is still an active supporter of the camp.

By the way: Tony Robinson has written an excellent article on this same subject, from a pastor's point of view. See it here: