Note to Self: Empire, Terror, and Politics

I just picked up a few interesting books on the New Arrivals shelf at GRPL, but unfortunately I can't hold on to them, because we leave for Cambridge tomorrow. So this is more of a "note to self" to remind me to pick these up again later.

Emmanuel Todd, After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order (Columbia UP): I saw this book in its earlier French version when we were in Lyons a couple of summers ago. It's not your typical "anti-American" piece, since its critique is expressed with a sense of disappointment. Todd's thesis is that America's unilateral military action against puny, ill-equipped nations is an attempt to create a militaristic smokescreen that will hide the fact that the American empire is in decline. This repays further thought.

Michael Ignatieff, The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror (Princeton UP): As you'd guess, Ignatieff is looking for a justification of democracy's participation in violence in order to prevent/avoid further, graver violence. He states the rudiments of the problem, as he sees it up front: "When democracies firght terrorism,they are defending the proposition that their political life should be free of violence. But defeating terror requires violence. [...] How can democracies resort to these means without destroying the values for which they stand?" (p. vii). But what if one rejected the premises here? What if one did not assume a "right" to violence-free existence? And what if one asserted, more imaginatively, that terrorism could be defeated by non-violent means? Who is willing to entertain that proposition?

Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (Simon & Schuster): Following a few years after his important, though contested, Clash of Civilizations, Huntington is worried about American identity. But what, from first glance, he seems to suggest is so startling to me, I might have to buy this one at the airport. From what I can gather, Huntington variously suggests that (1) 9/11 could be seen as a good thing since it was a catalyst for re-solidifying "American identity" as a primary identity; (2) the "Hispanicization" is the biggest threat to American identity, and (3) the best thing we could do is recover a dominant "Anglo-Protestant culture." Wow. At least he has courage. But as Michael Baxter and Stanley Hauerwas are wont to point out: just who does he mean by "we?"

Who is the "multitude?"

Those who read Hardt & Negri's Empire (Harvard UP) will recall their invocation of the "multitude"--led by St. Francis, as it were--as the transnational network of resistance. Well, I just got ahold of what amounts to the sequel to Empire: Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (Penguin). I'm taking it along with me to Cambridge, but it looks fascinating. And ripe for theological engagement. I wonder if what Hardt & Negri are looking for from "the multitude" might be precisely what one would hope to find in the ekklesia? I would highly recommend reading this book alongside Daniel Bell's outstanding work, Liberation Theology After the End of History, in the Radical Orthodoxy series (Routledge).


So Many Books, So Few Blogs

Mea culpa! It has been over two months since my last blog. I hope I can plead absence--as well as the absorption of summer. We spent most of the month of August in Los Angeles, and for June and July I was directing the Seminars in Christian Scholarship at Calvin.

And alas, the best I can do here is a promissory note. For any who might be interested, watch for some thoughts on some of my summer reading, which has included: David Harvey's New Imperialism, Paxton's Anatonomy of Fascism, Melville's Moby Dick (finally!), Clinton's My Life (on audio through Kansas and Missouri), Stephen Schwartz's From West to East (on the development of radical thought in California), some more Franz Wright poetry in The Beforelife, Christopher Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian, and my favorite summer discoveries: John Ruskin's Fors Clavigera (pointed to it by Francis O'Gorman's little book Ruskin) and William Morris' News from Nowhere.

But perhaps instead of a blog about these books (though I won't be able to resist in the future), I should--in the spirit of Anne Sexton's "Welcome Morning" (a must read poem!)--stop right here, take a moment, and give thanks for a life and vocation where I can spend a summer reading great books. I am blessed to have been called to a vocation and ministry which baptizes my curiosity and creates the space for me to explore the nooks and crannies of God's world. For that, I am grateful. Thanks be to the God of the Book, who gifts great authors, and grants the time and respite to explore His world with them.


Sontag, Images, and Abu Ghraib

The proliferation of affordable digital cameras has made them staples of everything from Superbowl celebrations to Abu Ghraib prison and video footages of the beheadings of Daniel Pearl and Paul Johnson, posted on the web. The disturbing images that made their way out of Abu Ghraib raise again questions about the role of images of suffering. (For the record, I have a hard time believing that these Abu Ghraib images weren't already cycling through an intra-soldier fraternity as probably badges of honor in some sense.)

In Regarding the Pain of Others, cultural critic Susan Sontag takes up the history of war photography from its beginnings to the current Iraq war (though publication pre-dates the Abu Ghraib revelations). She grapples with the challenge for a kind of photography that hovers between voyeurism and journalism, and the deep ambiguity of photographs. In particular, she tracks the way in which the macabre and horrifying can be enlisted for both pacifist and militarist ends: on the one hand, such images are intended to show us the horrors of war (albeit still in a mediated form); on the other hand, the same images can be enlisted to motivate militaristic passions against "the enemy" who would cause such carnage. Thus the same images of children killed in the recent Balkan wars were circulated among both Serbs and Croats, to very different ends (p. 10). (So Bush capitalizes on images of recent beheadings as a way to further animalize and demonize "the evil ones;" this can happen only because we are systematically shielded from the equally (?) horrifying images of American "collateral damage.")

In the end, Sontag's little essay is an extended meditation on the hermeneutics of images, especially photography. On this score I was interested by two persistent themes:

1. Sontag clearly dismantles any notion of pictures, even photographs, being "realistic" or "objective" (the history of civil war photography is an interesting bit of demythologizing). At the same time, there is a certain indexical feature to photographs. So she suggests that "this sleight of hand allows photographs to be both a faithful copy or transcription of an actual moment of reality and an interpretation of that reality" (p. 26). Photographs are both record and testimony.

But for precisely this reason, the "meaning" of photographs cannot be completely governed by the photographer: "The photographer's intentions do not determine the meaning of the photograph, which will have its own career, blown by the whims and loyalties of the diverse communities that have use for it" (p. 39). This is just to translate Derrida's account of "decontextualization" or "undecidability" to images.

2. But almost in order to guard us against the previous point, Sontag seems to lapse into an almost 'Protestant' or Puritan reasseration of the word as governor of the image (I hear rumbling of Neal Postman here). Thus she places persistent emphasis on the role of "captions" in images (pp. 10, 45): "all photographs wait to be explained or falsified by their captions" (10). [Recall the role of Lenny's notes on his Polaroids in Memento.] But this seems to naively invoke a notion of text/caption which ignores precisely the point above about undecidability. In other words, Sontag seems to think that images are ambiguous, but texts/captions are not. But undecidability goes all the way down.

There's much more here than just this (e.g., an interesting critique of Baudrillard and Debord, pp. 109-111), but I was particularly prompted by her hermeneutics of the image.

And one fun fact: the Plymouth Brethren make a cameo appearance (p. 48)!


The Catholic Difference

George Weigel's Letters to a Young Catholic (Basic Books, 2004) is a little treasure I found on the New Arrivals shelf at GRPL downtown. Watch for my full review of it in Perspectives journal. For now, let me just say that this book is almost a "must read"--it is certainly a book I would put in the hands of any thoughtful person who is "seeking" and wants a solid account of what Christian faith and practice is all about. It could also be a wonderful introduction for a new believer. At the least, I'd love to put it on the syllabus for freshmen at Calvin.

For my fellow Protestans, don't be spooked by the "Catholic" bit: to quote a sermon of Augustine, "Remember, you are catholic..." What Weigel sketches here is the core of the catholic Christian vision, what he describes as an "optic" through which we see the world and engage it. Anyone who is comfortable reciting the creed ("I believe in the holy catholic church") will find their faith being described here.


Pulitzer Poetry as Covert Theology

A couple of nights ago I holed up in a corner of Schuler's (a great bookstore here in Grand Rapids) and devoured Franz Wright's Pulitzer-prize-winning collection of poems, Walking to Martha's Vineyard (Knopf, 2003). Amazing stuff: somewhat like the films of Coppola or Scorcese, Wright has an almost myopic account of the brokenness of a fallen world--but precisely because of that, shards of redemptive light seem to be that more dazzling when they break through. And they do in these poems, in oblique but powerful ways. While written in and through the experiences of addiction, abandonment, and emptiness bordering on the abyss, one finds in the poems deep longings for--and hopeful affirmations of--revelation, resurrection, and loving friendship (see "5:00 Mass").

Several of the most powerful poems--to me, at least--are those written to a father that abandoned Wright when he was just 8. Here we see this dialectical tension between desparate longing and persistent hope. And one gets a sense that this is a letter to more than one father--a father on earth, to be sure, but perhaps also a Father in heaven. (Note the ambiguity: "At ten I turned you into a religion" in "Flight.")

Much more to be said: but no substitute for reading this art first hand. (Find a [probably illegal] sampling of Wright at http://www.bishink.org/bishink/billy/poems.html.)


Barber: McEmpire

Benjamin Barber (of _Jihad vs. McWorld_) offers an interesting read in _Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy_ (Norton, 2003). The core of his thesis is that violence begets violence in a kind of vicious circle--and that the White House's commodification of fear plays right into the hands of the Al Quaeda terrorist network by mitigating democracy. (I'm not a huge fan of Barber's formalist, procedural, a-teleological democracy, but that aside...) In other words, both America and Al Quaeda are colonies of "fear's empire."

Barber critiques the current administration for clinging to visions of independence in a world of "interdependence" (where the market eats away at traditional notions of sovereignty). He also echoes the assertions of Simon and Benjamin in _The Age of Sacred Terror_ (Random House, 2003): that one simply cannot defeat radical Islam with military violence. American military actions in the Gulf (and continued support of Israel) only fuels the ideology of groups such as Al Quaeda. Undertaking strategies of "shock-and-awe" is like trying to drown a fire with gasoline.

Updike on Church

I'm ambling through a new collection of John Updike's short stories: _The Early Stories_ (Knopf, 2003). I particularly enjoyed the ecclesiological insights in “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car." Consider just two:

“Taken as a purely human recreation, what could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for use one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts?” (p. 103)

“Even to usher at a church mixes us with the angels, and is a dangerous thing” (p. 105).


New Urbanism and Christian Faith

Our small group just finished discussing Eric Jacobsen's _Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith_ (Brazos, 2003). Jacobsen makes a solid case for why Christians should be concerned about and dwell within urban spaces--not just as another place to "save souls," and not as a Saturday "outreach" activity, returning to suburban enclaves guarded by gates and massive garage doors. Rather, we are to _inhabit_ the city, actually live there, and "seek the welfare of the city."

The book is best when it is showing what's wrong with suburban sprawl (including the philosophical and quasi-theological underpinnings of this "American dream," showing the government policies--such as zoning--which foster it, and the market's vested interest in it). However, it's hard to know just how this would fly with readers who actually live in the suburbs. (Our small group is all drawn from within the city.)

The book also does a very good job of pushing us to be passionate about two very simple axioms: (1) walk more, and (2) buy local. Good discussions of what's wrong with a car-dominated culture and how we inhabit our cities differently when we walk or ride the bus. Also very good on resisting the lure of the big box stores and paying a little more to support local economies.

Jacobsen is more frustrating when it comes to some of the specifics of urban life. This is not to say he doesn't address the right issues or questions; he does--but I sometimes felt like he punted just when we got to really hard questions. Take gentrification, for example. Jacobsen basically concludes it's a good thing (albeit a kind of necessary evil, at the same time). He's not willing to go far enough in his critique of market economy (I think the only answer to gentrification is socialism).

There's lots in the book to like; the rest will certainly generate good conversation.

Our small group is now hoping to dive into David McCarthy's new book, _The Good Life_ (Brazos, 2004).


French Liberty Fries?

When I was in France last summer (2003), we visited a couple of bookstores (I scored Jean-Luc Marion's new book, _Le phenomene erotique_) and found huge displays of just what you'd expect from the French (and why we love them so much): tome after tome criticizing the current version of the American empire.

But a couple of weeks ago I came across a strange beast: Jean-Francois Revel's _Anti-Americanism_ (Encounter Books, 2003). Revel is a shrill critique of European, especially French, anti-Americanism. But the book is so deeply sycophantic and pro-capitalist I'm having trouble making it through. His logic echoes that of Bush: "They hate us because we're so good." (That's a quote, by the way!: see Robert Bellah's essay in _Dissent from the Homeland_ [Duke, 2003]). So Revel reduces anti-Americanism to a kind of political penis envy: "America is the object of their loathing because, for half a century or more, she has been the most prosperous and creative capitalist society on earth" (p. 34).

His critique of anti-globalization protests is so sad it's almost laughable. Anti-Americanism is castigated throughout the book for a kind of performative contradiction. So too with anti-globalization. But listen to Revel's remarkable ability to miss the point: "This is not the only contradiction in their impoverished mental bric-a-brac. For example, they brought mayhem to Seattle in the name of combatting a "savage" globalization that "profits only the rich." Yet who were convening in Seattle? Representatives of the World Trade Organization (WTO), whose role is precisely to monitor international economic transactions and make them conform to rules--so as to prevent them from being 'savage'" (34).

The point of such protests, of course, is that the WTO does _not_ effect such protection or regulation, but instead legitimates a system of global dependence which benefits the G-8 at the expense of others. Is Revel really so naive or wilfully ignorant to see that anti-globalization just doesn't buy WTO's official account of itself? (He goes on to point out that even poor countries want to join the WTO. Of course: because they control channels of distribution and access!)

He concludes that "purporting to oppose globalism, [they] were really attacking capitalism" (35). Oui, M. Revel, c'est vrai. And that consitutes the bulk of his argument: people are anti-American because they're really anti-capitalist, or anti-democratic. But that is only an argument against anti-Americanism _if_ one is committed to capitalism and/or liberal democracy (which Revel assumes any rational person must be). But what if we don't buy this assumed premise? What if we reject the enthymeme? Then Revel's book will be convincing only to the choir already watching FOX News.


Who Killed Daniel Pearl?

Bernard-Henri Levy's _Who Killed Daniel Pearl?_ (Melville, 2003) was a fascinating read. Hovering between novel and travelogue, police blotter and literature, Levy tracks the assassins of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter killed 31 January 2002. Levy's thesis is certainly controversial: that the mastermind of the assassination, Omar Sheikh, was closely linked with Al Quaeda, and that Al Quaeda is closely linked with the intelligence agencies ("the services") of Pakistan--meaning that a country that appears to be an ally of the US's "war on terror" might in fact be an official sponsor of 9/11.

I'll abstain from evaluating this thesis. What I found most interesting--beyond Levy's methodology--was his close analysis of the transformation of Omar Sheikh from a model British prep-school student and economics major at the London School of Economics into a kind of al Quaeda quasi-operative. The turning point, as Levy recounts it, was Bosnia. The injustices of Bosnia posed for Omar a first sense of the tension between being European and being Muslim: "In other words, we can assume that this sudden consciousness of a world where it's a crime to be a Muslim, and where another destiny seems possible for European Islam, profoundly shakes the happy Englishman he was. Here, without the shadow of a doubt, is a model student, an Englishman, a cosmopolitan adolescent who, everything seems to indicate, has never thought that this belonging to the world of Islam and to that of the West were in the least bit contradictory, and who topples over the edge into madness in a very precise place" (p. 127).

Could there be similar tensions between being an American and being a Christian?


Some Important Books

At the end of last semester, a student asked me to recommend some of the books that shaped my current thinking. The question was a bit daunting, but here's my reply:

Dear J____,

I've been sitting on this too long, trying to come up with the "perfect" list--but as usual, perfectionism just breeds perpetual deferral. So I'm just going to take a shot and then, if I think of something later, I'll send you an appendix.

I am a bit of a theological mutt: I was converted after my 18th birthday through the Plymouth Brethren tradition, discovered Reformed theology while I was at Bible college, was deeply formed by Catholic thought both as an undergraduate and during my PhD, was quite deeply impacted by a number of years in the Pentecostal church, and have some significant sympathies with the Anabaptist tradition. I'm a mess! (Or, just maybe, I'm getting something right. ;-) So here's a smattering of books that have impacted me greatly, though not listed in any particular order:

Herman Dooyeweerd, _In the Twilight of Western Thought_: this was probably the most important academic book I've ever read (during my first week of grad school). Since you've been at Calvin College, it's insights might not be as revolutionary to you as they were to me, but it helped me to see the _radical_ way in which Christian faith should shape theory in every sphere of life. Also some really unique stuff on the relationship between theology, philosophy, and faith.

Alvin Plantinga, "Advice to Christian Philosophers," in _Faith and Philosophy_ (Vol. 1) [it's also available online in a few places]. I read this as a sophomore, knew I wanted to be a Christian philosopher, and wrote Al Plantinga (and he even wrote back!).

Gustavo Gutierrez, _Theology of Liberation_: Even if I might be critical of some aspects of it today, this is the book that made me realize that the Gospel is a political reality. That when the good news promises to liberate captives and empower the poor, it doesn't just mean the "spiritually" poor, but those who have been oppressed by unjust economic and political structures.

Jack Deere, _Surprised By the Power of the Spirit_: While I was experiencing charismatic renewal personally, this is the book that made me convinced of charismatic faith intellectually.

Marva Dawn, _Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God_ and _Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down_: Marva Dawn's work has helped me to see why worship must be liturgical and sacramental (and hence the poverty of so much 'contemporary' worship), as well as the way that authentic worship challenges the "powers-that-be" by means of weakness.

Stanley Hauerwas, _The Peaceable Kingdom_ and _The Hauerwas Reader_: It was in reading Hauerwas that I rediscovered the Church. He also led me down the road to being a Christian pacifist.

Daniel Bell, _Liberation Theology After the End of History_: I just read this book the past year, but it has made a deep impression on me to work toward making the Church a place that resists the disciplines of global capitalism.

Well, that's alot for your to chew on. Sorry it took so long to get back to you,

The Public Library as Temple

One of my very favorite places in Grand Rapids is our newly refurbished Grand Rapids Public Library (http://www.grpl.org). Aside from being a beautiful architectural space inside, I consider it something of a sacramental site: a place where God surprises me, meets me, guides me, and challenges me. The shelves of classical CDs offer means of delight and grace. The periodical room--with its cavernous sculpted ceilings and sprawling fireplace--opens up the world for me as I curl up on cozy chairs with the New York Review of Books or Vanity Fair (Bunyan would be a bit disturbed by that). But my favorite place--the holy of holies in this temple--is the New Arrivals shelf. In fact, I consider the New Arrivals shelf a kind of Sinai, where I go up expecting God to show me something: to _reveal_ something. Here, in this public library, the acquisitions are not governed by "academic" concerns. There is no logic of selection that I control on the New Arrivals shelf. That's why I experience it as a kind of sheer grace, this gift where I encounter books I wouldn't even know to go looking for. And I am enough of a Calvinist (and perhaps naive enough) to think that God has _appointments_ for me on the New Arrivals shelf--that there are surprises and gifts waiting there for me left by the hand of the Creator.