The glue

Still Christian: Following Jesus out of American Evangelicalism, David Gushee, Westminster John Knox Press

High profile Christian ethicist David Gushee’s small memoir is about what it means to follow Jesus’ teaching while dealing with the ‘politically captive condition of Christianity in America’, as he calls it in another book. It is a more personal look at issues also covered in Frances Fitzgerald’s recent massive survey of evangelicalism.

Gushee was a lapsed Catholic who was born again in his teens after following a girlfriend into a Baptist church. Called to the ministry, he was educated at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, an evangelical citadel. The seminary was at the time pulling up the drawbridge, as it was ‘ground zero’ for the takeover of the Southern Baptists by fundamentalist forces, part of the wider culture wars which saw Republicans roping in evangelicals with the aim of making the two interchangeable.

He took up further study at Union Theological Seminary in New York, which was the other pole, being heavily focussed on liberation theology. As a white male Gushee, priveleged elsewhere, found himself challenged at UTS to walk in the shoes of the marginalised. He wrote about Christians and the holocaust and was subsequently employed and mentored by Ron Sider, the evangelical critic of rich Christians.

As ‘every liberal’s favourite evangelical’ Gushee became known for advocating policies to tackle climate change and for opposition to the US government’s use of torture, in an era of climate change deniers and, alarmingly, strong support for torture amongst US Christians. His exasperation is palpable and it is to his credit that he retains his sense of humour.

This, however, was nothing compared to the ‘evangelical nuclear winter’ that descended upon him when, after much soul-searching and Bible study, he came out in support of same-sex unions, which made him ‘every evangelical’s least-favourite liberal’. Gushee’s stance was deeply considered, but this didn’t matter in a polarised America where since the 1970s Christian has meant Right and secular, Left, and one needed to make a choice. There was no third option for Christians. Except that there was, and critics such as Ron Sider and Jim Wallis were constant critics of the automatic equating of evangelicals with conservatives. Only more recently, due to the likes of Gushee, Rick Warren and others, has the glue between Christians and conservatives started to fail, over issues such as economic inequality and environmental destruction.  (While the Trump election seemed to indicate a new application of glue.)

Gushee’s conclusions on the present state of evangelical American Christianity are sobering, but they shouldn’t be surprising, as it is always a tough job to live out Christian ethics, even and sometimes especially in the midst of Christianity.




Love beads and the clubbing of protestors

Playing with Fire: The 1968 Election and the Transformation of American Politics, Lawrence O’Donnell, Penguin

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the 1968 US election race, which included the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the shock of Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal, the calamitous Chicago Democratic Convention, and the election of Richard Nixon. In Lawrence O’Donnell’s Playing with Fire, which tells the tale of that pivotal year, he suggest that the race was a life and death affair, literally, not just in terms of assassinations, but also regarding the Vietnam War that was consuming American and Vietnamese lives. He notes that in only a few years America moved from debates about whether students should be required to wear ties at Yale to the mass protests at universities and the clubbing and worse of protestors.

Robert Kennedy’s race is a focus. Perhaps taking a stylistic tip from historian of the era Rick Perlstein (who O’Donnell references), O’Donnell remarks on Kennedy’s hair growing over his ears, and his wearing of love beads at home, but he also notes Kennedy’s steady leftward momentum, inspired by the grievances of poor and black Americans. It is commonplace to cynically compare RFK’s tough reputation as his brother’s attorney general to his later views, and to dismiss the latter as electioneering, but this fails to take into account people’s ability to mature and change, and it certainly fails to take into account the complexities of RFK’s personality.

Richard Nixon’s story makes for the darker side of the book, and is just as important (indicated by the cover photograph not of Kennedy but of Nixon). The two sides are about what-ifs and what-was, and if we are left wondering what an RFK presidency might have looked like (like the ineffectual Obama’s?), O’Donnell agrees with Perlstein that Nixon’s election had ramifications that linger today, Trump being simply the nadir of the Nixon era (what Perlstein labels ‘Nixonland’), which is why the 1968 race is more than just of interest to political junkies.

Nixon’s slogan ‘Nixon’s the One’, according to O’Donnell, had the hint of inevitability about it, but it didn’t seem that way to Nixon. The perennial candidate had one last shot, and while he had learned much and his campaign was calmly ruthless, without setting a foot wrong in public, he also was up to his usual tricks behind the scenes. 1968 is the anniversary of Nixon’s greatest dirty trick – not Watergate, but the sabotaging of Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks, and therefore Hubert Humphrey’s chances, via the Chenault Affair, an act which amounted to treason.

Aussie Odysseus

The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton, Penguin

In Tim Winton’s fiction, reconciliation, sacrifice, redemption and the like work themselves out in the lives of society’s fringe-dwellers – those not usually thought of as upright, moral citizens.

In Winton’s latest novel, The Shepherd’s Hut, main character and narrator Jaxie is a teenage ‘delinquent’ from the wrong side of the tracks (literally – he lives by the railroad tracks – some heavy symbolism in a book full of it), his mother has died of cancer, and he has left school, mainly because being an obvious nuisance is the only way he can resurrect some self-worth. His one-eyed, abusive father, a Cyclops-figure who Jaxie, like Odysseus, is trying to escape, accidentally kills himself, and Jaxie takes the opportunity to finally leave his one-horse Western Australian town, heading bush like an Aussie Huck Finn. Like Odysseus, he is trying to reunite with his love after an arduous, distracted journey.

Jaxie is not the churchy type; Winton lets us know Jaxie finds it all ‘mumbo-jumbo’, he says he is not the praying type, unless a desperate longing is a form of prayer (and we are encouraged to wonder whether it might be). He has a home-grown, crude morality, and his story echoes the biblical flights of Jacob and David, whose obvious external deficiencies hide divine purpose. Although Jaxie scoffs at the idea of someone being an ‘instrument of God’, later he is told explicitly that he is just that.

Winton captures an authentic voice, with its rough-as-guts vernacular (which might make an outback trucker pause). Jaxie is disenchanted with and wary of the human world, but comfortable with surviving in the bush, where a stripping back to basics also brings one closer to the divine. Jaxie’s meeting with the occupant of the hut in the book’s title and the Wild West climax are, again, heavy with symbolism (the occupant of the shepherd’s hut provides Jaxie with a type of pastoral care, while the climax’s action takes place at a tree where feral goats are slaughtered called the ‘killing tree’, which is a wording also used for a crucifix), but they allow Winton to show how Gospel values might appear in the outcasts and ne’er-do-wells, those who in the Gospels are the recipients of the Kingdom of God.

(Originally reviewed for Crosslight.)

On trust

In A World of Three Zeroes (‘zero poverty, zero unemployment, zero carbon emissions’), Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus tells the story of starting Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank, a kind of not-for-profit banking cooperative run by and lending to mainly poor Bangladeshi women. In a world of bad news stories, his is an encouraging sign that business can focus on helping the poor, making a profit and being environmentally sustainable at the same time.

The bank has a pay-back rate of over 98%, even though the bank operates entirely on trust. There are no contracts, and no collateral is asked for, which is significant, as the very poor have usually nothing to guarantee a loan. Yunus also pioneered, in conjunction with his banking ideas, ‘social businesses’, which run on a different model to ordinary small businesses. Profits are reinvested in the business and lent out to enable other businesses to sprout, therefore providing jobs and services to the poor without making particular individuals rich. The businesses include hairdressing salons and chains of auto repair shops that are specifically set up to provide cheap repair for the vehicles of the poor. Environmental sustainability is privileged over profit.

Social businesses recycle money through the community, rather than simply shifting profit offshore, which happens when large corporations operate in poorer nations. It also offsets the problems that occur when corporations, in search of cheaper labour, pull out of particular countries. It strengthens communities since, Yunus says, human beings are entrepreneurial but overwhelmingly want to contribute to something that benefits others.

An ordinary guy


What Did Jesus Look Like?, Joan Taylor, Bloomsbury

Currently doing the round of music festivals is an English blues slide guitarist by the name of Jack Broadbent, who has been described as having the ‘Jesus’ look. We can instantly picture this – thin, European good looks, full beard and long straight hair – almost certainly, ironically, not how Jesus actually looked (not to mention a little politically incorrect).

Images are powerful, leaving impressions that are hard to shake off, as this book suggests. They can also be restrictive, causing an unnatural parochialism in our beliefs. Our traditional images of Jesus may reflect a Church that has its heartland and history in Europe, but Jesus himself is not what we would call Western. Yet the image of Jesus as European persisted until and including the present day. (A google search for Jesus images turns up an overwhelming majority of overtly European Jesuses.)

The writers of the New Testament didn’t bother to describe Jesus’ appearance because their attention was elsewhere. The Israelites of the Old Testament were forbidden to make images of God, rightly, because God cannot be reduced to a particular set of characteristics, and also because he is not simply a local deity.

But Jesus was an actual person with particular characteristics, unless we accept the odd Gnostic belief that Jesus was something of a shape shifter, partly due to the belief that Jesus could not be and was not himself truly human, only making himself appear human. (In one way this symbolically reflects the fact that Jesus is multifaceted and appeals to different people in different ways.)

Not only do many have a curiosity as to what Jesus looked like, but humans respond to visual prompts, and images of Jesus have over the centuries provided a focus for devotional practices, which is not about worshipping the figure in question, but using it as a visual prompt for worshipping or contemplating the unseen deity. No doubt most of this imagery is merely imaginative, although there is something of a tradition within the Orthodox faith that the image of Jesus on icons owes something (unverifiable by modern methods) to descriptions of Jesus by his contemporaries that were passed on by word within the early church before they began to be painted.

More miraculous are the claims that Jesus’ image was superimposed onto cloth, as with the Mandylion of the Orthodox tradition or the cloth of Veronica. Joan Taylor suggests that the imprint of a face on cloth via sweat or blood is not as scientifically far-fetched as it might first appear.  The Shroud of Turin is the most famous example, although it is now widely accepted, except by a minority faithful, to be of medieval origin. Interestingly, the appearance of Jesus on the Turin shroud doesn’t really accord with what Taylor deducts from her research Jesus would have actually looked like, especially regarding the length of his hair.

The medieval image of Jesus that has strongly influenced contemporary Western representations of Jesus, even where there is some attempt to be historically accurate, is only one stream of imagery that has been used over the centuries. Taylor investigates the influence of Greek ideas of what a wandering philosopher should and did look like on images of Jesus. Generally, in accordance with the gospels, these emphasised the philosopher’s embrace of poverty and disdain for such superficial preoccupations as grooming. Alternatively, the imagery of Greek and Roman gods also influenced how Jesus was painted, with some examples of a short-haired, youthful, strong Jesus.

This image is not antagonistic to some Jewish representations. Jesus is often portrayed as a Moses figure, and Moses himself was often portrayed as a strong, handsome leader. He is also famously imagined as having a long, flowing beard, and this influence also creeps into early portraits of Jesus. Moses is somewhat like a Zeus figure – long beard and all.

Of course, these images are laden with symbolism, and a curiosity about what Jesus actually looked like is somewhat beside the point. Taylor decides that Jesus looked like an ordinary Middle Eastern guy of the times, which helps refocus on the extraordinary things he said and did.

(A shorter version of this review appears on the Crosslight website)

Revealing the religious in the Revolution

The House of Government, Yuri Slezkine, Princeton University Press

Last year was not only the anniversary of the Reformation; it was also the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. As with the Reformation, there are plenty of books commemorating and explaining it, none more successfully ambitious and monumental and yet intimate than Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government, which is the story of a Moscow building but also peers into the lives of individuals to explain the rise and fall of the USSR.

The House of Government was part of the Soviet government’s building program in the 1930s. It was Europe’s biggest apartment complex housing government leaders, officials, officers and their families, with 500 apartments and theatres and shops. Perhaps inspired by the scale of the building and perhaps inspired by one resident’s diary entry reading ‘everything is important for history’, Slezkine delights in lists of furnishings, food and books. By detailing what the residents read and wrote, importantly, he shows how individuals embraced Soviet ideology as a kind of religion.

To see the Revolution as anti-religious in ideology but religious in method is no unique revelation. To misquote G K Chesterton, once you stop believing in God, you have to believe in something else, a proposition blatantly confirmed by, amongst other things, the Soviet plans to build a Babel-like tower topped with a gargantuan statue of Lenin, or the portrait of Stalin as an all-wise and all-loving figure who anyone could personally appeal to. But what is notable about Slezkine’s book is how thoroughly he pursues his identification of the Revolution with millenarian cults, even if he sometimes squeezes Jesus or Christianity into the same mould. It is, for example, a contentious claim that early Christianity was a movement dominated by men. Nevertheless it is true that Christianity has bred societies wanting to create heaven on earth, often becoming hellish in the process (Anabaptist Munster, for one).

Students in 1917, feeding on a sense of impending apocalypse in Moscow, described political activism as ‘mission’ and ‘faith’, and looked forward to a coming day of judgement. Leading Bolsheviks spoke of prophets and exodus. Moral control, right language, revival, a rightly-oriented heart over mere action, loyalty even above one’s family – these were all important to the state. The Revolution was like Christ’s death and resurrection, the impending socialist world order like the Second Coming. In the Stalinist purges, which inspired Orwell’s dystopian fiction, we see scapegoats and purification.

It was not so much the insanity of the purges or capitalist aggression that eventually brought the Soviet state down, but the apostasy of the next generation who were merely going through the motions. Initially, in Soviet ideology, the family was to wither away like the state, but this was one of the most difficult aspects of Soviet communism to bring about, and the state eventually lost interest in figuring out how. Intriguingly, Slezkine suggests that when the state abandoned its rejection of the family, old values crept back in. The children of the revolutionaries, part of a new elite that had simply replaced the old, began reading the old novelists again, instead of the communist novelists who could never quite get communist ideology right, probably because there was never clarity about what the new world would look like and how it could be effected. The realisation that the past could not be paved over led to the loss of faith, and, as one Russian novelist put it in the 1990s, the USSR stood as a warning against trying to create heaven on earth.

(Originally reviewed for Insights magazine.)

False dichotomies

Alan Jacobs’ latest book How To Think tells us not only how to think, but how to argue (politely). Its central idea is that we too easily fall into antagonistic ways of thinking, but that true argument needs first to understand the other side. Instead what typifies supposed public debate but falls short of public debate is instead simply shouting matches – or, the alternative, preaching to the choir. He suggests that peer pressure insidiously goads us into criticism that often is simply shallow and misinformed, but that makes us feel good as we are validated by our peer groups, but that true advancement of knowledge requires a deep understanding of both sides of an argument. The small book is full of sage advice on thinking twice before speaking and reaching out warmly to those we might instead have an inclination to reach out to with a large and rapidly descending stick.

He also suggests that, in contrast, we too often seek consensus, which seems a ludicrous deduction in the age of internet outrage, but the flipside of peer pressure is not confronting faulty thinking on our own side of the fence. Instead we simply have warring teams, as in football, where we follow our players right or wrong and the other side are villains, and any of their positive attributes are to be ignored in the face of the simple fact that they are the opposition. In short, in our supposed modern world we are becoming more tribal. (Whether this is a recent backward trend or just simply normal is not perhaps clear – it is easy to think we are going backwards, but thinking that our society is degenerating has a long history.)

One doesn’t need to look very far to see examples. I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s recent argument that we use the word ‘puritanical’ pejoratively and yet most don’t actually know much about the Puritans. And we are expected to take sides on whether to follow science or religion, Christianity or the Enlightenment, Muslims as terrorists or peaceful citizens, free speech or censorship – false dichotomies all. Which is an idea explored in Stephen Jay Gould’s final book, The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox, in which he argues that there is something deeply ingrained in humans that wants to put up binary oppositions (he finds plenty of examples in his field of evolutionary science), but that we might do well to suppress at times. This book in particular looks at the supposed antagonisms between science and the humanities, and argues, again sagely, that one enriches the other. Gould proves by his own style that the communication of science is helped by an attendance to fine writing, not to say humour, and he makes the point that scientists can learn from the humanities’ attention to the fact of human bias without succumbing to relativism (and that the social sciences can learn that there are facts out there to be uncovered, all is not simply cultural). Jacobs makes the point that thinking involves emotion – thought versus emotion is a false dichotomy – and progress in life involves the interaction between the two, not a decision on which one we will follow. But his book is also a subtle reminder not to conflate the two.