Unpack That

Caravan was original, Chrysler
Trying to get us to buy the dodge,
Artfully labeled to imply transit
Of all the baggage of forty camels.
This we need, if our children are to be
Properly attired, prepared for all
Weather and all events required for fun.

Aerostar was Ford’s offer. Trapezoid
In motion, with endearing manual
Transmission perfect for those who need one
More thing to think about inside a box
Filled with children, hurtling through traffic,
Like the valkyrie or sprite evoked by
Its spectacularly ambitious name.

Not to be outdone, Chevrolet bestowed
An Astro, with all the aesthetics of
Houston’s eponymous dome and all the
Responsiveness of George Jetson’s Great Dane.
It was called after the stars, I presume,
Since it would not move outside a vacuum,
A high cube tossed about by every wind.

Japan wants us now to believe this act
Of folding entire households onto
Wheels for a routine trip to the ball-field,
Walmart, or grandma’s should be an epic—
An Odyssey or Quest. Heaven forbid
We suffer shame from traveling light or
Shell out for a cross-continental flight.

Chrysler now is at it again, duping
Into unceasing violence of packing
And unpacking a Pacifica the
Unsuspecting American with the
Great inconvenient convenience
Only a false sense of ownership can
Properly convey to one’s thinned billfold.

Life in these United States is a game,
A never-ending level of Tetris
Played in Conestogas made of steel.
When you’ve got all you need, you can’t bear to
Leave any bits behind. Our minivans,
Quaint and manifest density of hope,
Rattling around from sea to shining sea.

2018 Reads & Recommendations

So, another year has come to an end, and it’s time for another list of books I’ve read since January. As with each year’s list (see 2017, 2016, and 2015, for reference), these are not necessarily books released in 2018 (though some are), but books that I encountered this year. Short reviews follow for a few, clustered around some broad categories.

Theology and Practice

The Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren
This small book is a straightforward, elegant, needed reminder that the balance of faithful Christian lives around the world are lived in the everyday grind of waking, sleeping, eating, working, and caring for others. Warren crafts a framework of routine tasks that most will encounter in some form each day and explores their spiritual significance, teaching us to turn our work and worries back to worship. If we are to walk faithfully with the Lord, she contends, we must be encouraged to see His grace and provision (as well as our dignity and significance) in our mundane daily walk just as clearly as in heroic deeds of faith.

Playing God and Culture Making by Andy Crouch
Both these books were quite good and helpful. Andy is more philosopher than theologian, and that works in his favor for books like this, where he takes a high-level idea (power and power dynamics in Playing God, creativity in Culture Making) and brings it back from its cultural captivity to enable a more theological understanding of it to emerge. In Playing God he explores power as God’s character, and our image-bearing as a calling to use power rightly. Culture Making presents his thinking on the purpose, potential, and limitations of creative work. Though these books were written several years apart, they complement each other. There is much here to think on in the midst of a distracted world and our Western “cult” of productivity.

Black Religion, Black Theology by J. Deotis Roberts
Roberts, one of the leading African American theologians of the 20th century, deserves to be known as a leading cultural theologian more broadly. He shares much in common with James Cone and Black Liberation Theology’s critique of Western Christianity’s complicity in oppression and the selective biblical application that has helped prop up systemic sins. Roberts, though, critiques BLT for losing the “universal Christ” (i.e. a Jesus who transcends all earthly cultures and points us to God) in their zeal to rescue Christ from the powers that be on earth. This is a far-too-brief summary, but the essays collected in Black Religion, Black Theology provide a good overview of Roberts’ work. Insofar as culturally captive Christianit-ies hold sway in the U.S. and elsewhere, Roberts ought to be required reading for any pastor and theologian practicing today. A goldmine.

Embodied Hope by Kelly M. Kapic
The problem of evil supposedly keeps theologians and (especially) atheists awake at night. This is not a book about that. Kapic takes both a fallen world filled with pain, suffering, and injustice and the infinite goodness and power of God. His focus is on what meaning there is in pain, and particularly, how we should approach suffering in the church: how we should acknowledge pain individually and corporately, and how we should consider our responsibility to those who suffer. This small but rich book is worth reading for anyone who has experienced suffering or is living in it now, who loves someone who has experienced suffering or is living in it now, and for those who may someday experience it.

Disruptive Witness by O. Alan Noble
Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age has proven to be an indispensable text for grasping the social and theological import of our present moment. James K. A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy stands as the premier exposition of Taylor (though he is not, by far, the only thinker represented in that series), translating his insights for a wider audience. Others have followed in Smith’s wake to riff on Taylor’s work of criticism, and a new wave of writers is working on building up a path forward for Christians living in a post-religious world. Alan Noble jumps into this latter category, inviting believers to lean into countercultural (yet historical) disciplines of prayer, worship (including observance of the church calendar), service to and reverence for others, etc. that both anchor us to faithfulness and present an alternative report on the nature and purpose of life than the one our culture adheres to. A persevering church made up of faithful believers is able not just to withstand cultural forgetting, but to catch the world off guard and with the fullness of the Gospel message.

History/Biography/Cultural Observation

Freedom at Midnight by Larry Collins & Dominique LaPierre
In the aftermath of World War II, the new Labour government of Clement Attlee began to divest the war-spent and indebted United Kingdom of its overseas holdings—to dissolve the British Empire. The crown jewel of that empire was the Raj of India, a vast territory covering all of what is today India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. With the native populations of those regions crying out for independence from the crown and seething with internal cultural and religious divisions, the British opted for speed rather than stability in that process, unloading power and partitioning the countries in a matter of months and unleashing a bloodbath in the process. Collins and LaPierre had unprecedented access to Louis Mountbatten, and the family and archives of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Mohandas Ghandi and tell the story with impressive detail from multiple angles, focused on the year between Mountbatten’s appointment as the last Viceroy of India (January 1947) and the assassination of Ghandi (January 1948). There is somewhat of a Western bias to the tale, but the level of nuance makes it worth the telling.

How to Think by Alan Jacobs
Jacobs, literature professor in the Baylor honors program and a rather prolific author, has a knack for mining 20th century literature for perceptive critiques of contemporary culture and habits, and his 2017 effort, How to Think, is a reminder for our politically and socially fractured age if ever there was one. Jacobs stitches together threads from C. S. Lewis, Daniel Kahneman, David Foster Wallace, and George Orwell (spiced, as Jacobs’ work so often is, with input from W. H. Auden) to declare that “thinking”, properly considered, is the curated ability to calmly evaluate an opposing viewpoint. This, Jacobs argues, is the antidote to tribalism—even if tribes themselves must always exist—and inflexibility—even if there are certain convictions to which we always hold tightly. 

I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
The memoir as a genre is overplayed these days, and, I fear, is forcing other forms of creative writing into the background of cultural dialogue. Surely not everyone who feels called to write also thinks their personal story is the thing we most need to hear from them, right? That said, a memoir that combines a compelling narrative with an incisive reading of a cultural moment is often exactly what we need to hear. Brown tells a story of growing up into an increasing awareness of what it means to be African American in an evangelical world that, as she puts it, assumes a monocultural (and largely white) perspective on everything from fashion to entertainment to worship style and is all-too-often fearful of any alternatives. Given some of the emotional pain she unveils here, this could’ve been sent out as a gut-punch of bitterness, but is instead a plea for grace and truth from a place of love and joy.

Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen
Deneen observes some of the contemporary travails of Western Society—political gridlock, elimination of local culture, erosion of self-governing habits, technological replacement of nature, intense social stratification, etc.—and looks for their causes in history. In digging beneath the standard left-right blame game to explore the roots, he finds the sources of our malaise in the underlying ideology of the Hobbesian-Lockean Liberalism that birthed the modern world. For a short book, it’s remarkably thorough, conversant with other major voices in the “all’s-not-right-with-the-world” camp (from Neil Postman to Robert Putnam to Charles Murray), and tying up their various loose ends into a compelling thesis. Deneen is also mindful that any solutions to the problems he diagnoses must be inherently small-scale and long-range activities of culture-making, sidestepping the classical liberals’ key error of believing they could remake the world.

Literature/Poetry

American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes
This book of 70 identically titled poems is the first volume of contemporary poetry I’ve ever picked up. I’ve learned to love poetry in the past few years, thanks largely to Christian modernists like Eliot and Auden, but Hayes’ effort here was the first book of poems I’ve read start to finish. It is both raw and polished, crying out from the anguish at an America that has never fully respected the personhood of black citizens while simultaneously exulting in dignity with pride. This isn’t for the faint of heart (as Hayes’ “raw” includes some explicit sexual references, and overarching themes of violence and loss), but worth the effort for an incisive look at our cultural moment. It’s made me want to write more and better poetry of my own, for some things that most need to be said pass beyond the realm of argument.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
What can one say about the greatest of books? To sum up or “review” seems petty, worthless. As has been said, one does not read the great books, they read you. Tolstoy’s tale of unhappy families is a striking morality tale, but also a political treatise and a master class on storycraft and character development. I suppose, like all the classics, it contains the world entire, without succumbing to pedantry or plotlessness.

Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I’m all for a good grounding in literature that exposes students to the best of what their culture has to offer throughout their education. This, even though I was a terrible reader until midway through my undergrad years. Of course, based on my experience, I can also say that the best books of any literary tradition are not meant to be read until adulthood, or at least not fully appreciable. I’m convinced that I’d have found this tome tendentious and boring as a high school or college student. In my mid-30s, though, it’s plain that this is one of the top 5 or 10 masterpieces of American literature. Even though the world described by “Ishmael” (19th Century Whaling) is long deceased, it feels fresh and real in narration. The symbols and themes are evergreen, and the peripatetic foreboding of the story is still haunting—Shakespeare at sea, almost.

Re-reads

“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” – C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” 

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor
It seems like O’Connor has been hyped and analyzed to death in recent years, but her short stories and essays continue to yield fruit for Christians working in the arts. She will always hold a special significance for me as the first author I discovered who could keep the faith while facing the evil of men with a clear eye and balled fist. Converge remains my favorite of her short story collections, and “Revelation” is perhaps the perfect short fiction, and grows in force with each passing year that I fail to fully heed its message of grace. As long as I live, I’ll be trying to come up with a line as powerful as: “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather
Cather has become an indispensable part of the American canon for me, as no one seems to understand the significance and contradictions of our country quite so crisply—both as the thief and plunderer of the native peoples and as a haven of opportunity for peoples from around the world. Death Comes for the Archbishop is so beautiful; as I’ve written on it before, her descriptions of land and sky here make you stop and re-read paragraphs for the sheer wonder of it. Re-reading this after spending a few days in Santa Fe this year, I’m even more in awe of Cather’s descriptive powers. This story is as intimate as the friendship between its main characters, expansive as the New Mexico sky.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
An excellent novel, bringing together historical and theological threads through the lens of family, and of particular interest in humanizing the profession of a Christian minister. This 2004 book solidified Robinson’s reputation as America’s queen of letters (with Barack Obama a noted member of her legions of admirers) and earned her a Pulitzer. Its success gave me hope that people would still read spiritual fiction today. It has, I think held up well in the years since I last read it. I’ve written more on Robinson’s fiction here.

Also-reads

Not necessarily “second class” in any way, I just can’t review ’em all. Listed here in alphabetical order. Also, I started a seminary degree program this fall, so not every book I’m reading to that end will show up here (though the ones that have general application certainly will).

The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin
Becoming Whole: Why the Opposite of Poverty Isn’t the American Dream*
by Brian Fikkert and Kelly M. Kapic
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry
How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind by Thomas C. Oden
The House of Bondage by Octavia V. Albert
Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson
King Lear by William Shakespeare
Light in August by William Faulkner
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The Negro Church in America by E. Franklin Frazier
Notes from Underground 
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah
Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon
Rooting for Rivals
by Peter Greer and Chris Horst
The Scarlet Letter
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1 by Justo L. González
Strong and Weak by Andy Crouch
Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk

* Forthcoming (March 2019)

A Day Late and [Several] Dollar[s] Short IV: Back to the Future

As is my wont from time to time, I [briefly] review movies. Not movies that are new, which the watching public may be eagerly awaiting information about, but usually movies that were new recently—and which I’ve finally gotten around to watching (most often on DVD, thanks to the local library).

For this go-’round, though, we’re hopping in the Wayback Machine to revisit a few movies that are not new at all, and others that, though new, focus on the past for their subject. The only thread holding these together is that I’ve watched them within the past few months. Those marked with an asterisk were re-watches. So, without further ado:

 

Gandhi-poster

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

Ghandi
Often, movies that are universally acclaimed in a given awards season (or dare we say, deliberately crafted as “Oscar-bait”), do not age well. The 55th Academy awards (honoring films made in 1982) were all aglow with Richard Attenborough’s 3-hour, giant-budget, biopic of Mohandas K. Ghandi. It swept the major categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography), winning 8 awards in all. I decided to dig this one up and watch it based on reading a few books about India (specifically the independence movement) this year.

It’s a long movie, to be sure, and hagiographic, and a trifle preachy, but it does still hit all the right notes. Ben Kingsley as Ghandi deserved every bit of his Oscar (even beating out Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie). The pacing is remarkably quick and lightfooted for such a ponderous subject, and feels attuned to the humor and wit with which the Mahatma went about his calling. Mostly it works in that it doesn’t feel dated. Much of what Ghandi (or Kingsley’s version, at least) spoke about and fought for has surprising relevance today. As long as there are powerful people who ignore the poor and downtrodden, this movie will have a shelf life.

Shorter Ghandi: Ben Kingsley 4 Prez.

 

Capote_Poster

Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Capote*
A dark and stormy movie if there was one. This 2005 biopic centers on a few-year period of author Truman Capote’s life during his fascination with and investigation of the 1959 Clutter killings in rural Kansas and subsequent publishing of his “nonfiction novel”, In Cold Blood, in 1966.

Far from a procedural drama about the writing of a book, the film maintains an intense focus on Truman’s conflicted motives about forging an increasingly close relationship with one of the murderers, while juxtaposing the quiet grief of Holcomb, Kansas with the glib self-promotion of the Manhattan literati. Art and life intertwine and dissociating them becomes nearly impossible. Philip Seymour Hoffman is pitch perfect (and was rewarded with a well-deserved acting Oscar), but none of the rest of the cast Catherine Keener (as Harper Lee), Clifton Collins, Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, and others, are phoning it in either.

Shorter Capote: There’s a dark side to life that only gets darker if you ignore it. Also, Philip Seymour Hoffman, we hardly knew thee.

 

Chappaquiddick_(film)

Courtesy Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Chappaquiddick
On the theme of biopics focused on a slice of a life as representative of the whole, it is hard to think of anyone more defined by the events of a few moments as Ted Kennedy—the only remaining son of a legendary family who had watched his older brothers die, young and violently, one by one, and followed in their footsteps in public life as much from compulsion as calling. He was expected to run for president, to complete the family legacy, when a car accident and a fear-driven response to shade the truth ultimately ended a dynasty.

In spite of a bit of slow pacing in spots, this film works well with a very capable ensemble cast, and focus on characters decisions as much as their actions. Remarkably, Kennedy here is revealed simultaneously as a cowardly lowlife and an oddly sympathetic character (in the face of his father’s roiling disappointment). For this achievement alone, this is worth a watch.

Shorter Chappaquiddick: Moments matter, and truth is often subject to power.

 

Thetreeoflifeposter

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Tree of Life
There are directors, there are auteurs, and then there is Terence Malick. His ambition is undeniable, but, for most audiences, a bridge too far for enjoyable cinema. His movies are so layered, so detailed, so allusive, that their meaning is elusive without lots of re-watching. Every frame is like a painting, every music choice (with a heavy emphasis on classics) carries a part of the story.

Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life is generally considered his magnum opus, and also one of his more financially successful ventures (#2 behind The Thin Red Line in terms of box office). Like a great novel by a Tolstoy or a Hugo, this film contains multitudes, taking a story that ostensibly takes place within a single family in a single neighborhood and expanding it to the universe itself. The family drama alone is luminous, unpacking so much mystery and beauty.

Shorter The Tree of Life: There is glory in the everyday, and a person doesn’t have to be spectacularly (or predictably?) broken to create tremendous trauma in others.

 

Cry_the_beloved_country_ver2

Courtesy Miramax Films

Cry, the Beloved Country*
I’m not generally fond of adaptations of literature into film. Novels and movies are just different media and each suited to different types of storytelling that don’t often overlap.  Sometimes they’re not half bad, and can get enough of a story across to spark viewers to go find the book, but even a good adaptation can take the timeless themes of a good novel and anchor them in a specific time due to the filmmaking styles that (consciously or unconsciously) mirror the zeitgeist.

This is the case with 1995’s Cry, the Beloved Country, based on Alan Paton’s 1946 novel of the same name about sorrow and injustice in a South Africa then on the verge of apartheid. The film earns a certain pathos simply from being one of the first major movies made in the country under the “new management” of Nelson Mandela. A strong cast of both Western (James Earl Jones, Richard Harris) and African (Tsholofelo Wechoemang) actors turn in powerful performances, and the story generally hues to the book’s narrative, though its contours are less nuanced and the production decisions (pacing, music, shot-shaping) do feel very 90s at this remove.

Shorter Cry, the Beloved Country: Faithful adaptation, but the book has aged better.

 

The_Social_Network_film_poster

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The Social Network
Hype is a dangerous thing for a filmmaker. It can build up movies that aren’t worth the attention, and suck attention away from good ones. In 2010, all they hype as awards-season approached was around David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network, about the building of Facebook by then Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg. The hue and cry when this new-school drama lost best picture to a very old school film (The King’s Speech) was a sight to behold.

Well, The King’s Speech is still endearing (if saccharine), but this movie seems a mess to me. Perhaps it is because none of the main characters are likable (not necessarily a problem) or remotely relatable (trust-fund kids suing other trust fund kids for IP and breach of contract isn’t exactly broad American culture). Perhaps it is because, in the intervening years, Facebook has managed to practically destroy civil discourse and undermine trust in society (well, maybe that’s a bit harsh, but). Either way, it falls flat as a story for me.

Shorter The Social Network: Why did people rave about this movie?

 

Won't_You_Be_My_Neighbor_

Courtesy Focus Features

Won’t You Be My Neighbor
When I was a kid, television consisted of two pillars—Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and Sesame Street. One of these is still running and has spawned a multi-million dollar product licensing and merchandising empire that is, at best, a distraction from the ideals of childhood learning the show set out to deliver. The other feels today like it’s from another planet, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood notwithstanding.

The Fred Rogers that Morgan Neville displays in Won’t You Be My Neighbor is no quaint throwback, though, but a clear-eyed warrior for a better world—in particular, one in which children, no matter how young, are taken seriously as persons and given the courtesy of wrestling with hard realities and big ideas rather than being sentenced to second-class status and kept at bay with endless cartoons and video games. There is real educational and parenting meat here, but perhaps the biggest takeaway is that Fred Rogers really was Mr. Rogers. His on screen and off screen life weren’t so different as is too common in television, and his widow, children, and staff appear in the documentary to attest to this.

Shorter Won’t You Be My Neighbor: Mr. Rogers might have been an honest-to-goodness angel, or at least a humble saint.

 

Solo_A_Star_Wars_Story_poster

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Solo: A Star Wars Story
At this point, it’s remarkable that any Star Wars fans remain. We’ve been bludgeoned by George Lucas with three ridiculous and unnecessary prequels and watched as Disney has cranked out new movies with lightning speed. We used to have to wait three years to be cruelly disappointed; now it happens annually. The most die-hard devotees can be forgiven for fatigue (though 2016’s Rogue One was worthwhile).

Even at all that, I had high hopes for Solo, based on three solid theses: 1) Ron Howard had ridden in on a white horse to rescue the troubled production, 2) Alden Ehrenreich (of Hail, Caesar! fame), Donald Glover, and Woody Harrelson, and 3) the fact that Han Solo was always the only truly human character in the original trilogy. Those hopes were, I’m sad to say, dashed by a glommed-together story that spends ridiculous amounts of time on forgettable side characters and “Mos Eisley Cantina” vibes (world-building based on gross-out CGI and costuming, vaguely sexualized aliens, and loud music) producers of recent Star Wars installments seem to think constitute the only fan draws. I’d watch another heist flick with Ehrenreich, Glover, and Harrelson any day, but they are drowned out by the clutter, never given a chance to shine.

Shorter Solo: Dear Disney, please stop destroying Star Wars by majoring on minors.

 

Templegrandin

Courtesy HBO

Temple Grandin*
Films about disability typically come loaded with moral high-horses and themes of empowerment designed to deify the victims of disability and leave viewers feeling abashed for their unnamed prejudices. To be fair, the way that persons with disabilities are often treated in our communities justifies no small measure of this treatment in popular culture as a counterweight. Where both the daily reality and the film world fail is in treating the disabled as fully-formed human beings worthy of our attention because of their inherent dignity.

Mick Jackson manages to craft an intensely human portrait of neurological disability through the life of livestock scientist and autism advocate Temple Grandin. Relying on faithful storytelling, and a stellar cast (Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, Catherine O’Hara, and David Strathairn), and some fun cinematic flourishes of his own design, Jackson paints a picture for the neuro-typical among us that makes autism, SPD, and the like seem less like curses and more like superpowers, if properly understood and channelled. Every time I re-watch this one, I find I learn something new about my own attitudes, habits, parenting, etc.

Shorter Temple Grandin: HBO (and television more generally) is doing the heavy lifting in the entertainment industry these days, pulling off what major studios won’t touch.

***UPDATE***

Mary_Poppins_Returns_(2018_film_poster)

Courtesy Walt Disney Pictures

Mary Poppins Returns
We took the kids to see this one on Christmas, with hopeful nostalgia welling up in equal measure to contemporary “children’s” film dread. I’ll let you guess which won by what follows.

Measuring up to one of my all-time favorite movies (and, I think, the greatest film ever produced by Walt Disney studios) was not going to be easy, but director Rob Marshall and co. didn’t really seem to give it much of a try—the cast is decent (The biggest shoes to fill here are, obviously, Julie Andrews’, but Emily Blunt’s Poppins is the film’s strongest link), the production values are OK, even the bones of the story aren’t awful (to be fair, some of the elements shoehorned into this story that work least well came directly from P. L. Travers’ books). What’s missing here is the soul. This sequel almost deliberately works to undo all the most important elements of the 1964 film. Moral lessons are swapped for look-inside-yourself drivel; honest reckoning with the difficulties of life takes a back seat to a contrived problem and pointless villain; taking children seriously as persons devolves to another recycled children-as-savior message.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment for me was seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda given so little space to be, well, Lin-Manuel Miranda. I’d have rather seen the whole project handed over to him—a hip-hop Poppins’ set in East Ham with Idris Elba as Bert would’ve at least had some natural heart….

Shorter Mary Poppins Returns: Impractical and imperfect in so many ways. What postmodern dreck.

 

Cultivating Trust: Institutions and the Crisis of Confusion

Originally written as a submission for Comment Magazine‘s 2018 Seerveld Prize.

Trust is adhesive, often unseen and nearly always assumed. It binds together individuals and groups, currencies, software systems, networks, and even the various species in an ecosystem. If we ever do notice and consider trust, we tend to associate it with emotion—a feeling of comfort and goodwill toward a person, object, business, or organization. In reality, trust is more a condition of support, a predictability and consistency of nature that requires continual cultivation.

In that sense, the collapse of trust in America’s institutions has been exaggerated. Gallup may report that our confidence is declining precipitously over the past few decades in some apparent pillars of society: the news (-26 percentage points from its high), banks (-30), the healthcare system (-44), the presidency (-35), the congress (-29), the public schools (-33), and the church (-30). Paradoxically, trust in the military has increased (+22) and even the police have held steady.

Our practical trust in the face of these numbers, though, stays blindly faithful. Only 11% of Americans claim trust in Congress, but nearly all of us at some point today drove on roads constructed and maintained by their authorization (or travelled in trains or planes regulated by their fiat) without a second thought. The 30% of us who trust banks were likely joined by the other 70% today in buying or selling something within the economy made possible by their systems. 20% of us trust the news media, but everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what it has told us to think about today.

Trust and Power
This dynamic illuminates a critical reality—we will have institutions, whether we want them or not, whether we “trust” them or not. Much as they’re taken for granted, every human institution was created—person or a group went to the trouble of planning out the structures and processes to secure or deliver a perceived social good, from a neighborhood hot dog stand to the International Criminal Court.

In Playing God, Andy Crouch describes institutions as tools that men and women develop to extend their gifts, abilities, and desires—their power—across time and space. As Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton might say, “I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me.” Crouch leans into the word “power” to remind us that whatever euphemisms (authority, leadership, influence) we may cover it with, the human experience is defined by the exercise of our power to make a mark on the world. In this, we reflect the image of our Creator, who by His very words called forth the universe. Whatever power we wield is His gift, meant for stewardship and the extension of His wondrous creative spirit through the whole earth.

If this picture is accurate, why the rampant reported distrust? Because institutions are human-created and human-maintained, the power they ostensibly wield for good can be turned toward such evil or apathy as is common to man. Since the Fall, our God-given power is often twisted toward these unjust ends, transforming cultivation into coercion and turning our fellow image-bearers into objects to be used and abused. Moreover, institutional injustice is capable of spreading man’s sin and destruction on a massive scale, with police brutality toward African Americans, re-emergent abuses and coverups within Roman Catholic clergy, and the raft of rape and sexual harassment incidents and coverups in churches, businesses, and government offices representing just a few recent examples.

Beyond that, we recoil against having our personal power constrained by accountability and responsibility. If institutions, when abused, magnify sin and its effects, when they function well, they can curtail our baser instincts and our tendency to avoid difficulty. Acting on eroding trust to tear down failing institutions fits well within a sensory, experience-centric culture. Iconoclasm seems to come naturally to us. Institution-building doesn’t have the same appeal, though. It is a slow, often painful process of binding your freedom to a greater cause. It takes courage to tear down broken systems, but immeasurably more courage to stand pat drafting processes, procedures, and policies that can, in time, bring about good.

Perhaps most importantly, thinking about institutions as power structures reminds us that our aversion to use power for good in no way prevents institution-building by less noble actors. When we neglect or cast off the institutions we have, we are not left with unfettered freedom, but have pledged unwitting allegiance to institutions that we may not yet recognize.

Ordained or Supporting?
The best institutions exist for the benefit of the people they purport to serve, the worst exist to perpetuate themselves at their expense. Institutions begin to fail once they cross this line, to borrow from Miranda again (Burr this time), when they become “just a legacy to protect.” Few, if any, are started with such failure in mind. Trouble arises when institutions lose touch with their constituencies or create unintended consequences. The shortcomings of human nature lead many institutions to “bake in” cultural biases or discriminatory acts that then blossom into massive injustices down the road. When we say that our confidence in institutions is flagging, we perceive that our institutions are ill-suited to the times, or perhaps were never designed for the fullness of human flourishing.

Much as we speak of them abstractly (a transgression I’m guilty of even here), institutions are the antithesis of abstraction. Institutions don’t coolly attempt to enshrine ideology but to enact and sustain the longings of a person or a group. For better or for worse, they push toward the fulfillment of desire.

When our desires are anchored in the ultimate goodness and truth of God, it would be appropriate to speak of the institutions which sustain and work to fulfill those hopes as ordained. Thus we speak of the Church (which shapes and sustains our proper worship and anchors us in an eternal perspective), the family (which is designed to channel the forces of sexual desire and economic need into paths of trust and faithfulness), and government (which, ideally, protect good and punish evil to allow for greater flourishing on the earth until Christ returns). While these institutions can be turned toward evil periodically, there is something of God’s will in them that prevents their dissolution and periodically calls them to reformation and restoration.

Our desires for things less than ultimate can be sinful, to be sure, but can also be healthy outflows of God’s good design. When these subordinate desires are legitimate, it is possible that they will be put into practice through supporting institutions. These, perhaps make up the bulk of what we think of when we think of institutions (schools, civic organizations, businesses, etc.), and even the less noticeable structures that make these visible systems possible (specific laws and policies, denominations, accreditation associations, etc.).

Secondary, supporting institutions necessarily draw their design and authority from the primary, ordained institutions. As a result, over time, it is easy for them to assume a comparable character and status and to demand a level of respect and obedience that they are not due. When our secondary desires become ultimate, the institutions we create to fulfill them drift from supporting flourishing to become consuming idols. The gravest peril there is that “those who make [idols] will be like them, and so will all who trust in them” (Psalm 115:8, NIV).

This, as Patrick Deneen has argued in Why Liberalism Failed, seems to be the case with many of the political and cultural institutions that we veritably worship in the West (representative democracy, capitalism, tolerance, etc.). These are shaped by, and shape us into, the enacted ideas of the Enlightenment. They are designed to protect an individual, de-cultured, displaced and disembodied concept of freedom. Ultimately, though, these systems have crowded out older structures which drove us to family, community, and place and have, paradoxically, trapped us in the tyranny of our own unchecked desires.

Trust and the Church
As the only group founded on the explicit content of Jesus Christ—incarnate, crucified, and resurrected—the Church is the one indispensable, foundational institution. Lest we fall into modernist conceit, I will stretch the definition of “Church” here to include the fullness of God’s covenant dealings with His people from Eden to Israel to the Apostles to the present day and on through the coming of the New Jerusalem. The other ordained institutions draw their life and significance from this story. Marriage and family serve as emblems reflecting its holy order (as Ephesians 5 tells us). Government, however flawed, is designed to reflect the good rule of our righteous King. All the supporting institutions man creates can only peripherally and for seasons overlap with the underlying reality of the Church. They succeed and endure to the extent that they enact the liturgical rhythms, community, justice, and equity prescribed by our good and holy God.

The visible churches we are part of so often fall far short of this reality. The Scriptures are ignored or mishandled. The cultural conceits of particular times, places, and groups become entangled with ecclesial authority. Churches are turned into the handmaidens of various political or social systems. We have so seldom seen churches that lovingly shine forth as the “pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15, NIV) in all its theological and ethical facets.

This is nothing new. Closing the gap between the model of Christ and the visible realities in the beloved community was the chief concern of Paul, Peter, John and all the New Testament epistles. It is the core animating discussion of the church fathers, and the great ecumenical councils. Who is this Jesus, and what does He ask of us? We are a wicked and deceitful people, and the best that our visible churches can attain to this side of glory is a humble posture of semper reformanda.

To the extent that today’s crisis of trust is a real phenomenon (at least in the West), perhaps it is simply a coming to terms with the reality that we’ve confused the ordained power of the Church with its supporting institutions. So much of ministry of has been co-opted from local churches and corporatized in parachurch organizations, denominational entities, and businesses. Discipleship and community ministry have been professionalized, with the basic faithfulness of church members buried under curricula and certifications or simply outsourced to a proliferation of paid staff. The cooperation of churches for global evangelization and relief and development has spawned agencies and NGOs that are now seen as the primary face of the work. There is a predictable pathway to a certain sort of “rich and famous” through the Christian publishing and conference circuit, and the organizations that facilitate that do a tidy business in their own right.

None of this is inherently wrong, but there is a very strong sense that our support structures are masquerading as the church itself. Theologian Lesslie Newbigin in The Gospel in a Pluralist Society wrote that “[parachurch ministries] have power to accomplish their purpose only as they are rooted in and lead back to a believing community.” The entrepreneurial rise of the parachurch sector, particularly in the 20th century, allowed churches to turn inward, focusing their ministry on the comfort and happiness of their members while still feeling like the larger ministry objectives commanded by Scripture were being addressed by external organizations. The people in the pews no longer feel able or responsible to undertake their core callings to follow Christ, love their neighbors as themselves, and make disciples. It’s as though the church were a business where some 80-90% of employees think of themselves instead as customers. Every parachurch and trendy ministry strategy will ultimately pass away, but the Church remains.

I said above that our crisis of confidence exists “At least in the West,” because much of the situation I’ve just described has only been made possible by the church’s de facto alliance with the dominant culture. We’ve operated out of a sense of power and entitlement, and that is breaking down. Paradoxically, our anxiety about the loss of power has led many to join themselves to political parties and to create organizations that have served to accelerate that loss and alienate the very people we’re called to love. The collapse of the structures we are accustomed to here could be simply a return to the status the church has always lived with in much of the world and even the subdominant communities within our own culture.

What’s Next?
The church seems poised to undergo a season of great humbling. In God’s good provision, I expect it to also be a period of true growth. Amid the rubble of unholy alliances and fallen celebrities, the faithful remnant continues to gather for worship through Word and sacrament, week in and week out. The body of Christ, particularly in her most under-appreciated and unloved corners, stands, facing down the calumny brought on by the fall of misguided efforts to make her great.

The tools of confession and forgiveness were given by Christ to His church to address inevitable outbreaks of sin and division. These practices are extensions of His grace, enabling us to speak the full truth with full love. This mutual truth-telling is the only way to build the trust that allows the visible church to grow and flourish. In other words, confession and forgiveness are the solid foundations of any successful institution. Without them, people can only bite and devour one another, tearing down one structure after another, whether or not it needs to go. The question of whether our society maintains and regains confidence in the church and the rest of our public institutions seems to depend a great deal on our recovery of these disciplines. When we do, we may be astonished by what we can then begin to build together.

Image: Chicago’s Gold Coast at sunset, October 2018.