Likelihood of Success

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Guidance requested

Posted by pennywit on May 9, 2008

For some reason, I’ve taken an interest in some of the more accessible books about evangelical Christian culture. I just finished Hannah Rosin’s God’s Harvard, and I’m almost done with Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready. I’d like to read a book that looks at contemporary Christian evangelical culture from the inside, but does so with at least a moderately critical eye. Any suggestions?


6 Responses to “Guidance requested”

  1. radosh said

    Hope you’re enjoying Rapture Ready!

    Randall Balmer and Tony Campolo are liberal evangelicals, so their books are often more than moderately critical, but they are from the inside and very good. Reasons to Believe by John Marks is from the perspective of a former evangelical and is quite interesting. Monique El-Faizy is also a former evangelical, and her book God and Country is a good overview of the movement, but more journalistic than personal.

    If you don’t want to dive in quite as deep, browse, which features a range of opinions on art, culture and faith from young evangelicals. They also have a line of books that might interest you.

  2. pennywit said

    Oh, hi. Didn’t quite expect you here. But, yeah, thanks, I’m enjoying it so far. It’s given me a better appreciation for where some evangelicals are coming from in their perspectives on culture. Oddly, the chapter on Bibleman was my lightbulb moment.


  3. Hey, wow, a Radosh. Man my age thinks Ronald Radosh, of course (hi to your dad! big fan!), but my, Pennywit, you do attract an interesting crowd.

    Bring me up to speed here, guys. Evangelicals get so much abuse. I spend a lot of time defending them because, like me, they are religiously orthodox, in a certain narrow sense. But it is on that point that my friend Dean Esmay has recently shaken some of my faith in the matter, because he argues strongly against a Christianity based in fundamentalism and biblical reading that is divorced from an oral tradition — an argument that appeals to the talmudist, of course. Yet clearly there is something appealing about the democratic sensibility of it, and the refusal to defer, in matters of spirit, entirely to a hierarchical canon in the broadest sense.

    Is it really possible to be a liberal evangelical? What does “liberal” mean in that phrase?

  4. Jack said

    I read many books along these lines, but I think it depends on what you mean by critical.

    Critical nowadays often simply means to disagree with and offer reasons for doing so, regardless of whether those reasons are objectively valid or merely based upon personal opinion and subjective experience. Disagreement is considered “critical” regardless of the actual validity or value of the critique. (This is not to say a subjective experience cannot be right and correct, I’m not saying that, I’m merely applying that aspect of the resolution of the term in regards to how a term is applied and defined.) But that’s only one very narrow definition of critical. (By that I mean one must first decide one’s true critical intent and how one will employ the term, or any term for that matter, before one can proceed to actually employ a term.) And of course the term liberal has undergone many transformations since the original modern usage of the term. And that’s as true of religion as any other use of the word.

    As for Dean I consider him both right and wrong. The idea of a tradition and canon, even an oral one (which to be honest is also usually written down, it is just not written down within the opus being described, but is written down as supplementary material and commentary, although sometimes also disseminated as tradition and ritual), neither negates a written tradition nor necessarily correctly amplifies or illuminates it. That is to say an oral tradition may very well be correct in some aspects, may very well be incorrect in some aspects, but it does not necessarily either negate or supercede a written tradition, or ad hoc efforts at interpretation of any given materials, oral or written.

    At any point in time a new interpretation of a thing may be made which is better than previous interpretations of a thing (because of new discoveries or applications or because of new data), or at least of equal validity to established interpretations (or which may be, in fact, totally wrong – no interpretation, no matter how good is likely to ever be totally right, not a scientific interpretation of secular matters, nor a religious interpretation of spiritual or God matters because God always has access to information we lack – therefore humans, at best, due to our limitations, can only hope to achieve partial understanding of anything, and that is most certainly true about God himself, because we cannot know everything about anything, much less everything about everything).

    An oral tradition (and only a truly oral tradition, that is an oral tradition which is not interpreting either a set of writings, or itself – that is commentary about a tradition it describes rather than defines, can ever be considered in a sort of isolation in regards to the possible truths it might render about itself – which is to say that the oral tradition is merely a form of interpretation of the Bible – in this case, it is not a separate tradition, but a commentary upon the canon, that is the Pope never says, disregard the scriptures for the oral tradition, the oral traditions must match and harmonize with the scriptural traditions, not contradict the scriptures – the oral tradition can contradict itself, that is different interpretations of scriptures can clash, but the oral tradition cannot contradict the canon and scripture itself, it cannot say the scriptures are wrong, merely that they are being wrongly interpreted, instead an entrained interpretation in the oral tradition must be found to match the scriptures to establish cohesion and synthesis) offers no more necessary an absolute “correctness function” than immediate and intuitive assumption of an act of comprehension. What it does do is offer a different method of interpreting information, intelligence and available data in order to help render an act of comprehension. Therefore both forms of approaching any given subject, written and oral, traditional and intuitively interpretation serve their functions as useful tools for attempted acts of comprehension and understanding. One form of approach will be superior in certain circumstances, another in another set of circumstances, and both forms of approach have their own declared and undeclared set of limitations and liabilities. (As well as unique sets of assets and strengths.)

    So the Protestant form of interpretation of the Christian faith is every bit as valid as that of the Roman Catholic, (though that does not necessarily commute any sense of necessary “rightness” to either tradition, being right in an act of comprehension and understanding is a different matter than whether your technique of attempted comprehension is valid and useful – a technique for investigating the truth may be entirely valid, and still faulty conclusions drawn from the employment of such techniques.) And the same may be said of both Conservative/Orthodox, and Liberal traditions of interpreting scripture (or anything else for that matter), that is to say that both usually offer valid techniques of invitation and interpretation, but of course this in itself says nothing about the validity of the conclusions drawn by either polarity of assumptive predisposition.

    By the way, I know this is a little off the subject, it does not deal directly with the subject matter you inquired about, but I’m gonna recommend some related materials you might find interesting. The Misunderstood Jew (a book) by Amy-Jill Levine, The Modern Scholar: Christianity at the Crossroads – a lecture series by Professor Thom Madden about the Catholic and Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. More along the liens of your question I will recommend The Jesus Machine, American Gospel, and A Match Made in Heaven. As well as Christianity: A Global History (to compare American Christianity with other world forms of Christianity) and Biblical Literacy by Rabbi Telushkin. I’m also gonna recommend two other types of tangentially related books concerning these subjects: Mysteries of the Middle Ages by Tom Cahill, and The Listening Heart.

    Finally I’m gonna recommend What Paul Meant, and Jesus of Nazareth by Benedict, the single best Christological biography I’ve ever read.

    Well, I had to write fast and sure I made many typos.
    Nevertheless I have to get back to work now.
    Time’s a’wastin.

    See ya.

  5. pennywit said

    My own interest — at least for now — is not so much in the doctrines or traditions passed down through Christianity, but rather the pop culture the evangelical community has generated. As Radosh illustrates in Rapture Ready, this pop culture highlights both tensions with the rest of the culture and tensions within the American evangelical subculture itself.

    I’m about 75 percent of the way through Radosh’s book, and I’ll post some reflections on it and Rosin’s tome after I’ve finished reading it.

    Oh, and Jack, in this case, I use the word “critical” in the sense of “analytical” or “skeptical,” rather than “biased against the subject matter.”


  6. Jack said

    “Oh, and Jack, in this case, I use the word “critical” in the sense of “analytical” or “skeptical,” rather than “biased against the subject matter.””

    Well, I wasn’t speaking about you personally PW. I was speaking about modern tendencies in employing the word. But I do understand that is a weakness in my writings and methods of expressing myself.

    I often make general statements, or statements on general subject matter in such a way as it might seem to imply that I am addressing one subjectively and personally. But usually I’m really not. I think it’s just the way my mind uses language and functions.

    My mind takes specific problems and induces them to render general principles (of usage or operation) and from those I wok my way back to the original proposition deductively to reach a more specific conclusion.

    But unless my intention is obvious I would not take much of what I say personally. Because usually I don’t think that way about problems (that is I don’t think of the way people problem solve as being “fixed” but rather fluid and subject to experience and training.)

    If it’s any consolation to you I often confuse my family and friends with the way I speak and think, and they often accuse me of implying something I never really thought about.

    Anyway I wasn’t speaking about you as in Pennywit, but you as in “you people.” (That’s a little joke.)

    “My own interest — at least for now — is not so much in the doctrines or traditions passed down through Christianity, but rather the pop culture the evangelical community has generated. As Radosh illustrates in Rapture Ready, this pop culture highlights both tensions with the rest of the culture and tensions within the American evangelical subculture itself.”

    I’ve never really thought of it as a pop culture, per se, just a sub-culture, but that’s an interesting observation. Especially given the fact that Christianity since it’s inception has always rather more or less aimed to be a counter-culture (regardless of whether it was acting like one or not).

    But I think there is some validity to the idea that at certain times and in certain places, Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire in the east, Roman Catholicism in Western Europe and Protestantism in America, Christianity, or branches of it, have sought to become the dominant, and yes, I guess you could even say, pop, culture of the areas they influence. That is there has always been a tendency among Christians to revolt against the world and that revolt has basically taken on two distinct forms, conquer the world and replace it – bring heaven to earth, or separate from the world and await it’s destruction, escape to heaven. It is interesting that some powerful parts of American Protestantism both disdain the popular culture and yet seek to replace it with itself, that is reach little by way of any real consensus between secular and sacred. (By the way, I myself have a personal theory that America, the US, is the New Byzantium, differently expressed of course, and improve din may respects, though not all, but basically the New Byzantium.)

    I myself, and this is my personal theory, think it will work best by fusing the sacred and secular than by either opposing the secular outright or seeking to escape the secular. But that’s me.

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