Miroslav Volf, Cautionary Tale

The headline calls it "surprising," but it was the least surprising thing I'd encountered in a long time. Influential theologian Miroslav Volf endorsed voting for Hillary Clinton, essentially saying that her worldview is more in line with Christian principles than that of her opponent.

As I say, I am not surprised. Earlier this year Volf co-authored a book entitled, Public Faith in Action: How to Think Carefully, Engage Wisely, and Vote with Integrity. To call this book "disappointing" is an understatement.

Chapter after chapter the authors lay out the various burning political issues of the day, explaining the debate, the motivations of the various views, and itemizing the points of dispute (in a section called "Room For Debate"). And... that's it. They never "land" anywhere. Their magnanimity and openness is such that I am reminded of the Chesterton quote: "Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of the opening of the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." Instead, we get pages and pages of "hmm-ing, "hawing," thoughtful head-nodding, and chin pinching.

Consider the chapter on abortion, probably as clear-cut a contemporary moral issue as we can find. The hand-wringing is virtually audible, as if emanating from the physical page. The authors cannot decide whether pre-viable unborn humans should be "accorded the respect, protection, and nurture a human life deserves." They must "leave open" the question of when human life begins. And when it comes to debates about abortion in America (a country with the most damningly laissez faire laws in the world), they find the necessary moral judgments "vexingly difficult." (I have no doubt they do.) When it comes to public policy, we get a lot about the need for expanded health care, education, economic protection and support, safe environments, and so forth, but abortion foes are then backhandedly chided for expending their finite resources into, well, opposing abortion laws. If there is any real moral guidance in this chapter, it is elusive. Yes, their first sentence says that human life is precious. If any reader can discern exactly what that principle means for the real-world problem of the wholesale eradication of millions of babies after reading this chapter, they deserve some kind of award.

On and on it goes, the authors sailing and drifting in the upper atmosphere, never picking a spot to land...

And then...

One reaches the chapter on (extra points if you guessed it)...marriage. Suddenly our authors have very strong convictions. Suddenly they can say something with a refreshing amount of boldness and certainty. And what they say is that Christians ought to (that is, are morally obligated to) support the idea of marriage for same-sex couples. No ambiguity, no hand-wringing; just full-throated advocacy. It is truly an amazing transformation.

And I won't be shy telling you what I really think. The pathetic, tedious, roundabout collection of hand-wringing chapters in this book are just a smokescreen for this one chapter. Is it really an accident or funny coincidence that this is the single chapter with a discernible agenda? I very much doubt it. The authors lull the reader with all their care and erudition, all the "vexing questions" about which they refuse to be dogmatic, thus gaining the reader's trust with their apparent (as the subtitle indicates) care, wisdom, and integrity. And then they slip in this poison pill.

I need to be clear. I don't actually believe that Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnally-Linz somehow consciously decided to perform what amounts to a sleight-of-hand. I actually believe they didn't need to. That's the nature of self-deception, the kind of self-deception that arrives at a place where questions about abortion in the Bible are vexing and perplexing, but that the Bible pretty clearly approves of solemnifying same-sex relationships in matrimony. Seriously, just chew on that for a while. You see, the mind cannot remain open forever; it, like the mouth, must shut on something. And when God's Word is not that on which we feed, when it never actually "lands," never actually applies in the real world, when it's an intellectual plaything rather than Holy Writ, when it's just a chin-pinching conversation partner alongside other equally valid considerations, we will find ourselves very, very upside down.

As I say, it's a cautionary tale.

A Hillbilly With Incredible Hindsight

I was going to write a review of this bookHillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance. I suppose when I'm done, it'll be something like a review. But the truth is there's just not a lot I can say other than: you should really, really read this book.

Vance's book is already a bestseller, for good reason. So excited was I to receive it that I opened it to the opening paragraph straight away. I didn't read any of the blurbs on the back. I was immediately hooked. Upon finishing the book, I finally turned it over and read what other people said about it. My interest in writing a review vanished when I read what Amy Chua had to say:

A beautifully and powerfully written memoir about the author's journey from a troubled, addiction-torn Appalachian family to Yale Law School, Hillbilly Elegy is shocking, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, and hysterically funny. It's also a profoundly important book, one that opens a window on a part of America usually hidden from view and offers genuine hope in the form of hard-hitting honesty. Hillbilly Elegy announces the arrival of a gifted and utterly original new writer and should be required reading for everyone who cares about what's really happening in America.

That pretty much says everything I wanted to say. I wholeheartedly concur. To whet your appetite even more, read this excellent interview with Vance by Rod Dreher.

But I'll say a few things more. A number of years ago renowned sociologist Charles Murray published a book called Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. It was the kind of book a sociologist would write. Lots of charts and discussions of percentiles and quintiles. An incredibly important book, but not one destined to be read by the masses. Murray documents the astonishing divide between 'two Americas,' the upper-class elite (which he labels "Belmont") and the world of lower-to-middle class whites ("Fishtown"). Conventional wisdom usually believes that Belmont, the elite, liberal upper-crust, is the haven of those who eschew traditional family values, whereas the common folk--the NASCAR-loving, country music-blaring, beer swilling types--are those that keep the flame of God, country, and family.

What Murray discovered is the opposite. Wealthy liberals, in fact, largely practice traditional values; they just don't preach them. The white lower classes, on the other hand, preach traditional values, but don't practice them. The levels of social disintegration, broken families, crime, poverty, drug addiction, welfare, and so on, among Fishtown are astonishing.

Murray's book has just been given an epic illustration: a raw and captivating tale of one young Hillbilly (a term that refers to the "hill" folk of Appalachia) who escaped the spiral of addiction and misery through the love and support of deeply flawed, but loving, people. But it's not just captivating in the sense that watching a car accident is captivating. It is captivating because Vance has somehow, in some way, achieved a remarkable "30,000-foot" view over his own history. He probes his experiences and memories in all their complexity to offer real insight into the plight of the white working (or, mostly not working) poor. And he concludes that no political platform, no government program, is capable of truly healing what is a deeply profound spiritual and cultural problem. That's not to say nothing can be done. There is plenty that can be done at the level of local communities and civil society. But it is a clarion reminder to his own people that nobody did this to usWe did this to us.

If you want to understand--truly understand--how politics is downstream from culture, you should read Hillbilly Elegy.

And, finally, if you want to understand--truly understand--the phenomenon of Donald J. Trump and his success among the white working class, you should read Hillbilly Elegy.