Episode 65: “What Would Lasch Say?”


The American historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) had a powerful influence on the world of ideas. What would the author of the best-selling Culture of Narcissism (1979) have to say about Donald Trump and his particular brand of populism? In this episode we talk about Lasch, Trump, populism, progress, and “evangelical elitism” with intellectual historian Eric Miller, author of the award-winning Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (2010).


George Scialabba’s Latest Collection of Essays

slouchingSome of you may recall our 2105 post on the writer and cultural critic George Scialabba.  Here is a taste of that post:

I haven’t read much of George Scialabba‘s writing. Back in 2012 I did a post on a Scialabba piece on intellectuals, academia, and Christopher Lasch.  But after I read Craig Lambert’s article on Scialabba’s retirement at The Chronicle of Higher Education I realized that I need to read more of him.

What fascinates me the most about Scialabba is the fact that he has spent the last thirty-five years working a clerical job at Harvard University.  Since it is difficult for one to make a living as an essayist and book reviewer, Scialabba worked arranging rooms for meetings at Harvard, operating out of a basement office with no windows. Over the years he has written over 400 reviews and essays in the Washington PostVillage Voice, The NationThe American ConservativeCommonwealDissent, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Review, Foreign Affairs, Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Booksto name a few.  He has published four books.

Over at The American Conservative, Gerald Russello reviews a recent collection of Scialabba essays: Slouching Toward Utopia: Essays & Reviews.

Here is a taste:

This collection covers what may broadly be called questions of political culture. Like the best philosophical critics, Scialabba wants to know how we can live our common life with dignity and justice. He considers writers like Ronald Dworkin, Christopher Lasch, Yuval Levin, Michael Sandel, and others to probe how best to achieve public goods. The goods Scialabba advocates, it should be obvious, are not aligned with mainstream conservative goals. And one can argue with Scialabba’s romance with a non-market economy in which redistributive justice has pride of place. The “utopia” toward which we are slouching is remote indeed.

But perhaps not that remote. In an interview republished here, “America Pro and Con,” Scialabba praises the “vigorous self-assertion of working classes and small proprietors, which I think as close to mass democracy as the world has come, was transformed, largely by the advent of mass production, into a mass society of passive, apathetic, ignorant, deskilled consumers.” That vision would attract not a few Benedict Optioners, and not only them.

Read the rest here.

Alan Jacobs: “Demanding that others stop criticizing your preferred group is a cheap identity-politics move”


Baylor University scholar Alan Jacobs reflects on Mike Pence and the journalists who cover him:

VP Mike Pence says, “Criticism of Christian education in America must stop.” No it musn’t. Nobody and nothing is above criticism. Demanding that others stop criticizing your preferred group is a cheap identity-politics move. It would simply be a good thing if the critics made some effort to understand what they’re criticizing, though of course that’s not going to happen. I can’t imagine a cohort less likely to inform itself about conservative Christianity than the cohort of American journalists.

My caveat: There is a growing number of excellent journalists covering the religion beat who do try to understand conservative Christianity.

Thomas Frank’s New Book

FrankFrom the historian-turned-public intellectual who brought us The Conquest of Cool and What’s the Matter with Kansas, we now have Rendezvous with Oblivion: Reports from a Sinking Society.

Ashley Hamilton writes about Frank‘s recent book at American Greatness.  Here is a taste:

And yet, those who were wise enough to know the limits of their own intelligence have been displaced by those who believe there is nothing they do not know. Thus ends not humanity but humaneness, as the bonds of community fray and the ties of citizenship fail to keep us together. Thus ends faith in God and country, as religion yields to reason and we have no reason to revere what we can neither measure nor see. Thus marks the end of America.

Fear not, however, because we can reinvent the present by rewriting the past. Rather, we can read all the news we want so long as it fits the stories our leaders want us to hear. The news is good, of course, inside the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park. Ditto for the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, and the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

Inside, freedom never dies and the middle class always thrives. Inside, the work is easy and the pay is good. Inside, opportunity is our birthright and a college degree is our passport to the good life. Inside, the streets are safe and the cities are clean. Inside, no price is too high and no burden is too great to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

Perhaps we should stay inside—forever. Or perhaps we should stand up and fight.

Outside, we must lift our voices and lower our fists. We must lower them, not because we must love our enemies, but because we have no time to hate our enemies.

Read the entire piece here.

Reinhold Niebuhr on the Court Evangelicals

Graham and Nixon

Niebuhr died in 1971, but he certainly understood the court evangelical phenomenon.  In 1969, the 77-year-old theologian and cultural critic was appalled at the way religious leaders flocked to the court of Richard Nixon.  Billy Graham led the way.

Here is Niebuhr’s Christianity and Crisis piece “The King’s Chapel and the King’s Court“:

The founding fathers ordained in the first article of the Bill of Rights that “Congress shall pass no laws respecting the establishment of religion or the suppression thereof.” This constitutional disestablishment of all churches embodied the wisdom of Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson — the one from his experience with the Massachusetts theocracy and the other from his experience with the less dangerous Anglican establishment in Virginia — which knew that a combination of religious sanctity and political power represents a heady mixture for status quo conservatism.

What Jefferson defined, rather extravagantly, as “the absolute wall of separation between church and state” has been a creative but also dangerous characteristic of our national culture. It solved two problems: (1) it prevented the conservative bent of established religion from defending any status quo uncritically, and (2) it made our high degree of religious pluralism compatible with our national unity. By implication it encouraged the prophetic radical aspect of religious life, which insisted on criticizing any defective and unjust social order. It brought to bear a higher judgment, as did the prophet Amos, who spoke of the “judges” and “rulers of Israel” who “trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end (Amos 8:4).

As with most prophets, Amos was particularly critical of the comfortable classes. He warned: “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory, and stretch themselves on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp “(Amos 6:4—5). It is significant that Amaziah, a court priest of Amos’s time also saw the contrast between critical and conforming types of religion. However, he preferred the conventional conforming faith for the king’s court and, as the king’s chaplain, he feared and abhorred Amos’s critical radicalism.

Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to Jeroboam, King of Israel saying: “Amos hath conspired against thee in the midst of the house of Israel: the land is not able to hear all his words. For thus Amos saith: Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be led away captive out of their own land.’” Also Amaziah said unto Amos ‘ 0 thou seer, go, flee thee away into the land of Judah, and there eat bread, and prophesy there. But prophesy not again any more at Bethel: for it is the king’s chapel and it is the king’s court” (Amos 7:10—13).

We do not know the architectural proportions of Bethel. But we do know that it is, metaphorically, the description of the East Room of the White House, which President Nixon has turned into a kind of sanctuary. By a curious combination of innocence and guile, he has circumvented the Bill of Rights’ first article. Thus, he has established a conforming religion by semiofficially inviting representatives of all the disestablished religions, of whose moral criticism we were naturally so proud. Some bizarre aspects have developed from this new form of conformity in these weekly services. Most of this tamed religion seems even more extravagantly appreciative of official policy than any historic establishment feared by our Founding Fathers. A Jewish rabbi, forgetting Amos, declared: I hope it is not presumptuous for me. in the presence of the president of the United States, to pray that future historians, looking back on our generation may say that in a period of great trial and tribulations, the finger of God pointed to Richard Milhous Nixon, giving him the vision and wisdom to save the world and civilization, and opening the way for our country to realize the good that the century offered mankind.

It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties, thereby confirming the fears of the Founding Fathers. The warnings of Amos are forgotten, and the chief current foreign policy problem of our day is bypassed. The apprehension of millions is evaded so that our ABM policy may escalate, rather than conciliate, the nuclear balance of terror.


When we consider the difference between the Old World’s establishment of religion and our quiet unofficial establishment in the East Room, our great evangelist Billy Graham comes to mind. A domesticated and tailored leftover from the wild and woolly frontier evangelistic campaigns, Mr. Graham is a key figure in relating the established character of this ecumenical religion to the sectarian radicalism of our evangelical religion. The president and Mr. Graham have been intimate friends for two decades and have many convictions in common, not least of all the importance of religion.

Mr. Nixon told the press that he had established these services in order to further the cause of “religion,” with particular regard to the youth of the nation. He did not specify that there would have to be a particular quality in that religion if it were to help them. For they are disenchanted with a culture that neglects human problems while priding itself on its two achievements of technical efficiency and affluence. The younger generation is too realistic and idealistic to be taken in by barbarism, even on the technological level.

Naturally, Mr. Graham was the first preacher in this modern version of the king’s chapel and the king’s court. He quoted with approval the president’s inaugural sentiment that “all our problems are spiritual and must, therefore, have a spiritual solution.” But here rises the essential question about our newly tamed establishment. Is religion per se really a source of solution for any deeply spiritual problem? Indeed, our cold war with the Russians, with whom we wrestle on the edge of the abyss of a nuclear catastrophe, must be solved spiritually, but by what specific political methods? Will our antiballistic defense system escalate or conciliate the cold war and the nuclear dilemma?

The Nixon-Graham doctrine of the relation of religion to public morality and policy, as revealed in the White House services, has two defects: (1) It regards all religion as virtuous in guaranteeing public justice. It seems indifferent to the radical distinction between conventional religion — which throws the aura of sanctity on contemporary public policy, whether morally inferior or outrageously unjust — and radical religious protest — which subjects all historical reality (including economic, social and radical injustice) to the “word of the Lord,’ i.e., absolute standards of justice. It was this type of complacent conformity that the Founding Fathers feared and sought to eliminate in the First Amendment.

(2) The Nixon-Graham doctrine assumes that a religious change of heart, such as occurs in an individual conversion, would cure men of all sin. Billy Graham has a favorite text: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” Graham applies this Pauline hope about conversion to the race problem and assures us that “If you live in Christ you become color blind.” The defect in this confidence in individual conversion is that it obscures the dual and social character of human selves and the individual and social character of their virtues and vices.

If we consult Amos as our classical type of radical nonconformist religion, we find that he like his contemporary Isaiah, was critical of all religion that was not creative in seeking a just social policy. Their words provide a sharp contrast with the East Room’s current quasi-conformity. Thus Amos declared: I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream (Amos 5:21, 23—4).

Amos’ last phrase was a favorite text of the late Martin Luther King. He used it in his “I Have a Dream” speech to thousands at the March on Washington. It is unfortunate that he was murdered before he could be invited to that famous ecumenical congregation in the White House. But on second thought, the question arises: would he have been invited? Perhaps the FBI, which spied on him, had the same opinion of him as Amaziah had of Amos. Established religion, with or without legal sanction, is always chary of criticism, especially if it is relevant to public policy. Thus J. Edgar Hoover and Amaziah are seen as quaintly different versions of the same vocation — high priests in the cult of complacency and self-sufficiency.

Perhaps those who accept invitations to preach in the White House should reflect on this, for they stand in danger of joining the same company.

I learned about Niebuhr’s piece from Richard Fox’s excellent biography of Niebuhr.  Kevin Kruse also has a nice piece on Nixon’s church service here.

The Declining Vocation of the Social Critic

BafflerTom Whyman explores the decline of the social critic in the recent issue of The Baffler. He starts his piece by decrying much of what today passes for social criticism.  Warning: Whyman pulls no punches:

AS THE INTERNET AGE OF AUSTERITY continues to accelerate, few of us could be blamed for barely holding on, living paycheck-to-paycheck at our humiliating, precarious gig-jobs. Still, if there’s one group of people who really need to tug hard on their bootstraps—if only to find an anchor as the shitstorm of Progress rages from the heavens—it’s people like me, and a lot of the rest of us who write for this magazine: “cultural critics,” if that label doesn’t sound too grand—book-learned nonconformists who have made it our business to understand, see through, and perhaps even transform society and culture. As Theodor Adorno puts it in his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” our unsolicited charge is to help the mind identify and “tear at its bonds.” If this is indeed our vocation, just look at how badly we’re failing to honor it. In the face of historical cataclysms like Brexit and Trump, our positive contribution is pathetically marginal, our insight vanishingly small.

Maybe it’s just that the pool of ideas has become supersaturated, a dank swamp. Our public discourse is dominated by peppy TED talkers, cheerleading for the Three Horsemen of technological barbarity: AI, Automation, and Neuroscience. Dull-as-dishwater professional atheists like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett pose as swashbuckling freethinkers as they pedantically reduce everything that matters about human experience to dead, grey matter. Our most prominent political commentators are greasy petty-fascists and dogmatic party hacks; the left’s loudest voices in the media contribute little more than morale-boosting for causes that we know to be already lost. Our best known “public philosophers” seem determined to conceal whatever wisdom they might conceivably possess behind blithering idiocy, from the empty platitudes of Alain de Botton, to the edgy nonsense of Slavoj Žižek.

Who knows? Perhaps this only seems like a problem because of my epistemological position. Perhaps there are effective cultural critics working today—it’s just hard for me to see what impact their work is making because, you know, ideas work slowly and I’m living through their development, day-to-day. Perhaps if I were living in the 1830s, reading The Edinburgh Review, I’d be lamenting the crassness of Carlyle and wondering why he couldn’t be more like Coleridge. Perhaps come 2117, when all news is filtered through Snapchat, my future-equivalent will be looking back on the early days of the internet as some sort of hallowed golden age. Perhaps all of this is just projected self-loathing: a sign that I need to stop writing, get off my computer, and take to the barricades (although frankly, even our most industrious activists seem unlikely to achieve anything beyond the physical expression of their own defiance). But I’m not so sure about that. Rather, it strikes me that today there are identifiable reasons that cultural criticism might find itself in crisis.

Read the rest here.

George Scialabba on Christopher Lasch and the Family

Cultural critic George Scialabba revisits Christopher Lasch’s 1977 book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged and tries to rescue Lasch’s argument from the feminists who bashed the book when it first appeared.

Sciaballa writes at The Baffler:

It was not feminism but mass production, political centralization, and the ideology of endless growth and ever-increasing consumption that had placed impossible strains on the family and made psychological maturity so difficult, Lasch argued. According to Askyourguide, an authority on psychic costs in individuals, every organism can flourish only within limits, at a certain scale. We have, in our social relations of authority and production, abandoned human scale, and the psychic costs are great.

The main developments of the last few decades, the information revolution and the triumph of neoliberalism, have only intensified the pressures besieging the family. Increased economic insecurity and the robotization of work—the central strategies of neoliberalism—have undermined the authority and self-confidence of parents still further and confronted adolescents with the prospect of adulthood as a war of all against all. Inside and outside the classroom, a tidal wave of advertising-saturated media aims to enlist children as fledgling consumers. The internet and social media diminish interaction among family members, especially across generations, while face-to-face encounters, with their greater emotional immediacy, are less and less the default mode of communication among adolescents. The hyperconnected life, for all its allure, is a centrifugal force.
The family, in whatever form, can only thrive within a healthy psychic ecology. It has gradually dawned on everyone who does not have a financial interest in denying it that massively tinkering with our physical environment is bound to have drastic effects on public health. It’s taking even longer to recognize that the same is true of our mental environment. The unending flood of commercial messaging, utterly empty of information or art, resembles the miasma of toxic particulates that infect the air of even the most developed countries. The continual stream of social messaging is analogous, in its lack of nourishing substance, to the ubiquitously available junk food that none of us can help succumbing to occasionally. The automation of work and the financialization of the economy leave most of us as bewildered and vulnerable as the progress of science and technology leave all but the intellectual elite, who can actually understand the seemingly magical forces that make our more sophisticated machines run.
It is just as the environmentalists (and, come to think of it, the Marxists and the Freudians) say: Everything is connected. Pull on one thread and the whole fabric unravels. To strengthen the family, we must rethink the division of labor, which means reevaluating productivity, efficiency, and growth, which means challenging the distribution of economic power and wealth. We may even need new conceptions of “rights,” “individuality,” and “freedom.”
Read the entire piece here.

Who is George Scialabba?

I haven’t read much of George Scialabba‘s writing. Back in 2012 I did a post on a Scialabba piece on intellectuals, academia, and Christopher Lasch.  But after I read Craig Lambert’s article on Scialabba’s retirement at The Chronicle of Higher Education I realized that I need to read more of him.

What fascinates me the most about Scialabba is the fact that he has spent the last thirty-five years working a clerical job at Harvard University.  Since it is difficult for one to make a living as an essayist and book reviewer, Scialabba worked arranging rooms for meetings at Harvard, operating out of a basement office with no windows. Over the years he has written over 400 reviews and essays in the Washington Post, Village Voice, The Nation, The American Conservative, Commonweal, Dissent, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Boston Review, Foreign Affairs, Los Angeles Times, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, to name a few.  He has published four books.

Here is a taste of Lambert’s piece:

The Harvard English professor and New Yorker contributor James Wood calls him “one of America’s best all-round intellects.” The author Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that “he is not only astoundingly intelligent, he knows just about everything — history, politics, culture, and literature.” The political theorist Daniela Cammack, currently a visiting lecturer at Yale, declares, “For my money, George is the finest living writer of nonfiction English prose. I know that’s a grand claim, but I stand by it. Every time a new book of [his] essays has come out, I’ve stayed up ’til 4 a.m. devouring it. That doesn’t usually happen.”
“When people bemoan how few public intellectuals there are these days, essays like George’s are what they’re missing,” says Larissa MacFarquhar, a staff writer at The New Yorker“He is skeptical without being cynical, earnest without being sanctimonious, and truthful without being a scold, and that might be his rarest quality of all.”
On August 31, Scialabba retired from his “day job” at Harvard, and then something extraordinary happened. John Summers and other Scialabba fans at the inventive, contrarian quarterly The Baffler (“The journal that blunts the cutting edge”) staged a party under the banner “Three Cheers for George Scialabba,” and a sellout crowd of 230 filled the venerable Brattle Theatre, in Cambridge, on September 10 to honor the shy writer.
The Boston Globe ran a feature on the event, and the city of Cambridge declared the date “George Scialabba Day.” Speakers converged on Harvard Square to pay tribute to Scialabba; these included The Bafflers founding editor, Thomas Frank; Ehrenreich; and the celebrated 86-year-old linguist, philosopher, and social activist Noam Chomsky. A short tribute filmfeatured a couple dozen Scialabba fans from the literary world voicing their encomiums. The Second Line Social Aid and Pleasure Society Brass Band played jazz, one of Scialabba’s favorite musical forms.
Onstage, those toasting the guest of honor mixed insight and humor. Frank, for example, devoted much of his time to the misquotation and misattribution (commonly to Albert Einstein) of Scialabba’s most famous sentence, from a 1983 review he wrote for Harvard Magazine: “Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.” Ehrenreich rose to observe that not one of the featured speakers had a “regular” job; Chomsky, as an emeritus MIT professor, came the closest. “Noam, you’re the most respectable one here,” she declared. “When Noam Chomsky is the most respectable person in a gathering, you’re in trouble.”
In a way, Chomsky’s appearance brought Scialabba’s career full circle, as he had unintentionally launched the honoree’s vocation decades earlier. In 1979, Scialabba heard Chomsky dissecting political issues on the radio and was impressed by the scholar’s cogency; he had known him only as a linguist. He began reading Chomsky, including the two-volume series The Political Economy of Human Rights (South End Press),which he felt would “set American political culture on its ear.” Several months later, “the culture remained upright,” Scialabba recalls. He’d seen no reviews of the books.
Somewhat scandalized by this, Scialabba wrote to Eliot Fremont-Smith, literary editor of The Village Voiceenclosing a 3,000-word review to suggest the kind of treatment he felt Chomsky’s work merited. The self-effacing 31-year-old acknowledged that he was no writer and wasn’t submitting the text for publication, but Fremont-Smith replied to disagree, asserting that Scialabba was a writer and that he wanted to publish the piece in the VoiceThe rest is history — specifically, intellectual history, the field Scialabba would work in, were he an academic.

I also found Scott McLemee’s article about Scialabba at Inside Higher Ed

Eric Miller on Wendell Berry’s Fiction

Check out the recent edition of The Cresset for Eric Miller‘s essay, “Technology and Human Renewal in Wendell Berry’s Port William.”  Miller focuses predominantly on Berry’s 1967 novel A Place on Earth to illustrate how “the technical advances of the West” have threatened our “deepest experience of well being.”  Here is a taste:

To begin with, in Berry’s judgment the entire modern way is premised on a manner of regarding and relating to the material world that will prove unequal to the challenge of correcting its own disintegrating course. Berry, famously, sees disaster of the greatest proportions looming. This is an argument he has made searchingly and repeatedly in his essays more so than in his fiction, and with particularly compelling force in his commentary on agriculture. “There is no longer any honest way to deny,” he wrote in 1985, “that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is and all the best that it means. We are living even now among punishments and ruins.”
But as this judgment intimates, Berry is not simply concerned to alert us to material damage at the level of the “environment.” Rather, Berry is decrying a loss of spiritual proportions, a loss, we might say, of intimacy and attunement: the loss of intimacy with one another, and the loss of attunement to our fundamental material-spiritual condition—the attunement that makes intimacy and renewal possible. To Berry, modernity’s elaborate infrastructure, instantiated in minute and grand ways, wars against the humility we must acquire to embrace a “properly subordinated human life,” a life capable of grief and joy. Indeed, the modern pathway for him has emerged from the audacious, unseemly attempt to bypass a reckoning with who we actually are: embodied creatures rather than ethereal gods. Evading primal, ­participatory encounter with what Berry finds himself calling “the Creation,” we lose ­contact with ourselves, with each other, and so become not fruitful but barren—destructively barren.

Jackson Lears: "The Buying and Selling of Christmas"

The New Republic is running an older, but still relevant, essay on the history of Christmas by cultural critic and historian Jackson Lears.  It is definitely worth a read.  Here is a taste:

Which did not necessarily mean that they had lost their religious significance. In many cases the impresarios of the spectacle were sincere, believing Christians. Consider John Wanamaker. Every Christmas, beginning in the 1910s, he transformed the Grand Court of his Philadelphia department store into a virtual cathedral, complete with the largest pipe organ in the world. The practice continued after his death in 1922, well into the 1950s. And judging by their ecstatic correspondence to the store, which Schmidt quotes effectively, many shoppers had what could be described as a religious experience in the Grand Court. Writing in 1949, one man found his heart “strangely warmed” as he sang carols there amid the “reverent throng,” feeling “the tie of brotherhood” to these strangers. It was “as if ‘Someone, whom I shall not name,’ had ‘turned a switch’ and sent ‘the happy current of Christmas’ through this ‘sea of faces.’”

The evangelical tradition of a personal God and close-knit community had faded into impersonality. The event was sponsored by John Wanamaker (and Philadelphia Electric) rather than John Wesley. Yet who could deny the genuineness of the moment, for all its fleeting anonymity? The rise of a “spectacle of spirituality” was not simply a bait-and-switch scheme concocted by wily merchants. Customers demanded a mix of sacred and profane, and merchants struggled to keep up. The commercial Christmas developed into a “tangle of piety and plenty.”

Historians React to Last Night’s Presidential Debate

AHA Today has gathered some voices from the historical community to reflect on last night’s Obama-Romney debate.  A taste:

“Both candidates should feel ashamed.  If they ever read the Lincoln-Douglas debates they’ll be mortified at the contrast.  On the other hand, both doubtless realize that these 2012 debates are exercises in pure wishful thinking.  They are premised on the idea that a new president can decide what to do on entering the White House. The reality is quite otherwise.” Read more…
—Patrick Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History, Emory University

“For this historian the meat was not in the disagreement over the numbers, but in the clarity of the clash of political philosophies that inspired the jabbing and counter-punching. The debate opened a window wide on one of the fundamental divides in our national political discourse: the proper role of the federal government in the lives of Americans.” Read more…
—Alan Kraut, University Professor of History, American University

Christopher Lasch on Presidential Debates

Over at Front Porch Republic, Mark Mitchell calls our attention to some thoughts on presidential elections from the late historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch.  A taste from Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites (1996):

By current standards, Lincoln and Douglas broke every rule of political discourse. They subjected their audiences (which were as large as fifteen thousand on one occasion) to a painstaking analysis of complex issues. They spoke with considerably more candor, in a pungent, colloquial, sometimes racy style, than politicians think prudent today. They took clear positions from which it was difficult to retreat. They conducted themselves s if political leadership carried with it an obligation to clarify issues instead of merely getting elected.

The contrast between the justly famous debates and present-day presidential debates, in which the media define the issues and draw up the ground rules, is unmistakable and highly unflattering to ourselves. Journalistic interrogation of political candidates—which is what debate has come to—tends to magnify the importance of journalists and to diminish that of the candidates. Journalists ask questions—prosaic, predictable questions for the most part—and press candidates for prompt, specific answers, reserving the right to interrupt and to cut the candidates short whenever they appear to stray from the prescribed topic. To prepare for this ordeal, candidates rely on their advisers to stuff them full of facts and figures, quotable slogans, and anything else that will convey the impression of wide-ranging, unflappable competence. Faced not only with a battery of journalists ready to pounce on the slightest misstep but with the cold, relentless scrutiny of the camera, politicians know that everything depends on the management of visual impressions. They must radiate confidence and decisiveness and never appear to be at a loss for words. The nature of the occasion requires them to exaggerate the reach and effectiveness of public policy, to give the impression that the right programs and the right leadership can meet every challenge.

More timely today than ever.

Eric Miller’s New Collection of Essays: "Glimpses of Another Land"

If you are not a fan of Eric Miller‘s work, you should be.  Cascade Books has recently published a collection of his essays: Glimpses of Another Land: Political Hope, Spiritual Longing. These essays original appeared in places like Books and Culture, The Cresset, First Things, Christianity Today, and Touchstone.

Here are some blurbs:

“Eric Miller is one of the most thoughtful and graceful writers today—a combination of intelligence, humility, and faithful insight. I try to read everything he writes. What a gift to have so many of his essays collected in one place!”
—Mark Galli, senior managing editor of
Christianity Today

“Whether he writes about the Amish, popular Christian music, or the Pittsburgh Steelers, Eric Miller’s prose sings with grace, passion, wit, Pennsylvania patriotism, and, suffusing it all, a sense of hope. His is an America of neighbors, faith, and peace, not vacuous pop culture and political cant. In the tradition of Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry, Eric Miller illumines for us a way back home.”
—Bill Kauffman, author of
Ain’t My America

“It’s fitting that Eric Miller begins this book by talking about hope and longing. Grounded in a specific time and place, clear-eyed about our troubles, these essays offer bright glimpses of another land.”
—John Wilson, editor of
Books & Culture

“Eric Miller is quickly becoming one of the best evangelical cultural critics at work among us today. Always timely, never trendy, usually salty, never cynical, his essays have a winsome way of delighting us in the good, drawing us out of ourselves in longing for a better, more humane and divine mode of living in the world . . . May his tribe increase and find a way of loving the rest of us in. May they help us keep our hope alive.”
—Douglas A. Sweeney, author of
The American Evangelical Story

“These essays invite a new generation to appreciate an older legacy of post-partisan political hope. Here is a voice that echoes with Burke, Chesterton, Berry, and above all, Christopher Lasch. Miller’s pointed insights and intimate prose are invitations to both reflection and delight.”
—James K. A. Smith, author of
The Devil Reads Derrida

“Eric Miller is my favorite Christian cultural critic. I have been absorbing his writings for over a decade, and they never fail to inspire me with hope for something better, something real. If you haven’t read him, you must. These essays will challenge you to think differently about what it means to be a human being in this world.”
—John Fea, author of
The Way of Improvement Leads Home

And while your at it, I would also check out Miller’s Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch.  And I also heard he co-edited a pretty good book called Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation.

Ken Myers on the State of the Christian Church in America

This is a very rich interview with Ken Myers. It appeared at the “Christian Post” last May. (Thanks to Karl Johnson of the Chesterton House for bringing it to my attention).

For those of you who are unfamiliar with him, Myers was a former NPR reporter who founded Mars Hill Audio, an audio magazine to “assist Christians who desire to move from thoughtless consumption of contemporary culture to a vantage point of thoughtful engagement.”  Mars Hill Audio is must listening for thoughtful Christians. (I recently appeared on the journal to discuss Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?).

Myers argues that the church’s problem is not American culture, but “the culture of the church.” You really need to read the entire interview, but let me tantalize you with a few snippets:

CP: Practically speaking, how has the church been too influenced by the broader culture?

Myers: Here’s a small list:

  • The way in which the dominant role of technology in our lives promotes the deep assumption that we can fix anything;
  • The way in which proliferating mechanisms of convenience erodes the virtues of patience and longsuffering;
  • The way in which the elimination of standards of public propriety and manners undermines assumptions about the legitimacy of authority and deference to the communal needs; and
  • The way in which the high prestige accorded to entertainers creates the conviction that every valuable experience should be entertaining.

And this is just scratching the surface.

CP: What is greatest opportunity for the church today to truly impact the larger culture – or should we even be concerned about that?

Myers: Not long ago I interviewed a poet who suggested that he just couldn’t imagine early Church leaders sitting around trying to come up with clever ideas about how they might influence Roman culture.

Robert Wilken made a very similar comment in an interview given in 1998 in which he reflected on the early Church’s posture toward its cultural surroundings. Wilken pointed out that the principal way in which the early Church leaders sustained cultural influence was by discipling its members, by conveying to them that the call of the Gospel was a call to embrace a new way of life. The Church was less interested in transforming the disorders of the Roman Empire than in building “its own sense of community, and it let these communities be the leaven that would gradually transform culture.”

Christians can best serve the health of American culture by striving to be deliberate about and faithful to a way of life that Church historian Robert Wilken has called the “culture of the city of God.”

If congregations in America were deeply and creatively committed to nurturing the culture of the city of God in their life together, I think it would have an inexorable effect on the lives of our neighbors. But I fear that too many churches are shaping people to be what Kenda Creasy Dean calls being “Christianish” – or not deeply Christian at all. The more faithful we are in living out the ramifications of a Christian understanding of all things, the more out-of-synch we will be in American culture. But why should we wish for anything else? What can we offer the world if we are just like the world?

Patheos Book Club Review of Os Guinness, "A Free People’s Suicide"

I was recently asked to do a short review of Os Guinness’s new book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future.  The review was part of the Patheos Book Club, which is featuring Guinness’s book this month.  Also check out reviews by Jana Riess, David Swartz, and Craig Detweiler.

Here is a taste:

About twenty years ago Os Guinness published The American Hour: A Time of Reckoning and the Once and Future Role of Faith.  In that book, written in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Guinness warned against the temptation of letting our international triumph blind us to the moral and cultural decay occurring at home.  He argued that America was facing “its own time of reckoning, an hour of truth that will not be delayed.”  He called it the “American Century’s American Hour.”

Guinness’s latest book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, also suggests that we are in the midst of the “American hour.”  As he did in 1993, he reminds us that Americans won their freedom (in 1776), ordered their freedom (in 1787 and 1791), and is now faced with the task of sustaining their freedom.  Two decades later, the issues remain the same.

Read the rest here.

Defending Allan Bloom

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind turned 25 this year.  As Sean Collins notes, there are many who see the publication of this book as one of the opening salvos of the so-called “culture wars.”  Bloom attacked universities for abandoning the liberal arts. He pointed to a “social and intellectual crisis” happening on college campuses.  In some of the more controversial parts of the book, Bloom took shots at rock music and youth culture.

Conservatives loved it.  Liberals thought Bloom was trying to turn back the clock.  But as Collins argues, Bloom’s argument in The Closing of the American Mind was much more nuanced.  Too often Bloom’s book has been read in the context of the culture wars, but to read it this way is to “miss what’s vital and distinct about it.”  Here is a taste of Collins’s piece at Spiked:

Like traditional moralists, Bloom rails against rock music, but for a very different reason: ‘My concern here is not with the moral effects of this music – whether it leads to sex, violence or drugs. The issue here is its effect on education, and I believe it ruins the imagination of young people and makes it very difficult to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education.’

Just because William Bennett – a prominent conservative back-to-old-morals type – was a follower of Bloom’s, it doesn’t mean Bloom ought to be put in that same category. This pigeonholing of Bloom leads to overlooking the subtleties of his arguments. Indeed, Bloom’s ideas pose serious challenges to both the left and the right.
Take his discussion of relativism. Bloom writes that openness is an essential feature of the academy: ‘The university is the place where inquiry and philosophic openness come into their own. It is intended to encourage the non-instrumental use of reason for its own sake, to provide the atmosphere where the moral and physical superiority of the dominant will not intimidate philosophic doubt.’ However, over time openness was transformed into a mindless relativism: ‘Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.’ If the university preaches that all truths are relative, what’s the point of searching for truth? Openness, ironically, leads to the ‘closing’ of the American mind. 

George Scialabba on Public Intellectuals, the Academy, and Christopher Lasch

Thanks to the folks at Arts & Letters Daily, I spent part of my morning reading this very stimulating interview with social critic George Scialabba.  I have not read anything by Scialabba before, but I will now order his book What Are Intellectuals Good For.  (His book Divided Mind is available here for free). Here is a passage on the rise of the public intellectual in American life
Irving Howe has limned the lineaments of this intellectual culture in a marvelous essay called “The New York Intellectuals”. [L1] He emphasizes above all that they were amateurs, non-specialists, non-professionals, generalists – “luftmenschen of the mind,” as he puts it. It was perhaps the last time in modern cultural history that one could aspire to be a generalist–well, of course one can always aspire to be a generalist, and sometimes one can achieve a great deal in that line–but still, they managed to be authoritative about virtually everything. Admittedly, part of their success may have been their extraordinary gift for sounding authoritative, whether or not they actually knew what they were talking about; but in truth they had an enormous range and versatility. I’m sure it had something to do with New York being the throbbing heart of a great world power, and also something to do with their being newly emancipated Jews, and therefore bringing the passion and resources of that long-suppressed and hedged-in culture and ethnicity to bear freely on their environment for the first time, being able to speak to and about their society as full members, as they rarely had in any previous society. So I’m sure there were things about them that made their extraordinary range and universality possible. But it was also the fact that it was still possible to marshal the resources of the canonical Western literary and philosophical tradition and bring it to bear on politics and society more or less directly.
            But that capacity couldn’t last forever. As the US evolved from a yeoman republic in the mid-nineteenth century to a mass society, as industrial production in particular became the dominant form of economic relations, the new society needed a workforce that was trained up in new skills. So mass education was inaugurated. Now, one of the dangers of mass education, or education of any kind, is that it empowers the educated. It suggests potentially subversive questions about their relation to authority. From the point of view of the owners of society, inquiry of that sort had to be cut off at the knees, or at least, had to be carefully managed. And so new ideologies and techniques of social control, popular management, and the manufacture of consent were developed in the form of the advertising industry, the science of marketing, and public relations as a new aspect of politics and public management.
One of the tools of the manufacture of consent was expertise. Public relations involved finding engineers, scientists, and social scientists who could make the ruling class’s case persuasively. Formerly, all you needed to criticize American foreign policy and corporate policy effectively was a good ear for bullshit. Because government and business propagandists were basically amateurs, their critics could be amateurs. But the new techniques of social control called into being a whole new cohort of intellectuals – one might call them anti-public intellectuals: intellectuals in the service of power rather than in the service of the public. They deployed expertise, which in turn required that they be countered with expertise. But expertise takes time and effort to acquire; and it proved difficult to combine this time and effort with what had formerly been the chief activity of public intellectuals, that is, the cultivation of the humanities. Literary intellectuals like Randolph Bourne or Mark Twain, or philosophers like William James, could muster perfectly adequate critiques of American foreign policy in the early industrial age. But when the ruling class got smarter and better at hiring its apologists, the public needed experts of its own. And these tended to be investigative journalists–I.F. Stone, Seymour Hersh, Glenn Greenwald–or maverick scholars, like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, John Kenneth Galbraith, Christopher Lasch, or William Appleman Williams. 
Read the entire interview for Scialabba’s thoughts on
  • How colleges and universities adopt business models.
  • How colleges and universities throw money at marketable jargon but fail to fund enduring and valuable work in the humanities.
  • How independent-minded young academics who want to write boldly have to constantly “look over their shoulder” and wonder what deans, provosts, presidents, and tenure. committees are going to think about their work
  • The “spiritual and imaginative possibilities of deep reading” when done in stillness and solitude.
  • The work of Christopher Lasch, particularly as it relates to the rise of industrial capitalism’s effect on fatherhood and family.
  • Modernity

James Davison Hunter at Messiah College

I did not get a chance to attend James Davison Hunter‘s lecture last night at Messiah College.  I was in Lafayette Hill speaking about my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to the American Revolution Roundtable of Philadelphia.

But have no fear!  My trusty student assistant, Katie Garland, attended the lecture and provided me with a great set of notes.  What follows is my narrative reconstruction of Katie’s notes.

Hunter began by asking “What does it mean to be a Christian today?” and “How should Christians engage the world?”  The dominant approach that Christians employ today in their engagement with culture is activism, or the attempt to transform the societal structures by invoking a prophetic voice.  According to Hunter, Christians spend a lot of money doing this, but they do not accomplish much.

Hunter then described three leading paradigms that Christians use to engage culture. 

1.  The Christian Right or the “Defensive Against Paradigm.”  The objective of this paradigm is to retain a distinctive version of orthodoxy or orthopraxy.  The Christian Right has a proprietary relationship to American culture.  In its attempt to reclaim the culture, the Christian Right has created a complex empire of parallel Christian institutions.  Its goal is to hold back secularization until Christianity becomes dominant again.  This goal is accomplished by evangelizing unbelievers and launching attacks against the enemies of Christianity.

2.  The Christian Left or the “Relevance To Paradigm.”  The Christian Left, according to Hunter, is trying to re-symbolize Christianity to reflect modernism and secular life.  The Christian Left believes that all people become orthodox as the creed evolves to embrace what people already believe.

3. The Neo-Anabaptist or “Purity From” paradigm. Neo-Anabaptists believe that the world is irredeemable and the church must remove itself from the world’s contaminating influence.  It is rooted in the so-called “2 Kingdoms” view of the church and the world.

All three of these views, Hunter suggested, misconstrue the true challenges facing the church.

Instead, Hunter offers a fourth way (so to speak) called “Faithful Presence Within.”  This paradigm is rooted in the incarnation (“word became flesh”) and a God who pursues us, identifies with us, is good, true, and peaceful, is active, intentional, and wholehearted, and is ever present in our lives.

Faithful Presence requires Christians to:

  • be fully present to others in and out of the church.
  • be fully present and committed to tasks and work
  • be fully present in social influence. (family, neighborhood, place of employment).
  • do what they are able to shape institutions and individuals for Christ through faithful presence
  • enact Shalom and sacrificial love wherever God places you.

Those who want to bring change in society through prophetic preaching or radical activism may not necessarily like Hunter’s model.  He is calling for Christians to be patient and invest, over the long haul, in places and communities.  He is calling Christians to listen, understand, and serve others. 

I think Hunter’s message resonates with several themes that are often discussed at this blog.  First, Hunter’s vision is compatible with agrarian writers such as Wendell Berry who challenge humans to stay put and enact change at the local level. 

Second, Hunter’s vision is compatible with the kinds of things I have been saying lately about the study of history and the humanities.  The study of the past does not produce prophets or radical activists in the progressive, populist, or New Left tradition.  Rather, it produces world-changers who are skilled in the virtues of hospitality, civility, humility, and empathy because they have learned to listen before condemning and show charity before criticizing.

For me, Hunter’s vision for change is the most satisfying Christian paradigm for cultural engagement that I have encountered.