Weird intersections

Weird intersections September 30, 2011

Here’s another book for my list: Left Behind and Loving It, by D. Mark Davis.

From Amy Frykholm’s review for The Christian Century:

For people interested in the weird intersection of the Bible and American culture, this book does the trick of making you see better because you laugh more.

Frykholm is herself author of Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America, which has made its way from being on my list of books to actually being in my pile of books.

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Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has written a post that seems almost designed as linkbait just for someone with my particular hobby horses. “God doesn’t run markets, people do,” name-checks Stephen Colbert, Reinhold Niebuhr, Walter Rauschenbusch and Laborem Exercens. That’s one Buffy or Doctor Who reference from just about being my ideal column.

Thistlethwaite actually starts with Niebuhr and then goes on to Rauschenbusch, whose moral economic vision, she says, “is not idealistic, but realistic.” That’s not what Niebuhr thought, which is why I think it’s important to read those two in the right order, in keeping with the chronology of the conversation. Rauschenbusch’s grand vision is almost utopian in ambition, requiring the chastening correction that followed from Niebuhr’s dour reminder that sinful human nature can never be reformed away.

That was a necessary correction, but Niebuhr was so thorough in making it that almost nobody reads poor Rauschenbusch anymore except as an artifact of an earlier age of naive idealism. That’s a shame, too, because as unrealistic as his “social gospel” vision could be, it offered more aspiration and inspiration than one finds in Niebuhr’s more pessimistic realism.

I like to think we are not faced with only two choices: naive optimism or wounded pessimism, illusion or disillusion. There’s a good word for that thing which is neither mere optimism nor its opposite: Hope.

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I was perhaps a bit unfair the other day in mocking Matthew J. Franck’s pompous prose for First Things. It was wrong to single him out for that sort of snooty pretentiousness — that’s how everyone writes for First Things. They seem to think it makes their arguments more compelling if they pretend they’re smoking a pipe while sipping brandy with their chums at the club. It’s “drawing-room prose … full of little drolleries.”

That phrase is from a 2005 post by Michael Bérubé, which I wound up re-reading yesterday via Scott Lemiuex via Charlie Pierce. Bérubé offered a long evisceration of an essay by Joseph Epstein written in just the same self-indulgently old-fashioned style that often makes First Things such a grating read. Bérubé’s conclusion about Epstein echoes much of what I would say about that bunch:

Joseph Epstein is not, in fact, a hack. He’s capable of much better than this. Even his most tedious essays have flashes of genuine wit and grace, and I’ve found his best work thoroughly entertaining even when I don’t care for its propositional content. The problem with this ubi sunt genre of lamentation, in this respect, is that it’s inevitably self-aggrandizing: you don’t have to scratch the surface of the text very hard to find that its subtext is no one writes well for the general public any longer — except me, the way I’m doing right now.

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