Acts of Faith
There are a great many things those of us who call ourselves Christian need to talk over. One very important one is secularism. Interpreting my career in light of this phenomenon as he understands it, Alan Jacobs notes that I have taught for many years at a big public university, where, he assumes, one must encounter penalties for being identified with Christian faith, and that I must have made concessions to these pressures [“The Watchmen,” Criticism, September]. I can only assure him that the hostility he imagines has had no part in my experience. I have taught Old and New Testament fairly frequently, answering to the job description for my position when I was hired. At my university and, I assume, others like it, many people are variously religious, members of communities of faith, and many are in some state of questioning and transition that is by no means dismissive of religion. We meet on other terms and usually talk about other things, which does not signify indifference or hostility on any side. These great public environments where everyone feels equally welcome are an invaluable achievement of our society, a culture of mutual courtesy and service that is no less compatible with Christianity because it accommodates the same values in other faiths and ethical systems. The essay on fear that he imagines I wrote for The New York Review of Books and its secular readership was actually a speech written for and read to a conservative church in Michigan. I have no idea how many secularists read my books, but then I think the word “secularist” itself is a crude presumption, disrespectful of the mysteries of the soul. Judge not, said Jesus, and I think the commandment particularly warns us away from the kinds of harsh, categorical judgments that make too many Christians feel and act as though they live in a hostile and oppressive world. This kind of thinking, this habit of antagonism, has done incalculable harm. It has contributed in a way unbecoming in Christians to the bitter divisions that afflict this country.
Iowa City, Iowa
Jacobs is right to criticize the softball theology of liberal Christian apologists such as Marilynne Robinson. The political and environmental crises we face today are no less dire than those faced by Reinhold Niebuhr’s generation, and we need bold and thoughtful voices of faith to hold our political leaders accountable.
Our views begin to diverge, however, when Jacobs turns to the current state of the prophetic Christian witness. I agree that Christian intellectuals are no longer at the forefront of liberalism, but, as a United Methodist pastor who is genderqueer and openly gay, I welcome their move to the periphery. Jesus of Nazareth was certainly not quoted by Tiberius and the other political leaders of his day. If we, as Christians, wish to follow this humble rabbi and executed criminal, we can do so most faithfully from the margins.
Dr. Cornel West, while less celebrated than C. S. Lewis, may be more true to the Gospel. West’s critique of the Obama Administration reveals the plight of the most marginalized — the countless people killed and deported by this “humane” president. We should never underestimate the moral significance of such a revelation, or its influence on generations of changemakers to come. If the last shall be first and the first shall be last, we who seek to emulate Jesus Christ should aspire to a place in the street rather than a seat at the table.
Santa Rosa, Calif.
Jacobs uses the catchall term “Christian intellectual” in his essay, but the lineage he traces can be more accurately described as the history of conservative — and primarily white — Christian intellectualism. He dates the waning years of publicly engaged Christian thought to the beginning of the Cold War, for instance, yet inexplicably ignores the continued relevance of Martin Luther King Jr., one of America’s greatest Christian intellectuals, who remained a national spiritual fixture until his death in 1968. When Jacobs does finally include a progressive person of color in his canon of Christian thinkers, it is primarily to note Cornel West’s criticism of President Barack Obama — a convenient usage — before belittling Marilynne Robinson’s liberal faith as distant from “ordinary believers,” despite the fact that millions of Christians lean left.
On Twitter, Jacobs expressed surprise at the idea that someone such as Bishop Gene Robinson — a renowned, media-savvy LGBT-rights icon — could even be considered a Christian intellectual. In doing so, he exposes a second major blind spot: the failure to understand that the role of the public intellectual has undergone a radical transformation over the past two decades. Gone are the days when a Harvard degree guaranteed one a national platform. The exclusive “watchmen” clubs once populated by high-minded academics are now crowded with comedians and bloggers. The internet age has challenged the need for a single, venerated moral interlocutor: whereas Reinhold Niebuhr once explained global events to average Americans, average Americans can now publish and explain things to one another. The public intellectuals of today are more likely to be found sparring on Twitter than gracing the cover of Time.
Andrew Bacevich and his guests debate the future of U.S. foreign policy by mapping the “challenges to the current international order” [“Tearing Up the Map,” Forum, September], but they seem to have forgotten that simple solutions are often the best. For much of our country’s history, and particularly over the past seventy years, our foreign policy has betrayed the values we so publicly and sentimentally cherish. We have engaged in conspiracies to eliminate democratically elected governments, we have invaded sovereign states under flimsy or fabricated pretexts, and we have supported dictators, human-rights abusers, and the machinations of resource-greedy corporations. These are not rare exceptions, but frequent features of a foreign policy that is predicated on furthering our “national interests” rather than our values.
The panelists admit that many of our military adventures have failed, but they seem to miss an essential truth: our standing as a global power and world leader would be far more secure had we used military action only in response to real threats or humanitarian crises, rather than in service to our imperial aspirations. It should surprise no one that the United States now faces the specter of international terrorism, and we must work hard to shore up alliances, repair our image, and convince a skeptical world of our good intentions.
T. M. Kara
I write not to raise objections to Christine Smallwood’s opinions about my book The Glamour of Strangeness [New Books, August] but to point out an untruthful representation of my work. She writes that I take “tedious jabs” at feminist and postcolonialist critics who dare to question “the power dynamics involved in, for example, Gauguin abandoning his wife and taking pubescent lovers.” This criticism has no textual basis. On the subject of the feminist critique of Gauguin’s personal life in Bali, specifically Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s essay “Going Native: Paul Gauguin and the Invention of Primitivist Modernism,” I wrote: “Solomon-Godeau’s denunciation of Gauguin as a sexual predator is not trumped up. . . . When Gauguin tells the reader his bride’s age, he adds parenthetically that in Tahiti thirteen is ‘the equivalent of eighteen or twenty in Europe,’ a ludicrous assertion that he leaves unexplained.”
It is impossible, I think, for a reasonably attentive reader to interpret this passage as anything other than the author endorsing without reservation the views of a feminist critic who questions the power dynamics involved in Gauguin taking a pubescent lover. I am more interested in Gauguin’s art than I am in his private life, yet on the subject raised by the reviewer, my views harmonize with those of Solomon-Godeau. The polar opposition between what I wrote and Smallwood’s characterization of it cannot be reconciled by the usual tools of logic and interpretation, which raises the troubling issue of motive; and there I am baffled.
Christine Smallwood responds:
Shortly after hedging his approval of Solomon-Godeau with the phrase “not trumped up,” Jamie James further qualifies his support of “the feminist critique” when he denies that the artist robbed his lover of “an innocent childhood.” He admonishes feminists to pay attention to the plight of young women in Paris rather than only looking for power imbalances abroad, and declares it a “crushing irony” that Gauguin, the grandson of a “pioneering socialist and feminist,” should be “condemned as a misogynist” — a situation that, in addition to lacking irony, hardly calls for lament.
What is “tedious” in The Glamour of Strangeness is not one particular moment, however, but James’s tendency to depart from the material at hand to quibble with or score points against scholars and other writers, such as in the paragraph he wastes challenging one of Isabelle Eberhardt’s biographers or his unenlightening swipe at unnamed critics advocating a “psychoanalytic agenda.” It is too bad that James prefers “art” to “private life,” since it is in the lives of his subjects that his book comes alive; as I noted in my review, it contains “wonderful episodes and a memorable cast.” As for my own secret motives, all I can say is that literary critics are professional close readers, and known for having suspicious minds.