Monday, July 28, 2008

The UU Shooting

A shooting at a liberal church by a gunman who hates liberals and gays. Now that's a headline, and it's hardly surprising that the press suddenly got interested in attacks on houses of worship today.

Hate is not always a bad thing, contrary to popular opinion. I, for example, hate that something like this happened. My hope is that something like this never happens again, though given the depth of human sin, I think it's a false hope.

I have no idea of the background of the gunman. I don't know if he claims to be a Christian or not. I do know that someone who does something like this, regardless of what they claim, is not obedient to Christ in doing such a thing.

Many people would likely consider me to be a 'conservative Christian'. And it is for this reason that I feel compelled to make myself clear - this shooting is not merely a tragedy, but an act of egregious sin. It should serve as a reminder to my theologically conservative brethren that no amount of disagreement with liberal theology, no matter how legitimate, warrants something like this. It is a reminder that conservative preachers and religious leaders need to be careful not only in what they say, but in what they stress. An overemphasis on homosexuality in a church's vision and preaching is unhealthy, imbalanced, and potentially dangerous. The evangelical church should welcome homosexuals and not treat them as outcasts. To offer welcome does not mean we compromise clear biblical teachings on the subject of homosexuality or accommodate our faith to a culture that wants no boundaries. But it does mean that we incorporate our theology of welcome into the real life of the church. The overwhelming majority of faithful Christians and their preachers understand this, but that's not what will be emphasized in the press coverage or the blogosphere.

This shooting highlights the depths of human sin. It is awful and should be unilaterally condemned. And conservative Christians who hold to a robust view of sin and 'hate' sin for the evil that it is should be condemning this shooting the loudest.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Cafferty Follow-up

I debated whether to blog on this, because I don't want it to seem like I'm obsessed with dissecting Cafferty and bringing him down to size. Frankly, I don't think he's important enough to warrant such a watchdog, and I know I'm not important enough to be said watchdog. But there was a fascinating exchange on CNN yesterday involving Cafferty that's worth comment.

Wolf Blitzer was talking to Cafferty and two other commentators about the NY Times decision not to publish a McCain opinion piece on Iraq. My interest here is not the bias of the NY Times in asking McCain to answer a loaded question on Iraq that was filled with liberal presuppositions as a condition for publication. What matters here is that the CNN conversation eventually morphed beyond the imbalance of the NY Times and into the realm of more generalized imbalance of the political media coverage overall. It is here that Cafferty did something very interesting.

Blitzer asked Cafferty whether Obama has gotten more and better media coverage than McCain. Now usually, when a press person fields a question of whether the press has been imbalanced in its coverage and has favored one candidate/party/viewpoint over another, the standard knee-jerk reflex is to deny that any such imbalance exists. This is part of why discussions on media bias tend not to get very far, because there is a basic debate about whether the bias in fact exists at all (by saying that this debate exists, I am not suggesting that the debate itself is legitimate - it's not). But Cafferty strayed from this basic talking point in responding to Blitzer.

Instead of denying that Obama has gotten more and better coverage, Cafferty DEFENDED the imbalance, thereby tacitly acknowledging that the imbalance is in fact real and measurable. For those of us who have listened to countless denials of media imbalance by media people who have a vested interest in foisting such delusions upon themselves and their audience, Cafferty's movement away from this was striking. For Cafferty, the issue of whether there has or has not been media imbalance in their coverage appears to be a settled question and no longer an issue for debate. No doubt, many (including me) would argue that Cafferty's admission of imbalance merely acknowledges the obvious. But the press isn't exactly known for such honesty in assessing its own performance. So even though Cafferty's tacit admission of imbalance is self-evident, it is nonetheless notable.

Cafferty went on to defend the media's imbalanced treatment of the candidates by arguing that in a variety of ways, Obama is fundamentally a 'better story' than McCain. In particular, Obama's 'charisma' was cited as one major characteristic that distinguishes him from McCain and makes him a 'better story'.

While Cafferty deserves to be commended in a limited way for breaking with the flat-earth mentality of his colleagues who continue to insist that the press is a balanced and objective lot, it needs to be pointed out that his efforts to defend the media's imbalance are very problematic. In tacitly acknowledging that Obama has gotten better coverage because he's the 'better story', Cafferty is justifying media imbalance with an imbalanced subjective (not objective) value judgment. Cafferty is justifying subjective coverage with subjective presuppositions without bothering to ask whether such subjective judgments are legitimate or universally shared. Put simply, it is not a stable and reliable standard upon which to erect or justify a cradle-to-grave approach to political news coverage. It's subjectivity heaped on subjectivity. When Cafferty cites Obama's 'charisma' as one reason to fawn over his every word and speech, Cafferty fails to ask the tough question of how much of Obama's 'charisma' is about Obama, versus how much of it has been created by a fawning press operating with the same kind of subjective predispositions that Cafferty himself is operating with.

In saying all this, I am not denying that Obama has significant appeal in the country. There is no question that many people are head-over-heels about him, and this can be seen in the record voter turnout during the primaries, as well as at his staged political rallies. The press's inability to contain itself in its own enthusiasm of Obama is, in a limited respect, a somewhat legitimate portrayal of the larger Obamamania phenomenon, though it's unfortunate that the press has so nakedly joined the bandwagon. But Cafferty's attempt to defend the media's imbalance and argue that such imbalance has journalistic legitimacy continues an unfortunate pattern of late. Readers of my blog will be reminded of my take on CNN's Barbara Starr arguing that bad news in Iraq is more newsworthy than good news in attempting to justify imbalanced coverage. The press, it seems, is beginning to change its spin from denial of imbalance, to defense of imbalance. By no longer disputing the reality of such imbalance, some members of the press have begun to take one small step towards honesty with themselves and the public. But by continuing to subjectively spin their performance in order to justify it, they continue to avoid asking themselves the tough questions that would challenge the status quo and begin to renew a measure of public confidence in the trustworthiness of the American press.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Cafferty on McCain

Jack Cafferty is one of the dimmer political commentators on cable. His daily 'Cafferty File' segments are selective not only in the topics they cover, but also in the perspective that's used to frame those topics. That he's on the air at the same time the latest CNN self-delusional moniker 'No Bias, No Bull' is at the bottom of the screen to describe the network's political coverage is especially rich, since Cafferty personifies the opposite of both.

Yesterday, Cafferty went Terrible-2s even for him. In a speech yesterday, John McCain suggested that Barack Obama's Iraq strategy was premature because Obama hasn't yet had substantive talks with military commanders and diplomats in the field. McCain argued that developing a sound strategy requires engagement with those who will in a hands-on way carry out the strategy. He said that talking with the implementers of strategy needs to come before developing a hardened strategy in order for that strategy to be informed by the facts and realities on the ground.

This segment of McCain's speech was played by CNN, and then Wolf Blitzer cut to Cafferty. Cafferty then proceeded to go on a diatribe, proclaiming that McCain's position was absurd. Cafferty said that it is silly for McCain to suggest that nobody is allowed to have any opinions about Iraq unless they've first talked to Petraeus and Crocker. Sounds great right? Wrong.

First, it is hardly surprising that Cafferty said what he said. Cafferty himself has never visited Iraq or talked with anyone on the ground about what's really going on. Yet, he has plenty of opinions about the war. Of course he thinks it's ridiculous that nobody is allowed any opinions about Iraq unless they've talked to the folks on the ground, because he is one of those people (and it shows). Cafferty's diatribe was more about self-justification than anything else.

Second, Cafferty completely distorted what McCain said. McCain did not say people weren't entitled to opinions or ideas about Iraq if they've never set foot in Iraq. That's a blowhard distortion by Cafferty. What McCain did say is that someone who plans to be commander-in-chief might want to talk to those he is commanding before strongly committing to a strategy that may or may not reflect realities on the ground. This isn't about having or not having opinions about Iraq. It's about properly exercising one's duties as commander-in-chief - duties which are extremely weighty and consequential.

For either Cafferty or Obama to suggest that a president with a non-military background should unilaterally impose a military strategy without first consulting his military commanders is the exact kind of authoritarian top-down gung-ho policy that both of them never cease accusing the current president of employing to the detriment of the country. The irony is delicious; the wisdom is sorely lacking.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Talks on Prayer Now Available

This past spring, the church I attend allowed me to lead a small group of around 15-20 people through a study of Richard Pratt's book, Pray With Your Eyes Open. This entailed me delivering about a 20 minute 'talk' each week that discussed the chapters in Pratt's book that were covered for each week.

The good folks at my church have now made the transcripts of those talks available on their website. I have created a link on the right side of this blog page called 'My Talks on Prayer' that will take those interested directly to the consolidated transcript.

A fair amount of what I discussed in the weekly talks merely summarized what Richard says in the book. But I did tailor the material somewhat, and I added a good bit of my own stuff.

Those interested in a good popular-level read on prayer should get Richard's book. It's neither the first nor the last word on prayer, and like many things, if one really wants to know what good prayer looks like, one should consult Scripture, since it is filled with the prayers of God's people. But Richard's book is a good supplement, and hopefully my talk transcripts will be of peripheral value as well. Enjoy.

Kurtz on Tony Snow

I like Howard Kurtz of Washington Post and CNN fame, even when I disagree with him. Unlike many of his colleagues, he often explores in various ways the one great sacred cow of journalism that is not supposed to be messed with - bias in the press. Kurtz has courageously bucked media orthodoxy in proclaiming a number of obvious truths, such as the press being in love with Obama and not really trying to hide it that much, and the dangerous amalgamation at NBC of supposedly objective reporters with the left-wing mouth foamers of MSNBC. But Kurtz also takes on more conservative media such as Fox News and properly disects the spin out of Bill O'Reilly's No Spin schtick. In my view, Kurtz does not give press people a free pass, and that is refreshing considering the degree to which the press operates as if it is above and beyond the kind of accountability that they regularly (and unevenly) try to apply to the people they cover.

But in today's Post, Kurtz suggests that the recently deceased Tony Snow "went too far in challenging reporters' motives..." during his time as WH press secretary. I would respectfully disagree with Kurtz. If in saying this, Kurtz is referring to the now famous standoff between Snow and NBC's David Gregory, in which Snow accused Gregory of being a Democratic partisan and then later apologizing, fair enough. But because Kurtz's statement wasn't qualified by something like "sometimes" or "occasionally", it reads as if Kurtz thought Snow's practice of challenging the motives of the WH press corps was routinely excessive. I strongly disagree.

In treating as fair game the perspectives that WH reporters personally (and therefore professionally) operated with and brought into the WH briefing room, Snow was confronting reporters with a much needed reality check (that, naturally, didn't take). The idea that journalism of any kind is an unbiased, objective enterprise is the kind of fiction that is less plausible than a literal reading of most children's fairy tales. Such a view, I believe, is informed at root by a fundamentally and seriously erroneous understanding of the human condition. While few are bold enough to suggest that their personal perspectives are devoid of bias and presupposition, a traditional mainstay of mainline journalism is that such perspectives can be marginalized or put safely away in a locker when a journalist performs his job as a supposedly objective reporter. While journalism thought has modified this cardinal virtue somewhat to allow for the reality that personal perspectives inescapably creep into one's vocational approach, the view persists that such perspectives can still be marginalized to the point where they become immaterial in how a reporter does her job. Such naive objectivism is a fantasy that deserves and needs to be confronted and exposed for the fiction that it is. Tony Snow attempted to do just that.

As I have previously suggested on multiple occasions, the biases, presuppositions, and basic first-order principles that people operate with - what Polanyi calls 'tacit' or 'personal' knowledge rather than scientifically proven knowledge, inevitably shapes how one sees the world and one's place in the world. 'Personal knowledge' can't be walled off from life or turned on and off at the switch. Humanity simply doesn't work that way. This can't help but considerably influence our approach to life's pursuits, including our vocational pursuits. When it comes to journalism, such perspectives inevitably shape the kinds of questions a reporter does and doesn't ask, the kinds of stories they do or don't pursue, the kinds of issues they do or don't consider newsworthy, and whether the tenor of a story is positive or negative. In the case of the WH press corps, where it has been repeatedly documented that the pool of WH reporters votes Democratic by 9 to 1, it is simply ridiculous to think that such ideological groupthink isn't a factor in how the news out of the White House gets reported night after night. And while the journalism profession can continue to blame the decline in their perceived trustworthiness on other factors just like pastors in mainline denominations blame their declining membership on everything except their slip from theological orthodoxy, the reality is that the press's unwillingness to thoughtfully address the issue of bias is crippling their effectiveness.

Tony Snow was willing to take on this sacred cow. It is little surprise that press folks didn't like it much. Circling the wagons and being defensive is always a more natural reaction than serious reflection, especially when the criticism comes from an 'outsider' like a conservative thinker. But the longer the press continues to operate with a faulty understanding of humanity and defends their allegiance to it with knee-jerk defensiveness, the sooner their profession will be beyond redemption with the public.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Jesus is a Liberal(?), Part Deux

From the previous blog entry, we see that Schweitzer cut through the crap and succinctly punctured theological liberalism's vaunted quest for the historical Jesus. Instead of arriving at some objective historical Jesus, scholar after scholar was arriving at a mythical Jesus that placated their own perspectives. If one was a liberal, he would find a liberal Jesus. If one was conservative, one would find a conservative Jesus. If one was a feminist, she would find a feminist Jesus. Marxists found a Marxist Jesus. Hippies found a hippy Jesus. Capitalists found a capitalist Jesus. And on and on it went, and still goes today. Today's liberationists find a liberation Jesus. Ardent flag-waving patriots find a pro-American Jesus. Nothing has changed, and it's depressing that so many haven't learned a thing in the 100 years since Schweitzer. Such is the result when a lack of intellectual curiosity is joined by hubris.

So is 'Jesus a liberal'? Hopefully we've learned the folly of such proclamations. However, while trying to translate Jesus into a contemporary socio-political philosophy is not facile, it's not a fruitless exercise either if the Bible is allowed to stand as truthful.

Part of the problem in all this is arriving at accurate definitions of terms like 'liberal'. If, for example, we define 'liberal' as a philosophy that preaches freedom without form, and liberty without law, then there's no way Jesus is a liberal. Jesus fulfilled the law rather than abolished it (Mt 5.17). And while Jesus has provided freedom, he has done so within the specific form of being adopted as sons into the family of God through faith (Jn 8).

If instead we define 'liberal' as a philosophy of universal acceptance and tolerance, then again the Jesus of the Bible does not fit the bill. Jesus accepted and tolerated much in his day, but he drew red hot lines of distinction between people and harshly condemned many. As Hauerwas has stated well, Christianity, following the lead of its Head, is not about acceptance but transformation under a common confession of Jesus as Lord.

In saying the above, I am not suggesting that Jesus is 'conservative'. If we were to define 'conservative' as a philosophy of change-resistance, then there's no way Jesus is a conservative. His entire life on earth changed everything - for the better.

Regarding contemporary political issues, it is again difficult to know where Jesus would stand. It is abundantly clear that Jesus cared for the poor and commanded his followers to do the same. But does this mean that Jesus would therefore commend the detached warehoused solutions of the state to address poverty? That's far less clear. It is also clear that Jesus spoke out against violence (Lk 11; Mt 26.52), but the consummation of the Kingdom as described in Revelation makes a thoroughgoing anti-violence political position a bit complicated for a Christian. Regarding an issue like immigration, I have argued in my hospitality course that the Bible commends both openness and boundaries and threads the needle between the more 'liberal' view of blanket amnesty and the more 'conservative' view of criminalization.

The bottom line is that Jesus does not neatly fit into any human political category. That's part of why we know Jesus is God and not just another human that can be pigeonholed. Jesus challenges every political orthodoxy. That means that members of God's family, regardless of their political leanings, have to overlook and excuse a lot of unbiblical politics as part of justifying their political affiliation as a Christian. Neither the incessant whining of the Left nor the smug indifference of the Right accurately reflects the person and ministry of Jesus. This is part of why neither political party can claim Jesus as one of their own with intellectual integrity, and it's also why politicized pulpits are damaging the Kingdom of God by virtue of severely truncating the Gospel. Liberals and conservatives alike, and especially those in pulpits, need to reckon with this with full understanding of the consequences of not doing so (James 3.1).

Jesus is a Liberal...

So says a bumper sticker on a random car I saw on my way to work recently. I never tire of watching people try to slot Jesus into some contemporary political or ideological category. Beyond the impossibility of naively trying to transpose today's rather unstable understandings of 'liberal' or 'conservative' onto the social world of 1st century Palestine a la Dibelius, there is also the matter of the discredited mentality behind such attempts, and the lack of intellectual awareness that often fuels it.

Beginning with Reimarus at the dawn of the Enlightenment, and extending through Bultmann and the Jesus Seminar in the 20th century, one of the great projects of theological liberalism (yes, 'theological liberalism' is an accepted technical term to refer to a once dominant strain of biblical scholarship) has been the search or quest for the historical Jesus. Inherent in this pursuit was the belief that there is a disconnect between the real Jesus of history and the more ecclesio-mythical Jesus of faith that is given to us in the Bible and upon which the faith of the church rests. For 200 years, various strains of theological liberalism attempted to find the real Jesus. Some, like Strauss, claimed the Gospel accounts were complete myth. Others, like Harnack and Ritschl, believed there were kernels of truth to be found amidst the husk of the Bible that could tell us something truthful about the real Jesus.

Then Schweitzer came along and devastated the entire project of the quest for the historical Jesus that had become a mainstay of theological liberalism. In his The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Schweitzer systematically argued that the real mythmaking was being undertaken by liberal scholars. In their pursuit of the historical Jesus, Schweitzer argued that scholars had constructed totally unhistorical Jesuses to fit their own prejudices. Therefore, such scholars never really returned to the historical Jesus, but came up with a Jesus that looked a lot like who they saw in the mirror every morning. It was a devastating critique.

Unfortunately, not only did Schweitzer himself not heed his own critique of the historical Jesus project, his critique continues to be quite valid today 100 years later. From Reimarus's 'four question' criteria for determining supposed historicity to the rigged authenticity criteria of the Jesus Seminar, the fool's errand of trying to reconstruct a historical Jesus by applying methodological doubt to the very documents that purport to tell us about the historical Jesus continues. The fact that these same proponents conveniently exempt subjecting the employment of methodological doubt to methodological doubt reveals rather sadly the half-baked intellectual basis upon which such quests are undertaken.

How is this brief synopsis of the failure of theological liberalism regarding the quest for the historical Jesus relevant today? Consult my next blog entry.