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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Should Mormons (or Anyone) Hope to Change the World?

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

For many decades at least--and maybe, depending on whose history you most trust, maybe ever since our beginning--the dominant American Mormon mode for thinking about this thing which the scriptures and those who claim to be able to authoritatively comment upon them tend to call "the world" has been to, if not completely flee it, then at least stand at a remove from it: to be "in the world, but not of the world." There's a deep scriptural truth to this formulation, reflecting as it does one of the final statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John. But just as many Christians--and, of late, more and more Mormons--have been equally inspired by the tradition of the Great Commission: that we are called to go about into the world, and change it for the better. This means evangelization and missionary work, of course, something which the Mormon church has embraced from the start. But it also means many other kinds of service and charitable works as well--something which, to our credit, we've done our best to get caught up on in recent years.

Jesus taught the eternal value of changing lives through loving service, and that is more than enough for most Christians. Mormons, though, might imagine that there is an additional endpoint to all that going out into and changing of the world, one which which distinguishes us from many (not all, for certain, but nonetheless many) other Christian groups: the ultimate aim of building up the kingdom of God upon the earth and establishing Zion--which for Mormons like me means a community and/or state of being where all are of one heart and one mind, dwell in righteousness, and no one is poor.

There is much which can be said about the theological, ecclesiastical, political, and cultural aspects of this argument--or is it a dialectic?--between Christian resistance to "the world" and the (utopian?) Mormon hope for a real, actual Zion of unity, equality, and love, and no Latter-day Saint in the past century has written about the topic more provocatively and powerfully--if not always persuasively--than Hugh Nibley. (I've written and spoken some about Nibley's ideas here, here, and here.) Last year, though, another voice was added to this ongoing argument: Joseph Spencer's For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope. In his smart and short book, Spencer explores a very specific philosophical matter which pertains to how worldly Mormons like myself think about Zion: how can we hope for something which is, by all apparently and historical experience, impossible to achieve? That is actually a truly vital question, and Spencer's wrestling with it is genuinely challenging, something I didn't notice at first. My belated realization of how good a book it is should be of no surprise to those who read Mormon blogs--just see here or here if you've missed out, somehow--but I'm happy to say it here: if you've ever thought about the why of the Christian call to change the world, or of the Mormon call to consecrate one's time and talents on behalf of such an ideal goal, Spencer's book is one to be read.

Note I said why, though: not how. Spencer's book is directed towards shifting our philosophical appreciation of what it means to hope for something that lies utterly outside our experience, relying heavily upon a reading of the apostle Paul's letter to the Romans, and the entwined concepts of faith, love, and God's gifts. "[H]ope gives up on the world in joyful affirmation that it can--and will--be otherwise," writes Spencer; we must understand, he argues, that Jesus's life and death ushers in the possibility of a hope that "refus[es] to trust in the supposedly self-sufficient, in the supposedly inert and fixed, and in the supposedly total and unchangeable [character of the world]" (pgs. 22, 51). Moreover, Spencer argues that such a "hope against hope" is essential to understand Joseph Smith's fullest teachings about Zion. A "genuinely Christian hope" is that which frees us from (Spencer quotes the philosopher Gabriel Marcel here) "the 'radical insecurity of Having,' from the self-liquidation of every economy of property," and since Smith's law of consecration--which Spencer insists is still fully in force for every member of the Mormon church--obliges us to own our property "as though" we don't, we need to be able to grasp such an unworldly hope if the motivation to act as other-directed, charitable stewards, rather than accumulators and profit-maximizers, is going to have any kind of chance (pgs. 63, 128, 141). I'll say it again: that's a vital shift, and writing a thoughtful book about it is thus a worthy and important thing.

But it is also, I think, a limited thing. It is an argument which insists that we ought to look at ourselves in the mirror and recognize "not only that things can change despite the fact that they present me with an objective impossibility, but also that...I can be an agent of such change" (pg. 27)--a great message! It repeatedly underlines Adam Miller's insistence (including at the very beginning and the very end of the book) that the responsibility faithful Mormons have to work out the means by which they will put that economic, communitarian, charitable hope into practice is finally and ultimately a personal one: "[i]f you do not work things out for yourself, they will never get done" (pgs. ix, 153)--again, a great message! But they both sound to me like individualistic ones, inward ones--which is why I've suggested (both in the review I linked to above and in a too-long, rambling philosophical post here) that Spencer's book strikes a quietist tone to me.

Jim Faulconer--an old teacher of mine, my respect for whom is pretty immense--takes issue with this judgment. "I’ve seen Joe accused of a kind of quietism of thought, but this book proves that charge untrue," he writes. "For he shows that the law of consecration has remained, from beginning to now, a matter of providing an inheritance for the poor of the Church, and he argues quite firmly that the law has not been rescinded, not even temporarily." He quotes Spencer's summary of the law (as he presents it as presently existing) in its all hopeful fullness:

To obey the law is to remain the technical or legal owner of one’s property while (1) deeding away all excess (everything more than is “sufficient” for an appropriate stewardship) in order to outfit the poor Saints, (2) maintaining what remains in one’s possession as a stewardship for which one is responsible to God and for God’s stated purposes, and (3) giving whatever excess accrues subsequently through wise use of one’s stewardship either (a) to benefit the poor directly or (b) to ensure that the institutional Church has the resources to do other work necessary for furthering God’s purposes (pg. 142).

Once again, this is a great--a challenging, sobering, inspiring--message. I do not--not when I truly think seriously about my and my family's needs and wants, and the needs and wants of those I see all around me in my ward and city and world--consecrate all that I could. I don't act like the steward I probably ought to be; we don't have many excesses in our family, but we have a few, and we treasure them, and the prospect of giving them all away to the poor or donating them all to the church to use as it sees best rests hard upon my heart. To the degree to which Spencer's arguments must be understood as a plea for ordinary (and comparatively speaking, quite wealthy) American Mormons like him and me and everyone who reads his book or this blog to gird up their loins, be hopeful, and work towards that demanding--though perhaps also liberating--personal end, then surely Jim's response is correct: this isn't a retreat from action, but rather a charge directly to the heart.

But that doesn't resolve every concern I have, because "quietism" doesn't simply mean "inaction." Rather, quietism suggests a non-antagonist, non-confrontational, accepting attitude towards the world; it suggests a posture of acceptance, rather than engagement. Spencer's book, insofar as we think of one's personal understanding of what it means and what it involves to hope for and work towards a better, more equal, more loving world, is hardly lacking in hows. On the contrary, it is filled with them. But those hows never extend beyond his heart, or my heart, or yours. It is the how of Mother Teresa entering the slums of Calcutta, of Zacchaeus coming down from the sycamore tree and giving half his wealth to the poor, of Ebeneezer Scrooge's reformation. It is a call for everyone, on their own, to figure out how better to love and serve their neighbor. For the fourth time--that's a powerful and needed call! But not a comprehensive one--in fact, it's the opposite of comprehensive: it's piecemeal, it's particular. I like the particular; I think it's vitally important to involve oneself and to prioritize over other allegiances the local. But note what's happening there: involvement and allegiance. Which means other people, all of whom are organized one way or another in reference to the world they (and we) are part of. To engage with any of those organizations, however hopefully, may well obligate us to make choices and experience alignments and disagreements with others--in other words, to say something to or about or sometimes even against the world.

I would never label Spencer's book a call to some kind of spiritual individualism or atomism; that completely misunderstands his many, strong arguments pointing out our absolute dependency upon God's gifts. Yet I fear his analysis at least allows for such a conclusion. He carefully and forcefully argues against the Mormon tendency to put the utopian demands of consecration in our distant 19th-century Utah past or our unknowable, millennial future, and I couldn't agree with him more. But he does this in part by attacking the idea of any kind of "systemization" of consecration, insisting instead that seeking Zion is simply something that each of us, on our own, need to be doing right now, since, after all, there's no "divinely orchestrated communism on the horizon" (pg. 145).

Of course, that's not entirely true, as we still have the model of Joseph Smith's communism, not to mention the model of dozens of experiments with communal economics under Brigham Young, to say nothing of hundreds of other Christian examples of Zion-type arrangements the whole world over. But Spencer's arguments give me the impression, at least, that he feels that if, in our hopeful workings, we decided to critically engage in a changing the worldly systems and organizations we and our loved ones are part of, in the hopes of moving them in the direction of something more Zion-like, we'll actually be getting hope wrong. Invoking the--one more time!--powerful and thought-provoking idea that conditions in Zion ought to be understood as similar to those economic and social relations which obtained among medieval monasteries, he deepens his commitment to an abiding, waiting, "as though not" framing of hope, suggesting that the truest and wisest realization of Smith's efforts to build a Zion community was that "the law of God and the laws of the land" should be "neither directly opposed to each other nor regarded as potentially working in perfect concert" with each other (pg. 140). In other words, the hope for Zion should involve that which does not challenge worldly laws, nor that which makes use of worldly laws. Truly, monastic models of community have much to teach us...but as regards the whole debate over Christians not being "of this world" as opposed to Christians "changing the world" I mentioned earlier, and what a better grasp of hope may tell us about that matter--well, this sort of presentation does seem to stack the deck in favor of the former, don't you think?

Thinking through these issues puts me in mind of another excellent book, James Davison Hunter's To Change the World, which is a fascinating survey of--and a thorough criticism of--the many ways in which Christians throughout history (though mostly American history) have articulated their challenges to the world. There is--just like is the case with Spencer's book!--a great deal to learn from Davison; his unsparing analysis of the presumptions he sees operating in favor progressive change on the part of the "Christian Left," and in favor of cultural preservation on the part of "Christian Right," and even in favor of the "neo-Anabaptist" rejection of both of the above, is both trenchant and mostly persuasive. But only mostly...because, after all, if the power of God's call is to be experienced in this world as not one which makes peace with the world, but also not one which seeks to change the world this way or that, that how can it be anything except, well, a private, personal mystical experience? Hunter's call for Christians to exercise "faithful presence" is wise one (and one whose parallels to the patient world of Christian monasteries supplements Spencer's arguments), and I certain wouldn't say that I've fully internalized all the good things I can learn from it. But I also can't help but agree with Andy Crouch in this review of Hunter's book, which observes that one cannot build a "presence" alone: "movement[s]...require partners."

Partnership, friendship, community, collective sacrifice, building and eating and reaping and sharing in ways that tied and supported and protected the saints all together: all of that was central to Smith's original social, economic, and ecclesiastical vision. Spencer's book takes nothing away from any of that. But it also constructs a notion of hope that I think may, however insightful it is, lead some of us to believe we have good theological reasons to hesitate to orient our hope towards the collective possibilities and gifts always around us, and that it would be truer to God's revelations to focus on the--admittedly!--great and needed and loving work we can do, on our own, in our own way, as we hope to get our hearts right. I would never judge another's vocation. But I have to end my simply saying that my preference (without concurring every postmodern claim he makes) is to see we faithful, we hopeful saints, as Scott Abbot did: "we will own up to our stewardship as creators, and not just stewards." A proper hope for Zion may begin with my shifting my heart to a willingness to embrace those gifts from God which enliven the objectively impossible, but it doesn't end with a refining of that self-embrace; it looks for tools and partners and, yes, even systems and programs and suggestions and criticisms by which the whole community, perhaps even the whole world, can be embraced as well. If not that, well, then, what was the Commission for?

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "I'm Still Here"

Yep, believe or not, I'm still doing this. Other things too, of course, but also this.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Power, Sex, and the Real Story of House of Cards

Be warned: spoilers follow.

I finally finished season 3 of House of Cards late last week, and I have to say that I was, at first, disappointed. It was superbly made and consistently entertaining television, to be sure, but it didn't advance the story in ways that I think season 2 had set it up to do, instead giving us viewers a lot of mostly irrelevant--though admittedly compelling--foreign policy shenanigans, and then prolonged excursions through Doug Stamper's and Remy Danton's souls. So honestly, I wasn't sure I was likely to binge on season 4 next year. But after thinking about it over the weekend, I decided: no, I'll give it another shot. But mainly on one condition--that Kevin Spacey's inconsistently vicious President Frank Underwood be sidelined somewhat, so that the story arc of Robin Wright's First Lady Claire Underwood can take center stage, and be recognized as that which really pulls House of Cards fully together.

I don't know what percentage of Netflix's HoC viewers were fans of the original British House of Cards, but I was, and I don't think I was at all alone in approaching the Netflix series in comparison to that small masterpiece. At its center was Francis Urquhart, a truly brilliant Machiavellian literary and television creation brought to life by Ian Richardson. The first season of the BBC HoC is simply tremendous storytelling, because through Urquhart the series' creators managed to explore--in the context of a deliciously compelling story of media manipulation, outright bribery, sexual blackmail, and (most of all) bureaucratic maneuvering--not just the heart of an ambitious and amoral politician but the twisted logic by which ambition operates in a parliamentary system. Urquhart's assent to the top of his party, then to near unchallengeable authority over the machinery of power throughout the United Kingdom, made a spooky amount of sense; it was, in short, not only fun to watch but plausible to contemplate, in a way which Frank Underwood's machinations through Washington DC's various chambers of power have really never been.

The level of intricate and devilish plotting which the original BBC series laid out wasn't maintained, in my opinion; in the subsequent series about Urquhart's political career (To Play the King and The Final Cut), he relied crudely on the drumbeats of war--the terrorist threat of the Irish Republican Army, to be specific--to mask increasingly fascistic moves as prime minister, making him over into a less complicated stand-in for everyone who hated Margaret Thatcher. At the same time, his occasional feelings of regret over the murder of Mattie Storin seemed arbitrarily dropped into the plot, in a clumsy attempt to humanize him. Whereas in the case of Frank Underwood, season 2 of the Netflix HoC was a real step up from the already excellent season 1. Once Frank was in the executive branch, a heart-beat away from the presidency, the opportunities were presented for the writers to get really gonzo in the telling of this story, and did they ever. Killing Zoe Barnes, railroading Lucas Goodwin, silencing Jaimie Skorsky, intimidating Tom Hammerschmidt, turning the tables of Raymond Tusk....this was great, crazy, conspiracy-minded television! Sure, the actual politics which the writers were making use of were, in contrast to the case with the BBC HoC, pretty much baloney--but it was cool baloney, and I loved it.

Hence my disappointment with season 3--Frank wasn't making his snarky asides to the camera nearly as much any longer, and while there was some true nutso audaciousness on display in how he wielded the powers of the presidency (twisting the arm of FEMA so as to use earmarked emergency funds to pay for a congressionally road-blocked job-creation program, insisting on a mano-a-mano showdown meeting with Russian President Viktor Petrov in the middle of a war zone), by and large, with his life's ambitions fulfilled, some of the fun had gone out the story. So I thought for the first day or two after I finished season 3--until, that is, I realized that maybe the real story, all along, hasn't been about Frank, but rather about the conflicted, ambitious, secretive, ferociously talented and dangerous uncertain woman who shares his bed.

Urquhart's wife Elizabeth was clearly a major player in his ascent to power, and she remained crucial to the story until the very end, when she arranged for her husband's assassination in order to protect his (and her) reputation. But she had little depth as a character; we saw her almost always as responding to the actions of her husband or others, whereas Claire Underwood has been a person with her own agenda right from the start. In reflecting upon the state of this agenda by the end of the latest season--Claire having taken a humanitarian organization in a new and ambitious direction, throwing the staff into a tumult, then abandoning that organization in order to lay the groundwork for her career as a diplomat, which she achieves and then loses as her husband sacrifices her accomplishments to appease an embarrassed Russian president--one can see the source of much of the best drama of the whole show. But there's even more to it than that, I think; HoC gives us Claire Underwood, through Wright's fascinating embodiment of her, as a driven yet sometimes icily indecisive symbol for all women in a world shaped around male sexual power.

Indeed, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that matters of sex--its use and abuse, the longing for it and the complications of it--are a constant sub-theme throughout House of Cards. To start with: what is Frank's sexual orientation, anyway? He obviously delights in reigning (literally) over younger, impressionable women, but we can't forget the way he seduced Agent Meechum, culminating in the three-way with his own wife, nor the weird undertone of sexual attraction which vibrates through his meetings with biographer Tom Yates (who we are supposed to believe became a nationally famous and best-selling novelist with a novel about his years as a male prostitute). Claire has regular acquiesced to Frank's sexual predilections, yet when she angrily insists that he make love to her roughly, face to face, he can't manage it. Claire herself was at first reluctant to re-ignite her sexual relationship with Adam Galloway, but then later embraced it, and later yet twisted her feelings for him such that he was willing to undermine himself on live television just to protect her own husband. The tension between Claire and the Russian president made me wonder if we were going to see some further attempts as sexual blackmail there. But through all this Claire is also shown as somewhat half-hearted, betraying almost stereotypical feminine weaknesses mostly behind the scenes (such as early on, when she reconsidered her and Frank's decision not to have children, to the point of exploring fertility treatments without his knowledge). The suicide of Michael Corrigan shocks her into a state of maternal defensiveness (he hung himself while she was lying there, getting her much needed rest, using her own scarf!), but of course this was the same woman who contemptuously mocked her one-time employee Gillian Cole for getting pregnant by a man she wasn't married to, and for allowing her fate and her unborn baby's health to be entirely in Claire's unsympathetic hands.

And more: consider how prevalent themes of sexuality, women's rights, and motherhood came to dominate all the electoral discussions of season 3. Heather Dunbar, at first refusing to use against Frank secret information about Claire's season 2 story about being raped and having an abortion, and then being willing to pay almost any price to get a hold of that information. Jackie Sharp, married to a man she doesn't love because Frank wanted her to be married before he added her to his re-election ticket, lusting after a former lover, willing to hypocritically attack Heather for choices that indict her own less-than-fully-loving childcare choices. (And don't forget that Jackie was able to attain the position she has mainly because she was willing to expose another politician's secret illegitimate child.) The scenes we're given in season 3 all about Claire's hair color, and how simple decisions like that can't fully be her own in the political world her and Frank's mutual ambition have committed themselves to, speak volumes--as does, in fact, the constantly repeated refrain that Claire's approval numbers are higher than the president's, thus making it imperative than she be used by the president and his handlers carefully. Important sexual contrasts are built up: with Heather Dunbar and Jackie Sharp, of course, but more particularly with Catherine Durant, a Democratic Senator and later Secretary of State who has had her share of entanglements over the years, yet stands interestingly apart from the machinations of the Underwood presidency. And then, most particularly, the strange encounter between Claire and the young mother in Iowa, whose openness about her own sexual freedom, her mothering responsibilities, and even just her own breastfeeding of her child, seemed like one long bizarre taunt to the terribly controlled Claire.

Season 3 ended with Claire announcing that she's leaving Frank, so here's to hoping that season 4, rather than staying in the White House, actually follows her. Some of have called Claire Underwood a feminist icon, some have called her a sell-out; in truth, we've seen her be both. So forget President Underwood; we have his number, for better or worse. Claire is the one who is still a mystery, who we viewers are--and, as presented on screen, who she herself is--still trying to figure out. If we're no longer being treated to the contained story of a tyrant's rise and fall, as the original House of Cards suggested, but rather to an exploration of what an American-style pseudo-tyranny does to people, then let's forget about the tyrant himself; it is the Lady Macbeth at his side (or no longer at his side) whose journey as a woman and sexual being I want to understand.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Saturday Night Live Music: "The Ghost In You"

Getting back to this feature--and what better way to start up again than with a simply great artist performing a simply great song so simply?

Friday, March 06, 2015

Why Local Elections Ought to Be Partisan

Here is the original and slightly longer version of a piece of mine which appeared in the Wichita Eagle this morning.

Last week the Kansas Senate approved a bill that will, if it becomes law, move our local elections from the spring to the fall in odd-numbered years. That would be a good change, I think, especially in light of a poor turnout--fewer than 20,000 votes cast, which is less than 10% of all registered voters here in Wichita, KS--we just saw in our mayoral primary. Anything to make it more likely more citizens will tune in is, I think, worth trying. But at the same time they also dropped a provision in the bill that would have made it possible for political parties to directly involve themselves in local elections, specifically by organizing them around partisan candidates. They dropped it mostly because dozens of school boards and city councils across the state complained, making arguments on behalf of the nonpartisan status quo. I disagree with those complaints. The legislature's decision not to go forward with that change was, I think, unfortunate–and the mayoral race we now have here in Wichita proves why.

The problem isn’t the mayoral primary winners. Jeff Longwell and Sam Williams are both successful businessmen and committed public servants, with long records of civic involvement and volunteerism. I’ve no doubt that either could make an entirely competent, perhaps even inspiring, mayor of our city.

But unless their respective campaigns over the next four weeks genuinely surprise us, revealing as-yet unnoticed philosophical and policy differences between these two gentlemen, it is also probably fair to say that Longwell and Williams do not, in themselves, represent a particularly broad range of options or interests when it comes to questions about how Wichita is to be lead. After all, they are both--as is pretty apparent from their records, public statements, and advertisements--financially successful, business-friendly, mainstream white male conservatives from Wichita’s west side. That’s not necessarily a criticism (I’m a white male west-sider myself). But I wonder just how engaging this race would be to all my neighbors if we’d ended up with two finalists for mayor who more obviously embodied the concerns, experiences, and aspirations of voters from Wichita’s poorer, or more diverse, or younger neighborhoods?

This is where parties come in. Everybody claims to hate partisanship, and it’s true that the way the national parties operate today is highly dysfunctional. (That's not entirely their fault, since--as has been much discussed lately--the incentive structures of our whole mass democratic electoral system have become rather perverse over recent decades.) But like it or not, parties are one of the few successful ways we have to actually organize and bring into the democratic process the huge range of attitudes and perspectives contained amongst the American people. You may not like the candidates which the Republican or Democratic parties present you with, and you may not care for the track record or agree with the platform of either party, but it remains a fact that when candidates are identified as “conservative Republicans” or “liberal Democrats” or some other combination thereof, it gives us information that we can make real choices about.

Nonpartisanship, with its focus on straightforward issues of management, surely has its place in some elections–such as for school board members, when the responsibilities of those elected are usually narrowly defined, representing as they do a very specific segment of the population. Perhaps some truly small towns are well served by nonpartisan elections also. But a city the size of Wichita? Where we can easily see, as we look from west to east, north to south, numerous pockets of genuine racial, cultural, and ideological difference? No electoral system could ever perfectly capture all those diverse agendas, especially since voter turn-out amongst those populations differ so widely. But political parties, by organizing different economic, ethnic, and social factions and establishing distinct sets of policy ideas, would at least serve as a vehicle for some of those agendas, and the candidates who reflect them, to make it on to the final ballot.

True, parties always carry with them the fear of the influence of large financial interests. Wanting to protect the small range of powers available to cities from broad ideological conflicts is a valid desire. But when you consider that money already clearly talks in even supposedly nonpartisan elections--Longwell and Williams both spent individually more on their campaigns than all eight other candidates combined--expressing fears about political action committees and big donors seems a naive. (Besides, this is an argument which gets made regardless of the ideological self-interest which motivates the person worried about it--here in Kansas, the conservative majority frets about school teachers and the education lobby dominating local elections in the springtime, and Kansas's comparatively few liberals worry about the Republican electoral machine dominating everything else. They're both correct, of course--so why not own up to it?)

Wichita is a large, complex, diverse city. Cities like our needs parties, for all their flaws, to be able to give everyone, even those perpetually in the minority--which would include folks who vote for more left-leaning policy solutions like me--a consistent political voice, and thus the possibility to electorally make their case during the main event. And besides, at the very least, they would likely also give voters electoral contests more worth getting excited about.