To Change the (Barbarian) World

(This posting may be of limited interest to non-Orthodox readers.)

I just discovered a new Orthodox blog that looks somewhat promising, Koinonia. The owner/host has completed a very manageable 3-part series, Barbarians at the Gate, where he takes to task not the barbarians (he just identifies them fairly trenchantly), but the indifference or capitulation of the Orthodox Church to those barbarians. Part of his solution is that we cease and desist from bashing Western Culture and get down to the work of transforming it.

Our alliance with barbarism has happened because we have rejected the Christian roots of Western culture in a misguided effort to (1) keep the Church Greek (or Russian, or Arab, or Serbian) or (2) to distinguish “True Orthodoxy” from “false Catholicism” or (3) because, like Frank Schaeffer, we are simply cultural-despisers who have found that the Orthodox tradition is a convenient cudgel with which to continue waging our political or cultural battles. Whatever the reason, this amounts to a refusal to engage in any meaningful way with the cultural marketplace of ideas. As a result, it leaves the public square utterly naked – even as we moan and complain about it privately. Worse, it makes us the tools by which Nietzsche could proclaim that God was a non-factor (“dead”) in modern life. Itputs us in a position where we not only fail America – to be salt and light for our neighbor and our country – but also Christ and ourselves.

The spiritual genius of the Orthodox Church has always been the ability of the Church to take on and transform the dominate culture. This means that just as Jesus was the authentic Jew among Jews, the Church has been – in turn – authentically Greek among the Greeks, and authentically Russian among the Russians, so too we must be authentically American among the Americans. While have rarely done this perfectly, we have largely done this without sacrificing the Gospel or the communion of the various local or ethnic churches.

Is there any reason, other than sloth or despair, why we think we cannot do this in America as well?

It hit a nerve. My posts in the short life of this blog have been relatively heavy on culture-bashing. I bash because I really do care – like an inarticulate father who doesn’t know what to do with a sick child except to yell.

Part of the challenge in Barbarians at the Gate is that there are people outside the Church with whom we can and must make common cause. He suggests, among a handrul, the Catholic Church.

I suggest that James Davidson Hunter, author (coiner?) of the influential Culture Wars in the 90s, is also one with whom we can make common cause. I highly commend this paper he gave at Trinity Forum 8 years ago. That “briefing” finally has grown to a book of the same title. I am greatly looking forward to reading it (if I can moderate my blogging long enough to fit it in).

Davidson’s main points from the briefing eight years ago:

  1. Culture is a resource, and as such, a form of power.
  2. Culture is produced.
  3. Culture production is stratified into a rigid structure of “center” and “periphery.”
  4. Culture changes from the top down; rarely if ever from the bottom up.
  5. World-changing is most intense when the networks of elits and the institutions they  lead overlap.

Another with whom we can make common cause is Ken Myers at Mars Hill Audio Journal, who has been inspiring me for several decades now. I think we have some examples to emulate as well from the folks at Front Porch Republic.

The work at hand is not revolution, but the slow permeation of salt and the absorption of light. We need to be about it sooner rather than later.

Living toward the flourishing of others

Rod Dreher at Beliefnet writes enthusiastically about a new book, To Change the World, from James Davidson Hunter, who perhaps coined the term “Culture Wars” in his book by that title.

I have high respect for Hunter, though it’s been years since I read Culture Wars, so it was affirming to hear him making some of the points I made last month in Conscientious Objector the the Culture Wars. Hunter, eloquently:

The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians–and Christian conservatives most significantly–unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.

Me, [you supply the adverb]:

The Culture Wars are unwinnable on present terms partly because stridency and contempt beget stridency, contempt and alienation.

I don’t care who fired the first volley. That’s lost in the mists of history like the instigation of the Hatfields versus the McCoys. I’d like the shooting to stop. I’d like artificial divisions to end. I suspect there’s more common ground than either side presently will admit because of how things have been framed. Let’s tone it down a bit and then explore what the real divisions are. The more we insult the other side, the more we paint both sides into corners from which dialog, let alone truce, is impossible.

Hunter, interviewed, says he wants to accomplish three things through his new book:

A third thing that I would like for readers to take away is that there are alternative ways of thinking about the world we live in, and engaging it, that are constructive and draw upon resources within the Christian tradition. In the end, these strategies are not first and foremost about changing the world, but living toward the flourishing of others.

I like the italicized phrase at the end. It’s no panacea, however, as there remain some deep differences about how one promotes human flourishing. I’ll forego examples, lest I inflame things, though I have a very specific sharp difference in mind that arose between me and a bright young Christian of very liberal bent. For him it was self-evident that X promotes human flourishing. For me, it was almost self-evident that X promoted delusion, which might feel affirming and nourishing in the short term but ultimately would fail.

Dreher also has some extend quotes from Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, a teacher of screenwriting in L.A.:

My vocation is to be a storyteller to the people of my time — and if I create a good enough story, stories have a way of transcending time. I’m very preoccupied with creating a story and characters that will haunt people in a way that sends them on a journey of introspection.

I am a political animal in many ways. It’s a big hobby for me. But I have, with the rest of my generation, almost completely lost confidence that real good in society can be achieved through politics. I don’t think that’s the pathway to lasting good. I think that politics can clear the field for good to be done, but I don’t think it actually achieves anything. I think culture is what creates good in the world. That’s the realm of the artist: the storyteller, the musician, the poet. And I see myself as a storyteller.

Me:

We may get a majority vote for the “right” side on this issue or that, but that will not end the war. There will be other battles. There will be guerilla warfare. There will be no peace, and there’s only a minimal chance for the “Right” to win. Not until the Right’s own culture changes.

Changing culture is the work I’m about now – feeling my way rather than barreling ahead. That’s much subtler work than culture war. I’m not sure how good I am at it….

I’m putting nobody under obligation by asking this, but what real good do you think politics accomplishes – or what great evil does it avoid?

Culture war update

My posting that used my spiritual doppelganger Frank Schaeffer as a launching pad was in the works for several days, but coincidentally, the AOI blog featured Schaeffer’s odd behavior as its centerpiece just a day later.

I underestimated the depth of the problem, having only sampled what Schaeffer offers to wallow in. There’s something seriously wrong when an Orthodox Christian of Schaeffer’s reported status can write this generally and this in particular:

The [Manhattan] declaration was the brainchild of a far right Reconstructionist extremist, Roman Catholic scholar, Robert P. George. George is a Princeton University professor of jurisprudence and probably the most influential Reconstructionist thinker to try to derail our democracy … Of course George would disavow being called a Reconstructionist. Rather he would claim he’s an advocate of the so-called Natural Law school of Roman Catholic theology.

Well, yes, Frank: George would deny being a Reconstructionist. Because he isn’t one. And he’d claim the Natural Law mantle. Because it fits.

And if you don’t know that, I’ve got bad news for you: you’re an idiot. (Shall I write that slower? You. Are. An. Idiot.)

Or as George put it:

I remember meeting him [Schaeffer] only once. Admittedly, it was a memorable experience. We were on a panel together at Princeton discussing contemporary politics in the midst of the 2008 presidential election. I knew nothing about the man, but he immediately struck me as an odd and, frankly, somewhat creepily emotive character who, as they say, “had issues.” He seemed pathetically desperate to be important or, at least, to be regarded as important in elite intellectual circles. I’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to decide whether this had to do with his being reared by fundamentalist Christian parents, a fact which, for some reason, he insisted on making a very big deal out of in his remarks. His speech was an emotional tirade that was perhaps the most self-referential piece of oratory I’ve ever heard. It was, you see, all about . . . him! We were supposed to be talking about the election, but what the audience got from Frank Schaeffer was autobiography—an account of the life and deeds of Frank Schaeffer. (Evidently, he was once himself connected to those dreadful right-wing fundamentlists until he “realized just how anti-American they are,” which led him to forums like the the Rachel Maddow Show and the Huffington Post where he warns the Enlightened about the nefarious plans of his former comrades in arms “to derail democracy.”)  It was so painfully embarrassing that even people on his side (that would be the pro-Obama side) were rolling their eyes to make clear to the rest of us that they found his behavior as peculiar and embarrassing as we did.

Schaeffer once said Orthodoxy was his last stop in Christianity – as if he’d apostatize entirely if Orthodoxy didn’t suit him. So as a litany in the St. Ambrose Prayer Book has it:

On those who at this moment are in danger of losing Thee forever, Lord have mercy!

Conscientious Objector to the Culture Wars

(This may be the most controversial and polemical thing I’ve posted. I’ll tell you in advance, and in conclusion, that I’m disinclined to be dogmatic about most of it. Your mileage may vary.)

* * *

One of the minor irritants in my life is Franky Schaeffer. I’ll go long spells without thinking of him, and then I get a catalogue from his publishing company, or maybe he pops up in the news (having once again found limelight). And I seethe.

But lots of people love limelight. Why does he, of all people, irritate me? Probably because his life is so parallel to mine, through all the twists and turns.

  • Evangelical: Check.
  • Produced the movie Whatever Happened to the Human Race; watched the movie as a turning point.
  • Now Orthodox: Check.
  • Religious Right activist: Check.
  • No longer Religious Right activist: Check.
  • 60-something years old: Check.

But he’s too strident and angry. He’s sort of a Christian James Howard Kunstler (another approximate contemporary of mine) but without Kunstler’s ubiquitous F-Bombs. Kunstler acknowledges that his speeches are a form of theater (listen to Kunstlercast #103 here); I think that’s true of Schaeffer, too, though he’d probably deny it.

I sense, too, that my reasons for dropping out of the culture wars are different than Schaeffer’s. I sense that partly because he seemingly just changed sides, now inveighing against his former friends, writing screeds, kiss and tell books, dubious fiction (his Calvin Becker fiction trilogy was quite calculatedly ambiguous about the extent to which it was autobiographical), paranoid apologies for Barack Obama, and sucking up to media personages who call him things like “a former leader of the anti-choice movement.” (They just love to get some sound-bites from an angry ex-whatever.)

But I really dropped out because:

  1. The culture wars are unwinnable on the present terms.
  2. I suspect that the strident tactics make most things worse rather than better.
  3. I don’t really trust my former allies.
  4. I don’t really trust the candidates we’re supposed to vote for.
  5. I still don’t trust my former adversaries.
  6. If I’m a prominent culture warrior, it will spill over harmfully into other areas.
  7. Maybe I’m just a worn out old hippie pacifist.

1. The culture wars are unwinnable on the present terms. We may get a majority vote for the “right” side on this issue or that, but that will not end the war. There will be other battles. There will be guerilla warfare. There will be no peace, and there’s only a minimal chance for the “Right” to win. Not until the Right’s own culture changes.

Changing culture is the work I’m about now – feeling my way rather than barreling ahead. That’s much subtler work than culture war. I’m not sure how good I am at it. But I’m convinced, to take just one Culture War example, that we won’t stop abortion until we change the toxic combination of unchastity and avarice that gets women pregnant and then justifies aborting the innocent child to maintain prosperity (greater or lesser).

The Right is not with us on that. Fox Radio recently aired an ad, between Glen Beck and Bill O’Reilly, for an online service for married men seeking adulterous affairs. (I didn’t hear it, but read about it from someone who didn’t note the incongruity of this appearing on a putatively conservative news source.)

Whaddya think? I’m betting that the ad wasn’t there for the 13 liberals who were eavesdropping on Fox that day, but for the red-meat, red state regulars.

TownHall.com syndicated columnist pages every day have ads for “conservative” slogan t-shirts draped on attractive young lasses, selling conservative politics, like everything else, with sex. Today there’s a sexy avatar for some video game, too. It’s all a racket.

This could as well go under the caption “I don’t really trust my former allies.” But on present terms I think the idiocy of modern pseudo-conservatives belongs in this “unwinnable” category, if only because their position on the sexual side of the culture wars seems to be “anything goes, so long as it’s not gay.” That’s a losing position long-term as well as being a sign of untrustworthiness.

2. The Culture Wars are unwinnable on present terms partly because stridency and contempt beget stridency, contempt and alienation.

Whichever side of the Culture Wars you’re on, think about the fundraising letters you get. Are you edified by their tone? Do you appreciate the sober, educational emphasis? Do you find yourself walking away with something of substance to ruminate on?

If so, I’ve got bad news for you: you’re an idiot. (Shall I write that slower? You. Are. An. Idiot.)

The groups who used to send me fairly sober letters have gone strident. The groups that used to send me strident letters are now frothing at the mouth. And I’m sure the other side is doing the same. Shrill is the new green.

I don’t care who fired the first volley. That’s lost in the mists of history like the instigation of the Hatfields versus the McCoys. I’d like the shooting to stop. I’d like artificial divisions to end. I suspect there’s more common ground than either side presently will admit because of how things have been framed. Let’s tone it down a bit and then explore what the real divisions are. The more we insult the other side, the more we paint both sides into corners from which dialog, let alone truce, is impossible.

3. The culture wars are unwinnable on the present terms, too, because there’s darned little difference between the two sides on some of the deep presuppositions.

They’re both, ironically, secular. One side is secular because they don’t believe in any divine rules. You know which side I’m talking about. (Hint)

The other side – my side – is mostly secular because they functionally believe that God’s only presence in the world is His rules. They “honor” Him by keeping his rules – sort of the way a rank amateur “paints” by number. That’s why I don’t really trust them. The tranformative significance of the Incarnation: God the Son, Who took on our flesh forever – qui sedes ad dexteram patrem (who sits at the right hand of the Father) in resurrected human flesh – is lost on them. God is up to something more than commandment monitoring and forgiving transgression of the commandments. The incarnation changes everything.

“Love God and do as you will” would strike them as modern relativism. They’re very anti-relativist. Except on Ecclesiology. Then they’re apt to utter Babbitry like “Isn’t it swell that there’s a church for every taste!

At the other end from the relativist “conservatives,” there’s a Protestant Church in my home town that produces a disproportionate share of Religious Right activists. Several of them have been elected to public office. But they’re theonomists, or more specifically Reconstructionists. If they had their way, there would be 18 Old Testament Capital Crimes in our law books – including sassing parents. They’d shut down my Church and desecrate its icons. They might, for all I know, execute me for one of those 18 capital offenses for the icons in my home prayer corner.

“And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of …” the folks I encountered who dreamed of kingdoms, feigned righteousness, broke promises, shot off their mouths, tried to set fires, escaped the edge of euphemisms …. (Cf. Hebrews 11:32-34) These are the folks with whom I’d be a “co-belligerent” (Francis Schaeffer’s coinage to distinguish temporary and unreliable political friends from reliable “allies”) were I to continue in the culture wars. And they outnumber many-fold any well-formed Christians of historical and liturgical bent.

We Orthodox have been here before. After the attempted union with the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Florence (see also here), the Orthodox decided they’d risk rule by Sultan over rule by Pope.

That is not a throw-away line: I’m not so sure a secularist regime would be worse than what Christian Reconstructionists would bring upon me and my fellow Orthodox Christians that I’m willing to be bedfellows with Recontructionists.

4. In the current terms of the Culture War, the highest form of involvement, other than sending money in response to strident or frenzied letters, is to vote for Republicans. Any Republican.

In 2000 and 2004, it was Dubya. He was, we were told, a good Evangelical Christian. He cited Jesus as his favorite philosopher. He talked about America walking humbly in the foreign policy world.

Then 9-11 came, and he turned into a fierce Commander In Chief. And, oddly, Imam-In-Chief, as he assured us that “true Islam is a religion of peace.” (Well I’m glad he cleared that up!)

And then came, too, the second inaugural, when he declared as U.S. policy the eradication of tyranny from the world and the planting of democracy. If you don’t understand how delusional that is, read it again: eradicating tyranny from the world. As national policy.

Many Religious Right figures in 2008 backed Mitt Romney, Mormon and heir of a 50s moderate Republican, George Romney. Mitt was, deep down, one of us – despite his left-leaning administration as governor of Massachusetts – they assured us. Now they’re pushing Sarah Palin, about whom I’ll not say much except that I do not now support her and see no sign that she has the goods to gain my support later. (I don’t even think she’s all that “hot,” for whatever that’s worth.)

I’m not gonna play Charlie Brown the placekicker to the GOP’s Lucy Van Pelt any more.

5. I still believe pretty much what I believed before on what makes for good living and a just society. I’ve even kept a hand in the debates by writing letters to the editor on a few hot-button issues. Those letters are far less demonizing of the opposition than the sort of letters I used to write. But I check the online comboxes and see that the other side has no lack of equally-but-oppositely mad partisans of its own, leveling vitriolic attacks on me, no matter how reasoned my argument, just because I reach conclusions they don’t like.

But even at more elite levels than smalltown cyberpaper comboxes, I’m still convinced that the other side is untrustworthy. One occasionally will catch one of them committing candor, as has Chai Felblum of Georgetown law school. Imagine a constitutional case with this issue:

Whether the inferred right to marry a member of the same sex, which is inferred from the right to engage in homosexual sodomy, which is inferred from the right to privacy, which is inferred from penumbra of he 4th, 9th, 10th, 14th and other consitutional amendments, is of sufficient constitutional gravity to warrant compromise of the explicit constitutional command against laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion?

Chai Feldblum would answer “yes.” I’m not making up her response (though I did make up the highly tendentious – but brutally accurate – faux issue statement). I appreciate her candor.

But her candor tells me that there’s no home for me in the left where Frank Schaeffer has seemingly pitched his tent.

The Orthodox Wedding service includes, for just one example, “grant unto these Your servants …a peaceful life, length of days, chastity, love for one another in a bond of peace, offspring long‑lived, fair fame by reason of their children, and a crown of glory that does not fade away.” You can’t pray that with integrity over a same-sex coupling, whatever you might think of it otherwise.

So while the Chai Feldblums of the world might not smash my icons like the Reconstructionists, they’ll soon enough take away my Church’s tax exemption, or otherwise put on the squeeze, because they’ll consider us a hate group for continuing the two-millennia-long practice of connecting marriage to procreation.

6. If I’m a prominent culture warrior, it will spill over harmfully into other areas of life. I was reminded Sunday how diverse my parish is. We have Romanians and Russians who were born, or even came of age, under communism. We have Greeks who think that 2nd Amendment mania is barbaric (in at least one case with justification that I can’t gainsay – a family member gunned down in cold blood by someone who went postal). We have young people and middle-aged academics who lean left. We have demographically unknown visitors most Sundays. I have something to learn from some of them.

Just as I don’t want someone to ask me “why are you here since you’re not Greek?,” I don’t want people of Right-leaning disposition to come up to me at Church and make some dismissive remark, which they assume I’ll find hilarious or profound, about a Left-leaning idea that may be held by another parishioner within earshot. I don’t want there to be ethnic, racial, socio-economic or political barriers to people. Political trash talk about trifles at Church is apt to drive people away though we have a faith in common and should be together on Sunday.

7. Maybe I should try a bit more empathy. Maybe I’m not angry because, unlike Frank Schaeffer, I have a day job, with a comfortable living, and don’t have to raise a fuss to sell my newest book. Maybe a brain or personality disorder prompted Franky to call Barack Obama’s election “miraculous” and to prophesy epochal political healing on Obama’s watch.

Maybe Frank’s suburban Boston parish (I think he’s in Brookline, Michael Dukakis‘ hometown) has a leftist litmus test and he caved in. Or maybe he’s rebelling against his upbringing in neutral Switzerland as I declare myself a Swiss-like neutral in the Culture Wars.

Or maybe I’m not angry, by and large, because I’m a child of the 60s, a former Conscientious Objector to conventional war, and now old enough that I’m kind of tired of fighting of all sorts – worn out, if you will. Maybe we really need young, testosterone-crazed Christian guys (and gals crazed by whatever crazes women) who still are eager for a fight. I see my role as one to ask questions of any such young hotheads from the perspective six decades gives. Such as the ones implied by what I’ve just written.

* * *

So who am I hangin’ out with these days if not with the Alliance Defense Fund and the acolytes of R.J. Rushdoony? Check the bloglinks to the right* – Especially Front Porch Republic (“Place. Limits. Liberty.”), Distributist Review  (guardedly). Small Is Beautiful has taken on new meaning for me. (My benighted generation got a few things right before we sold out or got complacent – and appreciating E.F. Schumaker was one of them).

I can’t even rule out Father Stephen. Nothing he writes is “about politics,” but everything he writes is about sane, human and humane living, which surely connects up somehow.

Basically, I’m going back and rethinking all things political and cultural. I’m wisdom-hunting. I read Wendell Berry essays and poetry, Bill Kauffman books, Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind, Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft, Scott Cairns’ Poetry, W.H. Auden (“For the Time Being” is now on my list for every Advent).

My conversion to Orthodox Christianity started it in a way. I soon realized that the Church has not always prevailed, and has produced martyrs in every century. And that’s okay. Better we should lose honorably than win by selling our souls.

  • (Note: When I changed my blog theme, the sidebar went away and anachronistically renamed my blog, which was “Tipsy Teetotaler” when this was written.)