Partisanship vs. Factionalism

Now is a good time to pray for America.  I have never seen American democracy as weak as it is now.  In order for this country to survive, its leaders and its people need to defend its core democratic institutions, and yet I see many leaders and public figures, both Republicans and Democrats, ignoring or even demanding challenges to those institutions, in ways that they think will serve their partisan goals.  Partisanship itself can become a threat to the country when it escalates into factionalism.  In order to understand this, we might consider a slice of history, that of the longest-lived empire the West has ever known.

Many people have compared the United States to the Roman Empire, but perhaps a more apt, and more sobering, comparison would be with the later Eastern Roman Empire, better known to westerners as the Byzantine Empire.  The Roman Empire in the West was quickly overrun by barbarian invasions from the north, and we are simply not in that much danger from Canadians (nor from Mexicans, since that border is well-defended).  The Eastern Roman Empire survived the Germanic barbarian invasions just fine.  Like the United States, it had much greater military and population resources than its western partner.  But it fell in stages, losing large areas of land in the seventh, the eleventh, and the fourteenth centuries, so that it spent the last century of its existence as little more than a city-state.  And each of these territorial losses was preceded by factionalism and civil war.  If Americans would like to avoid the fate of the Byzantines, we must not let our partisan loyalties escalate into factionalism. (more…)

Loves Covers a Multitude of (Theological) Sins: Doctrine and Ecumenism

As regular readers here well know, I care a lot about Christian ecumenism (or, I would prefer to label it, “catholicity”).  I also care a good deal more than most about doctrine.  These two are often thought to be in conflict, but I don’t think they need to be.  In preparation for a discussion I will lead with some of the people of my church, I drew up a list of assertions explaining my position about why “catholicity” is obligatory, and possible without sacrificing doctrine.  Any of these can be expanded, and I would welcome feedback on anything that seems to lack clarity, charity, or verity.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) (more…)

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

One of my favorite Christian songs is the Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” and I was delighted some years ago to learn that it was originally in Latin.  Having learned Latin, I am still very fond of the familiar version we sing in church, but that translation (like all translations from verse into verse) necessarily adjusts the meaning to fix the meter.  So for Advent this year, I thought I would provide the hymn’s Latin words with a very literal translation into English prose, not to be sung, but so that the song may be better understood. The Latin text was taken, with minor adjustments of punctuation, from here. (more…)

Did Pro-Clinton Media Hand the Election to Trump?

N.B.: This post is a hypothesis about “what happened” in the US presidential election on Tuesday.  It deliberately makes no statement about what ought to have happened, nor should it be read searching for hints regarding my political views.

Numbers, like dead men, tell no tales.  As late as the afternoon of election day, mainstream media outlets confidently predicted, on the basis of dozens of polls, a relatively easy victory for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.  That is not what happened. Many people were surprised, whether positively or negatively, by Trump’s decisive victory over Clinton, and many are trying to figure out why it happened the way it did.  Yet the bare numbers, the responses to opinion polls and the voting tallies, are silent about what chain of events led to these results.  All explanations of what happened are necessarily speculative, but this post proposes one mechanism.  In particular, it explores the possibility that the mainstream media might have unintentionally discouraged people from voting for Clinton. (more…)

Of Politics and Peacemaking

I do not often write on politics, for a few reasons.  Devout Christians come to different political views (which are usually matters of wisdom rather than doctrine, anyway).  I think faith in Christ is more important than any particular political stance, and I do not want any political disagreement to overshadow more important issues about what Christianity teaches.  Furthermore, I know American politics best, but Christianity is global, so discussing American politics reduces what I might say to my fellow Christians around the world.  (That all sounds very spiritual, but I also simply do not find politics interesting, most of the time.)

This US presidential election cycle, however, is surprisingly ugly, and I am not talking about the candidates’ appearances.  What are Christians to think and do about it? (more…)

The Myth of Modernity

As a child, I greatly enjoyed fantasy fiction.  Dragons, witches, elves, sorcerers, vampires (before Twilight gave those a teen angst transfusion), werewolves, magic swords, ancient curses, were all great fun.  (I wasn’t sure about the gnomes – dangerously curious – but who wouldn’t love the hobbits?)  The movie Willow was the sort of adventure I enjoyed.  Dungeons and Dragons was where I learned social interactions.  (Sad, perhaps, but common enough.)  Of course wiser heads than mine ensured I could distinguish between make-believe and reality, and I never thought such fantasies were real.

The standard story, duly educated into me, was that people used to believe in witches, dragons, alchemy, demons, etc., but the Enlightenment and modern science had shown that there were no such things.  The world revealed by science was sometimes bizarre, certainly (not only quarks are strange), but it bore no resemblance to such legends and medieval superstitions.  “Everyone knows,” I well knew, that “there’s no such thing” as a dragon.

Except, of course, that there is.  The Komodo dragon is the largest lizard in the world (although not the largest reptile: crocodiles get larger). (more…)

The Problem with Prolegomena

The problem with prolegomena is that they are out of place.

Prolegomena are the things that must be said at the very beginning, before anything else.  They are the intellectual throat-clearing before meat of the matter, the logical foundations upon which later assertions will be based.  Karl Barth defined prolegomena as the explanation of the path to knowledge (in his case, in the field of dogmatic theology, but it could be taken more generally).  The prolegomena explain how the study of a subject ought to proceed, with what method, on what assumptions, in order to succeed at its intended task.  But the problem, with due apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein, is that we never do start at the very beginning. (more…)

The Old Testament and the Ancient Near East: A Christian Historian’s View

As a historian, I am struck by how much of the Old Testament consists of historical narrative, over a third of the total (and it’s a big volume!).  On the other hand, I am also surprised at the lack of historical method (as distinct from the methods of textual scholarship or archaeology) applied to these biblical narratives.  It seems that most Old Testament scholars have concluded that there is nothing historical in the text to which historical methods might be applied.  Yet I wonder whether the experts have not too quickly pre-judged the matter (always a dangerous conclusion for a non-expert such as myself to come to).  Indeed, I find myself in the rather unenviable position of distrusting the experts, and this post is an attempt to explain one portion of why I think that is, and to suggest an alternate approach to the issue. (more…)

Am I a Presbyterian?

I am having an argument with a Christian friend.  He asserts that I am a Presbyterian.  I assert that I am not.  He is not insulting me; he himself is a Presbyterian (on that we both agree).  His argument about my being Presbyterian is very simple: I am a member of a church, that church is Presbyterian, therefore I am a Presbyterian.  My argument is somewhat more complex. (more…)

Judging Christians

Judgmentalism is unattractive in modern, liberal, western culture.  After the accusation that all Christians are hypocritical, the notion that Christians are judgmental (and its frequent companion, closed-minded) is one of the reasons I have most frequently heard for why non-Christians have no interest in Christianity.  Some of the cleverer non-Christians, and many of the more liberal Christians, have even learned to cite Jesus himself, who said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matthew 7:1).  So judging is always wrong, right?

The issue of Christians exercising judgment is not so simple.  While the criticism that (most) Christians are too judgmental has merit, I think it is rather that Christians sin by judging in the wrong direction.  Jesus also said, “Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly” (John 7:24).  Not only does Jesus command not to judge, he also commands Christians to exercise judgment correctly.  Hateful judgmentalism makes obvious a lack of love, but what judgment’s “cultured despisers” often fail to realize is that refusal to condemn sin can itself be a failure to love fully.  But what does it mean to judge “correctly”? (more…)