Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Is Obama Our Harvey Dent?

A few interesting links here.


This is funny--not funny in the sense that the RNC hopes it will be--funny because it reveals how desperate the McCain campaign has become. McCain has fallen from my graces. I'd really believed for a while that he wouldn't be that bad of an alternative as a president. I optimistically believed that he'd be an improvement upon Bush, but we can at least credit Bush with running a campaign that didn't resort to mockery in order to win. It is one thing to try to inform the public of the short comings of your opponent. However, it is bad taste and sad to gawk and ridicule your opponent. Also, consider the latest McCain ad that compares Obama to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in terms of his celebrity status. The suggestion is that Obama is only hype. The add finishes with "higher taxes...more foreign oil....that's the real Obama." Higher taxes? Yes, because we are currently spending over $10 billion per month on the war in Iraq and the budget deficit is almost $80 billion over what the Bush administration had projected it to be last November. Other than higher taxes, how else are we going to take care of that debt? Foreign oil? Every time Obama has criticized the most recent surge of troops he has referenced ideas that that money could have gone into research and development of alternative fuel sources so that we can become less dependent on foreign oil.

I would prefer the Americans could vote for their preferred nominee instead of against their opponent. That is idealistic of me, I know. I admit I haven't lived up to such idealism. I voted against Bush in the last election in protest against the war. I wasn't very impressed with Kerry. He seemed to be the lesser of two evils. Now I fear that the tables are turned and that most of the McCain supporters are only Obama despisers. I haven't discovered many people who are really that excited about McCain even if they do plan to vote for him.

This is the way that most Americans endure politics. We are suspicious of politicians and resign ourselves to the fact that we will have to always choose the lesser of evils at the polls. For once I'm actually excited about a candidate. What I believe will be the deciding factors in this year's win for Obama is both the swing voters who are riding the fence now and also the surprising appearance of new voters who are coming out just because of Obama. If in some bizarre turn of events Obama doesn't get elected, I fear that this whole new group of political enthusiasts will sour to the American democratic process once and for all.

So yes, here comes my cheesy Obama/ Harvey Dent comparison. If you haven't seen The Dark Knight yet, this won't give away much of the plot. Purists might want to stop reading here and go see the move first (but hey, if you are a purist, you should have seen the movie by now). Harvey Dent is for the people of Gotham what Batman can't be. He is the white knight to Batman's dark knight. He becomes a symbol of hope for a better and safer Gotham. Batman and Commissioner Gordon's whole purpose was to give Harvey Dent a larger public platform so that the city might believe in change.

Obama, the man, cannot live up to what he has become in the minds and hearts of the so-called "Obamacons" or the "Obamaites" whichever you prefer. The McCain campaign is making fun of the hype and this is bad taste not just because it is crude. It is bad taste because he is in effect making fun of us for believing that we could be a better country. McCain is a wet blanket. He counters our enthusiasm with negativity: you are too young, inexperienced and idealistic. And his latest mock add stoops too low by comparing Obama to pop icons. Obama has what Brittany and Paris do not have: our real hopes for a better political landscape. Pop culture does have a bad track record of producing hot air and vanity. However, McCain is mistaken if he believes everything that is embraced by popular culture is worthless. Obama's hype has substance to it. Let me explain...

2nd Teaching Law, Testing Ideas

This article is interesting because it manages to retain its journalistic objectiveness. This is rare these days. Obama is described as an enigma socially and ideologically by both students and faculty. His classes earned cult like status on campus. Some of his students later became his campaign organizers. But Obama's teaching method was aloof, antagonizing and Socratic. "But as a professor, students say, Mr. Obama was in the business of complication, showing that even the best-reasoned rules have unintended consequences, that competing legal interests cannot always be resolved, that a rule that promotes justice in one case can be unfair in the next."

It is impressive that this law professor of twelve years is able to move from academics to politics with so much savvy. Generally speaking scholars have very little public appeal. They are in the confines of the university for a reason. However, Obama still is faced with the challenge of engaging the populous with his bent for complexity. Many accuse him of ambiguity and therefore a lack of substance when in fact it is not that he has no substance, it is that his is a different kind of substance that does not translate seamlessly into our highly reductive political consciousness and soundbytes media. It is a wonder that Obama is able to function at all in this simplistic realm of bullet pointed policy.

Mark Noll, in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind details the anti-intellectualism that has pervaded the church especially throughout the 20th century. We have a distaste for complexity and nuance. He quotes N.K. Clifford to support his point: “The Evangelical Protestant mind has never relished complexity. Indeed its crusading genius, whether in religion or politics, has always tended toward an over-simplification of issues and the substitution of inspiration and zeal for critical analysis and serious reflection. The limitations of such a mind-set were less apparent in the relative simplicity of a rural frontier society.”

The evangelical church has become populous. The Gospel is over-simplified in order to maintain its appeal. As it is with religion in America, so it is with politics. Both the evangelical church and American culture at large suffer from an anti-intellectualism that hinders our democracy. I know that "intellectual" is synonymous with "liberal" to many of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've been warned about the dangers of over thinking. What many don't understand is that it is in fact my love for Christ that has led me to graduate school so that I may love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Here is my quick stab at some very delicate issues for American Christians: our founding fathers were themselves radicals motivated by intellectuals. In fact what we consider to be the American notion of liberty and freedom, was originally a philosophy espoused by French intellectuals. Further, democracy was originally a Greek philosophy. Neither liberty or democracy are ideals that originated in the Scriptures. British historian Paul Johnson argues that America is Europe's greatest intellectual experiment. I love America and am fond of the idea of democracy not because it has anything to do with Jesus, but because of the tradition of great ideas upon which America is founded.

So here we are looking to elect our 44th president in a few months and we are considering two candidates. One of them claims to support family values. He is pro-life and against gay marriage, yet he left his first wife (a mother of three who labored to see her husband returned safely from wartime imprisonment) to marry a woman many years younger than him. And we have another candidate who has sometimes confusing and complex positions on topics like religion and abortion (see his "Call to Renewal" keynote address) but who by all accounts is a good, no frills family man. The former is resorting to mocking his opponent and the later is working hard to avoid drama by running possibly the most efficient, cohesive and to the media's consternation, tight-lipped presidential campaign ever. The former is an elderly statesman, a former POW, who continues to make gaffes in the public eye. The later is a younger senator whose debut speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention overshadowed the words delivered by the Democratic nominee. These are very different candidates who represent two very different visions of what America can become.

Obama may seem wishy washy and un-tested since he is so young, however it is exactly this kind of fresh optimism that we need. And further it is not naive optimism either. In fact it is very encouraging that Obama is still optimistic in the face of all he is able to understand and articulate in terms of the complexities of America. Most of the academics I know are very reluctant to act upon their knowledge. It is easier to let their theories exist in the abstract. We have in Barack Obama, a man of a kind of substance many of us won't understand.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Trouble with the Internet

Micah, thanks for posting. I was beginning to wonder if anyone had been keeping up with these blogs. I guess we will walk the fine, tender line of your moratorium with Susanna on political debate/discussion. ATTENTION ALL READERS! Here is an attempt at "public-discourse" with charity in reaction to my bro in law. Let love abound! (Oh, and Micah feel free to take your time to respond since you are slaving away prepping for your comps).

First, I am concerned not so much about how Obama is seemingly shifting his time table on pulling troops as I am about how he is re-directing his attention to Al-Qaeda. I fear he might be digging himself into a hole while trying to gain some sort of credibility as a moderate. Is he trying to appeal to conservatives who have been sitting on the fence regarding Iraq? Is he appealing to those who feel that we still need to draw blood for 9/11? President Bush used the language of "the war on terror" to argue for our presence in Iraq. Now I'm a little burned out and tired of interest in any war on terror anywhere. I'd much rather talk about working on social security, health care, the present mortgage/real estate crisis, the environment or education. I really do believe that Obama is going to be our next president. How is he going to continue to fight terrorism when we've already sunk a trillion dollars into the war in Iraq? How can we continue to spend so much on military campaigns and still address so many other pressing concerns? What is his plan?

In regards to the list you posted on Obama flip-flops: I'm not so sure about the confusion regarding Obama's commitment to 16 months. His latest published in the NY Times seems to still be sticking optimistically to the 16 month plan. We'll see if he can pull it off. I personally doubt it. It seems like he came up with hard number just to set in motion the mechanisms needed to get the withdrawal of troops started sooner than later.

I don't know about the accuracy of all these so-called 61 McCain flip flops. There are so many to sort through. I found them while I was searching for this blog post that I read last week that troubled me. I do feel like Obama gets pounced on because he is a freshman senator and the media finds his foibles entertaining. Have you considered the attack on his wife's lack of patriotism? All the sound bites leave out the fact that she said it was the first time she "really" was proud to be an American. That is a bit softer of a statement than how she is portrayed. Of course McCain, on the other hand, gets pounced on because he is old. He keeps talking about Czechoslovakia even though it hasn't existed since 1993, and McCain also had trouble recently with a tough question about his voting record on health coverage for Viagra but not birth control. His comment was, "I've cast thousands of votes in the Senate," then continued: "I will respond to--it's a, it's a...." Is he senile or just a human stumbling under the constant onslaught of media speculation?

One area where Obama and McCain do agree however, is on their frustration with the media. McCain is quoted on CNN for saying, “We are in a situation today where all words are parsed, all comments are diagnosed and looked at for whatever effect they might have.” This is a vital issue for democracy. How can we see these candidates for who they are and not what all the pundits have assembled out of the myriad of bits and pieces of internet info? The "symbolic machinery" of our society is broken. Obama has built much of his appeal around this issue of the limitations of the media. The fact that he writes his own speeches and seems able to intelligently consider the complexity of an issue is impressive--its inspirational and makes him seem trustworthy possessing the kind of character I want in a public leader. Not many of the "pundits and politicos" seem able to communicate complexity or navigate complexity with the kind of frank and honest care that Obama demonstrates. This is the problem with the list of 61 McCain flip-flops I posted above. Such a limited explanation of so much information does not take into account the complexities of each issue. I offer it as another example of what is out there from the other side.

It is definitely possible that Obama might get elected and turn out to be something other than I'd hoped for. That happened when I voted for Bush the first time around. I imagine many of us are surprised by who the politicians we vote for turn out to be. My concern right now is to make sure we do the best we can to learn about these candidates so that our votes in November are as earnest and properly informed as they can be. I thank you for posting some concerns about Obama. He does already have an disconcerting track record. I'm not ready to pull my support for him though.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

An Economics of Trust

[image above stolen from dm stith. click on it and get ready for his new disc]

My last blog entry was on the topic of public discourse. It doesn’t seem to have caused much of a stir with some of the friends and family who read some of these things that I write out and post here. It was a long entry, but I hope the lack of response has more to do with my long-winded hot air rather than anyone’s disinterest in this topic. Whoever you are voting for in November, it is hard to not agree that this will be the most interesting and even most important election within the last forty years. Based on record setting turnouts at the primaries we can see a renewed political vigor within America, especially younger voters. I don’t see how it is possible to be interested in this election and not be concerned about our pubic discourse since this is a democracy that we are participating in. This should be especially a concern for Christians. We have spent so much of our recent past practicing such a heavy handed polemic that there are very few left who will take our questions, thoughts, challenges seriously.

I spent a lot of time on that last blog. It was hard to write and I’m still feeling affected by the thoughts and questions surrounding that writing and I still can’t get a full grip on what is really eating at me. At the risk of getting mushy, I feel a nagging intuition that this is all about love and friendship. How we engage others in public seems to have some bearing on how we engage friends and family intimately and privately? Generosity is still generosity whether it is expressed in public or private. If we can’t extend charity and patience with others publicly, then what does this say about our private interactions? The public smearing and back biting makes me feel lonely. It makes my stomach burn. How brittle, how jagged are we? Is there any tenderness, any meekness, any loveliness in humanity? Are we all really just a bunch of selfish bastards? I often feel that I do not understand where it is I live and who it is that I live amongst. This is often felt as a cold world.

Take the accusations against Obama lately—that he is flip-flopping in regards to the Supreme Court’s decision on hand gun bans in D.C., the developments with FISA and his initial renege on campaign finance, his faith based initiatives and his more conservative stance on pro-choice. Some are ready to stop contributing their money to his campaign. They might still vote for him as a lesser of two evils but they don’t want to actively endorse him. Others cynically want to say something to the effect that Obama is just playing the political games. He is a politician after all; he has to do what it takes to get elected. Critics are quick to accuse, make hasty judgments, to look for mistakes rather than to believe in all that can be shared in common. It is hard to believe that the democratic party will be able to unify around anything there is so much suspicion and distention.

So what does the presidential race have to do with our intimacy with each other? I guess it is an economics of trust. Do we trust Obama? Or if you are GOP, do you trust McCain? Or are we just getting by with a hope for the least of all evils because after all…it’s politics?

Here are some circumstances that cut closer to home in terms of trust: coincidentally my former senior pastor, the one who hired me to my first paid ministry position, resigned yesterday from the church. Susanna is flying back from Austin this evening and she told me that her senior pastor resigned from his post yesterday as well. How convenient. Between the election, these resignations and my own journey of settling into Holland Michigan and Hope College, the resounding theme is one of trust. If we are able to be the kind of people who trust our political leaders, can we trust our religious leaders? If we trust our religious leaders, what does that say about the way we live our lives as people who have the capacity to give and receive love—the capacity to trust intimately?

I’ve been encouraged and discouraged by a passage from Walker Percy that has been sneaking back into my memory. I dug it out this past week:

The scientists were saying that by science man was learning more and more about himself as an organism and more and more about the world as an environment and that the environment could be changed and man made to feel more and more at home.

The humanists were saying that through education and the application of the ethical principles of Christianity, man’s lot was certain to improve.

But the poets and artists and novelists were saying something else: that at a time when, according to the theory of the age, men should feel most at home they felt most homeless.
Someone was wrong.

In the very age when communication theory and technique reached its peak, poets and artists were saying that men were in fact isolated and no longer communicated with each other.

In the very age when the largest number of people lived together in the cities, poets and artists were saying there was no longer a community.

In the very age when men lived longest and were most secure in their lives, poets and artists were saying that men were most afraid.

In the very age when crowds were largest and people flocked closest together, poets and artists were saying that men were most lonely.

Why were poets and artists saying these things?

Was it because they were out of tune with the spirit of the modern age and so were complaining because the denizens of the age paid no attention to them?

Or was it that they were uttering the true feelings of the age, feelings which could not be understood by the spirit of the age? Message in a Bottle 25, 26

I’m encouraged because he seems to articulate my gut level suspicion of who and what we are. My high school friend, the one who the previous blog entry referred to, described me as a snake oil salesman. He said that I preach doom and gloom. His implication is that I am a manipulative liar. It seems that I am in good company. Consider the final perspective of Voltaire: he had initially praised the “infinite perfectibility of the human species.” Then after the bloodshed of the Seven Years War, he writes Candide, a satire on humanist optimism. Voltaire was inspired by Shakespearean tragedy and Shakespeare by Greek tragedy. Read Elliot’s “Wasteland,” or Auden’s “September 1, 1939” or almost all of Rilke. If I’m a snake oil salesman, then I’m in good company. And of course within my own faith tradition: this is nothing new to the Scriptures. They are riddled with a severe concern for humanity.

2 Timothy:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.


There is none righteous, not even one. There is none who understands, there is no one who seeks God…there is none who does good, there is not even one.


The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?


When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

How is it possible for any of us to be optimistic? There are several religions and even secular philosophies that argue for some sort of fall, that ours is a broken world. How else are we to explain what is most commonly observed as evil? My optimism can only arise out of a deep belief in salvation.

While discussing with a recent graduate on our trip in Montana, this is the place to which our conversation arrived. He had confessed that he had lost most of his faith by the end of college and was ambivalent about whether this was a good or bad thing. We had taken our dialogue in a couple directions but I finally found myself in an existential plea: when you consider yourself, your neighbor and the place in which we live, do you not ache for someone to come and make all that is wrong, right? Don’t we all share a consistent, pulsing plea for help?

God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins

THE WORLD is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

The common argument is that the weak need religion; I’ll counter that by saying it is the honest. Yes, honestly we are all weak, finite, narrow, constrained, and prone to confusion, selfishness and fear. What a relief to not save myself. What a relief to not have the answers, to write my own story or to carve my identity out of stone, to invent the wheel of myself. I gather myself up and lean into the warm breast; I rest within the bright wings.