What is the news for?

I’ve always loved newspapers. Growing up, my grandparents had a subscription to the Flint Journal. Though my initial attraction was the Sunday comics, I browsed all the sections and was following favorite columnists — like Flint-area fixture Andrew Heller — from a weirdly young age. When Flint got a Borders, I eagerly dove into the out-of-town newspapers and “serious” magazines like the New Yorker or Harper’s. I’ve been a print magazine subscriber basically continuously since high school, and My Esteemed Partner and I take the Sunday New York Times as our Hegelian weekend liturgy. More recently, I’ve begun to get the daily Financial Times as a way of lessening my reliance on social media.

Since I had an extisting NYT subscription, I also considered simply adding daily delivery. But the first Sunday I read the A-section with that in mind, I realized that having their political coverage as my primary diet would drive me insane. Continue reading “What is the news for?”

The Political Theology of COVID-19, Part 2: The Pandemic as an Existential Crisis

In my previous post on the political theology of our world-historical plague, I wrote about the way the novel coronavirus of 2019 had called into question the legitimacy of our political order and our entire social bond. In this post, I’d like to talk more about the theological side of the issue, which I think has been crowded out by the political perspective — most exaggeratedly among those who see a grim eugenic conspiracy in our leaders’ alternately inept and malicious handling of this terrible situation.

There is obviously a lot of blame to go around in the pandemic response. The Trump administration’s actions were irresponsible and often simply incomprehensible. Other “smarter” Republicans stoked vile conspiracies in ways that made an effective response impossible, above all in the inconceivable decision to turn vaccination into a polarized political issue. The Biden administration has cleared the low bar set by Trump and the Republicans, but they have clearly been too beholden to big business and too eager to declare victory and move on. No political leader has come out of the pandemic looking good, at least in the US (which is the limit of my detailed knowledge). All of them could have done better. More people died than had to die, and our leaders bear that responsibility.

But it’s not anyone’s fault that the novel coronavirus jumped species in late 2019 — not Trump’s, not Biden’s, not Lori Lightfoot’s, not Chairman Xi’s. It simply happened. Continue reading “The Political Theology of COVID-19, Part 2: The Pandemic as an Existential Crisis”

The Political Theology of COVID-19

There’s a case to be made that the pandemic broke everyone’s brains. I very much include myself here. Compared to my pre-pandemic self, I feel more irritable, less resilient, more on a hair trigger generally. Everyday social activities feel intimidating and even scary. I feel more disconnected from people, more continually worried that I’ve inexplicably given offense or alienated someone. We’ve been told repeatedly that we would finally be getting our lives back again, and it never panned out and now feels like it never will. And I am one of the lucky ones! I had no childcare obligations, I didn’t lose anyone close to me due to COVID, My Esteemed Partner and I were able to keep our jobs — we even used pandemic relief and savings from no student loan payments to put together a down payment for an apartment. On paper, everything is good and fine, even better than before. But it doesn’t feel that way. The world is broken.

Obviously I’m not the only person who feels this way. The pandemic has produced a pervasive crisis of meaning and authority. The latter has been much discussed, particularly in the context of distrust and even outright rejection of public health authorities around essentially every pandemic mitigation measure. But the crisis of meaning seems to me to be potentially more serious and more foundational. Everyone is asking themselves: why am I even doing any of this? Why do I want a job? Why do we want school? Why are we so eager to get back to “normal”? What is even happening? What is any of this for?

And that is happening, it seems to me, because every aspect of our shared life is charged with a new hostility. Continue reading “The Political Theology of COVID-19”

When research leavens teaching

Lately I’ve had occasion to think about how my research connects with my teaching. At first glance, they may seem to have very little to do with each other. I am part of a Great Books program where I actually teach very little that is squarely in my area of expertise. (The only time I taught the “Philosophy and Theology” course was literally my first semester at the independent Shimer College.) Most of our courses have pretty prescribed reading lists, and the courses I teach outside of Shimer are gen ed offerings with few opportunities to introduce cutting-edge research to my largely indifferent pupils. I have learned a huge amount from all the teaching I’ve been pushed to do — about art, classical music, Islam, and even the natural sciences — but I have not published on those areas, for obvious reasons. So my writing and teaching may seem to be two separate “tracks.”

In reality, though, the two mutually reinforce each other, though not in the obvious one-to-one fashion of an R1 researcher who gets to teach seminars directly on their research. My Great Books pedagogy reinforces my habits as an interdisciplinary generalist, my research continually provides fresh perspectives to bring into discussion, and my students’ responses help to shape the way I present those ideas moving forward. People have often praised the clarity of my writing, and that stems largely from the fact that I have to test my ideas in the cauldron of live conversation with students. Even more than in a lecture setting, I am directly accountable to them and get immediate feedback if what I’m saying doesn’t make sense to them.

Continue reading “When research leavens teaching”

From the Silent Majority to the Silent Scream: On the Political Theology of Silence

[Note: This is a transcript of a keynote address I delivered this week as part of the Münster International Summer School (Topic: “Tacet ad Libitum! Towards a Poetics and Politics of Silence”), sponsored by the Graduate School Practices of Literature at the University of Münster.]

Continue reading “From the Silent Majority to the Silent Scream: On the Political Theology of Silence”

Legality, Legitimacy, and Coups

Conservatives have always been the defenders of “law and order,” but in the postwar era, it was liberals and progressives who most trusted in the law. For the baby boomers who still dominate our public life, the Supreme Court — far from being the reactionary body it had been for most of American history and has now become again — was the guardian of our rights, issuing wise decisions grounded in tolerance and liberty. Overcoming generations of gridlock and obstruction, Congress endorsed those rulings with expansive legislation protecting civil liberties and voting rights. And both the legislative and executive worked together to manage the economy so that prosperity and opportunity would not come at the expense of worker or consumer safety or environmental degradation. There were pockets of backwardness, to be sure, and much work to do, but the unique resilience of American institutions guaranteed that the moral arc of the universe bent toward justice.

Even at the time, this was a fantasy, the product of Cold War propaganda. Continue reading “Legality, Legitimacy, and Coups”

The Evangelical Mind

[Note: This essay first appeared in n+1 issue 35: Savior Complex (Fall 2019). I thank the editors for permission to republish it here in an open-access format, given its sadly perennial relevance to our political life.]

WHAT IS AN EVANGELICAL? On a superficial level, this should not be a difficult question. Evangelicals have played an outsize role in American public life for decades. They were at the forefront of the culture wars of the ’80s and ’90s, when self-appointed evangelical leaders like Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition led the struggle against everything from video game violence and rap lyrics to gay marriage. They were crucial to the governing coalition of George W. Bush, himself a “born-again” Christian whose administration accelerated the trend toward delivering social services through faith-based nonprofits. Though their influence on Republican politics was briefly overshadowed in the Obama years by the less explicitly religious Tea Party movement, evangelicals have reemerged as the most loyal supporters of another popular vote–losing Republican President—this time, decidedly not one of their number, although Trump’s selection of the evangelical Mike Pence as his running mate nodded to the group’s kingmaking power.

Despite its apparent coordination and consistent program, evangelicalism seems to elude firm definition. Continue reading “The Evangelical Mind”

The Cross: That’s How They Get You

Long-time readers may know that part of my path out of evangelicalism involved a Catholic phase. I went so far as to convert and was very devout for several years, then slowly let go of it after starting at Chicago Theological Seminary. It’s not part of my life or identity anymore, except for one thing — I use the prayers of the rosary as a kind of calming mantra, for instance when I’m having trouble sleeping. I sometimes even keep count of five “decades” for a full rosary, though I don’t meditate on the “mysteries” (which have somehow inexplicably changed in the meantime? They can do that?). One night recently I was having a lot more trouble sleeping and was trying to remember what the specific “mysteries” were. I calculated that it was probably a “Sorrowful” day and then remembered the sequence: the agony in the garden, the scourging, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion itself (i.e., nailing him up), and his death on the cross. And something within me said: No. This is not what I am going to direct my attention toward. This is disturbing and wrong.

To me, that felt like a watershed moment, showing how alienated I had become from Christian piety and its deep presuppositions. I was rejecting, at a gut level, the most theologically and emotionally charged moment in the Christian story — a moment that serves as the affective “hook.” The old me, even the early post-Christian me, would have heard a response like I was now giving and seen it as evidence that I just didn’t get it. The cross is precisely the most liberating and radical and anti-imperial thing about Christianity! It’s the thing that’s just too real to handle. In fact, the real problem with Christianity is that people don’t take the cross seriously enough.

Continue reading “The Cross: That’s How They Get You”

The Political Theology of Watchmen

The publication of The 1619 Project in an expanded book form may be the appropriate time to revisit another attempt to rewrite a popular story to center racial oppression. I am speaking, of course, of HBO’s Watchmen, created by Damon Lindelof, a sequel and adaptation of Alan Moore’s legendary graphic novel of the same name. By happenstance, I have been rereading the comic this week, as a colleague who had borrowed my copy prior to the pandemic finally returned it. Returning to the original text with the HBO series in mind reaffirms to me that Lindelof and his team of writers have achieved an absolute masterpiece of adaptation and reappropriation. The HBO series shows that our contmporary culture of endless remakes, prequels, and sequels does not have to be creatively barren — that the act of taking up a beloved source can actually inspire greater artistic feats and add a layer of enjoyment unavailable from a more original story.

(Since it has been two years, perhaps we are past the statute of limitations for spoilers, but I will do everyone the courtesy of putting plot details “below the fold.”) Continue reading “The Political Theology of Watchmen

Political Theology syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for this course, and also to Sean Capener, some of whose ideas for excerpts I have borrowed, and to Robin James, whose pitch/thinkpiece assignment I’ve adapted! I’ll be starting to teach my joint second- and third-year course on Political Theology next week and I’m somewhat nervously looking forward to it – I think of all the courses I’ve taught this is the one with the most texts that have most profoundly shaped my thinking, which I know can sometimes make it more difficult to teach well.

Module summary:
“All significant concepts of the modern state are secularized theological concepts”. With this claim, Carl Schmitt began the discipline of political theology, which seeks to understand the relationship between theological conceptions of God and the world and politics. This module will seek to explore these interconnections, from the bureaucratic function of angels to the god-like power of money. How have theology and politics informed one another, and what does it mean to recognise the theological origins of many key systems and structures of many of our supposedly secular ways of thinking?

Continue reading “Political Theology syllabus”