Tuesday, January 01, 2019

A Mere Orthodoxy list of top "non-Christian books" from 2018 Christians are advised to read, notes on Jessica Johnson and John Gray books

So this looks to be the first post of 2019.  I'm not exactly a end of year lists sort of blogger but this particular list caught my eye.   Two titles on the list jumped out at me.  The first that jumped out was a book I read and reviewed that I would actually recommend, the second was a book I read and didn't review that I'm not sure I'd recommend because it seems too breezy.


The Jessica Johnson book is a pretty dense academic monograph that has a writing style alienating even to willing readers who were part of Mars Hill. I would still recommend it as the only book so far published on Mars Hill that isn't boilerplate red state or blue state polemic that fails to engage primary source materials and participants, but it's really a book for specialists and scholars that non-specialists will find alienating within the first twenty pages. Since Mars Hill dissolved in 2015 Johnson's book has the benefit of having attempted to describe and discuss one element of the church culture now that the church has been dissolved, at least. Given the extent to which Mark Driscoll has been attempting to continue his public career without so much as conceding Mars Hill ever existed Johnson's book has some historical value for citing and chronicling statements made by MH leaders that have since been, in several ways, purged from the internet record.

Replicating the press blurb ... anyone who actually read the book could, I think, do a bit better. It's not that the book isn't a challenge to read by way of being an academic monograph; it's that in light of the nearly 20 year history of what was once Mars Hill and the way its history has been in some respects scrubbed, if a Christian goes to the trouble to read Johnson's book the most central case Johnson makes in the book, that once you have a fuller definition of pornography than the literary or visual depiction of intercourse for entertainment purposes the appeal of Mark Driscoll within American evangelicalism can be described as pornographic in his Mars Hill period, is a proposal that nearly any Mere Orthodoxy readers who might actually read Jessica Johnson's book might dismiss as soon as they understand it, possibly within the first twenty pages of reading.

I took the time to write a pretty lengthy review of Johnson's book in 2018.

I would go so far as to say that among books that have attempted to describe Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll's ministry within the context of Mars Hill, Jessica Johnson's is the book that is worthwhile for future scholars to consult. Other books that I'm aware of that discussed Mars hill tend to come off as boilerplate either for or against neo-Calvinist doctrines and social practices in binary blue state and red state polemical contexts. One of many reasons such a partisan context is counterproductive is because what is broadly described as neoliberalism can have, as John Halle has blogged, blue state as well as red state iterations--to translate this a bit, Mark Driscoll and Dan Savage may look like they were on opposite sides of issues such as gay marriage and sex work but in the sense that their respective confrontational gimmicks were targeting audiences whose self-assessment of their own sexual market values was considerably above some hypothetical zero, a Mark Driscoll and a Dan Savage were more alike than different in how they pitched to their respectively insular audiences once you begin to separate the formal "what" from the "how" of the self-branding and presentation. I discussed that at some length over here.


If sharing shock jock gimmicks and selling sex talks can be so simple a common point for ostensibly "opposite" men as Mark Driscoll and Dan Savage then the opportunism of sex sells book production can be as pervasive within Christian pop publishing. Nobody's going to be publishing a counterpoint to Real Marriage that is going to be called Real Celibacy. The books that American publishers seem happy to run with are those books that promise to the Christian or non-Christian that if you do it this way the sex will be hotter and the partnership will be better and you will be a better person than all the other people who didn't buy this book.

With Nadia Bolz-Weber having a book called Shameless coming out this month I'd suggest that anyone who reads that book also pick up Real Marriage and then read that book and then read Jessica Johnson's Biblical Porn. Whether it's more of a red-state/fundamentalist ("let's put the fun back in fundamentalism") of Mark Driscoll or a blue-state/egalitarian style that might be the case of Nadia Bolz-Weber, a celebrity preacher can use a "biblical porn" approach. One of the mistakes that will continue to be made by partisans of red state and blue state popular American Christianity (that is more American than Christian, by and large) is to assume that so long as either the red state or blue state checklist is suitably covered that there cannot possibly be an overlap in underlying branding and marketing gimmicks. Whether we're looking at the sex-and-marriage books of a Mark Driscoll, Ed Young, Nadia Bolz-Weber or any number of other celebrity Christians whose books may not really even need to exist except to satisfy contemporary branding purposes, what Jessica Johnson describes as "biblical porn" may be one of the foundations of such branding, branding with an aim less to continue any kind of Christian contemplative or ethical or doctrinal traditions as much as to ensure that a new book gets cranked out and that is dutifully bought by increasingly insular target audiences--the question of whether or not the readers of the Emergent Village authors or Sojourners or The Gospel Coalition of Grace to You Ministries may not all be dangerously insular in their reading and thinking may not be given nearly enough thought.

But Johnson's book, even though I recommend it with some caveats that a moderately conservative Calvinist sort might be expected to have, is not the kind of book that people who want to skim through things for a"worldview" conversation are going to get anything useful out of. It would be their loss, those readers, if they were able to gain anything from reading outside their ideological niche, whether it be blue state or red state or the other way around; whether it be Calvinist, Arminian, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Anglican or not Christian.

Now for the John Gray book, Seven Types of Atheism, I finished reading that last weekend. I think it's a mixed bag. It's a bit too breezy. There are ideas in the book I think should be considered more seriously. Gray's observation that the entire contemporary Western liberal tradition is parasitically dependent on the universalizing claims of monotheistic religions seems to have real merit. Arguing that the Enlightenment era religions of human progress and secular humanist ideals of human development are dependent on millenialist optimism of the sort found in Christianity in Western Europe could actually have a case to be made for its key idea.

But ... Gray kills the credibility of what could be a real case by declining to refine and nuance some of the key claims about liberalism, secularism and Christian millenarian views. Jeffrey Burton Russell outlined in his book Dissent and Order in the Middle Ages that the Catholic church was against both postmillenialist and premillenialist views. Millenialist views such as "post" and "pre" were regarded as heretical in terms of interpretation of apocalyptic literature at the theoretical level and at a practical and political level were regarded as heresies that were endorsed by revolutionaries who set themselves against the social, economic, ecclesial, political and military status quo of the era.

So the trouble with John Gray's book is that it will infuriate or frustrate those atheists and Christians who are widely read enough in the history of religion and political thought to recognize some egregious shortcuts he takes. Since I've been an amillenialist for twenty years I can agree with Gray's assertion that a "millenial" Christian, if Gray means a postmillenialist of some theonomist or Dominionist stripe, and a Marxist have the same basic approach to history. The trouble is that Gray treats all Christian thought as if it has been millenialist since the earliest days of Christian thought and the trouble is that that's simply not true of either Western or Eastern Christianity. There have been amillenialists among Christians going fairly far back into the history of Christianity.

What's more, since there's also a tradition of "already but not yet" in Christian eschatological thought it can't even be said that merely having a millenarian view settles the matter of how Christians think about history. A Christian could affirm there is some kind of millenium but if a Christian holds that the eschatological moment is not something we can bring about by our efforts and that we live "between times" then that can inform thinking about power, politics, church and state. Gray's reading of Christianity seems confined to what might be construed as post-Constantinian, post-Gelasius' doctrine of two swords type of Christendom.

I heartily endorse a proposal that liberalism of the Star Trek variety constitutes propaganda of integration and advocacy for cultural imperialism.

I also wrote about how the core question in Star Trek Beyond was "and who is my neighbor?", a question that shows all of the ways in which the Star Trek franchise is parasitically dependent upon ethical norms and teaching that emerged within the New Testament literature however much Star Trek advocates might wish to believe that, were it not for the legacies of the Abrahamic religions, we would have attained to Star Trek level technological society by now.


So when John Gray makes a claim that contemporary secular humanism and new atheism appeal to cumulative moral intuitions that are residually monotheistic and parasitically dependent on monotheistic ideals I don't really contest that observation. There's a substantial case to be made in favor of that in historical, literary and political terms.

The problem is that he makes such a case in so lazy a way and with so sweeping and inaccurate a grasp of the cumulative global traditions of Christian thinking, and even within Western Christian thought, that he blunts any possibility of his potentially more nuanced case being considered by either Christians or secularists. He has the luxury of being able to opine about the greatness of Santanya and Conrad and Spinoza. It's not that I don't think the new atheists needed to be shown up for the facile polemicists angling for empire that they obviously were--Christopher Hitchens is in many respects no longer remembered as ever having been any kind of left thanks to the vociferousness with which he advocated for Gulf War 2 and to a much lesser extent the war on terror.

That the sun has set on the Western colonial powers and has been setting on the United States is not an idea I expect Americans or Western Europeans to agree with or take seriously, but that's my impression over the last thirty years. Without the largesse of colonial empire the Western European nations are not going to be able to sustain their respective welfare states. The aporia in Western liberalism between the welfare of the human species as a whole and the liberties and rights of individuals as defined by the Western liberal traditions isn't going away. One of the ironies of the emergence of an alt right could be that the alt right sells itself as being for the liberties and rights of individuals while doubling down on collective identity that is more or less fabricated in response to multicultural mythologies that may exist as much in the minds of alt right advocates as in those groups they believe are fabricating mythologies of the rainbow. If the alt right sorts who believe ethnic and cultural monoliths are able to form great empires then the sun set on the West ages ago and China and India promise to be the empires of the future in terms of sheer population size and potential for resource development.

But ... the global biosphere, it seems, cannot withstand second world nations reaching the consumer standards of the first world nations. There may be some truth to that concern on ecological grounds but couldn't international propaganda be a variable? Let's put it this way, couldn't second world powers seeking to emerge as players in the global scene suggest that the decadent and spent powers of the West have more than a mere vested interest in developing a science of climate change whose policy implications require that the rest of the world not catch up to American style consumption? Couldn't Americans just sacrifice contemporary consumption styles back to some year like 1971 or 1917 so the rest of the world could catch up to a 1917 European standard of living? That's never going to happen, obviously, but it's the kind of polemical point that can be raised in response to concerns about the ecological impact of the rest of the world trying to "catch up" with the lifestyle options of the post-industrial West.

John Gray can enjoy a level of luxury that was inconceivable to a Bronze Age regional warlord. John Gray has the luxury of considering that there's actually nothing inherent to atheistic philosophy that should automatically lead to the Western liberal traditions secular humanists and post-Comte style religions-of-humanity take for granted. There's even a case to be made that Gray is right to say that atheists should not take for granted that atheism "should" or even "does" lead to an affirmation of universal human rights and dignities that, in Gray's estimation, are ultimately the innovation of monotheistic religion. If we live in an era in which secularists are attempting to reverse-engineer a natural law tradition on materialist, evolutionary grounds that still yields the social, economic and political advantages for individuals and groups that emerged in the wake of progressive movements that had touchstones in explicitly religious thought then John Gray has a book that could be written to unpack the significance of that. He could have attempted to appeal to the ways that religious people drew upon religious traditions in the Civil Rights movement in the United States, for instance, and compared that to secularist equivalents. He didn't do that.

Unlike the Jessica Johnson book, which is a difficult read but one that I believe is actually useful as a starting point for looking at the ways in which American evangelicalism across the red/blue divide can use sex to market identity and participation, the John Gray book is an easy read but not a book I think you should spend your weekend on now that I've spent a weekend reading through it.


I've been thinking about the Gray book in the weeks since I read it and something's gnawed at me but while I want to write a new post about that I'm not feeling all that energized to do the writing.  Sometimes you feel lethargic when the time could be right for writing as distinct from the time when you're thinking about stuff.  The short, lazy prelude version is that when John Gray wrote that evolution and its processes do not indicate a need for us humans to evolved so as to have to believe true things in order to survive it seems Gray was just plan conceding Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism but with the proviso that, yeah, we humans may need illusions to survive.  Gray can stake out that kind of position consistently but it may be useful to bear in mind that over the last twenty or so years philosophers have taken Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism, a critique of naturalism in light of evolutionary givenness that argues that there's no actual reason evolution should cause humans to evolve in such a way as to need or seek to believe "truth" in order to reproduce and survive.  Perhaps Plantinga could point out that a John Gray can dryly concede this point and then just move on but that many an atheist would deny this could be the case.

But Gray's matter of fact claim raises a question as to whether all atheists would agree with the claim and whether they would find it appropriate for such a sweeping claim about humanity to be ... fit for a popular level paperback.  It's almost as though Gray has written that, sure, the Alvin Plantinga evolutionary argument against naturalism as applies to epistlemology can be conceded but since human life has no intrinsic meaning in the sense that there's no such thing as a story of history, just competing stories of humanity, this doesn't matter.  But then John Gray is a British academic who pretty literally has the luxury of being that sort of neo-Stoic atheist thinker.  Now that I've written that much I don't even know if I'd get into a more detailed version of what I was thinking of writing.  I just have been so rusty on Alvin and Cornelius Plantinga reading over the last ... twenty years I'm embarrassed to admit it took me a week and a half to think about something that a younger me would have probably thought about while I was reading John Gray's book. 

Negative reviews of Gray's book and Gray's book together has me pondering what seem to be the differences between intra-guild and inter-guild battles.  It can seem as though Anglo-American atheists, to some degree, don't wish to concede an Alvin Plantinga evolutionary argument against naturalism in connection to epistlemology but might simply admit among their own team that, no, there's no real reason evolutionary processes would "require" us to believe or seek "truth" in order to survive. 

If religious conservatives tend to be bashful about conceding the extent to which their attempts to revive throne and altar theologies to establish more or less functionally authoritarian cultural systems then atheists can seem bashful about conceding that the gap between the evolutionary and physical processes that spawned human life and attempts to formulate ethical systems that are based on ... allegedly on science or "universal" values while explicitly repudiating the natural law traditions refined by the monotheistic religions is insuperable, more or less.  What John Gray has managed to insist upon in Seven Types of Atheism is that most of what passes for atheism is parasitically dependent on ideas that were invented or refined within monotheistic contexts and that honest atheists have to step back and reject all of that stuff to become real atheists. 

It's as though Gray decided to publish a little book that narrowed the field of real atheisms into a kind of anti-no-true-Scotsman polemic.  When Gray concludes by saying that the new atheists and religious fundamentalists have more in common in disposition and epistlemological convictions than atheists and religious mystics who withdraw from cultural/imperial projects he's underlining very broadly a polemical point that few atheists and religious followers might consider reasonable or even coherent.  Gray has the luxury of being the kind of atheist who thinks five of seven types of atheists are really just religious zealots who are unable to recognize it.  Whether it's a new atheist, a secular humanist, a believer in a religion of positive and perfectable humanity in Enlightenment terms (and Gray takes some time to insist that explicitly racist and white supremacist views were the product of this Enlightenment more than they had anything to do with monotheistic religions whose catholicity insisted upon a universal human origin in Genesis 3 in the Abrahamic religions), or god-haters or advocates of political parties, Gray asserts flatly that all of these would be atheists are ultimately acting and thinking like religious zealots.  He mentioned in passing the late Christopher Hitchens whose anti-religious views didn't preclude a dogmatic commitment to the war on terror and Gulf War 2.  Hitchens was paradoxically and ironically an exemplar of the kind of dogmatism he claimed to loathe.    Gray's little book might be a useful overview of how there can be, as so often the case with religious people, an observable and troubling gap between precept and practice, dogma and conduct. 

That might have to suffice ... a rather long postscript.

No comments: