A Father’s Admonition

Help on the Way

Here is the impromptu message that Jeff gave at Gabriel’s memorial service in New Jersey. It’s only 12 minutes long, and it’s full of wisdom …


If you’d like to respond to the invitation at the end of Jeff’s message, email him at exploring.intersections@yahoo.com.

And here, for your blessing, is his sister Sudie singing I Can Only Imagine with unexpected joy …


[Special thanks to Holland Davis for preparing these recordings for upload, and for your continued friendship. To Mercy Me, if I’m violating copyright law by posting Sudie’s version of your song, well, please send me a bill.]



Grieving a Suicide


Wheaton College professor John Walford gave a passionate testimony about his brushes with suicide at a recent Wheaton chapel service. There have been three recent alumni suicides in the past year, and the university is rightly concerned about a trend that reflects an alarming three-fold increase in youth suicide. 

While I commend both the university in its desire to address the issue with a strong exhortation and Dr. Walford for his transparency, the message fell short in that it lacks the expert advice that might have provided students with consolation, deeper understanding and tangible help.

Today I’d like to commend to you InterVarsity Press editor and Christianity Today columnist Al Hsu’s excellent book, Grieving a Suicide. I met Al in February at the National Pastors’ Convention and noticed this book on a display table. After Gabe’s death and before we left for the services in New Jersey, I asked him to send me a copy. It was waiting for me when we returned to California. I’m reading it for the second time and ordered 10 more copies for family and friends. (I received the shipment yesterday and will distribute the books forthwith.)

Al’s book is dedicated to his father, Terry Tsai-Yuan Hsu, an accomplished electrical engineer who took his own life after a debilitating stroke. Al brings to the topic both a survivor’s understanding and good scholarship.

The book is divided into three parts:

  • When Suicide Strikes—Shock, Turmoil, Lament, Relinquishment and Remembrance
  • The Lingering Questions—Why Did this Happen? Is Suicide the Unforgivable Sin? Where is God When it Hurts?
  • Life after Suicide—The Spirituality of Grief, The Healing Community, The Lessons of Suicide.


In Part I, we learn that “the grief that suicide survivors experience is described by psychologists as ‘complicated grief.’ … Those of us who experience complicated bereavement are actually grappling with two realities, grief and trauma. Grief is normal; trauma is not. The combination of circumstances is like a vicious one-two punch. We are grieving the death of a loved one, and we are reeling from the trauma of suicide. The first is difficult enough; the second may seem unbearable.”

Al categorizes the resultant turmoil as follows:

  1. Shock, disbelief and numbness–“‘The immediate response to suicide is total disbelief,’ writes a suicide survivor. ‘The act is so incomprehensible that we enter into a state where we feel unreal and disconnected.'”
  2. Distraction—“Friends of survivors may need an extra measure of patience … traumatic grief has caused an inability to focus.”
  3. Sorrow and Despair—“Survivors often fall into a state of melancholy and depression … In some ways we may unconsciously identify with the hopelessness that precipitated our loved one’s death.”
  4. Rejection and Abandonment—“Suicide feels like a total dismissal, the cruelest possible way a person could tell us that they are leaving us behind … So we feel abandoned. Our sense of self-worth is crippled. All our doubts and insecurities are magnified a hundred-fold.”
  5. Failure—“Feelings of failure may surface any time a survivor had a caretaking role … Our feelings of regret and guilt may seem overwhelming, but they eventually subside as we realize the death was not our fault.”
  6. Shame—“Beyond the combination of normal grief and traumatic grief, survivors of suicide suffer an additional insult to injury—the societal stigma that surrounds suicide.”
  7. Anger, Rage and Hatred—“We may hate our loved one for doing this to our loved one. We grieve the suicide and rage against him simultaneously.”
  8. Paralysis—“A simple phone call had triggered an anxiety-filled reaction.”
  9. Sleeplessness—“We lie awake, with our thoughts flying in all directions.”
  10. Relief–“About half of suicides are at least somewhat expected due to ongoing depression or patterns of self-destructive behavior. In our sadness, we are shocked to discover that we are glad it’s all over.”
  11. Self-destructive thoughts and feelings—“One danger of being a suicide survivor is the possibility of falling into suicidal despair.”

In the chapter from Part II on remembrance, Al offers this helpful advice:

“Because of the corrosive, personality-altering nature of suicidal depression, ‘by the time suicide occurs, those who kill themselves may resemble only slightly children or spouses once greatly loved and enjoyed for their company.’ The days, weeks and years following a suicide may be a time of gradually recovering the memories of our loved one, of discovering true and lasting remembrances of their life.”

The chapter I have most marked up is the Why chapter. From our first conversation at 5:00 in the morning after Gabe died, Aaron Kheriaty gently but firmly instructed us that the suicide will never make sense. And yet we try …

Al writes, “We must make a distinction between causes and triggers. Suicide might be triggered by divorce or the loss of a job, but those may not be the actual causes … Suicidal desires run much deeper, and if one event does not trigger the suicide, another might.”

Nonetheless there are some defining characteristics:

  1. Medical and biological factors—“Studies show that about two-thirds of suicides had suffered from clinical depression or had a history of chronic mental illness.”
  2. Psychological factors—“Psychiatrist Karl Menninger suggested that suicides have three interrelated and unconscious dimensions: a wish to kill (the self), due to some degree of self-hatred; a wish to die, arising out of a sense of hopelessness; and a wish to be killed, coming from a sense of guilt. …  The agony of depression is so great that the suicide musters the resolve to do away with the pain, at the expense of his or her own life.”
  3. Sociological factors—“In the last quarter-century, society has tilted toward the individual rather than the communal … The glue that holds communities and families together is disappearing … [Suicide] rates among the young, more socially alienated generations have tripled … The more socially isolated we become, the higher our risk.”

Al mentions other factors like suicide as philosophical protest, the higher tendency toward depression/suicide in those with artistic temperaments, suicide because of grief (eg. 9/11 survivors) and suicide as atonement.

He says we may be asking the why question when what we really want to know is How could they do this to me?  For him, it is helpful to realize that his father “did what he did to end his pain, not to cause pain for me.” 

Each life and death is both common and unique. Dr. Walford’s experience with the temptation toward suicide sounds familiar and yet very different from Gabe’s. He communicated it in his chapel message through the lens of spiritual battle. That is one lens. The context of Gabriel’s death reads to me like a perfect storm of contributing factors. I see his suicide through a compound lens.

Walford chose a route to suicide that allowed him the opportunity to come to his senses. Gabe did not. Is one man more spiritual than the other because of method or outcome? I think not.

In Part III of Grieving a Suicide, Al talks about life after suicide. In the chapter on the healing community, he gives good advice on the language we use to describe suicide. Instead of saying someone “committed suicide” as if the victim were a criminal, we can say they died by suicide or they took their own life.

The final chapter offers five lessons we can learn from suicide:

  1. Suicide reminds us that we live in a fallen world.
  2. Suicide teaches us that life is uncertain.
  3. Suicide reminds us of our mortality.
  4. Suicide shows us the interconnectedness of humanity. Al was surprised to discover how well regarded his father was by his peers and what a profound impact his good gifts had on them. He and his family were comforted by the outpouring of support they received. We’ve had these experiences as well.
  5. Suicide demonstrates the necessity of hope. Amen and amen.

Our family has been mercifully spared much insensitivity and ignorance in the wake of this tragedy. I can’t imagine going through this without the wise counsel of those who’ve walked the road before. Grieving a Suicide is a book I don’t ever want to recommend again because doing so would mean someone else enduring this type of senseless tragedy. And yet, a suicide occurs every 17 minutes in the United States.

If you are a pastor or lay minister, prepare yourself with knowledge before you try to minister to the grieving and confused. This book will help you do that; it includes a helpful appendix of suicide prevention/survival resources. If you are a survivor, it will be a balm to your soul.

Thanks Al!

[photo ©cas 2007: sunrise at Mustard Seed Ranch, Warner Springs, CA]

Cheers to hESCs@CHOC

It’s been many, many years since I’ve sipped a cocktail like the one above, but this was the celebratory drink ordered for us by I don’t know whom on the last night of the NIH hESC training course. The tray of drinks reminded me of a plate of cell cultures so I snapped a photo. It was a fun evening and by the time it arrived, the scientists were generally at ease with this “religious woman.” I really liked them, as was the case last time I attended.

Two interesting conversations stuck with me from the final evening. First, a Brazilian woman asked me if I’m able to separate my personal beliefs about hESC research from my reporting. It’s a fair question, but one nobody asked of Gary Robbins … and he wasn’t shy about sharing his beliefs, religious or otherwise.

Every day of the week, journalists must set aside their personal convictions and report the news. Non-journalists sometimes think this doesn’t happen; they see bias everywhere. In fact, my first introduction to the notion of postmodernism came not from any discussion of pop-philosophy, but from the Walter Lippman classic Public Opinion. In it, one of the founding editors of The New Republic argued that we all see life through the limiting lens of culture and language. The best we can strive for is fairness. Read Lippman’s Wikipedia bio; it provides a compelling look at the interplay of democracy, philosophy and the news.

Gary reports differently about hESC research than I would, but not only because we have different beliefs about the ethics of this work. He is under daily news deadline pressure and I’m an occasional, long form writer with a bent for investigation. I look for what’s not being said or reported. In this case, what’s not being reported with any regularity or conviction in major news outlets is that hESCs are not likely to be the great therapeutic hope they have been pumped up to be.

This is not my opinion, but the somewhat reluctant opinion elicited from 10 prominent scientists who were asked some challenging questions at yesterday’s concluding symposium. The first question was: What are the long-term cancer risks of hESC therapies? Jeanne Loring, whose extensive credentials include work on the Human Genome Project and collaboration on the WARF patent challenge, did not let any of her peers off the hook as moderator of the Q&A. One by one the Oxford guy, the Stem Cell Inc. guy, the Stanford guy et. al. admitted that they have no idea and no answer for this concern.

That’s big news in and of itself, but not for this venue. …

The other significant conversation I had on our final evening together was with the scientist who asked me about The Secret. She did foundational work in the hESC field … as a born-again Christian. The work kept her out of church for ten years, until one day she was looking at hESCs differentiating into various cell types under her microscope. They reminded her of the human race in all its diverse beauty. She imagined God looking down upon humanity through his lens and desiring us to sing hymns and praise songs to him in unison (hESCs have a biological imperative to congregate). She decided it was time to go back to church.

This gracious Christian who was admired by everyone shared her story freely. However … however. She is still not entirely comfortable with her hESC work … and she won’t be telling her story on the record any time soon.

There is much, much more that can be said about the past ten days, but I came away from them with three strong convictions:

  1. Nearly as important as the ethics of hESC research is the lack of regulation in the IVF industry. The United States is far behind many European nations in its concern for 1) the well-being of women receiving IVF therapies, 2) children born of egg/sperm donation and multiple births, and 3) both the exploitation of egg donors and the fate of their eggs.
  2. The best hope for therapeutic uses of stem cells lies in iPSCs that originate in one’s own body. Not only do potential hESC therapies pose significant risks, but adult stem cell therapies from donor sources do as well. Arlene Chiu asked the representative from Stem Cell Inc. if the stem cells in their inaugural FDA-approved human trial had been tested for diseases like neurofibromatosis (NF). Chiu had heard a talk by an NF1 researcher who found that neural stem cells transplanted into a mouse brain resulted in a proliferation of NF tumors in the brain. The Stem Cell Inc. representative said that some screening had taken place, but it was not comprehensive. Chiu was incredulous.
  3. The hype over hESCs has done considerable harm. During the panel discussion, the eminent panelists were confronted by an Autism advocate who wanted to know what can be done about desperate parents taking their sick children outside the United States for non-FDA approved stem cell treatments. One MD commiserated with the woman’s experience, saying it mirrored his own; another panelist noted that a scientist who had investigated charges against a Chinese clinic had been subjected to an “investigative review” of his own by the scientist whose advertised results he found spurious. No suggestions were offered … nor was any responsibility taken for pumping hESC research up and selling it as THE great hope for all manner of human suffering.

UPDATE 3/19: Clarification on this post.

Winding Down

I’m on day 10 or so of conference lectures. Today it’s Stem Cell Culture Secrets and Patent Issues (which combine into quite the quagmire in the hESC field). Yesterday I only attended one talk, that of Gary Robbins, the Science Dude at the Orange County Register. Gary’s blog about local science news gets a lot of traffic. I picked up some good tips.

This week he is running two polls. One is about whether or not it will demean a trained elephant to temporarily encapsulate it in a giant bubble as part of a stunt at the Discovery Science Center (371 respondents said no; 353 said yes as of 6:42 am this morning). The other is called “Is Science Sinful?” It asks about a senior Catholic cleric’s declaration that certain types of scientific research (including genetic manipulation of human embryos) are sinful. This poll only got 68 responses: 43 disagreed with the cleric, 7 agreed and 18 said the question was too vague.

If these polls are to be taken seriously—and I’m not sure they are—more Orange County Register readers care about the temporary fate of a trained elephant than care about a prominent theologian’s opinion about what it means to be human.

Gary and I have emailed back and forth a couple times in regard to his coverage of local hESC news. It was good to meet him in person. He’s appropriately kinetic, and gave a current events talk about the impact of the Internet on the news business. He also handed each of us a dime to demonstrate how hESC scientists ought to talk to the press about their work. He said that when he talks to people about hESCs, he uses a dime to demonstrate that the 8-celled blastocysts destroyed in the research are the size of President Roosevelt’s eye on the coin. His was a lecture about educating a busy public about science rather than one about how hESC scientists can avoid being misquoted or manipulated by unscrupulous or untrained reporters.

After the lecture, I attended a party at the hotel where the students are staying. We sat together in a dark room on the 18th floor and watched the fireworks over Disney Land. I was asked my opinion of The Secret and will be researching that today for a lovely, accomplished scientist from another part of the world. She doesn’t want to buy into The Secret’s message if it is inconsistent with Christian faith.

I also heard last night that Hans Keirstead is being shadowed by an HBO film crew and that he’s toned down his rhetoric, which, if true, is good for everybody.

Tomorrow, the NIH course wraps with an all-day symposium on stem cell treatment for pediatric diseases. Then I’m off to Santa Cruz to meet a faithful blogging friend in person. While I’m there, I’m going to worship at Vintage Faith Church where my new friend Dan Kimball pastors. After that, I’ll be spoiling my family for a bit and getting down to some serious writing work.

Update: I was thinking more about Gary’s polls. There are other possibilities for the divergent interest. First, Gary said his readers respond more to local science news than national or international news. Second, perhaps readers rightly discern that the temporary fate of a trained elephant is trivial enough for a 2-second opinion poll, whereas contemplating what it means to be human requires a bit more thought.

Update 2 (3/15/08): The Bubble/Elephant stunt at the Discovery Science Center has been canceled after an outpouring of public protest.



The National Pastors Convention ended at noon yesterday. I’ve been to many conferences over the years, and I must say this was one of the most enjoyable. Beeson Divinity school professor/author/painter Calvin Miller touched on why this was true for me. In his session on Celtic Christianity, he described how different events attract different audiences. I was at home with this audience. Not only that, but the organizers were wonderful hosts to us journalists. I’m sitting right now at a dining room table covered with books, some of which the publishers would, no doubt, like me to mention. This brings me back to my first post from the convention. In it, I mentioned the fact that a session moderator had asked the audience not to blog about it. At least three others have now done so. Specifically, he asked us not to blog “provocative one-liners” and then he or someone else jokingly stated: “What happens in the Critical Concerns Courses stays in the Critical Concerns Courses.”

When I was at the Better Watchdogs Workshop back in September, we had a discussion about when groups that actively seek publicity suddenly bar the press from reporting on a public or semi-public meeting. There was not clear consensus on what to do in such situations. I said that I would comply with such a request, but vocally protest it and take it into account in future reporting, which is what I have done here. Let me add another thought: If authors and their publishers don’t want the press to report provocative one-liners, perhaps the authors should refrain from spewing them. It seems to me they do so to get a reaction. Both audiences and we in the press might also do well not to take the bait. Better to ignore declines in discourse than to advertise them.

Speaking of Calvin Miller’s session “Praying as a Creature to the Creator: Finding God in the Thin Places of the World He has Made for You,” this was the only talk I attended for personal edification. I have appreciated Miller’s writing and looked forward to hearing the sage speak in person. For the life of me, I can’t tell you what he said. Partly this was fatigue, partly it was his speaking style. He was like a whirling dervish, flinging out poems and jokes and sturdy bits of wisdom with some sense of structure, but a structure I couldn’t follow. I suspect I might be like him as a speaker, struggling to express something coherent—only I don’t like chaos. I’d also skip the fat American jokes, as any regular reader of this blog can attest. (I’m sure the attractive, ample woman beside me didn’t appreciate them either.) And I would skip the multiple reminders to buy my new book, though I think he can be forgiven since he mentioned that his previously held eschatology had fooled him into not planning for his golden years until he was in his fifties. I had already bought The Path of Celtic Prayer at any rate, and don’t regret it.

I only wish I had gone to hear Jim Wallis talk about his new book, The Great Awakening: Reviving Faith and Politics in a Post-Religious Right America, instead. I had heard Wallis on Thursday evening in a short interview with Efrem Smith. Even Smith was skeptical of Wallis’ protestations that he is not advocating a Religious Left to counter the Religious Right. Wallis said he is preaching spiritual revival, for without it, neither party will effect real change.

Krista Tippett‘s interview with Bishops Rucyahana and Wright was impressive. She picked up on some of the themes I spoke with Bishop Rucyahana about regarding the Anglican splintering. (Wright corrected my reference to it as a “split” in my interview with him.) I encourage anyone who cares about our world to check the Speaking of Faith website for the air date. Currently, an interview with the late John O’ Donahue is being featured. I’d never heard of O’Donahue until bloggers began reporting his death earlier this year, and then a dear Irishman who is not a churchgoer told me his “relations,” as he calls them, were friends with O’Donahue. I’ll be acquainting myself (and my friend) with him shortly.

Long after the convention site had cleared, I spent 30 minutes with N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham, England. Wright gives fully-orbed answers to interview questions and I had a lot of them to pack into a short span of time. They centered on two themes: his thoughts on the Anglican “splintering” and his thoughts on what Phyllis Tickle calls “The Great Emergence.” I’ll not share what Wright said about the Anglican situation, except to say this: He rejects the critique of Dr. Vinay Samuel in The Anglican Mainstream that his position on the Global Anglican Future Conference is essentially racist. I intend to explore this theme elsewhere.

As to his views on the emergents, he spent time with some of them at Soularize in the Bahamas last year and thinks there are some serious Christian thinkers among them. He hadn’t heard of Peter Rollins, who has been described to me as the premiere “emerging” philosopher, and was unfamiliar with Rollins’ more questionable ideas. He thinks the emerging church is a reasonable response to the modernist mega-church construct. A couple times Wright had said post-modernism “preaches the Fall” to arrogant modernism. I asked him if he didn’t think post-modernism communicates an arrogance of its own. He agreed, which may be why he is stressing “post-post modernism,” an idea he defined for Tippett. My notes are unclear on this point, but he said something about the church leading the way forward as society is fumbling about between modernism and post-modernism.

Here’s what struck me about Bishop Wright:

That he is a brilliant scholar and orator is obvious. I have now heard him talk passionately about the importance of prophetic voices several times. (I couldn’t agree more.) In this context, at the closing communion service, he gave an erudite description of courage as the culmination of countless small decisions over time that lead those who have it to make incredible sacrifices when it counts. So I asked him, “Who are our prophets?” He was a bit startled and said he had been speaking theoretically. After a minute or two, he named the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. For example, he said Williams had effectively argued against euthanasia before the House of Lords. I threw out a couple American names. He affirmed Jim Wallis, even if he disagrees with Wallis in bits.

Here’s the thing: In the preface to Wright’s new book Surprised by Hope, he confesses to potential critics that he has not really known grief. He has not known grief. Sit with that thought a moment. He talks about courage and prophecy as theory. Well articulated ideas are vital to life and society. I am grateful for them. As a journalist, I sometimes feel inadequate in the face of them, but I have been intimately acquainted with grief and have known something of courage. Such experiences change everything about how one views the world. My enthusiasm for Wright is a bit chastened by this revelation.

In the Intro to Philosophy class I attended when I was interviewing Dallas Willard, he mentioned three kinds of knowledge: reason, experience and authority. I can lay claim to the first 2/3 of the equation. As a journalist, 2/3 of a whole may be enough to find the gems amidst the bunk. There were a lot of gems at NPC.

[photos and text © cas, San Diego, CA, 2008]

Day 2-3: NPC

I missed Dan Kimball‘s session on Tuesday. Driving down the 5 freeway, through the rugged section of coast that is Camp Pendleton, traffic stopped short—something that poses a particular challenge for someone driving a stick shift with a cup of coffee in her hand. Two border patrol cars flew past me in the left shoulder, a couple helicopters seemed to be circling, then came the ambulances. The crawl was on.

I arrived in time for lunch, an hour or so before my interview with Kimball, or so I thought. Wandering over to the food court at the outdoor mall adjacent to the hotel, I saw a former colleague who I really didn’t want to see. I did what any upstanding Christian would do. I avoided him at all costs and had lunch with a nice Presbyterian pastor on the far side of the food court. The pastor’s son just became a Baptist. We’re all a-mingling now, aren’t we?

As I was lingering in conversation, Leslie Speyers, a gracious publicist from Zondervan, was looking for me because I was supposed to be, not lunching with a Presbyterian, but interviewing Kimball. Fortunately, the snafu worked to his benefit and we got together later in the afternoon. I took the extra time to dig a little deeper into his book, They Like Jesus, but Not the Church. As I was reading, I was wondering what could possibly be controversial about this guy. He calls himself a fundamentalist I believe (I gave the book away so I can’t double-check right now), and appropriately defines the term. I’m realizing more and more that sometimes new labels are stuck on incremental changes in that which is normative.

Dan is a pastor rather than a pontificator. I’ve heard some pontification this week; not much, but a bit of it. He is a man in the trenches, and seems like he can’t be bothered with the controversies that distract others. Problem is, the distractors find him. He mentioned a random encounter with a local “brother” who told him he and his church are praying for Dan’s ministry to fail. Sigh.

After my interview with Dan, I caught the tail end of a workshop called “Redefining Power: Finding Our Place in a Global Church.” Very interesting discussion about how to make cross-cultural partnerships healthier and more effective. An African named D. Zac Niringiye wasted no time telling us Americans to repent of our greed. He thinks it is very difficult to be an American and a Christian, and said a lot of so-called partnerships are really sponsorships in which both parties manipulate each other. The solution is confession of sin.

Novel idea.

Niringiye wasn’t ranting against American imperialism, just speaking the truth in love to an American audience. A Philippine speaker named Athena Gorospe likewise advised US missionaries to repent of their manifest destiny paradigm, which she says communicates the message that the Anglo-Saxon race is superior.

Essentially, I heard that we Americans need to get off our high horse and humbly partner with the global church. At the end of the session, the moderator, Mark Labberton, especially thanked a Zondervan vice president, saying that without his support the session would not have happened. What does that tell you?

One speaker I especially wanted to hear was Rwandan bishop John Rucyahana. I have done so twice now and interviewed him yesterday. I wanted to know what the suffering church has to teach us; what critique it offers. Rucyahana gave a rousing sermon and personal testimony Tuesday night. He talked about wrestling with the why questions of the Rwandan genocide when he was living in a Ugandan refugee camp. God, Why did you let this happen? Why do I have no nation? etc.

His ministry in Uganda was so effective that the government there granted him and his family citizenship. It was immediately afterwards that God called him to go back to Rwanda and help heal his nation. He fairly exploded in praise talking about it Tuesday night, shouting, “Jesus is there!” In both sessions I attended, he told remarkable stories of reconciliation. Repentance and forgiveness are the soil in which it grows. He noted reconciliation is not “magic,” but an ongoing process with people in different stages of repentance, forgiveness, unrepetentance and unforgiveness.

As an example of the ongoing process, he talked about when a person who has been wronged avoids their offender, turning away when they see the person in the street. I thought back to my former colleague who, like a number of us, had quit his job at my former church in disgust, but then went back to work there for pragmatic reasons. When he did, I told him he was no longer a “safe” person with whom I could have a casual relationship (which is true). And now the reconciler was telling me I’m wrong to avoid him.

In our interview, I had pressed the bishop a bit by applying his principles to the Anglican split. He didn’t see it the same way, saying one can love and pray for the other side to repent, but that one cannot be reconciled to heresy. Hmmm. Maybe I’m off the hook … but only if orthopraxy matters as much as orthodoxy.

Next, I caught a couple minutes of Shane Claiborne talking about his new book Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. How could any casual observer not like this guy? My newlywed years were spent in the Philadelphia suburbs, so I have an especially soft heart toward his work there.

I snuck out of the session to see a screening of Ben Stein’s new documentary Expelled about the evolution/intelligent design debate. One would have thought it was put out by conservative evangelicals. Stein interviews premiere players in the debate, and poignantly reveals a motivating force. He is a Jew and takes viewers to a German extermination camp for the infirm. Listening to the “museum” guide’s perspective on what the Nazis did there was chilling, both for him and, one would hope, for viewers.

Zondervan hosted a lovely media reception at dusk. I was schmoozing with a senior executive of the company and didn’t even know it until he formally introduced himself to us. He recommended a movie called Once that Dave Zimmerman mentions in his latest post. (Dave, by the way, is at the New Conspirators conference promoting the book of the same name that he edited, and I assisted on.) I also had a nice chat with a producer and online editor for Krista Tippett’s NPR show, Speaking of Faith, and was gratified to know that Tippett had made similar interview choices to my own. This afternoon she will do a broadcast interview with Bishop Rucyahana and N.T. Wright, with whom I will meet tomorrow afternoon to close out the convention.

Today, I’m getting a late start down to San Diego. This afternoon, I have a meeting with an editor about a book idea. This evening Jim Wallis speaks. (There’s a disturbing must-read article about the disposal of 9/11 victims’ remains in the February issue of his magazine, Sojourners.) I may stay overnight with friends again tonight, but this time will have to refrain from staying up into the wee hours of the morning talking. I’m running on E. Empty that is.

Others are blogging the convention. Some of them are indexed here.

Correction: The speaker on evening 4 was N.T. Wright, not Jim Wallis. Wallis was interviewed before Wright spoke.

Correction #2: I checked Dan Kimball’s book; in it he says he sometimes “jokingly” refers to himself as a fundamentalist. He actually described himself to me as a mainstream evangelical. I agree.

Day 1: NPC

Day 1 of the National Pastors Convention was delightful, both because the volunteers manning the information both were so kind and helpful throughout the day, and also because my interview with prolific author Phyllis Tickle was so much fun. We talked mostly about her upcoming book, The Great Emergence. I’ll detail our conversation in a separate post.

Scot McKnight and Phyllis were together when I arrived for the interview and Scot greeted me so warmly, I felt like we were old friends—which we are in the warp speed of cyber-space. Scot and Phyllis were part of a panel discussion last night along with Andy Crouch and Tony Jones called “Emerging Critical Issues Facing the Church: Religious Pluralism, the Role of Scripture, Homosexuality and Political Involvement.” Only half the topics were covered: the Bible and political involvement; the other two will be addressed this morning. The discussion on the role of Scripture was interesting; the other one less so. I confess I went mostly to hear Andy Crouch interact with the other authors. He was a favorite columnist of mine for CT and I suspected his would be a voice with which I would agree. I really can’t say much about this session because in a funny bit of irony for the emerging crowd, we were asked not to blog about it. I’ll keep my opinion to myself on this one.

This morning I’ll be attending the second half of Dan Kimball’s talk on why young people love Jesus, but not the church. I have an interview scheduled with Dan this afternoon … an interview that was confirmed only yesterday.

I’m going to give myself away here as a newbie Anglican by saying that other than Kimball, the authors with whom I’ve requested interviews are all prominent Anglicans.

Well, that’s all I have time for this morning, except to say that spring is blooming here in SoCal. The bursts of color lining the highway mid-winter are one of the things that sells a person on this place … and then, after living here a while, you realize that more foliage will eventually mean more brush to burn when the winter rains are long gone. I’m sure I could find a metaphor in there, but I’ll pass on it. The blooms are beautiful while they last. The dry brush is too in its own way.

On “Democratic Faith”

Another worthy bit of reading as you think about your vote … from Eric Miller’s review of Patrick J. Deneen’s Democratic Faith at Books and Culture:

The whole point of faith is to enlighten, but “democratic faith” diminishes sight. Tested where all faiths are tested, in history’s unsparing crucible, it has proven unable to grasp our disabled condition and so is powerless to provide the succor we need. Deneen traces these failings to its roots in “Pelagian dualism, Gnostic optimism, and humanistic messianism,” and in the book’s last section seeks to present not the final damnation of democracy but a way to salvage it.

He calls it, simply enough, “democratic realism.” It’s a realism that denies the hope for perfectibility the democratic faithful, in their quest to transcend this world, are so tempted by. It’s a realism that begins with the premise—resonant with the one Alasdair MacIntyre powerfully advances in Rationally Dependent Animals—that to be human is to be weak, to be dependent, and to suffer. On this view, we turn to democracy not because of the grand social prospects such governance holds but because it is the form of government “imperfect humans” require, people “who must, by dint of their equal insufficiency and the permanency of need, inhabit, and govern together, cities of men.”

In propounding this stance Deneen undertakes a close, critical reading of texts and figures in the “realist” lineage, ranging from ancient Greece to contemporary America and including surprises like Plato as well as stalwarts like Tocqueville. The presence of the late American social critic Christopher Lasch as one of his heroes should serve notice that Deneen, unlike many of today’s political conservatives, is using a classically Christian anthropology to call into question—rather than bless—the political economy of late capitalism. Lasch’s fiercely insistent claim that corporate capitalism and democracy are at odds held firm throughout his life. In line with Jefferson, Chesterton, Roepke, and others whose experience of the modern world turned them into decentralists, Lasch judged massive concentrations of power, whether political or economic, to be at odds with, as Deneen nicely puts it, “the local ecology in which democratic life flourishes”: the small economies, thick kinship ties, meaningful work, and common submission that help to form “independent yet engaged citizens,” folk dedicated to creating and preserving what Lasch simply called “a decent society. …

Read the whole article here.

Political Theology and Liberal Democracy

This from a critique of Mark Lilla’s The Stillborn God at The Immanent Frame, a Social Science Research Council blog, with contributors like Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor (referred by Agnieszka Tennant):

[Today, evangelical American Protestants, traditional in their theology, are solidly supportive of the constitution’s religious freedom and establishment clauses as well as other basic features of liberal democracy. Those who dislike their influence may well demur, but they should ask themselves: Are the political positions of conservative Christians simply ones that I do not like, or are they antithetical to liberal democracy? In fact, only a tiny fringe of “Christian Reconstructionists” like Gary North and the late R.J. Rushdoony challenge the constitution’s fundamental rights or its configuration of religion and state. Keep in mind also that, as political scientists Jonathan Fox and Schmuel Sandler have shown through their rigorously constructed “Religion and State” dataset, the United States has the greatest degree of separation of religion and state in the entire world. Put differently, it is the least theocratic country in the world. …]

Read the compelling historical argument behind this statement here.

To whet your appetite:

[But I dissent from its [The Stillborn God] core argument. Let us identify just what that core argument is, for Lilla believes that many of his critics misunderstand what he is trying to explain. Some of the defining principles of modern western politics – “separation of church and state, individual rights to private and collective worship, freedom of conscience, religious toleration” – are ones whose historical development depended crucially on the “Great Separation,” a decisive severing of Western political philosophy from the “political theology” that had previously dominated Western thinking about politics. Of the severers, Hobbes was the most decisive of all. The Great Separation “remains the most distinctive feature of the modern West to this day.”

But the Great Separation was not inevitable or somehow the result of the long march of reason, Lilla reasons. In The Stillborn God, he writes of it as an “experiment”; in his August 2007 piece in The New York Times, he called it “fragile,” a “miracle” and a matter of “lucky breaks.” It was novel in western history and is unique in the world today. And it is reversible. The human mind did not cease to ask theological questions after Hobbes, or to deliver theological answers, or to derive political implications from these answers. One answer, liberal theology, was relatively harmless because it was indistinguishable from modernity. The other, which he calls messianism, is worrisome, for it proposes apocalyptic conclusions and encourages movements like Nazism. Today, there is reason to worry again, Lilla says: “[W]e are again fighting the battles of the sixteenth century – over revelation and reason, dogmatic purity and toleration, inspiration and consent, divine duty and common decency.”

The idea of modern liberalism depends decisively on a jettisoning of theology as a source for arguing about politics: If there is one claim to which Lilla returns again and again from different angles, this is it. So if there is one phenomenon that most decisively calls Lilla’s argument into question, it would be a positive relationship between traditional, orthodox political theology and key features of liberal politics, especially separation of religious and political authority and religious freedom. To the degree that such a relationship is found, it weakens the case that liberalism – particularly, its separation between religious and political authority, freedom of religion, etc. – depends crucially on a divorce from political theology. But in fact, ample evidence exists that traditional political theology has contributed vitally to incubating, sustaining, and expanding liberal democracy, in thought and in practice, before, during, and after the early modern religious wars. Unquestionably, political theology has also begotten the bizarre, the violent, and the illiberal. But its positive contribution is large enough to raise serious doubts about Lilla’s thesis. …]