You can barely get a hearing anymore unless you plan to burn everything to the ground (as long as Twitter and Snapchat are left unscathed so the revolution can be broadcast). From presidential campaigns to campus politics to the entrepreneurial penchant for “creative destruction,” an almost flippant craving for revolution mobilizes voters, consumers, and even slacktivists who rarely consider just who pays the price for their revolution or that their revolutionary energy feeds on stability.

The soil-collection project is part of a plan to erect the first national memorial to lynching victims, to be built on six acres of vacant land in downtown Montgomery. The project will cost twenty million dollars, and will include a museum at E.J.I. headquarters. It will transform the look, and perhaps the reputation, of Montgomery. A key part of the plan is a dare to the communities in which the lynchings took place. ‘We’re going to name thousands of people who were the victims of lynchings,’ Stevenson told the group before they received their trowels and jars. ‘We’re going to create a space where you can walk and spend time and go through that represents these lynchings. But, more than that, we’re going to challenge every county in this country where a lynching took place to come and claim a memorial piece—and to erect it in their county.’

The Legacy of Lynching, on Death Row – The New Yorker. Here in Waco, the lynching of Jesse Washington, the one hundredth anniversary of which came in May of this year, is a permanent and hideous stain on the city’s history. The black community here has never forgotten and will never forget it. I hope and pray the city of Waco does the right thing and claims its own memorial.

excerpt 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?”

Brett Foster, “Back to School Rondeau”

It’s almost time to set aside the waning
distractions of first youth, the life contained
for years at home. What’s home? The place you grow
out of, everything receding slowly,
fading like a chalked sidewalk in the rain.
Leave childish things behind, said a certain
fellow. (Others afterward.) Don’t remain:
the friends gone late in summer let you know
it’s almost time.

Don’t leave behind new clothes, impromptu plans —
they’ll match surroundings well, remind again
of shining coming: new homes to let go
of, too; the best things said; mind’s overflow;
surprising callings; time for love, and pain.
It’s almost time.

here. Many a day I spent with Brett getting ready for a new term, a new year. How I miss him.

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.”

Packer and Stott

Russell makes a great point here, and that raises a question: What if there’s a causal connection between their institutional comnmitments and their faithfulfulness? That is, what if Christians who stick, patiently and stoically, with deeply flawed institutions thereby form themselves in such a way that they reap benefits in other venues? Maybe patience and forebearance and firmness of purpose are transferable virtues.

N.B. I write this as someone not known for those virtues.

Yesterday morning at 8:00 a.m. local time, in five cities around the U.S., the anarchist collective INDECLINE erected five copies of a nude polychrome statue of Donald Trump. The New York City copy went up in Union Square, but was removed after about two hours by the Parks Department, whose spokesman Sam Biederman explained that “NYC Parks stands firmly against any unpermitted erection in city parks, no matter how small”.

(via Language Log » Unpermitted erections)

Colossal head of Serapis



This head depicting the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis is from a colossal statue that stood over 4 metres tall. The statue is thought to be from the Temple of Serapis, a huge sanctuary measuring 101 metres by 78 metres, which once stood in the ancient Egyptian city of Canopus. The impressive remains of this sanctuary were recently discovered by underwater archaeologists led by Franck Goddio.

In this statue, Serapis wears his characteristic headdress, a corn measure known as a kalathos, symbolising abundance and fertility. Alongside his funerary and royal roles, Serapis was worshipped for his healing powers, which according to ancient historians were particularly potent in Canopus. People came from afar to sleep within the temple complex in order to be healed by ‘incubation’, when miraculous cures were delivered in a dream.

The god Serapis is said to have been introduced to Egypt by the ancient Greek ruler Ptolemy I. Serapis was aimed at Greeks living in Egypt and his worship developed where Greek presence was prevailing, notably in Alexandria and Canopus. The popularity of this universal god also flourished outside Egypt in the Greek Mediterranean world, then later in the Roman Empire.

Colossal head of Serapis. Canopus, c. 200 BC. On loan from Maritime Museum, Alexandria. Photo: Christoph Gerigk.
© Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation.

I was going into town one day and had gotten as far as the gate when I realized that I had odd shoes on, and one of them clean and the other dirty. There was no time to go back. As it was impossible to clean the dirty one, I decided that the only way of making myself look less ridiculous was to dirty the clean one. Now would you have believed that this is an impossible operation? You can of course get some mud on it but it remains obviously a clean shoe that has had an accident and won’t look in the least like a shoe that you have been for a walk in. One discovers new catches and snags in life every day.

C. S. Lewis, letter to his brother, 21 April 1940

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.

In my recent essay on Christian intellectuals, I say that one way to measure the influence of such figures is by noting their presense on Time magazine covers, and I briefly mention the shift of cultural authority that happened in the Fifties that led to scientists like John von Neumann having the kind of sage-like status than Reinhold Niebuhr and C. S. Lewis had had somewhat earlier. Maybe this celebration of Vannevar Bush is an early example of that transition. This brilliant essay by Daniel Sarewitz tells the story of how Bush created a scientific culture that has been enormously productive and yet also has become deeply dysfunctional. I can’t recommend the essay too strongly.

An estimated 10 billion people will inhabit that warmer world. Some will become climate refugees—moving away from areas where unbearable temperatures are the norm and where rising water has claimed homes. In most cases, however, policy experts foresee relatively small movement within a country’s borders. Most people—and communities, cities and nations—will adapt in place. We have highlighted roughly a dozen hotspots where climate change will disrupt humanity’s living conditions and livelihoods, along with the strategies those communities are adopting to prepare for such a future.

— What Life Will Be Like on a Much Warmer Planet – Scientific American. This article + infographic from SciAm (paywalled, I think, and if so, sorry) is pretty good, but I’d love to see another post on places that will benefit from climate change.

Now, before I go any further: I think anthropogenic climate change is real and is going to be, overall, enormously destructive. I favor serious global governmental intervention to head off, if possible, the worst of it.

But it’s not going to be bad for everyone, and it would be fascinating to learn who will benefit and how. But few journalists or scientists want to tell those stories, for fear that they’ll reduce public concern.

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.”

excerpt 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.

the easy road of the Christian intellectual

On Twitter, Joseph L. Boston is arguing that I’ve written Martin Luther King, Jr. (among others) out of my history of post-World-War-II Christian intellectuals. Now, I have an easy answer to that: King was a great man, and a brilliant man, but not a “Christian intellectual” in the way I define the term. Such an intellectual, again, is first and primarily a figure somewhat detached from the flow of current events, whose detachment allows him or her to interpret the world. But Dr. King was never so detached, and his primary task was not to interpret the world but to change it. He was above all an activist.

I struggled with these matters when I was writing the essay, because sometimes it’s hard to say whether a given figure is primarily an intellectual or primarily an activist. Cornel West is a tough call in this regard. I think late in his career activism has displaced interpretation, but that hasn’t always been the case, so I put him in my essay as a Christian intellectual.

So I don’t think I was wrong to leave Dr. King out of the particular story I was telling. But Boston’s critique causes me to reflect more on a point that probably should have made its way into the essay: Not everyone has the luxury of being an intellectual as I define it. “Detachment” is a kind of privilege. Perhaps in a different and less grossly unjust world Dr. King — and for that matter Dorothy Day, who is a similar figure in these respects — could have devoted a whole career to the “special task” of providing “an interpretation of the world.” But that wasn’t an option for him. Being a Christian intellectual, then, is a pretty cushy job, and I needed to be reminded of that.

P.S. Actually, come to think of it, the activist/intellectual distinction is more complicated than that. Figures like Antonio Gramsci, Vaclav Havel, and Wole Soyinka were intellectuals by temperament who were drawn by necessity into activism. They gave up their natural inclinations in service to a political cause. But then they were imprisoned, and prison became in a  strange way an opportunity to follow once more their intellectual inclinations. Unable to take direct action, they fell back on the work of interpretation. I wouldn’t say that Dr. King fits this model, for though his most famous piece of writing is the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” he wasn’t in jail long enough for the experience to alter him in serious ways. But I think Gramsci, Havel, and Soyinka were all seriously altered by their time in prison: they resumed there the task of the intellectual, but reconceived it in the light of experienced political action. And in the specifically Christian realm, the same can be said, I think, of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“Intellectual” is not a term of praise

I’m getting lots of feedback on my essay on Christian intellectuals, and because there’s a great deal to say about the subject — far more than I could have said in the 6,000 words I had available — I’ll probably be commenting here from time to time on some of the issues that need more reflection.

Here I just want to address one misconception that a number of people seem to have, which is that if I call someone an intellectual I’m paying them a compliment, and if I don’t I’m implicitly criticizing their intelligence.

As I say in the essay, “intellectual” is not a term of praise but a description of a particular social role:

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.”

In Mannheim’s sense of the word, intellectuals are, as I put it, “interested observers whose first job [is] not to act but to interpret.” Their independence from major social institutions is essential to their role. Thus, in a passage that got cut from the final version of the essay, I mention Rowan Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Jonathan Sacks, formerly the chief Rabbi of Britain, and comment,

Williams and Sacks alike can better fulfill the role of interpreter and mediator now that they are relieved of formal obligations to lead religious institutions. The analytical freedom of the true intellectual, in Mannheim’s useful definition, is really not compatible with the task of upholding particular institutions; so, for instance no Pope, even the most brilliant, could be a Christian intellectual in the sense I am employing the term here.

In the same way, even the most intellectually gifted and theologically serious POTUS couldn’t be a Christian intellectual in Mannheim’s sense — until he or she is out of office.

As I hope this makes clear, what I’m especially interested in is the Christian whose loyalties to the political order are secondary — who, as one whose citizenship is elsewhere (Phil. 3:20), can be both involved and detached in social commentary. I’m reminded here of what Chinua Achebe once wrote about being raised a Christian in his Nigerian village, and discouraged by his parents from being too absorbed in the traditional village life: that experience was “not a separation but a bringing together, like the necessary backward step which a judicious viewer might take in order to see a canvas steadily and fully.” That neatly describes the situation of the Christian intellectual I, borrowing from Mannheim, describe in my essay.

It’s a valuable social role, I think, but not the only valuable social role, and to say that someone doesn’t fit it is not to insult them in any way.

excerpt from my Sent folder: on Constantinianism

[in response to an email from a reader of this essay]

But in answer to your question — “isn’t this a better state of affairs?” — I’d like split the question into two vectors.

Is it better for us, for American Christians? In many ways, yes. Being severed from the arrogance and complacency that afflicted us in the Constantinian era is usefully humbling. (By the way, I too like Lewis much better than Niebuhr, and I think a main reason for that is that Lewis knew he was living in a post-Constantinian world and Niebuhr didn’t.)

But is it better for the world, for the saeculum? I tend to think not. What the Athenians said to Paul on the Areopagus (“We will hear more from you about all this”) is a heck of a lot better than what we hear from Rorty (“The theists can talk, but we don’t have to listen”). Sometimes, at least, people who pretend to listen can end up actually listening; but if they refuse to listen at all I don’t know how they can be reached.

So we need to be always striving to find ways to be heard without thinking that we’re owed a hearing.

Slavery in New York


We have it so firmly fixed in our minds that slavery was a southern thing that it seems intuitively wrong for it to have been a feature of northern city life in the 18th century. But it was. The Dutch colonists of New Amsterdam held slaves on the legal model they had developed in other Dutch outposts, from Brazil to Indonesia, which allowed for slaves in some cases to save towards their own manumission. At the British take-over in the 1670s, this was replaced by a more straightforward chattel-slave régime, in which the liberties of the white citizen were thought to be, if anything, enhanced by his possession of human property over which he had near-total discretion. By 1746, of New York’s total population of around 7000 people, 1000-1500 were slaves. 

Keep reading

But [Montrell Jackson’s [“ethic of mutuality”] ought to unsettle us too. In extending his offer of fellowship to “protesters, officers, friends, family,” he invited an exchange with those familiar to him and not—which is to say: with those who knew him and who thought they knew him. This is the sort of exchange that the Harvard political philosopher Danielle Allen has called ‘talking to strangers,’ a crossing of boundaries and borders that necessarily violates the parental wisdom that would keep us in our narrow precincts. And in the context of the United States, past and present, those spaces still remain defined largely by black and white.

Remembering Montrell Jackson’s ethic of mutuality | Gregory Laski. There’s another word for “an ethic of mutuality”: some of us call it Christianity. It seems that Professot Laski hasn’t heard of it, but it’s an interesting if perhaps marginal phonomenon, well worth investigating. The founder of that movement said a few words that might be even more relevant than those of “Harvard political philosopher Danielle Allen”: he said,

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunicb either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

I think an investigation of these words just might yield some insights into Montrell Jackson’s “ethic of mutuality.” They can be found on a number of sites on the internet.

(Seriously: the academic ignorance of and disdain for Christianity is both morally and intellectually regrettable. You do not understand people when you instantaneously translate their ideas and beliefs into your preferred academic dialect. The anthropological respect for the native moral languages of strange cultures always seems to disappear when Christianity is involved.)