a question for David Gushee

My favorite moment in this column by David Gushee comes when he says, “I have been a participant in the effort to encourage Protestant religious conservatives, generally known as fundamentalists and evangelicals, to reconsider their position voluntarily.” Voluntarily, or …? He sounds like a sheriff in an old Western: Are you gonna come along nice and quiet, or am I gonna hafta rough ya up?

But let’s assume that, contrary to certain appearances, Gushee doesn’t think of himself as an enforcer dispatched by the Powers That Be to bring recalcitrant bigots into line. Let’s set aside his insistence that none of the people on the wrong side of history are honest when they say they genuinely hold theological positions he himself held just a few years ago. (“They are organizing legal defense efforts under the guise of religious liberty.”) Let’s assume that he’s just quite neutrally letting us know what’s coming.

It turns out that you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it, and your answer will at some point be revealed. This is true both for individuals and for institutions.

Neutrality is not an option. Neither is polite half-acceptance. Nor is avoiding the subject. Hide as you might, the issue will come and find you.

And, in case we didn’t get the point the first time around, he returns to it later:

Openly discriminatory religious schools and parachurch organizations will feel the pinch first. Any entity that requires government accreditation or touches government dollars will be in the immediate line of fire. Some organizations will face the choice either to abandon discriminatory policies or risk potential closure. Others will simply face increasing social marginalization.

A vast host of neutralist, avoidist or de facto discriminatory institutions and individuals will also find that they can no longer finesse the LGBT issue. Space for neutrality or “mild” discrimination will close up as well.

So in light of these warnings about what is to come, I have one question for David Gushee: So what?

That is: What, in his view, follows from this state of affairs — for Christians, that is? Odd that he doesn’t say. It has been my understanding that Christians consider it a virtue to hold to their convictions in the face of unpopularity and even persecution. (“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.… But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”)

Of course, you can also be persecuted for holding false views; being persecuted doesn’t confer legitimacy. But it certainly isn’t a sign of error, or those who have “endured to the end” are of all people most to be pitied. So how is it relevant, in Christian terms, that those who hold certain views will suffer for holding them — that those who hold the view that Gushee has publicly held for around twenty months are powerful enough to punish those who haven’t quite caught up with him? 

Italy’s Fragile Beauty

Italy’s Fragile Beauty – The New York Times. Earthquakes are not the only threat to Italian beauty. Floods and landslides have become more frequent and destructive, since small farmers stopped tending the hillsides and unscrupulous real estate developers replaced them. Small, winding mountain roads — the umbilical cords of little communities across the country — are expensive to maintain, and some local authorities don’t even try. Depopulation has done the rest. Amatrice had already lost three-quarters of its inhabitants in a century — going from 10,000 to just 2,500. They emigrated, they went to Rome and other cities to find work.

excerpts from my Sent folder: Wendell Berry

About Berry, first of all, I don’t think he has ever had an especially broad audience — his message is too discomfiting for that. And while I approve and even celebrate the message, I don’t think there’s anything specially Christian about it. Berry, it seems to me, is a reincarnation of an early Roman: he worships his household gods, and if the Bible happens to say anything that supports the worship of those gods, he quotes it, and insofar as it does not, he ignores it. Like Rachel, he would have smuggled the teraphim in the baggage rather than trust wholly in the God of Israel. St. Paul’s talk of the cosmopolitanism of one whose politeuma is in heaven — I don’t think we’ll hear from Wendell about that, though I am immensely grateful for what we do hear from him.

excerpts from my Sent folder: whaddaboutism

Thanks for this response. One of the things I have inadvertently done with that essay is to make people think of Christian Public Intellectual as a kind of pigeonhole, and then they want to argue about who fits in the pigeonhole. That was not my intention at all, though I don’t know how I could have written the essay in a way that didn’t create that kind of debate. To me, the point of the essay was to describe a divergence in cultures, and therefore in languages, in such a way that we no longer have people who are clearly recognized, by the church and by the larger culture alike, as authoritative mediators between those cultures. So I don’t think it’s possible for anyone today to play the kind of role that Lewis and Niebuhr and Murray, in their various ways, played. (For good or ill.) To propose someone today as a plausible candidate for that role is to deny the historical thesis of the essay tout court. Which of course can be done! — but I don’t think it can be done by whaddaboutism, by “What about X?”

take it to the bank

Whenever a college or professional football player commits some act of violence — against a woman, against a dog, against some dude in a bar at two in the morning, against an opponent on or off the field — here’s what the coaching staff and other team officials say:

  1. “We take offenses like this seriously. Very seriously.”
  2. “We’ve talked to X. We’ll handle it in house.”
  3. “X is a great teammate, really a great guy, everybody loves him. He’s not that kind of person.”
  4. “What X did is not in any way representative of our guys and who we are as a program.”
  5. “To prove how seriously we take this kind of thing, we’re gonna make X sit out the first quarter of our game against Southwest Technical College.”

Francis Schaeffer and subaltern counterpublics

I am truly grateful for all the responses my essay in Harper’s is receiving, and I’ve been doing my best to give a fuller account of my thinking when asked to do so … but it’s getting harder! For me, this is an avalanche of inquiry.

First of all, let me encourage you to read this post by my friend Bryan McGraw, which raises some vital issues about our current technological regime and its dramatic alteration of the conditions of being “public.” For one thing, there’s the temptation to think of the public world as something to be manipulated by technique; for another, everything is accessible to everybody else. You may be a Christian tweeting to other Christians, but if a hostile person wants to listen in and then denounce you to the world, that’s always possible.

This gets back to the question I explore in my essay about the rise, starting in the 1940s — maybe the creation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942 could be a convenient starting date, though the story belongs to Catholics and mainline Protestants too —, of Christian “subaltern counterpublics.” Such counterpubliics create a double bind for their participants. On the one hand, a certain independence from the strongest currents of public opinion is necessary for Christians to undergo a seriously Christian formation; on the other hand, the longer you stay within that formative counterpublic the more unfamiliar and uncomfortable you become with the language of the larger public world. It appears that when Jesus commanded us to be “in the world but not of it” he was making a demand no less challenging than “Go and sin no more.”

One way I describe this difficulty in my essay is to say that the Christian intellectual wants to be both audible and free. But often we have to choose one or the other. I have retained much of my freedom as a Christian intellectual by working for Christian institutions, and have tried to become more audible by writing for mainstream magazines and book publishers. But it involves constantly sacrificing some good thing in order to get another good thing. I don’t say anything in that Harper’s essay that I don’t believe, but many things I do believe and are immensely relevant to the questions I raise didn’t make their way into the essay, and couldn’t have.

Francis Schaeffer — whom Jake Meador invokes in his response to my essay — chose freedom above audibility. As Jake points out, for a brief time he was also somewhat audible in the culture at large, but that didn’t last. The same forces (primarily the sexual revolution) that changed the direction of Richard John Neuhaus’s career also deprived Schaeffer of his larger audience. But Schaeffer was almost the opposite of the Christian public intellectual I describe: he was more of a Christian private intellectual. He always insisted on occupying his own turf, quite literally: if you wanted to interact with him, generally speaking, you had to come to L’Abri, or hear him lecture. Interacting directly with his peers, or with actual scholars, was not his thing. He wrote books, of course, but always for Christian presses, and most of the people who were most deeply influenced by him met him in person or saw him on video. His appeal to the Sixties counterculture was that of the guru — he was a readily recognizable example of that type — but his influence, like that of most gurus, was dependent on his personal charisma. Billy Zeoli shrewdly saw this and so turned How We Should Then Live? into a film series.

If all this sounds like I don’t have a lot of respect for Schaeffer, that’s because I don’t. His one merit — and it’s a significant merit — lay in convincing conservative Christians to be less afraid of art and ideas. But his actual readings of art and ideas were extremely simplistic and uninformed, and early in my career at Wheaton College I found it difficult to talk with students who had taken up Schaeffer’s line and were reluctant to think thoughts he had not thought before them. But that was long ago, and as far as I can tell Schaeffer’s influence has dwindled to almost nothing.

One more (possibly nitpicky?) thing: Jake speaks of Christian “intellectualism,” and several other people who have responded to me have used the same word, but I don’t use that term and I honestly don’t even know what people mean by it. My essay was about the intellectual, a type of person, a social type (as defined by Karl Mannheim) “whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world,” to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.”

Beyond that, Jake gets into questions of the general cultural place of Christianity in America today, all of which are great questions, but far beyond the scope of my essay.

I will try to respond to others who are responding to me — well, except for the people writing to tell me that I’m not a Christian, and that sort of thing — as best I can, but as I have said, it’s getting rather overwhelming. (And I’m staying away from Twitter for now.)

once more around the Christian intellectual block

So, let me explain.

No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

I have to say, I liked Strachan’s first effort better than his second, because in the second he attributes to me thoughts I do not think and statements I did not make. To wit:

It is [Jacobs’s] contention that evangelicals do not do good enough work to merit inclusion in the big bad secular academy, and that the neo-evangelicals whom I referenced were not themselves trying after all to enter the secular citadel, but sought to build staging grounds by which future generations would do so. To complete the narrative, in Jacobs’s view we have by and large failed to make good on these hopes. We are isolated, without much cultural influence, and we have no one but ourselves to blame.

Mostly wrong (right about the “staging grounds,” though). In my original essay I said that the disappearance of the generally audible Christian intellectual was “not wholly elective,” and I spent some time describing the forces that pushed us further into “subaltern counterpublics.” In my post I said often the work of my fellow Christian scholars who complain about exclusion isn’t good enough. I then said “Sometimes the work of Christians is rejected for ideological reasons, and I think there are also forces at work that prevent thoughtful Christians from entering the academy in the first place.”

So no, I never said that “we have no one but ourselves to blame.” I said that (a) some of the blame belongs to us, and (b) I think it’s spiritually and intellectually healthier to focus on our own shortcomings, “even if there really is a mean old secular world and it really does want our marginalization.”

I would also say that there are some important distinctions to be made between the place of the Christian public intellectual (which was the subject of my essay) and the place of the Christian scholar (which is what we’re discussing now).

One more thing: Strachan writes, “Perhaps he and I are both working from biography,” and I think that’s true, though in a slightly different way than his account of his time at Bowdoin indicates. I think — and here let me call attention to the “UPDATE” of my earlier response — the larger and more important difference between my experience and his is that I’m a literature guy and he’s a theologian. So I can work on W. H. Auden, who was a great poet and a tremendously theologically literate thinker, and say, “Hey, it doesn’t really matter what I think, I’m just telling you what Auden thought.” I have some cover, in other words.

Now, that’s not the whole explanation. You can be a serious Christian theologian and teach in the secular academy: Kevin Hector is the first example who comes to mind, and yes, I’m going to say that the University of Chicago Divinity School is “the secular academy,” because mostly it is. But it depends on what you work on, and it’s never going to be easy. I’ve had the luxury of deciding just how theological I want to be, or don’t want to be, which is a luxury no reputable theologian has.

Now, that said: I have chosen to be pretty theological, and as I’ve written before, I believe I’ve paid a price for that. I am simply unemployable outside the small world of religious colleges and universities. But the academic publishing world, in my experience, offers more possibilities.

So the story for almost all of us is a mixed one, with doors closing here, opening there. I just want to give as complete a picture as I can — but err on the side of emphasizing what we Christian scholars need to do to live up to our calling as fully as we possibly can.

A response to Owen Strachan

I’m very grateful to Owen Strachan for his thoughtful response to my recent essay on Christian intellectuals. Let me go straight to what I believe to be the heart of the matter: Strachan writes, “I do wonder if [Jacobs] overplays the self-deselecting element of his public influence argument, and underplays the marginalization element.” Wonder no more, Professor Strachan! Not only did I overplay the self deselecting element, that was precisely what I meant to do.

Here’s why: for about thirty years now I have listened to my fellow Christian scholars lament their marginalization in the academy. I have heard them complain that the leading journals of their fields and leading scholarly presses routinely reject their work, and I have heard them attribute such rejection to anti-Christian prejudice. But often when they have shown me that work, I have read it and thought: This isn’t very good. You’re not making a strong argument. You seem only to have read what your fellow Christians have to say on the subject, and are unaware of the larger scholarly conversation. Had I been the editor of that journal, I would have rejected this too.

After several experiences of this kind, I came to the conclusion that one of the best services I could provide to my fellow Christian scholars was to get them to repeat to themselves as a kind of mantra: When my work is rejected, that’s because it’s not good enough. Now, to be sure, this isn’t always true. Sometimes the work of Christians is rejected for ideological reasons, and I think there are also forces at work that prevent thoughtful Christians from entering the academy in the first place. But it is never good for you as a scholar, or as a follower of Jesus, to jump immediately to blaming others for your disappointments. It is much healthier to go back to the drawing board and redouble your efforts, reading scholars you don’t like and don’t approve of and trying to articulate thoughtful responses to them. That kind of discipline can only make your work better, and harder to reject. You won’t thereby escape the consequences of anti-Christian bias, but you’ll have a better chance of limiting its force, and in the meantime you will become a better thinker and better scholarly craftsman.

That attitude has been my watchword for decades now, and I think it has served me well, and I hope it has been helpful to others also. Insofar as my essay was written for non-Christians, I wanted them to hear a Christian voice that doesn’t just complain about marginalization, and insofar as I meant to be heard by my fellow Christians, I wanted to reinforce this message of blaming yourself first.

All that said, even if I stressed the self-deselecting element more then I believe is objectively warranted, I do believe that that self-deselection has played a major role in getting us to where we are now. But the problem is more subtle than is usually recognized — considerably more subtle than I was able to indicate in the limited space available to me in Harper’s.

Let me explain what I mean by turning to another passage from Strachan’s response:

Look, Carl Henry should have had the corner office at Yale University. E. J. Carnell should have had a 1–1 load at Princeton. George Eldon Ladd should have been famous the world over for his studies of the kingdom of God. Ockenga should have had a weekly broadcast on NBC. On and on it could go. These were fantastically gifted individuals, but their beliefs consigned them to the margins, and that was that.

I agree with Strachan that these were all first-rate intellects whose abilities deserved the kind of stature that he imagines for them in an alternate and better universe. But I also think that they had intellectual priorities that made them poor candidates for playing the role of the broadly public Christian intellectual, or for holding the top-tier university post. My thinking about this is shaped primarily by George Marsden’s great book Reforming Fundamentalism, and I think Marsden’s title gets at what these men were up to. They looked around at their fellow evangelicals and they saw people who were simply not prepared to engage with the larger world of ideas, and so they took it upon themselves to educate their fellow evangelicals in these matters. A book like Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism — and this is true of most of Henry’s work — is not meant for a general audience, it is meant for an audience of evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. And I think all of the figures Strachan cites were basically pastoral and pedagogical in their vocational orientation. They were less concerned to engage directly with the culture at large than to provide the intellectual foundations that would allow later generations of evangelical Christians so to engage.

It is of course perfectly possible, indeed likely, that the orthodoxy of their theological views would have made them unwelcome at the nation’s elite institutions. But I don’t think they ever tested that hypothesis, because they had other concerns that seemed to them more important to attend to. They wanted to build up their own Christian community, largely through the development of that community’s institutions, and that just didn’t leave them time for publishing articles in Harper’s.

I honor those men greatly, and I think much of my own intellectual journey has been made possible by the foundations they laid. But now it’s time to see whether my generation, and the generations following mine, are prepared to live up to the hopes that Carl Henry and Harold Ockenga and others of their kind had for us. And that’s definitely not going to happen as long as we are blaming a mean old secular world for our marginalization: even if there really is a mean old secular world and it really does want our marginalization.


UPDATE: I should also add that it’s hard to say anything very specific about these matters that applies across the disciplines: The challenges for me as a literature professor are different than those of theologians, which are in turn very different than those of scientists. Even within the humanities there are major differences: for instance, Christian scholars play a much larger role in history and philosophy than they do in literary study, for complicated reasons.

if I could…

If I could edit my essay on Christian intellectuals as I saw fit, I’d make it a lot longer, of course. But in light of the responses I’ve been getting for the past few days, I’d be especially eager to add something to this early section:

In the last years of the Weimar Republic, Karl Mannheim, an influential sociologist, argued that a new type of person had recently arisen in the Western world: the intellectual. These were people “whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world,” to “play the part of watchmen in what otherwise would be a pitch-black night.” … [watchmen] not [in the sense of] Juvenal’s guardians (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?), or for that matter Alan Moore’s comic-book version, but interested observers whose first job was not to act but to interpret.

Here’s what I would now add:

Though Mannheim refers to this social type as the “intellectual,” making it quite clear that he is using this term in a technical sense rather than in its everyday meaning, I will not follow his example. The everyday sense of the word “intellectual” — basically, “really smart person” — is so deeply ingrained in the minds of readers that it would be impossible to convince them that by declining to identify certain figures as intellectuals you are not in any way demeaning those figures’ intelligence. You could point readers to Mannheim’s definition, explain it, put it in different words, provide context … nothing would work. Trust me on this one, it would be backing a sure loser. So instead of “intellectuals” I will henceforth refer to “interpreters.”

excerpts from my Sent folder: singing the Lord’s song in a strange land

… I would say that openly Christian writers are often welcome at the WSJ, as long as they don’t say anything that contradicts the foundational beliefs of the WSJ (primarily free marketism). But then the same is true, mutatis mutandis, of the NYRB, at least for Marilynne Robinson: she can speak as a Christian because she pronounces her devotion to secularism. And my treatment of these issues in Harper’s is historical and social: if I tried to make a theologically grounded case for the political value of Christian intellectuals, Harper’s wouldn’t even look at it. I don’t in any way blame them for that; but it’s a factor that creates certain strategic challenges for me.

The problem for Christians, as I see it, is being “audible and free” as Christians without having to swear fealty to, or at least refrain from all criticism of, political and social positions that ground their legitimacy altogether elsewhere than in the Christian understanding of the world. Christians are welcome in many choirs as long as they agree to sing the songs written by non-Christians. If they want to sing their own songs, then they’ll probably have to do that in their own venues.

Again, that’s no tragedy, and I don’t know that it’s anyone’s fault, and I’m not even sure that it deserves my lamentation.* But I would love to have more opportunities to speak in distinctively Christian ways to people who don’t know much about Christianity, or who know all that they think they want to know.


*As my friend and colleague Scott Moore said to me the other day, in the time of Christian intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and John Courtney Murray and the like American society had an unspoken agreement to pretend to listen to what Christians have to say, and now they don’t pretend any more. Maybe that’s an advance.

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