Month: January 2013

We are your lunatics, we surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible: the nun in White Noise

It is a mixed blessing, how little I remember of novels; the fact I can return to Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which meant a lot to me ten years ago, and be surprised by things within it I had completely forgotten.

Published in 1985, it is proof that today’s anxious consumer world of surfaces, freeways, supermarkets, advertisements has been with us three decades. It feels like a novel of the internet age, even though computers are barely mentioned and there was no web. But this is why DeLillo is one of America’s greatest novelists.

Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler Studies, and his wife Babette are scared of death. The novel cuts between the domestic sphere and campus life, before a long middle chapter in which the whole town is evacuated due to a ‘toxic airborne event’. Without giving away the plot, in a climatic scene, Jack finds himself in hospital being tended by a nun-nurse. It is one of the few passages about religion in the novel; when he learns the nun is not a believer, he is curiously devastated, asking her if her dedication is a pretense. She responds:

“Our pretense is a dedication. Someone must appear to believe. Our lives are no less serious than if we professed real faith, real belief. As belief shrinks from the world, it is more necessary than ever that someone believe. Wild-eyed men in caves. Nuns in black. Monks who do not speak. We are left to believe. Fools, children. Those who have abandoned belief must still believe in us. They are sure they are right not to believe but they know belief must not fade completely. Hell is when no one believes. There must always be believers. Fools, idiots, those who hear voices, those who speak in tongues. We are your lunatics. We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.” (319)

It is a deeply insightful speech. The New Atheists may wish religion away; yet for the uncommitted majority, ambivalent toward religion, holding a vague belief in God, perhaps the dedication of the ‘lunatics’ is a vicarious faith. For us who are the lunatics, perhaps in moments of doubt we feel the same exasperated anger of the nurse. As I read this scene, I felt the same terror Jack feels, imagining a world without believers. White Noise, as well as being a very funny book, is a bleak vision of the horror of a godless world.

Why evangelicals listen to Ken Ham, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye: a review of The Anointed


The Anointed: Evangelical Truth in a Secular Age
Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson (Harvard University Press, 2011)

It would be easy to be misled by this book’s title. It could well be the latest combative tome by a conservative evangelical. Yet it’s published by Harvard University Press; the ‘anointed’ and the ‘evangelical truth’ have invisible scare quotes around them. It is a book which explores how evangelicals will follow the teachings of populist extremists like Ken Ham, David Barton, James Dobson and Tim LaHaye while paying less attention to more balanced, moderate and better-credentialed voices within evangelicalism like Francis Collins, Mark Noll, David Myers and Tom Wright in their respective fields.

As befits a book published by Harvard and aimed at a scholarly or educated general audience, the authors write as neutral, secular observers of the movement. Yet the back flap reveals that Stephens teaches history at the (evangelical) Eastern Nazarene College and Giberson used to teach physics there. (Stephens has since moved to Northumbria University.) They are actually insiders to the evangelical culture, writing as if outsiders. Perhaps the nature of the book required this pretense, but I think it would have been valuable to have an acknowledgement in the text itself of their own relationship to evangelicalism.

This criticism aside, their analysis is very good, offering a historical account of the rise of young earth creationism, the myth of Christian Founding Fathers of the USA, Focus on the Family and populist premillennial eschatology. In each case, ‘anointed’ men have popularised a fundamentalist message, claiming to have derived it straight from the Bible, unlike the liberal ‘experts’ whose education and research can be dismissed. A historical treatment is particularly valuable, placing these ideas within the context of the Scopes Monkey Trial, the cultural and sexual revolution of the 1960s and the rise of the Religious Right in the 1980s.

Having been brought up to believe young earth creationism in Australia, I found it particularly fascinating to read about the key role Queenslander Ken Ham played in making young earth creationism far more popular than it had been in the USA since he moved there in the 1980s:

Before his arrival in 1987, ICR [Institute for Creation Research] representatives – with the exception of the superstars, Morris and Gish – spoke to crowds that sometimes measure only in the dozens, making dry technical presentations about problems with radioactive dating, transitional fossils… and so on. (42)

Ham’s genius was to have a ‘bottom up’ approach:

He would convince millions of ordinary people to reject evolution in the hopes that the grassroots groundswell would change society and work its way up, or at least marginalize the eggheads at the top. (43)

He achieved this with the glossy Creation magazine, books aimed at children and, more recently, the famous Creation Museum. In this account, he and the others have been brilliant populisers, speaking to the evangelical masses in ways they can understand and with personas they can trust.

The analysis of the four areas of Christian thought is entirely US-centred, and to a significant extent, this is a US phenomenon, with the final chapter offering an explanation in terms of US egalitarianism. Yet the anointed fundamentalists have a death grip on Australian evangelicalism too. The revisionist history is the least widespread phenomenon in Australia, but even this has its Australian equivalent, with popular writer Col Stringer insisting Australia is actually a Christian country, despite Tom Frame’s persuasive case otherwise. In the other three areas, Ham, Dobson and LaHaye are extremely influential. Why should this be? A lot of Australians dislike the Americanisation of their culture – yet in both Christian and secular culture, they are always taking it on. Australia has a similar disdain for experts; this is surely one factor.

The weakest chapter for me was the penultimate one, “A Carnival of Christians”, which tries to explain the phenomenon through the eyes of one particular subject, a young evangelical named Paul Miller in his twenties who has lived most of his life cloistered in this ‘parallel universe’ of evangelicalism, explaining how he could embrace it growing up and how it came into question when he was exposed to the wider world. It is an interesting attempt to humanize their argument, yet in this case the details of the particular dragged for me, rather than illuminating the whole.

Overall, I found the book compulsively readable and fair-minded in its attempts to understand the appeal of the anointed. I think there should be a unit in evangelicalism at theological colleges, and that this should be required reading, in the hope that the fish might come to recognise the water they are swimming in – and perhaps prospective pastors could find ways to steer their congregation toward the best thinking Christianity has to offer in each area of thought, rather than to the bestsellers.

Four prayers

They prayed for her ahead of the operation.

The first man had been praying she would be healed, miraculously, and would not have to go through with the operation. But he had been embarrassed about this prayer; he’d felt a little foolish. This wasn’t an out loud prayer, it was a silent prayer early in the morning.

In the group, the second man prayed, “God this didn’t surprise you. You have already seen this and every step of the path she must now walk. So comfort her now.”

The third man prayed, “God you don’t want any of us to be sick. Sickness isn’t your will, but part of our fallen world. So be with her and give her peace at this time.”

And then someone else prayed for healing after the operation, that the sickness would not return. This was not what the first man had imagined as healing.

Lord, hear our prayer.

C.S. Lewis on the need for a Christian point of view

As one perpetually caught between literature and theology, C.S. Lewis’s words here make me pay attention:

We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone far away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. Every newspaper, film, novel and text book undermines our work. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round… It is not the books written in direct defence of Materialism that make the modern [person] a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books… The first step to the reconversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguins and the Thinkers’ Library on their own ground.

– “Christian Apologetics” in Timeless At Heart, p. 18

(To my mind, Tom Wright says it better and closer to my way of thinking when he imagines – in “How Can the Bible Be Authoritative” –  ‘a novel which grips people with the structure of Christian thought, and with Christian motivation set deep into the heart and structure of the narrative, so that people would read that and resonate with it and realize that that story can be my story.’ For Wright, the purpose isn’t simply conversion or even apologetics, although that is part of it. The purpose is to embody and redeem all elements of life and infuse them with a background story of the kingdom. A sign and foretaste of Jesus’ reign. Lewis would probably agree. But I’m not sure Wright would call for the ‘reconversion’ of Britain – that horse has bolted, surely? Do we want to go back to Constantinianism? Not us Anabaptists, anyway.)

Yet I was genuinely struck by this passage. I picture Lewis as a sharp, kindly great-uncle, and he’s dispensing some pointed advice to me when I read his books. (For this analogy to work, he’s a great uncle I avoided until recently, because all the other great-nephews and nieces kept saying how great he was.) There’s a generation gap, but also genuine wisdom to be found.

For me, I am drawn to in-house Christian writing and thinking because I see too much of the church in the grip of fundamentalism and other unhealthy forms of Christianity.

Lewis writes here specifically about the need for more science books written by Christians, but I’m sure he’d urge me to persist with novels too. He is one of the few to be a respected voice in both.

Sunday traffic distorts people’s choice of church?

In a conversation with a pastor from a large church, he made a comment about traffic and church attendance which I found interesting. This church had another campus, but people who lived near it would travel to the original site for Sunday services, partly because traffic is so light on Sundays that it would only take twenty minutes down the freeway. Yet this meant that involvement with one another during the week – such a crucial thing in discipleship and community, obviously – was made difficult, as the commute would take much longer when the traffic was at normal levels. (But then traffic isn’t so bad at night when people might be going to small group, so maybe the argument doesn’t hold.) The thesis is that light traffic on Sundays distorts people’s choice of church.

Since I moved, I’ve been crossing the city on Sundays, albeit from inner suburb to inner suburb; it is remarkable how little time it takes me. I’m sure if it took the forty minutes it would take at peak hour instead of fifteen minutes, it would be a factor in me trying to find a new and local church. Alas, I’m also one of those misfits who would only feel at home in a small number of churches. I hold that in tension with a strong ideal for ‘relocalising’, especially in church.