Monday, February 23, 2009

A Nation of 'Cowards'?

So says Eric Holder, our current Attorney General, in regards to the nation's ability to converse constructively on issues of race. Predictably, due both to his prominence and the language he chose to employ, his comments have once again kicked up the dust on the well worn racial playing field of America. My issue is not with Holder per se, but with some of his defenders, particularly Michael Eric Dyson. More on that in a minute.

Understand that I come to this issue as someone who many would consider a conservative, but who takes somewhat unorthodox positions on issues of race. For example, I favor affirmative action, not as a form of payback or compensation for past sins, but because I sadly believe it continues to be necessary to help provide legitimate earned opportunity for those who face present-day racism. It is disproportionately difficult for African Americans to get access to credit and capital. The extreme difficulty in gaining clear title to property greatly inhibits many African Americans from owning their own homes, making improvements to properties, and improving the condition of neighborhoods. 'Urban education' is something mostly learned outside the classroom, since what passes for education inside the classroom is often not very educational. These are real disadvantages with real consequences, and thoughtful solutions that transcend political or public relation notoriety is urgently needed from folks on both the left and right.

So from this perspective, let me say that Holder may be more right than he thinks, and certainly far too correct for folks like Dyson to be praising him for what he said. Yes, we are a nation of cowards on race. Race, not Social Security, is the third rail not just in American politics, but in American culture too. The election of Barack Obama may (temporarily) lower the voltage, but the third rail still exists and can still deliver a painful and even fatal shock to those who touch it. Enter Michael Dyson.

Dyson is the prototypical academic celebrity. He's well spoken, his oratory is impassioned and inspiring, and he makes an effort to be cutting edge. But, I'm afraid, Dyson is the exact kind of 'coward' on race who needs to take a good look in the mirror. In praising Holder, Dyson argues that we need to move beyond our racial cocoons and get on with the business of unity. This is a wonderful sentiment, and breathtaking in light of Dyson's unfortunate rhetoric in perpetuating what has become one of the most debilitating crutches preventing candor on race discussions in America. That crutch being to shut down talking about 'unkind truth' by labeling all such discussion as 'racist' or, in the case of Dyson's view of Bill Cosby, indicative of someone who's 'lost his mind'. I don't totally agree with Bill Cosby's much trumpeted diagnosis of black poverty. But Cosby's thoughts were ironically a lot like Dyson's in technique - provocative, designed to stimulate uncomfortable discussion, and an attempt to move us away from our familiar places on the stage in order to have a real discussion.

In both newspaper columns and in a full-length book, Dyson not so subtely accused Cosby of being an Uncle Tom when Cosby dared to suggest that the plight of many African Americans cannot be reduced simply to racism. Repeatedly, Dyson accused Cosby of giving in to conservative talking points and appealing to dangerous stereotypes. Put simply, Cosby was selling out. To his credit, Dyson did at least interact somewhat with the substance of what Cosby was saying, though his interaction was too often heavy on disdain and light on alternatives that strayed even a little bit from 'liberal talking points' that have been tried and tested, and found wanting. But by doing so, he did more than many of his brethren in the academy who engage in exactly the kind of personal stereotyping devoid of engagement with ideas that Dyson thinks Cosby did. But his unwillingness to more thoughtfully engage Cosby and choosing to resort to the exact tactics that wholly dissuade honest discussion of race makes Dyson among the least honest brokers to advance a constructive discussion on race. It strikes me as quite sad that Dyson seems to lack the level of self-awareness to realize that such an approach is, well, cowardly. Shutting down legitimate debate and discussion with polarized and charged accusations that are only applicable because he says they are is cowardly, not constructive. That Dyson has a rather unrepentant history of doing this makes his approval of Holder all the more astonishing. He simply fails to realize that when it comes to race, there are cowards on all sides, including his, including him.

I say all this as someone who cautiously agrees with Dyson some of the time. I don't think Dyson is wholly wrong. But my issue is not with the social and political positions he takes. My issue is with his tactics and his very selective employment of them. This, frankly, is what all of us need to move beyond. That one of the foremost authorities on race in America can't seem to do that tells us all we need to know about the difficulty of moving the racial discussion forward and closing the racial divide among us.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Defending the Gospel of John

I am currently putting together a self-developed curriculum related to subject that I hope will be completed in time to teach it in the fall as part of my church's adult Sunday school course offerings. It was through the Johannine writings that my interest in hospitality as both an academic and ministry pursuit was born. So this corpus has long been of particular fondness to me.

This course is designed to equip those who consider the Fourth Gospel to be normatively authoritative to defend it against a rather wide swath of serious accusations. Among the topics the curriculum will cover:

1) Does the Fourth Gospel teach or give aid and comfort to Gnosticism?
2) Was St. John the author of the Fourth Gospel?
3) Is the Fourth Gospel historically reliable?
4) Is the Fourth Gospel anti-semitic?
5) Is the Fourth Gospel anti-pluralistic?
6) Is the Fourth Gospel sectarian and/or cultic?
7) Is the Fourth Gospel morally bankrupt?

Each of these general accusatory categories enjoy bases of support in the Academy, the clergy, and lay Christians and non-Christians alike. Therefore, the curriculum will interact with the views of many critical scholars such as Brown, Culpepper, Kysar, Segovia, Malina, O'Grady and Casey. It will also address some questionable assumptions made by evangelical scholars as well. We will touch on matters of exegesis, hermeneutics, theology, philosophy, church history, and linguistics. For each accusation discussed, we will also ask the 'So What?' question, which will attempt to flush out the implications should such accusations go unchecked and win the day.

Right now, I envision the course being comprised of 12 lessons, of which I have essentially completed three and am close to finishing a fourth. Because the curriculum is still in a fairly formative stage, suggestions are welcome. If anyone thinks some accusation or concern should be addressed that doesn't fall under the general categories mentioned above, please let me know. I would be happy to try and incorporate it into the curriculum.