26 September 2016

"Reflections on Francis Schaeffer"

Long, long about--sometime around 1970, I suspect--someone (I wish I could remember who) gave me the first of what became known as Francis Schaeffer's philosophical trilogy: "Escape From Reason." I devoured it and Schaeffer's next two books, "The God Who Is There" and "Death in the City" in short order. These books were for me, like many growing up in the Evangelical tradition in the 1960s, an initial introduction to philosophy and cultural criticism. Schaeffer as a gateway drug, so to speak.

As an undergraduate philosophy major I didn't read Schaeffer but I remembered his works with affection through my college and law school days. I had come to understand, at least in a general sense, that Schaeffer was a popularizer and not an original philosopher. Until reading "Reflections of Francis Schaeffer" (Ron Ruegsegger, ed., 1986), however, I didn't appreciate the degree to which Schaeffer's summaries of the thinking of the notable philosophers in the Western tradition were either incomplete or simply wrong. Yet like me, the authors of the chapters in "Reflections" generally display a genuine affection for Schaeffer the man and his almost single-handed efforts to introduce American Evangelicals to the contours of Western thought. Generally a decade or so older than me, many of them had spent some time at L'Abri, Schaeffer's mountain-side study center in the Swiss Alps. Many then, and others later (as they pursued their studies) loved the man but couldn't help but react critically to his superficial analyses.

If there was a second consistent theme to the criticism theme of Schaeffer it is one I've noted elsewhere: a devotion to "worldview thinking." Indeed, the two criticisms--superficiality and worldview thinking regularly go together. (See my earlier posts here, here, and here for some elaborations of my concerns about worldview.) Identifying (or simply positing) an earlier philosopher's or artist's worldview saved Schaeffer the trouble of actually and seriously interacting with the other's work at a fundamental level.

But now I'd like to add another concern about "worldview:" identity politics. If anything has to come to characterize contemporary political thought it's commitment to "identity." Whether one "identifies" as a sex other than one's natural endowment or simply as a racial or economic category, identity politics comes to little more than assertions of the putative collective "rights" to expression as one identifies oneself. There is no "human nature;" instead, what counts is one's socially constructed identity. In yet other words, the concept of self-identity has succumbed to ideology. What had been external--an untethered form of political Manichaeism--has now been turned inward. 

Although formally resistant to social constructivism, conservative Christians oriented to worldview thinking can find themselves making the same sorts of arguments as the purveyors of identity politics. If, as Schaeffer regularly argued, one's actions followed directly from one's worldview, and one's worldview was simply a given, then it's only a short step to equating worldview and identity. It is a step, of course--Schaeffer believed that one could critique another's worldview by the use of reason--but the high-level, abstract sort of reasoning in which Schaeffer engaged wasn't likely to dent someone's preferred identity. And even more regrettably, many of today's popularizers of Christian worldview thinking don't much try. One simply "has" a worldview and, if it's Christian it's right and if it's non-Christian it's wrong, and that's about it. In short, conservative Christians have succumbed to ideology

One of James Hurley's contribution of "Reflections" is true of all of us: "Great strengths can also be great liabilities." We should not only honestly acknowledge Schaeffer's shortcoming, however, we should try to do better. "Reflections" does a fair job of the former but we must take on ourselves the responsibility of doing the latter.

19 September 2016

More on Citizenship (and the Trials of Translation)

Some months ago I posted a short piece here in which I celebrated the new American citizenship of son-in-law Attilio Arcari. I also engaged in some speculation about the English and Italian translations of the Epistle to the Philippians 3:20 in which the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word πολίτευμα (politeuma). Modern English translations use the the word citizenship while Italian ones choose patria and not the more technical cittadinanza.

Since I barely knew what I was talking about, I asked my former (and now retired) Regent University colleague, Joe Kickasola. His detailed--and very interesting--response is reproduced below:
(1)  The usual Greek word for “citizenship” is politeia (Ac.22:28), but in the NT politeuma (Plp.3:20) is used as equivalent to politeia.  So, “citizenship” is a proper rendering at Php.3:20.

(2)   The reason Paul at Php.3:20 uses politeuma (the action form of the noun, “the administration of a commonwealth,” or “commonwealth”) instead of the also correct politeia (the stative form of the noun, “the state of being a citizen,” or “citizenship”) is that he is punning on what he had already said at Php.1:27, where he used the action form of the verb, politeuomai, “to order one’s life and conduct, to live with certain habits and principles”).  Php.1:27 is correctly rendered into English as “(Only) conduct yourselves (politeuesthe) (worthily of the gospel of Christ).”  Paul is matching the later action form of the noun with the earlier action form of the verb, i.e. politeu-ma with politeu-omai.

(3)   This understanding of Php.3:20 & 1:27 is actually confirmed by both the Latin of the Vulgate (conversatio) and the English of the KJV (conversation), neither of which have a reference to speaking/talking.  The Latin root vert-are means “to turn.”  The frequentative form of this verb is con-vert-are,  “to turn about with, to conduct oneself with others,” and the frequentative form of the noun from this verb is conversatio-onis, which lends to the Old English the word “conversation, manner of living, public behavior.”  The English word “conversation,” as is well known, but not in view here in Philippians, includes such social behavior as talk/speaking, as is evidenced in our derived word “to converse,” as well as the legal terminology “carnal conversation” which means adultery, which meaning of conversation is more the sense in Philippians here referring to social/public behavior.

(4)   To conclude, “conduct yourselves” in a manner worthy of Christ (rather than worthy of Caesar) at the Roman colony of Philippi (1:27) is confirmed by our “citizenship in the behavioral sense” being in heaven, not in the political or ethnic sense of Rome, because of the glorified body that Christ will give us at His Return (3:20-21).

(5)   Lastly, as to the Italian translation of patria (native country, fatherland, ethnic commonwealth), you are probably right as to why this ethnic term was favored over cittadinanza (the legal term for “citizenship”), given the different kind of political unions existing between Italy (ethnic) and the U.S. (legal).  But since every “citizen” (cittadino in Italian) in the Roman colony of Philippi shared a common cittadinanza (citizenship), I would have favored cittadinanza to patria, in that neither the legal nor the ethnic factors are in view here, but rather the behavioral aspect, i.e. conduct worthy both of Christ and His heavenly kingdom.

16 September 2016

"The Gardener of Baghdad"

The Gardener of Baghdad
I'm not sure who among our Raleigh book club suggested Ahmad Ardalan's "The Gardener of Baghdad but in due coursed I took up and read. An apparently self-published romance principally set in 1950s Baghdad, the author tells a tale within a tale of a contemporary book shop owner who discovers a hand-written manuscript between the covers of what he had believed was part of the shop's antiquarian collection.

Caught up the account of a young Ali's childhood in Diyala, his move to Baghdad where he quickly became a renowned designer of gardens, met and fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a British general, and all that followed, Adnan decides he must find out what became of Ali because  Ali's account ended abruptly on July 13, 1958, the date of the Baathist revolution that overthrew Iraq's monarchy.

Adnan manages to track down Ali's now-elderly cousin, who had featured in the manuscript, who fills in some of the details of the story only to conclude that no one knows what happened to Ali during the revolution but that most believe he died in a fire. The cousin directs Adnan to Ali's widow, the general's daughter, who now lives in the UK. Upon reading the manuscript herself, she returns to Baghdad to thank Adnan for getting Ali's manuscript to her. Then, on their way to a local hotel for lunch, they cross paths with Ali who, while not having died, has lived since then in a state of amnesia.

Too predictable to suit my taste, Ardalan's book is a modest first attempt.  Far too much telling and not enough doing, a good workshop would have helped "The Gardener of Baghdad." I had hoped to learn more something of an era of modern history about which I know little and, while I picked up some historical details, I don't feel that I understand Iraq much better for having read the book. Nonetheless, Ardalan clearly loves his home city to which he dedicated the novel.

While I don't recommend "The Gardener of Baghdad," I suspect there's an audience who will find its tale of irrepressible love in a far-away setting of interest.

30 August 2016

No Municipal Bankruptcy in Virginia: Thoughts on Petersburg

For a couple of earlier insights into the field of municipal (Chapter 9) bankruptcy go here and here. Three articles I have written on the topic have been published (links to the articles can be found here, here, and here). Yet it remains the case that it is the individual States that must authorize their cities to seek federal bankruptcy relief.

In any event, go here to read a piece by Jeff Shapiro of the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the current dire financial straits of the City of Petersburg. Like many cities in northern Rustbelt states, the residents of Petersburg are victims of an economy that no longer values unskilled labor and an elected municipal leadership that, at best, was (and perhaps is) incompetent and at worst bordered on the corrupt. Thus,
To help pay its creditors and balance its budget, Petersburg, facing a $12 million deficit and $7 million in unpaid obligations, is imposing painful economies. Among them: layoffs, a 10 percent reduction in municipal salaries, and higher taxes,
Shapiro bemoans the fact that Virginia's General Assemble doesn't permit the Commonwealth's cities to seek to adjust their debts under federal bankruptcy law. Whatever warrant there may be for changing the law, it ain't gonna happen. (On a related note, see my comments on the legislative rebuff to my testimony on a much less contentious change to Virginia's exemption laws here.)

I am intrigued by Shapiro's other suggestion--that Petersburg dissolve itself as a city and throw itself on the larger tax rolls of, say, Prince George or Chesterfield County. Turnabout is fair play. For many years anyone of wealth has moved to the 'burbs leaving cities as depopulated and poor husks of their former selves. Gentrification is reversing that process in some cities (nearby Richmond, for example) but it's not likely to benefit Petersburg in the near future.

A receiver appointed by Virginia's courts, also mentioned by Shapiro, could address incompetence and corruption but a receiver can't force creditors to take less than what they're owed (unlike Chapter 9 bankruptcy) and thus has limited power to solve Petersburg's problems.

In short, a mess. And one's for which there's no solution ready at hand.

26 August 2016

"White Trash" Part 2

Go here to read Part 1 of my comments on Nancy Isenberg's book, "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America."

Agreeing with the author's conclusions that class has been and still is a deeply embedded part of American society invites the question of what, if anything, should be done. Post-Enlightenment scholar as she is, Isenberg clearly and passionately believes that much should be done by the federal government to break down the barriers of class to achieve greater and sustainable social equality in America. Although not a policy wonk, Isenberg hints at some ideas involving both wealth redistribution through inheritance taxes and limiting parental powers.

But what if social equality is not a worthy goal? What if class hierarchy is not only the way it is but for all practical purposes the only way society can be organized? Isenberg doesn't argue for the good of social equality but merely assumes it, as does virtually everyone in American politics, Left or Right. Left- and Right-wing means of achieving equality are different (the Left pushing for top-down structural reforms and the Right telling folks on the bottom to get their butts in gear) but whether Classical Liberal or contemporary Progressive, everyone pays at least lip service to social equality.

Traditional conservatives (as historically understood, not as the term is currently deployed) would not agree. From Aristotle to early modern times in the West, hierarchical social arrangements were not only standard fare but believed to accord with human nature and divine revelation. In "White Trash" Isenberg seems shocked that the Puritans had indentured servants and enforced sumptuary laws under which persons could be fined for dressing above their class. She would not have been surprised were she familiar with the Westminster Larger Catechism of 1647 (embodying the best of English Puritan and Scottish Presbyterian theological analysis). Check Questions and Answers 123-132 here for application of the Fifth Commandment ("Honor your father and your mother.") to social relationships among superiors, equals, and inferiors.

Were Americans today to acknowledge openly that contemporary society is class-based, as Isenberg urges, however, matters would be no better than living in denial. After all, could the elites and middle class be persuaded of their duties to those below prescribed by the catechism?
Q. 129. What is required of superiors towards their inferiors?
A. It is required of superiors, according to that power they receive from God, and that relation wherein they stand, to love, pray for, and bless their inferiors; to instruct, counsel, and admonish them; countenancing, and rewarding such as do well and discountenancing, reproving, and chastising such as do ill; protecting, and providing for them all things necessary for soul and body; and by grave, wise, holy, and exemplary carriage, to procure glory to God, honour to themselves, and so to preserve that authority which God hath put upon them.
Convincing Americans corrupted by years of pursuit of wealth maximization and the sad reality of an ever-diminishing number of duty-creating relationships that they--individually and collectively--have moral duties to "white trash" is inconceivable. Hope of repristinating a bygone past by paleo-cons and folks on the Alt-Right are misplaced. History may not have a "side" but reversing the revolutionary effects of modernity isn't in the offing. But so also vain are the hopes of Progressives of good will like Nancy Isenberg.

Even to hope either for a rising tide to float all boats or for raising the lower class by intense governmental social intervention is misguided. The poor will be with us always. While waiting for the regeneration of all things we can, of course, work to ameliorate current conditions. Sin effects the desire for and the performance of the individual duties noted by the Westminster Divines. Sin also effects the very structures in which contemporary life is framed including the class structure we regularly ignore.

Even so, I'll let Isenberg have the final word:
White trash is a central, if disturbing, thread in our national narrative. The very existence of such people--both in their visibility and invisibility--is proof that American society obsesses over the mutable labels we give to the neighbors we wish not to notice. "They are not who we are." But they are who we and have been a fundamental part of our history, whether we like it or not.

25 August 2016

"White Trash" Part 1

The very title of Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America" (2016) created a stir, and appropriately so. Had she instead lead with only her subtitle, however, I am confident that many fewer would be reading it.
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Friend Miles Smith posted his comments on "White Trash" here. I am a bit less sanguine. Nonetheless, I can report without hesitation that Isenberg has performed a valuable service by telling the largely untold story of how many of the English who first came to America were from the very bottom of English society, sent to the Colonies for expediency's sake. In other words, through the first decades of the 17th century, untold thousands came to America not to make a new life for themselves nor to practice their religion free of England's established church. Rather they came as England's "offscourings," sent as indentured servants or with only the barest evidence of consent.

As such, the Colonies' initial lower class frequently died from their lack of even basic life-skills. They didn't know how to farm because over a century earlier the English land magnates had enclosed their estates, sending peasants with only copy-hold interests to fend for themselves as beggars or to seek employment in England's nascent industries or to be dragooned into military service. You can read something of of the effects of enclosures on the common law of contracts and how it was decried (long after the fact) in the Westminster Larger Catechism in my article, The Puritan Revolution and the Law of Contracts (download here or here). 

Thus begins Isenberg's account of America's permanent white underclass. Isenberg fast forwards to the post-Independence period where she contrasts the opinions of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson on what to do with this underclass. As with England's pushing its underclass to the Colonies, American leaders in the late 18th century wanted this class to go west, to the unsettled lands of the opening Northwest and Southwest Territories. Remarkable, the terms of opprobrium used with respect to this class differed little from over a century earlier. The contempt of the elites and middle classes for the shiftless and feckless underclass was pervasive and few thought that many from this group could be salvaged. They were good for little more than clearing the Natives from unsettled areas only to be evicted themselves because they didn't have good title to their newly settled lands.

With the broadening of the franchise in the early nineteenth century, Isenberg portrays how even Andrew Jackson, the hero of the common man, had little affection for the deep underclass. Both Jackson and his political enemy Henry Clay could appeal for their votes while supporting the claims of land speculators over squatters in fights over title to the land. Writers in the nineteenth century for the first time, however, sometimes portrayed those now known as crackers in a sympathetic light. Such sympathies largely disappear with the advent of the Civil War when the Southern elites co-opted (or drafted) support from the large numbers of tenant farmers by appealing, on the one hand, to their fear of Black emancipation and, on the other, to their shared contempt for Northern mudsills, and were not to return until the Great Depression.

I will fast forward to the final chapters of "White Trash" where Isenberg's touch with her accumulations of social and cultural data becomes less deft. By the middle of the 1960's, with the programs of FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society, the poor white underclass had become the object of sustained federal attention. By the 1970's, a certain hillbilly chic had developed. Concurrently with the rise of tributes to good 'ole boys and NASCAR was the film Deliverance, which portrayed backwoods rednecks in an extraordinarily vile light. What accounted for cracker pride and simultaneous cultural contempt? Isenberg can't quite say but argues that a substantial white underclass remains and will remain unless addressed by massive governmental intervention.

In short (which is tough for a book of 321 pages (and 123 more pages of endnotes)), Isenberg argues that America has been and is still a society stratified by class as much as race, and that America has and continues to deny the existence of class. And, notwithstanding the vaunted American Dream, upward mobility is uncommon; what predicts childrens' success is their parents class. 

23 August 2016

A Back Road in Virginia

This past weekend I took a ride off the beaten path in southern Southampton County, Virginia. Technically, I was about halfway between Courtland (formerly named Jerusalem, the county seat of Southampton County) and Newsoms but neither is incorporated so I can say I was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I drove the entire length of this road:

Blackhead Signpost road isn't very long and isn't named after a facial blemish. Al Brophy of the UNC Law School describes the history of the road's name this way:
In Southampton County, the scene of the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion, there is a move afoot to rename “Blackhead Signpost Road.” The road takes its name from a rebel whose severed head was placed on a pole as a warning to others. One of the first historians of the rebellion, writing in 1900, said that the signpost was “ever afterwards painted black as a warning against any future outrage.”
Brophy provides some additional detail that was new to me: 
It is likely that the slave involved was Alfred, a blacksmith owned by Levi Waller, whose wife and children were murdered in the rebellion. According to a petition Waller filed with the Virginia legislature asking for compensation, Alfred was first caught by a small band of the local militia. They disabled him “by cutting the longer tendon just above the heel in each leg” and left him there by the side of the road as they went in search of other rebels. Then a group of mounted militia from Greensville County came along. They tied Alfred to a tree and shot him, because they “deemed that his immediate execution would operate as a beneficial example to the other Insurgents — many of whom were still in arms and unsubdued.” 
The official signpost describing the rebellion lead by Nat Turner is a few miles distant. 
There is, of course, much more to be said about the event that greatly frightened Southern slaveholders. You can read a more detailed account here.

A couple of points of interest. First, Nat Turner could read, and he read the Bible. The effect of excluding enslaved persons from churches, however, left him with no guidance on the application of the text which, coupled with his ecstatic visions, lead him to believe deliverance from slavery could be accomplished by killing slave owners. Second, the response of the Virginia legislature was to make illegal teaching slaves to read. Hardly a testimony to the Christian faith claimed by the elites of the commonwealth.

21 August 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins is a delightful film. Starring Meryl Streep as the eponymous Florence, Hugh Grant as her long-time companion, St. Clair Bayfield, and Simon Helberg as the improbably-named Cosmé McMoon, Florence's piano accompanist, FFJ is a story of love made manifest in deliberate disregard of reality. Florence dreamed of herself as an operatic soprano but she couldn't sing. Bayfield knew she couldn't sing but did all in his power to permit her to live in her world of dream.

With Florence's generous contributions to the arts and a large circle of gracious friends, all went well until Florence decided to give a public concert at Carnegie Hall. There she was forced to face the scorn of an audience and critics; there she was compelled to feel the shame of public humiliation; and not long thereafter Florence died. And, to top it off, generally true to the real-life Florence (here).

Meryl Streep, who has a fine voice, does a superb job of reproducing Florence's terrible singing expression. Hugh Grant does an excellent role of playing a man committed to a woman who cannot requite his love because of syphilis contracted from her first husband. Helberg as McMoon steps up his performance several notches from his role as Howard Wolowitz in The Big Bang Theory.

FFJ was a peculiar story of of love and self-deception. And even though it may not be a great film, FFJ warmed our hearts. After all, who knows (or really wants to know) the deceptions we practice on ourselves and enabling love that permits us to endure the harsh reality of an unloving world?

17 August 2016

How Many Supremes Do We Need?

The makeup of the United States Supreme Court took center stage in American political life with the sudden death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Although much more nuanced in his judicial philosophy (and even more so in statutory construction) than his critics or fans generally acknowledged, Scalia's originalism was clearly a bulwark against the expansive role for themselves that others on the Court (four or five, depending on the case) fancy. President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland thus threatened to undo the precarious and shifting balance among the nine members of the Court.

Among Donald Trump's more cultured supporters, hoping to preserve the legacy of Justice Scalia may be the most oft-cited reason for voting for the Republican nominee. Others are less confident (here and here) of The Donald's reliability on the judicial nomination front. I must admit I'm dubious but for the sake of argument, let's consider another scenario: a pledge to nominate no one to fill the Court's vacancy

As reported in The Economist here, over the most recent three-quarters of a century, the Supreme Court has been doing less and less: "Seventy years ago, the justices decided 200 or more cases a year; that number declined to about 150 in the 1980s and then plummeted into the 80s and, in recent years, the 70s." Why, then, do we need nine justices?

The obvious answer is to break ties but that's hardly an overwhelming reason. After all, a 4-4 vote means that the decision of the lower court will stand but the Supremes' indecision carries no precedential value. It's not immediately clear that ties will increase systemic error. If so, probably not by much.

Given that the next justice to retire from the Court will probably be from its more activist wing, the current imbalance may persist for only a few years. If, for example, Justice Ginsberg leaves the Court, the ratio will be the same as before Justice Scalia's death: three to three with Justice Kennedy holding the swing vote. The upside is that the expense of maintaining nine justices will be reduced to paying only seven. Not much savings in an age of multi-billion dollar annual deficits but certainly enough to make permanent a few current temporary bankruptcy judgeships.

At that point whoever is president will have the opportunity to nominate two justices. In order to gain the Senate's consent, a well-advised president would nominate one originalist and one activist. Why would a president forego the opportunity to have a Supreme Court two-fer? Because to go for two of the same philosophy wouldn't gain Senate confirmation. After all, in the worst-case Republican scenario, even after November they will have enough members in the Senate tie up matters unless President Clinton nominates a balanced slate for the Supreme Court. Ditto for the Democrats if the Republicans win the presidency.

Or, an even better-advised president would do nothing and leave the Court with seven members and make the hangers-on earn their keep.

12 August 2016

James Madison on Religion and Religious Exemptions

You can download a relatively brief piece by Andy Olree titled A Madisonian Vision of Religious Liberty here. Quoting the abstract,
James Madison thought and wrote a great deal about issues of religious liberty. Some of his stances are well-known, while others ought to be better known. His theory of religious liberty resists easy categorization by the partisans in our current debates over church and state. While Madison himself claimed to stand for “total separation” of religion and government, his stances differed in important ways from those of many of today’s “strict separationists.” At the same time, he firmly rejected state attempts to support religious truths and practices — even broad “Judeo-Christian” ones — as well as state attempts to acknowledge the privileged place of religion in our history and culture. This invited essay, written for the 2015 Faulkner Law Review Symposium on “The Meaning of Religious Liberty in the Anglo-American Tradition,” summarizes and documents Madison’s understanding of religious liberty, with specific reference to concepts such as religious toleration, natural rights of conscience, religious exemptions in law, and establishments of religion. Along the way, the essay draws attention to points of agreement and disagreement between Madison and John Locke.
Olree's essay alerted me to the exceptional extent of Madison's reflection of the subject of religious liberty. Firmly ensconced in the Enlightenment tradition of natural rights, Madison was almost--but not quite--the poster child for a radical Two Kingdoms approach to the separation of Church and State (here and here). Madison was, of course, was willing to acknowledge freedom of religion; it is, after all, equally explicit in the First Amendment. He further supported some limited religious exemptions from laws of general application.

Olree spends considerable space refuting the position Phillip Munoz took in his 2009 book to the effect that any reference to religion in the law, even to exempt from the law's reach a practice that would pose no threat of harm to others, violates Madison's own anti-establishment principles. Drawing on Madison's writings and signatures on private bills rebating duties imposed on societies importing Bibles during the War of 1812, Olree efforts easily succeed.

Olree does not spend as much time defending Madison's anti-establishment position. He believes Madison was applying Locke's principle of toleration more faithfully than Locke himself, which is probably the case. Of course, whether Madison was correct in this--from an Establishmentarian perspective--is a question not much bruited in the legal academy today.

In summary, Olree's essay is a solid piece of historical scholarship that helps its readers understand what the framer of the First Amendment thought its religion clauses meant, what they didn't mean, and how its twin principles of religious non-establishment and religious freedom should be applied.

09 August 2016

"The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity"

I got a copy of Keith C. Sewell's book, "The Crisis of Evangelical Christianity: Roots, Consequences, and Resolutions" (Wipf & Stock 2016) at the recommendation of a friend. I had hoped it would be something of an update of Mark Noll's 1994 classic, "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind." 

Knowing that Sewell had taught for years at Dordt College, my undergraduate alma mater, I suspected his book would have something of a so-called "Reformational" bent, i.e., it would deploy a simplified version of Herman Dooyeweerd's philosophy as the angle through which to view its subject. Yet I thought that given Sewell's work as an academic historian on the roots of World War I and on historiography, I could expect something equally insightful on this more popular topic. I was disappointed.

Perhaps my first inkling of the inadequacy of Sewell's book should have been the absence of interaction with Noll's book. While "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" appears in Sewell's extensive bibliography, neither of the text's references to Noll took up the incisive groundwork Noll laid two decades ago.

The second deficiency in Sewell's account is his uncritical belief that the work of Herman Dooyeweerd somehow represents a break (and turn for the very much better) in the relationship between Dooyeweerd's philosophical speculations and all previous Christian thought. In other words, before Dooyeweerd all was synthesis (= bad) (Platonic. Aristotelian, Enlightenment, you name it) but with the 20th-century Dutchman all became biblically-directed and thus good. Sewell would have benefited from considering the privately published dissertation of R.D. Henderson, "Illuminating Law: The Construction of Herman Dooyeweerd's Philosophy" in which Henderson establishes to my satisfaction that Dooyeweerd's philosophy finds its origins and structure in a particular strand of neo-Kantianism. A synthesis tu quoque, if you will.

Finally, Sewell's book is full of conclusions for which he apparently feels little need of demonstration. Sewell's opinions, taken largely from Dooyeweerd and his epigonies, must be accepted ipse dixit. His off-handed dismissals of nearly 2000 years of Western Christian reflections on the enduring questions of the structures of human life and thinking about life in a fallen world amazed me.

It is certainly the case that the history of American Evangelicalism, as Noll has demonstrated, has  left contemporary Evangelicals with little grist for the intellectual mill. And it is entirely possible that strands from Reformational thought might prove helpful for contemporary Evangelicals but I have little hope that this book will do much to serve that end.

07 August 2016

"Freud's Last Session"

We made the trek to Virginia Beach on Saturday where we had tickets to see a sold-out performance of "Freud's Last Session," a Tidewater Stage production. Tidewater Stage is a professional theater group that uses the facilities of Regent University for its productions. It also allows some Regent University faculty and students make a few bucks in the summer.

"Freud's Last Session" depicts a fictional visit by C.S. Lewis to the offices of Sigmund Freud in London on September 3, 1939, the day Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and ten days before Freud committed suicide to end his suffering from oral cancer. The dialog was taken from each man's prolific writings and takes the form of an extended argument over the existence of God, the (un)reality of moral absolutes, the meaning(lessness) of human suffering, and the place parents played in each man's ultimate development.

Occasional radio reports about the declaration of war and Freud's painful struggles with cancer punctuate the dialog. Although there's is little action on-stage, both characters develop over the 85-minute session.

Actors John Forkner (C.S. Lewis) and Chris Hanna (Freud) did outstanding jobs. Hanna was especially powerful as an old and dying Freud come to life in his bemused contempt for Lewis's thoughtful Christianity and rage against any God who would have cursed him with a life of personal losses and now with great physical suffering.

The staging of the play was exceptional. Based on photographs of Freud's office in Vienna, the scenic and properties designers did an outstanding job of recreating Freud's surroundings. Not only us but may others have greatly appreciated this production of "Freud's Last Session." At least 250 were on the waiting list, which would have made it challenging to get tickets for the final performance even had I posted this in time.

In any event, a great job by all involved