The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #134: Cain

General Introductiontintoretto_caino_abele
- Nathan levels up!
- Listener feedback
- Christian naturism
- Rogers, Rogers everywhere
- Telos and Matthew 5:48
- Christian college and losing one’s faith
- The problem with universal morality

The Genesis Account
- The first mortal born of humans
- A function name, not an origin name
- Cain’s sacrifice and Abel’s
- Blood crying out
- The mark of Cain
- The father of the arts and violence
- The cursed ground, and the cursed man who works it
- The running theme of exile
- Younger brothers

The New Testament Writers
- Righteousness and unrighteousness
- Looking for motivation
- Jesus and Abel
- The blood’s still speaking
- The Second-Temple midrash

And Now, David Grubbs (And Nathan Gilmour) Talks Beowulf
- Kinsman murder
- The father of inhuman monsters
- Dwellers in the wilderness
- The arts of crime

Steinbeck’s East of Eden
- The quality of the novel
- Beyond good and evil
- Generational curses
- Adam’s Timshel blessing
- Steinbeck discovers free will

Augustine’s City of God
- Cain as colonist
- Augustine’s midrashic project
- Cain and Romulus
- Love of glory, love of God
- Genealogy, not allegory
- Augustine’s multitudes

Other Cains
- Abel’s corpse
- The sins of the fathers
- Vampire: The Masquerade
- Baroque art
- Mormons, Cain, and Bigfoot

Our theme music this week is Brother Cane’s “Got No Shame”—a Gilmour pick if ever there was one.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #133: Psychology

General IntroductionVincent_Willem_van_Gogh_002
- Stay tuned ‘til the end for listener feedback

Aristotelian Psychology
- What does Aristotle mean by soul?
- The soul and the body
- Dante’s interpolation
- Your undecaying mind
- The final cause of the body
- Types of souls
- Thomas’s additions

Christology and Psychology
- The Nicene Creed
- Made man that we might be made God
- A renewal of the Imago Dei
- Fallen minds
- How many wills does Christ have?

Modern Psychology and Philosophical History
- A strained relationship
- Theophrastus wonders
- Personality theory and moral philosophy
- Psychology of the person
- Science of the psyche
- The not-so-great divorce
- Behaviorism and natural science
- Personality vs. character
- Smuggling in assumptions and values

Concealed Rhetoric in Scientistic Sociology
- Collections and interpretation of facts
- The value of rhetoric
- When scientists enter politics
- State your philosophy!
- Social respect and Silicon Valley

Positive Psychology
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Clinical psychology and the APA
- How the tables were turned
- An overemphasis on the negative
- An explosion
- Superheroes, the virtues, and positive psychology
- Specifying a telos
- Two-thirds of an Aristotelian
- Guilt and maturity
- Basic assumptions about human nature

Tolkien and Addiction
- How is Gollum a dope fiend?
- Moving the goalposts of “my precious”
- Ego displacement
- Why Frodo can’t throw the ring away
- Sam’s trip

Our theme music this week is The Choir’s “Love Your Mind” from 1994’s Speckled Bird.

The Christian Feminist Podcast, Episode 7.2: Jesus Feminist


  • Reception
  • What is a Jesus Feminist?
  • Foreword by Rachel Held Evans


  • Tone and structure
  • Paul and silence
  • Female community and spiritual midwives
  • Marriage and mutual submission
  • Experiencing God through motherhood
  • More on the book’s tone

Passing On


The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #132: Physics

General Introduction  science-against-obscurantism-1920
- Our special guest
- Listener feedback
- I dream of The Christian Humanist Podcast
- C.S. Lewis and universalism
- In which we explain pop culture to David Grubbs
- Tolkien and Ransom
- Anti-vaccination and the Internet
- Bible episodes

Aristotelian Physics
- Phusis and natura
- From dirt to gods
- The study of motion and substance
- The meanings of causality
- Teleology and perfection
- Physics vs. metaphysics
- The supposed-tos

Medieval Physics
- David punts to C.S. Lewis
- The love that moves the sun and stars
- Love vs. laws
- Ptolemaic persistence
- But can you run a cell phone on it?

The Romantic War on Science
- A very Grubbsian move from Todd
- The child of time
- The vulture of science
- Where Poe has a point
- Over-mechanization
- The enchantment and disenchantment of science
- Where art kills, too
- It feels so good to get stoned

Modern Physics
- Radioactive decay
- The theory of relativity
- Space-time curvature
- Quantum mechanics
- Quantum metaphysics

The Lay Response
- What’s the truth here?
- In which David feels stupid
- Keep your shirt on
- Always already in the mystery
- Don’t be paralyzed

Science and Humanities
- Luther’s Paideia program
- Modeling action for students

Our music today is “Why Does the Sun Shine?” by Tom Glazer—at Todd Pedlar’s suggestion.

What Do You See?: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 13 April 2014

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 13 April 2014 (Palm Sunday, Year A)

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29  • Matthew 21:1-11

When they were merely a story, a rumor of a movement up north, I don’t imagine the Jesus people seemed quite real.  After all, that was Galilee, the land of rebellion.  Insurgents must have lined every major road, the way that Jerusalem folks imagined things, and no standing Roman garrison lay in wait to crush loose talk about “messiah.”  But when the rumors started to get nearer, when the Doppler effect of a massive crowd headed for the already-crowded city drew the people into the streets to see what they had only heard of, the man riding on a donkey could scarcely have been more real.  Many of the followers, chanting nationalist slogans in their hillbilly accents, threw their clothes in front of the animal, others dropping branches cut from nearby trees, providing a strange carpet for the processional.  But the moment couldn’t be more public: this was no conspiracy to be kept quiet but a public declaration that these crowds, running in front of the donkey and bustling behind it, noisy even by the standards of a city who knew no shortage of religious festivals, intended for everyone to know that the one coming in was indeed the Son of David.

Inside the city, I imagine, must have been a scene of great anxiety.  Jerusalem was no stranger to would-be revolutionaries, and their long history of throwing off foreign powers always stood alongside their long history of suffering violence at the hands of foreign powers.  For every Tiglath-Pileser whose armies died trying to take Jerusalem there was a Nebuchadnezzar at whose hands a dynasty perished, for every Antiochus driven off a Mark Antony whose power did not turn away.  When, in Matthew’s account, the people of the city ask, “Who is this?” theirs is not the question of the religious “seeker” or the scholar of Jewish history; they knew that a pretender could lead to the deaths of their own children, to the end of a life that their stories told them was always too precarious.  The countryside seemed to grow zeal faster than vineyards could produce grapes, sending generation after generation of them on fools’ revolutions.  But the people of Jerusalem knew better: whether for the hand of YHWH or for the wrath of kings, standing up rather than getting along was a deadly business.

Of course, the book of Matthew does not leave things simply with that contest of perceptions.  On the contrary, Matthew, with customary focus on the career of Jesus as the culmination of all of God’s revelation, brings the prophets to bear on the moment.  Biblical scholars make much of the probabilities and improbabilities that there was “really” a triumphal entry, that the animals might have been “assigned” ex post facto so that they would match up with the text of Zechariah, and so on, but those sorts of questions (largely because they’re not really susciptible to falsification–is there another extant first-century text that tells a contradictory story?) don’t interest me nearly as much as the way that Matthew pits not only the jaded, skeptical city of Jerusalem against the wild-eyed Galilean crowds but how both of them turn out to be at root right and in ultimate terms entirely wrong about the importance of the entry.  For Matthew, the real point of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem is neither impending violence against Rome nor immanent counter-revolution that will destroy the city (in some sense the people of the city were right, but forty years early) but the bringing-to-fullness a much broader divine transformation, one which will ultimately make both the insurgent and the occupier sinners to be forgiven and which will invite both the agent of imperial power and the crusader for ethnic self-determination into confrontation with a salvation that emerges nowhere but out of the Torah and stops nowhere short of welcoming in all nations.  The anxious urbanites and the fiery fishermen alike miss the point not because they’ve chosen the wrong side but because neither faction in their struggle has the vision to see the grand global revolution that reaches its culmination and begins its gospel march in the midst of the Jewish Wars.

I’d be a great fool to claim that I’m the only one (or one of the only ones) to have vision beyond my moment here in the early decades of the computer age.  I’m just as near-sighted as the rest of us.  But reading Matthew’s version of Palm Sunday does make me wonder whether, some day, folks will be able to tell truthfully the story of folks like me, so hung up on local and momentary struggles between my own moment’s political factions, that we missed something genuinely divine about to happen.  I’m not confident that, as the crowds enter the city, I have the vision to see beyond the clash between kept congressmen and fast-food boycotters and social-network street-preachers and televised talking heads.  But I do hold out hope that, somewhere and some time, there will be sight for folks, like me, who are blind to the really important stuff going down.

May Palm Sunday remind all of us to see what we can, to remember as God gives us help to remember, and to rejoice when Christ shows up, even if we missed when Christ did.

Deconstruction on the Way to the Kingdom: A Review of The Gospel and the Mind

The Gospel and the Mind: Recovering and Shaping the Intellectual Life

by Bradley G. Green

Crossway.  181 pp.  16.99

Sometimes folks who have recently learned about the synoptic gospels’ emphasis on the Kingdom of God (or Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew, or Kin-dom of God if you’re Tripp Fuller) succumb a certain temptation towards reductionism.  Where other people want to talk about church or goodness or gospel or salvation or any of a dozen theologically weighty words, the one who has newly discovered kingdom-language will sometimes, though not always, say things like “I don’t work for the church; I work for the Kingdom” or “I don’t want to tell people about salvation; I want to tell them about the Kingdom.”  No biggie, I figure: after all, Christians who learn that theology has a strong interest in linguistics often declare strange grammatical fiats: Martin Luther was nothing short of a force in intellectual history, yet in On the Bondage of the Will he invokes “Christ” as an antonym of “free will” (even though Erasmus and a fair number of folks who aren’t Erasmus would posit “fatalism” or “determinism” as the antonym for “free will” and “Christ” as a term that’s supremely important even if it doesn’t have a ready antonym).  And folks who aren’t by any means Martin Luther often fall into traps like opposing “religion” to “relationship,” declaring that there’s no such thing as a “church building,” or decreeing that “Christian” shall not be used as an adjective.  I don’t think that any of these move reflect dullness or duplicity; rather, I see them as evidence that the claims of Christian theology are exciting and world-shaking, and one pious response to such cosmic quakes is to insist that language also change to reflect the new creation which is Christ and which accompanies Christ.

Linguistics isn’t the only place where the grand seismic impact of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus sometimes tempt people into reductionism, of course.  Politically, folks get tempted to think that the particular sexual politics of Moses or the revolutionary economic politics of Moses can become part of late-modern nation-states’ national law without causing trouble that does positive harm to the cause of Moses and Jesus.  Scientifically, folks get tempted either to recast the work of Jesus in terms of this moment’s theories of how the world works, sometimes rendering Christian theology unrecognizable to much of the long tradition of Christian intellectual inquiry.  Or, perhaps even worse, some insist that this moment’s theories of how the world works give way because a certain reading of the Christian Scriptures does not leave room for such readings of the world.

Bradley G. Green does not make these sorts of political or biological mistakes, and he does not make reductive linguistic mistakes.  In fact, most of his big philosophical points are well-taken for a Christian thinker and provide a good springboard for careful, theologically-inflected thinking.  I would contend, however, that he does succumb to a certain temptation, namely to ignore the possibility that postmodern thought might about language just take Augustine’s notion of the saeculum more seriously than he does, even as he cites Augustine as his reason for opposing them.

Green starts out on a note that I often sound when I think with others about big questions, namely with the fact that networks of rhetorical moves and convictions and modes of argument tend to have at their utmost reaches some sort of “ultimate term,” to borrow from Kenneth Burke and Richard Weaver.  In other words, intellectual activity that’s serious at all is in some sense theological (Green 20).  Green sets out in The Gospel and the Mind to ponder what sorts of vocabularies and common-grounds emerge when the Christian God is, within a rhetorical system, the ultimate term, or in other words when God is the god-term.  Central to Green’s articulation of a Christian philosophy is memory, a central point of inquiry in Augustine’s Confessions and, for Green, a check against the chronological snobbery of the post-war university (46).  In fact, Green’s outlook on the contemporary university is so bleak that, early in his book, he begins invoking Alasdair MacIntyre’s closing thoughts in After Virtue, calling for Christians to prepare for “the new dark ages which are already upon us” (MacIntyre, qtd. in Green 49).  To go post-fall-of-the-Empire so early in the book might seem a desperation move, but I will say, as someone who shares MacIntyre’s pessimism to some extent, that it lent the rest of the book a sense of urgency, even where I disagreed with some of its moves.

Having set the table with that image, Green goes on to criticize three large lapses in the life of the university, each in his account surrendering the robust life of the mind that should characterize good Christian thinking:

  1. The late-modern university has forsaken a notion of teleology, a sense that reality at large and human existence in particular moves towards some intelligible end, in Christian theology some sort of unity with God (59-60).  Green highlights that Augustine (whose picture adorns the book’s cover and who often serves as Green’s intellectual hero) always frames all inquiry in eschatological terms (74) and that a sense of eschatology renders all important questions theological (76).  Without that sense of ultimate, final-cause purpose, the university always falls under threat of being deemed “useless” (69) and thus not worth the cultural investment.  With a divine telos, the university offers to shape souls so that they desire what God has in store.  The Dantean shape of his vision is quite compelling here.
  2. The late-modern university has replaced vocation as animating image for the university with the more abstract concept of consumeristic choice (112).  When nothing beyond one’s own whim offers the structure of one’s existence, the notion that knowledge is for power rather than service becomes entirely intelligible (108-109).  Here Green performs an articulate, workable variation on the famous aphorism from Smerdyakov (and others) in The Karamazov Brothers that “if there is no God all things are permitted.”  Although I don’t remember Green’s mentioning that novel (he does nod to Crime and Punishment in passing), I like that, along the same lines that Dostoevsky’s characters operate, the conviction is not merely a statement about modern-era atheism but a larger philosophical point about “leaving blank” the places where ultimate terms should order a philosophical system.  No vacuum happens, of course; whether the world-historical Will steps into that place or whether consumer whim does, something becomes the god-term.
  3. The late-modern university has given up on a linguistic philosophy that seeks out (and thus posits the possibility of) correspondences between linguistic signs and super-linguistic things.  While Green does dismiss the idea of “ideal words” for certain concepts (those, for instance, that would hold that intelligible hierarchies of propriety are possible when deciding whether to call a given piece of fruit “manzano” or “apple” or “malum”) but does insist, for instance, that the water involved in baptism has some sort of essential characteristic that makes it, and nothing else, suitable to become the sign for the Holy Spirit (127-28).  Thus “this world in some sense ‘calls out’ for proper language about itself” (129).  From this concern Green launches into a long section against Derrida in particular and deconstruction more generally.  For Green, because Derrida’s philosophy holds all linguistic formulations to be partial, always open to possibilities deferred, and because deconstruction as a philosophical conversation tends not to posit, except perhaps tentatively and even then only negatively, how knowledge beyond that deferral might be, postmodernism lacks telos and thus intelligibility (140).  Although Green concedes that post-lapsarian language is always sullied with sin and never, in our given moment, beyond further criticism (142), he insists that deconstruction, unlike its predecessors, “rule[s] out” the possibility of repentance as an intelligible act and thus locks language in its current state, never allowing for a story to transform the one hearing the story (142)

As I noted at the outset of this essay, I find much of Green’s work here compelling.  Like Neil Postman in The End of Education, Green does a good job of showing that an inadequate sense of big-narrative will often lead us human beings into self-justifying bureaucratic swamps, in which schools strive for higher standardized test scores because test scores show signs of “performance,” and “performance” means higher standardized test scores.  And like James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, Green shows himself rightly and deeply suspicious of “choice” as a god-term, not denying that “choice” might be a means to avoid certain modes of tyranny but insisting that, without something beyond “choice,” the tyranny of the state gives way only to a collection of mini-tyrannies, a heap of self-contained dictatorships of the will without any sense that there’s a good towards which the polis strives.

But his arguments against postmodern philosophy of language strikes me as less helpful.  Vocation and teleology have in common that they always pull us, in our present existence, towards something beyond our present existence.  If we ever become convinced that our own state, what we became in a past moment, is the point at which one arrives, we’ve betrayed what it means to be called, to strive towards an end that’s not identical with what precedes.  The hope of the resurrection, in both of those cases, is that, when moments have passed and eternity has unfolded, we’ll live not with a calling voice but with some reality that Christians have called Beatific Vision and Theosis and other such things.  But in the meantime, the call is always before us.  While we’re mortal, the end is always to come, deferred to another moment, not identical with things as they stand but beyond the next act of critique and exposure of the contradictions that make our moment secular, not eternal.

Sound familiar?

My suspicion is that, in his rush to oppose Derrida and the postmoderns, Green has ignored that their project is something along the lines of a postmodern of the secular existence, what Augustine would regard not as the truest sort of being but what we live with until Christ comes again.  My respect not only for Derrida but also for Foucault and Marx and Hegel and many Continental philosophers is not that they offer much along the lines of aspirational visions (even Hegel and Marx are smart enough to realize that what lies beyond the next revolution is unintelligible in our own moment) but that they help to articulate and help us to live intelligently while we wait.  From intelligibility perhaps faithful response can happen, and a life of responding faithfully, intelligently, might never turn the spheres any faster towards the ends of things but might well bear witness to something beyond.

But two out of three ain’t bad (I learned that from Meat Loaf), and ultimately this book was an enjoyable reminder that the content of our confessions bears on all of the intellectual moves that we make, philosophically and rhetorically and poetically.  I imagine that folks looking for a friendly, accessible refresher in what it means to be a distinctively Christian thinker would do well to give this book a visit.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #131

General Introduction
- A full slate of PhDs
- Listener feedback
- Some Lewis corrections and additions
- A technical comment, plagued by technical problems
- Yes, Grubbs knows about Tolkien’s Beowulf

Hebrew Science
- Our desert God
- Weather as punishment
- Deus ex turbine
- The God who is not in the wind
- The rain on the unjust
- Weather and the ocean

Greek Science
- Aristotle’s interests
- Elemental thought
- Bodies in space
- Oceanus and the sources of water
- What he gets right and wrong

The Polar Vortex
- The price of seasons
- Blame the popular media
- Dan explains it all
- Higgs Boson

Snowmageddon 2014
- How did Nathan survive?
- A political, not a meteorological, issue
- The darker tales of Jack London
- Can we blame weathermen?
- Dan defends James Spann
- Meteorologist as wizard
- Uncertainty in forecasting

The Weather Channel
- Weather reality television and weather theater
- Behold the wrath of the Internet
- Local weathermen
- Network decay
- Where should we go instead?

The Stilling of the Storm
- The sea as hostile force
- The supernatural and the scientific
- How big is weather? (Big.)

Our theme music today is “Pop Song 89” by R.E.M., for reasons that should be obvious.

Out of the Graves: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 6 April 2014

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 6 April 2014 (Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A)

Ezekiel 37:1-14  • Psalm 130  • Romans 8:6-11  • John 11:1-45

Ezekiel 37 is a text that I could preach more different ways than most.  The allegory is so rich, and the possibilities for allegorical referent so broad, that even when I avoid the obvious interpretive pitfalls (turning it into a systematic treatise on the general resurrection, psychologizing it into silliness, and such), I’m fairly certain I read it differently in each encounter.  As I prepared some initial notes for this coming Sunday, I found myself seeing the strongest rhetorical thrust of the passage not in allegory proper but in the ways that Ezekiel 37 puts Israel into an encounter with the God who imposed exile.

The prophet has to ask YHWH if the bones can live again.  Such is not an abstract “crisis of faith,” a moment of Cartesian doubt at the relationship between divine act and the laws of nature, as valid as such inquiries might be.  Instead the question arises out of an undeniably concrete familiarity with the machinery of exile, a brutal mechanism for exerting political control.  A kingdom persists because the symbols of unity and the cultural artifacts that hold the power-structures in tension with their own self-conception and the loyalties of the people live every day and every year and every generation together, never remaining the same very long but nonetheless maintaining certain parameters, themselves open to question ontologically but historically reminding each generation that they’re no mere individuals but members of a body politic.  Such a process of tradition-keeping means something different for a republic than it does for a kingship, but both systems of politics rely upon some sense of narrative identity for the sake of stability.

Exile wrecks all of that.  An invading imperial army wrecks palaces, drags kings from their thrones, and makes people choose between their sense of belonging to the overthrown tradition and the crushing forces of history.  Temples and schools do not fare well when the wheels of exile begin turning: the roles that they played before the exile no longer remain as options.  Some cultural institutions merely face the fire, while others, in a fate more horrifying, become extensions of the invading superpower, a golden eagle adorning a Temple and a new literature steeping the young not in the inherited tales of the conquered people’s gods and heroes but in the ways of their new gods.  There’s a reason that the Old Testament is obsessed with the exile: for every kingdom before Judah (and that includes the northern tribes of Israel), exile has meant not just defeat but death, a historical erasing that lives on stunted even if it avoids total eradication.

Thus when YHWH sends Ezekiel the vision of the valley of dry bones, the imagery invokes nothing less than creation.  What’s lifeless receives life, and what cannot stand receives breath.  In a dry and desert place, not unlike the landscape of Genesis 2, YHWH once again breathes upon dead matter to make it alive.  But this creation departs from Genesis’s version in ways that nobody can miss: this is no lump of inert clay that receives the divine breath but a pile of bones, a reminder that what lies lifeless once had human form and human desire and a human story.  In order to live, these bones must stand, but in order to stand, they must receive the kind of power that can resist even the bone-crushing gears of exile.  The power of YHWH is certainly a certain kind of historical providence, a bringing-to-bear of a Cyrus against a Babylon, but it’s also (more importantly, I think) a power of memory, a re-constitution and a re-creation of what the most cruel and systematic destruction of human souls, of women and men and families and cities, has torn asunder.

That superhuman persistence of memory, not any hitman with an automatic pistol, is what lends force to the famous Ezekiel refrain, “You shall know that my name is the LORD.”  Those who emphasize that this story is about the nation of Israel, not individual souls like those Aeneas encounters in Inferno, are right to emphasize that interval, but make no mistake: this is a resurrection oracle.  What becomes the re-union of cosmic Christian Israel in Revelation begins here, with the resurrection of historical Israel.  YHWH has spoken, and YHWH will do.  Not even the most destructive systems of memory-elimination will be able to overcome YHWH’s singular desire to have one people on earth, those marked by the sending of Abraham and the Shema of Moses, those who bear the name YHWH, even as the same savior-from-Egypt and savior-from-death forbids that they use that name for vanity.  Like the act of making a nation out of an empire’s slaves, YHWH’s resurrection of the House of Israel from the disintegration of exile will be a signature, visible moment in the divine life, a sign to all nations that ultimately death cannot and will not triumph over the God who gives life.

In a season dedicated to pondering the nature of sins and to confessing our own sin, Ezekiel reminds us that the power of sin is in fact death but that we can only name sin and death truthfully if they remain but one season in the Christian year and one span of the Christian story.  We celebrate Lent by reading Ezekiel not so that we can ignore the powers of sin and death but so that we remember that they’re only sin and death because they’ve already been overcome and they’re being overcome in the resurrection.  We must never forget to observe Lent, and we must always remember that the point of Lent is to approach Easter with the full measure of gratitude that properly accompanies resurrection.

May we confess because we’re forgiven, and may our forgiveness heighten the bitterness of what we confess.

Freshman Composition, Service Learning, and Required Chapel

Some time ago (too long, really), our friend Todd Pedlar sent along a link to an interesting article about recent trends in Freshman Composition, “Look What Freshman Composition Has Become.”  I took a look at the time but didn’t respond to it on Facebook (where Todd sent the link) largely because the essay takes on a broad range ideas and goes in directions that aren’t identical but relate to each other, so I decided that an essay was probably more suitable than a Facebook comment for responding.

Mary Grabar laments what has come to pass in the sphere of required college writing courses.  In some particular first-year rhetoric programs, as well as in some of the academic journals dedicated to rhetorical theory and pedagogy, Grabar highlights a reduced emphasis on sentence-level correctness, the replacement of formal essays with other modes of rhetorical performance, and in general a sense that “service learning,” a relatively recent (but not entirely new) trend in undergraduate education, betrays what the freshman composition course ought to do.  The blog post wanders about a bit, sometimes switching subject-matters a couple times in each paragraph, as blog posts sometimes do.  (That’s why blogs tend not to get graded by folks like Mary Grabar and like myself, since we tend to evaluate such paragraphs with less than enthusiasm.)

Some Brief Responses

I didn’t feel that I should neglect the big points, but I want to get to the one that I find most interesting, intellectually, so I’m going to give a sort of “lightning-round” treatment to points that I could have responded to with separate blog posts but won’t:

  • With regards to public protests and their relationships to traditional rhetoric, Grabar claims, “Well, yes, this is a form of persuasion, but certainly outside the bounds of legitimate rhetorical persuasion.  Such an assignment seems to verge on illegality or coercion, and certainly has little to do with the “art of persuasion,” as described in Aristotle’s Rhetoric–the foundational text.“  I wish she’d expanded a bit on the ways she sees Aristotle’s discussions of rhetoric that arouses anger, in legislative and forensic contexts, departs from the rhetoric of political protest, which often seems to aim at angering would-be voters enough to get them off their couches and into the voting booth.  I’d also like to see what she regards as illegal or coercive about it, and for that matter whether the agent assigning attendance at the rally “verges on illegality or coercion” or whether those protesting “verge[...] on illegality or coercion.”  Again, I’m sure that Grabar or I would likely tell a student who wrote this in a draft to give some more attention to this point if it were worth investigating and to omit it in favor of developing other points if it weren’t, but again, blog posts seem to have their own ways of wandering.
  • Concerning the origins of the introductory composition course, Grabar notes, “Freshman Composition was intended to provide remedial help to students as campuses opened up to a broader mass of students–to the chagrin of traditionalists who wanted to maintain standards. It has been a service course, intended to equip college students with basic writing skills, to be transferred to other classes and then into the workplace. Advanced students could opt out by demonstrating their ability in writing tests, usually some variation of the standard five-paragraph essay. Increasingly, though, students have required remedial help for a course intended to be remedial. I know from teaching such courses that the remediation goes back to sentence-level grammar.
    Part of the great rhetorical Renaissance of the middle to late twentieth century, both in the careers of Kenneth Burke and Richard M. Weaver and in their New-Left-leaning heirs, as I understand it, was to call into question whether rhetoric should be relegated to a “service course” or whether, as in the great medieval universities and before that the court schools, rhetoric should operate as its own subject matter.  I might be more conservative than Grabar on this point, but I’m inclined to return not to the 1870′s, when exemptions from rhetorical training became the norm, but to the thirteenth century, when to be a bachelor of the liberal arts was precisely to learn rhetoric in more complexity than “sentence-level grammar.”  Such remediation might be necessary for some students, not because they’re dim (though we shouldn’t rule out that possibility) but because the late-nineteenth-century university administrators were wrong.  Rhetoric is not a hurdle that one clears before getting to “real” education but a pervasive feature of education.
  • Discussing the politics of the field of composition studies, Grabar writes, “The radicalization is finessed by statements like Deans’–that the field is expanding beyond a “narrow, functional definition” and shifting from “gatekeeping” to “facilitating the advancement of all students” (emphasis added).  In plain English, this means that standards for writing are being eliminated.  Furthermore, writing itself is being replaced by visual and auditory forms of persuasion, often in mobs.  These are called “brave” actions.”  Perhaps I teach freshman comp more differently from Grabar than I realized, or perhaps this is the mania of blogging, but the missing agents in this passage–who or what eliminates?  who or what replaces?  who or what calls?–make the job of responding to her point more difficult, as I’m not sure whether she credits Deans with all of this or whether there are other people, institutions, cultural forces, trained squirrels, or other agents doing these things.  But that aside, once again, I’d like to see some more discussion of what constitutes “standards for writing,” how one should police such things, and what’s good about the gatekeeper model of freshman composition.  For what my own take is worth, I’d much rather situate my core-curriculum writing courses in a narrative where what I do is itself real education rather than merely a prophylactic to make sure the “real stuff” doesn’t get contaminated.  That means I’m interested in very student’s coming out of my class writing better than she or he did on the way in, to the extent that she or he has the will to learn.  Some still fail, but it’s not because that was my goal at the outset.  (Grabar might not mean by her statement that she imagines her task being to fail students not worthy of the “real” classes, but again, development of claims with reasons and evidence does matter, even on a blog post.)
  • Finishing up, Grabar asserts, “We have radical professors promoting the idea that students’ own language is good enough, that there are no models for them to read and emulate, that they are to be change agents, participating in mob actions and demonstrating their “bravery” for credit.  The end results are sure to be confused, narcissistic, indoctrinated illiterates.”  I’m not sure where the evidence happened for the initial claim in this sentence, or for that matter the second, but again, blog-writing does tend to encourage the sorts of bad thought-habits that we try to discipline in a freshman writing course.  With regards to the last bit, I’ll admit that I’m a bit confused by some of Grabar’s points here, but I’m not sure how one college course accomplishes “indoctrination,” how any one course could possibly add anything but icing to the grand “narcissistic” cake that is smartphone culture, or how she knows that an entire generation is “illiterate” without measuring.  But it is a nice freshman-comp-Jeremiad finish, even if a bit conventional.

But that’s not what I came here to tell you about.  Came to talk about the draft.

Ultimate Goods and Required Credits

The late-modern college lives in the perpetual fear that someone on campus, while our guard is down, might have an un-measured moment.  We measure students’ work with grades, to be sure, but we also bombard them with surveys about their teachers, surveys about their administration, surveys about financial aid workers, surveys about their dormitories, surveys about their mess hall (in my day we just griped), and all sorts of surveys I haven’t even considered here.  Add to that the institutional-assessment instruments (which often serve double duty as students’ grades), and you’ve got a thoroughly charter’d existence.

Such a mania for measurement doesn’t just infect the administration, of course.  It’s contagious.  At the risk of advancing another “kids these days” theory, I can’t help but note that one can explain the “Is this on the test” syndrome, the need always to “sell” rhetoric and literary criticism and theology as worthwhile ways to spend one’s time, at least partly in terms of the culture of measurement.  The humanities and the hard sciences and so many other academic disciplines resent don’t figure directly into an algebraic equation that helps them solve for x when x, for them, means increasing those variables in the equations that measure what they think they want (job prospects, finishing their major-course sequences, and such).  And rather than refuse to play that game, we faculty members (and here I’m just as guilty as the next assistant professor) too often try to play the measurement game, convincing ourselves and our students that what we do has, all along, been part of the algebraic equation that students bring along with them, that our course is “relevant” in the “real world.”  (Scare quotes, of course, are the code we use to indicate that we’ve located a non-significant variable in a given system of measurement.)  Please note, O Reader: I’m just as guilty as anyone else on this score, and although I’ve been making a conscious effort in the last few years to “sell” my courses in terms of transformed desires rather than satisfying the desires that students bring with them on day one, I’m not there yet.  The point here is not that I’m better but that what counts as a “good” or a “better” reason to study chemistry or philosophy or art history remains a contested question.

But the humanities and the sciences have it easy compared to the weekly chapel services that many Christian colleges want to maintain as the center of campus life.  If a course in rhetoric doesn’t easily fit into the way that students project their algebraic expectations of “the real world,” at least it has analogues in the curricula of state universities, lending them some credibility by means of common experiences with students’ big-university counterparts.  Not so the regular gathering to sing (or at least be present when other people sing) and hear sermons (or at least inspirational talks, or at least play with one’s phone while people talk) that are supposed to mark Christian colleges as distinct from “secular” colleges.  And like the liberal arts, colleges have the option of making such events a matter of invitation, asking students to allow God, through the ordinary means of grace, to transform their desires so that they desire such gatherings more than a consumeristic system would predict they would.  (Some students, the folks who sit in the first five rows or so of the auditorium’s center section, genuinely do enjoy what goes on in my own college’s weekly convocation service, but they’re a decided remnant.)  But instead, when in doubt, my college, not unlike other colleges, I would guess, turn to measurement.  Thus required chapel service.

I don’t want to make this a simplistic voluntarist/libertarian argument.  After all, I learned to appreciate mathematics as a public-school student not because I started out desiring to know algebra but because my school required me to be in a mathematics class nearly every semester that I was in school, and by the time such things became optional, I wanted to take further math classes not because I had a hankering for calculus as a four-year-old but because I had learned to desire what math could offer by doing math.  (What math could offer was not anything high on Plato’s ladder of desire either, at that point–I knew that calculus would look good on college applications, and I knew that smart women would be taking it.  I had a thing for smart women back then.  Still do, at least for the one to whom I’m married.)  But at the very least the relationship between compulsion and desire remains complex, something that wagers a fair bit of the student’s soul on the possibility that, in the course of doing what’s required, the inherent goodness of the practice will “take,” and something like my adult relationship with mathematics will take hold, one in which the goods internal to mathematical reasoning become appealing enough that I seek them out without the structures that force me into proximity to them.

Of course, Christian worship and mathematics are different games.  Relatively few folks will declare mathematics worthless in their own right; more likely by far is the attitude that mathematics is for “those other people,” not for folks like me.  Worship is different in that there’s a whole publishing industry (including but not by any means limited to blog-publishing) dedicated to declaring the bankruptcy of this or that form of Christian worship.  Ex-evangelicals and evangelical intelligentsia alike know that they can get eyes on pages (digital or analog) by critiquing or even just mocking evangelical piety, and some go as far as to say that requiring chapel services violates Christian freedom.  Thus what colleges attempt to put in place institutionally on the gamble that it might ignite the inert matter of the consumer-capitalist soul becomes, in an ethos that equates Christian liberty with the consumeristic refusal to participate in what’s not immediately attractive, becomes itself a sin of sorts.  So a gamble with the institution’s power to require attendance, hoping to win the desires of those compelled to attend, often enough loses the bet and becomes an active enemy of students whose pieties fall otherwise.

Why state universities would want in on that game I’m not sure, but the same cultural logic seems to govern the service-learning freshman-composition classes that Grabar criticizes.   Like a required chapel service, a required political protest wagers that those students who do not enter college desiring to agitate in behalf of certain partisan causes will, because of their participation in the same, “catch” the spirit of public rhetoric in the protest-mode and become lovers of a certain brand of justice as a result.   Grabar holds that such requirements “verge on illegality or coercion,” but I’m more inclined to say it’s just the same sort of ill-advised wager that required chapel is.  To let students choose their own political involvements entirely, to allow them to eschew political protest entirely or become thoroughly committed to that sort of discourse, is itself a form of politics, and nobody should think that disciplined exploration and liberty are mutually exclusive.

If I might venture another hypothesis,  I imagine that students (and Mary Grabar) balk at such requirements not simply because colleges require public protest or chapel services but also because they menace students’ graduation prospects without becoming central to the “real work” of any given college.  When students approach a college education as a means to an end that they can already imagine, and the college lays on students a requirement that said students don’t become aware of until after the admissions-courtship ends, one should expect resentment.  Moreover, when students can treat such requirements as a “hurdle” to be leaped over on the way to better things, they become more subject to the sort of ridicule and even accusation of coercion that Grabar and Stuff Christian Culture Likes than are those practices for which a college does not apologize but sets forth as the core of who they are.  Compare the treatment that Grabar gives to service-learning freshman comp classes to the ways that folks write about a college like St. John’s in Maryland and New Mexico.  In one case, the student only discovers the requirement to participate in public demonstration when the syllabus emerges, and the only impetus, for the reluctant student, is that graduation might be at stake.  (The same logic holds, too often, for students with whom I’ve spoken about their arrival, often as athletic recruits, on Christian college campuses.)  By contrast, St. John’s makes clear, from the front page of their website to admissions materials and (I would guess) through new-student orientation, that old books are going to be the backbone of what they do, that students interested in a life without such books would be well advised to seek out another college.  Such candor at the front of the process might give admissions officers at small colleges like my own nightmares, and ultimately that wager might be even more foolish than the ones that require public demonstration or chapel attendance, but then again, they might just make us more honest institutions.

As you can probably tell at this point (nearly 3000 words in, and I’m sorry for that), I’m still working out what I think of required rhetoric classes, much less required chapel and service-learning.  As always, I invite and welcome your thoughts, O Reader.

The Christian Feminist Podcast, Episode 7.1: The Year of Biblical Womanhood


  • “complementarian” vs “egalitarian”
  • How this book is set up and why
  • The Vaginagate controversy
  • Reception and reviews: muddying the waters in a positive way?


  • A quick (okay, not that quick) response from everyone
  • Domesticity and Submission
  • Valor and Justice
  • Evans’ conclusions: How do we/should we read the Bible?
  • Problems of commercialism
  • We wanted more depth in other religious traditions

Passing On