21 November 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 1.0

This past week I posted here with a link to an interview by Michael Horton of James K.A. Smith touching on Smith's latest book, "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology." That post also contained links to some of my earlier posts about Smith's work. (Read a helpful and short review of AtK here.)

I bought a copy of AtK last week and have read partway through the second chapter. I plan to blog about it along the way so I can keep track of what strikes me as important/useful for a current project.

I am more interested in AtK than Smith's first two books in his "Cultural Liturgies" series because it promises to touch on the "political" implications of Smith's mashup of virtue ethics, neo-Kuyperian-one-Kingdom theology, and neo-Anabaptist ecclesiocentrism. (In other words, Alasdair MacIntyre meets Abraham Kuyper meets Stanley Hauerwas.) And all three channelled through Smith's reading of Augustine's City of God. Being in the law business makes AtK of special interest because law is, after all, "political."  (Putting "political" in scare quotes is appropriate to account for Smith's use of the term, although I don't plan to keep it up.)

I was pleased to see that Smith plans to draw extensively on the work of Oliver O'Donovan. (You can read a three-parter dealing with a limited critique of O'Donovan herehere, and here.). After all, O'Donovan's dense prose could do with a popularizer. And I am certainly pleased to see restoration of the Church to its rightful place in any theology. (After all, the Church is the body of Christ, not each and every individual Christian.) But the proof is in the pudding so following are a few observations on Chapter 1: "Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy."

No Stackable Silos
The commonplace distinctions world/kingdom, world/church, state/church, penultimate/ultimate, worldly/heavenly, political/eschatological are unhelpful: they do not reflect a "happy distinction of labor we imagine, mostly because the political is not content to remain penultimate." To whatever these distinctions refer in the experience of market-driven, late-modern human life, they are neither airtight jurisdictional silos nor temporal sequences. Instead, these dualities constantly interact with each other because "our biblical eschatological vision is not just a prescription for a distant eternity; it is also the norm for what good culture-making looks like now ..." And more to the contemporary point (where a biblical eschatological vision is largely absent from the rational-technical form of contemporary life), the form of democratic self-government and the market effectively--modern liberalism (here and here)--inculcate virtues that are inconsistent with a biblical eschatological vision.

Flight or Fight or ? 
If Smith is right about pernicious effects of liberalism, what is a Christian to do? Smith moves on to consider two wrong answers. First, and more surprising to me, was Smith considered rejection of neo-Kuyperian associational pluralism articulated by Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen. In Smith's words, their articulation of directional, associational, and contextual pluralism ends up as "a kind of macroliberalism" in which the virtues of modern liberalism will eventually wear down associational distinctives. On the other hand, and of no surprise, Smith also rejects David VanDrunen's jurisdictional approach in which liberalism is free to rule the city of man and Christ the city of God. As if that isn't a recipe for disaster.

Then What? 
If neither of the leading contemporary approaches identified with the Reformed tradition grasp the nettle of the deforming effects of political and economic liberalism, then what is Smith's solution? Well, that's why AtK has five more chapters plus a conclusion.

Some Recurring One-Time Complaints 
Rather than repeatedly remarking on some of my irritations with Smith's writing I'll observe them here and then not again. First are Smith's constant pop cultural asides. Why do we need a disquisition on the Kevin Costner film The Postman? Or Adam Gopnik's book The Table Comes First? And why, oh why the multi-page interaction with a David Foster Wallace novel? Maybe one self-indulgence but not three.

Second, Smith blow-by-blow account of the contested readings of Augustine by MacIntyre/Milbank/Hauerwas, on the one hand, and Jeffrey Stout on the other,  belongs in a journal article, not this book.

Enough for now. More to follow in due course.

13 November 2017

From the (White) Horse's Mouth: An Introduction to James K.A. Smith

I've posted thoughts about the work of Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith quite a few times. (Go hereherehere, and here for some examples). Now I suggest that you go here to listen to interview of Smith by Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary in Escondido. Ostensibly in connection with the third volume of Smith "Cultural Liturgies" series (has Smith written three books or the same book three times?): "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology," Horton expends much of the interview pitching Smith softballs, which surprised me given their number-of-kingdoms disagreement. (An interview by R. Scott Clark likely would have been more entertaining.)

Given that my academic bent is the law, I look forward to reading this book even Smith said relatively little about his thesis (other than he was not a fan of Rod Dreher's "Benedict Option").

Nonetheless, I'm pleased to direct my readers to this interview because it does a nice job of letting Smith explain what he's up to in his own (relatively few) words.

12 November 2017

Victoria and Abdul

Went to see the film "Victoria and Abdul" the other evening. Dame Judy Dench in effect reprises her role in the 1997 film "Mrs. Brown" but this time with a studly Indian Muslim instead of a cantankerous Scottish Presbyterian as a male companion.

I found the first half of the film delightful. Director Stephen Fears provides a deft and light-hearted touch as functionaries Abdul Karim and Mohammed Buxhse find themselves transported from the warmth of British India to cold and wet England to present a coin minted in honor of the queen's Golden Jubilee. Impressed by Abdul's exotic appearance and exceptional devotion, Victoria keeps him on as a personal secretary for over a decade. 

It was in the second half of the film that the screenplay took on a tone of political correctness. Historical sources (here and here) confirm that Abdul was deeply resented by the queen's staff and family who had him deported immediately after her death. Yet I find it difficult to imagine Queen Victoria being quite so woke in her attitude toward Abdul and expressive of solidarity with her oppressed, brown-skinned Muslim subjects. I also found the film's portrayal of Abdul's Pollyannaish goodness a bit tedious and, as it turns out, not quite consistent with the historical record.

Still, when all was said and done I enjoyed "Victoria and Abdul" and recommend it to my readers.

08 November 2017

Sioux County's Other City. Or, "Where the Small Town American Dream Lives On"

Regular readers may recall my several posts about Sioux County, Iowa. A veritable puff piece here, a slam on corporate welfare for the county's rich farmers here, a short explanation of why they're so darn rich here, and a lament about the visit of then-candidate Donald Trump to Dordt College here

For a long--a bit too long, IMO--piece about the people of Sioux County's seat of government, Orange City, read this article by Melissa MacFarquhar from The New Yorker. MacFarquhar obviously spent time in Orange City and achieved a decent grasp on what makes it (and its Sioux County rival, Sioux Center) tick. There are a few nits to pick, e.g., it's not the Dutch Reformed Church but the Reformed Church in America (the ecclesiastical home of the late Robert Schuller) and a bit of scattershot arm-chair sociology. Still, she gets what makes some pockets of small-town Dutch America the sorts of places that many people don't want to leave. (And makes many of those who do, homesick.) In short, I highly recommend it to my readers' attention.

But I would be remiss if I didn't quote from the work of Sioux County's poet laureate, Sietze Buning (a/k/a the late Stan Wiersma). (Not that the Dutch would ever give anyone the title of poet laureate.) In his "Style and Class" Wiersma penned twenty-two poems comparing Sioux Center and Orange City (with an aside or two about his now-disappeared home town of Middleburg). Even though Wiersma wrote these poems 40 years ago, and that they were set 40 years earlier, they aren't too far off today on MacFarquhar's account of things. Here's one:

Friendly or Proper?
By nine
I realized my parents greeted everybody in Middleburg
because they knew everybody there,
greeted everybody in Sioux Center
whether they knew them or not,
but in Orange City
greeted only the people they knew.

"Why dress up to shop in Orange City and not in Sioux Center?"
"Why greet everybody in Sioux Center and not in Orange City?"

"Sioux Center is friendly and Orange City is proper."

"Which one is better?"

Dad: "Orange City."
Mother: "Sioux Center."

31 October 2017

The Non-Event of the Reformation? Or, Why You Should Buy "Reformation Theology: A Reader of Primary Sources"

Since becoming associated with The Davenant Institute I have come to have a greater appreciation of the catholicity of the Reformation. While I might not go as far as to call the Reformation a "non-event" (as is argued here, or perhaps more even-handedly here), it was very much a reform of the best of the received catholic tradition (including education and even the Eucharist!). In other words, none of the "reformers" believed that the true church had vanished from the earth for the preceding ten centuries. And neither should their followers today.*

There were, of course, new insights into doctrine and practice associated with the Reformation. There were certainly new emphases among what had come before. And rejections of prevailing teaching and practices that, however, had been the subject of debate and attack for decades if not centuries. But even here we could say that any new teachings that came with the Reformation were less "new" than those associated with the Council of Nicea, which in its own day was followed by decades of controversy and opposition (which further suggests that the continuing significance of the Reformation lies not in its efforts at reform but in the now-centuries-long rejection of those efforts).

In any event, if you want to learn about the catholic, reformational, and developmental aspects of what happened in the sixteenth century, please buy Reformation Theology: A Reader of Primary Sources with Introductions and see for yourself. This book has the aim of restoring basic theological and historical literacy about the Reformation to Protestant churches. Pastors and lay readers will find it of great value and I hope it receives wide classroom use at Christian colleges and seminaries.

* As an example of the catholicity of Protestantism, one could begin by reading "A Reforming Catholic Confession" here. For a trenchant critique of Protestant hand-wringers like Stanley Hauerwas go here.)

27 October 2017

"Natural" Affection: Louis Hensler Weighs in on the Charlie Gard Case

Former colleague Louis Hensler has published an essay titled “The Legal Significance of the Natural Affection of Charlie Gard’s Parents.” You can download it here.

Hensler provides a nice summary of the important place that the concept of natural affections played in the history of the common law. Through the deft handling of a few cases Hensler explains what “natural affection” meant in the common law: in short, an immunity. Schoolmasters and employers of youngsters, even though commonly thought be acting in loco parentis, were not immune from claims of battery to their young charges. Parents, however, given the presumption of natural affection for their children, could not be sued. Children did not “belong to” their parents. Unlike Roman law, in the world of the common law unemancipated children were not property. The immunity afforded parents—and not other adults—had to do with what struck everyone then (and almost everyone now) as obviously true—parents love their children and can be trusted not to abuse their power.

Hensler does not address what must have been obvious even during the long history of the common law: sometimes parents do abuse their power. Sometimes they exceed their parental authority. And sometimes the “immunity of natural affection” can produce unjust results. I suppose it was these sorts of phenomena that lead to statutory reductions in the scope of parental immunity.

In any event, Hensler also demonstrates that “everyone” in the common-law world attributed the natural affection of parents for their children to God who had implanted such affections in human nature. And such a take on the source of parental affection was not limited to Christian theologians and moralizers of duty; secularizing thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, and David Hume agreed.

What source other than God could there be? With the progress of the nineteenth century an answer came: natural selection. Unpacking the implications of Charles Darwin’s full-on naturalization of human nature, subsequent thinkers have attributed the phenomenon of natural affection to successfully selfish genes. The offspring of parents who bore natural affection for their children were more likely to survive and reproduce. Thus, the genetic component of natural affection was more widely propagated. (This argument raises the question of whether there is a genetic component to natural affection and that it is not, say, a learned behavior. Of course, natural affection is an evolutionary advantage even if it is learned.)

I’ll leave it to my readers to download Hensler’s article. Reading it will help folks probe below the headline version of the efforts of Charlie Gard. Suffice to say that the British courts gave short shrift to the notion of natural affections.

Hensler also observes the justification for natural affection can make a difference. In other words, a divinely-implanted aspect of human nature isn’t going away. On the other hand, an evolutionary foundation for natural affection can, well, evolve into something different or simply disappear when its function has been replaced by a more effective means of genetic reproductive success.

I wish the article had addressed the limits of the immunity afforded by recognition of natural affection. Surely at some point the presumption of natural affection of parents for their children can be rebutted. For example, would natural affection have immunized Charlie Gard’s parents from liability had they refused medical treatment? Notwithstanding this quibble, I highly recommend “The Legal Significance of the Natural Affection of Charlie Gard’s Parents” to my readers.

23 October 2017

Yoram Hazony Spots the Problem

Israeli public intellectual Yoram Hazony has a nice piece in the Wall Street Journal here in which he articulates a "de-fusionist" account of what ails contemporary American conservatism. (For earlier posts on the delightfully provocative Hazony go here and here.) Hazony argues that American conservatism, at least since the 1950s, represents the amalgamation of two inconsistent strands of political thought, classical liberalism and tradition-based historical conservatism.

Classical liberalism, the secularized step-child of of European Christendom, posits a deracinated but universal human nature made up of a few natural rights (life, liberty, and property) that, when mixed in a human society, create liberal democracy. (Think John Locke to Thomas Jefferson to John Rawls.) Traditional conservatives (of whom there have been precious few in America) eschew abstract ideology and look to maintain a wise political order by keeping a firm eye on the successes and failures of a polity's past. (Think Edmund Burke to Alexis de Tocqueville to Roger Scruton.)

Classical liberalism (Liberals) itself gave rise to Progressivism with its socializing impulse under governmental control. Thus, both Liberals--emphasizing the individual--and Conservatives--emphasizing non-governmental social entities--found a common enemy in Progressivism. Combine that internal enemy with an external one, international Communism, and Liberals and Conservatives joined forces to create a powerful fusion that occupied a powerful place in American political life. At least until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Lack of an external enemy and the refraction of Liberalism into sexual autonomy and gender identity movements de-fused the union. And this split, according to Hazony, is what has given us Donald Trump:

Mr. Trump’s rise is the direct result of a quarter-century of classical-liberal hegemony over the parties of the right [in America and the UK]. Mr. Trump was not necessarily seeking a conservative revival. But in placing a renewed nationalism at the center of his politics, he shattered classical liberalism’s grip, paving the way for a return to Conservatism.
We shall see.

10 October 2017

Job Opening at Concordia University School of Law

If you're interested in working with at-risk law students (or, to phrase it more delicately, if you're interested in Academic Success), there may be a job for you at Concordia University School of Law. Read about it here.

An added consideration: Concordia is in Boise.

09 October 2017

Modifying the Student Loan Bankruptcy Discharge. Or, Dick Durbin and Me

It's a rare occasion that Illinois Senator Dick Durbin and I agree but go here (if you can, it may be behind a paywall) to read about the latest (un)doings in Congress about the nondischargeability of student loans bankruptcy.

The relevant portion of the post on Bloomberg reads,

Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, told Bloomberg BNA via email Sept. 11 that he was “proud to have reintroduced” legislation — ‘The Fairness for Struggling Students Act,’ (S. 1262)— to restore the Bankruptcy Code's pre-2005 treatment of private student loans and take “an important step toward addressing the student debt crisis in America.”          

The key to my support is the conservative point: "to restore the Bankruptcy Code's pre-2005 treatment of private student loans." Until 2005, only federal student loans could not be discharged in bankruptcy. (The history of how that state of affairs came to be is another story for another time.) (Minor correction: yes, it is possible to get a discharge of student loans in bankruptcy but it's difficult, expensive, and relatively uncommon. Read here and here.)

Just why private lenders to students should get the same treatment as our federal government has never been clear. After, all private student loans are not like taxes, something that must be paid to keep the government running. Prohibiting borrowers from discharging private student loans simply subsidizes private lenders. (Who, come to think of it, may be large campaign donors. But that couldn't explain anything, could it?)

As I explained here, the incremental subsidy that nondischargeability adds for making private student loans has played a part in driving the increasing costs of higher education. And there is no legitimate warrant for lining the pockets of either lenders of college administrators.

So, back to the beginning, or at least back to 2005. Although I give Durbin's proposal a zero chance of success, it illustrates that "what is" has not always been the case and that "what is" may be unwise.

21 September 2017

Doux Commerce and the Chicken-and-the-Egg Conundrum

A few folks might be familiar with the doux commerce thesis of 20th century social philosopher Albert Hirschman. In short, commerce makes men good:
Commerce attaches [men] one to another through mutual utility. Through commerce the moral and physical passions are superseded by interest...Commerce has a special character which distinguishes it from all other professions. It affects the feelings of men so strongly that it makes him who was proud and haughty suddenly turn supple, bending and serviceable. Through commerce, man learns to deliberate, to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action. Sensing the necessity to be wise and honest in order to succeed, he flees vice, or at least his demeanor exhibits decency and seriousness so as not to arouse any adverse judgement on the part of present and future acquaintances; he would not dare make a spectacle of himself for fear of damaging his credit standing and thus society may well avoid a scandal which it might otherwise have to deplore. (Emphasis added.)
Hirschman is in good company. Adam Smith, Montesquieu, Thomas Paine and many others thought the same. Reversing the teachings of the Classical and Christian traditions they believed that the virtues of liberal toleration are the result of trade and commerce.

Nate Oman (previous posts on Oman's work along these lines here, here, and here) agrees. And he's written a full-length book explaining why: Nathan B. Oman, "The Dignity of Commerce: Markets and Moral Foundations of Contract Law" (Chicago 2017).

I'm sceptical and so is Mark Movesian. It's not that markets are not intimately connected with morality but it's not clear which comes first. Movesian, quoting Edmund Burke, believes that morality comes first. As he notes here in his review of Oman's book, 
The conservative critique of the doux commerce thesis, associated most closely with Burke, carries considerable power. Burke favored markets, toleration, and pluralism, but he didn’t see any of them as inevitable, and he didn’t think markets alone could produce the other two. For Burke, the doux commerce thesis had cause and effect backwards. The market doesn’t create virtues and habits; rather, it depends on pre-existing virtues and habits, like law-abidingness, probity, toleration, and trust, all of which people bring to it from the wider culture, especially from religion. Without those pre-existing virtues and habits, the market could not exist.
I've read enough of Oman's previous works to believe I would agree with Movesian's observations. But for those who are interested in this question, I'm confident that Oman's book would be an excellent place to start. 

(For another, more technical review go here.)

19 September 2017

And They're In (Or, Call 'Em "Debts 'R' Us")

Toys 'R Us in bankruptcy, that is. I posted yesterday that about the likelihood that the toy retailer would go the Chapter 11 route but I didn't think it would happen only hours later. But it did. Read the news here.

For those who are interested, the largest unsecured creditor of Toys 'R Us is Bank of New York for a cool $208 million. Of course, BNY is acting as trustee for the bondholders whose notes are scheduled to come due in 2018, which Toys 'R Us knew it couldn't pay.

The leading trade creditors are Mattel ($135 million), Hasbro and Graco (tied at $59 million), and then a bunch of folks around the $30 million mark (Lego, Spin Master, and Just Play).

The first-day orders haven't been posted but I'll keep checking back.

18 September 2017

Will Toys 'R Us Be Next in Chapter 11?

Less than a month ago I posted here about the possibility of the bankruptcy of the venerable Sears, Roebuck & Co. Today's word of warning has to do with a relative new kid on the block, Toys 'R Us. Read about its potential Chapter 11 here.

I plan to follow either or both cases if they happen because I have a peculiar interest in inventory financing.

If you happen to have a Sears or Toys 'R Us gift card, don't despair. Every significant retailer that has filed for relief under Chapter 11 has received approval from the Bankruptcy Court to honor gift cards. Technically, holders of gift cards are mere unsecured creditors. The Bankruptcy Code, however, provides that the claims of such folks have a priority (up to $2850) over most other unsecured creditors.

Of course, even priority claims are subordinate to the property-based claims of secured creditors but it's a rare secured creditor that would want the publicity that would come with flushing gift card holders down the drain. There is thus no need to go out and spend that gift card immediately, although I'm sure Sears and Toys 'R Us would be pleased if you did.