"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Monday, January 30, 2006

"The man who fights dragons too long

becomes a dragon himself."--Nietzsche

Finally figured out why this bothers me:

When you believe the end of the world is coming, you learn to talk fast. On a Friday afternoon the debate team from Liberty University, Jerry Falwell's fundamentalist Baptist college, is madly rehearsing for the tournament about to begin. This year's topic: should the United States increase diplomatic and economic pressure on China. They may just be practicing, but you wouldn't know it from the menacing mosquito-buzz rising as all 20 debaters read their speeches at once, as fast as they can. Policy debate on the college level has become a rapid-fire verbal assault, an arguments-per-minute game, that sounds more like the guy at the end of the car commercial than an eloquent Oxford intellectual. There is tension and more than a little spittle in the air. The Liberty team is currently ranked No. 1 in the country, above Harvard (14th) and all the other big names. But for the evangelicals, there's a lot more at stake than a trophy. Falwell and the religious right figure that if they can raise a generation that knows how to argue, they can stem the tide of sin in the country. Seventy-five percent of Liberty's debaters go on to be lawyers with an eye toward transforming society. "I think I can make an impact in the field of law on abortion and gay rights, to get back to Americans' godly heritage," says freshman debater Cole Bender.
It isn't simply political: it's more fundamental than that. It's what Nietzsche said: that which you oppose most fiercely, you most come to resemble. Is Christianity about debate? Is that even marginally important?

The fundamental problem, of course, is the "Old Testament" view of the world implied here by Liberty University. Israel had a covenant with God; America did not, and does not. Kantian ethics aside, whether or not any nation has an obligation to "a higher standard" is a difficult issue (Martin Luther King notwithstanding), and not at all a settled one. Israel has a definite obligation to follow Mosaic law: it was that law which created Israel, and by which it was to be guided.

But America was not founded on a covenant with the God of Abraham. "Godly heritage" is a phrase what would make William Penn's skin crawl, not to mention Roger Williams. The one thing America is not supposed to have is a "Godly heritage," precisely because we are a secular nation, not a theological one.

And then there's the question of salvation and atonement: if the covenant with Israel is to make them a light to the nations, are all the nations somehow bound under the laws of Moses to worship and honor the God of Abraham, at penalty of their immortal souls? Quite a soup of Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity there. If they are, then the actions of Liberty University make a bit more sense.

But if they are not....

So I don't just disagree with the way Liberty University is going about its task, I disagree with why they are doing it. But we don't even have to reach that issue (although to do so expands the discussion beyond the concerns of Christians alone, without resort of bashing Christian doctrine): there is the issue of how to proselytize, and there Harvey Cox gave me an interesting insight.

He points out in When Jesus Came to Harvard (Chapter 16) that the crowds came to Jesus because of his reputation as a healer. They didn't come to hear bizarre parables or pithy statements or even long sermons: they came to be healed. Look at Mark 1:21-28: Jesus teaches "with authority," but the bulk of the story is about an exorcism. And what does Jesus say? We don't know, but "He commands even unclean spirits, and they obey him." And so: "At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee."

Or Luke, when Jesus teaches in the Temple, and after his sermon he tells the people: "No doubt you will quote me that proverb 'Doctor, cure yourself,' and you'll tell me 'Do here in your hometown what we've heard you've done in Capernaum." (Luke 3:23). It's the healings the crowd expected. The words were extra.

We who come after Jesus, however, only have the words (or act as if that's all we have), so naturally we concentrate on them. And words are what debate is all about, isn't it?

But is that what Christianity is about? Is it about power, and authority, and controlling the discussion, and framing the issues, and winning the debate? Or is it about what St. Francis supposedly said: "Preach the gospel to all the world and, if necessary, use words."

Somehow, that just strikes me as the Biblical model.

Now, if we can just agree on what "the gospel" is....


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