Author Archives: joeldharrison

A Hiatus

Hello Everyone,

Thanks to all who have read the blog over the last few years. I’m going to be taking an indefinite hiatus from posting here at A Church Unbound. I’ve found myself writing more and more for a collaborative project called Flux of Thought (which I posted about last year) and thus have had increasingly less time to post here. A Church Unbound will remain up, but for now, I do not foresee myself putting any amount of time into new posts for it. My work, however, can still be found at Flux of Thought where I am collaborating with three other aspiring scholars in theology and philosophy of religion. Thanks again for reading!

Joel

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On Justice Part 2

This is the second part of a series on justice that began quite a while ago here. In that post, I posed this question:  Why should it make sense to us to tie justice primarily to punishment when the gospels seem to tie it to liberation? To put it another way, why should God’s justice ultimately be a penal justice? I also acknowledged that the first post was leaving things a bit messy. We’re going to begin to untangle some of that here.

I want to point out up front that, despite the title, this post is not going to be primarily about justice; rather, I want to set up the current situation that gives rise to the questionable conception of justice I outlined in the last post–namely, the moralization of justice.

To do that, we need to first examine the concept of sin. In western Protestant traditions, sin has been conceived of in two partially related ways. First, it is the general condition of human beings (Original Sin) that we are born into and must “work” to get out of by accepting the grace offered to us through faith. Second, there are individual “sins” that are indicative of the more general condition but which can themselves be identified, outlined, placed in hierarchy, and appropriately condemned. This condemnation is a markedly different formulation than what we find in the Catholic tradition. In pre-Reformation Catholicism, acts of sin are counted against you in a sort of running tally with your works of righteousness; the more righteous you are, the less time spent in purgatory. But in the Protestant tradition, broadly, the condemnation of sin is tantamount to the rejection of the world which is always at odds with the kingdom of God. This was by no means Luther’s view. It doesn’t quite accurately describe Calvin either, but it was the Reformed movement that gave rise to a strong version of this understanding in America.

The Puritans, who were Calvinists, held two narratives together that deeply shaped the way they viewed the world and how God interacts with it. First, was the narrative of persecution–what is called a “jeremiad.” The Puritans (who really were persecuted in England) believed that they were the only truly elect. They saw themselves as a pure (hence the name) distillation of what it is to be a member of the elect and as the last bastian of morality and decency among a rapidly degenerating, horrifically evil world (which included Catholics, Anglicans, and other Protestants.) They fled to the New World in order to establish the City of God, free from the dangers that the evil outside world presented. Second is their understanding of how God acts in the world, which is also necessarily tied to their belief in election. While they believed in election, they also believed it was impossible to know for sure who was actually elect. But they thought that if a person had been blessed with election by God, it would be naturally reflected in the abundance of blessings that surrounded him. If one is a member of the elect, one would live a righteous life and be abundantly blessed. The righteous life necessarily includes abstaining from “the world” which requires a black-and-white knowledge of what is righteous and what is worldly. Thus, a life devoted to and focused on Christ is primarily about one’s own moral behavior.

Furthermore, if one were to err, punishment would be the only way to ensure a truly repentant heart and a commitment to returning to the right path. Those who do not repent are in danger of eternal punishment.

The effects of this sort of moralization of Christianity are numerous and far reaching. The most important effect is that the significance of Christ for our lives, “following Jesus,” is primarily about not doing bad stuff simply for the sake of not doing it. We hear a lot of sermons and sing a lot of songs about following Jesus, giving him control of our lives, etc., etc. However, we rarely hear about what that should actually look like. We’re left to draw concrete conclusions from the abstraction of Christ as “the center” of our lives, and that has predictably resulted in the separation of Christians from the “sinful world” strictly for the sake of “not sinning” itself. Separation is, after all, the safest way to be a Christian, since it allows one to live in a protective bubble safe from the dangerous world. I’m not just talking about families who homeschool their kids and only have friends from church, etc. Even those who live in the world can still take Jesus’ command to not be “of it” as a prescribed morality. You can live among the sinners, just don’t be one of them–simply because you shouldn’t. Jesus and God just don’t want you to. There is no other reason given. The focus of our whole Christian life, what makes us distinct from the world, becomes the fact that we don’t participate in activities that are rather arbitrarily designated as sinful because they correlate with some notion of “what the world does.” If we abstain, pray sometimes, serve others sometimes, read the Bible, and go to church, we’re devoutly following Christ. Christianity becomes a life of inward contemplation with its outward signs restricted singularly to church-going, occasional service projects and negative action (i.e. I don’t do a, b, or c.)

In this familiar version of Christianity, sin becomes the barrier that keeps us from abstractions like “being close to God” and “following Christ.” But I don’t think either are primarily about “not sinning.” Scripture makes it pretty clear that to follow Christ, to be close to or love God, to be “in relationship” with both, to [insert any other relationship to the trinity you can think of], is accomplished in loving others in a such a way that radically subverts the worldly order–the orders of power, privilege, and the oppression that those naturally bring. When I love and serve those that seem impossible to love and serve, I am loving and serving Christ. If that becomes the focus of the Christian life, then sin takes on a very different role. It is that which prevents us from that love and service. It is that which we seek after and prioritize over that love and service. In other words, it is idolatry.

This understanding of sin is not new. I’m following a whole host of people (thinkers as far apart as D.A. Carson and Peter Rollins, for example) in defining sin as idolatry. We typically think of idolatry as one sin among many, another moral guideline, but that sort of thinking (that there is a list of rules which, once broken, constitute a list of sins) is exactly what we’re trying to get away from. If we conceive of sin in this way, we can begin to see that our moralization of sin has actually prevented us from identifying some really pervasive sin barriers. Our own comfort and security. Our privilege. Our politics. The prioritization of our allegiance to the nation-state. We can easily imagine how these might impair our ability to engage in selfless acts of mercy, justice, and compassion to those who are poor, oppressed, and helpless (which we also might say represent the bare minimum as expressions of a life devoted to Christ), let alone to develop a posture of service and humility, one in which relationship and solidarity with the “refuse of the earth” becomes a part of our very identities as Christians. We too become the scum of the earth. In an interesting, ironic twist, the moralized view of justice has in fact prevented us from actualizing what I think is clearly biblical justice.

This doesn’t suddenly mean that activity we once saw as sinful is no longer sinful. The reason for its categorization as sin as well as the contingent consequences of sin have changed. While the elimination of morality from our conception of sin may seem like I’m watering it down, the contingent consequences of sin are actually far more severe. Under the view I’ve outlined, sin not only has damaging consequences for us, but  In the next post, we’ll begin to look at the cosmic

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Gatsby and the Resiliency of American Empire

The Great Gatsby opened this week in its fourth film adaptation to very mixed, leaning toward negative reviews. The complaints range from the film being Baz Luhrman’s attempt to do a perfect Baz Luhrman impersonation to the awkwardness of the mash up between the early twenties and contemporary hip hop to the plodding pace of the plot and the poor attempt to mask that with a lot of flashing lights and CGI. There even seems to be a recurring complaint that the adaptation misses the point of the novel entirely, celebrating American empire and all the decadence of the Roaring Twenties rather than telling a story about its downfall.

One of the interesting things about the reviews is that they seem to claim exact opposite things about the film: Where one blasts the mashup, another praises it; where one says the film is shallow, another says it carries the message of the novel perfectly, and so on. What this tells me is that people (still) don’t really know what to make of this story. It’s one of those novels that everyone supposedly read in high school; people tend to like to use it as a touchtone for their own cultured-ness, a way of showing that they have some semblance of knowledge about literature. One of my brothers used to keep a copy in the glovebox of his car on the off chance a girl happened to open it.

I have many thoughts about the success of the film (or lack thereof), though this is not meant to be a review. I will say, however, that the aspect of the novel I’m going to discuss is brought out through what I think is the film’s greatest failure. As an adaptation, the film does an incredible job being faithful to the timeline and construction of the plot as well as the dialogue, with much of it taken word for word fromt the text of the novel. With regard to the major themes, my impression was that the film, in a sometimes heavy handed way, makes it a point to alert the viewer that, through the quintessentially modernist devices of lost love and failed attempts to recover the past, this is primarily a story about empire; namely that American empire is cold, destructive, and tragically resilient. But while the film attempts to beat that into the viewer with melodrama and over the top mise-en-scène, the novel sketches a much more careful, delicate picture which has made it notoriously difficult (some say impossible) to adapt.

This brings us to the film’s greatest failure which also happens to be, I think, the novel’s greatest trick: Nick Carraway. Both novel and film are told from Carraway’s first person perspective (though the film sometimes departs.) This is obviously a very deliberate choice for Fitzgerlad: Why write a novel so heavily dependent upon the revealing of another character’s backstory in the first person? At times, the devices utilized to convey those details of the past feel stilted, contrived, usually a telling of a telling. Furthermore, a story that is so tightly centered around deception and fantasy does not lend itself well to reliable first person narration, even if it isn’t the narrator intentionally lying, and indeed, many scholars have attempted to make the argument that Nick Carraway is in fact an unreliable narrator. The film plants that possibility in the viewer’s mind right from the beginning by having Nick tell the story of Gatsby from a sanitarium where he is being treated for severe anxiety and alcoholism–an unnecessary addition, to say the least. Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that the story he has told is false in anyway.

The trick is that while being faithful to the story that he lived, he is not honest with the readers, and more importantly himself, about his participation in the empire that destroys Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson by the end of the novel.

The natural effect of first person narration is that the reader or viewer begin to identify with and trust the narrator. In fact one of the effectual goals of the novel is for us to begin to think that we are Nick Carraway–to be able to see ourselves sympathetically in his shoes. I’m not sure any film adaptation carries this as well as the novel, and it is why every adaptation has ultimately come up short, seeming not to capture the elusive essence of the story.

One of the most carefully crafted details about Carraway’s character is his own privilege. It’s well concealed and very easy to forget especially since he is so often juxtaposed between Gatsby and the Buchanans. However, the novel begins with Nick relating this advice from his father: ” ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ ” It is clear that he is not Tom Buchanan, but it is because he is not that we are able to identify with him. It adds an important layer of complexity to what would otherwise be a rather banal modernist theme, old versus new, which the film hits on quite strongly. Nick seems to be set outside of that somehow and gives the impression that he is above the games being played, telling the reader, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

But it is Nick Carraway’s self-ascribed honesty that actually prevents us at first from being able to see his character completely; that is, his privilege has afforded him the opportunity to be passively drawn into a story which he could break himself from at any moment. In that sense, he is actually no different from the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, or even Meyer Wolfsheim, who all treat their own lives in the exact same way. He has romanticized Gatsby’s persona much in the same way as Daisy, referring to Gatsby’s misguided attempts to repeat the past and win Daisy back as his “incorruptible dream.” The famed last line of the novel emphasizes this as well: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” suggesting that the never ending attempt to recover a more real, more pure past is a noble endeavor. But it is a romantic endeavor, one that Nick and Daisy both have the ability to pursue and abandon at their leisure. Gatsby never has the option to break from his dream, and both the Wilsons’ attempts to do so end in their deaths. Nick pushes the blame for all the terrible events of the novel on to Tom and Daisy, telling us, “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

But I don’t think Nick’s hands are totally clean here. The tragedy Nick sees in his story is not that Gatsby, because of the uncontrollable circumstances of his life, was considered nothing and never had any chance in the face of real American empire. Rather, it’s that his farce was ruined, and he was not permitted to continue to live out the romanticism that Nick so admired.

In this way, Nick participates in the resiliency of American empire that is made explicit in his indictment of the Buchanans. And he has drawn the reader unwittingly into that participation. We revere Gatsby for all the wrong reasons and his story suggests that there are only two ways to really participate in the empire: be born into it or be a self-made criminal tycoon like Meyer Wolfsheim. [Aside: In the novel, after Gatsby’s death, Wolfsheim tells Nick that he made Gatsby what he was, that he gave Gatsby everything he had.] The rest of us, the Nick Carraways of the world, will hate that, we’ll actively despise it, go so far as to insult it and see ourselves as better than it [Nick says of his last encounter with Tom, “I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child.”] Yet we will have no problem romanticizing individual efforts to overcome it, even when they fail, if we are privileged like Nick to be able to do so. Our privilege affords us the pseudo-active ability to be outraged from our living rooms and behind our computer screens, bringing no real change to the problems that have outraged us. And American empire continues to thrive.

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For Your Reading Pleasure…

I (Joel) have been invited to participate in a new blogging community called Flux of Thought. There you can find brief discussions on theology, philosophy, political theory among other related things.

You can read here: Flux of Thought

You can follow the blog on Twitter here: @fluxofthought

I’ll still be writing and posting at A Church Unbound as well since FoT is going to be made up of much shorter posts, and I can’t help but be long-winded sometimes.