Monday, August 25, 2008

Marginalizing the Perspective of Faith

With Bill Maher's latest infant tantrum on religion ready to hit theatres on the heels of the published Hitchens and Dawkins rants of the last few years, it is worth taking some time to interact with this perspective, albeit by engaging the views of folks more intelligent than Maher and company.

The view that religionists and religion hold far too much sway in the public square is recent, but not new. The acrimony and disdain expressed by the likes of Maher and Hitchens is only an amped-up version of a more embedded point of view that has negatively impacted evangelicals in particular for decades. One manifestation of this viewpoint concerns the reception of a faith-based perspective in academic research and teaching.

In a recent article on SBL's website, Michael Fox of the University of Wisconsin argues that faith-based perspectives are illegitimate when it comes to academic scholarship - even biblical and theological scholarship. He suggests that "faith-based study has no place in academic scholarship, whether the object of study is the Bible, the Book of Mormon, or Homer. Faith-based study is a different realm of intellectual activity that can dip into Bible scholarship for its own purposes, but cannot contribute to it." Fox believes that a faith-based perspective, by definition, cannot contribute anything positive to academic research and cannot be considered 'scholarship' in any way. For Fox, "the best thing for Bible appreciation is [a] secular, academic, religiously-neutral hermeneutic." In order for biblical scholarship to be 'scholarship', one must be secular and bring no religious persuasion to bear on his/her work. This position mirrors the viewpoint of Jacque Berlinerblau, who teaches at Georgetown and has his own prominent blog at It is not difficult to see that such an orientation de facto marginalizes faith-based perspectives and seeks to drive them out of the academy's work. This is a sanitized and cultured version of Maher and Hitchens.

But importantly, Fox does not follow the mouth-foamers in discrediting faith perspectives as altogether illegitimate. Fox is clear that "faith-based study of the Bible certainly has its place—in synagogues, churches, and religious schools, where the Bible (and whatever other religious material one gives allegiance to) serves as a normative basis of moral inspiration or spiritual guidance." Fox declares that faith-based study is profitable within very tightly confined (and controlled) spheres. But Fox reiterates that while "this kind of study is certainly is not scholarship." Put simply, Fox is telling religionists to keep their religion in church and don't bring it into the academy, because it is illegitimate to do so.

This article is most revealing and should serve as a painful reminder that liberal intolerance is as entrenched as ever in certain quarters. Fox's article is breathtaking in its naivete on a whole host of levels that it is frankly a bit depressing that someone like this sits on a comfy perch at a respected state university.

First, it is amusing that folks like Fox who proclaim to be interested in moving the academic ball forward by censoring faith-based perspectives out of academic existence are themselves irretrievably stuck in an 18th century Kantian dialectical thought framework. Fox's view that faith has a place only in a very restricted realm that needs to be walled off from everything else is classic Kantian noumenal/phenomenal dialectic. For Kant, faith and reason were not only opposed to each other, they had to be in order for each to be real. Fox's view of the relationship between faith and scholarship thoroughly reflects this mode of thought. But while Kant felt it necessary to protect faith from reason because he thought reason would destroy faith if allowed, Fox apparently believes that 'scholarship' needs to be protected from faith in order for true scholarship to survive. Such a dialectical view on the relationship between faith and reason is horribly outdated and represents a step or three backwards rather than anything forward-looking.

Second, Fox's advocacy of a secular religiously-neutral hermeneutic is incredibly naive, not to mention arrogant. If Fox really believes there is such a thing as a religiously-neutral hermeneutic, he should also start believing in the Easter Bunny, since both are equally mythical. Nobody approaches the biblical text as a neutral blank slate. Again, to argue for such a thing is to step backward in time even further than Kant to embrace Locke. If Fox believes that 'scholarship' today can only be recovered by resurrecting Enlightenment dictates, he should just say so. The problem, of course, is that such a position might be 'secular', but it is hardly 'religiously neutral'. Fox is first in line to fail his own litmus test, and in doing so, demonstrates that the idea of a religiously-neutral hermeneutic is nothing more than a hollow fiction. The fact that such a fiction is the only valid approach to 'scholarship' doesn't inspire confidence that such 'scholarship' will ever stumble onto anything true or real. It's the equivalent of basing the study of rabbits on Bugs Bunny cartoons.

Lastly, why exactly does Fox believe that a religiously-neutral hermeneutic is so absolutely correct that all other perspectives need to be muzzled and kicked out of the academy? On what basis does Fox reach such a position, and what evidence or argumentation does he marshal to persuade others of the correctness of this view? Answer - none. Fox wimps out on the question by employing an ad hominem in dismissing respect for multiple perspectives in scholarship as 'sophistry', but failing to tell us why. Basically, what Fox is trying to do in this article is completely discount faith-based perspectives in the academy without telling us why they should be discounted, and advocating a singular absolutist and fictional perspective without telling us why such a perspective should gain a monopoly over academic pursuits. This is the definition not only of arrogance and hubris, but also fear. In being unwilling to offer a serious argument for marginalizing all other perspectives but his, one wonders if being unwilling is rooted in being incapable.

Fox is pulling a classic Nietzchean power-play at the expense of people of faith. The fact that he and Berlinerblau hold prominent posts at prominent universities is sufficient to demonstrate that evangelicals continue to overcome a stacked deck in pursuing academic truth. The fact that such an article was published online by the preeminent biblical academic society in the Western world is downright bewildering. There's no way that SBL would publish a similarly dim article by an evangelical, and rightly so. This should make us all question why Fox was given a green light, and what that says about SBL.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Signing Off for a While

I will be out of the country for a while starting tomorrow. While it's possible that I may be able to blog while overseas, there's a good chance I won't. Hope to be back around the end of October. Take care.

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Dark Knight - A Review

At the outset, let me say that The Dark Knight (DK) is the best movie I’ve seen in years. It goes beyond the perfunctory displays of cartoonish violence, loud explosions and human indestructibility that characterize the big-budget summer movie phenomenon. DK confronts its audience with vexing issues and difficult questions without offering easy escape answers. Given its titanic success at the box office, Christians should realize that DK has not only conjured the imagination of the public, it reflects it. It used to be that philosophers would ask the questions that people were asking, and that theologians would provide the answers to those questions. No more. Today, our entertainment culture is asking the questions on people’s minds. Christians who want to understand the culture around them would be wise to see DK. DK, despite its almost oppressive darkness, offers us a fabulous opportunity to dialogue with our neighbors, coworkers, and schoolmates – most of whom will go see this movie and ponder it.

Some believe DK is a morality play. Others have suggested that the Batman character is something of a Christ-figure. Still others see current political overtones in the movie. All of these observations (and more) may be legitimate, which further amplifies the multi-layered richness of the film. DK bluntly communicates a worldview in which heroes are not as heroic as we think, and that villains are usually not crazy even when their actions are beyond the pale. The film relentlessly grapples with the question of whether the societal rules and limits that define ‘good’ behavior are adequate (or even ‘good’) when confronted with an adversary or a situation where the rules don’t apply. And repeatedly, the film shows two ‘good’ characters (Batman and the ‘White Knight’ District Attorney) becoming increasingly flawed and breaking society’s acceptable code of conduct in the pursuit of very imperfect justice. The Joker, who fancies himself an agent of anarchy, largely succeeds in getting ‘good’ people to turn their backs on the very characteristics that made them good just by scaring them with seeming randomness rather than predictability. But importantly, he doesn’t completely succeed in this.

A few observations:

1) The Joker is a mesmerizing character. His main aim appears to be to break down the illusion of ‘good’. The traditional institutions of ‘good’ in this film – the police, the legal system, Batman himself, are all shown to be corrupted to varying degrees, and willing to sacrifice their principles when necessary. Even Lucius Fox, the CEO of Bruce Wayne’s company played by Morgan Freeman, succumbs to utilizing a surveillance tool that he believes is so wrong that he’s willing to resign from the company simply because the tool exists. But this severe moral objection doesn’t stop him from using it. This kind of normalcy is not ‘good’, and the Joker correctly observes that in the end, ‘good’ is an illusion if this is how we’re defining it. The Joker believes that once this illusion is broken down, people will inevitably join him and turn to anarchy.

2) The notion of order and chaos is thoughtfully explored in the film. The Joker wants to overthrow the corrupt established order and introduce uncorrupted anarchy. But The Joker is not a true anarchist. The Joker is also corrupted, in that he is something-akin to The Father of Lies in this film. He protests that he simply acts and doesn’t plan. But that’s not true. His introduction of anarchy into Gotham is very deliberate, very calculated, and well-thought out – planned. The Joker wants to usher in mayhem, but a very ordered mayhem with a controller pulling the strings to orchestrate the mayhem not for mayhem’s sake, but to ‘send a message’. The fact that The Joker routinely incorporates moral overtones into his motives betrays that he is not an anarchist at all. The battle between Batman and The Joker is not a battle between order and chaos. It is a battle between two different visions of order and two competing understandings of morality. The fact that it is Batman that compromises his principles more than The Joker is a provocative statement by the film which forces the audience to ask which worldview is more pure and durable.

3) The notion of The Joker as The Father of Lies really resonated with me. The Joker offers multiple contradictory stories in explaining his scars. He routinely deceives Batman, the authorities, and even his own partners in crime throughout the film, often with deadly consequences. The Joker is masterful in taking a grain of truth, a grain of plausibility, and twisting/distorting it into a believable lie. All of this should sound very familiar to Christians, since it mirrors the Bible’s presentation of Satan. This dynamic is especially true when The Joker turns Gotham’s ‘White Knight’ District Attorney into ‘Harvey Two-Face’ who actually adopts a purer form of anarchy than The Joker in his all-out embrace of ‘chance’. Most compelling of all is the simple fact that The Joker is always ‘masked’ in the film. The notion that embracing anarchy is the most honest form of existence is betrayed frame by frame by the fact that this agent of anarchy won’t take off his mask while insisting that everyone else, especially Batman, take off theirs. It is The Joker’s ultimate lie, but like many of Satan’s lies, I wonder how many moviegoers will be perceptive enough to recognize it for the lie it is.

4) The issue of myth is a huge theme of the movie, which culminates at the end of the film with the attempted myth-building of both the White Knight and the Dark Knight. This is a huge issue, and one that Christians need to confront. In the movie, the notion that cops are good is shown to be a myth, because they are very corrupt. The notion that Batman is a pure and moral superhero is shown to be a myth, because Batman is not always ‘good’ in this movie. The theme culminates in the film’s treatment of ‘White Knight’ District Attorney Harvey Dent. Batman/Bruce Wayne is desperate to have Dent take over the mantle of moral crusader cleaning up Gotham, and willingly contributes to furthering Dent’s ‘White Knight’ mystique by holding a lavish fundraiser on his behalf. But after tragedy strikes, The Joker succeeds in turning the White Knight into a two-faced monster. Now, instead of taking on corruption by using the ‘good’ mechanisms of law enforcement and the legal system, Dent goes underground and resorts to vigilante justice, where he makes decisions about whether people live or die on the amoral basis of an ‘unbiased, unprejudiced’, uncorrupted coin toss. After Dent is killed, Batman and Commissioner Gordon (the one honest cop in Gotham) agree that the public can never know about Harvey Two-Face, because to know that the city’s White Knight has done horrific things would be too much for the city to overcome. Gordon proceeds to posthumously further the White Knight myth for the benefit of a scared public that needs to believe in something good, and ‘to have their faith rewarded’. As Christians, we must be extremely careful in distinguishing between myth and truth. Our faith isn’t based on myth, but on revealed truth. Contrary to the faith of Gotham, our faith is not misplaced. But we need to realize that our culture largely thinks we are like the people of Gotham, in that we too have placed our faith in myths. In our discussions with other people about DK, we need to be intentional in making this distinction.

5) In the end, The Joker does not succeed in bringing anarchy to the city. He does not succeed in bringing the city down to his level. The Joker’s last great ‘social experiment’ results in both ‘good’ people and ‘bad’ people choosing not to destroy themselves, with the ‘bad’ people being the first to make that decision. It is noteworthy that the intimidating leader of the ‘bad’ people is briefly shown to be a vulnerable man of prayer. It is here that DK gives us a glimpse of hope. It can be argued that DK is telling us that the best and most effective way to overcome evil is not by adopting evil’s methods and trying to use them for good, but by rejecting those methods completely and finding the true source of ‘good’ – God. In contrast, in the film, Batman gradually begins to use ‘evil’ methods in trying to stop The Joker. He is attempting to use these methods sparingly and in a measured way, presumably because he hopes that this will fundamentally keep him dissimilar from The Joker. The film seems to argue that such an approach is perilous and unlikely to succeed. A prevailing undercurrent of the movie is the belief that Batman’s efforts to clean up the city have resulted in the creation of the ultra-violent Joker. The Joker himself tells Batman, “You complete me.” The audience is left to wrestle with whether this is true, and if it is, what it means for us when struggling with contemporary questions of what kind of methods are acceptable in combating evil, and when are they acceptable. The movie’s seeming endorsement of a true view of ‘good’ that rejects violent methods in favor of meek ones is strongly biblical. It also serves as a healthy warning for those of us who embrace the Reformed notion of engaging the culture in order to transform the culture. DK may or may not be in sync with this idea, but regardless, we should always remember that our engagement with culture cannot be an embrace of culture without becoming corrupted by the culture. In our engagement with culture, we have to be very sure of our footing and foundation. Engaging the culture without this footing will indeed result in transformation. But it will not be the culture that is transformed, but us, and not in a good way. DK serves as a good reality check here.

6) But while DK gives us this glimpse of hope, it gives us no guarantees that such hope will triumph in the end. After being confronted with such a stark display of the ability of humanity to be ‘good’, The Joker refuses to admit defeat. He suggests to Batman that such a display is just another example of human fickleness, and that such courage is unlikely to repeat itself once The Joker truly demoralizes their spirits. The Joker is clearly intent on seeing this all the way through, and is not deterred by one noble event in a sea of corruption and violence. Again, the film strongly suggests a biblical outlook here. ‘Good’ is not defined just by individual acts of virtue, but by perseverance in the face of sustained attack. Like Satan, The Joker isn’t going to give up easily, and intends to wreak havoc on Gotham for as long as it takes. This is a haunting vision of the very real spiritual battle that we as Christians are up against. Anyone who wants a graphic picture of the reality of spiritual warfare should see DK. It will do you good to be confronted with it in order to be reminded of how terrible and relentless our adversary is. The Joker and Satan are the same, in that both ‘want to watch the world burn’. But unlike DK, we know who comes out ahead in the end. We know the victory is ours, because Christ has already won. This is the hope that we need to sing to the world, because it is a hope that people are looking for. DK correctly deduces that while the public wants to believe in ‘good’ and wants to have hope, they’re unsure if such hope is well founded and whether it can be placed in anything real. The movie is very prophetic in accurately surmising the present mood of our culture. It is here that Christians can persuasively bring a biblical perspective to the issue.

Sorry for the long post.