Unoriginal Sin

The Conceptual Foundations of Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 2 of 7)

Non-individualistic understandings of guilt are fundamental to both Judaism and Christianity. This is part of what makes both religions as counter-cultural today as they ever have been. Yet often the worldviews of particular Jewish and Christian individuals are more defined by their respective cultures than by the religions they profess to embrace. For many, it is not evident that we should be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.

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Concepts of Collective Guilt

The Benefits and Limits (Communal Guilt Part 1 of 7)

We in the West often fail to think in terms of “we.” Individualism has defined the post-Enlightenment European experience and, perhaps to an even greater extent, the U.S. American experience. By “individualism” I mean a pervasive perspective of the world in which personal autonomy is the ultimate good; each individual can and should define for themselves what is right and even what is true, every woman for herself, every man for himself.

There is so little middle ground in American political life in large measure not merely because of seemingly irreconcilable positions but because of a shared commitment to individualism. The moral individualism on the Left stands in a perpetual stand-off with the socio-economic individualism of the Right.

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The Paradox of Christian Nationalism

An American Blind Spot

I would like to make explicit what seems evident to many Christians elsewhere in the world: Christianity and nationalism are incompatible.

For the purposes of this essay, I define Christianity as the beliefs and practices of those who claim to follow Jesus and his teachings, and nationalism as any ideology that elevates the welfare of one nation (usually one’s own) over all others. I recognize that this definition of Christianity is broad to the point of risking being vague, and simple to the point of being simplistic.

While I do not wish to reduce Christianity to the teachings of Jesus and Paul, I think it is helpful to note two conflicting realities. On the one hand, the teachings of these two foundational thinkers of Christianity stand at odds with nationalism. On the other hand, some of the most reductionist (Christianity = Jesus + Paul) Christians in the U.S. have been among the most nationalistic.

What follows is not a critique of Christianity, much less a well-rounded analysis of it, but rather a critique of the nationalistic variety.

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Queuing Up Your Thoughts

Hootsuite for Academic Bloggers

If you blog and you are an academic, like I do, you probably go through periods of feast and famine in terms of your time for producing your online writing. If only there were a way for you to store up a wealth of writing and automate its dispersal online!

That is the precise thing that Hootsuite is designed to do. The social media manager allows you to schedule tweets, facebook posts, and just about anything else you might need. When you link your Hootsuite account to your Twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, or other social media accounts, Hootsuite can coordinate and schedule all of your posts on those accounts.

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Sometimes Seeing Clearly Means Knowing When to Look Away

Grasping the Horrors of the Holocaust is a Struggle. It Ought to Be.

As a Ph.D. student, I spent the better part of three years researching the Holocaust and its legacy. While I focused on the response of a group of Protestant nuns living in its aftermath, my research was broad enough that it spanned both the poetry and theology of Jewish survivors, as well as the propaganda of those who promoted and committed it. For example, I read Mein Kampf and I loathed it, but I do not regret it. One cannot understand humanity without understanding the depths of human evil. At the same time, one can only understand the potential height of faith and hope by learning from those who confronted such senseless hate first-hand. Convinced of this necessity, I have continued to explore the theological legacy of the Holocaust and its emotional toll on the survivors and their families.

Yet sometimes the weight is more than I feel I can bear. And so it is that for the second time I will be presenting on religion and science-fiction at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Neither my initial presentation nor my latest one has had anything to do with the Holocaust. When one of the staff members at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum asked me if I would consider applying for a research fellowship, I answered, “I want to… but not yet. Sometimes part of seeing clearly is knowing when to look away.”

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“Never Forget” Means “Never Again”

The Continued Relevance of the Holocaust

The rallying cry of the survivors of the Holocaust has been “never forget.” This is not an exhortation to live in the past. Never forgetting implies action in the present. “Never forget” implies “never again” and a commitment to undertake whatever actions are necessary to that end.

We must keep our eyes open to the genocides and potential genocides happening in the world around us. Rwanda wasn’t that long ago. Kurdish populations are perpetually under threat in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. And the persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East is often paired with ethnicity as a category for exclusion and extermination. This is not new, although with the ascendance of ISIS, the threat is more acute than ever.

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The Grace Beyond the Pines

Humanizing the Victims of Violence in Film

The task of the artist is to convey truth, in all its beauty, ugliness, and harshness, to paraphrase Nietzsche. The truth about humanity is often an ugly thing. We kill. We abandon. We destroy. Too many films glorify such things. A rare few appear to critique them, even as they glorify them, as Tarantino arguably often does. Fortunately, there are exceptions that critique while refusing to glorify violence and its consequences.

Directed by Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) depicts the parallel and sometimes intersecting lives of a cop and a criminal in a small town in upstate New York. With equal attention to both protagonists, one on each side of that equation, the film stands alongside Heat (1995) and The Departed (2006). Like those two films, The Place Beyond the Pines is a high caliber action-drama, tightly plotted, tautly suspenseful, and rife with moral ambiguity; but unlike those two films, The Place Beyond the Pines excels in depicting the emotional toll of violence on its victims, on its perpetrators, and on those around them.

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An Imaginary Education

The Shaping of Three Generations of Students’ Expectations Through Fiction

 Every fall semester since I began teaching college full-time, I have been struck by how freshmen’s expectations have the potential to set them up for success or failure. In particular, I have seen how students’ understanding of what college can and should be has been defined by the fictional campuses they have encountered in film and television. We children of the 1980s have different expectations than Millenials. Whatever generation comes after them will be equally defined by the presence or absence of engaging fictional places of learning.

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Steve Jobs Made the World a Worse Place

Simone Weil’s Blasphemy Against Popular Culture

When Steve Jobs died on October 5, 2011, there were numerous public outpourings of grief. Makeshift shrines dotted the globe. There is no doubt that his less-is-more technological aesthetic improved the technological and aesthetic experience of many people. When his engineers presented plans for a mouse with three buttons, he insisted that they pare them down to one. When other operating systems required users to memorize arcane codes to accomplish the most rudimentary tasks, he led a team to create a simple and visually engaging interface that has remained the industry standard. After his company seemed to be yesterday’s news and the mobile phone industry seemed immune to substantial innovation, he masterminded an entire genre of devices as powerful and versatile as they are compact. In short, Steve Jobs led his company to develop hardware that was beautiful and easy to use.

This is a bad thing. Here is why. We already live in an era defined by a shortage of time and an excess of distraction. Those of us affluent enough to own an iSomething – and yes, relative to the standards of the rest of the world, this is a mark of affluence – face an even greater degree of temptation. When you feel happy, it may be more tempting to share that information rather than embrace the fullness of that moment and that feeling, as the recent story of the distracted driver and ensuing car wreck illustrate.

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The Danger of Hagiography as Hero-Worship

An Uncritical Appraisal of Your Heroes Is Unfair to Them, to You, and to God

It always seems like such a good idea at the time. You have a hero. Maybe it is someone who you know personally. Maybe it is someone whom you have only observed from afar. Hero worship is a natural human inclination. Everyone does it. There is a certain kind of praise that moves beyond healthy celebration of another’s achievements to self-defeating obliviousness.

The following is not a critique of hagiography as a genre of writing per se. If anything, it is a critique of my original manuscript about Mother Basilea Schlink. It was rejected for publication for being “too hagiographical” and “not critical enough.” During the revision process, I agreed, begrudgingly at first but ultimately definitively. Non-critical spiritual biography (which is what I had written) is not good scholarship.

In the words of medievalist and historical theologian Jim Ginther, “hagiography is a literary category, a form of narrative theology, and a heuristic device.” Good hagiography, good recounting of the lives of the saints should serve those functions. However, to the extent that discussions of heroes  of the faith become unidimensional — that dimension being praise and praise only — there are distinct pitfalls.

The problem is two-fold. First, only God deserves our worship. When we praise the saints, what we should be doing is praising God’s work in their lives. I accept this as self-evident in the context of monotheistic theological discourse. (If anyone would care to take me take me to task on that count, feel free to do so in the comments below.) To be fair, when most people celebrate their heroes, including their heroes of the faith, they aren’t really praising those people in the same way that they would be praising God, so this aspect of the problem may be less of an issue.

Second, the real problem is that hero worship is a kind of blindness. By elevating another human, we blind ourselves to our own spiritual potential. By remaining oblivious to the weaknesses of the so-called greatest among us, we fail to see our own weaknesses as opportunities for God’s grace. We forget that Pope Francis, Mother Theresa, and whoever you look up to are people with ordinary struggles, just like the rest of us. The writings of the saints about themselves bear this out. I’m especially thinking of the Theresas here (of Avila and of Lisieux). Their sins loomed large in their exaltation of God.

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