Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Trivializing Faith.

Rod Dreher has just recently criticized the merchandizing at the annual convention of the Christian Booksellers Association, writing that he "can't stand seeing how Christians who traffic in most of this stuff trivialize the most important thing in the world."

I agree, though the juxtaposition of his complaint and his focus on sacramental tomatoes is jarring. More than that, I wonder Rod's opinion about a recent book review by his good friend, Caleb Stegall. In it, he writes, "In the quest to 'find Jesus,' much, perhaps everything, may hinge on the environment of the hunt."

He explains: if you live in the suburbs, your chances of being a Christian are slim to none.

In making such an absurd claim to advance his agrarian agenda, is Caleb Stegall not guilty of trivializing Christianity, making it little more than a function of one's environment? Is he not trivializing Christ Himself, making God Incarnate impotent in the face of tract housing and strip malls?

I continue to wait for any indication that Rod's aware of this piece.


Blogger kathleen said...

In this review, Stegall assumes that because he himself would capitulate to spiritual rot if he lived in suburbia, then everyone else would too. Well, apparently I know quite a few people who are made of sterner spiritual stuff than he. Stegall seems to think that this population is limited to "a few saints" which is humorously self-glorifying as well as inaccurate. I can say from firsthand experience that he is wrong.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Bubba said...

I wonder, has Stegall himself experienced the spiritual decay that he attributes to the suburbs, or does he merely assume such decay because his radical commitment to agrarianism demands it? For him, it's insufficient for farms to be better than suburbs; I know of no virtue he wouldn't pin on farms, and I know of no vice he wouldn't pin on suburbs.

Or maybe he just puts entirely too much stock in Thoreau, Kuntsler, and movies like American Beauty.

He invokes Christ's command of self-mortification: "If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out." But he seems to think, if somebody's eye causes someone to sin, everyone should pluck their eyes out. More, he ignores Christ's deemphasizing of place, that it matters not whether we worship in the temple or on the mountain, that He has made it possible simply to worship in spirit and truth.

His selective choosing and slanted interpretation of Scripture makes me think he's not much interested in discovering what God has to say, but in maniuplating God's message to use it as a bludgeon to advance his own religion of agrarianism.

Stegall seems to think that this population is limited to "a few saints" which is humorously self-glorifying as well as inaccurate.

I think you give him too much credit. Notice his use of the word "perhaps."

Caleb writes, "But we are creatures, the material world is ever present with us, and Goetz's solution, while perhaps sufficient for a few saints, is unworkable for the rest of us, who require an external and embodied expression of life ordered under God."

For Caleb, Goetz's solution -- which includes "solitude, repentance, commitment, rest, service, and friendship" -- certainly isn't enough for the rest of us and may "perhaps" not be enough even for the saints who stay in suburbia.

It's deranged.

It's bewildering, and equally bewildering is Dreher's refusal even to acknowledge the assertion. How often has he praised Stegall? Here we have him talking about the intersection of two of Rod's favorite topics -- faith and suburbia -- and there's utter silence.

Caleb's assertion is quite compatible with what Rod wrote in his book, how the vast majority of mainstream conservatives subscribe to the "vulgar credo" that life ought to focus on the accumulation of wealth and power, even those conservatives who "profess to be religious." If Rod questions the faith of mainstream conservatives, why is he not commenting on Caleb's questioning the faith of suburbanites?

He seems utterly unwilling even to acknowledge the existence of the book review in which we find this idiotic notion. Why is that?

My guess: he can't stay in the good graces of the deranged if he distances himself from them, but he'll drive away the curious if he openly embraces their most galling notions.

1:16 PM  
Blogger kathleen said...

and i love that caleb prescribes even a "lifetime of patient planning" to get the heck out of the suburbs if that's what it takes. in other words, *that's* where you should put your time and treasure! forget taking in the foster children or joining the peace corps or ministering to the elderly or ill -- just spend all your energy, time and money plotting your escape from the suburbs, lest you fail to maintain sufficiently spiritual life.

of course, if everyone who wanted to get to heaven actually did what caleb prescribes, the rural areas wouldn't be so rural anymore. they'd be ... suburban. or maybe even urban. so what caleb prescribes is a logistical impossibility. seems to me that makes his "prescription" just another opportunity to aggrandize himself and brag about his isolated spiritual paradise that us poor schlubs will never replicate, let alone understand.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Pauli said...

K siad:
> us poor schlubs

I agree with Bubba -- does that make me a Bubburbian Schluburbanite?

There's a word for the way Caleb is thinking: extrinisicism. I think he's got a kernel of truth in there -- there is a tendency of some folks to say to themselves "Soul, take thy ease" when they move to the 'burbs. But he ignores that all the non-burbers do the same thing in different ways. Sacramone points that out in his article.

I do think that movies like American Beauty beat this dead horse, but everybody nods their heads at it like "that's the way them doggone suburbians is." A lot of these American folks have never seen Jean de Florette. They should.

My PhD candidate bro-in-law pointed out to me the other day that the first murder recorded in the Bible was committed by a farmer against a non-farmer. Whoopsy! And that was before all that urban sprawl happened at the Tower of Babel.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Bubba said...

The first sin was committed in a garden. The first murderer was a farmer. The city of Jerusalem murdered God Incarnate, but Luke 4 records that the people of Nazareth tried the very same thing.

Farmers appear an awful lot in Jesus' parables, but does anyone wish to argue that the rural tenants of Matthew 21 were portrayed as virtuous? Was the Prodigal Son's brother a paragon of morality because he stayed home? Were the laborers in Matthew 20 not bitter complainers?

And, as Sacramone reminds us, let us not forget the final vision of the Revelation: not a restoration of the garden, but the founding of a new city that was 12,000 stadia on a side -- or 1,400 miles on a side, which would give the city a surface area greater than the state of California, making the New Jerusalem more Coruscant than Naboo.

That's not to say that the Bible embraces city life to the exclusion of life on the farm, which is where I think Sacramone jumps off the rails. It's just to illustrate that the Bible does not readily describe any "-ism", even ones as supposedly noble as agrarianism.

The point of the Bible is not to point us to a platform, but to a Person: Jesus Christ. The written word will not be so easily distorted to take away from its focus on the Living Word.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Bubba said...

Pauli, could you explain what you mean by extrinisicism? The word hardly generates many hits on Google.

4:35 AM  
Blogger Cubeland Mystic said...

"The suburbs are an oasis of life compared to the materialist wasteland that once gripped my mind."

This is from my comment on your last post. Not all of us have these views. Moving to farms is not a sustainable to solution. Your broad assertions are correct and I agree with you.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Pauli said...

Well, of course it doesn't get many hits if you spell it incorrectly like I did!

Here's the first hit from Enc. Brit:

extrinsicism - In philosophy or theology or both, the tendency to place major emphasis on external matters rather than on more profound realities.

The example I always think of is that of the parents who goes out of their way to shield their children from negative cultural forces (sex/drugs/rock & roll) but does nothing in the way of formation to build up an internal resistance to temptation. Not that all such shielding is bad or unnecessary, but it's incomplete without acknowledging mankind's intrinsic imperfections and vices.

6:45 AM  
Blogger Diane said...

and i love that caleb prescribes even a "lifetime of patient planning" to get the heck out of the suburbs if that's what it takes. in other words, *that's* where you should put your time and treasure! forget taking in the foster children or joining the peace corps or ministering to the elderly or ill -- just spend all your energy, time and money plotting your escape from the suburbs, lest you fail to maintain sufficiently spiritual life.

Bingo, Kathleen. I think that's what bothers me most about this Dreher-Stegall Crunchyism: the skewed priorities (which they seek to impose on everyonre else, forsooth).

On Rod's blog, when I pointed out that not everyone has the time, energy, money, or inclination to eat crunchily, Rod gave me a lecture about how all these nice lady comboxers with 8 kids and limited $$$ were telling me how it could be done but I just wasn't listening.

No, Rod, that's not how it works. The fact that some (few) people apparently think it's worth their while to run all over town seeking budget-priced free range chicken does NOT mean this is either feasible or desirable for most people. The fact remains that the vast majority of the poor and lower middle income folks in this country have different concerns and priorities from those of your tiny coterie of dedicated Crunchies.

Maybe, just maybe, all these ordinary non-crunchy folks are too busy ferrying the kids to baseball practice or caring for an elderly relative or juggling all the responsibilities of a single working mom, say, to have time or energy left over for Crunchy Shopping on a Budget. And maybe, just maybe, if you told the average joe and joanna that he/she should spend more time/energy on the Quest for the Budget-Priced Free Range Chicken, rather than on getting the kids their shots or carpooling to the soccer game, said average joe and joanna would look at you squiggle-eyed, wondering what planet you hailed from.

Is anyone as out of touch as these people? Out of touch, yet determined to impose their skewed priorities on the rest of us whether we like it or not. Sheesh. :p

BTW, Pauli--"extrinsicism" (sp?) seems like the mot juste to me. :)

10:05 AM  
Blogger Pauli said...

Hello? Anyone here? Oh -- there you are.

Just a couple more posts on the same theme:

Takes on the Pope's remarks

More thoughtful thoughts on the big S

8:26 PM  
Blogger Bubba said...

I'm here, if only occasionally.

Thanks for 'splaining extrinsicism for me, Pauli. I guess I should be clear that I do think externals matter to at least some degree: some amount of quiet seclusion is probably necessary to develop a healthy prayer life, and to deny this altogether is to tread dangerously close to gnosticism's rejection of the reality of the physical world.

But an over-emphasis on externals likewise treads close to Judaism's focus on kosher regulations. If Christ had a bit to say about the former risk (by urging us to pray in secret), He certainly had a lot to say about the latter, in de-emphasizing the place of worship or denying food's ability to defile a man.

And -- particularly since it doesn't seem to me that living in a suburb is morally equivalent to rooming in a bordello -- I have no idea how those who share Stegall's belief intend to carry out the Great Commission. Have they given up suburbanites as doomed pagans that the Gospel cannot reach? Do they plan to reach us through mission trips though they consider the farms to be home? Do they conceive of convincing us that Green Acres is the place to be as the first necessary step to our becoming Christians?

Or has evangelism not even entered their minds?

In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, John Stott believes that Christ may have been casting a sidelong glance to the Essenes -- those monastic Jews who isolated themselves from the rest of the world and who since became more well known via their Dead Sea scrolls -- when He talked about salt and light. They considered themselves "sons of light," but what did Christ say?

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. - Mt 5:14-16

Indeed it is wrong for Christians to become indistinguishable from the world; we should be ashamed that our divorce rate is identical to those who do not profess faith in Christ. But it's also wrong for Christians to isolate ourselves completely from the world. We must be in the world but not of the world if we are to be effective conduits of God's love to the world.

If someone genuinely believes he cannot grow in faith unless he's on a farm, I won't stop him from trading his laptop for a tractor. But if he believes none of us can grow in any other environment, he goes too far.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Pauli said...

Bubba, yes, certainly that is the summary of my problem with Caleb's assessments here and elsewhere: he goes too far.

To deny that externals matter would be to accept an unrealistic presumption even as the extrinsicists seem to hold to an unrealistic despair. Both attack the virtue of hope whose object in this case is the possibility of changing one's self and one's environment, both of which, to a Christian, are accomplished with the help of divine grace.

I am seriously considering buying the "Death by Suburb" book. Despite the radical-sounding title, the author, David Goetz, seems to be writing a "survival guide", not an absolute and total condemnation a la Ra's Al Ghul's judgement upon Gotham City in "Batman Begins". I'm not sure I'll get much from his assessment on "suburban religion" since Protestants have a hugely different expectation of what a church community is all about than Catholics, but I like some of his insights.

Goetz has an article on CT which gets a little tedious, IMHO, but he states at the top "The land of SUVs and soccer leagues tends to weather the soul in peculiar ways, but it doesn't have to." I'll grant that modern suburbs might tend toward certain sins and sinful attitudes (e.g., aforementioned acedia, the "soul take thy ease" attitude) in general moreso than other times and places. But I think Caleb goes too far when he states that except for a few saints, "literal escape plans" are needed or the "inmates" will "live a disembodied spiritual life." Suburbia isn't like a believer's eye to be plucked out as in the cited parable; suburbia is a place, a type of place. I think the shear stretch of this analogy with Christ's hyperbole regarding sins of the flesh is enough evidence that Caleb is straining for absolutes here.

Here's another post from a blogger, Matthew Fish, along the same lines as Stegall's review. I like what blogger Tom (who has commented on this site) says in the comments: "Well, of course it is impossible to live in Suburbia, since as you say "Suburbia" is a symbol, not a place. The places people do live, the actual suburbs that exist, are quite a different matter, one not nearly as susceptible to grand theories. When the theories collide with the actual places, the theories tend to shatter into tautologies." Brilliant as always. Fish responds, I let y'all read & comment further.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Bubba said...

Thanks for linking to that, Pauli. I posted a comment there, though I'm not sure how much good discussion is possible there, considering that Matthew Fish seems to say very little while writing an awful lot -- and considering how he seems to steal the most important bases, presuming, for instance, that "The entire aesthetic value of 'Surburbia' is explicitly intentional, and those intentions are not at all at home in a authentic understanding of what it really means, and what it really takes, for man to flourish" instead of even taking a half-hearted effort to defend this assertion on which so much of his writing hangs.

6:52 AM  
Blogger Diane said...

But it's also wrong for Christians to isolate ourselves completely from the world.

Well, unless you're a cloistered contemplative monastic. Or one of the stylite saints.

But even the former pray for the world (that's their job). And IIRC the latter attracted caravan-loads of eager disciples---despite their desire for solitude. LOL!

But you're right, Bubba. Most Christians are indeed called to be "in the world, not of it." And yes, the "not of it" part has always been darned difficult. So, what else is new?

A question: Do Stegall & co. include all suburbs in their sweeping condemnation, or jyst the McManisiony kind? There are all sorts of suburbs, after all--from modest older ones where '50s ranch houses cluster amid lovely mature landscaping to rural ones with hardly any zoning and hence great architectural variety (to put it mildly); from "starter home" suburbs where young families and singles (including blacks and Hispanics) can realize the American Dream to opulent ones where conspicuous consumption is the order of the day. And every other possibility in between. Are they all soulless, anti-Christian, unspiritual, and soul-destroying? Even the ones that provide an entry to home ownership for struggling young families? Even the ones with the older homes and spreading shade trees?

Countless Americans live in one sort of suburb or another. Are they all doomed to perdition, then, unless they "escape"? If so, Heaven will be pretty sparsely populated. At least the American part. :)



4:11 PM  
Blogger Diane said...

Just looked at that "Nel Mezzo" site. (Love its name, BTW.)

I can understand Mr. Fish's yearning for radical, "authentic" Christian community. But, as a veteran of the Catholic charismatic renewal, I have come to be wary of such communal experiments. Far too often they engender spiritual abuse, leading to broken marriages and broken lives. My own goddaughter went through this, and I know others who have experienced it as well.

I'm not saying all such Christian communal alternatives are doomed. (If they never succeeded, then there would be no such thing as Christian monasticism, which has in fact flourished for many centuries.) But...radical-discipleship communities are emphatically not for everyone or even for most Christians. In any event, they should be approached with extreme caution. This is especially true for Catholics, who would do well to steer clear of communities (even putatively Catholic ones) that operate parallel to the local diocese and outside of diocesan oversight. This is a recipe for trouble; I know that for a fact---I could tell you horror stories galore based on my goddaughter's experiences!

Protestants relate much the same thing---e.g., a former college classmate of mine, whose marriage was destroyed by his family's involvement in a Watchman Nee-oriented community.

Again, I'm not saying that no one is called to such alternative communities. Just that most of us are not.

Which is not to say that those of us who are not called thereto should buy into consumerism and materialism. But one can certainly live in the suburbs without making such compromises---especially given the fact that "suburb" covers a huge variety of living situations. It doesn't necessarily mean that one lives in a cookie-cutter McMansion with a big honkin' SUV and a gaggle of teens who spend all their time text-messaging each other. I hafta say, in defense of such families, though, that I have good friends and relatives who live in McMansiony suburbs, and they are far from being poster children for spiritual death. Such silly generalizations and stereotypes simply do not fit the wonderfully diverse crowd of folks I know in Real Life. ISTM when you actually get to know Real People, you must perforce cease to be an ideologue. Which is Tom's point, isn't it? ;))

Sorry for rambling....

4:33 PM  
Blogger Pauli said...

Diane wrote: "A question: Do Stegall & co. include all suburbs in their sweeping condemnation, or just the McManisiony kind? There are all sorts of suburbs, after all..."

Diane, I brought up this to Caleb in an email directly back in March. This was his response:

"Yes, 'suburb' is a word with loose definitions. But I think its meaning is clear enough for the purposes of a blog-type discussion...."

For the same reasons you provide, this didn't/doesn't satisfy me. Tom's remark provides insight into the word-play they're engaging in here. IMO, it's the same type of lazy, biased shorthand that the media uses. So "fundamentalist Christian" means "guy who hates gays and kills abortion doctors". Member of the NRA equals "cross-eyed militia member."

I know Christians, conservatives, everybody falls into this, too. When we get called on it we should acknowledge it: "Alright, yeah, I know not all gays have a gay agenda" or "I know not all liberals are drugged out freaks – let me clarify which liberals I’m talking about." This is only fair. It's a turnoff when anyone does this "broad-brushing" and it does a disservice to any argument.

I recommend reading the Wikipedia entry for suburb. There is a lot of room for subtlety in the terminology. I think you can see a huge differentiation in things like suburb-as-bedroom-community, suburb-as-developed-small-town, suburb-as-subdivision, suburb-as-gated-community, etc. But follow all the links to the big scary words and please learn this stuff, folks. Then we can shoot these guys like clay pigeons; "Um, professor, do you think that an exurb which is basically polycentric can be derived organically and if so, is the conurbation, or rather, the exurbation, as it were, subject to economic agglomeration and do you feel this is a positive development?"

"Such silly generalizations and stereotypes simply do not fit the wonderfully diverse crowd of folks I know in Real Life." It's funny because my wife and I were just saying the same thing the other night. Almost all the "good Catholics" we're close friends with right now lives somewhere referred to as the "western suburbs". Obviously this doesn't prove Caleb's assessment wrong because he allows for a few saints to survive the evil suburbs. But it does make me wonder who buys this "evil suburbs" model. My guess is that it's people who are already convinced and they just want to pile on more invective for lack of evidence. More laziness... ah! I know the vice first-hand, believe me.

9:39 PM  

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